Photography goes hand in hand with traveling, but some interesting problems can crop up for those of us living out of our backpacks for months or years at a time. Unlike short-term travelers, we need our whole lives to fit in 1-2 bags that can go with us anywhere. Choosing what to bring and how to pack can be challenging, even without a whole lot of photography gear on top of things. So here are some tips to get you started. Once you’ve traveled for a while with your gear, you’ll probably also have some tips to share.
Before You Go
If you’re new to backpacking or photography, you’ll need to ask to ask yourself a few questions before deciding on what to bring with you: What do you want to use your photography for? Is it primarily a way to share your adventures with your friends or are you looking for a wider audience? Are you the kind of person who likes to “point and shoot” or are do you get up before dawn to catch the light, set up your tripod, and look to catch those elusive portfolio shots? Is your itinerary based on what you want to photograph? The answers to these questions will inform both what you pack and how you plan your trip. Let’s start with the basics.
While travel photography is essentially not about the gear, you’re still going to have to decide on what to bring with you. Obviously, the smaller and lighter, the better.
If you’re an informal photographer and are most interested in the “point and shoot” method, your best bet will be to get a high quality compact camera. These are small enough to fit in a pocket or a purse and can turn out some excellent photos. Go for ones that have a strong optical zoom (ignore the digital zoom), a wide aperture, and can shoot in Raw. There are, of course, some great smartphone cameras out now, but these will never be able to get the low-light capacities or optical zoom of a dedicated camera.
For more serious photographers, your best bet will be a mirrorless camera. These are somewhat smaller than DSLRs and, depending on the camera/lens you buy, offer just about the same image quality. If you have the funds, you can even buy a full frame mirrorless. (Full frame will give you the best image quality.) The downside to mirrorless cameras is that the LCD screen takes a lot of battery juice, so you’ll need to pack a number of extra batteries. Also, be aware that with whatever system you buy– Fuji, Sony, etc.—you’ll be pretty much locked into that system, as once you invest in lenses it’ll be a hassle to change to a different system. (This is true of DSLRs as well.)
As far as lenses are concerned, you really need to get a feel for what kind of photography you like to do best. A wide-angle lens is always helpful, but beyond that you’ll need to decide between prime lenses and zooms. A simple starter kit will generally have a smaller zoom (20-75mm or so) and a longer zoom lens (75mm-150mm or so). Zoom lenses will give you more options when you’re standing in one place, but are heavier than prime lenses and not as sharp. With prime lenses you get superior image quality and a smaller size, but they’re not as versatile as zoom lenses (you’ll have to use your feet to “zoom”). A combination of a wide-angle zoom, a 50mm or 85mm prime (great for portraits and detail shots), and one longer zoom will cover just about all the bases.
Choosing the right camera is just the beginning—there are plenty of other things you’ll need to keep your photography going on the road.
It’s important to have at 1-3 extra charged batteries with you at any given time (esp. if you shoot with a mirrorless camera).
Smartphone photographers, obviously, won’t need these, but those using dedicated cameras definitely will. How many of these you’ll need to bring depends on how you store your photos and how soon they get transferred. While many serious photographers bring plenty and back their work up in triplicate, having just 2-3 high-capacity cards will work for most folks. I usually get around to transferring my images to my laptop within a week of taking them.
What filters you bring will depend on what type of photography you’re doing. It’s always helpful to have a polarizing filter on your main lens. If you’re into landscape photography, having a 10-stop ND filter can make all the difference.
While there are plenty of ways to stabilize your camera without a tripod, none of them will reliably give you the flexibility and stability you need to do low-light, HDR, or timelapse photography. There are many lightweight travel tripods on the market these days. Most of them breakdown pretty small. If you want something that will fit easily into your pack, consider the something along the lines of a Gorillapod.
Camera Rain Jacket
While you can get by using a plastic bag or holding an umbrella, it really is nice to have a rain jacket made especially for cameras. Jackets like the Vortex Storm Jacket are inexpensive, take up next to no room in the pack, and are designed to be used in the rain.
You’ll need this for any long-exposure work you do.
Laptop + Editing Software
Unless you’re purely a smartphone photographer, you’ll need a laptop to edit your photos. Some people get by with a tablet with Adobe Lightroom Mobile loaded onto it, but if you’re not into the subscription thing and/or you already travel with a laptop, then there are plenty of other options out there. Some are free like RawTherapee. Others, like Luminar, are made specifically with travel and landscape photography in mind. Whichever you choose, take the time to learn how to at least do the basics.
One or Two Bags?
This is a huge question for many travel backpackers. Some of us really can’t stand wearing a smaller backpack on our chest or carrying something extra in our hands. If you’re one of these, you’ll need to be extra vigilant on the size and weight of your gear (esp. if you only travel carry-on). For the rest of us, having a smaller daypack will make all the difference—it allows us to drop the rucksack in a hostel while we go on day trips, keeps our essentials handy, and gives us the added room we need for our electronics. Daypacks like the Everyday Backpack are designed specifically with travelers in mind—there’s plenty of space for your camera gear, laptop, maps, notebooks, water bottles, etc., all while being small enough to fit under the seat of a plane.
In the end, the more experience you get traveling and taking photos, the more you’ll learn just exactly what works for you. This article, though, should get you started.