I’m gearing up for my Caddo Lake workshop with Precision Camera. With that come the inevitable emails from students about packing as a photographer and what to bring. It’s a common enough question that I decided it deserved it’s very own blog post. What camera equipment SHOULD you bring on any give trip? What if you don’t know what you will encounter?
A Base Kit
When I pack I start with a “base” kit. There is core gear you will (almost) always want or need. You can always remove something if you need the space or weight, or if you replace it with something else. Here is my base kit:
- Nikon D810, Batteries and Memory Cards
- Nikon 105mm f/1.4
- Nikon 28mm f/1.4
- Extension Tubes (for macro photography)
- Polarizing Filters for the 50mm and 28mm lenses
- High power LED head lamp
- MacBook Pro, card reader & backup hard drive
With this basic set of equipment, I can make landscape and portraits that I like. I can also photograph small details, bugs, etc.
I use primes (fixed focus length lenses), but you don’t have to. Your base kit should be yours. It should include the core equipment you find yourself reaching for most often.
Know Your Travel Style
One thing you should not overlook is your own travel style. Are you the sort that likes to travel light? Do you hate stopping to switch out lenses? Are you the sort that like to have exactly the gear you want or the type to find photos with whatever lens you have on the camera? Do you mind carrying a heavy photo bag or is it no big deal?
How you normally use your camera gear is important. Wherever you go, there you are. You won’t magically change what you like and will tolerate just because you are on a trip.
I carry a large camera bag, and it is heavy because I like having exactly the lens I want to make any given photo I find. I think nothing of stopping a hike to change my camera setup. Carrying a 20lb+ bag doesn’t bother me. That is me.
You are probably different. Decide how much gear and how much time you are willing to take messing with it on your trip. Don’t bring more gear than you are willing to carry or that requires more time than you are willing to spend.
Planning for the Unknown
It is impossible to make informed decisions without information. Before you can decide what gear to add or remove from your kit, you have to have an idea of what type of photos you are likely to make on the trip. Enter previsualization…
I think about where I’m going and the type of photos I might make on the trip. What might I want to photograph that my base kit can’t handle? It is important to think specifically, visualizing photos you might want to make. This may seem hard for a place you’ve never visited. Even if you haven’t visited before, you know quite a bit about the destination. Worst case, we all have access to google.
The questions I ask myself are:
- Are wildlife or bird photography a major possibility?
I add my Nikon 200-500mm lens
- Am I visiting during new moon and is it likely to be clear with minimal light pollution?
I add my Nikon 14-24mm lens, a tripod and star trail related equipment.
- Am I SCUBA diving?
I add my Nikon 14-24mm and underwater housing.
- What else might I run into that I will find visually interesting?
Add whatever specialized equipment is required to make those type of photos.
These questions are specific to me. I have certain types of photos I’m looking for wherever I go and I know what I need to make those photos.
If you struggle to see possible photos in your head, jump on the internet, do some searching and find photos that catch your eye. Then, deconstruct them. What focus length was used? What other equipment might be needed? Learn to read images, not just appreciate their beauty.
The base kit will be enough for many people to do most things they want. After all, that is why it is the base kit. If there are particular photos you realize you want that your base kit can’t handle, it is time to add a lens or other equipment.
The most striking example of this for me is birds and other wildlife. If I’m visiting a place with interesting birds and wildlife, I want to photograph it. My base kit includes a wide (28mm) and a portrait lens (105mm). Neither is of the slightest use for 99.9% of wildlife photography. To make good wildlife photos, I need a super-telephoto or a telephoto and a teleconverter.
Packing and Travel
Sometimes travel involves airplanes, buses or boats. Other times I hop in my truck and I drive somewhere. My packing strategy is dramatically different for different travel methods. Not all trips at the mercy of the TSA and airlines are equal either. Many more adventurous trips may involve hops on small planes which impose strict weight limits (so the plane will actually fly, not just to be jerks can squeeze you for another $25 to $100 extra bucks per bag).
Here are two extremes from recent trips I went on with dramatically different packing requirements:
Jackson, WY for the Total Solar Eclipse and Emily’s Banff Wedding
We drove through Jackson and the Tetons for the total solar eclipse, and then on to Banff National Park in Canada to photograph a friend’s wedding. Luckily, because it required a TON of gear, I was driving my truck which has a secure camper shell over the bed. I was limited to ~2500lb of camera gear.
I took 6 (yes 6) cameras for the eclipse with the associated support gear (solar filters, remotes, tripods, lenses, etc). The wedding required my lighting kit. I brought along 2 Paul C Buff Einsteins, light stands, and various light modifiers. Basically, I brought ever bit of camera gear I had plus some I borrowed.
When the dust settled, I had a huge amount of camera gear with me. I had lots of specific photographic goals requiring specific tools. There were a lot of unknowns so I brought gear I wasn’t sure I would need just in case. In my truck, it didn’t matter. I got out the gear I needed for each segment and left the rest packed in it’s bags and boxes in the truck.
This January my wife and I went to Costa Rica to celebrate the completion of her PhD. Our itinerary involved transfers by whitewater raft, taxi and small aircraft. We had strict weight restrictions. On the trip I knew I would be photographing birds and other wildlife. I also hoped for some dramatic landscapes.
Because of the severe weight restrictions on the small aircraft flights, I had to make some hard choices. I took the 200-500, the 28mm and my 105mm f/1.4 and extension tubes. My laptop stayed home to save weight in favor of a different solution. I stripped everything down as light and small as I could but still drug along a tripod since I thought there might be long exposures or night sky opportunities.
I ended up mostly photographing birds and other critters. It turns out 99% of the photos I took were with the 200-500mm.
The TL;DR – Packing as a Photographer
Packing for travel as a photographer is always a balance between the gear you need to make the photos you imagine you might make and the restrictions imposed by your modes of travel and what you are willing to lug around.
Use the internet and any other resources at your disposal to figure out what sort of photos are possible at your destination. Start by thinking about the photos you imagine making. Whatever restrictions you face, always start with the photos you want to make. Prioritize those and they will tell you what gear you need to bring. Packing as a photographer is all about trade offs.
Andrew is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography.