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Tips for Traveling Light & Wisely

How to Squeeze the Most out of a Smaller Camera Bag

Text & Photos by Allan Weitz

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 the 1200mm/f5.6L EF Canon telephoto you bought from our Used Department 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 and/or heavy. (And if you're flying you already know the 1200 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 realities of traveling with photo gear vary from person to person. The variables have to do with where you plan on traveling and your expectations of what you plan on shooting 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, and maybe supplemented with an additional toy or two.

What You Already Have vs. What You May or May Not Need?

The first thing to do when planning a photo-conducive trip or vacation is figuring 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 on taking and where you plan on taking 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's your workaround to those problems?

If you're relatively new to DSLRs chances are you have one or possibly 2 'kit' lenses to go along with 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 a 85-300mm equivalent) for distant subjects. From a focal-range perspective, you're pretty well set for most any photo opportunity that comes along… as long as the sun is shining.

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 coming into play.

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 your OK, but once the light starts fading you begin 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 2-3 stops from wide-open). Cameras also respond sluggishly under low-light conditions when used with smaller-aperture lenses, and 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 18-55/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, complement it with a fast mid-range 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, e.g. a 55-200mm zoom, look into a fast 85, 10, or 105mm lens with a maximum aperture in the neighborhood of f/2 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 home. Zooms make us 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 an 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… OK?)

Note- your choice of camera system will determine your fast-prime options, though you should also see what 3rd-party lens manufacturers (Sigma, Tamron, etc) have to offer.

Polarizing Filters

If there were one tool I 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.

Polarizers come in 2 flavors – 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 otherwise look and work the same).

Polarizers can also be purchased in a choice of neutral or warm-tone, which is a throwback to the day before digital imaging allowed us to warm, cool, or neutralize our photographs in Photoshop, or simply adjust the tonal values in-camera. Warm-tone Polarizers are tinted with the equivalent of an 81A filter (or close to 81A), which helps temper the bluish cast common to mid-day 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.

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)

Note- 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 'Creative Modes' do not necessarily guarantee creative pictures.

The point is 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 of pocket cameras.

Panoramic landscape of Red Rock Canyon (Nevada desert) taken with Canon G10 (4 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 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. And while the resulting image file is smaller than the original image file (6.7Mb vs. 28.6Mb), the new photograph is far more interesting in terms of composition and still contains enough data to produce quite acceptable 8x10" and 11x14" 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 only plan on viewing your images on a computer screen or digital picture frame, 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 gang-buster shot, crop away.

So happy trails… and happy shooting!

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