Travel photographer. Most people see someone that is travelling the world, being paid to take photos, and sigh with jealousy. What could be better than being paid to do something you love, all the while getting to see new places in every corner of the globe?
Having been a travel photographer myself for the last five years or so, I totally get that. I can’t disagree with the fact that getting paid to do what I love is awesome; after all, my office has transformed from a 9-5 desk to the never-ending scenic vistas of the mountains.
It’s not an easy job though. When I’m on location, nearly every waking moment has been consumed by planning shoot locations, re-planning those shoots when the weather doesn’t cooperate (which is often), actually taking photos, and organising and processing the photos at the end of each day. Visiting somewhere that has midnight sun at the forecast says that it will only be sunny from 2-4am? Then I’m up at 2am shooting.
One thing that makes this job much easier is preparation. One of the biggest things I need to prep prior to a trip is my camera bag, since most of that gear will become an extension of my arm for the duration of the shoot. Since I already keep a handy shoot checklist on my phone, it only made sense to post it here as well. This list encompasses everything that comes along with me on a shoot as well as necessary tools that don’t make it into the field but are needed to get the job done.
Note: This is not a list of gear that I recommend all travellers take with them; it’s entirely too much for most sensible people. Stay tuned for a post about what I recommend for the travelling non-professional photographer.
- Nikon D750 24MP FX (full-frame): This is my go-to camera body. Purchased in June 2015 to replace my ageing (and failing) D700, this camera made me realise how much I’d been missing. HD video, a tilting LCD screen, and incredibly fast burst speed were all things I didn’t know I need but now use regularly. Plus, it feels significantly lighter than my D700. Its full-frame sensor means I can capture night skies and other low-light scenes with minimal noise.
- Nikon DF 16MP FX (full-frame): Until I got the D750, this was my main camera body, but now I use it mainly for telephoto images, time lapses, or the times when I want to use my old manual-focus lenses. It’s a fantastic camera and it looks so beautifully old-school that people regularly stop me and tell me that they love my camera, and is it film?
- GoPro Hero 4 Silver: Such a great camera in such a small package. Attached to the suction cup, it can capture hours of images from driving that can be turned into a time-lapse (or simply capture a moment that I may not have been able to stop for, like a sheep in NZ wearing a high-vis vest on the roadside). With a helmet mount or chest mount, it can do virtually any activity with me. They’ve just released the Hero 6 so I’m a bit behind, but it works for what I need.
- Canon Powershot S100: A pocketable camera that can go with me when I can’t take my dSLR. It shoots RAW and transfers photos via wifi straight to my phone.
- Pixel 2: The Pixel 2 has a fantastic camera and it’s useful for times when my other cameras are not accessible, like at dinners or on plane flights. Plus, being weatherproof means its battery lasts much longer in extreme cold.
Note on mirrorless cameras vs. traditional dSLRs: The mirrorless vs. dSLR debate still rages on, especially with the huge success of the Sony a7 range of full-frame mirrorless bodies. Despite the fact that I used to shoot with an Olympus OM-D as my second body — and the fact that I would love to lighten the load so I didn’t have to break carry-on weight limits every time I fly — I’ve stuck with dSLRs. I’ve mainly done so because I don’t want to re-invest in a whole new lens system when I already have so many Nikon lenses (including a number of manual-focus, 1970s-era lenses), and carrying around equivalent lenses for 2 different systems was a pain.
- 24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S Nikkor: This is my go-to lens and one that I will use in 80% of situations. Some sites will tell you you’re not a real pro if you use a mid-range zoom, and frankly, that’s bullshit. Primes are not often practical for travel and the range on this means I won’t be stopping to change lenses every five minutes. Plus, it’s a bright lens, so in darker settings I can open the aperture up to f/2.8 and still get great photos.
- 16-35mm f/4G VR Nikkor: My wide angle landscape lens; very useful in the mountains.
- 14mm f/2.8 Rokinon: My go-to night sky lens. This cheap but fast manual focus lens is perfect for shooting at night since you don’t use autofocus anyway, and the fast 2.8 aperture lets in a lot more light than my 16-35mm.
- 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S VR Nikkor: I don’t shoot telephoto lengths enough to justify the expense (or weight!) of a 70-200mm f/2.8, and in most situations this lens will get the job done when I need it. It’s useful for telephoto landscapes, wildlife photography, and for capturing slightly different perspectives of city scenes.
- 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor, 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor, 65mm micro: All tiny, manual focus lenses that come in handy in less rushed situations when autofocus is not a must.
I now carry 2 tripods with me on most trips — one for day-to-day shooting and the other for time lapses (since I still want to be able to shoot other compositions while the time-lapse is running).
The Vanguard Alta+ 254CT with BBH-300 ballhead is a sturdy and flexible rig that is still relatively small in terms of tripods. The carbon fibre makes it reasonably light and it can fold down to fit in a medium-sized suitcase. The BBH-300 ballhead is a breath of fresh air after the Markins ballhead I used previously that gave me no end of trouble, particularly in the icy cold environment of Lapland. The BBH-300 moves smoothly and is quick to lock into place, and you can even set it to lock when level to ensure straight horizons.
The VEO 265CB travel tripod is my new day-to-day tripod, particularly in cities. This tripod has been designed for the regular traveller with strict weight and size allowances to deal with, yet it doesn’t sacrifice much in terms of stability. I’ve successfully packed it in a daypack (and tripods have never fit in my daypack) and have used it to take photos in cities with no wobbling or other obvious issues stemming from its light weight. It does start to get a little bit unstable in strong winds (such as those often encountered in Iceland), but for most usages it works perfectly.
I also like that, even though the built-in ballhead is smaller than I’m used to, it doesn’t have issues steadily holding my camera in portrait orientation. The D750 + 24-70mm is a heavy combination and other ballheads have not been able to hold its weight, instead slowly letting the lens sink towards the ground. While this gives photos an abstract feel, it’s usually not what I’m going for!
Everything in this article, bar my tripods, fits into my Vanguard Heralder 49 camera bag. This bag is an absolute trooper and kind of resembles a tank. The main compartment of the bag is the typical camera bag layout, with various different sections that you can move around to fit your particular gear best. It’s huge, and easily holds two camera bodies, three large lenses, an array of smaller lenses and flashes, and my GoPro.
The bag I’ve used a lot more this summer, though, is my Vanguard Havana 41. This bag is perfect for carrying along with me when I’m running a workshop and don’t need all of my camera gear. Plus, it’s probably the best-looking gear bag I’ve ever used, and hardly anyone would suspect that it’s actually a camera bag.
What usually comes along with me on a workshop? My camera and a spare lens, VEO tripod, a folder full of cheat sheets for handing out on the day, bear spray, a sports first aid kit, plastic bags and towels for cameras in case of wet weather, ND and polarizing filters, headlamps for the whole group, large flashlight, glowsticks, spare memory cards, spare batteries, and a few other odds and ends. There are a lot of pockets to keep all the little things organised, and overall, it’s a light pack that doesn’t get in the way (which is exactly what I need).
- ND screw-on filters: I no longer use screw-on filters myself, but they are very useful to have on hand during photography workshops so participants can do long exposure photography during the day. In particular, I carry the Hoya ND-16 and ND-400. Essentially, neutral density filters are dark pieces of glass that you put in front of your lens to darken a scene and allow longer shutter speeds. The ND-16 removes 4 stops of light and is often perfect for slowing down moving water without it turning into a complete blur; the ND-400 removes 10 stops of light. I stopped using these myself because they have a green colour cast that I have to remove in post-processing, and I also find screw-on filters to be much more difficult to clean well.
- Nisi filters & adaptor kit: Even though this kit — which involves a massive bracket that attaches to the lens — takes a bit of getting used to and is more fragile than a screw-on filter, it’s worth it for the versatility that it adds to your filter kit. Also, I recently switched from Lee to Nisi and have found that both the 6-stop and 10-stop Nisi filters exhibit less colour tint than the Lee Big Stopper did. This kit also lets you use grad filters (I have a 0.9 soft grad that I often use to darken bright skies), and those grad filters are made of glass, rather than the plastic grad filters in the Lee system.
- Circular polariser: Very useful to have in the kit. It adds contrast to scenes, cuts the glare on water, and can make rainbows significantly brighter.
- UV filters: Many photographers use these to protect their lenses (since the UV filtering is no longer necessary on digital cameras), and for travel photographers they are highly recommended since you never know quite what environment you’ll be shooting in. They are especially helpful in dusty and salty environments. Just make sure you have good quality ones — it sort of defeats the purpose to buy a fantastic lens and then put a dodgy piece of glass in front of it.
- Step-up rings: Filters can be incredibly expensive, so buying them for each width of lens can break the bank. Step-up rings, on the other hand, achieve the exact same thing for around $5-$10. The ones I have screw into a 67mm filter ring on one side and into a 77mm filter on the other. It looks a bit silly and you have to take extra care not to bash your filter into anything since it’s wider than the lens, but the cost savings is worth it.
I have a huge pile of memory cards, all organised in two Ruggard cases for quick access. Since both of my dSLRs use SD cards, that’s all I carry, but they are in a variety of sizes — anywhere from 8GB to 64GB.
The cards are a variety of brands, but the majority are made by Sandisk. I have used them for years with no issues, except for one glaring exception when one of my 32GB Ultra cards failed in camera. One minute, I was snapping photos on the Isle of Skye, the next minute my camera was flashing “card error” at me. Plugging it into the computer was no better; the computer didn’t recognise that anything had been plugged in at all so no recovery software could see the drive to do a recovery from.
I ended up having to send the card into the Sandisk Recovery Pro centre in the US. For $275, they recovered more than 1000 JPGs and 400 raw files from the card and told me that the controller circuit of the card had failed (less than 3 months after I’d purchased it). That’s a hell of a lot of money for a few photos, and I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been on a job at the time.
So, even though I still recommend Sandisk, it is no longer a whole-hearted recommendation. Want to read more about my recommendations on how to deal with a disaster like this one? Check out my article on recovering photos from a failed memory card.
- HoldFast MoneyMaker (Bridle Leather): When you’re out on a shoot and need both wide and telephoto lenses, I find the easiest solution is to carry two cameras. Trying to carry one on each shoulder is a royal pain, which is why I now use the MoneyMaker. This harness holds both cameras at hip-level; when you want to use one, it slides up the strap while the harness itself stays in the same place. It’s comfortable enough to wear underneath by backpack when hiking as well, which means I can get camera photos without holding up the group (a case where I used to only take iPhone photos).
- SB-500 flash: I don’t use a flash very often, since my style of photography often doesn’t call for it. I used to have an SB-600 that died disappointingly quickly (and spectacularly, since it started firing willy-nilly any time it was turned on and then eventually stopped turning on at all). I downsized when I replaced it so I still have an off-camera flash, but the lightest one possible.
- Spare batteries: I carry at least three spare batteries for each camera. Often that’s overkill because I’ll go through one (and at a stretch, two) in a day in summer. However, in winter, batteries go flat much more quickly than usual. The last thing you want is to have dead batteries in the middle of the best northern lights show you’ve ever seen!
- Hahnel Cube battery charger: This was a fairly expensive alternative to the battery chargers that came with my cameras, but it charges two batteries at a time, can charge the batteries for both of my dSLRs, and shows me the exact percentage of charge in each battery. Worth it.
- Lens cloth & tissues: I keep both of these on hand at all times. I find lens tissues tend to leave less fluff behind than lens cloths, but cloths are essential to get rid of any water droplets on the lens (which tends to make the tissues disintegrate). I needed at least three cloths to keep my lenses clean while photographing waterfalls in Iceland!
- Lens pen: Very handy for more stubborn blotches (think fingerprints) on filters or lenses. This is essentially two tools in one — a brush for removing debris that may scratch the lens if you try to remove it with a cloth, and a charcoal tip to remove gunk from the lens.
- Allen keys: If a tripod plate (the plate that attaches to the tripod head on the bottom of the camera) isn’t screwed on with an Allen key, my camera is heavy enough that it will quickly come lose. Therefore, I keep multiple Allen keys around my bag to make sure I can add or remove the plate as necessary.
- Torches: I carry both a Black Diamond head lamp and a high-powered LED Lenser P14 flashlight. These are handy for finding my way around sites in the dark, illuminating my camera to check settings (particularly focus), and light painting on dark foregrounds.
- Speakeasy Travel Scarf: While this is more an item of clothing than a camera accessory, I’ve found it very useful on photo shoots. Not only is the material soft enough that I can use it when desperate to clean my lens (that happened a few times in Iceland when my camera was dripping from waterfall spray), but it has a handy pocket in it where I can keep small necessities like my Allen key and tripod mount.
- Danbo: This little guy hasn’t appeared in many photos recently, but he always lives in my bag in case an opportunity arises to pose him in a photo.
- MacBook Air 11inch: While I would love the screen real estate that a 15 inch MacBook Pro Retina would give me, I love the size of the Air even more. It’s one of the lightest pieces of gear in my bag and is so small that it can squeeze into the hydration pouch pocket in some of my non-camera backpacks. It’s started to struggle a bit more with video files, but all in all, it’s fast enough to do all the processing I need to do on the road.
- More hard drives than you can count: In 2017 alone, I have taken more than 1TB of photos and videos. I also don’t trust having a single hard drive when I travel, so I’ve got complete backups of both 1TB drives that live elsewhere in my luggage. I tend to use Seagate drives since I’ve always found them to be pretty reliable, but anything featuring USB 3.0 will do.
- Lexar memory card reader: One downside of the MacBook Air is the lack of SD card reader, so I have to pack a USB 3.0 reader as well. Or I can not pack it, like I did in NZ when it took me three days to find a shop that sold one…
So there you have it. That’s everything that I need when I travel to do an on-location gig. Some variation of this gear goes with me on every shoot, both at home and abroad. It’s also the reason I have a sore back and a lot of conversations with check-in agents about why I am over the 7kg carry-on limit — but that is a whole post on its own!
The Vanguard tripods and bag, as well as the Speakeasy scarves, were provided as part of a sponsorship, but all opinions stated about them are my own. All other gear — as well as memory card recovery — was paid for by me.