Traveling Light With Mirrorless Cameras

MacBook Air with a Sony a9 and rugged SSD.

Ever since mirrorless cameras arrived on the market, I’ve been obsessed with traveling light. Now the new MacBook Air, peripherals like a tiny SSD, and featherweight prime lenses have finally caught up with the mirrorless promise.

Photographers are able to carry more power and capacity with far less weight than ever before.

Last fall and over the winter, I flew to Paris, Austin, Maui, and back to Seattle. I carried the a9, a set of Sigma lenses, the new MacBook Air and a rugged SSD. That setup worked marvelously well. I packed the gear in a Mission Workshop bag, like the Integer I reviewed last year.

Long exposure on a Maui beach.
Long exposure on a Maui beach.

In a few short years, Cloud services have also improved exponentially. It used to take a weekend to set up a new PC. Now, it’s an hour max for an MBA and by utilizing cloud services, including my own, I offloaded storage and use the G-Tech R for backup. Along with me, I bring either a Capture One session or access a working library via Adobe’s creative cloud.

Even after configuring the MacBook Air with the lowest amount of storage, I never ran out of space. Note that my work is not video heavy.

If it were, perhaps I’d still want to carry a MacBook Pro. Even then, I’d just wait until I was back in my office to render video than accept the weight penalty of a larger and heavier MacBook Pro. While I’m not specifically used the G-Tech R for 4K, it’s spec’d to do it.

Lewis Hamilton starting his hot laps at the Circuit of Americas.
Lewis Hamilton starting his hot laps at the Circuit of Americas.

Travel Kit

Traveling light used to involve compromises but not anymore. The latest MacBook Air and a camera like the a9 or even the just launched a6400 means you’ve got more than enough of everything (from the camera and computer) to get the shoot done. And, especially when you rely on a service like iCloud to offload space-hogging documents. My travel kit with the MacBook Air is

  • MacBook Air Retina with 250G drive—$1147
  • G-Tech Rugged, 500G—$120
  • Sony Alpha a9—$4498
  • Various Sigma lenses
  • Mission Workshop bag—$185

That’s about $6K, plus or minus a hundred dollars for your choice of bag. The grand total is a couple grand less if you bought the a7 III or an older model mirrorless camera of your choice, like one of the new Panasonics, Canons, or Nikons. And, I recommend you do.

At 2.75 pounds and 0.61 inches thin, the MacBook Air is certainly lighter than what I used to carry with me.

Paris was lovely last fall.
Paris was lovely last fall.

The Mirrorless Benefit

One of the reasons I originally started shooting with mirrorless was weight reduction—I most often take a bicycle with me when I’m traveling on assignment, to get a workout in, outside of a hotel gym. For me, the technological jump was massive because the amount of fun had on a bike ride is inversely proportional to the weight of camera gear transported by the rider.

My fun has exponentially increased with the MacBook Air, lenses like the Sigma primes and wide angles, and the G-Tech R.

MacBook Air Performance

The newest MacBook Air is the first Apple computer in all the trips I’ve taken that got 4 hours (or more) out of the battery. It feels like it can go all day. Apple says it’ll last for 10 hours just browsing and I don’t think they’re exaggerating. Here’s the best part…it’ll run a 5K display.

Considering my use case and probably yours, that means you can take the MacBook Air out in the field, throw pretty much anything at it, and then put it to work back in the studio. What I didn’t expect about the MacBook Air was that it’d become my default computer. Meaning, I have 3 laptops in the studio now and the MacBook Air is the one I’m using the most (until I send it back to Apple). That’s probably because it’s the best keyboard I’ve used, quieter and with better key action that the MacBook Pro Touch. Sure it has powerful dual cores and a Retina screen, but the fast SSD is what makes it so capable.

What you need to know is the MacBook Air is the sweet spot for photographers on the road. It will take pretty much anything you throw at it; including, batch exporting 100 JPGs from RAW files, rendering b-roll, and just writing copy all day.

The new MacBook Air running Mojave performs better than you probably expect.
The new MacBook Air running Mojave performs better than you probably expect.

Key Features

Of the key features bulleted below, the 5th about the better sound also reduced what I carry. Before the Air, I’d travel with a Bluetooth speaker. That’s no longer necessary. Apple’s transition to USB-C means you can carry just one charger for all your devices that are USB-C and they’ll charge each other. Carrying fewer gadgets is my thing, so that’s great.

The other road warrior aspect of the Air and USB-C is the availability of power packs for it. Just like carrying a battery backup for your phone, you can charge your Apple laptop now when traveling.

  • Retina display—Like my MacBook Pro in the studio it has over 4 million pixels. The Text is razor sharp, colors, rich and vibrant, and the display glass goes right to the edge of the enclosure.
  • Touch ID—But not Touchbar. The computer has a regular row of Function keys.
  • Apple T2 Security Chip—This is the first Apple computer I’ve used that had a chip just for FileVault, so I turned it on and noticed no difference.
  • Keyboard and Force Touch trackpad—it’s not loud like the MacBook Pro and has, fast, responsive keys.
  • Better sound—I don’t know how Apple can get so much sound out a small form factor, but they did and it’ll fill a hotel room.
  • Performance—The eighth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, with 16GB of memory, didn’t let me down. At times, when rendering in Final Cut Pro or generating previews, I’d noticed a short-lived lag in performance.
  • The greenest Mac— first Mac made from 100 percent recycled aluminum. Apple achieved this by using a custom, Apple-designed aluminum alloy helps reduce its carbon footprint by nearly 50 percent, making it the greenest Mac ever.

The same way photographers have a backup camera or one for another style of shot, the way I eventually came to think about the MacBook Air as the computer I take with me to shoots and leave its larger siblings in the studio. The MacBook Air I tested cost $1147. You can max it out for $2599.

I’d just get the baseline and enjoy what this Apple computer is really good at and that’s travel.

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