Workflow: Packing for Travel

By Roger (20 November 2016)

Traveling with your camera can be a wonderful experience or a pain in the posterior. The best way to influence your outcome towards the former, and away from the latter, is preparations. This would seem to be obvious, but there are many factors that can cause new photographers problems that distract them from the major goal of enjoying making photos on their road trips.

It can be hard to decide what you need to bring, and then there's that deadly worry "What if?" What if I want a flash? What if I want to make some macro photos? This can cause you to over-pack and bring gear you never use.

We've described workflows and why they can be so useful to ensuring a consistent routine that helps you standardize your approach to photography. Those were, primarily, in how you post process your photos, but workflows can be adapted for use in this case, as well. My travel workflow for which gear to take isn't complicated, and, I confess, I sometimes get distracted from following it strictly, but it keeps me from over-packing or forgetting gear. Developing routines around packing forces me to think about the upcoming trip and its major goals, which dictates the type of gear I need. I try to empty my camera bags each time I return home, so I am forced to think along these lines each time I pack to go someplace new.

Let's go through a few travel scenarios and how I handle them. Your approach may vary, but these have worked for me.

Tools for the road: camera bags and vests

Business trips. I always take a camera with me (besides the one on my phone). I have a small Lumix that, normally, lives in my truck. It shoots in raw format, and has a small zoom (24-75mm). It doesn't have all the neat stuff on my Nikons, but it weighs less than most of my lenses, and I can carry it in my coat pocket.

Most of my business trips, these days, are short. For some reason, my company doesn't make arrangements for me to wander around and see the sights. Still, there are always interesting things along the way, even if you only get to see them in small samples.

The travel workflow here is pretty simple: grab the Lumix; make sure I have an extra memory card; and don't forget the battery charger. I don't bring my personal computer because that's just one more thing to carry.

For example, I'm writing this blog on my Ipad, on a train, headed for my second trip to New York City, in the last 45 days. When I arrive, I will have only a couple of hours, before it gets dark. And, before that, I need to run to B&H, since it's only a few blocks from Penn Station, and check into the hotel. Tomorrow, I have a few hours before my meeting, and then rush back to the train for the trip home. With such a paucity of spare time, there is no reason to pack a bunch of photo gear. The little point and shoot will suffice. During those rare business trips where I know I'll have a few days in a really interesting location, I move to the next level.

New York City, with the Lumix

Longer and farther. Things get slightly more complicated when you're traveling for longer periods of time, via planes. I refuse to check my camera gear, so I'm limited to what will fit into the infamous overhead bin. (I, once, was forced to check my gear and was a nervous wreck until it was safely back in my hands.) If you have more gear than will fit in a carry on, it's time to start thinking about what type of photography you'll be doing and the most appropriate gear for the job. My medium bag fits neatly in the overheads, and I can pack quite a bit of gear. If I'm taking a tripod, I pack it in my checked luggage, along with my smaller messenger bag, filled with clothes. The messenger bag allows me the flexibility to leave some of the gear behind in my hotel room, if it isn't needed for one of my day trips.

Dancer, in San Diego

The backpack camera bags can get very heavy, which can be unwieldy and a problem when traveling outside the country. Non-US airlines will sometimes limit the weight of your carry on. For that eventuality, I wear my fashionable photographer's vest. For some odd reason, they don't count the weight if it's on your body. I'll put enough gear in my vest to get by the weight restriction, and, once on the plane, put the gear back in my bag. This tactic has never failed me. As for looking like a geek, call me guilty; fashion is a very minor concern for me.

Since I'm lucky enough to have more camera equipment than my medium and large backpacks can hold, I have to think through what gear to carry. Will I need a wide angle for scenery, or am I making portraits? Obviously, these two scenarios call for different equipment.

Near Gatlinburg, TN

Road trip. My favorite kind of travel is vehicular. I have always enjoyed the feel of the road, with the radio blasting. I have driven across the US more times than I can remember, especially if you count the times I did it growing up a military brat. Our family of five even drove to and from Alaska. It was a glorious trip, filled with lots of memories.

My truck is large enough that I can bring anything I may need, including my lighting kits when I know I'll be shooting portraits. When Mark and I were traveling through our week, in the Smoky Mountains National Park, we stopped every few miles to see marked and unmarked photography stops. You can't do that if you're on a train or airline. We made impromptu changes to our schedule when one of the locations was a bust and when we did a nightly assessment of our choices and the weather changes.

My favorite mode of travel

You don't have to worry about the security of your gear because it's always with you. We had our roll-away bags on the backseat and just pulled out whatever gear we wanted for that particular stop. Tripods were on the floor. I even brought flashes. I made it a point to use almost every piece of gear I brought. (I may be overly proud of that fact....)

Near Tremont, TN

Impromptu trips. Whenever I hear about some event or location that looks interesting, I add it to my calendar. If the date arrives, and I have the time available, I head out. The variety keeps me excited about photography and gives me fun stuff to practice on.

Everything written above still applies: think through the type of photography you're trying to make; adjust for your travel mode; and pick the appropriate gear. The good thing about having a consistent workflow is you can react quickly when you get the chance to run out to at a moment's notice.

Tangier Island, VA

If you have no idea what you're going to find when you get there, may I suggest a compromise three-lens kit? For wide angle, I like the 16-35mm. My favorite mid-range, right now, is the 24-120mm. And I have the 70-200mm for longer shots. With these three, I can cover almost anything I may find, and my camera bag is not too heavy to carry. I will usually add a 1.7 teleconverter, and, of course, my GPS. I still have room for a flash in my medium bag, if I feel froggy. My medium bag will handle all of this gear and fits in most aircraft overhead compartments.

So, think about your travel workflow. It will make your travel more enjoyable and less frantic. You'll have the confidence that you're prepared for whatever presents itself. Travel keeps your photography fun.

New hat, Orange, VA