Deciding how to pack your travel photography gear is always a compromise. There's no “one size fits all” answer, but there are a few key points to consider as you make your travel plans. Why is it such an issue? Getting it wrong can screw up your results.
Start With The Basics
Let's start with a couple simple considerations about your trip that will drive everything else.
- How long is will your trip last?
- How important is photography on your trip?
If you're taking a weekend trip to visit family and friends, you may not want to lug a lot of gear with you, particularly if you don't have time to plan your shots. There's something nice about stepping onto a plane with just a carry-on and your personal item. Travel fast, travel light, and take things as they come. If some photography comes your way, that's fine, but it may not be your primary purpose for every trip.
If that's the case, don't sweat any potentially missed opportunities. Grab a body and a lens and go enjoy yourself. You can still capture some fantastic images in a short time. The key is to set your expectations to shoot with the lighter kit that you brought.
If you're going on a trip specifically for photography, you may want to pull out the big guns. Let's face it, why buy gear if you're not going to have it when you need it? Some of your best creative tools – shallow depth of field, long exposure, light painting, portraiture – depend upon carrying more than a body and an ultra-zoom lens.
Ultimately, you want to make the most of your travel. Whether photography is the purpose of your trip or not is an enormous factor that helps you decide what to bring.
Too Much Or Too Little?
I hate to admit it, but I fall on the side of overpacking. It's the Boy Scout in me. They taught us to be prepared. Well, I can't be prepared if I don't have my tools. So whether I use them or not is irrelevant to me. I want to have my tools in case a situation calls for a creative option at my disposal.
There are limits. I've never felt the need to bring my studio lights and modifiers with me. Yet, I've brought a few flashes, diffusers and a Lastolite 24″ EzyBox with a grid on a trip or two – just in case. Then I needed something to hold that soft box, so I tossed a stand in my case, too. For most of my trips, that crosses the border of “too much” stuff.
It's not that I haven't tried the other end of the spectrum. On a business trip to San Francisco years ago, I took my D200, a Nikon 18-200mm lens and just happened to bring a Tokina 12-24mm wide angle lens.
This wasn't a photography trip. I had a full day of business on my trip, which left me to spend some time in the evening for photos. On my first night, I ventured up to the Sutro Baths area and started with dinner at the Cliff House. Nice place. Hard floors.
How do I know the floors are hard? After ordering my meal, I started cleaning my 18-200mm lens. I cleaned the front element first and then turned it over to clean the rear element. As I did so, I felt something brush my leg and heard a definite “crack” as something hit the floor.
When I turned the lens around, I could see that the front element fell out and it's the piece that hit the floor. Big crack through that glass, but it didn't shatter in multiple pieces. Yes, my heart sunk.
The only lens I had was the Tokina 12-24, and it's all I had left to shoot. All of my plans went out the window because I put most of my eggs in that ultra-zoom basket, and it broke before I could take a single shot.
That's the downside of traveling light. When your gear breaks, you are no longer a photographer if you have no other gear with you. Since that day, I've been content to overpack and not rely upon a single piece of equipment.
Here's one of the shots from that night.
This isn't the image I envisioned creating that night, but it's what I could get with the gear at my disposal. The only reason I brought the Tokina was on a whim. Had I left it behind, I'd have nothing from that trip.
That was back in 2008 and I've not been able to plan a trip back to San Francisco since that time. Sometimes you miss an opportunity and that's all you get, so now I prefer to be prepared. Maybe that's why we had those long hikes with big backpacks when I was in the Boy Scouts.
My Travel Photography Gear
The complete list changes depending upon each trip, but there's a core set of gear that goes with me on every trip. Here's my travel photography gear “must have” list.
- Two camera bodies
- 24-70mm zoom
- 70-200mm zoom
- Tripod & ballhead
- MacBook Pro
- Intuos 5 small tablet
- External USB/Thunderbolt drive
There you go, the bare minimum. Let's start with the two bodies. It's the same reason as why I bring at least two lenses. As soon as one breaks, you are no longer a photographer if you don't have a backup. I have a Nikon D700 and Nikon D800. Odds are that I'll shoot every photo with my D800, but stuff happens.
On my trip to St. Lucia last summer, I broke the 10-pin connector on my D800 by jamming the GPS connector into it. That was also my shutter release port. If I wanted to use either on that trip, I had to fall back to my D700. In some cases, the faster frame rate of the D700 is preferable to the D800. Having both offers protection from failure and options.
My experience with the 18-200 put me off the idea of using ultra zoom lenses. Also, I much prefer having a constant f/2.8 aperture through the entire focal range. It's heavier to do it my way. It's less convenient to change lenses. On the other hand, I can shoot in lower light, have better bokeh, and I'm protected fro the failure of a single lens when I carry both. That's my compromise.
Not everyone wants to carry a tripod around with them, but I'm comfortable with my Really Right Stuff TVC-33. That said, I decided to break down recently and get a TQC-14. It's smaller, lighter, but still very strong. It isn't as tall as the TVC-33, but I'm willing to make that sacrifice for times when I want something that easily straps to the side of my camera bag.
I bring plenty of CF cards with me, but they're small and have the potential to get misplaced. Once I get back to my room, I offload my images to my MacBook Pro, and then I duplicate them on an external drive. Now I have three copies with me – the CF card, the computer and the external drive. One of those suckers is going to make it home with me.
Sometimes I like to process images right away, and I've decided that it's just no fun to use a touchpad or even a mouse for post processing anymore. The Wacom Intuos 5 is easy to pack and it's the same one I use at home, so it's comfortable on the road.
Finally, you never know when you want to flash someone. Better to have some light than not, so I bring at least one with me. If I want a lightweight and easily portable portrait kit, I bring my Lastolite Brolly Grip and 36″ trifold umbrella to use. It's easily held with one hand or mounted on the tripod, and the quality of light is just fine for close portraits.
Anything else is a luxury item. Filters, more lenses, more stands, etc. I bought some prime lenses last year and I like to carry a couple of them with me. Yes, the zooms cover the same focal range, but the primes have their own look and feel. Sometimes I want a portrait with my 85mm prime instead of my 70-200mm zoom.
Sometimes I like the way my Nikon 24mm f/1.4 prime collects the light.
Every lens has its own quality. Is it worth lugging it along on a trip just so you have the option to decide whether to use it or not? Maybe. That's why it's a luxury item for my travel needs. It may be overkill for some or an absolute necessity for others.
When it's time to plan your travel photography gear, the real question you need to answer is what tool does the job to bring home the images you expect from your trip. Anything from your phone camera to a honking 800mm lens is fair game if it works for you.