If you have a passion for photography like I do, then you can hardly leave for a trip without your full camera gear. Travel and photography go hand in hand because new places and people tickle a photographer’s creativity, there are a lot more occasions for great shots and it’s a human desire to bring back home something more than memories. However, being that passionate also means that you long ago substituted that handy compact camera with a full-fledged D-SLR (digital single lens reflex) which is not the most comfortable gear to carry around, especially if adventure-traveling or backpacking. This post shares a few tips and lessons learned on traveling with a D-SLR from my trips and adventures.
As usual, everything starts from preparing and packing the right gear. Standard gear for travel photography includes the following:
- camera body
- lenses and filters
- memory cards
- battery packs and battery charger
- lens cleaning kit, tripod or monopod
- plastic bags
- photo bag or backpack
I try to stay as light as possible and carefully select lenses to carry on each trip. In general, I settled on a couple of zooms covering the 25-300 mm range at F2.8: however the lower part of the range is the one I use the most (up to 100 mm) and sometimes I miss a shorter wide angle, so think about extending below 25 mm. The latest all-in-one zooms obviously fit the job although trading off quality. Also, I always mount plain UV filters on all lenses (for protection) and never leave home a polarizer.
Regarding memory, I prefer to carry several smaller cards to reduce risks from failure and buy only the ones that work at wider ranges of temperature and humidity. Overall storage capacity should at least allow me to shoot an average of 40 shots a day in RAW format. Waterproof card pouches are useful as are portable hard-disks to backup cards from time to time.
For power, I invested in a full set of battery packs in order to be able to last for three weeks without an outlet. However, even in the remotest places, I never had to wait more than two weeks for recharging. Latest lithium battery packs last on average a full week if you adopt a power-saving approach so at a minimum you have to carry two packs. A compact battery charger with the proper plug adapter is also needed (to make mine even more compact I substituted the power cord with a custom 10 cm cord).
The lens cleaning kit is also crucial since adventure travel is dirty and messy. Microfiber cloth, good-quality lens cleaning liquid and a powerful blower are absolutely needed. The blower is particularly important since most of the time you travel in dusty areas (e.g. deserts, canyons) and your sensor will get dirty in no time: that’s when the blower becomes indispensable. Latest cameras have internal dust-removal systems but until I’ve tested them thoroughly I’ll be relying on the blower in the field.
In most of my trips, I never carry traditional tripods or monopods since they are too heavy and bulky. Instead, I’ve gone for a small 12 cm long fixed tripod which I use to steady the camera against walls, rails, vehicles, etc. A bean-bag (filled with rice or beans from a local market) can also be useful.
I always carry my entire photo gear on the plane in my hand bag (I consider it part of my “indispensable” luggage) and, when arrived, repack splitting it between my “daily” backpack or bag and the rest of the luggage (usually a larger backpack). The cleaning kit should always be at hand as should batteries, memory cards and filters.
The most critical part in the field is keeping your gear protected: mainly from dust and shocks, but also from water, high temperatures and obviously theft. I always seal each item of my gear in plastic bags (the ones used to store food in the fridge are perfect). Also, I make sure bags and backpacks provide shock protection, insulation from high temperatures and are reasonably waterproof (i.e. at least withstanding light rain). In case the trip involves traveling along waterways, lakes or the sea I also bring a waterproof bag big enough to store all the gear. To prevent theft, I never leave my gear alone except in reliable hostels (this can be annoying at times), pay special attention when visiting markets and other crowded places and choose bags with a minimal number of external pockets and zippers.
In the field, I try as much as possible to save power by turning off all unnecessary functions on the camera (in particular LCD review and continuous autofocus) as well as keeping the camera on only when shooting. Nevertheless, I always review my shots at the end of the day to make sure I properly captured subjects I’m interested in and to catch rightaway any wrong setting or shooting tecnique in order not to continue making the same mistakes during the remaining part of the trip.
To conclude, a few hints on shooting. Always have your camera and yourself ready to shoot: this requires experience in extracting the camera from the bag, having the right settings already prepared for the shot (e.g. speed priority when on a vehicle, high ISO settings when in low light conditions) and paying constant attention to what is happening around you. If all this seems too complex and tiring (after all you are on vacation!), don’t worry since after a while these behaviours will become natural. Secondly, photographing locals is probably the most difficult yet rewarding experience. Be very discreet, always ask if you can take a picture and never (never!) take it if permission is refused. The more you get in touch with the people you want to photograph, the more easily you will get permission to take the shot and the more you will capture spontaneous expressions. Also, after taking the picture, consider sharing the shot with the person you photographed: it gets them involved (especially kids!), most of the time guarantees permission for more shots and somewhat returns the favor. Finally, before leaving for the trip review shots on the country you are visiting from famous and skilled photographers to get inspiration and start thinking about the subjects you can’t miss… then on the field get creative and try a variety of different shots.
Published in April 2009.
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