It was around two years ago, shortly after we were married, that my wife and I seriously started wondering: “What would our lives be like if we quit our jobs and set out to travel the world for a year?”.
Once the idea was in our heads, we couldn’t get it out, so we started started socking away as much money as possible. Then, on the same day we both reluctantly walked away from our successful Silicon Valley careers with one-way tickets to the Philippines and backpacks full of photography gear. I had put an inordinate amount of time into deciding what gear to bring and now that we are five months into the trip, I thought it might be helpful to share my initial decisions and lessons learned with those that might be considering a long-term photographic adventure.
The Most Important Decision
There turned out to be one decision on which everything else hinged: “What type of luggage should we bring?” From wheelie bags and hard shell cases, to duffel bags, backpacks, hybrid packs, and day backs, there is a huge amount of choices when it comes to travel luggage and we couldn’t’ started choosing the rest of our gear until we knew how much room we would have. I had read and heard a lot of advice to pack as light as possible, but I decided to ignore that advice for the sake of versatility.
Packing light means making compromises, and while compromises are great in a lot of situations, I didn’t want to have to make them when confronted with once-in-a-lifetime photographic opportunities. After all, who knows when I would be back to a sulfuric acid volcano on Java?
I wanted a packing system that would allow me to have the appropriate gear for any given situation. So in the end, I decided to bring one large (80L) backpack , and one smallish daypack. The large backpack would serve as the mothership and then I could choose the appropriate gear to carry in my daypack for a given situation. I wanted to bring a normal outdoor backpack (as opposed to a photography specific pack) so that I could remain as discreet as possible. I didn’t want people to know that I was carrying around all of this expensive gear, especially in regions where burglary was rampant. And although the overall load was heavy, I was very rarely carrying both backpacks. When we would arrive at an airport, I could throw the big bag on a trolley, take it to the bus or taxi, then leave it in the hotel or guesthouse for the majority of the time.
The Gear and The Packing
When choosing the photographic gear for this trip I followed one philosophy: “Don’t be average.” Sure I could have taken a lot of nice shots with a compact camera or even an iPhone, but because these devices are so common, the field of view and overall aesthetic would have been very similar to a lot of other shots. I wanted to be able to take the shots that nobody else was taking. In an ideal world, somebody would invent an affordable 10-1000mm f/1.0, but until that happens, I tried to select a few lenses that would cover as many situations as possible. With my two bag setup, I would put the fragile gear in my daypack for flights or buses, then transfer everything to the big bag for storage when we arrived at our guesthouse or hotel. Then I could pick and choose the gear to load into the daypack for that day’s adventure.
Canon 5D Mark II: Before this trip, I shot with a 40D (which I loved). But the increased weather proofing and ability to get clean shots at 3200 ISO made the upgrade worth it.
16-35mm f/2.8L II USM: This is my go to lens for architecture and the 2.8 speed makes it great for hand-holding in dimly lit interiors.
50mm f/1.4 USM: This lens takes beautiful environmental portraits and food shots, and the light weight and fast speed make it a good lens to take if we are walking around at night.
70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM: This was probably the hardest choice. I knew that I wanted a telephoto for wildlife, architecture details, and landscapes but there was no clear winner on which lens to choose. In the end I choose this over the 70-200 f/2.8 because of the lighter weight and additional reach. And I choose it over the 100-400mm, because of the IS and lighter weight. I think any of those lenses would have been good though.
580 EXII Speedlight: I was tempted to bring two lights, but I guessed that I would rarely be in situations where I would have time to set them both up and this turned out to be true. The speedlight has come in handy for some food shots at night and some environmental portraits. I’m actually using it a lot less than I expected (less than 1% of my “keepers”), but I find that it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
Stofen Omnibounce: This lightweight piece of plastic pretty much stays on my flash to help diffuse the light.
Lumiquest LtP Softbox: This turned out to be a bit of overkill. I have only used it once (but I did take some great portraits for anAirBnB.com host with it). Still, since it takes up almost no space and can make a big difference in the quality of light coming out of the speedlight, I just leave it folded up under my clothes for those rare occasions when I need it.
Remote Flash Triggers: Essential for getting the speedlight off of the camera. Again, I’m using these less than I expected to, but for those occasions that call for them, they make a distinct difference.
SLR-Zoom Gorillapod: These miniature flexible tripods come in a lot of different sizes and this size is sturdy enough to hold my setup. I generally prefer to bring the full tripod so that I have more control about where to position the lens. For example because the gorilla pod is so short, it is pretty much useless when it doesn’t reach over the tall grass in a field and there are no trees to attach it to. However, I do bring it along to places where a full tripod just isn’t practical.
Canon S95: This compact camera provides full manual control and takes some great images. Generally my wife carries it around to get additional detail shots that I may miss, and to restaurants and places where in SLR is impractical. But it really shines when it is placed inside of a waterproof housing (see below).
Canon WP-DC38 Waterproof Housing: The combo of the S95 and the underwater housing gives us a lot of flexibility. This case has been fantastic for getting shots while we are snorkeling and scuba diving. It also useful for situations like kayaking or hiking near waterfalls.
Remote Shutter Release: Helps make sure that those tripod shots are as sharp as they can be. Also essential for using the camera’s bulb function when an exposure needs to be longer than 30s. This occurs most frequently for the underexposed shot in an HDR sequence or when using an ND filter.
82mm Hoya Pro1 NDx32 filter: Great for giving waterfalls, rivers and clouds that “cotton candy” look. This can also be used to remove the tourists from a shot by taking a really long exposure.
Mountainsmith Kit Cube lens insert: This is actually one of my favorite pieces of gear. It is a padded compartment that can be inserted into any bag to turn it into a camera bag. This way, my normal dingy daypack doesn’t scream “photography gear.” It can fit both lenses that aren’t on my camera, the flash and most of the accessories; then it just slides into the bottom of my daypack. The interior of the Kit Cube is bright yellow which makes it easy to find what you are looking for in a dark bag.
Think Tank Digital Holster 20: I keep my camera in here and leave it unzipped. Then I slide it into the top of my daypack above the Kit Cube. That way, the camera is protected but I can easily grab it by just unzipping the daypack.
Lens Pen: After the Rocketblower, I use this to give a more thorough cleaning to the lenses.
Assorted microfiber cleaning cloths.
Spare batteries and memory cards.
Eneloop batteries and charger: These batteries are amazing. My flash and the remote triggers use AA’s so I keep of few of these on hand and they have maintained capacity for years. It’s nice to know I won’t be stranded without batteries in remote locations.
Universal AC adapter and transformer: One thing that I was surprised to see was that nearly all of my electronics can accept a voltage between 100V and 240V. This makes the transformer part an unnecessary bulk, but always check your devices before plugging them in without a transformer!
Macbook Air 13″: Pretty much the perfect computer for editing and uploading photos on the road. A lot of people like the 11″, but the 13″ fit perfectly in my daypack and the increased resolution, longer battery life, and faster processor made the extra two inches worthwhile for me. The only downside is that there is no ethernet port which leads to…
Backup hard drive(s). I’m not really picky about specific brands but the USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt port on the Air make backups really speedy.
Postprocessing and Burnout Prevention
When you are traveling constantly, you tend to accumulate an enormous amount of images. In the five months that I have been on the road, I have taken more than ten thousand images. If I waited until I returned home to do the editing, I knew that the task would seem insurmountable so I wanted to make the editing a continuous process.
At first, every night, I tried to go through all of the day’s images, and tweak the settings of each one in Lightroom. I soon found that I was spending several hours per night on the computer and not spending enough time enjoying the trip. I quickly realized that my process would need to change before burnout set in.
So now, I wait until a memory card is full before importing to Lightoom (about once per week). Then I make one pass through all of the images and mark the obviously bad ones for removal, and mark the potential keepers for review. Then I just go through the 5-10 best images and give them the full treatment in Photoshop and Lightroom. After switching to this process, I was only spending a few hours per week on the computer, I was continually inspired by the images that I had decided to keep.
I can’t say that all of my decisions have been perfect, but when I look the stats in Lightroom, I see that my best shots are pretty evenly distributed among the different lenses:
16-35mm f/2.8L II USM — 34.8 %
50mm f/1.4 USM — 9.6%
70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM — 22.2%
S95 — 32.4%
So far this trip has exceeded all of our expectations, and I love that photography gives me the ability to share the sense of adventure and wonder that travel provides. I hope that I will continue to learn and grow on this trip, and I look forward to reading any tips and suggestions in the comments.