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Why Own Few Things?

When I first moved to California in 2011 I sold almost everything I owned down to the point of fitting my life in a Honda Civic. I noticed that my identity “shifted” a bit every time I sold something. My brain had thought for so long “this is my bed and this is my table.” Once the bed and the table were gone I really liked that new feeling and the new discovery: “this is me, the same me, without a bed and without a table.”

When I left California in 2014 to travel to Asia I again sold everything — this time much more aggressively — and kept just a small backpack and a few boxes of clothes at my mom’s house. I travelled for a year and a half with comparatively few things.

Once I got back to San Francisco my mom mailed me a huge box of clothes from Virginia — a time capsule I sent myself from a year and a half ago. The first night after the box arrived I went to a party with my roommates and changed outfits three times before my roommate Joe laughed at me and asked me how I liked this new life of having options. I hated it. I didn’t like any of the clothes, I didn’t like having so many options, and I was uncomfortable putting my old skin back on. I wore my usual travel outfit to the party with the sole addition of a new pair of pants.

There have been more additions since then: coffee brewing equipment, a film camera, a macro lens, books, a hair trimmer, a camping hammock, a yoga mat, a cushion to sit on the floor, and an old Ikea chair and coffee table found near the dumpster. Right now that’s close to my upper limit of what I want to keep around.

What selling everything down twice has taught me is that not only do I not need so many things, but that the things consumer society makes me want to buy are often very wasteful. Functional clothes are important, but stylish clothes make me spend a lot of time thinking about how to get dressed. The most enticing things to buy, which for me are often slick electronics, push me toward compulsive behaviors that scatter my mind. Furniture isn’t unhealthy, in fact it’s often very practical, but for me it makes spaces feel constrained.

As far as money: It would be easy in San Francisco to spend $5 on a coffee, $20 on lunch, $40 on a shirt, or $2,500 on rent. I’ve found good enough alternatives in making my own coffee, a $5-10 lunch, wearing the shirts I already have, and subletting a room in a friend’s apartment. The space between “good enough” and “perfect” can be reserved for the few things that I care deeply about.

Photo is a film panorama of an old man fishing. Taken at Fort Mason center in San Francisco.

A Six Pound Packing List for Two (or more) Weeks on the Road

I’m taking my first trip out of Cambodia tomorrow after 5 months living here.

Below is what I’m bringing on a two week trip to Bangkok. All told it weighs 5-7 pounds after you factor that half of the clothes will be worn and not in the pack at any time.

It shows an evolution in my packing strategy. I’ve strayed from the Leica to a Canon SLR. I’m packing lighter now since I know what the weather will be like. The only things I’m not bringing that I would for a longer trip are my down jacket, external hard drive, tripod, and antibiotics (easy to get in Thailand).

Top: Fully loaded. Left: Everything together laid out. Right: What gets carried on my back.

Clothes

I love my black icebreaker v-necks, but it’s way too hot in Asia right now to wear those. So I’m bringing my yellow icebreaker wool shirt and a synthetic t-shirt from Rohan.

For the rare chance that it might get a little cold or rain I have an ultralight rain jacket and a wool buff (the buff doubles as a sleeping mask). I expect to wear the rain jacket only in the movie theatre in Bangkok when they pump the air conditioning extra cold. I could bring a down jacket or hoodie on this trip but that’s overkill for Thailand in March.

I’ve got a Patagonia ultralight swimsuit (sadly no longer for sale), icebreaker wool shorts for wearing to bed, and Rohan Fusion trousers for wearing most days. I still only have two pairs of icebreaker underwear, no socks, and a belt from Mont Bell that I picked up in Japan for about $10.

All of this stuff is heavily tested with the exception of the two Rohan items, which were sent for free for me to try out and send back notes.

So far the Rohan gear is working well. The shirt is very practical but I don’t like how it looks. But it’s coming with me because it’s a heck of a lot more comfortable than wool in burning city heat.

The Fusions trousers are great looking for a versatile and quick drying pair of travel pants. They feel almost exactly the same as the Strongholds with the exception of being lighter fabric. My favorite thing about Rohan pants — and keep in mind they’ve never paid me other than sending me these free clothes to try — is the clip in the left pocket for keys and the zippered back-right and front-right pockets. I use these zippers and that clip all the time.

My clothing needs are very simple and this should cover every environment I encounter. Two shirts so I can alternate days wearing them, one pair of pants, swim trunks, and a pair of shorts to wear at night while I sleep. Notably no socks and only two pairs of underwear.

Shoes

The only shoes I wear these days are Keen Newports. I hate how they look but love how they dry quickly and don’t make my feet sweat. Shoes like these, open ended sandals with some good padding, are wonderful for spending a full day wandering a city. Stepping in puddle isn’t a big deal, taking them off to let your feet breath isn’t an ordeal, and there’s never any need for socks. I took mine into the shower just before taking this picture to wash them, so they’re wet in the photo.

Pick an understated color combination and people might not mention how ugly they are when they see you. Mine are crimson and dark grey.

Not pictured minor things: usb charging cable, folding tootbrush, fingernail clippers, and this awesome tiny hair trimmer.

Camera

These days I mostly use a Canon EOS 6D and 28mm f1.8. I get better pictures from it than I ever did from my Leica ME. That’s not to say one camera is superior to the other but instead that my photo skills have gotten to the point where I don’t care much about discretion.

On every technical measurement other than size the Canon trounces the Leica. The Canon is quieter, more comfortable to wear, shoots better in low light, has longer battery life, and is water resistant. The Leica has better lenses and is physically smaller.

A Leica 28mm f2 lens costs $4,000. The Canon 28mm f1.8 lens costs nine times less. The Canon 6D body costs $1,400 new. The Leica ME body costs $5,000 new. Take your pick: $1,900 camera to trounce through the streets or a $9,000 camera?

Oddly the 6D is almost the same weight as a Leica ME and much more comfortable to wear for extended periods. The rubber and plastic case is a lot nicer to have next to my body.

I may or may not bring the 40mm f2.8 prime lens that I used to take these pictures. Of course the charger, an extra battery, and an amazing [universal power adapter]() with USB ports.

Headphones

I’m still using the RBH EP2 Headphones rated best by the WireCutter but also pack a pair of counterfeit Apple EarPods for walking in the street (the RBH don’t let in any noise).

Phone

My phone is a Sony Z2 – very long battery life, water proof, and a 1080p display. It has a phenomenal camera, which I almost never use, and is water resistant. Full review here.

Computer

My computer is somewhat sadly back to an 11 inch Macbook Air. I wish Apple would come out with a lighter machine with a better screen, but this 11 inch Air is already basically the perfect computer.

Apple does input devices better than everyone else. They also have the best setup of third party software. I love Byword, Textmate, and SimpleNote and Lightroom. Those are my standbys and Linux has no good equivalents (I tried, trust me).

I tried using an iPad as a computer, but it’s almost impossible to multitask effectively for doing things like taxes and web design. It’s also way too hard to manage large photo libraries.

I tried the lightest laptop in the world, which is Tynan’s favorite but found it lacking in durability and hated the keyboard and mouse input.

Finally, I spent two weeks traveling with only an LG phone when I went to Siem Reap. That was awesome and I strongly recommend it. But I need to do “real” work now and can’t do that.

Removed

What’s removed from my more recent packing lists: my long underwear, socks, and previous sandals were given away in Bangkok after months of not being used. I almost never use a tripod, so I’m not bringing it. I rarely wear sunglasses, so those are out too. No water bottle, coffee cup, phone battery, or sleeping sheet. For any of these things I can buy a $1-5 equivalent if I need them.

Finally I’m not using a stuff sack for clothes anymore. With this few clothes they do fine in the bottom of my bag or wrapped around my camera as protection.

Summary

This is an almost ready for anything packing list. It’s versatile, light, and I can carry it all day. In practical terms it costs — without camera, phone, or computer — around $500. You could do much the same with any other gear, or with lesser gear, but I like things that are light, durable, and don’t smell after repeated wearings.

My pack as usual is a 16.5 liter Tom Bihn Daylight. I’ve tried a bunch of shoulder bags lately but still love the Daylight more. I stand by my earlier review here.

My Time with Absurdly Expensive Cameras

Update March 30, 2015: Please read my article about potential issues with dust scratching the Leica M9 and ME sensor before making any purchase decisions. This is not covered under warranty.

If you’re reading this as a first time visitor: here are my favorite recent pictures The images in this article are some of my least favorites. This article is my opinion and I’m careful to use the language “I made” and “for me” as often as I can.

Leica makes gorgeous, all metal, finely crafted digital and film cameras. My Leica ME is the most enjoyable tool I’ve ever used. It was also unreasonably expensive. You should know a few things before you buy one.

The nicest thing about the Leica M system is that there are no compromises. These cameras have been the standard for candid available-light photography for more than 50 years. Every few years a new model Leica M is introduced with minor refinements.

I bought my Leica ME in Japan at the start of my travels around the world. It was not the first camera I owned. I have owned far too many cameras, but it is the camera I have used the most. My shutter count is 24,771.

I love the camera. I’m so glad I have it. Elsewhere on this site I write about how I love the Leica ME. These are the mistakes I made.

Mistake 1: Not Paying for Training First

The biggest mistake I made in buying a super expensive camera was not knowing how to use it. Sure, I could shoot some nice landscapes before my trip, and shot decent portraits of friends, but a Leica is a massive investment in photography. I now think that it only makes sense as an investment after substantial training.

Since living in Cambodia I’ve had two portfolio reviews. The first told that I was really bad a photographing light. The second told me that I was way too afraid of people and photographed the backs of heads too often. I should have known that before I started my trip, not nine months in.

Lesson: I wish I’d spent $2,000-$3,000 on training at the start of the trip and $1,000 on a camera instead of $6,000 on the camera and no money on training. If you’re seriously considering dropping six grand on a camera, make sure you’ve attended a few workshops and portfolio reviews first. Books didn’t work for me. I needed someone to tell me where I was messing up very directly.

If you need help finding a workshop or portfolio review, ask a photographer you admire. They would be more than happy to recommend a friend (it will probably cost money).

I at one point thought this photo was good. Now I think it’s terrible.

Mistake 2: Buying an Expensive Fast Lens

When I bought my Leica I got a used 50mm 1.4 Summilux Pre-Asph lens along with it. I bought the fast f/1.4 lens because I thought f/2 lenses could never be good.

One of the “rules” told to new photographers is too not skimp on lenses. So why do I recommend a used f/2 lens for new Leica Ms? Because any Leica and Zeiss lens at or faster than f/2 is fantastic. Canon and Nikon make some cheap f1.8 lenses, Zeiss and Leica don’t. Stay away from Leica f/2.5 “Summarit” lenses though — they’re more expensive than a perfectly fine used f/2 lens.

Later I got a 50mm f/2 Summicron and loved it. The Summicron was lighter, had a focus tab, and had a shorter focus pull (rotation to go from close to far). The f/1.4 Summilux was so heavy that my camera tilted forward on it’s strap. The Summicron lenses are small, light, and insanely sharp.

For me, the ergonomic perfection of the Summicron series outweigh the light gathering capabilities of the Summilux series. I quickly stopped using the Summilux and sold it. Most of my good photos are at f5.6 or narrower, a place where Leica f/2 Summicron lenses shine.

**Lesson: ** I learned that I prefer light f/2 lenses instead of bulky f/1.4 lenses. I’d recommend a Leica 35mm f/2 (Asph or pre-Asph) or Zeiss Biogon 35mm f/2 as first lenses. The Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron and Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar are great too, but I’ve stopped shooting 50mm. Try to find these lenses used, there’s rarely a reason to buy a new lens.

Mistake 3: Shooting Wide Open

None of my favorite photographs were shot wide open. Sebastião Salgado is famous for shooting at ISO 3000 and narrow apertures. Henri Cartier-Bresson varied the aperture on his camera and not the shutter speed to take pictures, generally shooting at what looks like f5.6 or narrower.

Leica makes phenomenal lenses and those lenses look beautiful and sharp if shot wide open. I disagree that Leica lenses are “made to be shot wide open.” Leica products are made to do an acceptable job at any setting they allow, they don’t dictate how you use them. You pick how to photograph and Leica cameras make that easy, but in my experience great photographs are rarely shot wide open.

This shot is interesting only because it’s wide open. It shows off a nice lens and an expensive trip to Japan, but it’s not a great picture. Miyajima, Japan. April, 2014.

This shot is slightly better. At least the deer are facing different directions. It would have been better at f/5.6 and a shot from a foot to the right. Miyajima, Japan. April, 2014.

Mistake 4: Thinking I Needed a Discreet Camera

As I grow in photography I’ve realized that I’ve only taken one or two critically good pictures. None of those good pictures depended on the camera being hard to see or quiet.

It’s very nice that Leicas are small and quiet, but most pictures result from people knowing I’m taking their picture.

Outside Orussey Market. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Most people in this frame either knew I was taking their picture and looked at me or didn’t care. It’s not a fascinating shot, but it’s getting in the right direction. I could have maybe moved a foot to the right but then I would have lost the man in the bottom right corner.

For carrying and preventing theft a small Leica is great. Most people actually think it’s old and worthless. The top question I get in Cambodia is “why don’t you buy a nicer camera?

Lesson: I love having a tiny and somewhat light full frame camera in my backpack all the time. I love having unparalled image quality in two thirds the weight and half of the size of an equivalent SLR, but this doesn’t make the pictures better. I don’t think that the Leica’s size makes it any better for photography than an SLR at half the cost.

Mistake 5: Shooting Long Lenses

When I started shooting pictures I shot at 50mm. I recently wrote an article about my switch from 50mm to 35mm lenses.

I used to cling to my 50mm lens because Henri Cartier-Bresson used 50mm lenses.

But most street photographers today shoot at 35mm or 28mm. Wider angles let you fill the frame with people while also giving the viewer a feeling that they’re part of the scene and not an observer.

Lesson: Bresson was the first person to prove that photograpy was a medium worth exploring on it’s own separate from painting. At the time photography hadn’t made a full break into being it’s own medium. Now that photography is clearly it’s own medium, the wider lenses have shown themselves to be better for documentary work. Most documentary photographers shoot 35mm. Give it a try.

Shot at 50mm, and I think it could be better if taken much closer. The tree would be above you, you’d see some of the leaves, and you’d feel the dust kicked up by that 100cc Daelim in your nostrils. Outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. May, 2014.

Mistake 6: Seeking The Wrong Source of Feedback

Likes, faves, and reshares are not good feedback. Gaming for traction on Instagram, 500px, Flickr, or Facebook is fishing in the wrong pool if you want to make pictures that serious photographers will like. I’m now trying to pick my critics wisely.

Real musicians love jazz. I can’t stand jazz. It makes me nauseous. Just like jazz, serious photographers get interested in strange things about photographs that most people don’t like.

Take a look at my profile on 500px to see the evolution of what I consider my best pictures. You’ll see me moving around in color selection, how close I get to people, and perspectives. My latest pictures, which most photographers agree are far better than the previous ones, are close up, show faces, and are in black and white. They do much worse on social media than my more recent images.

My top rated picture on 500px. Is it art? I don’t think so. Some landscapes are art, this is just pretty.

This doesn’t mean that people on social media lack taste. It means that the path from one type of good photo to another type of good photo is riddled traps along the way. I’m in a gap right now where I’ve picked a new style. My pictures in that style aren’t good. It’s tempting to shoot old styles that I was good at, but those aren’t the kinds of pictures I want to make anymore.

Lesson: As I grow I wish I’d found better sources of feedback. I spent a long time frustrated that the images I liked the most didn’t “do well.” Part of that is that the images sucked, part of that is that I was targeting the wrong audience.

Summary

I hope those tips save you some time and maybe money if you decide to buy a Leica M system.

In summary I wish I had:

  1. Spent at least as much on training as I would spend on a nice lens.
  2. Bought an f/2 lens instead of an f/1.4 lens. Bokeh is nice but it’s lazy. My back and my bank account would thank me.
  3. Only shot wide open at night and otherwise shot at f/8 as much as possible.
  4. Not worried about having a discreet camera. I would have done fine with a Canon 6D and a 40mm pancake or 35mm USM. It’s not as discreet but it also doesn’t matter much.
  5. Learned to shoot wider than 50mm earlier.
  6. Sought out the right sources of criticism: artists who I admire.

If I could go back in time would I buy a Leica again? Probably. I enjoy using rangefinders far more than SLRs. It’s not easy for me to have a darkroom and develop my own film, so the digital Leica is a wonderful tool.

I’ve heard great things also and grumblings about the Sony A7, and I don’t like how the Fuji X100 still doesn’t have a focus scale on the lens. The next best bet for me right now would probably be either a Fuji XPro-1 and Fuji 23mm f/1.4 or Olympus OMD EM-5 and Olympus Zuiko 17mm f1.8. Both of those cameras are small and light and their lenses have manual focus scales on the lens.

Learning to Love 35mm Lenses

When I started taking pictures the conventional wisdom was to shoot with a 50mm equivalent lens (on a full frame camera or film). I stuck with that for years. It helps that good 50mm lenses are cheaper and have less distortion than other lenses on every camera system I’ve found1. This makes 50mm a natural place to start.

50mm lenses are good for learning because they force a photographer to compose pictures more tightly than 35mm lenses lenses. If you’re reasonably close to your subject there’s almost no space in a 50mm frame to cut content later.

So 50mm was the easy choice and I had Henri Cartier-Bresson as ideaological support. If the most famous photographer in the world spent most of his life only shooting at 50mm then why would I need to try anything different?

Two early 50mm lens pictures I liked from Japan. Captured with a Leica ME and very old Summilux 50mm 1.4.

Ergonomics

I switched from 50mm to 35mm lenses because the ergonomics are better on my camera, but I stayed because I like the pictures more. What ergonomics?

First, the 35mm is easier to shoot in low light: it has a wider depth of field at f/2 and it is more resistant to camera shake. What I can do at 160 and f/2.8 on a 50mm lens I can do at 1/30th second and f/2 on a 35mm lens. Thats two extra stops of light! It’s huge.

Second, the 35mm lens is smaller and easier to focus on a Leica. I believe this article in Luminous Landscape that 35mm is the more ergonomic choice for rangefinders. I don’t understand why 50mm lenses are small on SLRs and 35mm lenses are small on rangefinders. That’s how it is.

Third, the 35mm lens is easier when interacting with people. While 50mm lenses are good for standing five to ten feet away from someone, only 35mm lenses work if someone is right in your face or in the same car as you. If I sit down outside and a kid walks right up to my face a 35mm lens lets me capture their head and shoulders. A 50mm lens only lets me take a picture of their face.

Last, for me the 35mm is more fun. I only learned this after shooting for a while but the 35mm lets me shout. I like to shout.

Yes, the 50mm lens is perfect for someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson is who was a painter first and a photographer second2. The distortion and framing on 35mm can be maddening. As a photographer first, the 35mm is more versatile and looks fine to me.

Street portraits of kids at 50mm (left) and 35mm (right).

Action shots at 50mm (left) and 35mm (right).

#Comparing 50mm and 35mm lenses

50mm Lenses 35mm Lenses
Are better for isolating a subject. Provide more information to the viewer.
Have no distortion. Can have distracting and ugly distortion when you get close to a subject. Are okay at a distance.
Naturally lead to strong composition. Naturally lead to poor composition.
Make it easier to isolate subjects. Make it easier to get content in focus.
Are easier to use without people noticing. Are easier to use close up when interacting with people.
Are lighter and smaller on SLRs but bigger on rangefinders. Are bigger and heavier on SLRs but smaller on rangefinders.
Can cost as little as $150. Can cost as little as $300.
Make images that look like paintings. Make images that look like what you see with your eyes.
Need to be shot over 1/50th second to be used reliably. Can be shot at slower shutter speeds in low light. I get plenty of usable shots at 1/30th second.

Two recent uncropped 35mm shots I like.

A shot I would not have done on 50mm. I was right next this kid as he dove and raised the camera instantly to take the picture. I would have had to keep much more distance at 50mm.

Recommended 35mm Lenses

If you have no camera, then the Fuji X100T ($1299) is easily the best 35mm-equivalent lens camera for beginners. Read my review of the X100S and consider just getting a used X100S for $600 instead of a new X100T. If you’re just getting started in photography and on a budget read my letter to a new photographer.

On the high end most photographers I know love the Sigma 35mm f1.4 art ($899) series lenses for Canon full frame and Nikon full frame. For Canon full frame cameras the Canon 40mm f2.8 pancake ($150-$199) is close enough to 35mm that it’s what I used most of the time on my Canon 6D.

I rarely go wider than f/2 and use a 1970’s era Leica 35mm f2 (link is to the new aspherical version). I got mine used in Shanghai for $1,300. In the United States you can get them used at B&H or buy the very similar Zeiss 35mm f2 ($1087) brand new for 13 of the price of the Leica. The Zeiss is just a little bit bigger, but who cares?

For Nikon crop sensor cameras like the Nikon D7100 and D3300 I would get the 24mm f/2.8D ($349) lens. It’s manual focus only on cameras below the D7000 but I like manual focus more anyway.


  1. I’m talking about a 50mm equivalent lens on a 35mm film camera. On a medium format camera the equivalent is 80mm and on an APS-C camera the equivalent length is roughly 35mm. This gets confusing. [return]
  2. “The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place. It is a beautiful lens at times when needed by what you see. But very often it is used by people who want to shout.” Henri Cartier-Bresson. [return]

Gifts for the Discerning Traveller

I really enjoyed Marco Arment’s Christmas list and the idea of only reviewing things he’s used for a long time.

Here’s the stuff that’s either been in my bag for a long time or has seen heavy use. I beat the hell out of the things I own. Most things break or eventually piss me off, these things didn’t. If you want a practical gift for someone that will work well and be a part of their lives for years to come I’d get something from this list.

Tom Bihn Daylight Pack: All Tom Bihn luggage is fantastic, but my current favorite pack is the Daylight. It’s just exactly what a pack needs to be and nothing more. At 381 grams my pack weighs less than an iPad Air and is (just!) enough space to fit everything I own. Check out my full review. Every other piece of luggage from Tom Bihn is also phenomenal but all of it is heavier. I’ve personally used and can vouch for the Aeronaut, Synapse 19 and Smart Alec.

My Tom Bihn Daylight pack strapped to the back of a Daelim 100cc motorbike.

Rohan Stronghold Trousers: I’ve only worn one pair of pants for the past seven months. I’ve wrecked a motorcycle in them, swam through a cave in Vietnam wearing them, and flown more than 30,000 miles in them. The Rohan Stronghold trousers are fanastic. Both the right front and right rear pockets have zippered compartments — the rear is perfect for a passport and the front is perfect for a wallet. The left pocket has a triangle-ring for attaching keys or a flashlight.

Nite Ize Flashlight: I bought this last minute at REI in San Francsico and am very glad I brought it along for the trip. Surely, a cell phone works OK as a flashlight too but isn’t nearly as bright. This little flashlight runs forever on a AAA battery. I used it to illuminate the bottom of a cave in Vietnam, for “light painting” trees, and in my mouth as an emergency headlight while driving through Cambodia at night.

Merkur Classic Safety Razor: I don’t carry a razor on the road because bringing blades through Airport security is a huge hassle. But I deeply miss my Merkur safety razor. Paired with good blades nothing cuts a beard down like a single-blade safety razor. If you don’t like to shave for weeks and then decide to shave, get a Merkur and a badger brush. You will never want to go back.

Persol Folding Sunglasses: As a photographer I rarely wear sunglasses since it interferes with my ability to see light. When I do need them polarized glasses are much better than regular cheap shades. They make it much easier to distinguish shade from rough pavement on a motorcycle and help see rocks in water. I’ve owned two pairs of Raybans and these Persols. Get the Persols: they look cooler and last longer.