Whether you’re off to wilderness for a month or headed to a national park for the weekend, the gear you pack can have a big impact on the kind of images you’ll make and therefore the stories you’ll tell. After some years of more missed shots and underwhelming images than I’d wish to admit while traveling, I’ve began to hone in on a set of camera gear that works well for me in the field.
Let’s take a quick look at what makes it into the camera bag on nearly any big trip nowadays, then discuss in a little more detail why it’s that stuff, specifically, that makes the cut:
Seems straightforward enough, but it took us a few years to arrive at this configuration.
Getting Up Close and Personal
Cameras just record things. Lenses, on the other hand, determine what we will see. The lenses we travel with shape the experiences we’ll have and also the stories we’ll be able to tell.
Me, although I’m a city dweller, if I’m spending the time and energy to travel somewhere, it’s nearly always in search of nature and its inhabitants.
The first lens I usually grab is something to help me get better photos of the wildlife. My inclination is almost always to grab the longest lens I can manage. I’ve yet to run into too long of a lens. However, too big can start to have some unwanted consequences. Seven pounds is about the max I’m willing to carry (and carrying that around all day is not fun). Any bigger than that and I’m going to be going need a tripod everywhere I go.
Nikon’s Phase Fresnel (PF) and Canon’s Diffractive Optics (DO) lenses may be excellent options for the travel photographer who wants to reach out a bit further without adding on pounds. Check out a recent review of Nikon’s 500mm f/5.6 PF. That lens, or something similar, will probably be on every trip with me for a long time. The mix of image quality and size is actually unbeatable.
Plus, don’t forget that renting is usually an option if you don’t want to be stuck with an expensive telephoto lens in the longer run.
Next, I need a good story-telling lens or two. On one of my first big trips, I took only one camera body. Since I wanted to get plenty of bird pictures, that body nearly always had a 300mm lens attached. Anytime I took the telephoto off, a new bird photo opportunity would appear, so I’d have to rush to put the telephoto lens back on.
When I got home, I noticed that only 20% of the photographs I’d taken were taken using the 300mm lens. Yet, when it came time to choosing what to put in my portfolio or to show friends, 80% of those shots were taken with a 24-70mm or equivalent lens.
The message was that it was challenging to tell a decent story about the amazing places I’d visited when limited to a very narrow field-of-view.
After that trip, I became determined to not let a good storytelling lens to be an afterthought. I now travel with both a 15-30mm and a 24-70mm — both are far better quality than my early lens.
The 24-70mm is just perfect to keep by your folding chair — enjoying a nice glass of wine — while the sun sets and deer wander out of the forest; you never know when something worth snapping a photo of will appear. It’s not to shabby for street shooting either, as I’m sometimes inclined to try.
Lastly, I typically throw a 70-200mm into my kit as well. While it probably sees the least use for the type of photography I do, at f/2.8 it can create wonderful portraits of the people I meet on my travels.
The Right Gear at the Right Moment
It’s not enough to have the correct lens. It actually has be on the camera when you need it. I now take two camera bodies with me on every trip. It’s incredibly useful to have multiple lenses always at the ready. That also give me a backup in case one body fails. It also means I don’t have to change lenses frequently, which is a very good thing in places where it’s dusty or raining — which is typically the fun places.
Over time, I’ve settled on two high-resolution, full-frame bodies for the image quality and flexibility they offer, but that’s my personal taste. Crop-frame- or micro-four-thirds-based bodies can save a decent amount of space and weight during travel.
However, you should think a little about what role each body is meant to play. I took a full-frame paired with a crop-frame on one trip. The crop frame, I thought, would be ideal for shooting wildlife, but it turned out the autofocus system wasn’t nearly as good as on the full frame. Swapping lenses, though, put the wide angle on the smaller sensor, leaving me with a crop factor that took a huge chunk out of any landscape or contextual shots.
Lastly, don’t overlook the tripod. Whether you’re lugging around a 10-pound lens or not, photo opportunities can appear while you are engulfed in nature. Years ago, while camped along a Pennsylvania river, I had no idea of the great display the fireflies might put on that evening. As fireflies started out dancing round, I simply plopped down on my camp chair to watch the display. And, due to the fact I had a tripod with me, I can share the display with friends.
Making Sure Those Stories Make It Home
Now that we’ve set ourselves up to get lots of great images, we want to make sure they make it home with us.
Take a few of them. SD cards are so cheap you can use them as a third backup. I just stash them away for safe keeping when they fill up and insert another card. I usually use 128 GB cards rather than something smaller. They’re slightly riskier in the sense that if one fails, I’ll lose more images, but also less likely to get lost while switching them out in a teetering boat or on some trail in the rain.
XQD memory cards, on the other hand, aren’t so cheap. My XQD card gets erased every evening and reused after I’ve verified that I’ve got two hard drive backups of the day’s photos. I do have a second backup XQD card stashed away just in case the primary fails since they’re not very easy to come by while traveling.
For two camera bodies, we have at least five batteries with two separate chargers. We’ve yet to find ourselves without a fresh battery in the field that way. If you’re headed overseas, make sure the chargers will work at both 50 Hz and 60 Hz, and at both 120 V and 220 V. And don’t forget the appropriate travel adapter and small, multi-outlet power strip. Oh, and be prepared to be creative. The travel adapter we took to Namibia didn’t work in most places. It turns out they use two subtly different plug variations. It took a couple of trips to hardware stores to cobble together a three- or four-layer adapter system that eventually got power from the outlet into a form we could plug a laptop or battery charger into.
A small laptop with Lightroom (or something similar) installed will give you a way to get files off the camera, manage backups, and do a quick quality check each evening. The small laptop I take only has a 64 GB solid-state drive, so I also carry along two external travel hard drives. One is a little more rugged, with a rubber shell and a rating to withstand a sizable drop. The other has a built-in SD card reader and Wi-Fi access so that in the event the laptop fails, we can still backup our photographs (at least those from a camera using SD cards).
Both hard drives run off of USB power so I don’t need to worry about additional cables. They also allow me to do backups using just the laptop battery when power isn’t available. Each evening, I use Lightroom to import photos from both cameras onto the primary external drive. I then manually copy the images a second time to the other drive. One of the drives usually stays in camp or at the lodge, the other goes everywhere with me in my day pack.
You might notice that the number of cables is starting to add up. I’m anal about them when traveling and use a couple of carrying cases to keep them organized. Each case has elastic holders and zippered pouches. Every cable gets stored in the same place each time we repack, that way I know exactly how many elastic holders should have cables in them and how many cables belong in each zippered pouch.
It’s easy to tell, then, if something’s missing when I’m packing up, even if it’s 4:30 am in the morning and I haven’t had coffee yet. More than once, it’s been a lifesaver.
Of course, now that we’ve got all this crap, we’ve got to have some way to lug it around with us. A good photography-specific backpack can be invaluable. We use the ThinkTank Photo Streetwalker. It’s got a rugged design with bomb-proof zippers that has stood up to many serious trips. This bag has room enough to carry all of the above equipment, plus a tripod ball-head and a binder with hard copies of all my travel documents.
Note, however, if you’re thinking about getting something bigger than this, stop and seriously, seriously, think about it first. While U.S. airlines are very permissive about the size of items they will allow you to carry on, but, once you get to other countries, they will not typically let you take a standard carry-on size roller bag on the plane. The Streetwalker is big enough to fit a ton of gear, but will still fit under an airline seat.
Starting to sound like a rather large kit? I often have a sense of envy when I see fellow travelers snapping a shot, then slipping a small point-and-shoot back into their shirt pocket. I’m usually standing there with one camera dangling around my neck and another, a massive DSLR with a long lens, gripped by the tripod mount in my hand.
When we get home, though, and exchange a few photos with folks we’ve met along the way, it’s usually a different story. On a technical level, the little point-and-shoot will always be a bit handicapped when it comes to competing with a full-frame body and massive lens on sharpness, noise, or dynamic range. That’s been borne out time and again in the images, we’ve seen from other folks along the road.
I love a technically well-executed image, that finely honed blend of art and science. But whether that’s important to you — whether a little less noise or sharper details will help you tell the story you want to tell — that’s a very different question! The important thing is to see the world, have fun doing it, and share your enthusiasm for it with others in whatever way makes the most sense for you.
By Brent Daniel