Seoul in four cameras

A mixture of the modern and traditional: Ricoh GR+WAadapter


If you have ever spent any time in camera forums you will have seen the commonly posted question: “I am going on holiday to somewhere and what camera and lenses would you recommend I take?” This article is my personal take on how I chose the equipment I took with me on a recent visit to Seoul in South Korea.

If you want to skip to the gallery of photographs, click here.

Of course this question is a bit like ‘how long is a piece of string?’ It cannot really be answered as there are no rules laid down about the essential cameras and lenses for holiday purposes.

A recent trip to Seoul in South Korea to attend my son’s wedding was planned a year in advance and I had a long to time to consider the question. Before explaining the final decision on kit I should explain my philosophy when it comes to photography.

My key piece of advice about photography is: shoot what you know and where you know. I have made a niche for myself shooting urban landscapes and architecture in various parts of London. Why? Because I know these areas very well, I know the streets, the buildings, the impact of weather and time of day on shadows and contrast, and so on. My second mantra is: Content Is King. It matters very little what you use to take a photograph – it matters considerably more that the content is worth the effort of taking the photograph.

Now, both of these principles go out of the window when it comes to holiday photography. This assumes you are going somewhere for the first time and therefore are not familiar with your surroundings and you will see so many new things you will find it hard to resist photographing a humble rubbish bin or street sign – just because it is different – even if the content itself is banal.

If it sounds like I personally have low expectations of holiday photography then I confess I am guilty. I realised long before going on this holiday that all the places I would visit have been well trod before me by local professional photographers who will have captured better views than I ever could because it is in their back yard and they know it better than any tourist ever will.

The King Sejong statue in central Seoul with a bike club meet. Somethng a little different than the normal tourist photograph.

A personal consideration when answering the ‘what kit should I take’ question is that my back has entered its seventh decade of service and I can no longer carry a large amount of kit. I learned over the many years I spent travelling the world on business that travelling light is an absolute essential requirement, more so as I have got older.

So, what in the end did I choose to take with me on my trip?

About 2 months before I was to leave I sat down with myself and had frank think about what I would enjoy doing photographically-wise. The surprising answer came fairly quickly: photograph with film.

Not exclusively – I am not that brave – but at least shoot some film.

I have not shot with film for over four years. I sold my last film cameras to fund the digital photography kit I now use for my commercial work – and I have no regrets about that. Digital workflow and output is a necessity in this day and age for books, magazines and stock libraries.

The reason I concluded it would be more satisfying to shoot film is that I am honest enough to realise that returning home with a lot of digital photographs is a soulless activity, but taking the time and care required to create film photographs would be a more pleasurable experience. Of course, the image quality of film cannot compete with even entry level digital cameras (and I am sorry if I burst the bubble of people who still believe it can) but that is not the point. I was not looking for perfection because I would be photographing sights that many other people had before me. I emphasise that I was thinking about enjoyment in photography. I was thinking about coming back with maybe a dozen film frames that I would enjoy taking and enjoy looking at from time to time in my Flickr stream, website or Facebook account.

Ricoh GR with wide angle adapter(l) and the Olympus XA (r)

Having made my decision, I had to decide on camera equipment. Top of my list was to reacquire an Olympus XA. For many years I travelled the world and always manged to squeeze into my pocket or case this design-classic capsule film camera. Not to be confused with the cheaper and less able siblings in the same family, the XA is a manual focus rangefinder camera with aperture priority metering. The F.Zuiko 35/2.8 lens is one of the sharpest ever created for a capsule camera and I know from my previous experience that A3 prints are more than possible. It also has a metering range which allows it to set the shutter speed from 1/500 to 30 seconds. Many times in the past I would put the camera on a steady surface, press the shutter and let the camera take as long as it wanted (at night) to capture a scene.

In finding a suitable XA to purchase from eBay I came across several other cameras which looked interesting. One was the Minolta TC-1, a tiny fully automatic camera with an excellent lens. Alas, the one I purchased had a fault and had to be returned so I was not able to take it with me but in the future, I would like to own one again.

The zenith of 35mm compact development: the Nikon 35Ti with Nikkor 35 f2.8 lens

My eye and interest were caught by the Nikon 35Ti largely for its matrix metering and fully automatic programme mode. This camera boasts a Nikkor 35 f2.8 lens which is of legendary Nikon sharpness and colour saturation. The camera comes highly recommended by Ken Rockwell who highlights the creative control with fill-in flash that is an excellent feature of the camera. The Nikon 35Ti is probably the height of the development of the compact film camera which we are unlikely to see the like of ever again (although I’d contend there is probably a significant and growing market again for such a beast if one of the major manufacturers would step up to the mark).

Finally, I knew I would want some digital photography and I had no hesitation in packing my Ricoh GR with it wide angle adapter (which stretches the field of view from an equivalent 28mm to 21mm). In the end I never took the adapter off the GR the entire time I was in Seoul. I believe the Ricoh GR to be one of the finest digital cameras made today. The tiny and strong magnesium body contains a 16mpx APS-C sensor to rival most DX (and even some FX) DSLR cameras out there. The 18mm f2.8 lens is masterpiece and echos the brilliance of the Olympus XA and Nikon 35Ti. The biggest surprise to me has been that the wide angle adapter does not introduce any significant degradation in image quality. I use the camera with the GV-1 external viewfinder which has frames for the native equivalent 28mm and 21mm fields of view. I always contend that 'if Carlsberg made digital cameras', it would make the Ricoh GR.

All three cameras in total are about the weight of a small DSLR camera and its kit lens. (As an aside I lent my Panasonic GX8 and 12-35/2.8 zoom lens to my daughter-in-law for the trip and she absolutely loved using it).

I had carefully researched the weather for October in Seoul and discovered that October is one of the best months of the year. Indeed each day was almost cloudless with the temperature in the low 20s. For that reason I used two types of film. I have always liked Kodak Ektar 100 since it came out over 30 years ago. Rarely did I see a speed lower than 1/30 and as the camera benefits from a leaf shutter that is hand-holdable. The other film I used is Kodak Portra 160, which amongst film users is almost universally accepted as one of the finest films available, especially for output that will be scanned. I used this exclusively in the Nikon 35Ti.

What of the fourth camera? Well, the revelation to me was the use I made of the Huawei P9 smartphone I carry. This features a twin lens combination which is branded by Leica and a dedicated monochrome sensor. I was surprised at the quality of the output of the camera especially in mono mode, which in the end I used to capture some candid moments at the wedding ceremony.

The Leica branded twin lenses and sensors of the Huawei P9, one of which is monochrome.

All three cameras fitted easily into my Think Tank sling backpack with plenty of room for other travelling essentials – which meant I did not have to compromise on what I could carry (or take on board the plane as cabin baggage).

On a small point both the Nikon 35Ti and the Ricoh GR have strap lugs large enough for me to attach the Peak Design Cuff wrist straps I use. The strap lug on the XA was too small but it came with its own dedicated wrist strap which I was happy to use. This did mean I could only realistically have one camera in hand at one time – although in the end the tiny dimensions of the XA meant that I would often lodge it in my trouser or jacket pocket leaving me able to have another camera on my wrist and still access the XA.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating and you can see the results of my endavours with all four cameras in the gallery accompanying this article.

Jogyesa Temple: the wonderful look of Kodak Ektar combined with the quality of the Olympus XA F.Zuiko 35/2.8 lens.

Did I achieve my desired aim of enjoyable photography? It is always fun to have a choice of cameras and travelling with small compact cameras made that possible. The Nikon 35Ti has a versatile flash capability (see Mos Burger) which made some night time photography possible. The XA is just a wonderful street camera to work with. It is discrete and quiet although being manual focus you have to be quick to set the focus point (see Sharing the street crossing). For all-round competence in both capture and post-processing the Ricoh GR is close to unbeatable for its size and capabilities (see Two Young Women in Hanbok). The revelation to me was the competence of the smartphone camera in my Huawei P9. Of all the cameras it was the only one to properly capture a night-time view of Seoul from the Namsan Tower viewing platform. I pressed the flat side of the phone to the glass to minimuse glare and the camera processed out all the noise without destroying the detail in the resulting capture (you can see the setting crescent moon, Night View of Seoul).

In photography decisions should be personal and not driven by external pressures, and especially not by following the herd. Content is the highest priority and chosing the most satisfying way to capture that content is the best advice I give to anyone wrestling with the dilemma of what camera or lens to take on a holiday.