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Travel Planning: What to put in your camera bag

Deciding what to put in your travel camera bag can be a daunting task. In this field, there’s a law that always apply: the Murphy’s law. What we can do is choosing the gear to bring with a little planning, just to minimize the Murphy’s law effect. We can’t just avoid it!

During our travel planning series, we have crafted a well thought travel shot list. With this shot list in mind, we can start to think what gear will be necessary to our purpose.

If we plan to shoot a lot of landscapes or cityscapes, we’ll certainly need wide angle lenses. If we’ll concentrate our efforts on people portraits, we’ll want short telephotos, but if we want to shoot environmental portraits, again we’ll need to go wide.

In an article I wrote a few weeks ago, I said that Travel Photography isn’t a photographic genre. Travel Photography encompasses many genres, such as landscape, portrait, food photography etc.

That’s why your shooting list will be useful only to some extent. Except for some highly specific Travel Photography trips, our shooting list will be made of a lot of different images. So, what gear should you take with you?

First decide what lenses to bring

First of all, you have to decide if you want to use prime lenses or zoom lenses. I’m a big fan of prime lenses, but I remember many occasions when I’ve missed shots because I was using a prime.

It is said that primes are the best of the best in photography because they are sharp and fast (large apertures). This was true a few years ago, but today professional zoom lenses are as sharp as primes, and can be as fast as a f/2.8 lens can be. Not quite as fast a f/1.2 or f/1.4 prime lens, but flexible enough to serve you in most occasions.

“Flexibility” is the very word you’ll want to keep in mind when you choose the gear for your Travel Photography trip. The problem during travels is that you don’t want to be slowed down by your gear. You’ll have to walk a lot, and commute a lot on trains, planes, buses etc. Imagine doing all that with a large format camera, with a heavy tripod, or maybe a SLR with ten prime lenses.

Once, this was the only way of doing Travel Photography. I admire those earlier photographers, and call them heroes because of their courage, but today we are in the digital era, and we don’t bags full of rolls of film, or large format plates. We haven’t got heavy camera bodies and tripods. However, we still have to optimize to be more productive.

In this view, zoom lenses are the way to go. They’re relatively compact, don’t take much room in your camera bag, and, best of all, with a zoom lens you’re almost always ready to take the shot you want.

You don’t have to change lenses often, therefore your camera sensor will stay clean, and you reduce the possibilities of dropping a lens breaking it before your once in a lifetime shot.

There are a lot of zoom lenses on the market, and they go from professional range ones to consumer camera kit all purpose zooms. Those plastic 28–300mm kit zoom lenses are just a piece of garbage, but they can be the most useful piece of gear you’ll want to bring during your trip. They’re light, small, and can make it in every situation because of their flexibility.

The problem lies in their slowness (small apertures) and general quality of the glass. Nontheless, they’re just perfect for family trips and vacations.

When you’re on assignment, or you need to bring out the best quality for your image–in other words, you’re shooting professionally–you’ll need professional grade zoom lenses. They’re heavy and bulky, but still more practical than prime lenses.

I’m a Nikon-guy, so I can talk only about my Nikkor dream team, but every lens maker has its correspondent dream team. For me, it is 14–24mm, 24–70mm and 70–200mm all f/2.8. Just three lenses that span all the focal lengths you’ll need in a trip.

Clearly, what lenses to take with you depends on the style of your photography. For example, if you’re a wildlife shooter, maybe you’ll need a much longer telephoto (600mm).

I use to bring a 50mm f/1.4 prime lens with me. I love this lens for its flexibility on full frame DSLR. I don’t use it much, but when it’s dark, and I want a faster lens, I grab it and keep shooting without flashguns. I love this lens so much that once I traveled to Japan with just my 50mm and camera body.

In the end, what lens to bring with you, depends first on your shooting style and specific needs, then on the flexibility of your gear. The “rule” is to bring the best quality you can afford that slows down you the less.

How many camera bodies to take on a trip?

Besides the lenses, you’ll need a camera. A DSLR or a rangefinder is a must for me, but, depending on the purpose of your trip, a point a shoot camera can be enough.

If you’re shooting professionally, especially on assignment, you have to take with you two camera bodies. That isn’t an option. If the work of other people depends on yours, you can’t come back with your hands empty because of a camera failure.

The ideal would be to have two identical camera bodies, but if it isn’t possible, two cameras with the same sensor size are preferable. Generally speaking, the second camera body is a backup, so you’ll want it to share the same lenses and accessories with your main body. Needless to say, you’ll want them to be the same brand.

Most of the time, your main camera won’t fail (although it happens more frequently than not), so you’ll find yourself with your heavy backup camera sitting in your bag, like a dead body. For this reason, you want to choose a complementary camera body as your backup.

There are cameras with better low light high ISO performances, or cameras with higher fps shooting capabilities. Choose two camera bodies that can complement each other, and you can swap depending on the situation.

You can even use them both at the same time! Just put a wide angle zoom on one and a telephoto zoom on the other, and keep them both hanging from your neck. You’ll cover most focal lengths without having to swap lenses. There are camera straps that make this two camera setup comfortable.

Speaking of travel tripods, there’s only one choice: fiber carbon tripods. When you travel you don’t want a heavy burden on your shoulders, so a light and small tripod is paramount.

Make an essential accessories checklist

Camera bodies, lenses and tripods are the three main components of your camera bag, but there is a whole bunch of essential accessories you’ll have to pack and take with you. I suggest you to make a check list of essentials you have to take with you on every trip, and have it beside you when you’re preparing your bag.

Missing some little but essential accessory is the perfect way to stop your photographic trip, particularly if you go in places where you can’t buy a replacement.

First of all, you have to check and pack your camera batteries and charger. Remember to bring at least a couple of spare batteries if not more. If you shoot hectically in the morning and have just one battery, you have to come back to your hotel to recharge it… if you can reach or reside in a hotel.

You’ll need batteries not only for your camera body, but you’ll need them for other equipment too. In your checklist insert all the gear that requires power to work and the relative chargers. Don’t forget your cellphone (or better smartphone).

If you are going to a foreign country, power outlets will be different from the outlets of your home. Remember to pack power adaptors in your camera bag.

We don’t have to bring rolls of film anymore, but it doesn’t mean we don’t need room to store our images. We need memory cards. Memory cards fail. Keeping this in mind, it’s better use multiple small capacity cards than a single huge one. If one card fails, you will not lose your entire shooting session. I use 8GB cards.

Choose high quality memory cards of well known brands. They can be expensive, but do you think you’re saving money if you spend half price for a defective card that fails when loaded with 300 images of a once in a lifetime trip?

Another trick is to swap your memory card before it is full, say 3 to 5 shots before it’s full. This is because the way your camera calculates the remaining shots available is a guessing. Image file sizes are variable, and if the camera has guessed wrongly, it can try to save on insufficient space. This may lead to memory card failures.

You need on the go backup strategies

Since memory cards fail, you’ll need a backup plan. You know you need a solid backup strategy in your studio or home, but what about on the go backups? Bringing home your hard work is crucial, as well.

There are two main accessories you’ll want to consider: portable hard disks and memory card backups. Both works, but price vary. Portable hard disks are cheap, but you need a computer to transfer the images from your memory card to them.

Memory card backups are essentially portable hard disks with a memory card reader. You simply insert your memory card in the slot, and automagically all the images will be baked up on the drive. Very practical, but these things may cost a lot.

If you travel with your laptop, go with portable hard disks, but if you need to buy a laptop for backup purposes, it can be cheaper to buy a memory card backup. Obviously, with a laptop with you, you can do a whole lot of other funny things a memory card backup won’t do. Anyone said play Diablo III?!

You still have to clean your camera

When you travel, don’t forget the camera cleaning stuff. Besides microfiber tissues (at least two: one for lenses and one for camera body), you’ll need sensor cleaning equipment.

Sensor cleaning is a delicate matter, and many camera brands ask you to have your sensor cleaned professionally. I clean my camera sensor myself, and think every pro should do it.

Not essential but useful gear

Another accessory I almost never use but always take with me is a flashgun. Using flashes depends a lot on your shooting style, and you may heavily rely on strobes for your work. There are professional photographers who travel with whole bags full of strobes and strobe accessories.

I’m 90% a natural light shooter (not available light shooter ;)), and for me, one flashgun for the occasional use is enough. I’ve been always fascinated by what you can accomplish with flashes, and you may want to learn more about how to use strobes.

Last but not least, you can take with you lens filters. Filters would require a whole article, but there is a couple of essentials every travel photographer should have with him/her.

I always bring with me a circular polarizing filter and ND filters (both graduated and not). Colored filters are going toward disuse because of the modern digital processing systems (and certainly I’m not against digital processing), but what you can accomplish with polarizing and ND filters is hard, if not impossible to obtain in post processing.

Carefully choose your camera bag

With all this stuff to take with you, you’ll need a dedicated bag to pack everything. In choosing your bag, the first characteristic you’ll want to check is it’s size. It has to be large enough to receive all your equipment, but still small enough to take it with you as carry on baggage on planes.

For me, it is mandatory to have my bag always with me wherever I go. I avoid checking-in my camera gear at airports like a bad illness. My camera bag is full of expensive equipment, and I simply don’t want it to be stolen or broken.

There are times when you have to take with you so much gear you can’t possibly have it as carry on luggage. In that case, you have to use a rigid camera suitcase, with a sturdy lock (there are specific suitcases for camera gear). This are cases when you want to double check you gear insurance–you have insurance for your gear, right?

Anyway, try to bring the most expensive elements as carry on luggage, as well. Try to have with you camera bodies, lenses and maybe tripods, and check-in equipment such as lights, lights’ stands, umbrellas and reflectors.

Speaking of bags, you can use a trolley, a backpack or a shoulder bag. I love backpacks because they’re flexible when you’re on location. You can have all your gear with you all day with your hands free.

Trolleys are advantageous when you commute, but not that practical when you’re working. You can use them to bring equipment to your destination, but then you’ll want to switch to another bag to go on in your explorations.

I still use backpacks when commuting because I usually have with me a trolley for my personal items (clothes, shaving gear, my teddybear for sleeping… ;)). Going around with two trolleys is a bit awkward, much better a trolley and a backpack.

Conclusion

In the end, there’s some gear you’ll have to take with you no matter what, but most of the choices are driven by your shooting style and the location you’re visiting. If there was a perfect gear list for travel, every photographer would use it. But, as you can see, everyone has different preferences, and you’ll perfect your list with experience.

This article concludes my travel planning series, but I’d like to continue the discussion in the comments or on social networks. What are your experiences about travel planning? What gear do you take with you? Is there essential equipment I’ve not listed in this article?

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