Leica M10 + Nikon AW1 in Bali - On the Issue of Vacation Photography with Two Friends
Traveling light has never been a convention I practiced. With so many once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities in hard-to-reach places, prudence would suggest I undertake a little hardship in over-stuffing my carry-on baggage with sufficient gear to capture all eventualities. Who knows when I will have another chance again. I mean, a little over exuberance in packing is better than hindsight regret in missing an opportunity.
However on this scheduled trip to Bali, I was forced to pare down my usual accoutrement. Anna didn't want to wait by the baggage carousel upon arrival, feeling extraordinarily eager to sample the experience of my yearly retreat. So for her sake, I was compelled to ration half my duffel bag for clothes and sundries, thereby eliminating the need to check-in any luggages.
In camera talk, half a duffel bag can be understood as a Canon 5D Mark IV and an assortment of large L-series lenses.
As unconventional as it is to be less prepared, traveling light may not be as unreasonable as it first appears. Honestly, how much does one really need to pack for three days under the sun. Certainly a change of swimwear and a pair of flip flops. But then, the gear? Which among favorites do I bring along for the journey? They're all my favorites. Do I bring my new besty, the Nikon 28mm f/1.4E or do I bring my Sony A9?
Having put my dilemma into perspective, it became clear which to bring. It wasn't the Nikon, because I'm not particularly fond of any Nikon DSLRs. And it wasn't the Sony because I wasn't particularly fond of any Sony lenses. If only there were a way for me to pair the two without sacrificing the autofocus performance. Given the absence of an adequate third party solution to adapt the Nikon onto the Sony, I settled for my usual fallback position. I brought along two Leica M10s.
Sounds like I'm in a rut again?
On the contrary, it's not as if I've been shooting much with the M10 since the beginning of June. That was when I received the Sony A9. And since the beginning of July, I've been somewhat preoccupied with the Nikon 28mm f/1.4E. So having shot Sony and Nikon for most of the last seven weeks, I felt it was time to reacquaint myself with a somewhat neglected friend along with the second M10, which I haven't used at all over the last seven weeks.
Unfortunately, all our efforts to travel light were dashed when our invited guest failed to receive word of our intention. So much for zipping through baggage claim.
In planning for this weekend getaway, I wanted Anna to stay at a villa, given the convenience of direct access to the salt water lagoon. It made sense, since it would make documenting the stay much easier. The only problem is, all lagoon access villas come with two bedrooms - and I had no intention of staying in the same villa. That didn't sit well with me, because it seemed particularly wasteful if only one person stayed in a two bedroom villa. The only logical solution was to bring a second person to occupy that bedroom. Because of that, I asked Anna to invite a friend to accompany us. I figured, how hard could it be to persuade someone to visit paradise?
You'd be surprised.
Apparently, July is the month when most of Anna's friends are away from Hong Kong. It's like August in Europe. So for weeks, Anna had been searching for someone who met my particular set of requirements. I'm finicky in that way. From my perspective, shooting pairs or groups is always tricky, given compositional balance between different subjects, in size, appearance, and attitude. So, selecting the right friend to be paired with Anna meant the difference between an easy shoot or one fraught with difficulties.
For a while, I was beginning to doubt that this getaway would ever happen. But then, Anna received word that her friend Elin will be available that weekend. Admittedly, compromises had to be made from my original set of requirements. However, I had a good feeling about Elin when I researched her Instagram account. I believed I could make it work.
From a compositional perspective, the main challenge in photographing Elin with Anna was figuring out how to deal with their difference in height. Essentially, Anna is two inches taller, and the last thing I wanted to do was emphasize it. Consequently, I couldn't line them along the same focal plan. It would have made the two of them appear lop-sided together.
It also didn't help that Anna's skin tone was lighter. Optically, that would make her look even bigger than she really is. So that too had to be taken into consideration.
The easiest solution to alleviate this problem is by positioning Anna and Elin on different focal planes. What this does is attribute the optical imbalance of their respective size to linear perspective - thereby minimizing the resulting visual tension. Mind you, there will still be tell tale signs for the observant viewer that Anna is taller. But at least the issue will not be highlighted.
Of course, it's not always possible to position them on different focal planes. Sometimes the area is too small to space them out liberally. While other times, it's necessary to group them along the same focal plane for the sake of composition. When either of those two situations arise, the easiest solution is to tilt the camera in order to create more distance between Anna while shortening the distance between Elin. This trick will optically minimize the difference in size.
Alternatively, if they're both seated on the same focal plane, I could ask Anna to tilt her torso back a little, and ask Elin to move her torso forward, until both their heads are aligned and perceived to be the same in size. This works like a charm, except you have to remember not to shoot completely wide open (which unfortunately I forgot to do).
Now you must be wondering why I went through all this trouble to include a second person for this photographic narrative. Up to now, the majority of images I've documented for this blog has been fairly static. There hasn't been much involvement with Anna and her environment, much less interaction between her friends, whenever I included them on this blog.
But on the occasion of spending time at a resort, I thought it would be beneficial to include another person to demonstrate the documentation of two people interacting with each other and within the context of their surrounding environment. From the perspective of vacation photography, I strongly believe in the importance of capturing interaction, since it adds an additional dimension to the visual narrative.
I didn't just want a series of photos where the two of them were posing on every image capture. I wanted them to do something, in order to show that they were actually enjoying themselves at the resort. It was no longer just an exercise in providing proof of pilgrimage. Rather, it became an exercise in presenting their experience.
In photographing two people, the obvious lens of choice was the 28mm f/1.4 Summilux. Admittedly, this comes as no surprise. I've been writing about the 28 Summilux on more than just a couple of posts. However, there is reason to my obsession. Ever since I made my bold claim that the 28 Summilux is the best lens to use on vacation, I've been wanting to demonstrate what I meant by it. I've never had the opportunity until now.
Although people do travel alone, many chose not to. So, to properly demonstrate that the 28mm Summilux was the best all around vacation lens, I needed to be on vacation and I needed to invite a second person. Only in inviting a second person could I demonstrate the benefits of the 28mm focal length. It allows me to get close enough to more than one subject without sacrificing on environmental documentation, in providing proof of pilgrimage.
The 28mm focal length is more than wide enough to provide adequate documentation, while keeping distortion relatively tamed at the edges and corner. This makes the 28mm focal length easy to handle, especially when compared to the 21mm focal length I used in Tokyo last week. From that experience, I came away with the opinion that the 21mm focal is actually better suited for documenting a single subject, despite being wider, given the issue of distortion.
And when compared to the 35mm Summilux (which I've been neglecting like an unloved child), the 28mm Summilux has the added advantage of a more forgiving depth of field at its widest aperture. This makes documenting multiple people in low light noticeably easier. However, this is not to say that the 35mm Summilux wouldn't perform on vacation. It certainly can. But it won't be as wide as the 28mm Summilux in accommodating two people, especially in closer quarter when the available light is low.
Overall, the 28 Summilux was able to provide me 95% of what I needed to photograph. From my perspective, it only failed in three areas.
1. It could not take adequate food pictures - not that food matters to me, since I practice caloric restriction. With that said, the Nikon 28mm f/1.4E would have been better, albeit less compact.
2. It could not take underwater pictures. For that, I relied on the Nikon AW1, since the Leica X-U's autofocus was clueless underwater.
3. It didn't have the reach to document anything close up beyond fifteen feet or five meters. But then again, I was on vacation documenting friends close up. I didn't need to spy on them from afar.
Other than that, the only thing left to mention was the single casualty of this blog post. The Hasselblad XPan I brought with me may have met its untimely demise, after being splashed by a particularly big wave at the waters edge.
Also worth mentioning is how awful the Nikon AW1's interface is - both on camera and in the menus. In retrospect, when shooting underwater, I should not have relied on the Leica X-U's autofocus, and instead trusted my ability to zone focus. As much as I can fault the X-U's autofocus, for an underwater camera, it is far more superior than the AW1, with regards to optics, sensor size, and user interface.
Then again, evaluating distance underwater might not be that easy.
And finally, Elin had it right in checking in a suitcase. Unlike Anna and I, who dressed essentially like the resort equivalent of a hobo, Elin was able to change her outfit with greater frequency than required. Having said that, I greatly appreciate her effort of care, since it provides more variety in visual content. Anna... you could learn a thing or two from your friend... hint, hint.
Honestly, I'm relieved that everything worked out. This blog post took an enormous amount of planning. Not that I needed to do this, but I figured it would be a nice change from urban photography.
Next stop, Tinsel Town.
Special thanks to Elin for filling in at the last minute. Bali wouldn't have been the same without you.
All images shot on the Leica M10 + 28mm F/1.4 Summilux, unless otherwise stated. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Some images have been cropped for composition.