Here’s a quick list of the gear I use most actively. A more detailed discussion follows the list.
- Cameras: 2 Nikon D810 bodies
- Lenses: Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5, Nikon 16-35mm f/4, Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR, Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3, Nikon 50mm f/1.4G, Nikon 85mm f/1.8G, Nikon 24mm f/1.8G
- Lighting: Nikon SB-910 speedlight
- Tripods: Manfrotto Be Free Lightweight Travel Tripod, SLIK 615-315 Professional Tripod, Manfrotto 681B Professional Monopod
- Accessories: Hoya UV, circular polarizer, and neutral density filters; RFN-4s Wireless Remote Shutter Release
- Smartphones: Apple iPhone 6S
- Bags: Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack, Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack, Lowepro Stealth Reporter D300 AW Camera Bag
- Software: Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop Elements, other specialized software as needed
One of the biggest challenges we face as travel photographers is what gear to carry with us. On the one hand, we have to be ready for anything. It’s quite possible we will have to shoot landscapes, wildlife, portraits, architecture, indoor performances, and night scenes, often all on the same day. On the other hand, there’s a practical limit to how much we can carry without being turned away by airline personnel or damaging our bodies. And who really wants to travel with 75 pounds of photo kit?
Here is my basic setup for travel. Note that my gear is suitable for a professional or enthusiast photographer on a not-unlimited budget (my wife keeps me from getting carried away). There are less expensive alternatives for most of the gear I carry, and those on unlimited budgets can spend much, much more than this. I will adjust what I bring depending on the specifics of the trip. For a safari in East Africa, that 500mm lens is essential, but I wouldn’t want to lug it on a hiking trip in Ireland. On a trip to view a total solar eclipse, I’ll need that rock solid but very heavy professional tripod, but on most trips my lightweight travel tripod is good enough, thank you. But the following list of items comprises the core of my basic travel gear.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to your choice of camera. These days, even a simple point-and-shoot camera or a smartphone camera is capable of making very good images. But if you’re willing to carry a bit more weight and to learn how to use it before you take it on your first trip, a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera or a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera will give you much more flexibility. I use a DSLR, but more and more of my photographer friends are switching over to mirrorless cameras. It’s really a matter of personal choice, and if you’re not planning to carry a lot of specialized (and heavy) lenses with you, the smaller size and lighter weight of a mirrorless camera may make up for the loss of certain features. For photo-intensive trips where it would be impossible to replace a lost or broken camera, such as an African safari, I pack two identical DSLR camera bodies, but on less exotic trips I sometimes take a chance and bring just one. Whatever camera you take on your trip, make sure you know how to use all its features and have tested it thoroughly before you leave, and if you’ve been using it for a while, have it cleaned in advance of your departure. Note that while I am a Nikon shooter, comparable gear is available from Canon for DSLR afficianadoes. In the high-end mirrorless arena, Sony’s Alpha a7R II is favored by many professionals and enthusiasts.
My go-to camera is the Nikon D810. This is a professional model and not for beginners, but it really does do it all. The resolution is extraordinary, it performs superbly in very low-light situations, the autofocus is fast and flexible, its continuous burst shooting speed is good enough, and I love the feel of the camera in my hands and the control it offers over all settings quickly. I’ve put this baby through hell and high water, but it always comes through for me. I own two identical D810 bodies and bring both on most trips and to many local shoots, as well.
For beginning users of interchangeable lens cameras, or for seasoned photographers who need to travel light, a small and lightweight “walkaround lens” may be all that you need to bring for a day’s shooting. Mine is the Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 lens. It’s a good value for a well-built if not quite professional grade lens, and while not particularly fast, it does offer vibration reduction which allows you to shoot at slower shutter speeds while controlling for camera shake. I recommend this lens for users of cameras with full-frame sensors who want a small, light, and fairly durable lens for those situations when you want to be ready for most anything.
It’s a good idea to have a wide-angle zoom lens for landscapes, architecture, and other situations where you need to include a lot of area in the frame or want a more uncluttered or exaggerated perspective. I use the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens for this purpose. It’s got great image quality and is well built, but it is rather heavy and bulky.
A telephoto zoom lens is a must-have for most travel photographers, as it allows you to shoot many wildlife subjects as well as emphasize details in all subjects you encounter. A longer lens also can be used to provide a compressed perspective that makes far-away subjects appear to be closer to foreground subjects; this perspective can be very powerful in landscape images. My primary tele zoom is the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens. While this lens is built on aging technology and doesn’t always feel as solid as more professional lenses, it is relatively small and lightweight, fairly inexpensive, and provides a very effective vibration reduction function. This lens has been a staple in my bag for many years, during which time I’ve used it to capture many of my favorite images.
You may never need a super-telephoto lens. They tend to be expensive, bulky, and heavy, and on many trips you won’t need it. But for those trips when you expect to encounter lots of wildlife or want to capture astronomical events like an eclipse or transit of a planet, a very long lens is essential. Mine is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens. It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture. You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.
So far, we’ve talked about zoom lenses. It’s also a good idea to carry a few prime (fixed focal length) lenses. These tend to be faster, higher quality, and less expensive than zoom lenses in the same category. The downside, of course, is that you have to “zoom with your feet,” that is, find a vantage point that works to compose your image without benefit of changing the lens’ focal length.
If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera. I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens. This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.
I think my current favorite lens of all is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens. This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being. I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days. But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length. It renders really lovely “bokeh”, or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.
A wide angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astrophotography, among other purposes. I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.
Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases that can be good enough to provide some fill-in lighting for backlit subjects or even to serve as a main light in very dark situations. But for more flexible control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you will likely want to have a separate flash unit. I use the Nikon SB-910, which is powerful and flexible enough for most settings. It has been discontinued and replaced by the Nikon SB-5000, but the older model is often still available.
Whatever flash you use, it is best to attach a diffuser of some sort to soften the otherwise very harsh light of the flash. And use a cable or a wireless trigger so that you can get your flash unit off the camera’s hot shoe; doing so allows you much more creative control over the lighting of your subject and also avoids the “red eye” effect in most cases. I also keep my camera set to lower the flash output by 1 stop, and I only override this setting occasionally. Flash is often best when used sparingly.
For most travel situations, you’ll want a lightweight tripod that folds up to a nice portable size but still offers enough stability for most uses. There are times, though, when I need to bring along my heavy and bulky professional tripod. Whatever tripod you choose, be sure to fit it with a good quality head (ball heads provide a lot of flexibility and ease of use for travelers) and remember to take along the plate that attaches the tripod to your camera, if required.
My go-to lightweight travel tripod is the Manfrotto Be Free. It folds up to an incredibly small size yet affords a surprising amount of stability. The included ball head works well but is difficult to adjust for sensitivity. This tripod is designed to fit into a special pouch in my favorite travel photography backpack, also made by Manfrotto.
The SLIK 615-315 is a great tripod for use close to home or on trips where you will have constant vehicle support. It’s very solid, supports a tremendous amount of weight, and can be adjusted for nearly any shooting situation. I recommend you fit it with a good ball head for maximum flexibility.
A monopod can be a real problem solver when you need more stability than handholding or resting your camera on a vehicle or table will afford, but you can’t carry or use a full tripod. I use the Manfrotto 681B model.
We photographers love our toys! While it is easy to get carried away and purchase every cool accessory that comes along, I will try to limit the recommendations here to a handful of truly essential items. And don’t forget the little things like lens cleaning cloths, a blower brush for dust, and of course extra batteries and chargers for your camera and flash.
Three kinds of filters are essential gear for most photographers. I’ll cover each type below. Note that you must use a filter that is the correct size to attach to your lens.
It’s a good idea to keep a UV filter attached to your lenses at all times, as this helps protect the front element of the lens from scratches. Use a good quality filter, though, as the poorer ones can affect image quality. I would recommend removing the UV filter when shooting with certain other combinations of filters, as the edges of the image can be cut off (vignetting) with too thick a stack of filters on the end of the lens. I’ve had good luck with Hoya UV filters.
The second must-have type of filter is the circular polarizer. A polarizing filter can reduce glaring reflections and can darken skies and enhance natural colors. This little gadget is almost a secret weapon for making images that really pop. Again, I like the Hoya products, which are thin, well made, and perform as they should.
The final essential filter is the neutral density filter. These reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor, so you can use slower shutter speeds to blur motion, or so you can use a wider aperture to get a shallow depth-of-field, even in bright sunlight.
Another essential is a good remote release for your camera. I know plenty of photographers who still use the good old trusty wired (or cable) releases. I like to be able to move away from the camera when shooting remotely, so I favor a wireless release such as the RFN-4s Wireless Remote Shutter Release.
Most of us would never consider leaving home without our phone, and there are additional good reasons to carry yours with you when you are photographing at home or around the globe. First, the cameras in today’s better phones are now good enough to make quite good images. I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the main camera, and even the selfie camera, on my Apple iPhone 6S. But your phone is also an essential photography tool because there are some very good apps to help you plan, shoot, and share your images. There are too many to list here, but I’ll plan a future post to share some of my favorites.
Aside from cameras and lenses, no other category of gear gets photographers arguing quite so heatedly as bags. For a travel photographer, your bag must be highly protective and durable yet lightweight, fit your gear well but with the flexibility to change out kit as needed, and preferably not advertise that you have expensive camera equipment inside. The choice of what bag to use is a very personal one, but I’m still going to recommend my three favorites.
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 will almost always be accepted as carryon on flights, 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.
For carrying just a few pieces of gear around town or close to home or hotel, a shoulder bag can work well. This is the best setup for quickly accessing your gear while shooting, but it can be tiring to carry the weight across one side of your body if you have a lot of trekking to do.
For post-processing my images, I use both Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop Elements. I can do 90% of my processing using just Lightroom, but occasionally I do need the added power of Photoshop. While I still use the perpetual license software versions, by now most photographers have gone over to the monthly licensing structure that Adobe calls the Creative Cloud.