As I have grown older I have embraced “the less is more” approach to gear for travel photography. And my pictures seem better for it.
For places where you won’t be traveling by car and have to haul your own gear, you may want to consider a “less is more” philosophy. If you have specialized photo interests, on the other hand, taking some extra gear may be necessary.
This year I went to Mexico for two months. I traveled mainly by bus, and did a lot of walking once at a destination. I took a newer dSLR, 17-70mm and 70-300mm stabilized zoom lenses, an extension tube, a three-pound tripod, and a compact camera for backup. That’s all. And next time I’m leaving the tripod behind.
I only took two lenses this year: a 15-85 zoom and a 70-300 zoom. Having a stabilized lens is a big advantage in photographing inside markets, museums, and cathedrals.
Is a tripod still necessary?
I was able to meet almost all the photo situations I encountered—from surfers on the big waves at the Mexican pipeline to the Conchero dancers starting a spring celebration in the town square at dawn. Last year I also took an 18-200mm stabilized lens for street photography. It was extremely convenient but not quite sharp enough for my taste, so this year I left it behind.
The combination of high ISOs and stabilized lenses gave me image quality nearly as good as what I would get with a tripod in most situations, including some pretty dark cathedrals. The newer dSLRs, with improved low-light sensitivity and resulting image quality, combined with stabilized lenses, have greatly simplified the equipment you need for travel photography. If you travel a lot, and don’t have either of these, you’re missing out on a lot of good photos.
A pickpocket-unfriendly bag
My gear fit into a mid-sized fanny pack, which also held a bottle of water. Not only could I walk almost anywhere without being weighed down, when I traveled—bus, plane, or taxi—I could hold onto it and not worry about it being stolen from a luggage storage area. And because my “camera case” was a fanny pack with a water bottle, it was less tempting to thieves than a fancy looking camera bag that seemed to shout it was valuable. A small backpack may work even better than a fanny pack because it lets you carry extra supplies, including clothes for a change of weather or an overnight trip. But with a fanny pack you can swing it around front to your stomach so it is constantly visible and out of the reach of fast-fingered Freddies.
A large fanny pack easily held my equipment while not looking valuable.
What else might you need? The extremely quality conscious shooters may want to bring along their sharpest single-focal length lens—either a wide-angle or a macro—for those exceptional scenes that you might blow up into poster-sized prints. Consider a second dSLR body if you aren’t comfortable with a compact camera as a backup. You could take a small accessory flash, but I bet you won’t use it very often.
Memory cards and other photo accessories
How much memory do you need? Let’s play it safe, and say take twice as much as you think you’ll need. Your camera’s resolution, the length of trip, and your shooting habits all play a role in this decision. I’d say take a minimum of 15-20 gigabytes worth of memory cards. Try to use medium-size, 2-4 GB cards, so your pictures are spread across several cards. That way if you lose a card, you won’t lose all your pictures. If you shoot movies with your camera, then you need to increase your storage capacity accordingly.
What other photo accessories should you take? For sure, bring along two or three extra batteries, your charger, and a voltage converter if needed. You don’t need a voltage converter in Mexico. Also, pack a small cleaning kit, a polarizing filter, possibly a small reflector if you are a portrait shooter. Some Ziploc bags (two medium and one large) for moisture protection. For note taking bring a pencil and a small notebook or a recorder (many mp3 players have a record function).
Be sure to take plenty of memory cards, especially if you shoot movies.
You have several options for backing up your images: a laptop/netbook, a portable storage unit, USB flash drives (or extra memory cards), or even online storage. Adhering to the keep-it-simple philosophy, I now leave my laptop at home and bring along a couple of 16 GB flash drives for backup. I either borrow a new-found friend’s laptop or go to an Internet café or photo store and transfer the images there (where you could also have files transferred to a DVD.) Bringing a portable hard drive backup device such as the Digital Foci Photo Safe makes a lot of sense for those who truly want to secure their images daily. If you go to the trouble of taking a laptop, you might as well do another backup to flash drives or DVDs for that extra security.
Packing list for general picture taking