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Photography while travelling

I’ve thought about writing a post like this for a while, but haven’t ever had a really good reason until now. As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel in Singapore during the final night away from home, right at the tail end of a huge 6 month trip around the world. One of the battles I had during previous trips was “Do I really need to carry a bunch of photography gear with me?” It never really turned into an issue as the trips weren’t long or unique enough to be completely unrepeatable. This one, however, is a trip I’ll almost definitely never get to do again. I’ll also mention that I’ve done a bunch of contract sports photography in the past as well as selling some of my work and having some of it published in a magazine. I like to think I have some idea what I’m doing. 🙂

My camera

Ok, that stuff out of the way, so what did I take? Way back in 2007 I bought a Nikon D300. At the time it was Nikon’s top semi-pro body and has been such a great camera that I’ve simply never had any reason to upgrade it. A full frame camera (FX, in the Nikon world) would be a useful and worthwhile upgrade, but ultimately there’s no reason for someone in my position to really need it. So, I still have the same camera and it still works perfectly. Keep that in mind as does mean I’m using a crop-sensor camera (DX, in the Nikon world) that multiplies all focal lengths by ~1.5x. Note: Other manufacturers use their own FX/DX acronyms but, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll use FX and DX throughout this post. It’s worth noting that my partner is a professional photographer that owns all the relevant gear to go with that job. For what it’s worth, that means I’m fully aware of the advantages of FX vs DX and do have access to FX gear if absolutely necessary. The guts of the stuff above is to hopefully tell you that the body you take is of almost no relevance at all … as long as you take appropriate lenses.

Sigma 50mm f1.4

Oh, no … not Sigma? Yes, Sigma. When I bought this lens a while ago, I researched the nuts off it and found that all tests except for one found that at f5.6, the aperture that I tend to use most, the Sigma outperformed the far more expensive Nikon equivalent by a long way. When it comes to usability, this is a fantastic lens with a focal length that allows for beautiful portrait photography, close ups and semi-wide shots.

Note that these sample images are low-res for the web.

Sigma 50mm sample shot.

Sigma 50mm sample shot.

See? Not bad. However, when used for shots that really should be shot wider, the 50mm did frustrate me a lot. Shooting beaches, landscapes, street scenes etc was difficult and, to be truly effective, needed multiple shots stitched together. Don’t forget that as the lens is being used on a DX camera, the actual focal length was around 75mm.
Sigma 50mm sample shot.

Sigma 50mm sample shot.

Would I take this lens on a 6 month holiday again? Nope.

70–200 f2.8 VR

Actual focal length: 105–200mm … This has been my favourite lens for a very, very long time. The sharpness of it is absolutely unreal and it the VR actually does do what the shops say it will i.e. allow almost 3 full stops of over exposure, when needed. I used this lens more than I used the 50mm, simply because it meant scenes could be composed from far away while still allowing a decent selection of what was in the shot and what wasn’t. At locations like the Genbaku Dōmu in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the detail apparent in long-distance shots of the dome itself is stunning. The shot below is taken from across the river – a reasonable distance from the dome – and yet the detail is still pretty much perfect.

Nikon 70-200 f2.8 sample shot.

Nikon 70-200 f2.8 sample shot.

Would I take this lens on a 6 month holiday again? Definitely.

13″ MacBook Air

I really struggled with the decision to take a laptop on holiday this time. However, I now know that leaving it at home would’ve almost been worse than leaving the camera at home with it. This laptop’s extreme light weight combined with the ability to fire up Adobe Lightroom any time meant I could publish photos almost anywhere. If you decide to take a laptop on holiday, my recommendation would be something no heavier than the MacBook Air 13″ or an equivalent model from your manufacturer of choice. Would I take this laptop on a 6 month holiday again? Let’s put it this way … if I forgot to bring it, I’d get the pilots to turn the plane around so I could go home to get it. Seriously,it’s been

that useful.

Fujifilm X100

Before this trip we knew that carrying SLR gear around every day and having it as the only option would’ve been quite painful. For that reason, we also took with us the Fujifilm X100 compact camera. It’s got a 23mm (35mm equivalent) fixed lens that turned out to be plenty wide enough to get some great shots. The photo quality is as good as most SLR cameras and has enough manual control to handle most situations, although the jumps in shutter speed settings can be limiting. For example, the exposure dial jumps from 1/1000 to 1/2000 to 1/4000 with nothing in between.

Fujifilm X100.

Fujifilm X100.

X100 sample shot.

X100 sample shot.

If I could do it all again?

Aside from the compulsory extras like a whole of memory cards and the relevant chargers, my carry-on baggage allowance wouldn’t allow any more than that. I also took an iPad 3 and, combined with the basic gear above, put my bag over 10kg when everything was packed. If I did this trip again and had more lenses to choose from, I’d still take two lenses again. Any more would be overkill and probably weigh to much. However, my lens selection would definitely change. This is what I’d take.

For a DX camera

  • 14–24mm f2.8 super wide angle zoom – NOT fisheye, though.
  • 24–70mm f2.8 zoom

For an FX camera

  • 24–70mm f2.8 zoom
  • 70–200 f2.8 zoom Why the different kits for different cameras? Simple, really. My partner, Erin, had a 24–70mm f2.8 with her, a lens I used every time she wasn’t using it. I found the resulting shots to be far more satisfying when it came to processing them in Lightroom later. However, if you’ve got a DX camera, I believe it would be a great idea to have a super-wide zoom lens that it still impressively wide when you take the crop sensor into account. For example, the 14–24mm lens becomes 21–36mm, or thereabouts. That’s still plenty wide enough, in my opinion. If you can’t take a shot using those lenses, you either need to rethink your shot … or get closer. 😉

The compulsory stuff Aside from ‘actual’ camera gear, here’s the gear that I think everyone should take. Most of it pretty obvious, but I figure I’ll cover all bases (just to be safe). * Lexar Pro USB 2.0 card reader (CF, CFII, SD, etc) * 4 x SanDisk 2GB Extreme III memory cards. Why so small? If I lose one, I won’t lose all my shots – simple. Plus, the D300 is 12MP, meaning a super-fast memory card isn’t critical for me. It would be, though, for cameras like the Nikon D800 (a ridiculous 36MP) or Canon 5D MkIII (22MP). * Black Rapid ‘Sport’ camera strap. Neck straps, in my opinion, are the best way to ruin your neck muscles on a long trip. The Black Rapid straps completely solve this by taking all the weight off your neck. * Battery charger (for the Nikon and Fujifilm cameras) * Spare battery * A ‘Toddy’ cloth, from Toddy Gear. This is seriously the best lens cleaning cloth I’ve ever used. Sounds weird to rave about it, but trust me, it’s that good.

Tripod

One thing that would’ve been useful was a tripod, although the logistics of carrying that around for 6 months were the reason we didn’t take one. Night photography was obviously difficult, but that’s where something like an SLR-weight “flexible” tripod would be perfect. Whenever we needed to take night shots we just used a bit of common sense and found an appropriate surface to put the cameras on. It’s also worth keeping in mind that many tourists spots around the world don’t allow tripods, e.g. the temples of Angkor prohibit tripods at most of their sites. If the staff there see you setting up a tripod, you’ll be immediately asked to take it down. For that reason, carrying one around on a 6 month holiday would be nothing more than a pain in the backside, in my opinion.

Backup

On a trip like this, I would also be very careful about how you backup your images. Gigabytes of RAW files are difficult to backup unless you can afford huge memory cards dedicated to that purpose. For me, I processed my images, exported them from Lightroom then moved the RAW files to an SD card. Unfortunately, the 128GB SSD drive in the MacBook Air filled up quickly when being used by two people. The exported JPG files were then backed up by uploading a copy to my Mega account. With 50GB of free storage, I found Mega to be the perfect destination for those files. Another option is a portable backup device, e.g. a HyperDrive ColorSpace backup device. The solid-state drive versions are rugged enough for the average trip and are available in a range of sizes depending on your needs.

Carrying it all

Depending on where you’re going, security may or may not be an issue. If your trip is to resorts around the world, a secure backpack may not be necessary. For a trip like mine, the bag I should’ve carried was the Pacsafe V25. It’s big enough to hold all the gear I had plus a good selection of “day stuff” i.e. water, wallets, etc. The biggest selling point, though, is the bag’s security options. It would be very difficult for anyone to remove anything from one of these bags without you knowing about it. I had the opportunity to buy one in New York, but didn’t. This is a decision I’m still regretting now.

More gear?

I wouldn’t bother taking any more than gear that. Extension tubes, multiple USB cables, external flashes, battery grip etc. They add weight and, unless you’re taking photos with the intention to use them for commercial purposes later and have a specific need for equipment like that, there’s a good chance you won’t end up using all that extra gear.

Anything else?

Not really. These are my personal thoughts on photography while travelling, having done a LOT of it recently. Everyone’s thoughts will be different, no doubt, but that’s how the world works. Hopefully you enjoyed reading these ramblings. 🙂

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