On Vacation with Three Cameras: Which to Use, When, and Why

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Much like I wish I were the kind of traveler who only packed one bag, I wish I were the kind of photographer who only used one camera. Instead, I always have two or three bags and two or three cameras. Despite my best intentions, I can’t seem to go on a trip with just one of each. Even if I wear the same outfit or shoot with the same camera for three days straight—both of which have been known to happen—without fail, the next trip I take, I still find myself wondering if I’m packing one outfit or one camera too many. 



 


 

A man waits patiently for morning customers in the heart of Lisbon. Similarly, chairs remain empty just before an evening of Fado commences in the heart of Alfama. 

This past month, I packed two shoulder bags with three cameras tucked inside and headed to Portugal. Four cameras, if you count the water-proof disposable I brought just in case I didn’t want to take one of my three cameras to the beach with me. While my travel partner booked our flights, researched which cities we should visit, and even bought travel-sized toiletries for the both of us, I took inventory of my cameras and decided on my Nikon D750, Nikon FM2, Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D lens, a NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D lens, and my Fujifilm instax mini 50S instant film camera. One camera for practicality, one for the love of film, and one for fun. 

Although we were quite the tourists in this local restaurant, the waiters hardly noticed when I took a few pictures, like this portrait of my favorite travel partner, with my older film camera.

I took stock of the film in my fridge and tucked three rolls of Ilford HP5 Plus Black-and-White Negative Film in my carry-on bag. I ordered three extra packs of instax mini instant film and the aforementioned Fujifilm Quicksnap 800 waterproof 35mm disposable camera. Traveling with film is not for the faint of heart, especially when traveling in and out of a greater New York City airport. Allowing yourself additional time to wait for an impatient TSA agent to hand-check your film is imperative, something I found to be motivational to remind me to use up all of my film while traveling. 

While a few rolls of film may have been damaged in the X-ray machines on the way back home, I tried to salvage a few images, for the love of film and the timeless effect it can have on a scene.

Traveling with film is also something I only tend to do when I know I am traveling through a country at a slower speed. If I’m spending multiple days in one city, it becomes significantly easier to allow myself more time to photograph the same scene with two different cameras. Because we weren’t in a rush in Lisbon, we lingered in a café with the most wonderfully calm outdoor terrace. I photographed details of the well-designed space with my D750 and then my FM2.



 


 

In lieu of giving into jetlag, a serene café with an abundance of still life is the perfect excuse to fight the fatigue and stay awake, experimenting in digital, analog, color, and black-and-white. 

The best thing I’ve discovered about traveling with a film camera, regardless of the format, is that locals cannot as easily identify my photographic intentions. Every tourist has a DSLR. Not every tourist has a film camera. While strolling through Lisbon one afternoon, I stopped to photograph some men gathered around, having their shoes shined. Noticing me taking their picture, one of the men waved me over. He pointed to my FM2 camera and then gave me an amused look when he realized there wasn’t an LCD to review the image on the back. I shrugged my shoulders, smiled, and thanked the men in my very limited Portuguese—enjoying the lack of immediacy, as well as the mystery that comes with shooting film. 

Despite my best intentions, my eyes cannot always be trusted when focusing manually. This is a game I play with myself when I’m shooting in analog. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. Either way, I always have such a greater appreciation of photography when I’m forced to slow down and enjoy the process and then wait for the finished image.

Not only can shooting with film make you (as a photographer) feel less visible, but it is less of a target for theft or solicitation. If I am unsure of my surroundings, but still want to take a picture, I’m more comfortable using my film camera than I am using not only my digital SLR, but my smartphone, too. While my film cameras are in perfect working condition, these cameras are older and require more work than a more modern digital camera with an easily identifiable “automatic” mode.



 


 


 

It was impossible to not appreciate the quality of light in Portugal. From a steep climb up a narrow street, to the intricate tilework and exterior sink, to the tuk-tuk driver trying to pick up lost passengers, it was as if every scene were lit specifically for one to take a picture.

However, as much as I love shooting film, I will admit that it is not always my first choice to use when I am traveling, especially if I am squeezing in a greater number of cities in a relatively short timeframe. In addition to my penchant for packing just a little too much, I tend to hold my shutter button down just a little too often. Because, despite my general distaste for mathematics, I attempt to capture a certain symmetry in my images which can often involve multiple frames of the same scene from a few different vantage points. And as any street photographer knows, photographing people and capturing the perfect glance or expression can oftentimes make or break an image. Taking multiple shots of the same scene without compromising my film inventory gives me a little more freedom to capture more. If I have one roll of film for the entire day, I’m going to shoot much more conservatively in comparison to the dual 64GB memory cards I typically have in my D750. 

I attempted to photograph this scene while shooting from the hip the first time I walked past. Thankfully, it was a day I was working digitally, and after reviewing the image, I walked back at a much slower speed to compose this image.

Communicating to friends and family exactly what I am seeing while I am in a different country has become exponentially easier when shooting digitally and taking advantage of an application like Nikon’s Wireless Mobile Utility app. While I’m not opposed to using my smartphone for a picture here and there, I prefer having the control of a manual camera and the flexibility that comes with having a larger RAW file.  



 


 

I’ve done many a silly thing with my camera(s) to get the shot, but rarely do my cameras come to the beach with me. I often take a couple of trips to the beach—one without my camera and one with, wherein I stick to a boardwalk or a lookout point to take pictures, allowing for a different perspective yet equally gorgeous views.

Within minutes, I can transfer files to my phone, connect to my favorite social media account, and upload images for friends to view around the world. Later, I can revisit the same image in Photoshop and make adjustments for a publication or print the picture for personal or exhibition use without compromising any image quality. 



 


 


 

Few things are more pleasing than a quick instax instant film photograph.

Because it’s incredibly easy for me to get wrapped up in photographing a new [to me] country and process a different culture through the lens of a camera, I often forget how fun photography can be. This is where it pays to travel with a small instax film camera for instant and fun prints of your trip. Compact and lightweight, the camera can even fit in an oversized wallet or clutch, taking up little room in a bigger photo bag. The resulting instant prints become an exceptionally unique and personal souvenir. While I always have the intention to print and frame personal pictures captured with my D750 or FM2, more often than not, these pictures tend to live online. Returning from a trip abroad with physical prints is half the battle.

Compact and lightweight, my instax camera was almost always with me. It’s perfect for a fun “selfie,” as well as a candid action shot or quick documentation of color or texture. I also believe these prints make great additions to a gallery wall or simply presented as a tangible box of memories after a trip.

You already know that it’s not necessary to land in a new country with an arsenal of camera bodies, lenses, and film, especially with the soaring fees that come with international (and domestic) flights and luggage requirements. Anyone could argue, and I will readily agree that the best camera you have is the one with you. And yet, I’ll likely be squeezing at least three cameras in my next carry-on for the love of photography and processing—both imagery and a new culture. 

What better way to finish off a roll of film than by one last walk around the beaches of Cascais?

Additional images can be found on Elizabeth Groeschen’s website

12 Comments

I'm interested that you took an instant camera along with film and digital. I made a trip to India during August this year where I also took three cameras - digital (Nikon D600), film (Hasselblad XPan) and a Fuji instant camera. The reason I took the Fuji along was because during previous trips to developing countries I became acutely conscious that in taking photos of people (especially with film) the subject never gets to see the result. Digital only overcomes this in part - you can show the result on the screen but they don't get anything lasting. I use the Fuji to take shots that they can keep. Its a way of giving something back. it's also a way to engage them that isn't so easy when they know you'll walk off and leave them with nothing more than a brief interaction. It works especially well with grandparents and kids - in remote areas many have only seen cameras around tourists' necks - they've never owned one or had pictures taken of themselves. Mobile phones are gradually getting around this but still only in areas where there's a service. 

Hey Brett, I couldn't agree more! I've had some amazing experiences taking a Polaroid camera with me while traveling (Z-ink was a little more economical and didn't take up as much room in my bag). You can read about it and see a few of the images here: https://blogd7.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/instant-prints-equal-instant-friends-while-traveling

While my D750 with the 17-35 is a wonderful camera setup, I find that having my Olympus TG-4 in my pocket is the one I use more often. Maybe not having all the options, but what it does, it does it well, and I rarely miss a good shot because it's always with me.

Ynoke, I have a penchant for carrying heavier gear and buying bulky souvenirs. One of these days I'll learn! (Hopefully!) 

I miss my film Leica rangefinders and old Nikons, but I do not miss the smell of hypo in the darkroom  Digital comes in many sizes and weights and I have decided the Micro Four Thirds cameras work very well for me.  I have lenses starting at 7mm and reaching all the way to the Full Frame equivilent of 800mm.  They are all portable and easy to take along while travelling. My Panasonic GX8 and GM5 make an odd couple team, but they are the large and small of that line and I carry them both.  Packing smaller and lighter leads to more enjoyment of the trip and the images are excellent.

LMN, Glad to hear you found a setup that works well for you! The longer my trips are (and more travel involved) the less I pack! Hope you have a great trip planned soon! 

Based on the samples from your trip (especially the beach tents!! love that shot), the Nikon D750 and Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8D lens appear to be a very, very nice match. Still recommend this pairing?

Hi Frank, 

The 17-35mm is definitely my favorite lens when I'm traveling! I don't have a problem getting close if I need to (and am able to) and for the most part, I prefer a wider angle of view. It makes shooting in tight alleyways and interiors especially easy and when zoomed in, you can get a decent portrait! If I were to only travel with one pairing, it would absolutely be the D750 with the 17-35. Obviously, this lens is a little bulkier than my primes, but I think it's worth it! 

p.s. Even with the cloudy sky, I couldn't get enough of those beach tents!!!

Thanks for commenting! 

I saw the Nikon FM2 in the list and I thought "She's OKAY! She shoots film". Film can serve as an ice-breaker.

In July 2011, I was at a post-launch celebration party, a woman came up to me and asked "You shooting film?" I answered "Yes", and we exchanged fist-bumps. Also, when I was at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center, I had to get a photo of me against the wall of signatures wishing the Final Four and Atlantis a successful mission. I handed my Canon A-1 to two strangers; one guy couldn't figure out how to focus the camera or use it, fortunately, his friend knew how to operate a film camera.

Now, with two film cameras, an A-1 (bought new in 1980) and a New F-1 (bought used in 2013), the quandary of whether to use B&W or color is now solved. I also have a 5D III (bought new in 2013). At a classic car show hosted by a Chevy dealer, I slung all three over my neck; B&W fir the cars before color film, color for the newer, and digital to record the year and model. One guy asked if I was from the press.

I did film plus digital for a practice round of the 2015 Masters Golf Tournament. The F-1 was shooting slide with an FD 28mm lens for the scenics and the 5D with the EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L for the golfers.

Hi Ralph! 

I should probably follow in your footsteps and sling my old Konica over my shoulder in addition to my FM2 and D750, but I don't think my shoulders could take a third body - and if I'm remembering correctly, slightly heavier lenses! Kudos to you for slinging around all three! 

Good article. I too carry three cameras. 750, 5200, and P900. 750 has the 1.4 50mm, 5200 has a wide angle (10-20) and the P900 for the instant shots. Works great with no other lenses.

Mike, I definitely need to get my hands on a 50mm f/1.4! Glad I'm not the only one juggling multiple cameras :) 

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