Introduction

ISO 200, 1/4000 sec, F2.

When I travel, I always bring a dedicated camera with me. My preferred form of 'travel photography,' at least when taking pictures for myself, is to document my experiences and create a visual diary. I like to travel as light as I can while still being able to come back with results of decent quality (though a personal trip to Iceland with a D810 was a notable exception to the notion of traveling light).

So, what would I bring for a planned personal trip to Thailand? My D700's are solid but a bit bulky, and I'm not entirely sure how my original X100 would stand up to high humidity, beaches and possibly a rain shower or two (understatement of the year, as I'll get to in a bit). I considered the Nikon D500 or the Pentax K-3 II, but both are also fairly bulky, though I was still hoping to end up with a camera that had a larger sensor than the waterproof Nikon AW1.

My constant companion, based on a combination of size, speed and durability.

Luckily, Olympus has been kind enough to allow us an extended loan on our OM-D E-M1 Mark II for continued testing, particularly in anticipation of future firmware updates. I also decided on just a single lens for the whole trip; the Olympus 25mm F1.2 Pro.

It was settled, then. An informal travel experience with a Micro Four Thirds camera and a fixed, 50mm-equivalent lens to document the trip of a lifetime. What could possibly go wrong?

Full disclosure: This was a personal trip paid for entirely by myself. The choice to bring along an Olympus E-M1 II and lens was mine alone. I do wish to express gratitude to Olympus for allowing DPReview to hold on to our E-M1 II review sample, as well as my fellow staffers at DPReview for allowing me to borrow it for this trip.

All images processed and cropped to taste in a beta version of Adobe Camera Raw unless otherwise noted.

Living with your choices

When I told photo-nerd friends that I was going to Thailand with only an E-M1 II, they thought that was awesome. When I told them that I was going with only a 50mm equivalent lens, a sort of shade passed over their faces; a mixture of interest, bemusement and pity.

Wat Pho is also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which measures 15 meters high and 46 meters long and resides in a confined space. This made using my 50mm equivalent lens...challenging. Straight out of camera JPEG cropped slightly to taste. ISO 400, 1/125 sec, F1.2.

Despite being primarily a prime-lens shooter, I do not shoot the 50mm focal length very often. Yes, it was the de-facto 'kit lens' for entry level film SLRs of yore, but after discovering how much I preferred prime lenses to zooms, I gravitated toward the 35mm focal length years ago and haven't wavered much since.

As anyone who shoots mostly prime lenses knows, familiarity with a focal length often allows you to 'see' pictures that will work before the camera is even to your eye. Given my unfamiliarity with the 50mm focal length, I found myself working a lot harder on my compositions than I anticipated.

I found that for general photography in Thailand, including landscapes and basic 'I was here' images, 50mm was difficult to adjust to. ISO 200, 1/1250 sec, F4.

What worked and what didn't

To state the exceedingly obvious, there are times to experiment with new gear and times to stick with what's familiar. It wasn't long into our time in Bangkok that I began to second-guess my decision to bring this single lens.

Sometimes, the 50mm field of view was an asset, allowing me some more working distance than I was used to. Other times, it was constricting. ISO 200, 1/200 sec, F2.8.

Bangkok is a busy, bustling metropolis with a sea of activity surrounding you at all times, whether you are in the back alley of a flower market or anxiously waiting for a seat at Thip Samai for some of the best pad thai you'll ever eat. In this sense, the camera and lens combination was perfect. The E-M1 II is one of the most responsive mirrorless cameras out there, and the autofocus on the 25mm F1.2 lens is swift and accurate - all of this ensuring that the camera was ready to capture a moment when I was.

Spongebob says, 'Buy me. You know you want to.' ISO 200, 1/200 sec, F2.8.

The problem was in developing my ability to 'see' an image with the 50mm focal length, as I would often swing the camera around, only to realize that I really needed to take a few steps back. I was finding it difficult to capture single images with both a strong subject as well as a sense of context, which I generally find much easier with the 35mm focal length. 

But as we made our way from Bangkok to the Krabi province in southern Thailand, I had other things to worry about than my framing and compositions.

Until next time, Bangkok. ISO 200, 1/2500 sec, F5.6.

The rain

Shortly into our time in the Krabi province, southern Thailand was ravaged by unseasonably strong rain and winds (the rainy season is supposed to end in November). The result was large-scale flooding affecting around 700,000 people and resulting in dozens of lives lost.

The beginning of the storms roll in to Koh Phi Phi. 1/100 sec, ISO 6400, F4.

The worst of the weather was to the east of us, as we experienced stormy conditions but largely less severe flooding. It wasn't until much of the rain had subsided that we had realized the gravity and impact of the situation; we had simply been attempting to make the best of our trip, as did the countless tourists that surrounded us.

Rain begins to fall on tourists and locals on Koh Phi Phi. ISO 640, 1/125 sec, F1.2.

I bring this up so as to make clear that as I go on with this piece, it is with respect and acknowledgment of the scale of the human impact we were lucky enough to have avoided the worst of.

Though the rains did their part to keep me from taking as many photographs as I would have otherwise, the E-M1 II's purportedly extreme weather sealing meant that I was comfortable having the camera with me much of the time. So while I was taking fewer photographs, the point is that I was still taking them.

Flooding continued in the town of Krabi even after rains had ceased, forced multiple reroutings of traffic on and off Route 4 to the airport. ISO 1250, 1/125 sec, F1.2.

Growth and challenges

The final region we visited in Thailand was Chiang Mai, in which we planned a visit to the Elephant Nature Park. Here, all elephants in residence are rescues and not subject to rides, tricks or shows. Instead, visitors are able to experience an elephant's life in a more natural, simple and tranquil setting.

As far as the relative simplicity of shooting with only a 50mm equivalent lens throughout my trip, it ended up being a positive experience despite my earlier hesitations. While my images weren't exactly how I had envisioned them, I found that wasn't a bad thing. Most importantly, I struggled a bit and found some enjoyment in the challenge of shooting different subject matter with a different selection of gear than I'm accustomed to. It might sound strange to challenge one's self on a 'vacation,' but I guess I'm a bit weird like that.

Forcing myself to work with the 50mm focal length was a challenge that often forced me to see scenes in front of me a little differently than I would with a wider lens. ISO 200, 1/1000 sec, F2.

To be sure, there are other solutions out there I could have chosen for this journey, but I was more than pleased with the Olympus E-M1 II. It offered an good balance of size, ergonomics, speed, weather resistance and image quality. It would have been nice in some dimmer scenes to have a larger sensor with lower noise levels, and I didn't particularly have a use for the ultra-high burst rates the Olympus is capable of. But as a travel camera for this particular journey, the camera performed admirably. Maybe next time I'll even take a zoom lens.

ISO 200, F8, 1/3200 sec.

Samples Gallery

All images were shot in Raw + JPEG with a 3:2 crop as personal preference. Many of the edited Raws were differently cropped, and were produced using a beta version of Adobe Camera Raw. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page).

We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it. Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution.