Photography 101 – Packing

by John O’Connell
People who enjoy photography as a hobby will want to bring their camera along when traveling. Who would take a trip to Paris or Prague, Tel Aviv or Tulum, Singapore or Shanghai without packing their photo equipment?
Packing for a car trip to Vermont is different than for a group tour of Europe or China. That includes what photo gear you can wisely bring with you. On a car trip you can pack the two camera bodies, five lenses, flash unit, reflector, heavy tripod, have an extra half-dozen 4-packs of batteries for the flash, the laptop for photo editing and the external hard drive for backing up your shots. However, when you’re traipsing around Barcelona on a hot summer day, or just lumbering through the airport and security lines to get to where you’re going, all those pounds of gear could well turn your holiday vacation into a back-breaking slog you’ll regret.
Here are a few packing tips for a happier trip.
1. Study Your Destination
Before you travel, study up on your destination with an eye toward the kinds of images you may want to shoot. The lenses you bring for city-street shooting might be different than what you’d want on a visit to a National Park. A mountain hike presents a different photo-packing challenge than a beach vacation. So figure out what types of photography you are likely to be doing; that knowledge will inform your decisions on what to bring and what to leave at home.
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2. Think About Weight
Once you’ve scoped out your destination, think about weight. An axiom in photography is that the best camera is the one you have with you. You may love your 7 lb. Nikon D4 and your enviable top-of-the-line heavy glass, but rock climbing and weighty equipment are incompatible. There are a number of rugged, compact cameras that have all the features you need for making excellent images that weigh less than 3 lbs., some much lighter than that.
On the other hand, if your vacation will include less strenuous activity you will want your DSLR with you, and by all means take it along. DSLRs’ lens inter-changeability and their larger sensor sizes often enable higher quality images, more features and versatility, all other things being equal. And some good DSLRs are not much heavier than compacts.
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3. Choose Your Lenses
That brings us to which lenses to pack. This is a matter of opinion, of course. My view is that packing is like editing. A writer’s tendency is often to throw too much in the story (our camera bag) so that no information is left out. The editor’s job is to use his or her judgment to know what to subtract, to cut, to make the story concise and tight, leaving only the words absolutely necessary to tell the tale. If one or two words can express the same thought as ten, the editor will use the red pencil. You can bring every lens you own, but will you want to carry them all to get where you’re going and lug them around throughout the day?
I like a super zoom, an 18-200 on a crop-sensor camera or a 28-300 on full frame for travel. The one lens is wide enough for street photography, long enough for candids from afar, and all the mid-range I need for group or individual portraits of my traveling companions or people we meet. Would three prime lenses produce higher image quality? Yes, no doubt! But I can’t carry all that, and I’ll be sure to leave the one focal-length prime lens I really need in the hotel or back on the ship when I need it. So a zoom is ideal for me.
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4. Consider Lighting
In addition to my super zoom, I also bring a 24 mm 2.8 or a 50 1.8 with me for low-light situations. In a club or on a city street at night you need to gather as much light into the sensor as possible, and the convenient zooms mentioned in tip #3 won’t open wide enough, i.e., without bumping up the ISO into high noise levels. So a wide-aperture prime is a perfect, super light and small addition to the camera bag. It’s also great for portraits when you want to isolate your subject with a shallow depth of field.
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5. Don’t Forget the Flash
Photos, even in always-sunny destinations, can benefit from some fill-light to illuminate the shadows Ole’ Sol produces. Flash can provide catch lights in the eyes, which improve the family portraits you take in exotic places.
When taking group photos at night in tourist areas, when the iconic attraction is well lit but the area where your family is standing isn’t, set your unit to slow-flash. That will push light onto your group but allow all the ambient light to come in as well, keeping the attraction recognizable. Hold you’re camera very steady or brace it on something solid because your shutter will be open for a relatively long time, so avoid camera shake. If you shoot at the flash’s regular setting, the group will be well lit (maybe over-bright) but the rest of the scene will go dark. (Don’t forget to turn slow-flash off when you’re done.)
You should also bring an extra pack of batteries for your flash.
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6. Decide on a Tripod
A tripod is a valuable piece of photo equipment and can help you take better pictures, especially when you must use a slow shutter speed or have heavy, long lenses you can’t hold steady. However, unless you’re planning on night sky pictures, like shooting the Milky Way while on a mountain vacation or capturing ethereal auroras at the Arctic or Antarctic areas, my opinion is that a heavy tripod is a travel liability. If what you plan to shoot demands a tripod, then consider buying a lighter but still effectively stabilizing travel tripod and leave your sturdier, heavier one at home.
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So enjoy your trip and pack as light as you can. A camera bag that’s acceptably heavy leaving for the airport may be a burdensome nuisance hiking through the Rockies. Pack for pictures and for pleasure. For more travel photography tips, click here.