What is ultralight photography?

Although I think it would be fun to take photos from an ultralight aircraft, it sounds extremely dangerous and distracting. So, if you got here looking for how to fly a light aircraft while taking pictures, that’s not what this post is about. Although, I suppose you could look into wearing an action camera but check if it’s alright with the FAA or your version of the FAA first.

Ultralight hiking is the mindset/practice of carrying the lightest tool capable of doing the job. For example, instead of carrying a 10 lb tent, carry a a small 960g tent like the Skyscape Scout or an even lighter tarp. Skip bringing the coffee pot, instead carry instant coffee packets. Instead of hiking boots, wear light weight trail-running shoes. Eventually it starts shaving off significant weight. For some, the idea is to hike into camp and not have their feet hurt. For others it’s about being as efficient as possible, and still others, it’s about being a minimalist.

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Not clown shoes, 286g trail runners

Ask someone who has done a cross country trip on a touring motorcycle how their trip went and compare their answer with someone who did it on a street bike with no rear suspension. One of them will talk about how they felt close to nature, how they could smell the flowers and meadows as they drove along, how they could almost touch the trees. The other will talk about how sore their entire body was and how miserable of an experience it was. One brought the right lightweight tool capable of doing the job and one didn’t.

The most ultralight camera is your mind, but it’s hard to share those images. The second lightest is probably a phone. For many subjects, phones work wonderfully. Cellphone cameras are now hitting the 12-18 megapixel range and are capable of printing magazine sized prints with no issues.

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Sunset taken with cellphone

If you want to take pictures of birds in flight or take fish-eye shots, most phones can’t do it. A single-lens reflex (SLR) camera used to be about the only choice. SLR cameras were fairly bulky to accommodate film and also had a mirror in the body to reflect the image into the viewfinder. Digital SLR (DSLR) cameras got rid of the film, but the mirror stayed.

Other choices were to use a smaller rangefinder or compact digital camera if you wanted a lightweight camera. For years Leica dominated the rangefinder market. But since the rangefinder was offset from the lens, it was sometimes difficult to determine exactly what the photo would look like. With a compact digital camera you had one fixed lens, much like a cell phone.

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Nikon N90 film camera showing off it’s mirror

In 2009-2010 mirrorless digital cameras started appearing. By using the digital sensor instead of bouncing the light off the mirror and onto an optical screen, they could display the sensor’s information on an electronic viewfinder (EVF) or a back display. Manufacturers took advantage of this new path. Soon thinner, smaller and lighter cameras made their way to the market. Most used smaller sensors to save space and money.

By 2012 most major camera makers had entered the mirrorless market. With the mirror no longer taking space in the camera, the sensor could be moved forward in the body. Soon adapters started coming out for almost every lens ever made allowing them to be used with the mirrorless bodies. Of course, depending on the adapter and lens type some lenses might lose auto-focus, aperture control or even metering. But, if you have a huge library of Carl Zeiss manual focus lenses from your grandma, you might be able to use them with an adapter for your mirrorless camera. This makes the mirrorless system very attractive for some users.

One potential downside of the cropped sensors is an 11mm lens might give an equivalent view of 18mm. Some users will probably have to find a full frame mirrorless camera if they want round fish-eye shots. But, it can also work to your favor. A 200mm lens on some systems becomes equivalent to a 320mm lens (It will vary depending on sensor size) allowing the lens further reach or requiring less cropping for the camera subject.

Since mirrorless cameras are generally smaller and lighter, most of the dedicated system lenses for each system are small and light. I can fit my Canon M5, Canon EF-M 15-45 f 3.5-6.3 IS STM lens, Canon EF-M 22mm f2 lens, backup memory card and backup battery into any amusement parks ride’s storage bin with my Think Tank Mirrorless Mover 10 bag, something I couldn’t do with my DSLR. I can carry it all day with no back strain because it all weighs less than 2.5lbs. I’m pretty sure there is room to add an Canon EF-M 11-22 f4-5.6 STM or an Canon EF-M 28mm f3.5 IS STM macro lens into the bag as well.

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My larger travel bag (Lowepro Event Messenger 150) has room to fit my small bag, a laptop, a Joby GP2-E1EN tripod, a Canon EF to EF-M adapter and a longer EF telephoto zoom lens. The larger bag is still small enough to count as a personal item on flights. Before, I had to choose between bringing my camera gear or my clothing as carry-on. Now, I know my gear bag and clothing bag aren’t being thrown around, getting lost or sent to the wrong location. I don’t worry near as much about my small bag being a beacon for thieves.

To me ultralight photography isn’t about minimalism. Although parts of my brain do appreciate it. For me, it’s about the weight and size. Previously, I would have decided to leave my heavy camera bag in the hotel when I went out to dinner and I wouldn’t have brought my old bag into Disneyland because I wanted to go on rides with my family. Now I can get the photo of my family riding a roller-coaster, or a street performer or a restaurant’s hanging lanterns I would have missed in the past.  The technology has gotten to the point where lightweight mirrorless cameras are capable of doing the same job as larger and heavier DSLRs.

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Also, you can always ask the person who brought the 10 lb tripod if you can use it for a brief moment after they get their shot, they will be tired and need a rest anyways.

Canon EF-M 22mm f2

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In 2014 Chevrolet released a rear wheel drive, four door sedan; it looked like a family car; it looked like a Malibu. It was anything but. The Chevrolet SS packed a 6.2L V8, and could leap from 0-60 in 4.5 seconds. It instantly became one of the best sleeper cars of all time. You could pull up next to a sports car and innocently ask, “Hey, wanna race?” All the while, knowing not only were you going to win, you were going to leave them in your dust. It was made to crush the fantasies of men in their midlife crisis, and then make them question their manhood. The Canon EF-M 22mm f2 is a lens designed for making people with their huge expensive L glass question if they are overcompensating.

The Canon EF 50mm f1.8 or “nifty fifty” is probably Canon’s most famous sleeper lens. Much like the nifty fifty, the Canon EF-M 22mm f2 is a tiny lens that looks like a low budget lens – unfortunately, it’s not quite as affordable as the Canon EF 50mm. And much like the Chevrolet SS and the nifty fifty, this lens is a sleeper.

While the Chevrolet SS sported a magnesium tubular frame, a huge engine and flappy paddle shifters, the Canon EF-M 22mm f2 isn’t hiding quite as much under the lens hood. The plastic body sounds hollow and the front element is only about 12.5 mm; however, it does have a metal mounting ring so I don’t fear swapping it on or off my camera body. It focuses quickly and silently thanks to its stepper motor. Oddly, it’s the only Canon EF-M lens not to have built in image stabilization. But with the f2 speeds you don’t miss IS too much.

As you begin proofing photos taken with this lens on a computer screen, you find yourself thrown back into your chair like you stomped on the Chevrolet SS’s gas pedal. Colors pop vibrantly. There is very little chromatic aberration and as you can see in the above photo it’s incredibly sharp even at it’s widest aperture. Opened up the lens has a nice round bokeh thanks to its 7 blades. With the f2 aperture you can play around with the depth of field and blur the foreground and background making your subject stand out. In the bird photo above I was pretty close to it’s minimum focusing distance of 6 inches or 15 cm. I have not had any lens flare issues. You might have to up your ISO settings for night time photography.  Currently, this is the fastest EF-M lens, unless you buy an adapter to use faster EF or third party lenses, it’s the best choice for shooting at night.

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It weighs a mere 105 gram and that alone would guarantee a permanent spot in my travel bag if it wasn’t on my camera 80% of the time.  I really like just how small this combination is with a Canon M body, I can easily put it in my coat pocket and always be ready to capture whatever happens around me.

If there is one lens you need to get with the EOS M line, it’s this one.