Unfortunately, there isn’t really a single answer to that question. What photography equipment you should take with you has a lot to do with what you’re planning to shoot, what your style is, how much space you have to travel with your equipment and what you’re comfortable carrying. If you have a story to share, please feel free to leave it in a comment!
I travel extensively for work and do a fair bit of individual/vacation travel as well. Personally, I tend to travel heavy – I’m a pretty big guy, and I prefer to have more than less. That won’t work for everyone, and over time I’ve figured out what I do and don’t use. I’ll pass on what I bring, and then offer some thoughts on how you might decide what to take when you travel.
Before I talk about what I bring, I wanted to tell you how I bring it. Since over 80% of my travel is business (especially internationally), I’m almost always sharing space with my gear for work – a laptop (and sometimes more than one), power adapters and other various gear. Generally my strategy is to carry the key stuff – the body and lenses – and pack the rest in the suitcase with my clothes. Unless I’m protecting it or I need it while flying I try to put it in the suitcase – batteries, L-brackets, filters, chargers, etc. For the most part, these things are a lot easier to pack in a suitcase where they’d take up valuable space in your shoulder bag. If that only adds up to the ability to carry one more lens, you’ve still achieved a significant benefit.
I’ve got a pretty nice kit of lenses these days – six total (see In My Bag for the list). While I can get them all into my Urban Disguise bag, it is a pretty heavy carry. Before I head out on a trip, I think about what kind of shooting I’ll have the chance to do and what my goals are – higher goals often drive more gear. Travel photography generally boils down to scenes/candids, landscapes, creative shots and walk-around shots. The good news is I can usually cover most of that with two or three lenses:
- Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8: Great for wide-open landscapes as well as capturing the most of tight interiors like churches and other historic buildings, this lens comes in awfully handy. Since it has a fixed f/2.8 aperture, it does a nice job in those low-light interiors. However, because it is a fairly bulky lens and little limited in overall usefulness it is the first lens I drop among my three core travel lenses. The shot below could only be taken by my 11-16 – I would have had to stand in traffic with my next-widest lens. It created a pretty dramatic angle, too… (click on the photos to see them larger)
- Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-f/5.6 VRII: This is the ultimate walk-around lens. Pretty darn wide and pretty darn long, it offers a lot of flexibility. A lot of lens-snobs turn their nose up at this lens, but it can be pretty darn sharp and has a moderate carry weight. It does a nice job at the wide end for landscape shooting and has enough reach to allow you to bring back some texture. As a variable-aperture zoom, it isn’t a low-light champ, but it pays you back with extensive range and versatility.
- Nikon 35mm f/1.8G: When it comes to creativity, I find it hard to beat my primes. The ability to use shallow depth-of-field and shoot in low light gives you the ability to create a lot of mood and atmosphere in a shot. While I’ve used my 85mm to get some good shots, my 35mm f/1.8 has yielded a big chunk of my favorite shots, including the one below (which will look familiar to return visitors), and is almost weightless.
Those are my three key lenses for travel. When it is just the body, the 18-200 and the 35mm, the kit is reasonably light. From there I’ll add lenses situationally – the 70-200 if I need reach and ultimate sharpness in low-light, the 85mm if I think I’ll do something portrait-like or a little more reach vs. my 35.
The first lens back in my bag for travel is the 28-75 though – it offers a lot of flexibility as a walk-around lens has has terrific sharpness, contrast and color along with f/2.8 creativity. Occasionally I’ll substitute it for my 18-200 if I don’t think I’ll need the longer zoom capability.
The other thing you have to think about is whether you’ll need a tripod. I bring my monopod on travel more than my tripod because of space and weight. I don’t own a travel tripod (which fold down to a super-small size), and it is fairly heavy and bulky to walk around with, despite which it goes with me about half the time. My monopod is small and fairly light, and has been really handy in dark interiors but only makes the trip about 1/3 of the time, mainly due to how much my tripod travels.
Sometimes I bring a bit more than I’ll need for a single situation and pack only the things I think I’ll need on a given day, leaving the rest in the hotel room safe.
So here are some questions to ask yourself before you travel:
- How much room do have to bring things with you? You can optimize space by packing bulkier items with your clothes. You won’t need your charger when you’re walking around anyway.
- What kind of shooting are you going to do? along with “what lenses/filters/other equipment are necessary to get the shots?” Be realistic here or you’ll wind up with almost everything you own.
- How much weight can you carry around for extended periods? Generally I’ll choose to be a little more tired and sore to get the shots I want, but some don’t have that option.
- What else are you going to be doing? If you’re on vacation and will do some shopping, it is a good idea to leave some space in the bag for the things you pick up along the way.
The last thing I’ll mention is that sometimes not having the perfect lens means an opportunity to be creative. If you’re faced with a situation where you think “I really wish I had that other lens”, the next thing should be “How do I create a shot with the equipment I do have?”
Travel photography should be fun and add to the experience. If you’re frustrated, hurting and tired, you’ll probably remember that more than your shots and it may take you out of the creative zone. Keep it simple, travel with reasonable comfort and plan ahead a little and you’ll find you like what you come home with more.
How skinny do you travel? Anything you’ve found hard to live without when on the road? Please feel free to share any travel stories below. Thanks!