Travel Photography Equipment Part 1 – What I Pack & Why


Friends and family constantly ask me what camera equipment they should take when travelling overseas. The answer is different for every person due to their skill level, their current equipment, and their interest in photography. Hopefully by explaining what equipment I, as a professional photographer take when I travel overseas and more importantly why I take it each piece of equipment it will help you in deciding what is the best choice of equipment for your situation. This is the 1st of 3 posts to educate you on photography equipment choices for when you travel both internationally and domestically.

As a photographer the equipment that I carry has changed dramatically over the last few years. My recent two month journey across Europe also has markedly shaped what I take in equipment for future overseas trips.

In this blog post, I will cover what equipment I have previously used and why. Part 2 will cover the equipment I took as part of my two month project through Europe. Part 3 will discuss lessons learnt and my recommendations for you when you travel with camera equipment.

My trip to the US and Canada was typical of the equipment I took on overseas trips up until my recent trip to Europe. Here I will explain what equipment I took and why. This is to help the serious amateur photographers out there that want to get great travel shots. For those of you that are not at the serious amateur level, the 3rd post in this series will be of most use to you.

Prior to proceeding any further into this post, I must explain two important things that you need to take into account in an effort to understand some of my choices of equipment. Things to consider is:

1. I am a gear freak (self professed and proud of it)

2. I am a professional photographer and therefore already own the top of the line professional camera bodies, lenses, flashes, etc.

Traditionally when travelling I have carried the following equipment:

1 x LowePro Roller
1 x Full frame pro camera body (currently a Nikon D4S) with a Really Right Stuff L-bracket attached
1 x Nikon 28-300mm f4-5.6
1 x Nikon 14-24mm f2.8
1 x Nikon 16mm f2.8 Fisheye (only when visiting big cities or planned landscape vistas)
1 x Gitzo Tripod with RRS BH-40 Ball head
1 x Large Gorrilla Pod flexible tripod with RRS BH-20 ballhead
1 x Sypder pro double belt with Arca swiss adaptors for my RRS L-bracket
1 x Nikon SB 910
1 x Pocketwizard TT1 & TT5
Variety of polarising and ND filters
Cleaning Kit, cable release, spare batteries, etc
Macpac Backpack

Why I Have Chosen This Equipment

#Pro Full Frame (35mm) Digital Camera Body

I love being able to shoot inside buildings whilst travelling without the need for flash or a tripod. Camera flashes and tripods are prohibited in most museums, churches and historic buildings. The only way to achieve shooting in a low light environment without flash or tripod is by using a high ISO. My current camera body, a Nikon D4S has a max ISO of over 400,000. I find that it can produce very good quality images (after Lightroom 5 noise reduction) up to around 20,000 ISO. Only the top professional full frame camera bodies (Nikon, Canon, Sony, etc) can achieve good results at this level of ISO. High ISO with low noise is one of the primary factors when I decide what camera to buy. Below you can see a variety of ways that I have been able to use a high ISO whilst travelling with no flash and no tripod.

Shooting at Sunset Handheld (No Tripod)

This photo would have been ideally photographed using a tripod and cable release. Unfortunately, I had been shooting all day and it was after 11pm after just finishing a pre-wedding shoot in Paris. I had already packed up my tripod and all other equipment except for my camera. So this shot was mainly to overcome my laziness/exhaustion and not wanting to pull out the tripod. Instead I stabled myself against a seat and snapped this amazing photo.

Shooting at Sunset Handheld (No Tripod)

The two photos above shows an amazing sunset shot with an ISO that is achievable easily with most DSLRs today. This demonstrates the importance of knowing how to adjust the settings on your camera, particularly ISO. In this photo it is important to disable any pop up flash as it will illuminate the room and wash out the colours of the sunset behind.

In the situation where the platform you are standing on is moving, in this case the yacht, a tripod is ineffective and therefore the only way possible is to boost the ISO to achieve a sharp image.

Shooting Underground Handheld (No Tripod)

Sometimes even if you are allowed a flash it is better not to use one. In this situation the use of a flash would have illuminated the subjects however it would also have washed out the beautiful intense blue colour in the water from this extraordinary natural phenomenon.

Shooting at Indoors Handheld (No Tripod)

If you want to know what the maximum usable ISO is on your own camera the best way is to test it indoors at a variety of ISOs and then do the same test at night in a city area with lots of outdoor lighting. Then import the images into a photo editor, preferably Adobe Lightroom and compare the results first without any noise correction and then with varying levels of noise correction. A bad image will have a lot of digital noise that will appear as either coloured pixels that should be black or a grainy appearance. Most consumer and prosumer level DSLR have a maximum usable ISO of around 1600.

#Really Right Stuff L-Bracket

An L bracket is a type of tripod attachment that is attached to the base and up one side of your camera, allowing for 2 spaces to attach your camera to a tripod. This allows your camera to be mounted vertical (portrait orientation) and horizontally (landscape orientation).

The L-bracket is pictured with both possible attachment points for the ballhead. On the right its additional point of attachment (compared with a standard tripod baseplate) for the ballhead allows attachment to the side of the camera and is therefore able to place the weight of the camera over the centre of the tripod when the camera is orientated vertically.

When mounting my camera to a tripod I want max stability. This comes from having the cameras centre of gravity over the top of the tripod ballhead. This is particularly important when carrying a lightweight tripod and smaller ballhead than I would usually use.

Without a L-bracketthe camera needs to be positioned as above if you wish to position the camera in the portrait orientation. This position is not as stable as the photos previously shown utilising a L-bracket.

#Nikon 28-300mm f4-5.6

This is my favourite lens for travelling due to the quality of the images that it produces relative to its large focal length. Not light but it stays on my camera 98% of the time I am away.

I love this lens because of the focal range that it covers. This means I can keep the same lens on the camera all day, without risking missing a shot. Changing lenses is inconvenient and it exposes your sensor to potential dust entry. It also means that when you are changing lenses you risk missing the activity that is currently happening.

You can clearly see the use that this lens has had over the last few years.

I know some of you that would be interested in some more technical data/reviews so here are two reviews of this lens:

I have tried to give two distinct opinions with comprehensive reviews for those of you that may consider buying the lens after reading this article. The reality for me is that I love this lens. It certainly has issues with distortion, chromatic aberration, barrelling, etc. None of these things really present a problem as they are automatically corrected when I import the images into Adobe Lightroom 5.

I would argue that it is a sharp lens for a travel photographer. Is it as sharp as Nikon’s professional range of lenses? No. However, it gives me something that they don’t…a focal range that is relatively sharp across its huge focal range. That means I am taking less lenses when I travel and have more likelihood of getting the shot as I can go from ultra wide to telephoto in less than a second.

The build quality is also very good. I just recently dropped my D4S with this lens onto stone from waist height and managed to only crack the filter and damage the lens hood.

#Nikon 14-24mm f2.8

One of Nikon’s sharpest lenses and one of the classic trilogy of professional Nikon lenses (14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm f 2.8 pro lenses). I have a love/hate relationship with this lens. I love the amazingly sharp images it provides, and occasionally I have made use of its wide aperture of f2.8. Its ultra wide focal length allows for some amazing city vista photographs as the below photos demonstrate.

There is no doubt that is an amazing wide angle lens and perfect for landscape photography. I however, am using it as a travel lens, something it was not designed for but as I already had bought the lens and couldn’t justify buying another lens at the time. Therefore my assessment of this lens is in its capacity as a travel lens. So what don’t I like about this lens:

Samantha Ohlsen Photography_Travel Photography Gear Blog_SOhlsen_Camera Equipment_8-3

  • The convex shape of the lens means a normal screw on filter can’t be used, therefore leaving the lens itself exposed to the elements. I am a photographer that always uses a lens filter to at least help protect the glass and I just can’t do this practically with this lens.
  • A specialised LEE filter system is available, but that would mean bringing a whole new filter system for one lens. If I was a landscape photographer I could justify this expense and additional equipment to carry around, but not for travel photography.
  • The lens hood is permanently attached (in an effort to protect the lens itself one would assume) and in combination with its convex shape seems to collect dust into the corner where the lens meets the glass making it difficult to clean really well.
  • The focal length for travel photography is too narrow. In retrospect, I should have bought the Nikon 16 – 35mm f4 lens as it would have been the perfect focal length. The 14-24mm is just too wide to remain on my one camera for any length of time whilst travelling.
  • Its heavy and relatively expensive

#Nikon 16mm f2.8 Fisheye

This is not a lens that I use often, however when used in the right setting it can produce images not possible with any other lens.

Anytime I am expecting to shoot from the top of a building or monument I always take this lens for the interesting perspective that it provides. I use this lens for the distortion that it produces when you tilt the lens down to create a curved horizon.

If you ever need to correct this perspective it can be done with the touch of a button in Adobe Lightroom. It can also be used for landscape vistas.

The wide angle of view (180 degrees) often creates difficulties in excluding items close by, such as the railing seen in the right bottom corner, and the antenna seen in the top left corner.

By tilting the lens up instead of down, the horizon curves up. This can be used to your advantage to create some very unusual perspectives of very popular tourist attractions, such as the Duomo above.

The next 2 pairs of photos show the difference when the distortion of the lens is corrected in Adobe Lightroom. In both of these cases it is rather a matter of opinion as to which is the better version.

#Large Gorrilla Pod flexible tripod with RRS BH-20 ballhead

Samantha Ohlsen Photography_Travel Photography Gear Blog_SOhlsen_Camera Equipment_8-22Excellent miniature tripod and ballhead combination that will support the weight of a professional DSLR. I recommend getting the largest model, even if you are using a small DSLR or mirrorless camera due to the extra stability that it provides (particularly if you are not using a L-bracket).

It is great compromise for a bigger tripod as it often will be allowed where normal sized tripods are not allowed. I even was able to shoot from it on the top of the Rockfeller Centre in NYC by placing it on the balcony ledge. I also use the tripod to attach to a flash unit for any off camera flash work as it can be placed on the ground or hung from a railing, etc. It is also very compact and I can easily fit it into a regular daypack when travelling.

 

#Gitzo Tripod with RRS BH-40 Ball head

This tripod is one of the lightest and strongest on the market. Combined with the RRS-40 ballhead it is an unbeatable combination whilst travelling. I can even fit the tripod legs inside my regular backpack, making it ideal for travelling.

Here I am utilising the tripod without the legs extended on top of a stone railing. I am using live view to assist with focusing as I was unable to see through the viewfinder at the height it was positioned.

A tripod is essential for the following photos due to their prolonged shutter speeds.

#Spider pro double belt with Arca swiss adaptors for my RRS L-bracket

I have been using this belt for about 3 years now and can honestly say it is by far the most comfortable way to carry a DSLR or two of any size for any length of time. I regularly walk 10-20km a day when travelling and this is the only setup I have found that allows me to keep going day after day.

This belt is relatively low profile and remains on me most of the day when travelling.

It allows me to hip load the weight of cameras taking that stress off my back, neck, or shoulder. I can very quickly access the camera/s and the access button can be locked when security dictates the need for it. I have tried most of the other camera strap, slings, and attachments to carry my camera/s and this is by far the most comfortable I have ever come across. The Arca swiss adaptors are only necessary when I have my L-bracket or other base plate on my camera.

#Nikon SB 910

Nikon’s largest speedlight and good for fill in flash outside particularly when you are shooting a person with their face in shade and trying to capture the light filled background.

These two photos demonstrate a very common issue I see when people trying to take photos with a landscape behind them. The photo on the left has the background perfectly exposed, however my face is in shade and therefore very underexposed. When you try expose for my face in the photo on the right you see that now the background has become washed out as it is overexposed. The solution is to expose for the background and use a reflector or speedlight to fill in light onto the subject’s face.

Above you can see I have correctly exposed for the background and then used my Nikon speedlight to expose the subject’s face correctly.

Whilst travelling I will usually use the flash off-camera (utilising the PocketWizard TT1 and TT5) where possible and only mount it to my camera if there is no other alternative.

 

#Pocketwizard TT1 & TT5

This system allows me to achieve off camera flash for both manual and TTL settings. I almost always use them in manual rather than TTL when travelling and therefore a less expensive version would be perfect for just travelling. The only reason I use these Pocket Wizards is that I already had these transmitter and receiver units for my wedding work.

 

#UV, polarising and (Neutral Density) ND filters

I keep a UV filter on all my lenses (except the Nikon 14-24mm and the 16mm Fisheye) and have a circ polarising filter, a 3stop and a 10 stop ND filter.

ND filters simply reduce the amount of light entering the lens. How much they reduce the light depends on which model you buy. I find having a 3 stop and 10 stop ND filter in by filter carrying case the perfect balance. This allows you to create the soft smooth water effect seen in a lot of landscape photos. The two photos below were achieved during the middle of the day and would not have been possible without a ND filter. A tripod is essential when using a neutral density filter for this purpose.

#Cleaning Kit, Cable Release, spare batteries, etc

I place these items in a ziplock bag and they then can be moved between any camera bag when needed.

#Roller Suitcase

I have traditionally taken a LowePro 200AW Roller Suitcase, that meets most domestic and all international carry-on luggage requirements. This roller suitcase is quite large so you have to be careful when packing as you will very quickly go over any carry-on luggage weight limits.

There is still plenty of room for other items of carry on luggage when using the gear as mentioned above.

 

#Backpack

I use a Macpac (non-camera) backpack that I have had for ages. It is light and has external water bottle holders. I find this backpack a lot more comfortable to wear than any camera bag on the market. Additionally, it fits really well even with my Syperpro Belt in use. I place my 14-24mm, Fisheye (where applicable), flash system, filter pouch, cleaning kit and spares all into this bag and still have room for both tripods and a jacket and guidebook. This has become my perfect combination for a day out when travelling. It is just as useful when hiking compared to any day hiking through the city streets.

So there you have it! Everything I used to take whilst travelling overseas. Part 2 of this series will cover the extensive change in equipment for my recent two month journey to Europe for my artistic project “A European Love Story’. In Part 2 you will really see the ‘gear freak’ in me come to life!

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