If the thought of being away from all your camera equipment stresses you out, this article is exactly what you need! I can safely say that being on the road for over two and a half months teaches you a thing or two about need and necessity versus wants.
For the longest time, one of my dreams has been to live away from home and travel with my family for an extended period of time. I used to dream about all the places I could travel to, and how much fun I would have living a nomadic life. Of course, then I would wake up and the realities of my responsibilities would take over.
However, earlier this year after suffering a big life setback with the loss of my mom to cancer, I decided that my life was too short to not make my dreams come true. After several months of discussion and planning, my husband and I decided that our little family would spend our summer in India – traveling and visiting family. Somewhere along the way a trip to Ladakh, London, Zurich and Rome got added to my roster and pretty soon I was in charge of planning and packing for a life on the road for two and a half months living out of just four suitcases – one for each one of us. Being a photographer, I knew that somewhere in there I had to pack my camera equipment along with my essentials.
Here are a few things that really helped me make the most of my time away from home. It is very likely that I have missed some key photographic opportunities but overall I am very happy with my time away, the opportunities that my family has experienced, and the images that I have created. And as an added bonus, all the camera equipment I did take made it back without any major mishaps along the way.
#1 – Gear Choices
Let’s face the reality of life as a photographer – we all love and want all the gear that we think we need wherever we go. When I was packing I realized that as a photographer I had so many things I wanted to bring, but as a mom, the need for gear was quickly overruled by the need for practical things like clothes, shoes, books, toys, etc. I had to make some very hard choices on the camera equipment that I could take, versus the gear I wanted to take. I narrowed down my list based on where my travels would take me and what gear I could realistically carry and transport safely without any damage.
So, in the end, I settled for this kit:
- A wide zoom lens – Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8.
- A simple point and shoot camera (yes, this was my backup as weight was a concern when flying to and from Asia with layovers on the way there and back).
- One telephoto lens – Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L.
- One camera body – Canon 5D MK III.
- Four camera batteries.
- One battery charger.
- A small travel tripod – just a generic brand – mine fits in my carry-on bag.
- A remote trigger.
- Five camera CF cards ranging from 8GB to 32GB.
- Two 2TB External Hard drives ( primary photo storage and a backup photo storage).
- Two generic lens and camera cleaner kits.
All of these things comfortably fit into my REI brand hiking backpack. I use this bag for everything and store my gear in individual soft-cover bags inside the pack. This is what I have done since day one and something that has worked well for me.
The one thing I wish I had taken with me was a rain cover for my camera. My backpack had its own rain cover which I used numerous times during the trip because we got caught in sudden downpours in the mountains. But without a separate rain over my camera, I was not able to use my gear in the rain.
#2 – Be Prepared and Organized
For me, being prepared and organized included having a rough idea of where I was going and the kind of environment I was going to expose myself and my gear to. Before I left, I jotted down all the serial numbers, make, and brand for my camera equipment and stored them in a document on my cloud-based Dropbox account. All my external hard drives were stored off-site at a friend’s place as well as the remainder of my gear.
Now, obviously, this is a friend I trust. But another option would be to lock it in off-site storage facility. As part of your research, another good thing to keep in your back pocket is the name, address, and contact information of authorized service dealers for your gear in the country you are visiting. Sometimes things just go wrong no matter how prepared you are. Being prepared with this information about services centers and authorized dealers for your gear is a time saver especially when you are traveling in areas where the internet connection is not very reliable.
During my travels, my gear choices on the road would depend on the activities that were planned for the day and the fact that this was a family travel trip, not just a photography expedition. In Rome and Zurich we traveled everywhere either on foot or used public transportation. So I just carried my camera body and the 24-70mm lens among other daily necessities in my backpack. The rest of my camera equipment was either packed away in the hotel room safe or locked away in my suitcase.
When we hiked and camped in the Himalayas, my camera along with both my lenses were always on my person, and the tripod was handed off to the porters that were carrying our camping gear. For my camping trip, I just carried all my CF cards and ditched the charger and external hard drive at the house where we were staying because it was highly unlikely I’d find a charging port on that journey.
All these choices were possible because of the research I had done ahead of time.
Additionally, a good mindset to have when you travel to far-off exotic locations is one of acceptance of physical and mental limitations – both for yourself and your camera gear. I experienced some altitude sickness in Ladakh as we were traveling on roads at almost 17,000 feet above sea level. I also found my gear did not function as efficiently at that altitude. My batteries did not last as long and the camera also did not shoot as fast. The first few times it happened I freaked out. But then I just accepted it as something beyond my control and gave myself some extra time to be patient in getting the shot that I wanted.
#3 – Know Your Gear
This one is too basic to include here but it is amazing how many of us don’t follow this simple tip. We are so enamored with the latest and greatest gear available, but yet don’t quite know how to use the stuff that we do own.
The best way to get over this is to really limit yourself to a few key pieces of camera equipment for an extended period of time. One of my goals for this trip was to try and capture star trails and The Milky Way when I traveled to Ladakh. After all, I was going to be in a remote part of the country at an altitude of almost 15,000-17,000 feet above sea level. Barring any bad weather, I should be able to get relatively clear shots of The Milky Way and star trails.
Now astrophotography is not my thing. I always limited myself from trying it out because I don’t usually travel with a tripod, nor do I own an intervalometer. So this time I actually downloaded the camera manual on my phone and studied it before I left. With that information, I was able to comfortably and confidently use the B (a.k.a Bulb mode) on my camera to capture star trails in Ladahk. It was quite a thrilling experience for my maiden attempt.
Another good thing to practice before you head out is gear maintenance. I had to routinely clean my lens and camera throughout this trip. I made the decision to carry two camera cleaning kits just because I knew my gear would get a lot of use. Before every major outing, I spent the time to clean out the dirt and dust from the camera and the lens. The dust pen was kept in my camera bag just in case I needed it while I was out and about photographing.
#4 – Be Local and Think Like a Local
I have to include this one in any travel photography related article because it does relate indirectly to taking care of yourself and your gear. Often times I find photographers I meet along my journeys have a fake sense of entitlement. When you are a guest in someone’s house, are you not on your best behavior? Why is it that when you are a guest in another country, common sense and basic manners seem to fly out the window.
Locals are still people who deserve the same amount of respect and courtesy as anyone. Put yourself in their shoes and try to imagine what they experience when someone shoves a camera in their face without so much as a hello or a smile.
While in Ladhak, we visited a lot of beautiful monasteries. Most of them are still in use and we saw many temples where the monks were in prayer. Even if there is no sign discouraging photography, please use common sense to not invade their private space especially when they are chanting. I cannot tell you how many times I came across tourists that almost jumped over each other or hanging out of moving cars just to take pictures of them chanting and praying. Seeing this rude behavior almost made me embarrassed to take my camera out.
Additionally flashing your fancy gear around is almost begging for the wrong kind of attention. I remember this one evening in Rome, I was out with my kids taking photos around some of the beautiful horse-drawn carriages. We lost track of time and soon found ourselves in a fairly deserted alley. I quickly put my gear away in my backpack, stuffed it with our jackets, grabbed my kids, and sprinted towards a more crowded piazza.
#5 – Make Friends with Local Photographers
The internet is an amazing tool for almost anything. It is such a great resource to find and connect with other photographers, especially if you are traveling to areas that are new and foreign to you. I was able to connect with some photographers in India as well as in Rome this summer. We chatted on the phone, met for dinner and just became friends.
They even gave me advice on some of the local, non-touristy spots to photograph as well as offered to lend me gear if I needed it. We tried to plan a shoot in India but the timing was not right, I know that the next time around we are going to create some magic, though.
I hope these tips are helpful as you plan your next vacation in a far-off destination. If you have other tips and tricks that worked for you, please share them with the community so we may all learn new ways to have an exciting and creatively satisfying vacation.