A good friend of mine is a commercial photographer. Usually, he shoots in his studio, but every now and then he shoots on location. I asked him how he decides what gear to take on the road and he answered without missing a beat, “Easy. I take everything.”
When you’ve got a few assistants with dollies and a rented cube van, well yeah, that makes a lot of sense. On a commercial location shoot, with clients and art directors and talent and make-up crew all depending on you, it would be just a wee bit embarrassing if the whole production came to a halt because you hadn’t realized you’d need that third roll of gaffers tape or whatever. The few times I’ve done that kind of shoot, I followed my friend’s advice and took every last thing I owned. Every lens, every camera, every tripod. An extra set of Allen keys. Everything.
But that doesn’t work with travel photography. You’ve got to make decisions because you can’t take it all. And here’s where just about everybody makes the same mistake–they take too much. And then they cram it all into one of those photo backpacks and top it all of with a tripod that’s heavier than necessary. The rationale for doing so is the same as in the example of the commercial location shoot…what if I need something and don’t have it with me? That’s the worry. And being caught without something would be especially irksome because you own the damn thing. You’ve paid money for it, and yet it’s sitting back at home, useless.
But the flip side is that you haul a punishing load of gear around and never use it all. You may have that lens you want with you, but it will be in your bag. And if you do carry a backpack, you’ll have to take if off, zip it open, switch lenses, zip up the bag, then put it back on. Which is not always easy or even realistic depending on where you are…a crowded food market, say. But even when you are someplace where the unpacking and packing is at least somewhat practical, half the time you won’t even bother. It’s simply too much of a hassle, and besides, you’re physically exhausted and sore from carrying around 25 pounds of gear on your back all day. And even if you do go to the trouble, depending on the nature of the shot you were after, it might be gone by the time you fish the lens out, anyway. Then you want to switch back to the lens you had on before and have to go through the whole production again.
Let’s propose a scenario. You’re off to Rome for a five-day trip. And you’ve taken a lot of gear because, well, it’s not like you’re in Rome every month and you don’t want to go all that way and miss any shots. So you’re lugging two bodies, a wide-angle zoom, a fast 50mm, a mid-range zoom, and a 70-200. Plus teleconverters, tripod, filters, flash, etc., etc. The irony is that you’re taking all this stuff because you don’t want to miss shots, but what’s going to happen is that you’re going to miss more shots because you’ve taken all that stuff.
If you’ve got only five days in Rome, you’re going to want to cover a lot of ground and the only way to do that is to travel light and fast. That should be your mantra–light and fast. With one camera and one lens, you’re going to end up going more places and seeing more things because it’s now possible to do so. It’s a simple fact that you just can’t get around as easily when you’re loaded down. And the best part of it is, packing light makes the journey so much more pleasant. It’s a win-win. Not only do you get to places you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, you have a lot more fun along the way.
There are other reasons why having a backpack loaded with gear is going to prevent you from getting shots. If you hope to get any candids of the locals, well, forget about it. They’ll spot you from a mile away. And depending on which country you’re traveling in, you might not want to be hanging out by the river at night waiting for the sunset to get that shot when you’re lugging a small fortune of gear that screams, “Solve your money problems here!”
I learned how to travel light by going on backpacking and climbing trips. You have to strip things down to the essentials, or you just won’t make that summit. Or have any fun, either. The strange thing is, it took me a long time to realize this applies just as much to travel photography. For years I carried way too much gear, missed shots, and suffered the whole time. Traveling with too much gear is a beginner’s mistake, but eventually I learned the all-important lesson when it comes to traveling with photo gear, less really is more.
So if you want to get serious about travel photography, lighten up!