How Much Gear Should You Take on Your Next Trip?

st.peters

The alter of St. Peter’s in Vatican City sits just below the Basilica’s spectacular dome. Photo ©Mike Randolph

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.

keyhole

St.Peter’s dome, take two: On the Aventine Hill in Rome, you can peek through a keyhole into the gardens owned by the Knights of Malta to see a perfectly framed view of St. Peter’s dome. It’s a long way between the two places. Do you really want to be hauling a lot of gear? Photo ©Mike Randolph

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!

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11 Responses to How Much Gear Should You Take on Your Next Trip?

  1. Nikon Newbie 21/03/2014 at 4:18 pm #

    Hi Mike,
    I love the keyhole photo! What camera and gear did you use to get that? Did you know to look for that keyhole or were you peeping through random gates until you found something photo-worthy? 😉

  2. Mike Randolph 21/03/2014 at 4:26 pm #

    Hi there, thanks for the comment. I used a 50mm lens. And yes, ahem, I had heard about it beforehand! It’s a famous/secret spot in Rome.

  3. Ian 23/03/2014 at 12:55 pm #

    Hi Mike .

    Great blog, just stumbled across it this weekend… Awesome pics throughout! ..

    Also a travel mad photographer i couldn’t agree more with the mantra ” travel light and fast” … Although its a very weird feeling being on my first trip to Laos without my 7D and usual 3 lenses , filters , cleaning kit etc.
    Carrying an iPhone using the Hipstamatic camera app sure brings new meaning to “light and fast’!! . And it creates some different kinds of pics that are so different to using a DSLR . But any keen photographer must surely agree “Less is more” no longer applies when you cut to this extreme!

    So assuming you want serious pics and are happy to carry one body and one lens which lens would you pack knowing you want a good mix of landscapes , wildlife and travel portraits?
    Ian

  4. Mike Randolph 24/03/2014 at 1:32 pm #

    Thanks for the kind words, Ian. Sounds like a cool trip. I have a friend from there. She’s a cook and she makes the most incredible stuffed chicken wings…if you see them on the menu somewhere I highly recommend them! As far as the iphone goes, sometimes you can get some shots that you just wouldn’t be able to get with a big camera, especially where people are camera shy. You pose a great question, though it’s a tricky answer. You’ve just given me an idea for another blog post, so thanks! If you don’t mind, I’ll answer it in the next few days, so stay tuned. Thanks again.

  5. Ian 26/03/2014 at 1:49 pm #

    Hi Mike, ok cool….
    I can’t help but think if money wasn’t an issue the Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS 11 USM zoom would have to be my choice for a single lens trip…..A lot of lens for a lot of money !! But perhaps thats the price to pay for 3 lenses in one?! Ok look forward to the next blog with your ideas.
    In the meantime I’m either loving or hating the iPhone pics. Haven’t seen the stuffed chicken wings in Laos yet but the food is amazing. So is the river boat trip down the Nam Ou and Mekong….ancient hill tribespeople, colorful markets, kids playing , forested mountains, it’s a photographers paradise, oh man I miss my 7D !

  6. Mike Randolph 26/03/2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Well, if what you want is a telephoto zoom, go for the f/4 version. Much smaller and lighter, zero compromise on sharpness. I got rid of the 2.8 version a long time ago and couldn’t be happier. The f/4 with image stabilization is my all-time favorite L lens.

    Sounds like a great trip. Have you tried editing your iphone photos with Snapseed? If not, give it a shot, it works really well. Have a great time.

    Mike

  7. Thomas 03/10/2014 at 9:50 pm #

    What I did on my last trip (5 weeks Japan and Hong Kong) was: 3 bodies 3 lenses. Sounds much, but it did fit into the bag, where usually only my DSLR (Sony a55) with lens + one extra lens fit.

    Sony Nex5 with Voigtländer 15mm f4.5 attached via adapter (= 22,5mm equiv.)
    Fuji X-E1 with Leica 40mm f2 attached via adapter (= 60mm equiv.)
    Olympus E-PM1 with Leica 90mm f4 attached via adapter (= 180mm equiv.)

    Served me very well! Light, versatile, not too expensive, unobtrusive and NO CHANGING LENSES!!!

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