Given how much gear is available in the photography world, it’s easy to decide all of it is essential. “Gear creep” is a very real phenomenon; two lenses becomes ten, a backup tripod is on sale, and an extra body for day shoots gets added to the collection. Any dedicated traveler knows shedding as much weight as possible keeps the trip comfortable. For the travel photographer it can get tricky, because extra gear can mean extra options. But how many options are enough? Instead of stocking up for every possibility, it’s much better to decide what your photography goals are. If you know what kind of photos you want, you can research exactly what gear will cover the greatest number of bases. As long as you’re using most of your gear most of the time, you know you’ve made smart purchases.
When looking at camera bodies, think about the dimensions of the camera. Hold it in your hands and imagine using it all day. If it seems too large, maybe you would prefer something that will quickly stow away? If so, many mirrorless cameras provide a smaller body and less weight without sacrificing photo quality.
Your lens selection has the greatest effect on what sort of photography you can create. Making sure you understand what focal lengths and apertures you need is the best way to quickly cut through the jargon and make wise purchases. The focal length of your lens is how much zoom you have to play with. Lens focal lengths are described in terms of millimeters, such as a 50-150mm zoom lens. The aperture is how wide open the hole that lets light into your camera gets. Keep in mind the larger the aperture number, the smaller the hole that’s being created. An aperture of f/2.8 lets in twice as much light as an aperture of f/4.0.
Three lenses are all you really need to be able to shoot the vast majority of photography types. Most people are going to want to shoot portraits, scenery, and photos of far subjects. For a portrait lens, you’ll need a wide focal length like 20-40mm, as your subject is right in front of you. Also, you want a nice, open aperture, like f/2.8 or below. This allows in enough light to properly expose the subject’s skin in natural light. And the open aperture will blur the background of the photo while leaving your subject in sharp focus. Prime lenses are inexpensive and work beautifully as a prime lens doesn’t zoom. Since portrait subjects aren’t running from you, the extra focal length of a portrait zoom lens isn’t always necessary. Also, prime lenses weight less than zoom lenses do.
The next lens you want is something for scenic views. You need something with a wide-angle field of view, which is a focal length of 40mm or less. You also don’t need a wide open aperture, as you want everything to remain in sharp focus. Smaller apertures, such as f/4.0 and beyond, are not at all expensive. Luckily, the kit lens your camera came with more than likely reaches as low as 15-18mm. There are really nice walkabout/scenic lens that can do both portraits and landscapes, though. If you don’t mind the expense, then try finding something with similar focal range, but a more open aperture. While more expensive, an f/2.8 lens with around 12-40mm of focal range is a great main lens that will rarely leave your camera. It does landscapes and is also a fine portrait lens, though the depth of field isn’t quite as shallow as an f/1.8 prime lens.
And finally, you want a lens for subjects far away. While an open aperture is nice to have, costs go up incredibly quickly if you add zoom to the equation. But most manufacturers have f/4.0-5.6 apertures in zoom ranges around 40-150mm or 55-200mm. These are great for capturing shots of wildlife and getting close to the action on the sports field. With these lenses, the slightly closed apertures mean you have less light to work with. So make sure you keep an eye on your ISO setting. Digital camera ISO is exactly the same as the ISO ratings film come with, The higher the number, the more light sensitive the film. If it’s dark and you need to zoom, raise the ISO as needed to ensure proper exposure.
Memory cards, memory card holders, sensor cleaning kits, filters, monopods…There’s always one more item to add to your kit. While all of it has a place, only a few items are truly essential. A good tripod is almost mandatory. There are times when you really need the stability of a tripod, such as shooting with a very low shutter speed. Otherwise the small motions your hands make over time add up and will cause your photos to show motion blur. If space is becoming too tight, a monopod is a good trade. Like the name suggests, a monopod only has a single leg, but provides stability when shooting handheld. Sports and wildlife photographers find them especially useful, as they’re easy to set up and then collapse and move with. You can’t take self portraits, but it’s only a third the size of a tripod.
If you spend a large amount of time shooting outdoors, a circular polarizing filter is a great thing to have. A CPF is a piece of tinted glass or plastic that sits on the front of your lens. It reduces the amount of scattered light reaching your lens, which cuts down on glare and haze. The sky will often look deeper and have better contrast. The glare from the surface of the water or glossy plants is reduced or eliminated. Pollution and haziness are also reduced. Polarizing filters are one of the few filters that are mandatory if you like the outdoors for the impact they’ll make on your pictures. Neutral density and other filters are great but won’t get as much mileage. And CPFs only weigh a few grams; there’s always space for a polarizing filter in the traveling photographer’s kit.
Lastly, extra batteries really do deserve a place in the kit of a travel photographer. Even just one. If you’re using a compact or mirrorless camera, you’ve probably noticed the battery life of these smaller cameras is very poor, usually 250-400 shots per charge. Two batteries is a good investment to avoid a blinking “no power” light. DSLRs usually have better battery life, as the viewfinder system does not consume power, and the camera itself can hold a larger battery. A single extra battery is a purchase you won’t regret.
If your camera is a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a kit lens, the portrait prime and telephoto zoom lens should cost less than $300 all together. With the portrait prime, kit lens, and telephoto, you can cover focal lengths from 18-200mm, depending on what you decide on. Our prime has a wide open aperture for great depth of field control, and the others offer better zoom reach. Best of all, the focal lengths and apertures covered by these lens choices will let you shoot other types of photography as well. You can still take macro photos with your portrait lens or sports photos with your nature telephoto lens. There’s plenty of overlap without needing six more specialized lenses. Some sort of stabilization like a tripod or monopod is a great idea. And extra batteries will keep you taking pictures all day. Happy shooting!