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For the longest time, one of my dreams has been to live away from home and travel with my family for an extended period of time. I used to dream about all the places I could travel to, and how much fun I would have living a nomadic life. Of course, then I would wake up, and the realities of my responsibilities would take over.
A couple of years ago after a major life setback with the loss of my mom to cancer, I decided that my life was too short not to make my dreams come true.
That year, after several months of discussion and planning, my husband and I decided that our little family would spend our summer in India – traveling and visiting family. Somewhere along the way a trip to Ladakh, London, Zurich, and Rome got added to the roster. Pretty soon I was in charge of planning and packing for a life on the road for two and a half months. We’d be living out of just four suitcases – one for each one of us. As a photographer, I knew that somewhere in those suitcases I had to pack my camera equipment along with my essentials.
Since that year, my family made a conscious decision to take time away from everything over the summer and spend at least 3-4 weeks traveling. Last year we spent two weeks in Utah, and back-country camped for a week in the wilderness of Denver. As the official photographer (both for personal reasons as well as professional ones), I have had to nail down the task of packing my gear and traveling as light as possible to make the most of the trip.
Here are a few things that helped me make the most of my time away from home. It is very likely that I have missed some key photographic opportunities, but overall I am pleased with my gear setup, the opportunities that my family has experienced, and the images that I have created. As a bonus, all the camera equipment I take along make it back without any significant mishaps along the way. If traveling has taught me anything, it is that not every moment needs to documenting and not every piece of gear needs to be used at the same time!
Let’s face the reality of life as a photographer – we all love and want all the gear that we think we need wherever we go. As I pack, I realize that as a photographer I always have so many things I want to take. However, often the need for gear is quickly overruled by the need for practical things like clothes, shoes, and books. After a few days on the road, showers are not an overrated thing, they become necessary! I narrow down my list based on where my travels are taking me and what gear I could realistically carry and transport safely without any damage.
All of these things comfortably fit into my REI brand hiking backpack. I use this bag for everything and store my gear in individual soft-cover bags inside the pack. This is what I have done since day one and something that has worked well for me.
As a mom of young kids, my backpack not only carries my gear but also snacks, extra t-shirts, books, color pencils and at a minimum, 5 matchbox cars of many colors. Just as the camera is my toy, my kids have their own toys that have to make it on every trip.
The one thing I always wish I’d taken with me is a rain cover for the camera itself. My backpack has a rain cover, which I use when caught in a sudden downpour, but without a separate rain cover over my camera, I am not able to use it in the rain – which can be disappointing. Somehow, I always forget to buy one before my trips.
For me, being prepared and organized includes having a rough idea of where I am going and the kind of environment I am going to expose myself and my gear to. Before I leave for a trip, I jot down all the serial numbers, make and brand for my camera equipment, and store them in a document on my cloud-based Dropbox account. This gets updated and checked multiple times in the year as I sell and buy new gear. Just add this as one of your to-dos before you depart on your trip. All my external hard drives are stored off-site at a friend’s place as well as the remainder of my gear.
Now, obviously, this is a friend I trust. But another option would be to lock it in an off-site storage facility. As part of your research, another good thing to keep in your back pocket is the name, address, and contact information of authorized service dealers for your gear in the country you are visiting. Sometimes things go wrong no matter how prepared you are. Having information about services centers and authorized dealers for your gear is a time saver – especially when you are traveling in areas where internet connections are not very reliable.
During my travels, my gear choices depend on the activities planned and the kind of travel we are going to do. When traveling with my family in Rome and Zurich, we traveled everywhere either on foot or used public transportation. So I just carried my camera body and the 24-70mm lens among other daily necessities in my backpack. The rest of my camera equipment was either packed away in the hotel room safe or locked away in my suitcase.
When we hiked and camped in the Himalayas, my camera, along with both my lenses, were always on my person. The tripod was handed off to the porters that were carrying our camping gear. For my camping trips, I just carried all my CF cards and ditched the charger and external hard drive at the house where we were staying because it was highly unlikely I’d find a charging port on the journey.
Sometimes, if I ask nicely, my husband will carry my gear bag but only because it is not too feminine!! Also, it doesn’t scream camera bag.
When we travel on a road trip, my camera and 24-70mm lens sit up front with me and store the rest of the gear in the car trunk. When I fly, I carry all my gear in my backpack – I am too paranoid about checking in any gear.
My next purchase for a long haul trip is going to be a Pelican case, so I don’t have to carry anything on my person. As I age, I find that I cannot carry heavy bags as easily.
All these choices are possible because of the research I do ahead of time.
Additionally, a good mindset to have when you travel to far-off exotic locations is one of acceptance of physical and mental limitations of both your and your camera gear.
I experienced some altitude sickness when I traveled to Leh and Ladakh as we were traveling on roads at almost 17,000 feet above sea level. I also found my gear did not function as efficiently at that altitude. My batteries did not last as long, and the camera also did not shoot as fast. The first few times it happened I freaked out. However, then I just accepted it as something beyond my control and gave myself some extra time to be patient when getting the shot that I wanted.
This one is too basic to include here, but it is amazing how many of us don’t follow this simple tip. We are so enamored with the latest and greatest gear available, but yet don’t quite know how to use the stuff that we do own.
The best way to get over this is to limit yourself to a few key pieces of camera equipment for an extended period. One of my photography goals is to capture star trails and the Milky Way. The opportunity presented itself when I traveled to Ladakh. After all, I was going to be in a remote part of the country at an altitude of almost 15,000-17,000 feet above sea level.
Now astrophotography is not my thing. I always limited myself from trying it out because I don’t usually travel with a tripod, nor do I own an intervalometer. So this time I downloaded the camera manual on my phone and studied it before I left. With that information, I was able to comfortably and confidently use the B (a.k.a Bulb mode) on my camera to capture star trails in Ladakh. It was quite a thrilling experience for my maiden attempt.
This is one of my first milky way shots and now I find myself looking out for stars every night! This would have been impossible without a tripod and proper remote trigger.
Another good thing to practice before you head out is gear maintenance. I routinely clean my lens and camera throughout my trips, so I carry two camera cleaning kits because I know my gear gets a lot of time out in the elements when I travel.
Before every major outing, I spent the time to clean out the dirt and dust from the camera and the lens. I keep the dust pen in my camera bag in case I need it while I am out and about photographing.
I have to include this one in any travel photography related article because it does relate indirectly to taking care of yourself and your gear. I often find photographers I meet along my journeys have a fake sense of entitlement. When you are a guest in someone’s house, are you not on your best behavior? Why is it that when you are a guest in another country, common sense and basic manners seem to fly out the window?
Locals are still people who deserve the same amount of respect and courtesy as anyone. Put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine what they experience when someone shoves a camera in their face without so much as a hello or a smile.
My 24-70mm lens is my go-to travel lens. It really lets me get into small places and photograph a variety of things. I am not one for a more obscure lens where people don’t know I am photographing them. Instead, I prefer to interact with people and let them know, rather see, that I am taking their picture. This is just the way I work.
While in Ladakh, we visited a lot of beautiful monasteries. Most of them are still in use, and we saw many temples where the monks were in prayer. Even if there is no sign discouraging photography, please use common sense not to invade their private space – especially when they are chanting.
I cannot tell you how many times I have come across tourists that almost jump over each other or hang out of moving cars just to take pictures of monks chanting and praying. Seeing this rude behavior almost made me embarrassed to take my camera out!
Additionally, flashing your fancy gear around is almost begging for the wrong kind of attention. One evening in Rome, I was out with my kids taking photos around beautiful horse-drawn carriages. We lost track of time and soon found ourselves in a deserted alley. I quickly put my gear away in my backpack, stuffed it with our jackets, grabbed my kids, and sprinted towards a more crowded piazza.
The internet is an amazing tool for almost anything. It is such a great resource to find and connect with other photographers, especially if you are traveling to areas that are new and foreign to you. When I travel, I always try to connect with some local photographers. We sometimes meet for dinner/drinks, chat on the phone, and just become friends.
They even give me advice on some of the local, non-touristy spots to photograph as well as offered to lend me gear if I need it (Well! Some do…not all want to part with their gear to a total stranger).
I hope these tips are helpful as you plan your next vacation in a far-off destination. Travel in itself is quite the adventure and adding photography to it is just the icing on the cake. However, remember to travel light and enjoy your trip for all that it is – not just a photography expedition.
Also, there is no such thing as perfect photography, but there is something known as a life-changing experience. Travel to experience more of those than just taking pretty pictures.
Do you have any extra tips for traveling light with your photography gear? If so, please share them with us and our readers in the comments below.