Travel Photography: Packing Camera Gear for a Trip

So you’ve decided to take a trip – that’s fabulous! You’re excited about capturing photos along the way, but how do you make sure you’ve remembered everything you need to pack? Well first, each person has a different approach to taking photos while away from home, so to help you figure out what you need to pack, consider the following concepts.

Concept #1: How many photos will you take?

When it comes to photography and trips, it’s all about the balance of time spent snapping photos and time spent doing activities or relaxing; it’s about how you want to experience your trip. Are you the type of person who spends hours waiting for the right light before taking a photo, or do you snap a single shot and move on? Are you trying to get the artsy shot or are you perfectly happy just to record the scene once? Part of your plans to take photos will depend on who you’re travelling with and whether you’re on a pre-scheduled trip, or free to make your own schedule. Are you travelling with someone who is a photo enthusiast, or will your travel mates grow impatient the instant you pause to take a shot? Have you signed up for an organized tour, or can you stay in a city for an extra 3 days if you wish? Are you planning to visit 30 cities in 30 days, or just 1 city in 2 weeks.

The number of shots you take will depend on who you are and the nature of your activities. For example, if you’re hiking through forest or jungle for 8 days, you may be too tired to snap more than a few shots a day, let alone carry anything heavier than a small camera, whereas if you’re staying in central Venice for 8 days, you may plan to take hundreds of shots a day and can easily change cameras or lenses should you need to go back to your hotel. Consider how active you plan to be – e.g. hiking vs bungee jumping vs rafting. Can you hold your camera securely, or do you need to rely on the camera strap, or even some other type of harness? Is your camera heavy, or do you have a lighter one? Are you willing to carry it in a large camera bag with various lenses and accessories, or would you prefer to have a small case that fits only the camera? The case or backpack that you bring to carry your camera and accessories in can make your trip very pleasant, or very unpleasant! The bottom line is that only you know yourself when it comes to snapping photos and what you’re likely to do. Make sure you’ll be physically comfortable with what you choose to bring or else your photography goals will be hard to achieve.

Memory card capacity is a major consideration for digital photographers when it comes to how many photos you can store; likewise film photographers need to know how much film to bring. Assess how many photos you plan to take per day, and come up with the total number you plan to take for the whole trip. Then look up how many photos will fit on each film or memory card; that should tell you how many of each you need to pack (or purchase). However, once you’ve calculated how much memory storage you have to pack, or how many film cartridges you need to carry, seriously consider doubling it; it’s a lot easier to pack extra film or an extra memory card than spending time during your vacation buying an extra one. If you’re anything like me, you’d rather spend your time looking through tacky souvenirs than searching for an internationally-known brand of film! Of course, if you’re going the digital route, research the internet cafes near your lodging to see if they support USB downloads; perhaps you can burn a CD along your travels using these facilities. Or, if you’re really gung-ho, pack a laptop or a video iPod and download your photos to a larger disk.

Concept #2: Airports and Customs

The obvious concern of travellers these days are the X-ray machines and what damage they can do. Digital cameras and memory cards have no reported incidences of damage from X-ray machines at airports, so you’re pretty much safe if that’s all you carry. Film photographers, however, do need to be concerned about film passing through X-rays, so be sure to pack your film in your carry-on luggage in a separate bag so that you can specifically request the bag be manually searched instead of X-rayed. Note that checked luggage typically have more damaging X-rays pointed at them, so checking your film is not a good idea. At modern airports, there tend to be fewer problems with X-ray damage, but I know a friend of mine who went to Iceland returned with blemishes on virtually all of his 12 rolls of film after airport authorities convinced him that X-rays would not damage the film. Better be safe than sorry.

The other concern is your destination country’s customs laws and whether they limit the amount of camera equipment that you can bring, so do a little research on customs and check with your travel agent before you pack. Some countries may charge a fee or require you to bring special documentation, so it’s best to go prepared. At a minimum, you should get your expensive equipment certified at your local customs before you go, so that re-entry is not a problem either.

Concept #3: Lighting conditions when you get there.

Flash will use up batteries faster than non-flash, as will using the built-in digital viewfinder on point & shoot digital cameras. So consider how much photography you’ll be doing in low light. Museums and indoor photo opportunities may require flash, or use of a tripod, whereas sunny outdoor shots may need you to increase the brightness of your viewfinder.

Concept #4: Technical limitations on your hardware.

Let’s face it: extreme temperatures can play havok with any mechanical or digital equipment. How hot or cold will it be where you stay? Will you be quickly going between air conditioning and hot humid weather, or will you be outdoors in frigid temperatures for more than a minute? You must weight the risk of fungus or heat damage to your film or memory cards versus convenience and the cost of replacing them. Also consider taking sealable bags to prevent condensation as you go between dry, cold hotel rooms, and steamy hot outdoor temperatures.

Do you plan to take underwater photos? If so, consider purchasing a disaposable underwater camera. These days, it seems most underwater cameras also float, but you need to figure out if that’s what you want. Sometimes your camera will have a special underwater casing accessory for your camera that you can buy before your trip, but it likely won’t float, so be sure you don’t drop it in the ocean!

Digital photographers must consider battery life in foreign countries, and accessibility of throw-away batteries if rechargeable ones are not available. The DSLR that I own has a proprietary battery, but in case it dies, I purchased a AA battery accessory that lets you operate the camera on 6 AA batteries. Disposable AAA batteries are much more readily available than proprietary rechargeable ones, and I’d rather spend money on batteries than be without. Be careful, though; should you ever end up purchasing batteries in a foreign country, make sure you splurge on internationally known brands, rather than skimping on the cheap kind – I can’t tell you how frustrated I was when I bought a brand I had never heard of in Switzerland only to find my camera detected they had no juice left!

Related to battery recharging, it’s important to be aware of the power configuration in your destionation country. Do you need a power converter, or will your native power supply work? Do you plan to bring your AA battery recharger with you, or your priorietary battery charger? Check with your vendor to see if they recommend a particular power converter.

Concept #5: In case of damage…

Is there technical support available for your camera at your destination? If so, is it free, or do you have to pay for it? Can they fix your camera same-day, or replace it quickly if it outright dies? If your nearest camera shop is 500 km away, you may need to take a second camera with you, or tools to fix it yourself.

That’s a lot to consider! But frankly it depends on your shooting style and your desitnation. On my trip Mexico, I took a disposable underwater camera, a small point & shoot, and a larger DSLR with a single primary lens. I left them locked in my room’s safe, and only used one at a time, so it worked well for me. I took a small bag with which to dampen the affects of condensation because of rapid changes of air conditioning to humidity. But I also took a larger bag that had cleaners, spare batteries, and my AA battery pack – I used this when going inland to see Mayan communities since I knew I’d never go back and didn’t want to risk coming away with no photos!

Jennifer Clarkson is a Canadian Photographer living in Ottawa.  She is compiling a website of articles for Amateur Photographers to share knowledge about digital photography.  You can sign up to her Photography Forum to post questions and images, and you can rate the photos in her Photo Gallery.  She is also compiling a series of eBooks for Beginners, and the first eBook is now available: Choosing your Digital Camera and Accessories.


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