Travel is a subject near and dear to my heart. Years ago I abhorred the idea of traveling to other countries. Too much hassle, too much waiting around for connections, being at the mercy of other (bad!) drivers. Besides I had an entire continent to explore here at home. I was young and impatient. But now I love to travel, and it goes so well with my love for photography. I like both road-tripping here in North America and going overseas. Both are equally enjoyable in their own way.
It’s the July 4th holiday, our birthday here in the U.S. of A. It’s a time when people either camp out or stay at home celebrating with good food cooked on the outdoor grill. Fireworks are booming in my ears right now. This holiday means that summer vacation time is upon us. Travel is a part of the plans of many people this time of year. For me, autumn is my favorite time to travel, though anytime will really do.
So now is a great time to post on travel photography. This first part will focus on gear and related issues. The second part (next Friday) will focus on some of the other things I’ve learned about taking pictures while traveling. I would love if you add in the comments below any tips you have learned during your own travels.
- Keep it simple: Take as much gear to keep you covered for most (but not all) of the situations you might face. For example, if you’re visiting Paris, Istanbul or other interesting cities, make sure to take a mid-range zoom. This means something like a 24-70 mm. for a full-frame camera or 17-55 mm. for a crop-frame camera. If you are going to be traveling to a wildlife haven like Yellowstone or Africa, you will want the longest lens you can get your hands on. Keep the accessories to a minimum.
- Lenses: So once you have the mid-range covered, which is where you will take most of your photos, other lenses depend on what you will be doing. You need a wide-angle if you are planning landscapes (or tight interiors). You need a longer zoom or telephoto zoom for wildlife and some other landscapes. That is 3 lenses. But consider taking just one (or two – see below) instead. You can take a wide-range zoom (like the Canon or Nikon 18-200 mm.) to cover nearly any situation you might encounter. For the high-quality crowd, Canon makes a 28-300 mm. L-class lens, but it does not come cheap.
- Lenses II: If you will be checking out a lot of cathedrals, museums, etc., take a fast 50 mm. lens. If your mid-range is fast (f/2.8 or faster) then this might not be necessary. But if you’re taking a wide-range zoom as mentioned above, a lens that tends to be slow (smaller maximum aperture), a 50 mm. f/1.8 or f/1.4 will really pay off for not much added weight and space. This will allow you to take pictures in low-light conditions.
What do I do? I usually take four lenses: a mid-range zoom (24-105), a wide-angle zoom (16-28), a tele-zoom (70-200), and a fast 50 mm. If shooting wildlife I substitute a longer telephoto lens for either the wide angle or the 50. I also take a 1.4x tele-extender plus a screw-on close-up lens, flash, filters, tripod…oh and either an extra camera body or a point and shoot. As you can see I go fairly heavy, but I’m always planning to go lighter next time!
- Which camera? Decide how serious a photographer you are. If you’re fairly casual take a fixed-lens point and shoot camera, perhaps a super-zoom. Today’s superzooms go well past 1000 mm.! You might also consider a mirrorless camera for travel. These are sort of mid-way between a point and shoot and a DSLR in terms of quality and size. Although Panasonic and Olympus pioneered this style of camera (which like DSLRs use interchangeable lenses), the other manufacturers have since begun selling their own. These compact cameras do amazing quality for their size. They even capture great video too. They fall a bit short on handling noise, but you can mitigate that by taking pictures in good light! I take a DSLR, which is the heaviest option.
- To Tripod or not: I would take a tripod, but get a travel model that is just stable enough to handle your gear yet is compact. Lightweight is not as crucial as compactness. If you are a serious wildlife photographer or are very serious about your landscapes and low-light photography, a bigger, more solid tripod is necessary. But for great sunsets and long-exposures of waterfalls, the stars, etc., even a compact tripod will greatly improve your pictures. If you’re going to be doing mostly city and people shots, a tripod is probably not necessary.
- Camera Bag: Take a camera backpack or shoulder bag that is really comfortable. Test it out. Don’t get something you heard was great and then use it for the first time on the way to your gate. Make sure it’s the right size and usable. Don’t get something so small that it will be stuffed to the gills once it’s loaded. Best to have a little extra room; it’s easier to use that way. See below for carry-on size considerations.
- Integrating with other Luggage: You can get a camera bag with rollers, a godsend if you have heavy gear. But if your main luggage case has rollers, it could get awkward. I like to be able to handle all my bags myself without a cart. So I go with a rolling backpack for my main luggage and wear my camera pack on my back. You could do the reverse of course. I use a little sling bag for my mini-laptop, guidebook, water bottle, snacks, etc. I like having the backpack option for my main luggage in case I need to schlep everything all at once over rough ground. I can wear my main luggage on my back while the camera backpack goes on my front and the sling bag strangles me! A real beast of burden situation but it works.
- Carry-on Size: Realize that most of the time, airlines will give you the benefit of the doubt on the size of your carry-on if it doesn’t look big. (By the way, your camera gear should always always go with you as a carry-on.) Feel free, if necessary, to buy a bag right up to the limit for carry-on size. And if it’s under the limit in one dimension, it can generally be a little over in another dimension. My experience with airlines is they don’t like a big boxy carry-on. If you get a bag that is relatively slim and/or narrow, it can be several inches longer than their maximum length.
- Security: While it is rare, unfortunately your gear is vulnerable to being stolen by those who have gone to the dark side. Try your best to keep it on your person at all times. If you must leave it in your room, use either a safe (if it’s small enough) or get a Pacsafe locking net bag. These enclose your camera bag and then lock to something permanent with a padlock. You can get these steel-cored net bags in several sizes. If your room has a cabinet, put your locked camera bag in there and lock the cabinet with a small travel padlock. I’ve often left my gear secured in the office, but I always chat up and befriend (i.e. tip) the proprietors first.
- Security II: I tend to have more trust in some countries than in others, and it varies a lot within each country. I trust places with a lot of other tourists the least, since your fellow travelers are definitely potential thieves plus local thieves will target those areas. I trust Latin America much less than I trust the Buddhist countries of south Asia. (Not that I think Catholics are more prone to thievery!) In the U.S., I don’t trust cities as much as rural areas. It all comes down to common sense of course. The upshot is theft can happen whether you take precautions or not. Home-owner’s or renter’s insurance that covers your gear when traveling can be a lifesaver. I had a policy that paid me $16,000, the value of all my stuff when it was stolen in Nicaragua.
That’s it for this first part. It gets more fun when we move to actual travel in Part II next Friday. If you’re interested in any of these images just click on them for pricing options on the high-res. versions. They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission. Please contact me if you have any questions. Thanks for tuning in to Friday Foto Talk!