A Photography Packing List
Cameras basically break down into three main categories: consumers, pro-sumers, and pro-level, each increasing in options and complexity as you rise up the ranks. For most travelers, a digital point-and-shoot (or point-and-click) camera (AKA: consumer) will give you damn near everything you want: high-quality, high-res images; HD video; a quick shutter; variable presets; generous zoom ranges; and decent low-light photos, all in a svelte package. Some, like most of the Olympus line are shockproof, weatherproof, and waterproof down to 60 feet. Others come with high-grade lens crystal like Cannon’s Zeiss or Panasonic Lumix’s famed Leica lenses. And almost all of them are quick to turn on, easy to use, don’t take up much space, and serve the majority of the needs of a casual traveler photographer.
The industry, of course, is always trying to invent a better mousetrap, but in general $300 will get you everything you need to capture both candid photos and high-res images. Try for cameras that have at least 8.5 megapixels, which will let you blow up your best pictures to large formats without introducing much graininess. Also, little features like the ability to control the camera’s white balance and ISO puts a few easy-to-use tools at your fingertips (see sidebar). Try out a few and get one whose controls feel intuitive.
Pro-sumer models embrace the compactness of point-and-shoots, but offer more controls on the camera itself. They typically have full auto settings as well as priority settings for aperture (to control your depth of field) and shutter speed (to control the crispness or blurriness of your photo), as well as full manual modes. Most shoot video, and some even offer different lenses. The best also offer the option to shoot RAW files; simply put, uncompressed image files that allow for pixel-level manipulation of the image (know that RAW files do eat up space on memory cards, but most pros shoot only in RAW). Prices hover around $450.
Digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras are the next step up, starting around $500 for the body, plus additional for lenses (though most are sold as kits, giving you both in one lower-cost package). As with all things electronic, the more you spend, the more options you get. But at a minimum, every intro-level DSLR give you high-quality image processer with variable focal positions, full control over all aspects of the camera (including shutter speed, white balance, ISO, and aperture), resolution images well over 12 megapixels, and the ability to swap out different lenses. Some come with HD video, and all have very quick trigger responses. Spend a bit more and you’ll get full-frame imaging (replicating the 35mm resolution of the old days), time-lapse interval shooting, the ability to digitally stitch together photos into larger panoramas, and variable pre-sets. DSLRs also offer a suite of in-camera photo editing for on-the-fly tweaks. And all shoot in RAW as well as various jpeg settings. Professional-grade DSLRs range go as high as $7,000.
These larger cameras a bigger commitment, both in terms of travel security (nothing says traveler more than a massive camera around your neck) and in bulk. If you’re serious about travel photography, you’ll end up with one of these cameras. But the bulk that comes with a DSLR (and its various add-ons like lenses, cleaners, tripods, flashes, etc) may rub up against your minimalist traveling style. Think about both how you’d like to shoot and what you’re willing to endure, and plan accordingly.
With consumer- and pro-sumer-level point-n-click cameras, there’s little need for a larger, padded bag; find something that will nicely protect the display screen like a small slip pouch or small padded case, and you can safely carry the camera in your day pack or pocket. Small shoulder camera bags only draw attention of potential thieves.
For DSLRs you’ll need more space. There are loads of great camera-specific packs from manufacturers like Lowe Pro, who also make hike-friendly camera bag rigs as well as big packs for 1,001 lenses. We also dig companies like Crumpler and Timbuk2, who do a great job of integrating the padding and protection you need in a camera bag without making the bag scream National Geographic; when carrying $1,000 in camera equipment stealth is always a good thing. You can also find padded bags that you can drop into your favorite day packs. The size, of course, should be dictated by the number of things you need to carry as well as personal preferences like backpack-style straps vs. a single shoulder strap. Easy-access packs like Lowe Pro’s Slingshot are also great for quick-action photography.
Tripods can be something of a problem. Everyone wants ‘em light and cheap. But you’re creating stability for your hefty camera, so some weight is required. Carbon fiber is the Rolls Royce in the category, and will cost you as much as your DSLR. But there are less expensive tripods. Just be sure they can handle the weight of your camera and its biggest lens. If you can, get one with a pistol-grip pivot control—they make everything easier. There is also handful of great smaller tripods for all camera sizes, like the Podzilla formable tripods.
Extra Batteries and Cards
Nothing kills the moment more than a dead battery. Most cameras these days carry proprietary cad-lithium batteries with decent charges, with DSLR batter life typically extending over a few days of use. If you’re traveling in places without electricity, buy and charge a spare or two. Or find a camera that carries standard AA batteries.
Memory cards are astronomically cheaper than they’ve ever been. Buy a lot, and bring them all. It’s also good to bring along a card reader or some way to backup your photos (like loading them to a laptop or to web-served cloud storage like Google Images).
Dodging the elements sometimes simply requires a baggy jacket, but there are loads of products on the market. Our favorite, the DSLR-friendly, tres inexpensive Op Tech Rainsleeve, an L-shaped plastic bag. One end wraps around your lens hood, the other accommodates your hands, and a small cut lets you slide on your viewfinder cover. Won’t stop a hurricane, but it’s great for rainy conditions. Think Tank Photo’s products offer the hummer version.
DSLR folks should consider an external flash if lower-light photography is your future. Most even come with remote triggers, so you can position tripod-mounted flash rigs at the place you want to illuminate. But most installed flashes on DSLRs are good for about five feet. Point-and-shoot and pro-sumer flashes do tend to wash out the foreground, so plan on some extra time on the computer afterwards.
DSLR owners can go nuts on different filters (polarizing, neutral density, UV), and all serve their purpose--most photographers leave a UV filter on all the time, just to protect the camera lens (though it may affect the crispness of some photos). Some photographers like to trick out their cameras with custom shoulder straps (neoprene version offer a bit of bounce, and ditch that overt camera branding to boot). And always carry a lens cleaning cloth and a small air puffer to rid the lens or camera of unwanted debris.
SPECIAL CONCERNS FOR EXTREME CLIMATES AND CONDITIONS
Sand will find a way to get where it's not supposed to be…like in your camera. You can get a camera that is protected for underwater and it will be able to withstand sand. Or you can buy underwater housings for conventional cameras. Cameras like most of the Olympus line make point-n-shoots that can handle sand and water to depths of nearly 60 feet, while there are a handful of companies that also make underwater-specific cameras or waterproof cases for your camera that can withstand depths of 150 feet. Expect those to cost as much as your actual camera.
Battery death is the primary problem when you're in cold weather. You can get anti-cold battery packs for some professional cameras, but we suggest packing an extra battery and keeping it close to your skin (in an inside pocket) so that your body heat keeps it from getting sapped by the cold.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication