I’m often asked for advice about adventure travel photography, including what camera gear to bring and the best way to carry that gear during long-term backpacking trips. My methodology for long-term travel, where space and weight are of utmost importance, is completely different than it is for short term professional photography trips, where I would usually have a full kit with me. While backpacking through exotic destinations, there are many additional things to think about.
Considering the high cost of the gear I travel with, as well as how heavy it is, my main goal is to limit what I have with me as much as possible, while still having the right gear to make great photos. Insurance against potential theft is also a must, but still, losing camera gear or even worse, losing my photos, would be detrimental, even while fully insured.
Limit your gear to the bare minimum for adventure travel photography
My standard backpacking travel set up includes the following: one Canon 5D Mrk II or III body, two batteries, one battery charger, a 24-105 mm F4 lens with IS, a 50 mm F1.4 lens (small and lightweight, as well as super fast for low light conditions), six 32 GB memory cards, a lens cloth, a blower to clean the sensor if needed, and a small laptop (to back up memory cards). Then, depending on where I’m headed, and what I think I might additionally need, I usually bring at least one additional lens: either a wide-angle 17-40 mm F4, or my 70-300 mm F4.5-5.6 IS zoom. The 70-300mm is a relatively compact travel zoom (especially compared to my all time favorite lens, the infamously heavy 70-200 mm F2.8–a lens that I would never bring on such a trip due to its size and weight, despite it being one of my favorites). Since I am living out of my backpack, everything is a bit of a trade-off. Still, deciding between the wide angle and the zoom is often quite difficult, but so is carrying around all that extra weight for three or four months. If I think there might be any kind of safari potential, I’ll bring the zoom, and otherwise, the wide angle. I am still long considering a single zoom lens, like the Canon 28-300, but I haven’t yet been convinced that an all around option would be good enough. To many, non-professionals, this is much too much gear to be lugging around, and I’ve often been asked why I don’t just buy a small pocket camera instead. Obviously, these people clearly just don’t understand what a difference good gear makes…
Camera Protection and Camouflage
I keep everything, aside from the laptop, in a small Lowepro bag that I have further modified, by cutting away an unneeded part. This bag protects the camera body and two to three lenses well, and is still small enough to carry inside my day backpack. Now I can already hear some of you asking, “why would you want to keep your camera bag inside your day pack bag?” Well, for one reason, the camera bag keeps all my camera equipment in one place, while protecting it. Additionally, by keeping this inside my day pack, it is well concealed and a lot easier to carry on my back. I also have enough extra room in my day pack for a bottle of water, a jacket, a guide book… Also, in the way that I have modified the camera bag, I can easily access everything while it sits inside my day pack. Now, I could have just bought a specialized camera backpack, but these tend only to be good at carrying camera equipment, without leaving much room for everything else. And, they are also a lot less low key as far as their looks. The great thing about my set up is that it is very adaptable, which I find extremely important while backpacking.
Of course, by camouflaging your equipment, you are decreasing the potential risk that someone would steal it. Additionally, a flashy camera bag and expensive looking equipment tend to scream “professional photographer”, which is the last thing you want to advertise while traveling. Also, my particular photography style is to try to be as low key as possible, which helps to capture more natural photos, since people don’t notice you as much. Also, I’ve been to many places where photographers and photo-journalists are quite despised by the government–places like Transdneister, the communist sliver of an Eastern-European “country” that doesn’t officially exist, where they are said to detain journalists on mere suspicion. If I do end up getting searched at customs, and as long as I am not officially working as a photographer, I just claim to be a tourist that likes to take photos. If asked, and when filling out customs form, my profession is “graphic design”, rather than photographer or artist. This seems to lead to a lot fewer questions and less headaches all around. Just a word of caution though, I would not at all recommended lying to any officials or on any customs forms–if I am on a professional photo job, I say so, rather than risking the potential problems that might cause.
What I tend not to Bring
Normally, unless I am specifically sure I will need it, I avoid bringing any speedlites (flashes) with me. There are just too many additional things that are needed when I do bring along a flash–additional batteries and charger, light modifiers, etc. And, although there are times when a portable light source would come in handy, I just can’t justify all that additional weight and space. With high ISO potential on the Mrk III, as well as my love of natural light, there is really little reason to increase my load in this case. Also, I try to avoid bringing a large tripod whenever possible, although, for magic light landscapes, this decision becomes much more difficult. In that case, I opt for a specialized, travel tripod that is quite small and lightweight.
Hope these tips can help you better prepare for your next adventure travel photography trip. Bon Voyage.