2012 Equipment picks for travel photography

This is an article that will probably go out of currency about six months after it’s published, but no matter; just because new cameras are released, it doesn’t reduce the usefulness or image-making ability of older ones. Travel is something I do for both work and pleasure; in my previous corporate life I used to travel heavily (think anywhere up to 100+ sectors per year) for work. My love for photography inevitably led me to carry a camera of some sort wherever i went – both to document my experiences as well as for use as stress release during my limited free time. Shooting is cathartic to me – I’m probably the only person I know who relaxes after a day of commercial shooting by taking pictures.

Traveling for meetings and other corporate reasons really takes most of the fun out of it; the TSA and other forms of airport security and administration do the rest. Much to my wife’s consternation, it’s taking me a little while to start enjoying it again.

The thought of going on a trip actually presents me with much anxiety: what the hell do I bring in the way of equipment? Early on in my photographic career, the choice was simple: everything that would fit into the bag, which at that point, was pretty much everything. Later, I’d take just new gear, or once again, if undecided, pretty much everything. However, my first trip with a significant other – Paris – showed me that hefting around all of that gear was both pointless when the primary purpose of your trip isn’t photography, as well as that it’s a sure way of annoying the hell out of your partner.

This considered, equipment choices changed from ‘how do I use X piece of gear?’ to ‘what is the minimum I can get away with and not feel like I’m missing anything?’ (My article on minimalism deals with this handily).

As a general rule of thumb, I don’t like to bring untried or untested gear with me unless I have absolutely no choice (my Vienna/ Prague trip at the end of 2011 was to get some images for Leica; that was the first time I was shooting the M9-P and 28/2.8 ASPH properly, and I paid for it occasionally with missed shots and questionable focus); there’s too much at stake if it breaks or doesn’t perform as expected. You’re probably not going to be able to repeat that trip to the Himalayas, so it’s probably a good idea to bring both a spare camera and a primary that you know can handle a bit of abuse.

What I do like a lot at the moment are both the raw shooting compacts – think the Ricoh GR-Digital III/ IV, Leica D-Lux 5/ Panasonic LX5; and the most compact of the system cameras. My current choice for travel is the Olympus OM-D, because of its image quality, huge responsiveness, small size – and more importantly, small system size – and ability to work well with longer lenses.

The Leica M9-P ranks pretty high up that list too – however, using anything over 50mm isn’t so easy without a magnifier, and if you’ve got one of those on, then you can kiss goodbye to your 28mm. It also isn’t so flexible when it comes to shooting food, for instance – another thing I enjoy. I do admit, it looks and feels nicer, though – but I’m shallow that way. (Why not travel in style if you can?) However, the biggest gotcha with the Leica is the liability – I don’t know how it is in other parts of the world, but to get insurance for cameras in Malaysia is near impossible, especially if you’re going to be taking them out of the country. And the premiums to fully cover an M system would probably cost a goodly portion of the trip itself.

I like to go with a two-lens kit these days – 24/28 and 85/90. This gives me two distinct perspectives, prime lens quality, fast apertures (with the low light ability and depth of field control that also implies) and (mostly) reduced size. This means the 24/1.4 AFS and 85/1.4 AFS on the D700; the Olympus 12/2 and 45/1.8 on the OM-D and Pen Mini; or some mixture of the Zeiss 28/2.8 Biogon, 50/2 Planar, Leica 28/2.8 ASPH and 50/1.4 ASPH on the M9 (anything longer being impractical). Where possible, I’ll generally also bring a spare body in the same mount, and perhaps also a highly capable compact – the Pen Mini and 20/1.7 pancake or Ricoh GR-Digital III usually fill this niche. I also like the Leica D-Lux 5, because its lens conveniently happens to go from 24 to 90mm…

The one hypothetical situation – which so far has not yet happened – where I’d make an unconventional equipment choice would be if I went skiing. The landscape opportunities are fantastic, but one generally needs more millimeters to make it work; however, there’s a lot of light, so they don’t have to be fast millimeters. I’d probably use the D800E and 28-300VR in a chest pouch, with a 45/2.8 P pancake in the front pocket for when the light gets low and I want something smaller for social evening activities.

If I’m going to an advanced country where spares are easily available, I’ll probably go with just one body; Japan would be a good example of this (though for some odd reason, I’ve always had two bodies whenever I’ve been there). This reduces weight drastically, and I know that I can still use my Nikon lenses if I have to pick up a used D700 or something to replace it. The other nice thing is worldwide support via NPS, which I’ve had to use in the past when the lens release button on my D3 fell off on the second day of my trip(!).

There are reasons for having two bodies, however – instant readiness is one of them – but it’s also important to consider how much of the trip you plan to spend shooting, and how much you plan to spend enjoying and experiencing being in a different place. It would be a shame to miss out on or have an incomplete experience because you’re too busy trying to get the shot. (I’m one of those strange people who experiences things by shooting them, so you may not necessarily want to follow exactly what I do here, either.)

So, distilling all that into a paragraph, my current camera choice would be the Olympus OM-D, 12/2 and 45/1.8 lenses. Either with a second OM-D body, or a Pen Mini as backup.

What about other equipment?

Well, batteries and chargers are a no-brainer. Figure out what you need for a full day of shooting, and bring one more so you can be charging and shooting at the same time. This number should be at least two. Ideally, you’d want your cameras to share batteries and chargers to improve backup, but this isn’t always possible. It seems that all camera makers want us to buy their horribly overpriced accessories all over again every time a new camera is released. Shame on you.

Spare cards are also a no-brainer. I generally bring three to four times what I think I’ll need; these days it’s usually 32 GB cards in the cameras, another two spares each, and some older 16GB spares.

Depending on how long you’re going to be on the road, you might want to consider bringing some sort of editing device or at least something to give you web access; I like the 11″ Apple MacBook Air because it’s both a proper computer, and light enough that you don’t notice you’ve got it. I don’t do any processing on it because of screen color accuracy issues, but I could if I had to. In fact, almost all of this blog is written from that machine. It also gives me somewhere to backup my files to at the end of the day. (Although I won’t do any photoshop work, I can do some light editing after seeing what works on a larger screen and what doesn’t.) After a two week trip, the last thing you want is for one of your cards to get corrupted and take all of your images with it. Backups are important: I’ve learned that the hard way in the past. Fitted into the USB ports are a pair of 32GB Sandisk Cruzer Fit USB drives, which are extremely small – they stick out about 5mm – but add another 64GB of solid state storage, which works as another backup. I’ve also got one of my portable drives with me, which holds a complete backup of my work at home – just in case something happens while I’m not there.

A comfortable bag is a must for moving from location to location, but when you’re there and shooting, you might want to consider a waist pouch or shooting jacket instead (depending of course on the climate). If I’m going with two bodies, I’d put a lens on each, spare cards and batteries in a cargo pants pocket, and off we go. It’s much, much more pleasant to shoot unencumbered without any bags or things that you might have to watch out for or remember to zip up and guard against thieves; you’ll be surprised how much of a difference it makes to your travel photography experience. I went with a shooting jacket last time, a couple of lenses in my pockets and one camera around my neck, and it was a hugely liberating experience.

Other things that are useful, but people seldom think of:
– Chewing gum.
– A permanent CD marker.
– Business cards, if you’re a pro photographer.
– Press passes – you’d be surprised how many times this has gotten me into places to get shots where the public wouldn’t normally be allowed.
– Duct tape, and cloth tape – it’s the magical stuff that holds the universe together. Both of them together, wrapped around that original particle, could probably have prevent the big bang from happening. Good thing they were inside the particle.
– Plastic ziploc bags, big enough to hold your cameras. This is my emergency rain cover, in case it gets really bad; however, you can take care of this to some extent by having a weather sealed camera. The lightest, smallest one in this class is the OM-D.
– A small flash, if you haven’t got one built into the camera; fill at night is useful.
– A tabletop tripod for long exposures; you can also rotate it through 90 degrees and brace it up against a window. I like the Manfrotto 345 set, which comes with some incredibly sturdy cast magnesium legs, a small ballhead, and an aluminum extension (which can be useful for small cameras, but absolutely too weak for larger ones).
– If you’re going to a hostile environment like the sea, then UV filters to fit all lenses.
– Spare lens caps and back caps**.
– Lens hoods. They’re good bumpers against impact protection.
– A small multitool. You might have to check this one in. Those little screwdrivers are extremely handy; actually, make sure you check your mount screws for tightness before leaving home – they have a curious proclivity to work themselves loose over time.
– Copies of your critical travel documents on a USB memory stick or memory card.
– Memory card reader; the compact direct-plug-in USB types are the most handy.
– A local sim card and cheap phone to put it in might be useful for extended trips.

**I usually tape two together, back-to-back, to make lens changing easier. Take the lens off the camera, put it onto your double-ended special, then take the other lens off and put it onto the camera. No fumbling with caps or leaving things unnecessarily uncovered. The alternative – aside from having two bodies – is to use a waist pouch or drop-in and forgo the caps entirely. Just make sure there isn’t anything else inside the pouch that could damage your lenses.

One last thing: don’t forget to have fun. It’s infinitely better to go with less gear and get creative to make do with what you did bring, rather than carry 30kg with you because you’re worried about the security of your hotel room and can’t bring yourself to leave anything behind, but at the same time don’t really want to walk around all day with it either. MT

Update, August 2012: I want to add the Sony RX100 to the list of recommended cameras. If you’re traveling in a group or with a partner, or doing any sort of travel at all where photography is not your primary objective, then consider taking along the RX100 instead of something larger. It’s barely noticeable until you need to get the shot, then it does it with a minimum of fuss and hides until it’s called upon again. It’s the very definition of the concept of photographic sufficiency.


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  1. While the 13″ Air screen has more pixels than the 13″ Pro, the 13″ Pro still trumps the Air in color gamut. I’ve tried to force myself to buy the Air, as the processor is enough for me, but the images on the Air, are washed out a bit – making it more difficult to do photo editing.

    • Good to know – I was thinking about a 13″ air to replace my aging 15″, but haven’t spent enough time to get a feel for the color gamut. Thanks for the tip.

  2. The Macbook Air is such a great portable device, I wish Apple would provide a screen with better color gamut and dynamic range, I’m sure the 13″ MBP Retina will solve this problem.

    I am currently using only a 12 mm f/2.0 and 50 mm f/2.0 lens – with the OM-D and an EPL-2 as backup. 95 MBPS SD cards, multiple batteries and a FL-36R flash with Oly bounce card. Full size Moleskin and a few other things. I like to travel light. (Kata photo bag and/or leather helmet bag – both can carry equipment depending on the scenario.)

    • I think the 13″ Airs and Pros both have much better screens than the 11″; if I’m not mistaken they should be similar in performance to the non-retina 15″ Pro. I suppose the new 11″ would do a lot better than mine (first gen) speed-wise – but with that screen, it’s impossible to do any critically accurate adjustments.

  3. Hey Ming, I’m from Geneva, will you show some of your shots you did here? And did you like your stay?

    • I will once I get around to processing them – was lucky enough to have two days of great weather, but geez you guys live in an expensive city!

  4. Great article, I’ve had the opportunity to travel with various setups and if you’re going by tour bus, it’s okay to pack 3kg worth of camera gear which I did with a D300, 17-55mm and 70-300mm. The same setup when you have to take public transport and walk long distances especially in summer makes for a very grumpy tourist by the end of the day.

    For my last trip I pretty much just used a GF1 with the 14 and 20mm lenses. I had not purchased the 45mm back then but I think these 3 lenses are small and light enough to cover most of my photographic needs (except when I need the longer reach at a zoo or a stage performance). I get to enjoy my photography as well as the holiday as it was meant to be enjoyed.

    • Thanks! After my last trip to Europe, I’ve decided that less is definitely more. Geneva saw me walking around with the D800/28 and OM-D/45, but only because I had the cameras with me for another job. I think if I was doing it again, I’d definitely just bring the OM-Ds. For M4/3, it might be worth looking into the 100-300 – I picked up a used one recently, and it’s light, small and cheap enough that you can leave it in your hotel unless you anticipate needing it. Once the 75/1.8 is available, I’ll just go with 12, 45 and 75.

      • The OM-Ds really seem to have made an impression on you! Only thing I could think of is whether you ‘miss’ having a more normal focal length such as 35/50mm? I ask because I would generally get confused as to what lens I should be shooting with and probably miss shots when it may have been easier to ‘zoom’ in with my feet! One of the ‘advantages’ of the X100!

  5. Very interesting thoughts. Travel is about enjoyment and in general you do want to blend in to wherever you go and so discreet and light should be a key consideration. The last few trips I have taken I have taken the Fuji X100 and the Olympus XZ-1 when I need a bit of zoom and its the ideal hiking camera to just get out of the pocket and take a picture with. So far so good and I am finding 35mm is a rather nice focal length for travel.

    I just got myself a monopod and will see how useful that is for travelling as well vs.a table top tripod, I’ve given up on wanting to edit on the go and what I find useful is simply to use an iPad for at least reviewing focus and composition. I have snapseed installed, but rarely use it!

    I do like the 85-90mm focal length and this may provide an excuse to buy a Pen Mini and the 45/1.8 😉 . But one thing for sure, I won’t be traveling with an SLR any more!

    • Same here – no SLR unless it’s for work. But then again, the D800/ 28/1.8G combination was pretty sweet for walking around with in Geneva…I could be convinced either way, I suppose.

  6. Brilliant, Ming. I am having a rare holiday in Thailand—gear? Glad you asked: OM-D, 12/2, 45/1.8, 2 x 16Gb cards.

    13″ MacBook Pro (Mercury SSD, 8Gb RAM, Moshi matte screen-equipped)

    LED torch, LaCie FireWire “Rugged” drive

    Chewing gum

    two books

    En route, all this fits very comfortable in a Kata hard case/bag (that doubles as a footrest if I am flying economy); the LaCie holds a bunch of movies for the flight as well as for the images shot, headphones for the MBP, a hat that pulls over my eyes for sleeping.

    Looks very similar to your setup—and I have been doing it like this for quite some time. Like you, as soon as µ4/3rds became genuinely useable, I sold all my pro Nikon and Sony gear—the OM-D and both lenses weighs less than the 24-70/2.8 zoom.

    I have had both the MBAs; not there yet, for me, either speed or screen-wise, and I like all the connections of the MBP (and the 13″ model I have set up as a perfect clone of the home 15″ MBP—so built-in info. redundancy; critical in my view.

    So—slightly different solutions, but huge overlap, too. Thanks, KL

    • The screen is the biggest problem with the MBAs. I use my 11″ for email, blogging and just showing rough images to clients, but I don’t do any editing on it (lack of horsepower for a start). Serious editing work has to wait til I’m back home.


  1. […] For travel equipment suggestions for 2012, have a look at this article. […]

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