Travel Photography: Gear Selection and Tough Choices

May 21, 2009 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

Photographers are pack rats and are notorious for wanting to pack and travel with every piece of equipment they own. Sure, it's fantastic to be able to stand on the shores of Monaco's famed Harbour and pull out your 14mm f2.8 for a beautiful sunset on the horizon, then quickly switch off to the 400mm f2.8 for some detail shots of the yachts, but how realistic is that?

For most travel situations photographers need to make hard choices.

Almost every photographer I know is attached to their equipment in one way or another. Many don't admit it, but there is that little twinge in their heart when they must leave a beloved piece of equipment behind. For me, I'd love to be able to travel with my Canon 24mm f3.5L TS-E Tilt-Shift everywhere I go, but the lens is specialized, large, slow and far from practical for most photo assignments, so it sits at home much of the time.

As a photographer who has spent a considerable time travelling, and travelling fast-and-light, I view my gear strictly as tools when it comes to packing. When heading out I make hard decisions on the most essential equipment I'll need for a trip, then decide what equipment is not absolutely essential, but is highly likely to be used, and lastly I make a list of gear I just want to bring because I want to play around.

Once my list is made I factor in how I'll be travelling. How I'll be travelling involves looking at a few factors:

  1. Travelling 'all on my feet' and no where to secure my equipment
  2. Travelling with a car rental, or hired car, where I can secure gear
  3. Travelling with a hotel room to secure my equipment
  4. Travelling for reasons other than photography

Travelling 'all on my feet' is the most common type of travel for me. What is 'travelling all on my feet'? Simply put this means I am getting off a plane then using public transit or taxis everywhere I go, with no rental car, hired car or hotel room to store my gear. Anything I am bringing with me I must be able to carry, use, secure, all while shooting.

An example of making hard choices can best be described in a series of assignments I shot last year. In the span of three-and-a-half days I shot four assignments, in four countries, on three continents, completely travelling around the globe. I left my house on Wednesday morning and was home for dinner Saturday night.

Three of these assignments were related to architecture in Philadelphia, Frankfurt and Incheon, along with one assignment requiring funky environmental portraiture in the streets of Hong Kong. Due to the extremely rapid pace of my travel I needed to have everything I required packed in such a way that I could comfortably carry it on my back all while shooting.

Packing in such a way that you need to 'hump it in & hump it out' requires not only significant discipline for gear selection, but also clothing, accessories and critical items.

While packing for the round-the-world in 3.5 days journey I made hard decisions, such as swapping out a travel tripod for the two light stands I would need for the environmental portraits in the streets of Hong Kong. When it came to camera equipment I swapped out my Canon 1Ds & 1D for the Canon 5D and 20D due to the smaller batteries, smaller battery chargers and lighter weight equipment. For lenses I swapped out the 85mm f1.2L for the smaller and lighter 85mm f1.8. I had to choose my equipment allowing for only four packed compact prime lenses, and a 16-35mm f2.8L and 70-200mm f2.8L attached to each camera. My cameras were out on my shoulders at all times while not only shooting, but also travelling and flying as well (well they went under my seat while on the plane).

Sounds easy enough right? Well, I had to shed many lighting accessories I wanted to utilize on the environmental portraits shoot because quite simply I had to make space for two sets of Pocket Wizards, two Nikon SB-28dx Speedlights and adapters to affix the flash units to the light stands. Selection of the light stands was critical. While I wanted at least one 8-foot light stand I settled for two Manfrotto 3373 6-foot light stands because they were compact enough to be attached to the exterior of my backpack and be legal for international carry-on while traveling through airports in the US (Providence, Philadelphia, Chicago), Germany, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan.

What did I leave home for this project that I would have liked to have packed in my bag? Sadly the 24mm f3.5L TS-E that is actually designed for architecture sat home on my desk. I knew I'd be working in very limited city spaces trying to capture some very tall buildings, so I opted for the 14mm f2.8 in addition to the 16-3mm 5f2.8. I love my Canon 85mm f1.2L, the look this lens produces is unique and fantastic, however I knew I'd use it for a maximum of two non-critical photos, which allowed me to swap it for the smaller and lighter 85mm f1.8. The Canon 28-70mm f2.8, a great mid-range utility lens, was left behind, because it covers the focal lengths I use the least. Overall I left home half-a-dozen lenses I would have liked to have brought along, as well as a spare body, a spare flash, a full-size travel tripod and other items that are often seen as essential.

Having a deep understanding of the tools available, how to use your tools and how you plan to shoot throughout your journey you can travel with extensive freedom. Having extra lenses is often liberating, but if you can't be free to move, travel and explore while shooting you are far more limited by cumbersome equipment holding you back than extra tools setting you free.

Next time you pack up for a weekend away, or take a non-photo vacation, take a hard look at your equipment. Save yourself the stress, give your shoulders a break and reconsider your maximizing your shooting potential by minimizing your equipment.

Below are four photos shot in Philadelphia, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Incheon shot in less than three-and-a-half days. A photo of the North Face 'Surge' backpack that I traveled with at the end of the journey is at the top of this page.

Travel Photography: Gear Selection and Tough Choices

Travel Photography: Gear Selection and Tough Choices

Travel Photography: Gear Selection and Tough Choices

Travel Photography: Gear Selection and Tough Choices

As for standing on the shores of Monaco Harbour, a 16-35mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8 with a 1.4x an 2x tele-converter will make you more versatile and save you a lot of space, weight and hassle to create the images you might have in mind at sunset.

Happy Flying!


Steven Frischling is professional photographer turned international travel strategist whose goal is to help photographers travel easier, travel smarter and travel with less stress.

As a photographer Steven's assignments have spanned the globe, and racked up more than 1,000,000 miles flown since 2005 (when he started keeping track of his miles). Through Steven's travel he developed an innate sense of travel planning, logistics and simply how to get himself and his equipment where they needed to be.

Some of Steven's more 'fun' assignments have included shooting four assignments, in four countries, on three continents, completely flying around the world in 3.5 days ; circling the globe one-and-a-half times while shooting a project for an airline in 4.5 days; flying from New York to Basrah, Iraq, for six hours; travelling to Kuwait City for two hours for a shoot; and flying from New York to Frankfurt for the morning for a shoot (yes, just the morning) before flying home.

Throughout Steven's professional career as a photographer he has worked as a contract newspaper photographer, contract wire service photographer, contract photo agency photographer, newspaper staff photographer, newspaper photo editor, newspaper chief photographer and director of photography for a multi-national magazine publisher overseeing five international magazines.

Along the way Steven's photography clients have included Life Magazine, Time Magazine, The New York Times Travel Section, The Kuwaiti Government, The International Olympic Committee, Sunoco Oil, Southwest Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Delta Airlines, Oasis Hong Kong Airlines, Harvard University, Home & Garden Television and The Discovery Channel.

When not shooting photos or consulting with corporate travellers, airlines and those related to photography and airline travel, Steven lives with his wife and three kids 102 yards from the ocean directly between New York City & Boston.

Visit Steven online here:
For photogs who fly
Corporate photos
Twitter for travel

Interested in 1-Day Travel-Photo BootCamp like no other? An education experience where you step onto the plane not knowing where you are headed, while learning how to succeed while facing situations where most photographers fail?  Of course you’re interested! Visit http://www.comeflywithfish

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