Gearing Up For Travel – Making Better Photo Equipment Choices

I love to take photos, visit new places near home and take trips to other countries. No matter what the occasion, I run through a mental checklist to determine what photography equipment to pack. Once I committed to digital photography in 2003 I eliminated film canisters and thus one bulge in my baggage. I transitioned to the digital age with the Nikon Coolpix 4500, which is quite compact and versatile. A few years later I purchased a Nikon D50 (DSLR). This new equipment meant I had many more decisions to make before leaving home.

The basics
Essential basics for either camera are extra rechargeable batteries, the charging device and a few memory cards. After that, choices multiply very quickly. When I was using the Coolpix I got interested in wide-angle exposures, so I invested in a lens for that. In preparation for a trip to the Norwegian Arctic in 2004 I was concerned about getting better color saturation and removing reflections, so I bought a polarizing filter. It isn’t a big item, but something else to include in my bag. I always consider the best equipment to preserve my photos during a trip. How will I review, edit, manage and show them off during a trip? My solution has always been to take my laptop computer with the AC power cord. The camera itself is still reasonably compact, but the support elements really add up.

Image storage
There is another choice to manage my images when I’m traveling. That hardware is referred to, in general terms, as a portable digital storage device. Other than a computer, this is a secure and highly efficient method to download, review, sort, and back up my images on the road. These devices include products like Smart Disk Trax (80GB), Sandisk Sansa Pocket Media Player, two models from Epson (P3000 and P5000) and Canon M80; and the list goes on. Prices range between $500-600 for those with a higher storage capacity and more functions. While the cost is substantial, such equipment does provide a compact and efficient way to safeguard photos when traveling. Unless you will be using your laptop for other functions like email, you might want to consider leaving it home.

My backpack
As I became more committed to the digital photography world and reclaimed my love of taking photos from the bygone days of my Minolta 201, I purchased a photography backpack (Tamrac Adventure 9) and dedicate it to the essentials first. If there is any room left after the camera gear is in, I squeeze in the iPod and headset, a flashlight and perhaps my medical supplies. I’m always surprised at how heavy that pack can become in a very short time. Most recently I bought the Tamrac Velocity 9x, which goes over only one shoulder, and I can carry almost all the gear from the backpack with the exception of my laptop. What I like about this one is that since it is on only one shoulder I can swing it around in front of me and everything is immediately accessible.

As mentioned earlier, I now use a DSLR, which means I have at least two lenses to consider taking; my most frequent choice is the Nikon (18-135mm & 70-300mm VR). I love these two especially because they both take 67mm filters. This means I only need one polarizing filter and one neutral density filter adapter for both. During a trip to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands in 2007 I added the Arctic Butterfly dust-cleaning tool to my pack along with the lighted loupe. I had a prior bad experience with dust on my sensor and didn’t want to be confronted with an emergency like that at the end of the world. Another must in my bag is a large hand blower. In order to minimize the space required for that, I compress the bulb and tie it with a Velcro strap.

Speed-light and tripod
For a fill light and highlighting the brilliant colors of the King Penguins of South Georgia I used my Nikon SB600. It’s small and light enough to be comfortable in a belt pouch where it is ready and easily accessible. In that cold climate the batteries stayed warm under my parka. I’ve always believed that keeping them warm prolongs their life. I use rechargeable NiMH batteries in the 2600-2900mAh range, which gives me ample service between charges.

For nighttime shots or longer exposures, I carry my little electronic shutter release, which fits neatly in a case and hangs from the camera strap. Oh yes, and how do I take the long exposures at night, you ask? I forgot to mention, I also carry a tripod. My choices are a heavy-duty Bogen or a lighter version Manfrotto. When I’m not pressed to capture images of animals on the move like birds in flight, my tripod serves me well. One must realize the advantage or disadvantage of each type. The better tripods give you the additional choice of an adjustable swivel head, which can easily add another two pounds or more.

As for flying birds in Antarctica, I found that my monopod was actually a better tool for stabilizing my 300mm lens because it allowed me to move quickly and to follow the target. The steadiest of youthful hands will find that even a ‘stabilized’ lens can be improved by a physical support to ensure the sharpest image. Stabilized lenses are a wonderful advancement in technology, but having a physical support to ensure the best image is still a time proven method. Mounting my camera on a tripod also forces me to spend more time thinking about all the elements of my exposures.

In the end, all these and even more choices are part of the fun of photography. It is still up to you, based on your degree of interest, finances and motivation whether you hang a 12x super zoom point and shoot around your neck or pack all your toys like a survival weekend in the mountains.

The choice is yours
With more than one bag to select from, I’ve expanded my options of what to take based on the anticipated conditions of light, weather and subject. In preparation for my 2008 adventure in the Baltic from St. Petersburg to Copenhagen, I seriously thought about leaving my long lens home since I would be in cities where people and architecture were the subjects. At the last minute I caved in and took the big one too. I used it twice. Was it necessary? Probably not, but I have some shots I would not have gotten without it. I suppose that is why for some, the newest big zooms that can range from 18-300mm are certainly an option.

My conclusion is to have fun and experiment. As a famous cowboy used to say, “Happy Trails”, and hope to see you out there.