For many people who make their living capturing images and telling stories, the phrase "travel photographer" has a double meaning. First, there’s the (often misguided) romance of visiting foreign lands and basking in culture. Then there’s the (more accurate) reality of slogging between cities laden with heavy bags of gear.
As the publisher of Bike Hugger, a website that chronicles cycling culture and lifestyle, I’ve certainly visited my share of picture-postcard destinations, but I’ve also uploaded photos from the coach cabin of a cramped domestic flight, sprinted to catch flights where the connecting gate is an impossible distance away and worked from small, ill-smelling hotel rooms with nonexistent WiFi.
For the modern travel photographer, there’s a need to travel light. Baggage fees, long waits between flights and ever-present deadlines necessitate having the right gear, but having it fi t into a carry-on bag. Over the years, I’ve worked on minimizing my gear while maximizing my productivity. Much of that has to do with the collection of musthave tools for the road warrior.
The key to successful travel photography is organization. I arrange everything into small, zippered travel bags, stacking them together in my bag like Matryoshka dolls. My favorites are zippered bags with a mesh or clear plastic back so I can see what’s inside. I pack a number of these bags and group gear according to function—chargers and charging cables in one bag, card readers and storage cards in another, hard drives for backup in another, and so on.
To make it easy to repack and to make it easier to figure out who gear belongs to in a crowded press room, it’s a good idea to use something to distinguish your gear. It’s surprising how many journalists in a press room have identical tools. Packing a paint marker or a roll of colored electrical tape makes it easy to find gear and gather it up without playing "does this belong to anyone?"
The choice of bags is very personal, and there are hundreds and hundreds of camera and computer bags to choose from in a variety of styles. The most common are laptop bags, camera bags, messenger bags and backpacks—all of which have their merits. No matter what the bag, be sure it has zippered pouches (not buttons or Velcro®). The zippers will keep items in the bag when stowing them in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front of you.
My favorite bag from a nontraditional bag company is the Chrome Niko. It’s water resistant, padded and comfortable thanks to the big strap. It doesn’t look like a computer or camera bag (which is great for keeping items safe), and I’ve even clipped a monopod to it. I’ve managed to fill it with an iPad and headphones, mirrorless camera and lenses, organizers and a thin raincoat.
Recently, I’ve begun traveling with backpacks and organizers by Cocoon Innovations, which have an innovative storage system. Instead of pouches and pockets, these bags use thick elastic straps that are intertwined in order to hold gear down. Lift a strap, put a cable in and go. No zippers or Velcro®.
For a good look at bags and packs, our sister publication Digital Photo has a number of great options in the 2016 Buyer’s Guide.
On The Literal Road
When driving to a shoot instead of flying (or for use in the rental car), there are a few must-have tools I always keep around. The first is a USB charger that fits into the cigarette adapter. I use one from Omaker that has three USB ports and delivers a max of 6.6 amps, the most I’ve seen. A number of other excellent chargers are available from online and travel outlets, as well. For the fastest recharging time of mobile devices and cameras, look for a charger that has at least one 2-amp USB port.
Another automotive essential is a power inverter. These units (you can pick them up at Best Buy and any highway truck stop) connect via the DC "cigarette lighter" and, through the magic of science, create AC power available via standard AC connectors. Plug your laptop into an inverter and your car becomes an instant office.
Most laptops provide power over the USB ports, turning the computer into a mobile charging station. Sometimes that’s not enough juice, so most road warriors travel with a few USB chargers that plug into the wall outlets. That’s great until you’re in a hotel room with just one wall outlet. An ingenious product called the PlugBug turns the bulky Mac laptop "power brick" into a charging station and a universal travel adapter. The PlugBug connects to the removable plug on an Apple power adapter and replaces it with a new port that has a built-in powered USB port and interchangeable plugs that work with any power outlet worldwide.
To deal with limited AC outlets in hotels (and conference rooms and press centers and coffee shops), I carry a small power strip with me. This has come in handy more times than I can count, both to charge my own devices and to allow colleagues to charge theirs, as well. The Monster Outlets To Go power strip includes four outlets and a USB charging port, and takes up about the same amount of bag space as a king-sized candy bar.
Sometimes AC power isn’t available, so in order to keep my devices running, I’ve taken to bringing several external batteries. These batteries plug into USB ports to charge when power is handy and then provide USB ports for mobile devices when you’ve left the grid behind. My favorite is the 3200 mAh Nokia DC-19, though that’s because I was given some at a Nokia event. These cylindrical batterinies are available from a number of vendors. They’re small enough to fit into a pocket and, with a cord secured in my belt loops, I’ll recharge my phone in my back pocket. The 300 mAh capacity is enough for two charges or a full charge and enough to boost your iPad.
Another option is to use a battery case, but that increases the weight of the mobile device and can’t be used to boost up a few devices. If the battery case is more to your liking, the most popular and well known is from mophie. They make a variety of cases in different capacities and they also make external batteries like the Nokia model. It’s good to make sure whatever battery you pick has status lights to show its charge level.
Cards, Cables And Importing
While the MacBook Air I travel with has a built-in SD card slot, I always travel with a USB 3 card reader or two. Although I rarely have a need for them, they’ve saved my bacon when I’ve needed to grab an image from a second shooter that’s using a camera with a CF card or when I want to ingest multiple cards at a time.
They’re also handy to have around as a favor for other photographers at events. Card readers seem to be the most of ten-forgotten item in the press room, and I’ve loaned mine out a few times, earning me a free beer or even dinner.
While I used to carry a collection of Micro USB and Apple Lightning connectors, now I rely on the doubleduty Belkin Micro-USB Cable with Lightning Connector Adapter. This two-in-one cable has a Micro USB cable and a tethered Lightning adapter that makes it connect to Apple devices. Three of these cables in my bag replace my previous collection of three Lightning and three Micro USB cables.
still a good idea to pack a Mini-USB cable, as some devices have the ports and not the newer Micro USB. The new USB-C standard has arrived, as well, so I keep some USB-C to USB cables in my bag, in addition to a USB-C to Ethernet cable (both are available from Apple).
Due to the fragility of computer laptops and the drives inside of them, I always bring at least one backup drive. The go-to drive for travel photographers is, by far, the LaCie Rugged. I’ve seen these drives in use by photographers around the globe. They’re available in various capacities and with a range of connectors, but for the fastest speed with a Mac or a Windows machine, opt for one with USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.
While not something you can fi t in a backpack, online file storage is a crucial complement to the physical backups you take on the road. Even a secondary hard drive can fail—and I’ve seen people accidentally drop their whole camera bag into a stream during a shoot. Most road warriors use at least two different online systems—one for shuttling and syncing files between a remote laptop and the home office, and one for backup. That provides both easy access to essential files like Word documents and spreadsheets, and a way to ensure the safety of photos and other files.
Services like Dropbox, Box, iCloud and Google Docs are the most common means of keeping identical versions of files available across multiple devices. Prices range from free to expensive, depending on your storage needs and how many machines you need to sync.
For system-level backup and file protection, there are a few main competitors, and they offer similar services. Backblaze, CrashPlan and Carbonite are among the most popular, and they all offer background streaming and uploading of data to a data center somewhere in the cloud. Should disaster strike locally, files are available remotely for backup. CrashPlan has the unique ability to let you send files to a trusted computer—one belonging to a friend or family member—for remote storage somewhere you can access in an emergency.
A Well-Packed Bag
The mantra of the successful travel professional is a lot like that of the Boy Scouts. It’s important not only to "be prepared," but to be flexible, with powerful tools that can keep you going no matter the location, the connectivity, the electricity or the client. A well-packed bag can often be the difference between successfully delivering images to a client and having to apologize for a failed assignment.
Visit Bike Hugger at bikehugger.com.
| While there are lots of brands that produce gear that meets the needs of the travel photographer, here are some of my favorite tools and gadgets.
Automotive Power Inverter
Monster Outlets to Go
mophie Juice Pack for iPhone
Omaker Intelligent 6.6A / 33W Premium Aluminum 3 USB Car Charger With Smart Sharing IC
Twelve South PlugBug World
Apple USB-C to USB Adapter, USB-C to Ethernet Adapter
Belkin Micro-USB Cable with Lightning Connector Adapter
Lexar Multi-Card 25-in-1 USB 3.0 Reader
LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt
ONLINE FILE SYNCHRONIZATION AND STORAGE
Box — box.com
Backblaze — backblaze.com