Tips for Packing Light and Wisely

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How to Squeeze the Most Out of a Smaller Camera Bag

Deciding what to include and what not to include in your camera bag when planning a trip is part art, part science and part ego. The ego part comes into play when you insist on taking a 500mm f/4 lens along with you, despite the fact you know it's far too heavy to drag around all day. So, for reasons of personal sanity, we're going to focus on the art and science part of the story and let you deal with the logistics of hauling around anything excessively large or heavy. (If you're flying you already know that 500mm telephoto lens will never fit under your seat or in the overhead bins, so don't complain to us when they insist you check the beast along with your other bags.)

The nuts and bolts of traveling with photo gear vary from person to person. The variables are contingent upon where you plan to travel and on your expectations of what you plan to photograph once you get there. Your level of expertise, coupled with your camera system of choice and your unique blend of creative juices, make up the balance of the equation. As for gear, while it's nice to take along everything you may or may not need, it's also nice to keep things simple while pushing the envelope of what's possible using the tools you already own, perhaps supplemented with an additional toy or two.

What You Already Have versus What You May or May Not Need

The first thing to do when planning a photo-conducive trip is to figure out what your goals are. Is this trip going to be about casual shooting while traveling about, or do you have concrete ideas about what pictures you plan to take and where you plan to take them? Do you have all the tools you need to take the pictures you imagine in your mind's eye or are you going to run into the same creative walls you hit last time you headed out the door to take pictures? And if that's the case, what will be your workaround to those problems?

If you're relatively new to DSLRs, chances are you have one or possibly two compatible kit lenses for your DSLR. Assuming you shoot with a compact DSLR containing an APS-C imaging sensor (1.5x or 1.6x crop factor) you probably have a kit lens in the neighborhood of 18-55mm (or 28-85mm on a full-frame DSLR) and a 55-200mm-ish tele-zoom (about an 85-300mm equivalent) for distant subjects. From a focal-range perspective, you're pretty well set for almost any photo opportunity that comes along, as long as the sun is shining. What about those dark, gray days?

The problem with kit lenses is they are fair-weather friends. Yes, they're light and easy to carry around all day, and yes, they can be tucked away in a smaller, inconspicuous camera bag, but when the clouds start rolling in and the sun goes bye-bye, the limitations of less expensive kit lenses start becoming apparent.

The Down Side of Slower, Variable-Aperture Zooms

The main reason kit lenses are small and light (plastic lens barrels aside) is because they have maximum apertures of only about f/3.5 at the wide end that dwindle down to f/5.6 to f/6.3 when zoomed to the longer focal lengths. Now, as long as the sun is shining you're OK, but once the light starts fading, you begin to see the light regarding paying the difference in price between a kit lens and a fast lens.

This is especially true if you prefer stopping down a few clicks to gain resolving power (most optics are sharper when stopped down two to three stops from wide open). Cameras also respond sluggishly under low-light conditions when used with smaller-aperture lenses. If the ambient light levels drop off significantly, the AF system can become balky, if not totally useless. Exposure accuracy can also start to suffer under lower lighting conditions.

The Zoom-plus-Fast-Prime School of Thought

One approach used by many (myself included) involves packing a wide-aperture fixed prime lens for each zoom lens in your camera bag. For example, if you have an 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, complement it with a fast midrange wide-angle lens, which in this case would be a 35mm lens with a maximum aperture of f/2, f1.8 or f/1.4. Similarly, if you have a longer zoom, such as a 55-200mm, look into a fast 85, 100 or 105mm lens with a maximum aperture in the neighborhood of f/2.0 or so.

While this might seem redundant from a focal-length perspective, keep in mind you now can guarantee sharper images under less-than-desirable lighting conditions, regardless of whether your camera has image stabilization or not. Wider-aperture prime lenses also allow you the option of playing with selective focus—far more effectively than you ever could with slower kit lenses.

And don't be surprised if you soon find yourself heading out with only the fixed, faster optics and leaving the slower zooms at home. Zooms make one lazy after a while and a good set of fixed primes forces you to think and move around more before pressing the shutter button. And because moving around is aerobic activity, fixed focal-length optics theoretically extend your life expectancy. (I don't have any scientific data to back this claim… it's just a theory I have, so play along with me on this one.)

Your choice of camera system will determine your fast-prime options, though you should also research what third-party lens manufacturers (Sigma, Tamron, etc.) have to offer.

Polarizing Filters

If there were one tool I would deem necessary for travel photography and outdoor shooting in general, it would have to be a Polarizing filter. Polarizing filters work their magic by eliminating stray light and glare from reflective surfaces, which in turn greatly amplifies color saturation and allows for unobstructed views of whatever's lying beneath the ocean's waves or behind the plate glass window of that Left Bank café.

Polarizers come in two varieties—linear and circular. They look identical, but if you're shooting with autofocus lenses, make sure you buy a circular Polarizing filter. Linear Polarizers are designed for manual-focus lenses, and while they usually work with autofocus lenses, they have a habit of confusing AF mechanisms, which can ruin an otherwise perfect photo op. Conversely, circular Polarizers can be used on manual or AF optics with equal results. (They look and work the same, otherwise).

Polarizers can also be purchased in a choice of neutral or warm-tone, which is a throwback to the days before digital imaging allowed us to warm, cool or neutralize our photographs in Photoshop or to adjust the tonal values through a camera menu. Warm-tone Polarizers are tinted with the equivalent of an 81A filter (or close to 81A), which helps temper the bluish cast common to midday photographs, especially during the summer months. If you go with warm-tone Polarizers, make sure you adjust your camera to settings that don't override the warming values of the filter. In other words, don't use Auto White Balance.

If you own multiple lenses with differing filter sizes, buy a filter for the lens with the largest front diameter and use step-down rings to attach the filter to your smaller lenses. (And buy brass step-down rings, not aluminum, because they're less likely to jam, and they last forever.)

If you plan on using a Polarizing filter on a wide-angle lens, make sure you buy a thin-profile filter to prevent vignetting at the edges of your pictures.

Without Polarizing Filter With Polarizing Filter
With Polarizing Filter

Sensor Size Isn't Everything

One thing that needs to be made clear is that larger sensors do not automatically make you a better photographer. Larger sensors produce sharper, fuller-toned pictures and allow for more wiggle room in terms of selective focus, but not necessarily better pictures. The visual dynamics of photographs are determined by the person looking through the finder and pressing the shutter button. And do keep in mind that Creative Modes do not necessarily guarantee creative pictures.

The point is that any camera—once you learn how to use it and understand its abilities and limitations—can be used to take good travel photographs. For example, if your lens isn't wide enough you can always stitch a series of images together to create dramatic landscapes, and this is something you can do with the simplest pocket cameras.

Panoramic landscape of Red Rock Canyon (Nevada desert), taken with Canon G10 (four images stitched together using Canon's PhotoStitch software (included with camera)

Conversely, if your longest lens isn't long enough, consider cropping your photographs. If your camera sensor is 10 or more megapixels (as the least expensive DSLRs are these days) you can crop into your image files to emulate the angle of view of a longer lens without seriously compromising image quality (within reason of course).

Moonrise Over 34th Street (uncropped)

Moonrise Over 34th Street (cropped and straightened)

The above picture was taken with an 8-plus megapixel camera using a 200mm (equivalent) lens. I would have liked a longer lens, but this was as tight as I could get using the equipment I had at the time. Not satisfied, I opened the picture in Photoshop and cropped in tighter to an angle of view closer to a 350-400mm (equivalent) lens, resulting in a stronger overall picture. While the resulting image file is smaller than the original image file (6.7MB versus 28.6MB), the new photograph is far more interesting in terms of composition—and still contains enough data to produce quite acceptable 8 x 10" and 11 x 14" prints.

Can a trained eye tell the difference in terms of quality between a cropped photo and the un-cropped original? Maybe yes, but maybe no. If your exposure is dead on and the file is sharp (and better yet, a RAW file), the differences between a moderately cropped image and the un-cropped original are usually minimal at average viewing distances.

Photoshop makes easy work of up-sizing image files, and the printer drivers found in the advanced photo-quality printers from Epson, Canon and HP also do an impressive job of pushing the limits of larger quality prints from smaller image files.

And if you  plan on viewing your images on a computer screen or digital picture frame only, the differences between a (heavily) cropped image and a tighter, non-cropped image are all but nil. So, while your goal should always be to fill the frame with as strong an image as you can, if a bit of cropping can make the difference between an OK shot and a gangbuster shot, crop away.

Compact Tripods and Table Pods

While expandable ISO ratings, image stabilization and flashguns make it possible to capture sharp images under the worst lighting conditions, there are times you want the flavor of natural light, low noise levels and rich tonality. These are the times you need a reliable camera support. And if you're traveling, this means a compact, lightweight camera support. As you might have guessed by now, we have a few suggestions in the camera-support department too.

A tiny, yet versatile, camera support is the Hama C-Clamp & Tabletop Tripod 3, which can be used as a traditional table tripod or as a device to clamp your camera to railings, fences or any number of clamp-able objects. A slightly smaller version is also available in the form of the Hama C-Clamp Tabletop Tripod 1.

Designed around the Novoflex Ball 19 mini ball head, the Novoflex Universal Photo Survival Kit is a compact camera support system that enables you to mount a compact digital camera to almost any surface. Along with a mini tripod for flat surfaces, the Novoflex Universal Survival Kit allows you the option of clamping your camera to windows and ledges, as well as screw-mounting the camera into wooden poles or fences. Included with your purchase is a padded, sectioned storage case that is easy to stow away on camera outings.

And if you don't anticipate the need to clamp or screw your camera into or onto polished surfaces or lampposts you might be satisfied with the Novoflex Microstativ, a cleverly designed table pod that can support a medium-format camera as well as break down for easy stowing.

While it may not save you money on auto insurance, the Delkin Devices Fat Gecko Dual-Suction Camera Mount can secure up to 8 lb of camera gear to almost any smooth or polished surface. Offering 360° of rotation, the Fat Gecko allows you to align your camera in almost any position for capturing the trickiest of images. For the more adventurous souls out there, you can also attach the Fat Gecko to an optional handlebar mount for shooting stills or video from bikes, motorcycles and ATVs. Just promise us you'll wear a helmet.

For steadying your camera from eye-level position while keeping the weight factor in check, we recommend the Benro Travel Angel tripods, a series of weather- and dustproof tripod/ballhead combos that are available in a choice of aluminum/die-cast magnesium or lighter weight carbon fiber. An interesting design feature of the Benro A-069M8-series is the way the legs fold back 180° over the spider base and center column, which further reduces the size of the tripods, making them that much easier to bury in your baggage. Benro A-069M8 tripods come with quick-release ball heads and plates.

A lightweight, more conventional style tripod is the Gitzo GT-531 Mountaineer 6x carbon fiber tripod. Able to support cameras up to 11 lb, the GT-531 is an easy-to-tote-all-day, three-section carbon fiber tripod that features G-Locks for quick setup and breakdown, with anti-rotation legs and center column for slip-free camera positioning.

Other tripods worth investigating for compact travel needs are the Velbon LUXi-M, Ultra LUXi-L, and Ultra Maxi-M, each of which comes with a Velbon PHD series three-way pan/tilt head. These compact tripods have five section leg extensions and a better quality quick-release system for easy-to-set-up, hit-and-run imaging.

I'd be amiss if I didn't mention my longtime (25-plus years) favorite travel companion, the Leica tablepod. Consisting of two components, the Leica Large Ball & Socket Head and Leica Table Tripod, this dynamic duo can securely support up to 5.5 lb on its ¼-20" tripod thread. It breaks down small and flat enough to fit in narrow pockets and pouches. A single lock-screw knob allows for 360° of camera movement, and the tablepod's rubber-tipped legs can be locked into position. This Leica combo is pricey, but it's a joy to work with and is built to last forever.

Another Leica worth consideration for lighter cameras is the Leica Mini Tabletop Tripod, a low-profile camera support and mini ball head that steadies your camera at slightly higher than countertop level.

Do you have any questions or suggestions about packing light? Please feel free to share them in the Comments section below.

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Too funny!

I just bought a D3200. Came w/ 18-55mm. I saw a deal on the 55-200 and bought that.

Tonight I bought a 55mm f1.8G. You must have been following me ?

I have been taking pics with my D-70 since 2004. Still works fine w/ 18-70mm. The only lens I've used.

I felt it was time I spread the wings a little. As I read your article it was appearent how predictable we are.

Thanks,

Leland