Monday, January 14, 2013

Which Lens/Camera/Equipment to Travel with?

Deciding how to pack is often a difficult process for photographers (as well). Those still taking baby steps in the magic world of photography, think they should travel with their entire arsenal of lenses, cameras, flashes, and what not. But as they soon realize, this is a serious mistake. Not only it becomes a drag - literally - having to carry a heavy big bag, but also it is often confusing. "Shall I use the Nikkor 16-85mm for portraits, or the 50mm f/1.8 instead"? "And am I supposed to use the on-board flash, or the old but wonderful SB-800? As a master or a slave?"

Allow me a short parenthesis: The statement often referred to as Occam's Razor affirms that "among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected". It is usually (and erroneously) expressed as "the simplest solution is the correct one". But enter Einstein (this is not verified), who argued "everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler."

You might be wondering what Einstein has to do with Nikon. Well, I would apply the above line of thinking to traveling and equipment weight: Carry the least you need to take successful photos, but no less. It becomes immediately obvious, that the difficulty lies in being able to tell how much one needs to take. Well, this does come with experience, of course, but there are ways to assist you in your decision.

Not a place to drag a lot of weight with you

  • For how long will you be travelling - for how long will you be taking photos?
    Obviously enough, it is one thing to travel for two days, and another to travel for two weeks. In most cases, the less time you will be away, the less you need (there simply won't be time to start fumbling with options and choices).
  • Are you going some place familiar, do you know more or less what to expect?Traveling to a town 10km away from your home contains far less surprises (on many levels, from weather, cultural habits, and subjects) than traveling to an exotic land 5.000 miles away. This allows you to know before-hand what kind of photos you might be interested in taking. Surely, there is hardly any use for a Sigma 150-500mm if you'll be spending your weekend in next town's pubs, right?
  • Will there be plenty of walking/hiking/climbing involved?
    You really, really don't want to be carrying a heavy bag on the rocks of Vatnajökull, trust me on that one! If you know for a fact this will be the case, leave the heavy stuff behind. There is few things that kill your motivation and inspiration to take photos more than having to carry a really heavy bag over wet, muddy, slippery rocks.
  • Can you afford to "stick" to one kind of photography during your travel?This is a very interesting topic. I have faced this dilemma many times, and the more experienced I become, the more certain I am of this: If you can afford to take only one (or very few anyway) kinds of photos during your travel, you increase your chances to actually get a good photo. Let me explain: Say, you travel to Egypt. So, you need a Sigma 10-20mm for the market place, right? And a Nikkor AF-S 70-300mm for the Pyramids, right? And the micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 for possibly interesting bugs and what not, right? And...And..And..
    Well, what if - I'm only saying - you forewent the Pyramids and the bugs and the generic market shots? What if, you decided "You know what? Forget about the pyramids - even if I'm in Egypt. I will concentrate on taking interesting portraits of the Egyptian everyday people I will meet. And bingo! suddenly the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 (or 1.8) is all you need. Surely, it sounds crazy. But it all comes down to what you're after. In more than one occasion, I decided to give up a set of OK photos of everything, so that I could get a set of great photos of one thing.
Ultimately, like with most things where experience is inevitably required, this is not something that can be taught. Not to mention, it is highly individual. If you are a bodybuilder, you surely have different perception of how much weight is too much compared to an elderly photographer with a bad back. When not on assignments, I usually have only a small bag with me, where I stuff my D300, my Sigma 10-20mm, and my Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.8. Sometimes I don't even bother with one or the other lens, it's either or. Flashes? Never when taking photos casually.

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