The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
Cameras, Lenses, and Filters for the Road
Opposite: Steaming earth – the first rays of dawn at –12 °C at the Geyser El Tatio, Chile. | Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 400
It’s not easy to decide what photographic equipment to pack for a trip, regardless of whether you consider yourself a traveling photographer or a photographing traveler. The goal is to retain mobility and not be burdened by too much gear, but still have enough equipment to enjoy photographic freedom. Depending on the way you’re traveling, your personal preferences, and your intentions as a photographer, everything from a cell phone to a large-format camera is conceivable, at least in theory.
In the vast majority of cases, the selection will be limited to digital single-lens reflex cameras or mirrorless system cameras and their lenses and digital compact cameras. It’s impossible to give a general guideline because the prerequisites and intentions of every photographer are different. Cameras are like hiking boots: When packing for a really important trip, you may not want to take your most recently purchased gear, and instead opt for the equipment that you’re familiar with. But really, this just means that you should get to know your gear well before using it on a trip.
Which camera(s) and which lens(es) you select is a personal decision and, unless you’re purchasing an entirely new set of gear, will depend on the equipment that you have on hand. The type of travel you plan to embark on is a key factor. If you’re headed out on a multi-day mountain trek, you’re going take less photo equipment with you than you would on a relaxing holiday getaway in a hotel. If you’re traveling by bicycle, your luggage restrictions are much more extreme than if you’re touring a country in a rental car. Generally speaking, take as much as necessary and as little as possible.
It’s important to note that the ideal camera, lens, or camera and lens combination for a specific country, region, or trip does not exist. All photographers have their own conception about the equipment they deem necessary. Questions about what type of lens to take to Namibia or what gear to bring on a two-month tour of New Zealand seem much less productive to me than other considerations like: What are your photographic priorities? What do you want to photograph when you’re on the road? How much equipment can you carry? How much equipment do you want to carry?
A photographer’s equipment should give him or her the chance to realize any ideas for pictures with as few limitations as possible. The camera(s) and lens(es) you bring along depend much more on your intentions and preferences as a photographer than on your travel destination. The gear that served you well on a general tour through Laos will also be well suited for a similar trip through Peru. You’ll want to include the telephoto lens that was so useful on safari in Tanzania when setting off for a comparable trip to Zambia. If you plan on shooting portraits while traveling, you might want to consider bringing a fast prime lens somewhere in the range of 85 mm to 135 mm. If you know you are primarily interested in landscapes, you likely won’t want to do without a wide-angle or ultra-wide-angle lens. If macro photography is your priority, a macro lens should probably find its way into your equipment bag.
Bottom: Kiwis on the road – the back of a tour bus in New Zealand with vent holes shaped like kiwis (the national bird). | Nikon D70 • 84 mm • 1/100 s • f/5 • ISO 200
The following paragraphs describe the gear that I usually take with me while traveling, but that doesn’t mean that it is also what will work for you; it’s included here as a starting point for you. I predominantly use (fast) zoom lenses because I’m usually not willing to give up the flexibility afforded by zooms while traveling. Moreover, I appreciate the mechanical quality of an f/2.8 lens designed for daily use in a professional environment. Bringing along fixed-focal length lenses is not an option for most trips on account of space and weight limitations, but other photographers may want to include them.
My minimalist combination comprises a full-format digital SLR (currently a Nikon D700) and a standard zoom lens (f/2.8 24–70 mm). If I happen to be traveling somewhere with conditions that make changing the lens inadvisable (e.g., a sandy desert), or I’m in a position where I can’t afford to lug around anything else, this range of focal lengths paired with the large maximum aperture allows me to realize many photographic ideas. I could also imagine using a zoom lens with a range between 24 mm and 120 mm or something comparable as an everyday lens.
Below: The largest salt flat in the world – daybreak at the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. The elevated camera position highlights the salt pattern. | Nikon D700 • 24 mm • 1/125 s • f/5.6 • ISO 1250
Opposite page: A symphony of color and a photographer’s dream – Antelope Canyon, USA. Photo by Jürgen Gulbins. | Canon EOS 20D • 31 mm • 30 s • f/14 • ISO 400 • tripod • cable release
Photographing on African safaris often calls for long focal lengths. I rested my lens on the roof of our safari vehicle for this shot taken in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. | Nikon D300 • 600 mm • 1/500 s • f/5.6 • ISO 200
The more universal set of gear, which I bring on most trips, includes an f/2.8 17–35 mm lens on one end and an f/2.8 70–200 mm lens on the other. I also usually have a second camera body as backup (currently a Nikon D300). The crop factor of the D300’s smaller sensor means that the 70–200 mm lens is effectively a 105–300 mm lens with a continuous maximum aperture of f/2.8. This sort of photographic flexibility comes with a price tag in the form of added weight, though. The two cameras and three lenses add a good 11 pounds to the scale, without accessories.
If you are after a smaller or lighter setup (which usually means sacrificing lens speed and most often also a bit of image quality), but want to retain the focal range, you might consider an APS-C camera paired with an 18–200 mm lens or a full-format camera with a (relatively heavy) 28–300 mm zoom, complemented by a fast prime lens in the normal or wide-angle range. Zoom lenses should generally feature internal image stabilizers. There are limitations to this assortment, of course, and you’ll have to decide for yourself what compromises you’re willing to make. Another alternative would be to use a mirrorless system camera with interchangeable lenses of your desired lengths.
Avoiding gaps in focal lengths isn’t a must. If focal lengths in the normal range aren’t your priority, then you can combine a 17–35 mm zoom or a fast 24 mm prime with a 70–200 mm zoom and ignore the range that isn’t covered. This decision should be informed by where and how you’re traveling and what and how you’re photographing. You can pretty easily get by on “zooming with your feet” for city adventures, and it may not be necessary to have a proper zoom lens with you. But if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t adjust your position, such as in a safari jeep or on a boat, zoom lenses are more or less indispensable.
Special situations often require special equipment. If I’m photographing wildlife, for example, then I use an f/4 200–400 mm and an f/4 500 mm lens. These long telephoto lenses allow for amazing photographic possibilities, but their weight and size limit their “travelability”. Lighter and less expensive alternatives include slower lenses with focal-length ranges between 70 mm and 150 mm on the low end and 300 mm and 500 mm on the high end.
Handy, practical, inconspicuous: Compact cameras are a sensible addition to DLSRs. This photo was taken in the Okavango delta, Botswana. Photo by Jörg Ehrlich. | Canon EOS 7D • 240 mm • 1/1000 s • f/5 • ISO 1250
A teleconverter is one relatively cost-effective and lightweight solution to elongate the focal lengths you already have. They are available at different levels of magnification – commonly, 1.4x, 1.7x, and 2.0x. This increase in length usually comes with a decrease in lens speed. Nikon’s 1.4x TC-14E II amounts to a loss of one stop, the 1.7x model a loss of 1.5 stops, and the 2.0x model a loss of two stops. Nature photographers often find that the increase offered by a 1.4x converter when paired with a long, fast prime lens is a good solution. This setup results in a noticeable increase in focal length, and the loss of lens speed and image quality isn’t significant. A 1.4x converter turns an f/4 500 mm lens into an f/5.6 700 mm lens – impressive for a small accessory that weighs around seven ounces.
Not all teleconverters are compatible with all lenses. Before buying one you should check to make sure it actually fits on the lens you intend to use it with. Additionally, if you attach a teleconverter to a relatively slow lens, the autofocus may stop working properly or even at all because there won’t be enough light to support the focusing system. Manual focus is the only way to go in this situation.
Sometimes, I include compact cameras in my travel setup; when I do, they supplement my DSLR. When selecting a compact model, I tend to look for something with high image quality and a practical range of focal lengths. On the short end, anything longer than 28 mm doesn’t work for me, and 24 mm is better yet (based on a 35 mm film equivalent). Even though the difference is only four millimeters, it accounts for a lot in the wide-angle world. On the long end, 105 mm or 120 mm generally does the trick. It’s also important to me that a compact camera can be manually programmed and that it can save images in the RAW file format. If it offers relatively fast optics on top of all this, then all the better. Many modern compacts also include a useful macro mode.
Next I’ll go into accessories, but only those that are directly related to cameras and lenses. You can find more in the chapters “Steady Now” (on tripods, page 186), “Better Safe than Sorry” (on protecting equipment, page 196), and “Safeguarding Data” (on protecting image files while traveling, page 206).
In my opinion, the most useful accessory for every lens is a lens hood. It prevents unattractive light reflections (flares) and physically protects the lens and its front optical element from scratches. My lens hoods are always on, unlike my lens caps. The same goes for UV or clear filters for protecting the front lens. When transporting my gear, however, I push the lens hood back over the lens in reverse position and reattach the lens cap. This works as well with the costly and voluminous but indispensable lens hoods for super-telephoto lenses. Additionally, lens hoods often allow you to work in the rain with less trouble – the hood protects your front optical element from getting wet.
A polarization filter (polarizer) is often useful for landscape photos, as it can produce clearer, more saturated colors and minimize reflections. A polarizer’s effect on a photo is stronger than it appears in the viewfinder, so make sure to familiarize yourself with it before using it at its maximum strength. Polarizers can also eat up to two stops of light, so it’s advisable to remove the filter when you don’t need it. One last word of warning: when using polarizers in tandem with wide-angle lenses, the sky can often take on an uneven color cast.
A play of colors in Laguna Colorada, Peru: The above photo was shot without a polarizer; for the one below I used a polarizer at its maximum effect. | Nikon D300 • 75 mm • 12/250 s • f/8 (above), f/6.3 (below) • ISO 400
If you decide to purchase a polarizer, go for a high-quality one. The same can be said for anything that you attach to the front of your lens. You’ll often see photographers shell out lots of money for lenses and cameras but then skimp when it comes to filters. This is too bad because an inferior filter can have negative effects on images, regardless of how formidable the optical system behind it is. In a technical sense, every picture can only be as good as the weakest component involved in the entire exposure process.
You can generally be sure that a filter is high quality if it has multiple coatings and is produced by a trusted brand manufacturer. These characteristics come with added cost, of course. There are many manufacturers; I use screw-on polarizers from B+W and Singh-Ray. I generally bring two 77 mm polarizers with me so that I don’t have to constantly move one from lens to lens (and have a spare in case I happen to lose or damage a filter). One polarizer goes on my f/2.8 24–70 mm lens, the other goes on either a wide-angle or a telephoto zoom lens. If you have lenses with different-sized filter threads, you might decide to purchase a filter for each diameter (or lens). This is a practical but expensive solution. Filter adapters (step-down rings) are less expensive and allow you to use a filter with a larger diameter on a lens with a smaller one. You can’t use an adapter with a lens hood, however.
Occasionally I’ll use a neutral density (ND) filter or, more often, a graduated ND filter to experiment with long exposure times or to reduce the range of brightness values in an image. I recommend the use of rectangular graduated ND filters that can be slid into special holders attached to the lens. Lee and Singh-Ray offer such options. Going this route allows you to precisely position the transition point between the non-darkened and the darkened area. Employing a tripod isn’t essential, but it is recommended. If you’re using long exposure times with an ND filter – to capture the flow of moving water, for example – there’s no getting around using a tripod.
Playing with color, shape, and light: Detail of a passenger ferry in Patagonia, Chile. Leica D-LUX 6 • 37 mm • 1/160 s • f/2.8 • ISO 80
Swinging across Arctic waters: Rubber dinghy in Tinayrebukta, Spitsbergen. Nikon D300 • 230 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 400
If you intend to shoot macro photographs, you can bring a specialized macro lens with you, or you can opt to make do with relatively lightweight tools, such as close-up lenses and extension tubes, to enlarge details from exposures made with normal or telephoto lenses. A close-up lens is screwed onto the front of the lens, like a filter, and functions just like reading glasses or a magnifying glass. The strength of a close-up lens is measured in diopters. The stronger the lens, the closer you can approach your subject. Your camera’s exposure metering will work, as will the autofocus, though possibly with certain limitations, and there will be no significant loss of light. Upmarket, corrected close-up lenses (achromatic lenses) can be found in a variety of filter thread diameters and strengths depending on which lens (or rather, which range of focal lengths) you’d like to modify. The 250D close-up lens from Canon is rated at +4 diopters for the range of focal lengths between 50 mm and 135 mm; the 500D model at +2 diopters for use with focal lengths between 70 mm and 300 mm. Close-up lenses become more powerful with longer focal lengths and they can be used to good effect with telephoto and zoom lenses. When using this type of lens, it’s a good idea to stop down a few steps, primarily to counteract a loss of sharpness in the image corners. In the picture of pebbles from Greenland (top), I should have stopped down to f/8 or f/11 for the sake of the sharpness near the image border.
Colorful: Beach finds in Kong Oscar Fjord, Greenland. | Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/160 s • f/6.3 • ISO 800 • Canon 500D close-up lens (+2 diopters)
Extension tubes that go between the camera and the lens are an alternative to close-up lenses. They don’t contain any optical elements and are practically hollow; their purpose is to increase the distance between the lens and the sensor plane. This reduces the minimum focusing distance, allowing you to approach your subject closer and to grab a larger depiction of it. In addition to being available at different lengths, tubes can also be coupled together to alter the extension length. Automatic extension tubes are preferable to the less-expensive manual ones because they relay the autofocus and exposure settings between the camera and the lens. With adequate light and a fast enough lens, the autofocus should work fine.
Sculptural artwork made by nature: A look into the marble caves of Lago General Carrera, Chile. Nikon D700 • 50 mm • 1/800 s • f/9 • ISO 2000
In contrast to close-up lenses, extension tubes are more effective with shorter focal lengths. You have to take a loss of light into consideration with extension tubes, and “normal” exposures are just as difficult to take with extension tubes as with close-up lenses: the lens can no longer focus at infinity.