The Travel Kit
|The Mysterious "Travel Kit"|
|Things to Think About|
|Packing Your Bag|
|Don't Forget to Enjoy Yourself|
The Mysterious "Travel Kit"
Let's be honest - we've all been there. On vacation somewhere, far from home. Perhaps sitting at an outdoor café, enjoying a coffee and watching people walk by. Then glancing down at your camera bag... A mournful look, or perhaps one of disdain washes over you. You've been dragging around 20lbs. of camera gear all day and you're thinking, "there's got to be a better way."
This scenario if often preceded by a question that comes up on photography forums constantly... "I'm going to ______. What should I take?" The answer is surprisingly simple and one we often over-think. The end result is a big, heavy bag of gear, half of which we never end up using. Only we realize this too late, often while already at our destination and tired of lugging around so much gear.
This article is about the mysterious "travel kit." It's mysterious because as photographers, we always want to be ready - for anything. Especially when you're traveling to a new destination, an unfamiliar and unknown place. A noble goal to be sure but impractical. Be a photographer - take plenty of fantastic pictures. But don't forget to enjoy yourself too! That is after all, the reason you're on vacation (or at least most of the time anyway). If you burden yourself with a heavy bag you'll neither enjoy yourself nor take half the pictures you set out to. The trick is to be prepared - but keep your gear to an absolute minimum.
Things to Think About
The simple answer alluded to earlier on what to bring with you is to bring the gear you already love to shoot with! Far away from home is no place to experiment. You might be tempted to bring that super wide angle or telephoto lens for that "what if?" situation. Chances are, you probably won't use it or only use it for a few shots. But at least you have it with you! This is the part we all struggle with - that "what if?" scenario. Plan smart, and you'll be prepared. But the name of the game is to compromise.
One of the best qualities of a rangefinder system is its compact size over DSLR equivalents. From camera bodies to lenses to bags to carry it all in. We know from personal experience from lugging 25lbs. of professional Canon gear around, what a revelation a platform change can be. So we'll assume you're a rangefinder shooter, which is after all, the focus of this site. So then what gear should you take?
Obviously you'll want the camera body. Then decide on what your favorite focal lengths and/or lenses you like are, for your typical shooting. These will be the center of your kit. From there, go both wider and longer but spread them out. Perhaps only one of each. Unlike your photo romps around home, you don't need a lens of every focal length "just in case." You'll need to break from this way of thinking for this to succeed. Some people like a spread of 28mm, 50mm and 90mm. Others prefer wider, or longer. Or a 35mm instead of a 50mm. In any event, try to pick at most three lenses. The one part that bears careful consideration is your primary lens. ideally you want something that will cover the bases no matter what, which usually calls for a fast lens. If you have the option, maybe you want to take a slower version along as well. You won't be shooting in the dark all the time now, right? No sense dragging an f/1.2 lens around during the day.
It goes without saying that you'll need plenty of film and/or memory cards to capture everything on. You'll want to have at least one spare battery on-hand, and a charger if you have rechargeable batteries. A small cleaning kit is also a good idea, so that you can clean your lenses if necessary. Being stuck somewhere with a dirty lens and no way to clean it save for a t-shirt isn't pleasant (though it works quite well in a pinch). Lens tissues, a blower/brush and a small bottle of lens cleaning solution are all you need and take up little room in your bag. If you're shooting black and white film, maybe you'll want a filter or two. Stick with one if possible; something like a yellow or orange filter that you can use just about any time. A deep red filter is nice, but save it for when you're close to home. A polarizing filter is not a bad idea though. Finally, a flash. Most M shooters don't care much for flash. But if you have a small one, it wouldn't be a bad idea to have on-hand.
That's it! Don't bring all your lenses, filters, do-dads and what-nots. Chances are, you won't use them anyway. Stick with what you know, what you're comfortable with and shoot most often. It's less to carry, less to lose - and god forbid, less to get stolen. It's also a much faster process at the airport security counter, when you don't have to empty a bag stuffed to the gills with gear - which of course, all has to go back a certain way. Heavy and time consuming!
So what happens if you're in a situation where that wider angle or longer telephoto lens would've come in handy? Deal with it. Take a few steps closer or a few steps back. Between that and cropping, you've just saved the weight and space in your bag of a lens. When considering the lenses on either side of your favorite, pick one that's comfortably wide enough or long enough for common use; not something extreme. You'll use it far more often.
Packing Your Bag
So now, hopefully - you've paired your kit down to the essentials. What about your bag? The last thing a photographer needs is an excuse to buy another bag. But you should have one that's primarily for travel or field use. Something small, something light - and something inconspicuous. You're a tourist; and the locals know this, no matter how much you think you blend in. But don't make things worse for yourself with a bag that draws further attention to yourself. Being a tourist is one thing, but being seen as a "rich tourist" can become a problem, especially in more dangerous locales. Just like a street shooter, you want to be as discreet as possible. You'll be able to take much more interesting photographs if everyone isn't staring at you.
On to packing your bag, whatever you decide on. You want fast access to its contents. Nobody likes traveling with "the photographer." You know the one - "that guy" that's always digging around in the bag, changing lenses, setting up filters, swapping films. It's much more fun for everyone, yourself included, if you can just roll with the scenery and enjoy the experience. Consider strongly shooting with what you've already got in your hand. Again, you'll draw less attention to yourself and annoy those with you much less.
You don't want to have to dig around in your bag. Reach in, grab what you need and do what you have to do. Don't go crazy layering lenses, stacking filters, hiding film behind the flash deep in the bottom. Most bags have plenty of pockets and dividers - use them! Keep your most-used stuff in dedicated, easy to reach pockets. Things like film, memory cards and batteries. If you have to put your bag down on a table to dig through it, you've not learned the lesson. Keep lenses easily stored - and easily swapped. Ideally you want a free spot for whatever lens you're shooting with, where you can take if off and drop it in your bag - grabbing another and mounting that. A juggling act is not what you want.
When you're at your hotel room and preparing to head out for the day - ask yourself, "will I really need this today?" If you're going out in the day time, chances are you won't need your flash. If you're traveling down old, tight European city streets, chances are you won't need a telephoto. Likewise, up in the mountains you probably won't get much use from a 21mm lens except to maybe "get it all in." Remember, this makes for a lousy photo anyway. If you're in a position to leave unnecessary gear at a family member's home or in your hotel safe - do it. Less gear is better. Just make sure it's in a safe place.
If you're traveling with film, it's not a bad idea to keep it in a ZipLoc bag. This makes it very easy to pull out and hand to a security agent at the airport for a hand check. This is a topic of much debate; some insist on having all film hand-checked while others generally don't care. If you're one of the former; a separate bag is the way to go. Pull it out, hand it to the security agent and send the rest through the X-ray machine. It's faster and easier for everyone. Another benefit is when you pull out a clear bag with all your film, it's quick and easy to identify the one you want and grab it out of the clear bag as opposed to digging around in your camera bag where it's dark and cluttered.
What about a tripod? Really? How often do you use a tripod near home? Do you often walk downtown and erect a tripod when you see a neat shot? Seriously consider leaving the tripod at home. Take a fast lens instead. Much smaller, faster and lighter. Don't be afraid to use anything and everything around you to rest your camera on if you're faced with long exposure times. A garbage can, a mailbox or a café table. You'd be surprised at how creative you can be when necessary. Don't forget that you can often rest your camera on your bag as well and use things around you to prop up the lens, etc. If you must bring a tripod, or know you'll be taking a lot of neat skyline shots at night - think about the Leica tabletop tripod or Bogen/Manfrotto 709B. Super small, but extremely flexible with their ballheads. Again, it's about compromise.
Some favorite lenses worth mentioning for the traveling photographer are seen in the image at the top of this article. The Voigtländer Color Skopars (here in the older LTM versions with adapter) for example. Some of the smallest lenses available, reasonably priced on the used market that won't break the bank - yet offer very good performance. Mounted to the camera is the 35mm f/2.5 Color Skopar; to the right are the 28mm f/3.5 and 50mm f/2.5 Color Skopars, respectively. All share a similar hood and lens cap and take 39mm filters. When picking your lenses, it's great to have a consistent filter size as it will limit the need for having multiple sizes (or step rings) with you. Also handy if you lose a hood or cap; you'll have "spares" with you to get you by.
Other great lenses include the Elmarit range of lenses from Leica. At a modest f/2.8 speed, they're generally very small - and extremely good. The Elmarit 28mm f/2,8 ASPH lens for example, is the smallest Leica lens currently offered and would make a great travel companion. Faster lenses such as the Summicron range are also good choices; a stop faster and not much larger than the Elmarits. Leave the Summilux range to your favorite focal length - they're small lenses, yet fast enough to handle just about any lighting situation. But you don't want a whole bag of them.
Don't Forget to Enjoy Yourself
A vacation is just that - a time to relax, have fun and experience new things. Take pictures while you're doing these things. They'll remind you of what you did, where and with whom. Save the "photo days" for when you can steal away for a time and you have the luxury of switching up your rig, traveling to more obscure locations or just focusing on getting the exact shot you envision. You'll be able to take your time and enjoy the shooting aspect of it more and your photos will show it. Your traveling companion(s) will thank you for it as well.