Horses for Courses

I spent 17 days in Japan near the end of 2018. That trip took me to wonderful locations, both scenes I love from earlier trips and new vistas. I’ve posted some of the 2,644 shots that I took on that trip on my Facebook page,

Since returning, I’ve received a number of questions about the equipment I used on the trip and how I decided what to take and carry, so this note attempts to explain my thought process.

My “go to” camera for my landscape and architectural photography is my Pentax 645Z. It’s a medium-format DSLR, 53 meg CMOS sensor, pops out beautiful 51 meg raw files at a native resolution of 8256 x 6192 pixels, internally weather sealed, 2 card slots so I can record raw on one and JPEGs on a wireless Flucard in the other, tiltable color LCD monitor screen, built-in lens correction and noise reduction, fantastic low-light shooting at high ISOs…yes, I love it.

But, there are three drawbacks to that amazing DSLR:

• weight—the camera body with a battery and an SD memory card loaded weighs 1550 grams (that’s just over seven pounds) and the lenses I use most are equally sturdy, ranging from half a pound to almost seven pounds;

• size—the camera and lenses are bulky - the body itself measures 6.14” x 4.6”x 4.84” and my preferred lenses run about 4” in diameter and are just over 5” long; and,

• lenses—I need to carry at least three (and preferably four) lenses to cover a range from 28mm to 160mm.

I knew we would be traveling almost every day in Japan, on trains, on busses, in cabs, on the subway, and (occasionally) in friends’ (small) private cars. When I stacked up the 645Z kit I would need to take, even after taking out things I would bring on a typical field trip (tripod, 300 mm telephoto, Hoodman, 2X extender, various smaller items…), I was looking at a large backpack (think Lowepro Pro Trekker 400 AW at 7.2 pounds) that would weigh over 25 pounds loaded. I knew we would be traveling for 5-6 days at a time, carrying our clothes and personal gear in rolling suitcases, so adding such a large/heavy bag was just not going to be practical. That meant I needed to think smaller and lighter.

Luckily, I had purchased a (used) Pentax K-3 DSLR a year ago, thinking of it simply as a backup body for my field work. While the 645Z is extremely reliable, all electronic gear goes haywire sometimes, and I never want to be at the end of trail on which I’ve hiked for two hours only have a dead camera—thus a backup body. The K-3 was Pentax’s top-end cropped-sensor 35 mm DSLR when released (it’s been superseded by the K-3 Mk II) and boasts a 24 meg APS-C CMOS sensor, puts out a 6016 X 4000 pixel raw file and only weighs 1.76 pounds with battery! It’s also quite a bit more compact (5 X 4 X 3” - 60 cubic inches compared to 137 cubic inches for the 645Z) and the K-mount lenses are comparably smaller and lighter than their 645-mount equivalents. And it has internal image stabilization, not found on my 645Z.

Three things drew me to getting the K-3 as a backup: it uses the same battery pack as my 645Z, has a very similar control layout, and I could mount the 645 lenses with a simple and light adapter.

What I discovered after using the K-3 on a couple of shoots is that it also has very good low-light, high-ISO performance (not up to the standard of the 645Z, but it’s working with a sensor that is 26% the size of the 645z’s: 367 sq. mm versus 1437 sq, mm.) And the second card slot on the K-3 takes an Eye-Fi card so I have wireless on it as well.

I then started thinking of the K-3 not just as a backup, but as an alternative body, and I picked up two (used) lenses, a short (18-55 mm) and a medium (50-200 mm) telephoto. In 35 mm terms, those cover 27 mm to 300 mm, and together weigh 18 ounces! So I had a package of body and lenses that topped out under three pounds total.

I decided the way to go for Japan was to leave the 645K at home, and instead take the K-3 and those two lenses, with a very compact tripod/monopod. The K-3 and both of those lenses are weather-sealed, so I did not bother taking a camera cover. That gear, plus batteries, a couple of filters, and a GPS transmitter all fit into a Lowepro PhotoSport 200 AW II, which is a great lightweight and compact backpack at only 2.7 pounds! Carrying about eight pounds of gear in a small bag - now that seemed doable!

And I was right. The K-3 based kit worked well all around Japan, and I was able to comfortably carry my gear along with all the other traveling supplies. The two lenses covered all the situations I ran into on the trip, and the K-3 produced images with which I am quite pleased. You can see the results at—all the Japan images are from the K-3.

The only thing I took that turned out to be superfluous was the small tripod/monopod. I had expected I would be able to use it as a monopod on many of the temple and shrine grounds that we would be visiting, where I knew that tight spaces would mean that tripods were not welcome. I discovered that both tripods and monopods are now generally banned in those locations, so the little ‘pod stayed in the Lowepro. I relied upon the high-ISO abilities of the K-3 and got better at finding sturdy things to lean on for stability. There were some shots I missed because of the lack of a good support for the camera, but it was not a major problem.

I’m not giving up my 645Z! It remains the most amazing camera I have ever used: tremendous dynamic range, astounding low-light capabilities, huge and detailed raw files that process beautifully in Photoshop, and a range of lenses that can cover any situation. I will continue to use the 645Z when the quality of my finished images is critical, as I know the results are limited only by my compositional skills. But I have new respect for the K-3 and expect that I will be using it in more settings where the need to work small and light is the top priority.

The British saying, “horses for courses”, was right on point for our Japan trip: I took the right gear to fit the circumstances of that adventure and I am pleased with the results!