dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

We're animals, and we don't understand human shoulder bags. When we want to carry something, we just take it around in our mouths!

— Meow-Kitty to Bu-Dog

Surviving a trip with your camera

The most fundamental problem in packing camera equipment is taking too much. The temptation is to always think that you need more capability. This usually translates into more cameras and more lenses. Then there are the other practical mistakes you can make. This article will briefly discuss some of the issues surrounding travel photography and how not to let it kill you. It will not discuss what makes a good picture or how to charm the natives. That you must teach yourself.

Here are some simple precepts which should prevent exhaustion, theft, bad pictures, and ultimately, sadness.

1.  Understand where you are going.  Some places are just... hostile.  Understand whether you are facing sand, diesel pollution, heat or the like.  Sand is insidious and difficult to get out of digital cameras, particularly compacts.  Diesel pollution requires a lot of workarounds, starting with changing your technique to account for the blanket of black crud all over everything.  Heat is a real issue with a black camera (it's easy to hit the 140 degree failure temperature for electronics in Luxor, Egypt).  Get some intel on electricity, availability of batteries, etc.  And most importantly, get a sense of sight lines, times of day when things are front-lit, and how wide of a lens you will need.

2. Find the right camera bag. The easiest place to get off to a bad start is to choose a camera bag that is too heavy or poorly configured.  At best, a camera bag is deadweight.  Unless you are carrying other items in the bag (discussed below), the bag should be the smallest one that holds what you are taking. You may not realize this, but a camera bag alone can weigh 2-3 pounds (1-1.5kg). Some things to think about.

— Size.  Your bag (the one you carry around sightseeing) should hold your camera, a small flash (if warranted), an extra set of batteries, and one to two days' supply of film or CF cards. The equipment content is discussed below. The amount of film you carry depends on (a) how much shooting you plan to do; (b) whether or not you can leave finished film at your hotel; and (c) whether the place you are visiting has film available and whether that is the type you habitually use.

— Form.  Vertical bags (taller than they are wide - for example, the Tamrac Zoom Traveler series, Crumpler Tall-e, etc.) are more stable and do not twist around as much as horizontal ones. This is an important factor if you are traveling on a river bus boat or some other means of transportation where you are standing.  It also helps if you are climbing up hills or down into caves.

— Color.  If you are going to a sunny place (such as Southeast Asia), use a light-colored bag. You might be surprised at how a black bag can absorb heat and injure the things inside.

— Internals.  Make sure that there is some kind of internal divider to make sure that the various pieces of equipment does not impact each other. A hot shoe can do a remarkable job of scratching things in a camera bag.

— External padding.  You will find that padding is largely unnecessary. That's one place where Domke got it right. Your bag is most likely going to be banging against your body, which is not enough to cause any problems with anything.  That said, if you are going to a place where you have to check your camera bag constantly, padding helps protect against a dropped bag.

— Sidewall padding does not do much other than increase the bulk of a bag.  Internal padding, on the other hand, prevents the destruction of your valuable equipment.

You will come back to the selection of a bag when you decide what you are putting in it.

3. Pack as little equipment as possible: less is more. Comsumables (batteries, cards, film) are far more important than equipment. Consumables are light. Equipment is heavy. Consumables enable your output. Excess weight impedes it. I am always amused to read newsgroup messages from people who carry two Leica M cameras and three lenses around Europe with them.  Or a D3 hauled around Asia.  I suspect that they are more brawny than I, or they must have hairshirts in their closets. I can tell you firsthand that one of the most miserable things about traveling is carrying a big camera bag stuffed with unnecessary items.

First, your basic camera equipment should fit in the pockets of the coat you're wearing (unless it's summer). This takes you from a tiny high-quality camera like a GR Digital II, Leica D-Lux, Rollei 35S or a Contax T up to something the size of a Leica M with 35mm Summicron. If you can live with a tiny camera, do it. Smaller cameras can also fit in trouser pockets.

Second, photography, like everything else, roughly follows the 80/20 rule: 80% of your shots are taken with 20% of your equipment. If you have to choose one lens (or camera), pick the one you do the most with. Most people are 35mm or 50mm lens people. Not many are 21, 24 or 28 people, and as few are 85, 105 or 135 people.

This is an example of how I pack photo equipment for a trip of two weeks. Note that both cameras are coat-pocketable.

Ricoh GRDII with wrist strap

2 x batteries

1 x charger

1 x microfiber sleeve

4 x cards (in heavy Gepe case)

Total: 385g

Fuji GA645 with wrist strap

1 x B+W MCR KR1.5

2 x extra CR123A batteries

20 x TX120

1 x other filter

Total: 1,375g

Horsehair lens brush

Ziploc plastic bags (2)

Total: negligible.

May I suggest using a relatively mild filter when traveling, in conjunction with a brush and not a blower or wiping cloth? This will save your lenses from the particulate soot of far off lands. You will use the Ziplocs to protect your camera when it starts raining. Finally, be sure to discard the film boxes before you go. They take up a lot of space. All of this stuff leaves plenty of room in the smallish Domke 802, which then also holds the following (these items need not all go sightseeing with you):


Shaving Bag

Extra underwear

Flat, rectangular-profile ultralight umbrella


Streetwise laminated maps

Pocket-sized GPS

Cell phone




Small notepad and pens

Small dictionary

Chewing gum

Microcassette recorder

Total weight on this stuff may be another 4 lbs. It is especially important to be able to pack other things in your "camera bag," given the ever-tightening airline restrictions.

3. Pack light equipment. You may be relieved to know that size does not matter — well, at least as much as weight does.

One thing that is very east to forget is that anything you are carrying at the beginning of the day weighs five times as much at the end of the day. You don't feel the sting of the extra stuff when you "test" your bag in the morning, but after the strap has been cutting into your shoulder, after you have been torqued by your bag, after you have run to catch the tube, you might realize that you don't need three bodies and five lenses.

TIP: Three pounds (1,500g) of equipment is a fairly reasonable allowance. This easily covers most compact SLRs (and all of the new, plastic ones) and three reasonable lenses (24, 40, 85) or squeaks by with a rangefinder camera and three modern lenses. If you are a fan of the old brass RF gears, you should pick your two favorite lenses. Take one small automatic flash (like an HX-18, a Vivitar 2800, etc).

TIP: Don't be a snob. You may find that a compact (late 70s/early 80s) SLR is small, light and very versatile. Compact mechanical SLRs typically focus to 18" and are a good fail-safe choice.

4. Lens speed matters a lot. People either tend to dismiss lens speed as a factor, or overemphasize it. As a general rule, you need fast lenses in the fall and winter, and you can get away with slow in the summers. This has as much to do with the duration of a day than the actual brightness level. Even an overcast day, you can get away with an f/4 lens, provided that you have enough day to work with. I spent a few weeks in England, Belgium and the Netherlands, and I can tell you firsthand that carrying a 21/2.8 and not a 21/4 gives you almost an extra hour of shootable light. Going faster generally does not make a lens that much less pocketable, since the front-to-back dimension typically stays similar. The penalty is weight.

5. Keep things in perspective. Your lens selection will have a lot to do with what you want to record. Here are some rules of thumb for previsualizing the lenses you will need.

21mm (14mm on DX) - all of your peripheral vision with both eyes

35mm (21mm on DX) - your field of view with your eyes facing forward

50mm (35mm on DX) - the part of the 35mm scene you can remember a minite later

85/90/100mm - the field of view of one eye

Find some picture books about where you are going and see if the spaces are wide-open (where to go long) or closed in (where you need wide). I am not sure how I feel about 24mm lenses - they tend to induce you to tilt the camera to get tall things, causing convergence of verticals. With a 21, the field of view is wide enough. With a 28 or longer, you're not even tempted to do that.

6. Use the right film. You are going to get one shot. Money should be no object. The best film costs $3/roll more than the worst. What is it to gain $30 if you come back with lousy pictures with uncontrollable contrast? Capture as much as possible. Pick a film accordingly. Here are my picks and pans. You might disagree, but I guess that's your problem. Fuji has many equivalent films to Kodak, so look in their book if you are fan of the Green Giant.

(+) Kodak Portra NC - great medium-contrast film for medieval cities where the contrast range goes from pitch black to ultrabright — on the same street. Also good for sunlit cathedral interiors.

(+) Kodak Portra VC - best for overcast days when you need some color snap to bring the pictures to life. Has many of the defects of supersaturated slide films when used outdoors on sunny days.

(+) Kodak Supra 400 - great, full-range film similar in shooting characteristics to Portra NC. Descendant of Ektapress and designed to get good pictures all the time.

(+) Tri-X (TX) 120 - Tri-X can be a great film in 120 (it is a descendant of Double-X Pan). The lesser magnification of medium format translates into creamy tones and fine grain. Pushes without incident to 1250 or 1600. Good all-round use. This I used for Madrid and a number of other galleries.

(+) Tri-X Pro (TXP) 120/220 - Not the same as TX (the imported versions of TX share its qualities), TXP was designed as a studio film. I have discovered that it has a certain brilliance to it when you deal with whitewashed buildings. See Gualdo Tadino for what I mean.

(—) Supersaturated slide films - think of it this way - every National Geographic photographer has already beaten you to any picture you could take with these films. So has every postcard photographer. Seriously, the biggest problem is that saturated color typically leads to no shadow detail. And although stuff like Kodachrome, Velvia, and Ektachrome looks good projected, they seldom translate into the same thing on paper or on screen. Take them to Asia, but not to Europe. From an aesthetic standpoint, nothing in the real world looks like saturated transparencies.

(—) Chromogenic b/w films - don't get me wrong - I like these for use in my town. But T400CN and XP2 are susceptible to scratching, and taking them anywhere where there is a lot of dust is asking for scratched negs. The other problems with these are the lack of control over processing and the lack of effect of filters.

(—) Neopan 1600 - Neopan is a great film for miserable light. But shot at 1600, it almost always incurs a massive loss of shadow detail. Since you get but one shot, you want everything on the neg you can get. Outdoors, Neopan 1600 makes very flat-looking pictures.

(—) Tri-X 35mm - Sorry for you diehards, but for travel this 35mm film is a tough sell. Get T-Max 400 instead: it is less grainy and has 15 stops of range. Tri-X is a valid 120 film (see above).

(—) Verichrome Pan 120 (VP) - hard to use on trips. No foreign lab has ever seen it. Impossible to machine print well once someone has bolluxed the processing. Save this incredible film for shots taken at home under controlled conditions and when you have a good two hours to devote to making each beautiful print. Use the more crude Plus-X instead.

7. Don't let your equipment put you (or itself) in danger. Contrary to many peoples' beliefs, a rangefinder camera (of whatever vintage), is not the invisibility ring from The Hobbit. Here are some quick tips:

Avoid camera bags that look like camera bags. My favorite is the Domke 802 satchel, which holds a lot more than a camera and some film. But it's compact, stable, and looks like a briefcase.

Don't walk around with your camera hanging from your neck. Only tourists do this kind of thing. Keep it in your hand with the strap wrapped around your wrist. Neck straps are also good ways for people to snatch equipment off cafe tables. And don't wear shorts, for Chrissake. Your legs are ugly enough in this country.

Don't fumble with equipment. If need be, take one lens only. Changing lenses constantly makes you vulnerable to attack and risks your dropping the goods.

8. Don't ruin the film. This may sound odd, but you really need to fight the temptation to have your pictures done abroad. Think of it however you want - an exposed film weighs half an ounce. Prints and negs weigh a lot more. And if a foreign lab screws up your pictures, you are pretty much SOL. This is doubly true with b/w. Unless you shoot Tri-X at normal speed, or you are in Paris, your b/w negs will be done at some "standard" time/temp that will ruin most other films. Just keep your exposed film out of the checked luggage scanner and you will be ok. Also, put exposed 35mm film in a plastic bag, where the felt lips will not be infiltrated with dust.

9. Have fun! Don't forget that a vacation is a vacation. Don't ruin it for your traveling companions. No more than 20 secs per shot.