Can we travel lighter?

The more places you go, the more you want to see all the other places you haven’t been to yet. I think this is called the travel bug! But is it really possible to travel lighter when you are a photographer visiting these new and exciting destinations? Writes Andrew James.

I must confess I’ve never been very good at the travelling lighter concept but I am increasingly sure that we ALL carry too much gear ‘just in case’.

The increasing popularity of mirrorless cameras gives us an instant scale-down option, but putting camera type to one side, perhaps it’s time to really look hard at what we travel with. No two travel opportunities are the same and it would be silly to suggest that if you are going to somewhere that requires a long lens (600mm) that you can travel as lightly as someone who is only going to be wandering the streets of a city armed with a 50mm.

I am just back from Namibia; a bit of a recce and the first chance to take Amanda away since we got married a year ago. I knew I was going to photograph some landscapes, wildlife and I thought, perhaps, shoot video too. With a second ‘non’ photographer travelling with me I didn’t scrimp at all. It made me lazy when it came to trimming down the kit as we had two lots of cabin luggage allocated. So it all went into a couple of bags – one a rucksack style carried by me and the other an F-Stop bag with wheels. The combined weight would have left Geoff Capes (showing my age here) struggling but I had the capacity so my thinking was, why leave anything behind?

The trouble was, when I was there, I had so much stuff with me I couldn’t find what I wanted, when I wanted it in a hurry and on my return while sorting it all out I was discovering stuff I’d simply forgotten I’d taken. In other words, I didn’t really need to take it with me at all. I might moan when I am travelling overseas and internal flights on small planes restrict the capacity to carry everything BUT it does make me really think about what is essential and what isn’t. And yes, from time to time, I might think if only I could have brought X, Y, or Z with me but honestly, most of the time I am just happily shooting photos based on the type of lenses I’ve been able to carry.

When it comes to what is or isn’t essential I am sure everyone has their own views. I think a second camera body is 100% essential. It might never be used but what if the main camera dies? And yes, I have had that happen. I’ll take an extra camera body over the lens I ‘might’ use every day of the week. I have become a big fan of decent zooms, like the Canon 100-400mm. They cover so much focal length and still (depending on specific model) give you excellent quality. While it’s great to have a big prime with me, it’s the first thing that goes when space in the camera bag is so limited.

I will never (perhaps until I have migrated completely to mirrorless) travel with a full bag that even a four year-old-child could carry but I need to be more brutal with my choices and more satisfied with those decisions when I get to where I am going. I’m guessing that you probably do too. So next time you are planning for a trip, start with a list of kit you want to take. Then interrogate every item you’ve listed. Do you really need a 100-400 and a 70-200? Is the flashgun going to get used? Do you need those off-camera flash triggers?

Photography is a relatively simple pastime. We are creatively trying to capture the world as we see it. Then we collect all this kit and umpteen lenses as our passion grows and we cling to them as if they are life rafts in a stormy sea. Maybe they are weighing us down and confusing our creativity. Necessity is the Mother of all invention, right? Well, if you have only got one or two lenses to call on then you just have to get more creative! Well, theoretically anyway…

The ultimate travel lens?
One way of stripping everything down and lightening your load without cramping your style is by investing in a ‘superzoom’ writes Jon Adams. These all-in-one lenses tip the scales at a modest weight around 600g, and pack down pretty small when the lens is zoomed all the way back. They’re available for most camera mounts in either APS-C or full-frame variants, and cover an enormous zoom range that stretches from a moderate wide-angle to a long telephoto. Cost varies depending on brand and model, but a Tamron 16-300mm for APS-C is about £500, and the 28-300mm for FF is about £730.

I’ll use the Tamron 16-300mm as an example, as I took the Lake District image shown below with it This was an opportunist shot taken while on a commercial video shoot, but it’s since been published in photo mags and has sold to a couple of private buyers, too. The 16-300mm is an APS-C lens that gives the equivalent of a whopping 24-450mm on a Nikon body, or 26-480mm on a Canon EF-S mount. In essence, it covers the focal range offered by about 10 prime lenses or at least 3 ‘normal’ zooms, and that means you can pretty much cover the whole gamut of photography disciplines without pausing for breath or delving into your camera bag.

This fit-and-forget approach means you won’t miss a fleeting telephoto opportunity when you’re sizing up a wide-angle shot, and similarly, you won’t have to ignore an amazing photo happening three yards away because you’ve tooled up with a 300mm. To go from one end of the focal range to the other requires no more than a quarter-turn of the barrel, and takes half a second. More important than this ease and speed though, is that you can leave the weight of all your other optics behind, and devote the extra spring in your step to seeking out great shots, regardless of what subjects or scenes you’ll meet.

Taken on the Tamron 16-300mm superzoom.

So we have a single lightweight, compact zoom lens that does everything, and sports a reasonable price tag. It sounds too good to be true, right? So what’s the catch? Below I’ve listed out the pros and cons of super/mega/travel zooms, so you can weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of these optics…

PROS

Lightweight – a Tamron 16-300mm or 28-300mm weighs just 540g. That means you won’t be suffering if you’re carrying it over long distances, even if you’re on rugged terrain.

Compact – Just. One. Lens. Think about the space you devote to glass. Without the need for this, you can reinvent the way you transport your camera kit, and the way you use it. It’s the difference between a backpack and a bumbag – or sling it over your shoulder and have no bag at all.

Versatile – a superzoom covers the focal lengths of around 10 primes or at least 3 zooms, so covers everything we’d encompass by the term ‘general photography’.

Convenient – no lens changes to take your concentration off the subject or give rise to dust ingress, and no chance of dropping a lens when you’re switching.

Economical – add up the cost of a 16-35mm, 24-70mm and a 100-400mm, and compare the result to the outlay for a travel zoom. No contest.

Effective – you never miss the moment. With all the focal lengths you could need ready to be accessed in less than half a second, you’ll only miss a shot if you don’t actually spot it in the first place!

CONS

Slow apertures – the max apertures go from f/3.5 (wide) to f/6.3 (tele) on most superzooms. This isn’t very quick, and apart from robbing you of light at the long end, it means that fast shutter speeds and shallow depth-of-field effects aren’t as easy to achieve.

Slow AF – the AF motors in superzooms won’t lock-on as quickly as those of a pro lens, so they’ll be sluggish if you want to capture sharp fast-moving action.

Optical quality – because a zoom with this massive range is turning optical cartwheels to deliver its results, it’ll usually show more chromatic aberration (colour fringing in high-contrast areas), more distortion (a bending of straight lines at the extremes of the zoom) and less sharpness than seen in a pro zoom or a prime with less work to do. The good news is, careful RAW processing can remove or substantially reduce the first two, and sharpness may not be a huge issue unless you’re making massive crops or equally massive prints!

Content and Impact
No one would claim that travel zooms are as ‘good’ as pro zooms or primes when it comes to overall technical image quality, as the ability to resolve fine detail and the optical quality will fall short in comparison. But when it comes to the art of photography, it’s the content and impact of a picture that really matters – not how well a lens can resolve detail on a measurement chart. A great deal of travel photography isn’t about setting up a particular shot in a meticulous and methodical way. Instead, it’s about moving fast and light, and reacting to the sights around you. The ability to switch between 16 and 300mm in an instant gives you the same tools as a TV camera operator shooting a wide shot one second, and a tight close-up the next.

This gives an extraordinary advantage over any ‘perfect’ lens that was in your bag when the moment happened. After all, it’s much easier to show and revel in the shot you actually got, than wax lyrical about the much better one you didn’t manage to capture!

Tamron 16-300mm 'superzoom'

7 Useful Accessories 
AJ and JA’s list of useful travel accessories…

Microfibre towel –  travel accessories are at their best when they have multiple uses, and the microfibre towel makes up for its meagre size and weight in spades. Use it as a lens cloth, a sunshade, or a padded protector; clean water splashes off your gear, or dry off your hands and face if you get caught in a downpour. Scrunch it up and it’ll act like a makeshift beanbag to support your lens, and if you get cold, your can wear it as a scarf or a hood to warm up. If you don’t have one, go get one!

Camera cover – contrary to what the holiday brochures tell you, the sun doesn’t always shine when travelling and some of the best pictures are had when the weather is at its worst. You might be able to fashion a cover from a plastic bag or a shower cap but a purpose-built camera and lens cover will be better, helping you to keep on shooting whatever the weather throws at you. While pro spec cameras are well weather-sealed, nothing is impenetrable so why not give it a helping hand and of course, mid-range and budget models have less sealing to protect them.

Universal adaptor and 4-gang – life revolves around chargers these days and different sockets require different mains adaptors. But don’t buy multiple power adaptors to stick on the end of all your plugs. Instead, buy one good quality anything to anything adaptor, and then take a standard 4-gang mains adaptor – the type you’d use at home. Stick the adaptor on the plug, and you now have 4 sockets to accommodate your kit. These days you can buy 4-gang extension sockets complete with USB ports to plug your phone and other USB charge devices into. Easy!

Tripod – we all look at the weight and bulk of a set of sticks and ask ‘will I really need it? The answer depends on what you’re shooting when you get to your destination, but aside from sharper shots and more accurate framing, a tripod opens up the opportunity to capture long exposures and even shots at night. It might look like a cumbersome set of bagpipes, but a tripod is a truly creative tool and in photo terms, can be more useful than a  couple of extra lenses, If the weight and bulk worries you, get a compact travel model, as these fold in ingenious ways to give a good level of height and stability.

Card wallet – with your cards in a fold up wallet, you can devise a system to keep your shooting organised. Keep unused cards face up, and used cards face down so you can switch cards quickly and easily, and know which ones to download when you get back to base.

Freezer bags – get a bunch of different sizes and you’ll have a set of impermeable barriers to protect your kit. If you’re shooting near salt water or sand, seal up each lens inside your backpack and you have a dirt-cheap but highly effective system that’ll save your gear if your bag gets swamped by a stray wave or a sandstorm.  In extreme cold, sealing up your lenses in freezer bags before you go indoors can help prevent fogging too. In these conditions, take out any gear you need like memory cards, then leave everything sealed and zipped up in the bag so it warms up very slowly.

Compact Power bank – While your mobile phone is an essential travel accessory in its own right (think maps, video, photos, and general Apps as well as potentially being a lifeline) it’s very important to keep it charged, something not always possible when on the move in remote places. If you have a pre-charged compact power bank handy, when the battery gets close to the red line, plug it in and keep that phone alive. They will also charge any USB-charged device so that includes a tablets, some compact camera and some gimbals.

And finally…
Ultimately whether you can travel lighter is down to you and your approach to photography plus of course, what you are shooting. However, a little bit of creative thinking and being slightly more brutal when it comes to packing will certainly help you to reduce some unwanted clutter and therefore weight.  Why not, test yourself out by going on a weekend shoot locally with your most pared down travel kit and see how you get on? What you miss from the bag (or rather don’t miss) might give you some help when it comes to packing for the next big trip for real.

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