CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER
Assembling your gear / Practice using your gear
In part 1 of this 10 part series, we looked at creating two or three projects to keep us motivated and focused when traveling with a camera. But what camera might that be? And what lens might you use? And what about all the ‘other’ gear? It’s a nightmare that can haunt the best of us, and no-one ever gets it perfect, not even the professionals.
The best we can aim for, given the sheer number of possibilities waiting for us out there, is a combination of hard-wearing, high-capacity, low-light, repairable gear, that’s not overly expensive! With regards to the shooting side of your gear, and without spending the next week discussing the pros and cons of cameras and lenses, I’m going to reiterate a claim made by most professionals, including myself; a full-frame camera body coupled with a 35mm or 50mm f1.4 lens is about as good as it gets for c.75% of all situations. These days, a full-frame camera can be brought second hand for around 600 to 900 USD, and a 50mm f1.4 for around 400 USD. Need it cheaper? Consider an f1.8 or f2.8 instead, but try to commit to a full-frame body if possible.
This isn’t a bad image, considering it was shot back in 2008 with a Nikon D90 cropped sensor body and a fifty dollar 70-300 (broken) AF-D lens, out the back of a moving 4×4. Yes, you can still get great shots with less than great gear, and sometimes we need to shoot with cheaper gear to really appreciate the higher-end market. Looking back, however, I would have been much better off with a full-frame body and 50mm f1.4. The key here was speed, and the D90 and knackered lens did not deliver nearly as fast as I needed. With a full-frame sensor I could have ramped up the ISO higher to boost my shutter speed, and with the f1.4 I could have increased the shutter speed even more by opening up the aperture, giving me the edge to grab this shot faster and cleaner. Semi pro and pro Nikon DSLR bodies also have faster Auto Focus units, making them priceless for this kind of reportage travel. Using the wider aperture would have also allowed me to narrow my focus on the boy rather than the whole scene. Check out the next image a few paragraphs below to see what I mean.Boy with tire - Gambia / Senegal border
When buying a second-hand DSLR camera body, always look for the number of shots it’s taken. Each camera has a shutter count threshold which suggests when the shutter may need replacing, so you’ll generally notice that the higher the shutter count, the lower the second-hand price. The Nikon D700, for example, can officially shoot up to 150,000 images before the shutter mechanism may need maintenance, but my Nikon D700 has shot well over 700,000 images and I’ve never needed to replace or fix the mechanism! So it’s up to you, take the risk and save money, or buy new and have peace of mind.
TIP: A professional lens will hold it’s value, a professional camera body will not. You know that Nikon D2 you bought back in 2004? Safe to say you’re never seeing that money again! But that 80-200mm f2.8 you brought with it? That’s probably only lost c.30% of it value over 10 years, and probably won’t loose much more!! Good ‘glass’ holds value, and if you look after it (which I don’t) can make an excellent investment to trade-up later on, or sell at a respectable loss. I once walked into a camera dealership in Beijing, and asked them how much the’d give me for my Nikkor 300mm f4 (it’s pretty heavy for light-weight travel, and I needed the money to repair my 28-70mm f2.8 that I’d ‘dropped’ when shooting the Great Wall). The guy looked at the 300mm, looked at me, lol’d histerically, and told me he’d never seen a lens so battered in all his life, and that I must be a good photographer for using it so much. I wasn’t sure if that was a complement or not :S.
The aim of travel gear really is two-fold: 1) to give us as many opportunities to shoot as possible, and 2) not to break. So we need camera gear that’s fast to use, offers manual controls for quick changes, gives clean results at moderate to high ISO levels, has great battery life, and enables us to shoot in low-light and all-weather conditions. It also means we need to be careful when buying cheaper camera gear because ‘cheaper’ usually means less tough with no weather sealing, and we don’t want the elements to work their way into the lens or sensor. So in light of this, it makes more sense to invest in one semi/professional weather-sealed camera body and lens, rather than a cheaper body and a couple (or more) cheaper lenses. Yes, you might get more range with more lenses, and you might also save a few hundred dollars overall, but I’ll bet you won’t take them out in a storm, and that’s exactly when you need to be out with your camera!
Shooting in the rain (monsoon in this case) is never easy. Your lens glass will catch droplets as soon as you take the front cap off, leaving small blurs on your images if left unchecked. If you don’t have a weather-sealed body or lens it’s not advisable to shoot in the heavy rain unless you use a professional hood or jacket to protect the gear. And camera jackets make using the camera next to impossible. Luckily for us, most semi-pro and pro gear is sealed to some degree (check yours first), so stop being scared of the water, and understand your pro sealed gear will still work if it gets wet, sometimes very wet. And muddy. Leave the front cap on the lens until you absolutely have to take it off, form the image in your mind first, adjust camera settings, whip the cap off, shoot fast, and reseal asap. Always carry two or three lens cleaning cloths in a plastic bag to keep them dry, you’ll want to find some shelter to clean the front element before heading back out. FYI a few small drops on the lens will not affect the image quality, so don’t worry if you can’t get the glass perfectly clear, just make sure there are no smudges or smears.Hauling Wood - Siem Reap, Cambodia
Shooting in deserts can yield fantastic results, and even the cheapest cameras would find it hard to screw up here. As a travel photographer, however, it’s your job to push harder and think outside the box…A sand dune in good weather - Western China
Don’t try this at home. Sometimes thinking outside the box means putting yourself at risk, and shooting a violent sandstorm was not something I’d planned when I got up that morning. However, with the right gear, and the right attitude, we can accomplish anything. This image in the heart of a sandstorm contrasts the serenity of the black and white dunescape perfectly and together they really sum up travelling the Taklamakan desert, which, if you remember, is the whole point to our travel photography.A sand dune in bad weather - Western China
Okay, so what about compact cameras, and their elder siblings, the Compact System Camera, will they do for travel? Yes and no. We need quick manual access to adjust exposure, focal tracking, bracketing, and so on. Even if you don’t know what they are now, you will one day, and when you do you’ll wish you had them. Now, does any compact camera do this well? Not that I’ve seen yet. So keep the compact camera stashed as a backup of a backup, and only use it if you really have no other choice. A CSC, one that looks compact but usually lets you change the lens, does indeed give you more for your money, most even offer some manual control access, but they can be DAMN slow to focus, take a photo, and then reset for the next. I’ve tried using a number of CSC, and whilst they are one of the more promising development avenues in photography, they are currently far too slow, in my opinion, for reportage travel shooting, and take an eternity to do anything under the hood. Remember, we’re not rambling about snapping butterflies and rocks, we’re training to be Photographic Storm Troopers, ready to capture life-in-motion at a split second’s notice. Your gear needs to be ready before you are.
Shooting an Abbatoir in western China. It’s fair to say I wasn’t allowed in here, but having a Uiqhur translator got us behind closed doors. Problem is, you only have a small window to shoot before you outstay your welcome, and I make it a point to never outstay my welcome. Shooting with a Nikon D4 and a low-light 50mm kept me compact enough to squeeze through the disarray, composing and shooting as I walked and talked. Without the speed of the D4, the low-light shutter boost from the 50mm, or the fantastic depth of field adjustment you get from combining a full-frame body and f1.4 lens, I’d never have come close to making the most of this opportunity.Yarkant - Western China
The great thing about semi-pro and pro DSLRs is that you can work really quickly. We’d just come in from the Taklamakan desert, sandy, tired, thirsty, and with another sandstorm predicted within the hour. As the storm whipped up around us we passed a small outpost on the desert fringe, maybe three or four buildings, deserted and derelict. HDR heaven!! Jumping off Mr camel I half ran and half adjusted the manual camera controls (bracketing, focal tracking, aperture, exposure comp) and jammed the camera and 14-24mm f2.8 through a small gap in the sandstone wall. Firing off 9 shots in rapid succession took under a second, and with the storm now threatening to take the skin off our bones, I jumped back on Mr camel and we were off. The quick control access, a little foresight, and lots of imagination gave me the basic raw footage I’d need to construct an HDR image later on in the safety of a hotel room. Now, try doing that with a compact camera!Yarkant - Western China
Now, take a look at your current travel gear, because whilst cameras and lenses might capture the image, you need the right clothes, bags, and consumables to actually get in place to shoot. And what’s right for me, might not be right for you. People in far-off lands are just the same as you and me; they do not ignore tourists with three cameras dangling, tripods slung, and bright green flak jackets filled with filters and first-aid kits. We’re not climbing Everest or ducking bullets just yet, unless you are, then good luck with that! Raising alarm amongst the local populace will damage your ability to shoot candid and constructed, and street vendors, hawkers and thieves will target you instantly. It helps, therefore, if we aim to look like a well-seasoned traveller to keep local interest to a minimum; well-seasoned travellers are notoriously tight-fisted (from my experience), and pose no threat of imminent cash flow, so therefore, are of no immediate interest. I’ll leave the details to your common sense, but when I’m shooting I wear grey lightweight and quick-drying cargo pants, with a similar coloured lightweight long-sleeved shirt. Pack a micro-fleece or down Gillet for when it gets cold, again dark-ish colours, and use waterproof walking shoes or mountain boots depending on the terrain. Keep the colours medium-dark, because the brighter the clothes, the more obvious you become, dashing any hopes of capturing those unique interactions between people and nature. Stealth is key. Unless you’re climbing Everest, then forget everything I said, paint yourself red, and take Oxygen.
TIP: The lighter the weight, the better. Shooting all-day with 25 kg strapped to your back will impact your ability to get the shot, and unless you’re very fit will slow you down as the days pass.
These days I don’t use a professional camera bag as I shoot travel or reportage, I just hold the primary camera with a 50mm f1.4 or 70-200mm f2.8, and stash a wide lens in a lightweight daysack for easy access. If climbing or scrambling then consider using a belt attachment to secure the primary camera, and to keep your upper body free and balanced. As you progress through your photographic adventure you’ll obviously pick up additional lenses, and what you buy is dependent on how, and what, you shoot. Go look at Ken Rockwell’s website for some of the best and most honest advice on the net. Love that guy!
TIP: Use a simple daypack for carrying gear. Fill it with foam padding or a towel instead of using that thief-magnet Crumpler; you’ll feel safer, and will spend more time looking for shots rather than thieves. I’ve been known to roll my bags around in the mud to make them even less appealing!
If you plan on going to densely populated areas, and who doesn’t, then you should definitely consider investing in a strong and secure camera strap too, for times when you can’t always have your camera in hand or in front of you. I’ve seen thieves cut away normal straps in the blink of an eye, grab the flailing camera, and run off with all your hard-won images. It’s not cool, so don’t make yourself a target. I’ve tried pretty much every branded camera strap there is, and eventually settled on a Pacsafe Carrysafe Reinforced strap. I know, right? It’s not actually designed for use with a camera, but it works excellently and has STEEL running through it! The point attachments are all lockable, but also quick releasable, so I can use it on different bodies depending on what I’m shooting. Highly recommended for photographers out there who are tough on their equipment.
So, do you have everything you might need? If so, can you slim it down? Get rid of that packaging, leave lens cases at home, batteries do not need boxes, and you don’t need ten lenses that cover the same focal range. You know what I mean, so be harsh and cut out everything you can because we’re going bare minimum here. Conversely, if you’re missing something then go and get it now, as buying abroad can be time-consuming and expensive.
- Full frame camera body with extended battery
- Wide lens – 14-24mm f2.8
- Standard low light lens – 50mm f1.4
- Telephoto lens – 70-200mm f2.8
- Packapod tripod
- Remote trigger
Yes, us professionals extoll the virtues of the ‘all-rounder’ 50mm f1.4, and then we pull out a 14-24mm and 70-200mm and expect you to be okay with it! The thing is, a 50mm is just a fantastic lens and so damn useful, and I’ll always revert to using it when I’m somewhere new for the first time, or I need the DoF range, or a quick shutter speed boost. But, when you need to go WIDE, the 14-24mm has helped me win competitions over and over for its fantastically wide perspective, you just need to know how to use it. Likewise, the 70-200mm really is one of my favourite ranges for reportage and portraits, as it allows me to poke my nose into someone else’s business and get away with minimal scars. I’d be lost without these three lenses, but then again, if I could only keep one, it would be the 50mm without a second thought.
Practice using your gear
So you have your photography projects penned down, your gear laid out, and the motivation to start shooting. Let’s take a look a closer look at the gear, see how it works, try it on, and then adapt and modify until everything works fast and smooth.
TIP: Don’t be afraid to cut, tear, sew and mangle your camera gear and clothes to get them the way you want, remember we’re here to shoot, not resell. If it works as standard then great, if it doesn’t, now is the time to fix it. Okay, don’t hold me responsible if you break something, and I’m not telling you to strip the rubber grips off your Nikon body to save weight, they’ll fall off anyway, just use your common sense and make it all work for you and your style of shooting. Get the strap length correct for your body and arm length, figure out which items should go in which bag pockets, stash spare memory cards and batteries close to hand, not at the bottom of your bag. Buy loads of lens cleaning cloths and stash them EVERYWHERE, you might also attach one to the camera strap for easy access. Make sure your favouite travel jacket doesn’t impede the functionality and ‘draw’ speed of the camera strap, load up your day-pack over and over again until you have a packing order etched into your brain, because when it starts to rain (or during customs checks at the airport) you’ll want to pack up as fast as possible.
In this second post of the series, we’ve touched on the vast array of choices when choosing a travel camera and have discussed the importance of personal admin and gear use. Now that we have our projects and gear sorted (don’t worry, more info on gear next month), and are competent at using it all, it’s time to look out across the horizon towards your intended destination. In post 3 we’ll be looking at the real-life considerations when actually shooting abroad, and how you can prepare and protect yourself as best as possible. We’ll also look at a couple of websites that can help you hone your actual photography skills before you go.
This tutorial was written as accompanying documentation for a course I ran for diploma level students in various countries around the world between 2012 and 2016. Aged 16 to 19 years, these students undertook a semester of photographic practice and theory whilst performing regular assessments to gauge learning. I found that whilst all students were capable of passing the required criteria, some found it hard to put their new found skills to effective use once the course had finished, I figured there needed to be some way to help them remember the core lessons as they went on through life, developing their skill set. So I wrote this. I’ll update it as and when I feel I need to as the vast majority is common sense, tips based on a fair amount of experience and some key reminders. Most of this will age fairly well, but of course technology changes ever faster, so perhaps take the camera suggestions with a pinch of salt 😉
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Barnaby Jaco Skinner
Professional photographer & Artist
I'm a professional photographer and artist. I've worked and lived around the world, spending most of my adult life on the run from conformity and routine; it's a lifestyle that lends itself well to exploring this vast Earth we call home. This virtual place is home to some of my latest work and acts as a portal for business and workshop clients.