Less Is More - How I Downsized To One Camera And One Lens
When it comes to photography and composition, "Less is more” has been my all time philosophy (see Less Is More - 7 Approaches To Create Simple Yet Strong Composition). Today, I’d like to share my thoughts on “Less is more” for photography equipment.
Starting from 2012, when I upgraded my main camera to Canon 5D MarkIII, I always brought along 2 cameras, 2 tripods, 3 lenses plus other accessories in a trip. (see What's In My Camera Bag). Landscape was my main focus back then.
In the past 5 years however, I made a significant change.
We welcomed our first son in 2015. Two years later, we had another one. Landscape photography was still my passion, but it wasn’t my priority. Photographing babies, on the other hand, became part of my daily routine.
This meant a major shift of my photo subject and photography environment. I had a new set of criteria and needs for my camera equipment.
What I need most:
A small and light weight solution that’s easier to carry and can fit in a diaper bag or regular purse;
Photograph in low light or indoor condition with high ISO without generating too much digital noise;
Focus (on face or eyes) fast with precision when shooting in shallow depth of field;
Document my children’s growth beyond still image. Video options like 4K, slow motion and video autofocus became important
My existing camera body (Canon 5D MarkIII) and lenses (Canon 24-70mm, f2.8L and Canon 70-200mm, f2.8L) used to be my go-to-equipment to capture children. But they fell short of most of the above criteria.
I had been eyeing on Sony mirrorless cameras for a while, but I didn’t pull the trigger after our first son. I was hesitant to invest in a new set of lenses, nor did I want to mount my Canon lenses with mounting adapter on a Sony camera - which meant essentially I still had to carry the size and weight I didn’t want, and possibly having to sacrifice the focus speed due to non-native lens on Sony. I also expected Canon to release a mirrorless with competitive technology as Sony, if not better.
While the latter didn’t happen (until later last year), I invested in another piece of Canon equipment before our second son was born - I was such a loyal Canon fan for decades - Canon Powershot G7X MarkII.
This camera was only a plus not a replacement. It was a great vlog camera (although I wasn’t a vlogger), and allowed me to shoot selfies with my kids - I was behind the camera most of the time but sometimes I really missed being in the same shot with them. But the image was nowhere near the professional portrait quality due to the lens limitation. So I still used Canon 5D Mark III with 24-70mm lens for photos. At this point, I still had to keep two cameras.
During our 6-week Europe trip last summer with our two boys, I brought the complete camera gear - Canon 5D Mark III plus 3 lenses, Canon G7XII, and a tripod (instead of 2). We looked like this (see below) when we stepped off the train in Porto. Three wheeled suitcases, one diaper bag, one camera backpack, a toddler in stroller, a baby in carrier, plus two bags of food and toys our family gifted us in Lisbon.
The worse part: Our taxi driver dropped us off in the wrong location, and we had to drag everything on the narrow cobble-stoned street for blocks. It was a very memorable workout!
After the trip, I finally took the plunge, and invested in the newly released Sony A7III, and a prime lens - Sony Sonnar Zeiss 55mm, f/1.8.
Size Matters Most To Me
The Sony A7III plus Zeiss prime lens is much smaller and weighs only 2 lbs, while the Canon 5D Mark III plus 24-70mm f2.8 weighs almost double at 3.85 lbs. (See below side by side image).
Other than the smaller size and light weight, the Sony solution delivers much higher quality image in low light condition.
I photograph my kids indoors very often, and had no problem using high ISO6400 or even above (the camera can go as high as ISO204000) on Sony. I oftentimes forgot to take off my lens filter (I’ll explain in a little bit) and took photos between ISO25600~51200 occasionally. The digital noise was totally manageable in post processing. For my Canon, I would never want to go as high as ISO6400 when the image already looked very noisy.
What I like most about Sony A7III is its auto eye focus function.
Photographing toddlers and babies means you have to capture the unpredictable. With the eye autofocus, I could easily work on composition instead of having to adjust the focus point and composition at the same time. I have used single point focus on Canon 5D Mark III for many years, even the camera offers 61 auto focus points.
I Loved the video shooting Experience On Sony
Even I have owned Canon 5D Mark III for 7 years, I used it only for photos 99.9% of time. I didn’t like the fact I had to manually adjust focus during video shooting if my subject moved. Talking about babies, they moved everywhere, all the time. Not being able to automatically trace them in focus meant no videos.
Sony A7III totally changed my video experience. With my aperture set at f1.8 most of the time, it is exhilarating to see how smooth and responsive the camera focuses on moving subject at different depth of field, automatically.
After my Europe trip last summer mostly shot on iPhone and Canon G7XII for the video part, I knew if I had to create something cinematic, I had to use Sony A7III. Because of the camera’s video autofocus capability, shooting videos on an DSLR wasn’t that intimidating to me anymore.
Sony A7III plus Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 lens
As video became a bigger component of my camera experience with Sony, I have invested in a few other pieces of accessories (below image)
Breakthrough 77mm 6-stop ND filter (top right)
Instead of buying a 49mm filter (which is the right size to fit my Sony lens, a 77mm diameter gives me option to mount the filter on my existing Canon lenses - both my Canon 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses are of 77mm diameters. It was a nice idea, but in reality I never used it on Canon, as I was too happy with my one camera one lens solution. By the way, I have already owned a B+W 77mm 10-stop ND filter for years. Although the 6-stop filter sometimes was not dark enough for video shooting in bright sunlight, the 10-stop filter was too dark for bright indoors. So in order to simplify, I just had the 6-stop filter mounted on my lens most of the time.
Breakthrough 49mm - 77mm step up ring (bottom right)
In case you don’t know what a step-up (or step-down) ring is, this is the connector between the filter and lens, allowing me to mount a 77mm filter on my 49mm lens (see below photo).
A 77mm lens cap (top left)
See below image - after “stepping up” my lens diameter from 49mm to 77mm, the original lens cap (with 49mm) obviously does not fit anymore. I had to get this new cap to protect my lens and filter.
40mm Universal Arca Swiss Quick Release Plate (bottom left)
I purchased this in order to mount the Sony camera on tripod, just in case I wanted to use the camera for landscape photography or self family portrait etc. So far I haven’t used this much.
For battery and storage, I also purchased the following.
I have purchased two Sony memory cards (64GB and 128GB). 64GB is sufficient for my daily use. When I have two memory cards installed in both card slots on my camera, I set 128GB for both photos and videos in slot 1, and 64GB for only photos in slot 2. It’s a bit overkill right now, but will be useful for future big trips.
I just haven’t been shooting enough videos to experience the battery problem other Sony users do. However, I still purchased the battery charger with two extra batteries. I typically only bring an extra in my purse when I go out. So far I rarely need to swap batteries as I still take more photos than videos.
The red case in the photo above wasn’t essential currently. It’s a rugged memory card holder. It will be most useful for future big trips if I’ll have to bring the camera to the ocean, desert, glacier, or anywhere with extreme weather.
What I carried in my purse most of the time over the past year was, finally, just one camera and one lens (below image).
I ditched the original Sony lens cap and lens hood, with replacement of the above mentioned filter, step-up ring, and lens cap.
What I carry in my purse every day
Now after using it for almost a year, I couldn’t be happier. For this whole year, I only used the Canon 5D MarkIII on our Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip for a weekend (see this video), as I preferred a wider angle view that the Canon 16-35mm f2.8L could deliver for landscape photography.
55mm focal length Is Perfect
If you are a DSLR fan, you probably know lens is more important than the camera.
My Sony Sonnar Zeiss 55mm, f/1.8 lens was not a random choice. It had to meet the following criteria:
small and light (most important to me)
perform well in low light - must be a fast lens (the smallest f stop number, the faster the lens)
must be a native Sony lens to avoid using an adapter to mount the lens (in order to minimize size and weight)
ideally, with a versatile zoom range
There is always a dilemma between the size of the lens and the zoom capabilities - in case you don’t know, most zoom lenses are bigger and heavier. Prime lenses (with fixed zoom) are smaller and lighter, and typically faster, but well, they don’t zoom.
I knew I had to pick a prime lens for the Sony A7III, and really enjoyed the 55mm focal length I picked. It was simply great to photograph people both indoors and outdoors. It could also be a backup landscape lens, although my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L wide angle lens has always been my top choice for landscape photography.
When I photographed children 10+ years ago outdoors, my go-to-lens was the Canon 70-200mm f2.8L. It was sharp, and produced beautiful bokeh. I thought I’d miss it after switching to Sony and the 55mm lens. In fact, not at all!
55mm was perfect for my needs. When I photographed other kids with the 70-200mm, I had to stand quite far away from them. But I knew it was safe as their parents were nearby.
Photographing my own kids was completely different. If I was out alone with them, walking away seldom worked - they would either follow me, or pick up their “tasting menu” from the ground, or walk off track and not hear me. Inevitably I had to run back. Plus, the size and weight of the lens was a major turnoff.
In a nutshell, my current Sony solution is near perfect. If I had to pick some downside, here are a few:
Sony A7III, together with other Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras, are notoriously complicated in its menu system. There are many dozens of pages in the menu at the cost of being functional.
Apparently, you don’t want to skim through so many pages in order to change something as basic as white balance, focus mode or as complicated as face priority in AF, AF/MF toggle, focus peaking, zebra setting, focus magnifier (if you never heard of these, it’s totally fine as they probably don’t exist in your Canon or Nikon DSLR).
In order to avoid skimming through multiple pages to change settings in a shoot, you need to assign your most often used and changed settings to custom buttons. That itself is a learning curve. Even after having used the Sony for almost a year, I’m still constantly updating my custom button settings according to my habits.
Sometimes I forgot what settings I assigned to a specific button, as you can use the same button differently for photo and video, so I try to minimize confusion to assign similar or easy to remember roles to the same button. In summary, it’s just not as straightforward if you want to keep an efficient workflow on your camera. It takes time to get a solid familiarity of this camera.
I’d be happy to share how I set up my custom buttons one day, but at the moment, it still is an ongoing process. (Update: Check out my Top 5 Custom Buttons on Sony A7III For Efficient Photography Workflow)
LCD screen is often not usable in bright light
It’s very hard to see anything on the LCD if you use the camera in bright day light outdoors.
Ironically, before Sony, I always use viewfinder to capture an image on Canon. It took me sometime to get used to using the LCD to take pictures on Sony, but it doesn’t always work. So I have to switch back and forth between LCD and viewfinder, not a big deal but just clumsy.
No zoom at the cost of light weight.
In the past I have enjoyed zoom lenses to photograph children. Right now, no zoom means I have to move forward or backward myself. Every time I point my camera to my kids, they tend to walk toward me. If I don’t move backward fast, they simply get too close for me to focus or compose.
I haven’t found a perfect solution to protect the camera
As I carried the camera mostly in a diaper bag, and now a regular purse, it lacked the cushion protection from a professional camera bag. I already got a chip on the lens.
Unnecessary high ISO
As I often have the 6-stop filter mounted on my lens, when I take portrait, either on aperture priority mode or manual mode, leaving ISO on auto, I often generate images with unnecessary high ISO, due to the “much lower light”.
In summary, I am completely in love with my one-camera-one-lens solution.
It gives me more time to create - instead of fumble between cameras and lenses
It is light and small, and so convenient when traveling with young children (See How To Photograph Landscape While Traveling With Young Children)
Given the eye autofocus and video autofocus, I can focus more on lighting and composition rather than buttons and settings
It gives me higher quality images in low light
It also has the potential to completely replace my Canon camera and lenses for landscape photography
Update: check out 5 Steps To Prepare My Portrait Camera For Landscape Photography