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.

leakpeak25

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.

cell phone sunset

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.

nikon n90

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.

bagsinbags.jpg

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.

gogogadget

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.