I travel light, or, at least I used to travel light. I used to carry everything for a three week trip in nothing more than a small book-bag sized backpack. If you’re going to carry a bunch of photography gear with you, and from the looks of it, nearly everybody is shooting with a DSLR these days, traveling light is essential. After all, who has room for clothes and extras when we’re carrying three lenses, a flash, tripod, filters, and on and on.
I carry way too much, simply because I am not a very good photographer. The great ones, (look up, I don’t know, Henri Cartier-Bresson) used a fixed lens, range-finder camera. They learned everything about their camera and learned to identify a scene exactly as their camera would see it. They made pictures that told stories and didn’t depend on long tele-photo lenses or distorting wide-angles. You should do that and not worry about how much gear to carry, and I should end here.
But I, I am just not that good. I carry a walk around lens with a broader range than most just so I won’t have to change too often (and miss shots). I carry a super-wide, because shots taken with it are often more impressive (on the rare occasion that they work) and they at least set me apart from shots with a kit lens. Oh, I often carry my heavy telephoto lens too because, well, you can’t shoot everything with that lens, but you can’t make a bad shot with it either.
But that’s not all, to Japan, where camera accessories were practically a badge of coolness, I dragged a tripod and on a few trips where I am expecting dark places I’ve brought the flash, and my cheapo remote triggers (and of course, gels for the flash). All in all, it’s ridiculous and thousands of pictures later, all I get is the feeling that travel photography is virtually dead.
One thing I do unmistakably gain, though, is experience. By now, you should be wondering how to carry all this junk. If you believe the market place, you’ll go out and get a specialized camera backpack that has room for all those lenses, the tripod, and even a second camera body (you know, someday….) Well, folks, these will keep you gear tucked away safe and sound, but make absolutely no sense for traveling.
The problem is, obviously, the tucked away part! That’s no place for all the crap you brought with you! The point is to take pictures and not to miss any shots, and that’s pretty hard to do when your telephoto lens is nestled inside your pack behind three zippers and two layers of velcro.
It’s worse than that though, these packs are sturdy, but all that means is when those perfectly organized compartments for tripod and long lens are unoccupied, you’re still carrying around this cumbersome pack, trying to squeeze through the mob or onto a crowded bus. Decided not drag the flash or tripod this trip? Well, good for you, you’ll still be dragging around an inconvenient camera bag.
Don’t despair, I have a simple solution for you! All you really need is a lens case for each lens (actually, for n-1 lenses; one is always on the camera, after all and you can juggle a bit and put shorter lenses in longer cases) and a neoprene wrapper, or hell, a towel, to wrap your camera in. Now you can toss this stuff into any soft backpack and carry as little or as much as you need. But there’s more! Make sure you get a lens case with some sort of flap that attaches to a belt; nearly all of the kind that have zippered tops, as opposed to the drawstring bags, have this. Now, when you’re out and about, you attach the lens cases to your book bag shoulder straps. They hang down at your side like gun holsters and you don’t look any more dorky than every other tourist with a small backpack on.
Frankly, my camera only leaves my neck when I sleep or shower during a trip, so the towel I mention above is truly enough of a case for it when you do have to stow it, but what about rain? American grocery stores still offer the easiest rain cover you’ve ever seen, for free: the plastic grocery bag, and you can find something similar most everywhere (sigh). These are disposable if they get ripped, and I promise, your camera is not soooo sensitive that it will melt from the first drop of water. When it really starts to pour, I just tuck the camera inside my rain jacket for the duration, or worse case, back in the backpack. This crinkly plastic bag fits most lenses, packs to the size of your first, and lets you use the camera in all but the worst downpours.
The backpack still has room for your guide book, a bottle of safe drinking water, and maybe lunch or souvenirs. You have quick access to the right lens for the right moment (exchanging from the lens case with the lens that was on your camera) and your whole system neither screams expensive gear nor weighs you down when, for today only, you decide not to bring every item in your kit (like that’ll ever happen).
So, save hundreds of dollars on a camera bag you’re going to hate and let thieves scope out the guys with the expensive looking gear. You’ve got things to see, pictures to take. Be ready!