Special trips often require specialized gear. To photograph the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015, I had to pack a heavy professional tripod, 500mm super-telephoto lens, a remote release capable of functioning in extreme cold, and a custom-made solar filter. Thankfully, most trips are easier to pack for. Buy this photo
Packing is never the most fun part of a trip, and the special challenges we travel photographers face can be particularly vexing. But with a few guidelines and some common sense, we can easily bring along just what photo gear we’re likely to need and still be able to make room for some socks and underwear. Here is my very opinionated guide to how to pack for any length and type of trip.
- What type of trip are you taking?
- If it’s a driving trip directly from your home, you can bring all the gear your heart desires. Just be sure not to leave valuables in plain sight in the car when you step away for more than a moment (thieves love camera gear), and make sure you have a shoulder bag or backpack to carry just what you need for car-free excursions.
- If you’re flying (unless you have your own private jet, in which case you also need to make room for me on your next trip), you’re going to have to reduce the gear you carry to just the essentials. It is possible to customize the foam insert in a hard-sided case to hold your photography gear, and then you can check this bag in the hold of the aircraft, but this requires some effort to prepare the case for your specific gear and then you will likely find the case quite heavy to lug around for the land portion of your trip. And woe to you if your bag is misrouted, lost, or stolen. I recommend packing a carry-on item that meets your carrier’s size requirements and filling it with just the most essential gear you’ll need on your trip. More on that topic in a moment.
- For most purposes, a backpack is a good packing solution. There are many styles available for photo gear, but my favorites are these two:
- For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack. It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention. It is almost always accepted as carry-on, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling. I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.
- My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack. It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm). It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.
- What types of shooting will you be doing on the trip?
- Will wildlife or astrophotography be involved? If so, you’re going to have to strain your back, anger the airline staff, and enlist your travel partner to help, because there’s really no substitute for a long and heavy super-telephoto lens in this situation. When I’m on safari or chasing a solar eclipse, I pack my massive 500mm lens into the larger of my two backpacks and accept my fate. You’ll realize it was worth the effort when you get home and are able to share your amazing photos of a leopard in a tree or the sun’s corona on full display during a total solar eclipse.
- For most other types of trips, you won’t need to pack a really long lens. My general rule is to pack a range of zoom lenses that covers from fairly wide (about 16mm) through fairly long (about 300mm), including a couple of fast prime lenses for when the light is low and/or the very best optical quality is required.
- How much redundancy do you need on the trip?
- Always bring a backup battery (or several) and a backup battery charger. Murphy’s Rule as applied to travel photography guarantees that batteries will die just as you frame the shot of a lifetime. Bring at least one extra. And chargers are left in hotel rooms or in tented camps on the Serengeti with some regularity, and they tend to get fried when plugged into unusual power grids, so bring an extra one with you.
- Don’t forget the little things. Pack several power adapters of the type used in the countries where you’ll be traveling. These get lost easily and can be hard to replace while traveling. Bring twice as many memory cards as you think you’ll require; it’s easy to fill them up when you get to shooting a mountain gorilla or carnaval dancers. If you plan to back up to a laptop or external hard drive, bring extra connecting cables. While traveling, I back up to a second type of memory card using my camera’s second card slot, so I bring quite a few memory cards of both types with me.
- Lenses are heavy and expensive, but they sometimes stop working, so if you’re on a particularly important trip you may want to bring several lenses in overlapping focal lengths. That is, you could bring a wide-angle zoom lens and a wide-angle prime lens, plus a walkaround zoom lens and a “normal” prime lens (about 50mm for a full size sensor or about 35mm for a crop sensor), plus a telephoto zoom lens and a telephoto prime lens or two telephoto zooms with overlapping ranges.
- If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build your portfolio with very special and irreplaceable images, I recommend bringing a backup camera in addition to your primary camera. For a recent safari trip in East Africa, I brought two DSLR bodies as well as quite a few lenses so that I’d have a backup solution to any single point of failure. The more exotic your destination, the more likely that dust, wind, salt, extreme heat or cold, and heavy shocks or drops will damage your gear, so for those amazing one-of-a-kind trips I suggest biting the bullet and carrying backups for any gear that could fail.
- What accessories do you need to accompany the rest of your gear?
- Attach a UV filter to each of your lenses before you leave and keep it on to protect the front element of the lens throughout your trip.
- Carry a polarizing filter and a range of neutral density filters in the correct diameters to fit at least your wide-angle lens and your walkaround lens.
- For more on filters, read this post: Post on Filters
- A flash unit is helpful to have on most trips, unless you’re sure there will be ample natural light or you’re willing to use your camera’s built-in flash.
- A good lightweight travel tripod with a head and mounting plate that suit your needs is essential gear on many trips.
- Don’t forget any special-purpose gear that you need for just this type of trip. When I travel to see a solar eclipse, for example, I need to be sure I bring my solar filter that attaches to my super-telephoto lens. I also need to bring my heavy-duty professional tripod instead of the lightweight one I typically carry on trips.
- How will you be shooting from day to day during the trip?
- If you’ll have constant vehicle support or won’t be going far from your hotel, you may be able to make do with just the bag you brought on the plane. Or you can bring along a small shoulder bag to carry just a few items for the day’s shoot.
- Most of my trips involve considerable hiking and public transportation from day to day, so I either carry everything in my smaller backpack or bring it along in checked baggage during the flight. Then I can transfer just the gear I need for each day’s shoot into the smaller pack, which makes life easier when hiking 10 or so miles per day.
- What type of trip are you taking?
For a safari you will need a long lens to capture small or distant wildlife. I recommend bringing a beanbag for camera support instead of a tripod, as the latter cannot be used in a safari vehicle. Be sure to bring an extra camera and lenses, and carry more batteries and memory cards than you think you’ll need. Buy this photo
Of course, if you use a mirrorless camera with only a couple of compact lenses or an advanced point-and-shoot camera, you do not have to worry about many of these items, but still be sure to review the list above to ensure you bring all required accessories.
With an overall strategy tailored to your itinerary and shooting style, and careful attention to execution to ensure you don’t forget anything, it’s really not that difficult to pack just what gear you’ll need in a way that will allow you to enjoy your trip when you’re not shooting. After all, travel is about gaining experiences, and not all of those experiences can or should be photographed. Pack for your photography, but also for your overall travel enjoyment.
What are your hacks for packing your photo gear for a trip? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments box here.