Up for Discussion: Travel Photography
As many of you know I have a trip planned next year to go to the United States. I will be visiting Laura Macky on the west coast and then over to New York for a week. I am really excited about this trip, but I don’t know what gear to take, how to take it, etc, so I was talking online with Robin one day, and I know he does a fair bit of this, so I asked if he would write something for us on how to go about getting your camera gear ready for a trip. Robin, has written for me before, well part of a post, and he also has his own blog, photographybykent.
What to take? What to leave behind? Unless you are attending an instructor-led workshop and have been given a list of what to bring, these two questions can drive a photographer nuts when preparing for a new and unfamiliar location.
This essay is the result of a very kind invitation from Leanne Cole to contribute a discussion topic for her blog. I was excited about the opportunity because I have been a fan of her work since I first discovered her blog. After a few exchanges about possible topics, she suggested travel photography, specifically the issue of deciding what equipment to take. That was perfect since I am wrestling with this very issue as I prepare for a journey to Antarctica in January next year.
I should introduce this piece by saying that anyone looking for a list of the top 10 essential items to carry on your next photo journey will not find it here. There are too many variables at play. Instead, I hope to suggest some ways to help fellow shooters define their own lists.
My own routine for deciding what to take has worked pretty well, but the prospect of writing this article motivated me to investigate how others handle this situation. An Internet search usually produces “The List” and, as one might suspect, there is wide variety in the lists of gear one must carry. For example, in looking at photographers who had been to Antarctica, one fellow said: “two camera bodies, each attached to a lens, polarizing filter, and no tripod.” The other said (basically): “Bring everything. It’s the trip of a lifetime.” And his list looked like he was opening a camera store.
So back to the drawing board. In looking at my own approach and that of two photographer friends, I realized that our process was the same, but typically produced different results, depending on where we were going, how we were traveling, and what we wanted to photograph when we arrived. This is probably the same process every photographer follows in some way or another, although the degree of effort may vary. Putting this into a more formal set of guidelines, one could say that there are three important questions that one needs to address before leaving on a major photographic journey:
- What are your photographic objectives for the trip?
- What are the weight/volume restrictions associated with this trip?
- What are the on-site conditions that can affect your success?
I don’t want to get all philosophical here, but the first question deals with hope, while the other two deal with reality. Reality is usually addressed by identifying the problems for which you must find a solution. If you are successful in addressing the problems, you have a better chance of realizing your hopes.
For example, the question of one camera body or two. If one is traveling to New York City a single camera body can be OK because almost anything can be rented there should disaster strike. This is not the case, however, in a remote location such as Antarctica.
Some might be tempted to say here that since each photographer knows their personal answer to the first question we should get right down to the nuts and bolts of what to bring. Not so fast. You may think you know, but if you’ve never been to this place, how do you know what might be there waiting for your magic touch?
In the old days, people would read travel books published by Fodor’s and the like to find out where to go and what to do. Today we read blogs, search Flickr and 500x for images of the general area, and pull out back issues of “Outdoor Photographer.” And let’s be clear about this. We’re not looking to duplicate the images created by others, we are gathering information about specific locations.
This, of course, is not necessary if you are gifted with incredible luck 24/7. But for most of us, educating ourselves about the destination increases the chances of coming back with some special images.
As your plans form, you should also be identifying potential obstacles. Chief among these are weight restrictions and to a lesser extent, constraints on equipment size such as a tripod. First, assess your strength and endurance compared to the physical requirements of the trip. Will you be on a “lung-buster” climb at 10,500 feet? Or just a short walk from a parking lot? And be aware that cities like New York City, Paris, and Washington may be at sea level and flat, but the miles can pile up quickly as you lug all that stuff from one shooting location to another. Know your abilities, both physical and photographic. One photographer told me: “The farther I have to walk, the less I carry. My minimum load is one camera, one lens, and a polarizing filter; no other gear, not even a camera bag.” Yet she comes back with amazing images.
A more obvious hurdle is the airline segment of the journey. Know the luggage rules before you leave. Items that are expensive, fragile, and essential should be taken as carry-on luggage. You can place less important items in checked baggage and in some cases you may want to consider advance shipping.
Be sure to consider all aspects of getting around while on location. For example, safari expeditions usually involve a vehicle that has room for your gear, but a raft going down the Colorado River is another matter entirely (a dry bag is needed here).
Another way to come at this problem is to review the recent history of your actual shooting practices rather than what you typically pack. For example, one photographer pointed out that while he has several camera bodies and about a dozen lenses, in actual practice he uses the same body and two lenses 90 percent of the time. And of those two lenses, one accounts for 60 percent. “I’m not sure I could live without a tripod,” he said, “but I could do all right with a single body, that one lens, a polarizing filter, and a tripod.”
Finally, one should always ask fellow photographers what they take when going to your destination and why they take it. To that end, I hope readers will weigh in with their thoughts. I’d especially love to hear any suggestions about Antarctica and I believe Leanne is planning to visit New York City next year so ideas about the Big Apple also would be appreciated.
I hope you will join me in thanking Robin for this wonderful post. Don’t forget to go to Robin’s blog, photographybykent, I believe his planning a companion post soon, so keep a look out for it. Thanks Robin. He has some more images for you now.