You’ve saved up and booked a vacation that is way longer than any you have ever taken. You are stoked. You can’t wait to go and you know you are going to take a ton of photos and definitely some videos. You are here because you have some questions about the preparation and logistics of how to best travel while being a photographer. This is not the article for professional travel photographers or those who aspire to be. This is advice from a photographer who has traveled quite a bit to a photographer or hobbyist who is setting out on a new and exciting adventure.
I’ll start by sharing a little bit about how I like to travel and what I hope to get out of my photography while I’m traveling. Like many people, I travel with my significant other. In order to keep the peace and not have her strangle me by my camera strap, we have found a balance whereby I have agreed to make sure not to; a) stop every 10 feet and take pictures, b) take 1,000 pictures of the same object, c) stay in a location waiting for the light while we are together. For her part she has agreed to not kill me when I push the boundaries on each of the above. We also try to be somewhere picturesque around sunset when possible. While I love photographing all the interesting and unique things I see on vacation, I do make sure to keep a healthy balance between experiencing the new and exciting with the capturing of it. I am a sucker for landscapes, street photography and time-lapses.
For the last two months, I have traveled around Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia and I took 2,856 pictures and just shy of 10 hours of video. To some, that may sound like a ton, but that breaks down to less than 50 pictures and 10 minutes of video per day. I made a concerted effort to only take shots of subjects that I felt absolutely deserved it. I also made sure not to take 100 minutely different shots of the same subject. I worked as thought I was using film and every shot mattered. Besides making sure my girlfriend’s rage meter never got into the red it also focused me more and made for a much more pleasant photo editing experience afterwards.
When traveling, I suggest to take the minimal gear you think is necessary with the exception of batteries and memory cards. You never want to run out of memory or have a camera that you can’t use because its batteries are dead. I will stress, as I always do, that gear alone does not make for better pictures. Improvements in all aspects of camera technology mean that even smartphones have excellent cameras. More important than the gear is the eye behind the camera and the knowledge of how to effectively use it. With that said, when travelling there are certain pieces of gear that make life simpler and some equipment that allows you to take pictures that you couldn’t take without them, such as tripods to take shots with long shutter speeds.
Below is the gear I currently take on extended trips. The accessories for me are the standouts. I absolutely love the combination of my MindShift Horizon Backpack and my Peak Design Camera Clip. They allow me to get the shot more quickly, without stopping to get my camera out or put it away. They have saved me loads of time from my previous standard photo backpack setup. Another standout accessory is the RAVPower FileHub Plus, which allowed me to offload my pictures from my SD cards to my hard drive and USB sticks as well as serving as a portable battery pack and a Wi-Fi bridge.
Camera and Lenses
I recently purchased the Sony a7rII and am thrilled with the camera. It is perfect for what I need even though the menu structure could use a reworking.
GoPro Hero 3
I’ve had this bad boy for years and it is perfect for the situations where I wouldn’t want to put my main camera in harm’s way as well as for all my water sports such as surfing and diving. Pictured below is the GoPro HERO5 which I am excited to see in action.
iPhone 5 – Every generation of iPhone has a better camera, but the iPhone 5 still takes great shots and I mainly use this when taking my main camera would be too cumbersome or intrusive, such as in bars and restaurants.
Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II
A phenomenal lens that I have adapted to my Sony camera using the Fotodiox adapter. The combination worked well 90% of the time, but I will be looking for a replacement adapter as the light leaks proved to be difficult to work around in certain circumstances.
Sony FE 55mm F/1.8
An amazing small lens that is tack sharp. This was perfect to take out when I didn’t want to lug around my Canon 24-70mm zoom.
Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 Carbon Fiber 3 Sections Tripod with Horizontal Column – This is the newer version of the tripod I have been using for the last 8 or so years. It is a workhorse and I love it, but when you have to lug this around everywhere on your back, including an incredibly difficult hike up Mt Rinjani, you will wish you had a lighter travel tripod. I will definitely be looking into the MeFOTO RoadTrip Aluminum Travel Tripod with Ball Head for my next trip. The MeFOTO is affordable and is a solid travel tripod.
Manfrontto 496rc2 compact Ball head
I also have the predecessor to this head, and it is a great tripod ball head, but I will likely be looking for a combination photo-video head that will allow me more flexibility when traveling. I have a dedicated video head, but it is way too heavy for extended traveling.
Mind Shift rotation180deg. Horizon 34L Backpack with Belt pack for DSLR Camera, Lenses, Flashes, 13″ Laptop and 10″ Tablet, Tahoe Blue
This bag was phenomenal. It allowed me to keep moving while pulling my camera out, changing lenses, and putting my camera away. Before I would have to stop, put my camera bag down, unzip the camera compartment, get my camera out and then take a shot. Then to put it away I would have to do the reverse. The magnetic attachment and rotating belt loop meant I could access my gear while on the move. This bag is an absolute dream and a superb time saver.
Peak Design CapturePRO Camera Clip with PROplate
When I was in an area that I knew I would be taking a lot of pictures over an extended period of time the Camera Clip allowed for even faster access. It is also was much more secure than a strap for hiking, allowing me to keep my hands free and not have to worry about my camera swinging around on a camera strap. A great accessory that I recommend to everyone.
Peak Design Shell Form-Fitting Rain and Dust Cover
While I only used it a few times, this is another great accessory to have on hand. I was in the Singapore botanical gardens when it started to rain fairly heavily and the Shell kept my camera accessible and dry. It also compresses down to a small size when you don’t need it so it is easy to leave in your backpack and forget about until you need it.
Tiffen Belt Style Filter Pouch, Large, 4 Filter Capacity, Fits 62mm to 82mm
While everyone agrees wearing a filter belt pouch on a vacation is sup sexy, my girlfriend didn’t think so. In any case, this came in handy when I knew I would be switching from darker environments to full sunlight such as on a hike through a forest. In my pouch are a Tiffen Graduated ND filter, a Tiffen Polarizing filter, and Step up rings to allow me to use the larger, 82mm threaded filters on my smaller 52mm threaded Sony lens.
Giottos Optical Cleaning Bundle with Rocket Air Blaster, Brush & Liquid
A must have in every camera bag is a cleaning kit.
RAVPower FileHub Plus
This device is awesome and allowed me to not have to take my laptop for the trip. Using my phone I was able to transfer all my images from my SD cards to my external hard drive as well as my USB thumb drives for a secondary backup. It also serves as a portable charger and a Wi-Fi bridge, though I didn’t use that function. Highly recommended.
Traveling awakens the soul, broadens the mind and makes one more accepting. I believe that everyone should travel. Some people harbor the misconception that you need to have tons of money saved before you can travel for an extended period of time. However, if you are able to keep to a tight budget and keep an eye out for ways to keep daily expenses down, you can definitely manage to keep the amount you spend reasonable. Picking destinations where your currency goes further is a great starting point.
The benefit of researching your destination both before you arrive and while you are there cannot be overestimated. I use a combination of Lonely Planet guides, general internet research, and Yelp and TripAdvisor depending on which has more reviews for the area I am in. This does not mean that every aspect of your trip needs to be planned, but the more information you have the better you will be able to tailor your trip to your specific desires. In regards to photography and finding great locations for photos, you can use Instagram to look for people posting in the areas you will be visiting and see what strikes your eye. You can contact the person to ask where they took their photo if the information is not available.
Also make sure to read local papers if you can read the language and ask locals for advice, but more on that further down. As an example, I would have never known there was a pancake challenge in Waikiki if I hadn’t picked up a local tourist magazine. It was amazing for the first 30 minutes, then I immediately regretted my decision. But looking back, it was a great experience and that is what travelling is about.
The pancakes were twice the size of my head and I wasn’t able to eat them all.
Get to know your environment
Many people just follow the itinerary that is laid out before them, be it from a guidebook, a friend or ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. When you do that you miss out on the rich experiences you can have when connecting with the local people and learning about your destination from the people who live there. Using local guides is a great way to get to places that many tourists may never see as well as to see things that other tourists may miss. In the picture below, we went on a nature walk with Razelan Bin Mat Shah. While the walk we went on was in the Lonely Planet guides for the location, the people who walked it without our guide almost certainly missed out on all the amazing chameleons we got to see. Lan was able to see and point out over a dozen chameleons that we would have had no chance of seeing without his trained eye. He was also super friendly and we chatted about all sorts of different topics. It was definitely an amazing day.
Razelan, an amazing guide in Tioman..
In regards to photography and the local environment, I try to be very respectful and at the very least ask permission from the people I photograph whenever possible. When possible though I try to learn a little bit about whatever struck my eye that said this would make for a great photo. The gentleman below spoke no English so I pointed to my camera and smiled and he obliged with a picture. People the world over are almost always friendly and willing to connect, you just have to be brave enough and friendly enough yourself to ask.
Make sure to put your camera down every so often. Enjoy the moment. If you are with someone on your travels, make sure to balance the time you spend photographing with the time you spend with them experiencing the trip. As Ferris Buller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.”.