No matter how hard we plan and structure our trips, we seem to need everything with us when we go. If we are photographing close-ups of flowers, a moose walks by. We’ve learned to bring it all with us when we go. Once we get to a site, we can leave some equipment in the car or the hotel and refine our selection. Then it never fails that what we really need when that moose shows up is in the car 5 miles back.
Plan to take equipment with you that you really anticipate using, and then be ready with a few pieces to cover the rest of the possibilities. Prowling through caves, you know a flash is required. The harder choices are the lenses and accessories you need. Zoom lenses make what once was a challenge easy, as one lens can cover a wide range of perspectives. We call Canon’s 35 – 350mm lens the "kitchen sink" as it does just about everything in one lens. We break our zooms into smaller focal lengths to reduce weight and size.
If your digital camera uses a separate flash or other parts, make sure you create an inventory list to remind you of what you need to take with you when you go. And don’t forget those batteries and recharging units. Consider adding a auto 12 volt battery charger that fits right into the lighter socket of your vehicle to keep everything charged while on the road.
- Wide Angle Zoom
- Wide angle zoom lenses come in a variety of sizes, and our favorite is the 17-35mm. Some cross the bridge between wide angle and longer with 24 – 85mm and 28 – 105mm and so on. These lenses give you the ability to do scenics and then quickly move in closer for portrait images.
- Mid-range Zooms
- A zoom lens which covers the middle of the range is a versatile addition to your camera bag. These start at or near the wide angle range and move towards 300mm. They allow you to stand in one place and go from an overall scenic to close up and personal with ease. For the traveler, a single lens can cover a wide range of photographic possibilities.
- Long Zooms
- While most wildlife and bird photographers stick to a fixed length 500 or 600mm, modern technology has brought some exceptionally well-made zoom lenses into the longer focal length range. The long zooms begin around 100mm and run toward 400mm. Longer zoom lenses offer slower f-stops and long minimum focusing ranges, but they bring what is far away up close. Combined with one wide or mid-range zoom, two lenses may be all you need.
- Teleconverters and Extension Tubes
- The addition of a teleconverter to your zoom lens instantly increases the length of the lens. While it also slows down the shutter speed, a 2X teleconverter can make a 28-135mm f3.5 lens into a 56-270mm. An extension tube are glassless tube that fits between the lens and the camera body. By pushing the lens further from the film plane it allows the lens to focus closer, resulting in great magnification. Either or both of these can be an easy solution for the traveler short on space and weight.
- Light It
- Many new cameras come with built-in flash units, reducing what you need to carry. If you need to carry a flash, consider how you will use it and how much flash power you need. If you will be doing macro photography, consider carrying a small flash to save space and weight, since you don’t need the high power of a long distance flash.
- Many travelers consider the tripod the first thing to leave behind. We consider it a must-have. They are big, awkward and heavy. But they are worth bringing in order to get quality images. Choose a tripod that will adequately support the longest lens you are bringing and will work within the environment you will be exploring.
- Cameras come with so many different kinds of batteries, it’s hard to keep track. So does all the other electronic accessories photographers need like flashes and flashlights. Make sure you have plenty of the right kinds of batteries. Winter cold sucks the energy right out of them quickly, so keep them tucked inside a warm place.
Specialized and Essential Equipment
There are a few other items we feel are essential for the traveling photographer. These items are a reflection of individual photographic interests.
- Filters: 81B, Graduated Neutral Density, Polarizer
- We carry few filters, but those we bring are critical for nature photography.
- Stepping rings
- To save space on filters, we buy filters for the largest lens filter size and then use stepping rings to fit the filters to the other lenses.
- Created by LL Rue, the Groofwin is a unique tripod support which fits on the ground, vehicle roof, or neatly over the car window, providing a versatile platform to work from.
- Bean bags
- Whether commercially or home-made, we use bean bags and towels for shooting out car windows or on the ground when we need freedom of movement that a tripod restricts.
- Macro focusing rail
- These can be hard to find, but if you are serious about close-up/macro photography, they are essential for precision focusing. They fit between the camera and the tripod head allowing sensitive adjustments of the focus.
- Bogen Superclamp
- When working in close-to-the-ground situations, the Superclamp will fit on a tripod leg or tree branch, allowing us to get into unusual situations and still have a steady camera.
- Gold and silver reflectors
- For close-up work, we are often working in dark and low light situations. Reflectors bounce light onto a subject filling in shadows with a fold or silver glow. We like the collapsible ones by Photoflex.
- Diffusion cloth
- Also useful for close-up photography, commercial or home-made diffusion cloths can really soften the harsh light of midday. Two to three meters of ripstop nylon works great for creating an "overcast day" on small subjects.
What Camera Equipment to Take With You?
You do have the option of taking it all with you when you go, but honestly, that’s a lot of stuff when you add to it all the little things you carry normally in your camera bag: spare batteries, filter wrenches, reflectors, small screwdrivers, film, digital media, filter brushes, lens wipes, etc. It all adds up. So how do you decide what to take with you when you are taking your camera on the road?
We first seriously examine our goals on the trip. What do we want to accomplish photographically? Are we going for wildlife and birds which require long lenses, or are we playing tourist and needing shorter, wide angle lenses? Then we look at the weight. How MUCH do we really want, or need, to carry with us. Then we sort through the gear and set aside the things that we really think we need.
Top of the list to include in our camera equipment packing list are the camera pieces we can’t live without. The camera body and favorite lenses are musts. Brent adores his 17-35mm wide angle and won’t go anywhere without it, no matter what the subject matter or location. He uses it all the time. It has to go. I personally debate between the shorter and longer zooms, and end up taking both so the range is covered for all the different subjects I photograph.
Then the pruning and compromising begins.
We examine each item and mentally list the uses for the item. We also consider how it can have multiple uses. For us, we hate carrying only one thing that does only one thing. We like to carry one thing that does forty things. For example, we can carry the very heavy and huge 500mm lens, or we can take the 300mm with the 1.4x and 2x converter and get up to 600mm. Sure, it’s a slower shutter speed, but this is where the compromise comes in. The three pieces still weight much less than half of the weight of the 500mm, so are we willing to give up weight and shutter speed in order to take it with us when we go?
Our 70-300mm zoom is wonderful for travel photography when lenses on the long end are needed. We can get an overall shot and then zoom in on the details, all with one lens. But when it comes to precise bird photography, honestly, the 300mm, with or without the converters, isn’t good enough. At 300mm, the largest aperture we can get is 5.6. In the low light of morning and evening when many birds are at their best, this just doesn’t get us the speed we need. At a 1.4x teleconverter and the aperture goes up to 8, giving us more length at 420 but even less speed. If birds are our goal, this lens stays in the bag or at home and the 500mm comes with us.
Speciality lenses are the hardest to choose when traveling. If we know we will have a specific use for the tilt-shift lens, like photographing the wildflowers of Texas, that lens will be in our bags. If we are exploring Prague or Budapest, the last lens we really need is a tilt-shift lens. Sometimes the choice is easy, but other times it is harder, like deciding to take your macro lenses. Among the wildflowers you are guaranteed a chance to use it for closeup photography. But also in Prague or Budapest, you may find that unique opportunity to photography a closeup of some of the handmade crafts, a spider or interesting bug, or some characteristic or subject that screams out for closeup photography. We debate about these lenses all the time.
After we’ve pulled out the equipment we absolutely have to have, and make the compromises over the rest of the cmaera and lenses, we have to make decisions over the rest of the equipment. Reflectors are best used in natural lighting situations to enhance natural subjects. Especially small subjects. If you will be doing patterns, closeups, and small still subjects, include your reflectors. If you will be photographing birds, people, buildings, and wild animals, leave the reflectors at home.
Choosing to keep or leave the flash is more difficult. If you know you will be in low light situations, then the flash is a must. Cameras with built-in flashes make the decision easier, too. We have several different flashes for different situations, so we have to decide which flash(es) we will need for the location and subjects we want to photograph. Since we usually work mostly without flash, we’ve been known to leave the flashes behind, but we still debate and consider all the pros and cons before deciding.
Some photographers have different tripods for the different conditions and equipment they have. We have three tripods. One tripod is only for the 500mm lens as it is the heaviest and has the best support. If we don’t take the 500mm, this tripod stays behind. One is a monopod. If we will be photographing in the cities, moving quickly, and in medium to fast light, we will take this along, otherwise, it stays behind. The last tripod is our best friend and it goes with us most of the time. It is a light to medium weight Bogen and does what we need it to do.
The tripod is one of the places where we make a significant compromise. Because of the new weight restrictions for travelers, we have had to cut down on what we can take with us, and we decided to use one tripod between the two of us instead of taking two tripods. This is a huge weight and bulk reduction. It means waiting until the other person is through, but it works for us after over 12 years of photographing side by side.
Once you have the basic core items you absolutely have to have, you can go through your camera bag and determine which of the rest of the small items are worth hauling around. We tend to leave most of the filters behind except for the graduated neutral density, and only bring a small screwdriver and lens cleaning cloth, leaving most of the odds and ends behind.
The rest is up to you and your own photographic needs and weight issues. Make sure you have a sturdy and well padded camera bag and you are ready to go!