The smallest, lightest "pro" camera rig & digital darkroom ever?

The smallest, lightest "pro" camera rig & digital darkroom ever?

large_David Cardinal mirrorless rig and digital darkroom.jpgThe drudgery of carrying lots of heavy, complex, gear is a bane for any type of photography that involves travel. Camera bodies, lenses, accessories, tripod, chargers, a laptop, and of course cables. Add the padded cases needed to safely stow all the gear and you've got anywhere from 30 to 70 pounds for just about any really serious photo travel.

So I'm always on the lookout for ways to make life simpler. This month I've assembled a new travel photo outfit that may set some records for how light and how small it is, while still allowing for "pro" grade photography. Now, I'm not recommending everyone junk what they have and go with it -- I'll talk about the shortcomings later -- but it is pretty amazing what is becoming possible.

My "flyweight" rig​

That's it. The whole thing fits nicely in a bag and weighs in at well less than 10 lbs. After years of carrying heavy photo bags and briefcases, I barely feel it on my shoulder.

Okay, so it's easy enough to provide a list of gear, now I'll take you through each component, how I've made it work for me, its strengths, and its limitations (which are still pretty substantial

Going mirrorless

There is no doubt that mirrorless cameras are growing in popularity far faster than DSLRs. As a result, they are getting sizeable R&D investment from big name players like Sony. In particular, Sony's NEX line uses an APS-C sensor (same as the Nikon DX format DSLRs, and Canon consumer DSLRs) -- one that is larger than either micro-4/3 cameras or the Nikon 1 series. 

For me the larger sensor size is a must. Frankly, I'm really spoiled by my full-frame DSLRs, so it'd be really tough for me to truly switch to a mirrorless camera (at least at this point), but out of the bunch, the new Sony NEX-6 is my current favorite. An updated and slightly cost-reduced version of the NEX-7, it is just under $900 with the cute new 16-50mm "pancake" zoom.

The NEX-6 also has a built-in Electronic Viewfinder (EVF), which is a must for me. Why have a small camera if you have to stick a large viewfinder on top? As EVFs go, it is pretty amazing. At over 2MP it is like having an HD video of your scene. That said, if you are a serious shooter you'll be spending a lot of time looking through the viewfinder at your subjects, and you may ask yourself why you traveled all the way to Africa (for example) only to stare at lions on a tiny TV screen. The quality of experience is not, IMO, the same as a true optical viewfinder -- especially one of the large, bright versions on a full-frame body.

Lenses for the Sony NEX cameras

Because the NEX sensors are a full APS-C, lenses are similar in size to those for consumer DSLRs. So stepping "down" to a micro 4/3 system would definitely save you some size, weight, and cost -- at the expense of slightly lower image quality from the smaller sensor.

In my case, the new gives me an effective focal length of 300mm. Not exactly a bird photographers reach, but enough for many safaris and travel outings. I'll be shooting with it during my upcoming photo walk with B&H at the Bronx Zoo on the 28th, and will have more to report (and pictures to show) after that.

For walking around, the newly designed and nearly pancake-sized kit lens, the is great. I added the to my bag for lower light shooting.

David Cardinal mirrorless rig and digital darkroom.jpg

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1

Obviously, no tablet is going to equal the performance or productivity of a serious laptop running Photoshop (or Lightroom). But my has a full-up pressure-sensitive Wacom stylus built-in. Couple that with the surprisingly useable Photoshop Touch, and you've got a reasonable setup for editing images. Touch can currently save images up to 12MP, which is okay in this case since the NEX-6 shoots at 16MP.

Raw files are a different story, unfortunately. While several free or inexpensive apps for Android, like Rawdroid, will view them, when you go to edit they rely on the embedded JPEGs. So here too there is a tradeoff for our handy, lightweight tablet we give up true raw processing.

The Note has both a microSD card slot -- so you can shoot with a microSD card + adapter in the Sony and simply move the card -- and provision for a true SD card adapter -- so you can simply stick your SD card into the Note and read from it.

I haven't really worked out a full archiving workflow (if you are near the cloud, that is always an option), but figure that a 64GB microSD card (in addition to the 32GB in the tablet) would serve as my file storage, while I use the SD card adapter to read images.

So I should stress here that for high-volume shooting and processing this setup is far from ideal. I don't see taking it along on a serious photo safari where I am planning to shoot hundreds of images a day or anything. But it does work as an end-to-end system for shooting, reviewing, and doing some processing on images before posting, sharing, or archiving them.

More to come

I'll be writing more about my experiences with this kit as I shoot for the next few weeks. In the meantime I'd love to hear your experiences or ideas for lightweight or inexpensive alternatives to a full-up "pro" set of photo gear that still let you get (and process) the shots you want.