What you should pack (and how to pack light) for travel photography

What you should pack (and how to pack light) for travel photography

Cover image by Jaromir Chalabala

5 top tips for packing light for photography trips

Travel photography isn’t always as glamorous as it looks. Dreams of being footloose and going wherever the shot demands sounds incredibly liberating, but if you’re weighed down by insane amounts of camera gear it can seriously dent your ambitions and sense of freedom. From planning wisely to choosing lightweight equipment, there are some easy ways to shed gear without making compromises.

Here are some of our top tips to get you started…

Silhouette of young photographer on the beach
Don't inhibit your freedom with heavy gear when it comes to travel photography. Read on to see our top tips on how to pack light without compromising. Photo from Jaromir Chalabala

1 Take a zoom lens

Fixed focal length kit lenses are often awesome, but leave them at home. Lenses are the heaviest things in your photography backpack, so when you’re trying to keep gear to a minimum try to take as few lenses as possible.

"Lenses are the heaviest things in your photography backpack, so when you’re trying to keep gear to a minimum try to take as few lenses as possible."

Instead, buy or rent a zoom lens or two to cover the focal lengths you think you’ll need.

Good options for a ‘travel zoom’ include a 24-70mm or 24-105mm, which are as close to all-rounders as you can get. They’re reasonably wide-angle, but also allows you to get fairly close in. It does make a difference if you’re planning to shoot the night sky (in which case you’ll need a 14mm or 16mm lens), while a 400mm telephoto will be really useful if you plan to either photograph wildlife and/or isolate subjects in a vast landscape.

Whatever the theme(s) of your trip, never take more than three lenses… but two if you can get away with it.

DSLR camera with a zoom lens white isolated studio shot.
Pack a ‘travel zoom’ (something like a 24-70mm or 24-105mm), as it's a great all rounder where you can easily get both a wide angle view and close up view with the same lens. Photo by Deyan Georgiev
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If you’ve planned a trip to photograph something new – for example, the Northern Lights – you may be tempted to buy a new lens, or even a new camera body, at the last minute. Don’t do it. Tempting though it may be, learning how to use a new complex piece of kit takes time that you’re not going to have on your photography trip. By all means invest in new gear in the months before your trip, but if you’ve not mastered it by the time you set off, rely only on tried-and-trusted equipment. 

2 Find a travel tripod

There’s almost nothing more awkward to travel with than a tripod and if you want to travel light then something has to give. Some landscape photographers refuse to compromise on their tripod, insisting on travelling with something heavy that that puts their camera at eye-level.

"There’s almost nothing more awkward to travel with than a tripod and if you want to travel light then something has to give."

That’s understandable and may be justified for some trips, but if you’re prepared to stoop or kneel then there are far lighter, albeit slightly smaller travel tripods that can help make the rest of your trip more enjoyable. If money is no object then go for something made of carbon fibre, which is used in the lightest designs on the market, though aluminium designs are much more affordable.

Few travel tripods stretch to more than 59 inches/150 cm, collapsing to about 40cm long. That’s small enough to go inside checked luggage or to strap on the outside of a camera bag (though do detach the ball head mount and stow in your camera bag). Just make sure whatever tripod you decide to take can support the weight of your camera and the largest lens you plan to use because there’s nothing worse than a drooping tripod.

Silhouette of young photographer (traveler) with tripod on beach against fishing boat and sea. Beautiful sunrise in Sri Lanka.
Tripods are always going to be an awkward inclusion in any travel kit, as you can't get away from the fact that they are going to take up space. But if you're willing to compromise, there are models out there that are less-cumbersome when it comes to travelling. Photo by Jaromir Chalabala
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If you’re not planning to take long exposures then you may be able to avoid taking a tripod at all. However, you should always travel with a sturdy tabletop tripod in your camera bag, which given something to rest on will allow at least basic long exposures and timelapses.

An alternative is a spider-style flexible tripod that can be fastened to things like posts, railings and tree branches. A third way is a shot bag, essentially a sandbag, for placing your camera/telephoto lens on. Ideal for safely balancing a lens when shooting wildlife from within a vehicle, they pack down to almost nothing – you just find some sand or soil at your destination! 

3 Choose your camera bag wisely

If you’re going on a long haul trip and checking-in luggage – most typically a wheeled suitcase – then your camera bag will have to double both as your carry-on and also as a day bag at your destination. This creates a few issues. First, you need to make sure that your camera bag is acceptable as a carry-on.

The standard maximum size is around 55x35x20cm/21.5x13.5x7.5 inches, but check with your airline – budget airlines can be much less. Secondly, you need to make sure that as well as your core camera gear – which may also include a laptop and/or tablet – make sure there’s enough room to stow a warm layer or waterproof, a water bottle, and a snack.

Young photographer (traveler) with photo camera walking in Wat Pho temple. Bangkok, Thailand
Choose a camera bag that accommodates not just your camera gear, but other items essential to a comfortable outing when taking photos, such as waterproofs and a bottle of water. Photo from Jaromir Chalabala
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The environment you’re going to will also dictate what you need and what you can leave behind. For example, if you’re headed somewhere hot then two batteries is more than enough.

However, if you’re going somewhere very cold – such as on a Northern Lights hunt or high up in the mountains – then your batteries won’t last as long in the cold. If that’s the case, take a third battery. You can cut down on the cables and chargers in your backpack by getting hold of a USB charger so you can charge from the same universal travel plug you use to charge your phone, from a 12V cigarette lighter port in a rental car, and even from a portable battery while out in the field.

4 Make a plan

"If you know exactly where you’re going and what kind of photographs you’re going to be taking it makes packing a lot easier."

Packing as little as possible means planning as much as you can. If you know exactly where you’re going and what kind of photographs you’re going to be taking it makes packing a lot easier. That doesn’t mean you have to plan your trip down to the minute, but make a rough plan of likely locations and your intended modes of transport. The gear you’ll need – and be capable of carrying – for a primarily urban trip conducted entirely on public transport will differ from a multi-night hiking trip or a driving tour where capacity is much more.

Make a rough plan of what you want to photograph on your trip in advance so you can be sure you're packing the most appropriate equipment for it. Photo by Findus Fotografi
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Backing up on the road isn’t easy. Though you should definitely take plenty of SD cards and you do also need somewhere to back them up, don’t go overboard. ONe option is to leave your external hard drive at home and just pack a laptop – and the smaller the better. Though camera bags that take 15-inch laptops do exist, those that take 12-inch or 13-inch are considerably smaller. So if you plan to travel a lot for photography, consider investing in a reasonably compact laptop. 

5 Take a small backup camera

What if your camera body develops a fault? It happens, and if you’re in the Icelandic wilderness or the deserts of Namibia then you could be faced with a very frustrating rest of your trip. So, take two cameras? Sure, but don’t go overboard.

If you want to travel light you’re going to have to get over the temptation to have endless backups, so make a plan to do one of two things; take a smaller and/or older body that is compatible with your main camera’s lenses, or a small point and shoot camera.

Taking a photo with a compact camera
Take a smaller backup camera. If your main camera fails on you during the trip of a lifetime, you'll want to have something else you can take pictures with. Photo by Leung Cho Pan
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Although you probably won’t want to use it much for taking epic landscapes or wildlife close-ups, your smartphone does make a rather handy backup in an emergency. It’s never going to reach the highs of a DSLR or mirrorless camera, but an unexpected day spent shooting only on a smartphone can be enjoyable and still herald some excellent results.
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