I’m a huge fan of Travel photography. Living in a vintage RV and traveling frequently, I’ve had to develop routines for working on-the-go.
This article is part 1 of a 4 part series:
// Part 1: An overview of essential gear for travel photography //
// Part 2: Tips for capturing your BEST shots on-the-go //
// Part 3: Developing a workflow from camera to hard drive //
// Part 4: Setting goals for editing //
…my background in photography (I sort of know what I’m doing)…
I picked up my first camera in middle school. There was something captivating about the mechanical, metallic weight of the body and the noises of the film advancing. The noise the lens makes when snapping into place *schlick*, beautiful. And the idea of capturing photos of the interesting things around me was enough to get me hooked almost instantly.
Many years and many cameras later, I am still hooked. Of course my relationship with photography has evolved over the years, just like the equipment I’ve learned to use. But overall my goals have remained the same. I use photography to document my experiences (and sometimes make some $$$).
More recently I’ve photographed assets for advertising agencies, covered corporate events & fundraisers, and organized/shot medical devices in studio for a crowdfunding startup. I’ve also worked as a Photography Manager, vetting & hiring photographers and organizing the photography for sixteen simultaneous events, all of which were part of one San Francisco tech company’s employee holiday party. Occasionally I’ll shoot weddings.
// 1: The Camera //
“The best camera you own is the one in your hand.”
You may have heard this saying before and I know it to be true. As we move forward keep it in mind. You can own all sorts of fancy camera gear but if you don’t have it with you you won’t make amazing photos. Sometimes the iPhone in your hand is more valuable than the camera in your backpack.
// Types of Cameras //
What camera is best? A question with as many answers as there are different photographers.
What you prefer and what is practical may be different, especially in terms of traveling.
I suggest prioritizing image quality and compact size.
As far as camera size/weight is concerned, point-and-shoot cameras are going to be lightest along with smartphones, next come ‘mirrorless’, and finally DSLR.
Image quality often improves from smartphones upwards to the DSLR (although there are some AMAZING phone cameras i.e. iPhone 7 plus has surpassed my expectations for phone cameras). Even mirrorless cameras are giving DSLRs a run-for-the-money in terms of image quality these days.
- Smartphones and compact point & shoot cameras:
- Usualy have fixed lenses – you can’t swap them out.
- They can often ‘zoom’ covering a range of focal lengths (but have fixed lenses – you can’t change them).
- Most shoot video in addition to stills.
- Resolution can be just as high as DSLRs.
- In compact point & shoot cameras there are usually models that use conventional, disposable batteries (beneficial if you won’t have the ability to charge often).
- Mirrorless cameras:
- Often bigger and heavier than point and shoot
- Most will allow you to change lenses.
- Image quality is usually higher with resolutions on-par and exceeding that of DSLRs.
- Battery life is usually NOT very good so you may want to carry extra batteries.
- Auto focus performance fluctuates DRASTICALLY across different brands (some AS GOOD as DSLR, and some not performing very well, especially in low-light).
- Biggest and bulkier than phones, compacts, or (most) mirrorless
- Different lenses available from fisheye to telephoto
- Excellent image quality & dynamic range
- Battery life is usually GREAT (I get up to 800 shots per batter on my DSLR).
- Auto-focus performance, very fast.
- Very good durability/longevity (in general)
// My experience: Canon 6D DSLR for travel photography //
Over the past four years I have been shooting with a DSLR, a Canon 6D. I’ve carried it through Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. I use it for professional jobs and in studios and I’ve also lugged it up active volcanos and brought it on the trail while backpacking & climbing.
The 6D was a GREAT choice for me. I wanted a full-frame DSLR that could produce amazing images, good enough for professional work and I didn’t want to spend a fortune. Choosing a DSLR meant a heavier camera system. I wanted a camera that could be used reliably on a daily basis, with good battery life and good weather resistance.
I considered many different cameras including mirrorless. At the time (2013) mirrorless camera technology was not as good as it is today and I ultimately chose DSLR.
Canon 6D strengths
- Price point ($1300 new – ‘inexpensive’ for what it offers)
- Full-frame 20mp image sensor (I’ve printed images at 13×19 with phenomenal results)
- Low light performance & dynamic range are both very good.
- Durable & reliable
- Built in wifi (**download images directly to your smartphone**)
// How does the 6D perform? //
Weight – The 6D is light for a full-frame DSLR, but it’s not that light. On many occasions I’ve left it at home because I didn’t want to lug it around. It’s my only option (aside from my phone) because it’s the only camera I own. I wish I had a lighter camera for travel photography.
Image Quality – No complaints here. The 6D makes amazing images which, with good editing techniques can stand up to images from cameras that cost three times as much. Shadow recovery is great from RAW files (meaning you can lighten dark areas of photos to re-gain details you thought weren’t there). If you only view your images on a digital screen like a computer or phone I would argue that nobody needs more resolution than the 6D’s 20 megapixels. For those of you wanting to print your photos, the 6D produces a big enough image to print at 13×19 inches (or bigger) with exceptional quality.
Features – It has everything I have ever needed. At first I thought that the wifi feature was a gimmick but in practice, having wifi is surprisingly useful, especially for traveling. It allows me to transfer images directly from camera to phone which expedites the upload process (for sharing online). This is especially valuable for international travel when I might choose to leave my computer at home.
…and most recently…
After four years of shooting with the Canon 6D I’ve had a great experience. However, considering what I’ve learned and what my needs are with frequent travel, I’ve just invested in a Fuji XT2, a 24 megapixel mirrorless camera. More on this purchase later.
// In conclusion //
There is no ‘correct’ answer to which type of camera will be best. For Travel photography I personally recommend mirrorless. These cameras offer the best balance of high image quality, plenty of modern/advanced features and multiple lenses. They are lighter and more compact than DSLRs making them more pleasant to cary/travel with which will increase the chances that you’ll have your camera ready when you see that awesome shot.
// 2. Lenses //
Every camera deserves a good lens & no matter how nice your camera is, it won’t do it’s best work unless it is paired with high-quality glass.
Carrying a large selection of lenses is tempting but traveling photography often necessitates packing light, therefor one compact zoom or a versatile prime can be a better choice then multiple lenses.
Just like cameras, lenses have advantages and disadvantages. You’ll have to decide which features are important for your style of travel.
// Types of Lenses //
- Prime Lenses:
- Fixed focal lengths (i.e. 50mm).
- Often have wider maximum apertures (i.e. f/1.8-1.2) which translate to better performance in low light situations
- Shallower depth of field possible (background/foreground out of focus)
- Sharper than the same focal length of zoom lenses.
- Usually lighter weight (but not always)
- Zoom Lenses:
- Adjustable focal length – zoom (i.e. 24-70mm)
- Maximum aperture often limited to f/2.8 or slower
- Image Stabilization frequently an available option
// My experience: Canon 24-105 f/4 IS L zoom lens//
For traveling, I’ve been using Canon’s 24-105 f/4 IS L. It’s relatively compact and has a broad zoom range. I leave it on my 6D for the vast majority of travel photography outings. Not having to change lenses means I can focus on shooting. Avoiding lens changes in the field reduces the chance of dust & moisture getting into the lens or camera. The 24-105 is also weather-sealed. When it’s mounted to my camera its rubber gasket protects the lens-camera connection.
As far as canon lenses go it’s sharp (although most Canon primes are sharper) especially when shooting at f/5.6 and above.
Finally, the 24-105 has image stabilization. While this feature uses more battery life, it allows you to capture more usable images. This is useful in low-light scenarios where your camera will advise shooting with a slower shutter speed.
// How did the 24-105 perform? //
Weight: Overall this has been a GREAT single lens to carry with me when I travel. Because of it’s 24-105mm range I don’t have to cary any other lenses.
Image Quality: The ‘L‘ in the name of this lens refers to Canons professional line of lenses. I would say that this lens comes in at the middle to bottom of the professional lenses that Canon manufacturers. Based on it’s cost (it can be found for under $1000) I would still say that it has very good value. Photographers looking for something sharper but with a similar focal range should consider the 24-70mm f/2.8 L II USM or a even a versatile prime like the 35mm f/1.4 L II USM or 50mm f/1.2 L USM.
The image stabilization has paid off, providing me with more usable shots taken indoors, at dusk, and in other poorly-lit situations.
The weather sealing has also been a great feature, protecting my lens and camera from waterfall mist and sleet/rain when in the backcountry.
// A couple of other lenses I own… //
I don’t backpack or climb with the 70-200 because it’s a tank, but most other instances I have it with me. It’s super sharp and very versatile. It doesn’t have image stabilization like the newer versions but this hadn’t been a problem for me. It covers a nice focal range, suitable for portraits or making things that are far away seem closer. It also has a beautiful ability to compress foreground and background in a way that wider lenses just can’t. This lens is an absolute must for professionals who photograph events.
Unlike the 70-200, I DO take the Tamron with me into the backcountry from time to time (but it’s also a tank). Being able to shoot at 15mm f/2.8 is great for astrophotography and it also has image stabilization which is awesome in low light. At the 15mm end of its focal range there is a bit of distortion in the corners of the frame which doesn’t bother me too much. This lens really excels when used in tight places where it lets you see an amazing amount of the scene around you.
// In conclusion //
Investing money in a quality lens is a better choice than buying the newest camera body on the market. A high-quality lens will last a LONG time, retain most of it’s value and allow your camera to give you the best optical results it is capable of.
If you want the most versatility I would recommend a zoom lens with a range from 24mm to 105mm (or something very similar).
If you want the optical superiority of a prime lens I would suggest either a 35mm or 50mm lens.
// 3. Accessories //
In addition to your camera system and lens(es), you’ll want a few other things on hand. I would suggest adding the following accessories to your selection of travel photography equipment; their specifics will be dictated by your needs.
// Tripod //
A compact tripod is a must-have item. It will let you shoot:
- Longer exposures (also using a neutral density filter)
- Time-lapse sequences
- The night sky/stars
I’ve been using this unique tripod from Joby. Overall I’ve been happy with it but I think it’s better suited to mirrorless camera systems. Alternatively a tripod like this from meFoto is better for heavier camera systems and has extendable legs.
// Remote //
Use this when shooting on a tripod. Some cameras have bluetooth or wifi built in & will let you use your phone as a remote.
// Filters //
Put a clear filter on your lenses, it will protect the front element from accidental scratches, dust & moisture.
A neutral density filter is a must-have if you want to shoot at wide open apertures in bright light and long exposures to capture motion of clouds, stars, & water.
A circular polarizing filter will remove reflections and glare from glass and water as well as increase contrast.
***With all filters, make sure you match the filter thread size to your lens***
// Blower //
Don’t touch the front or rear elements of your lenses or anything inside the body of your camera. Instead use a compact hand-held blower to remove dust. I like this one from Giottos.
// Memory //
This isn’t really an accessory (it’s mandatory) but I would suggest carrying a bunch of extra memory cards. I also recommend a storage solution – I really like this pelican case. It’s waterproof and makes organizing memory cards easy.
Also label your memory cards – I use a label-maker to number them.
// Bag //
You’ll need something to protect your gear & there are tons of options out there. I really like the company Think Tank – they make some very functional bags. I also really like sling-style bags like the ones that LowePro makes which are great when you don’t have too much gear to tote around. I also really like some of the stuff that Crumpler makes in terms of it’s durability and function. They have some cool protective cases that are made to go into backpacks or any other bag you might wish to use.
// Strap //
Anything will do as long as it’s comfortable. I have this strap from Peak Designs. I have also been intrigued by this camera capture clip but haven’t invested in one yet (but now that I have a smaller camera I just might try it out).
Thanks for reading and I encourage you to share any tips on travel photography gear that you might have in the comments section of this post. I’d love to hear what works or doesn’t work for you. I want to learn some new techniques that I can put to use myself.
Make sure to look for part // Travel Photography Part 2: Tips for capturing your BEST shots on-the-go // next month. Now go out and shoot!
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