Photographers always talk about the best equipment for certain photographic purposes – lenses, cameras, accessories, and so on. But what about packing and carrying your equipment in the first place? For something like landscape photography, you’ll often need to pack the most versatile possible kit given very limited space. This article provides several tips for optimizing the equipment you bring on a landscape photography trip.
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This is the easiest case, because you have minimal space and weight considerations. It’s still possible to go overboard on equipment, but there’s also no reason to be stingy about things.
To start, most road trips include a bit of hiking along the way, so I’d certainly bring along a kit that you’re comfortable carrying for a while on your back. But you’re also likely to encounter plenty of overlooks and other locations near your car – so it’s as good a time as any to pack along that heavy lens, too.
What about tripods? If you have two tripods, a travel and a heavyweight option, bring them both. Again, you’ve got a lot of room and a wide range of subjects to shoot. One for car-based shots and one for hiking is ideal.
The biggest challenge is simply organization. If you bring your entire gear closet, you’ll need to make sure you know where everything is. That’s easier said than done, and it’s an argument for leaving at least some gear at home.
Over time, I’ve grown to prefer a two-bag system. First, I keep all my equipment in one large bag (or even suitcase), carefully organized; this bag never leaves the car. Second, I keep my empty hiking backpack next to the suitcase and add items to it as needed for whatever day trip I’m taking. Easy enough. It certainly beats keeping everything in one bag and throwing the extras onto your carseat when going on a hike.
The only other gear I carry is specific camping equipment. I put all of that in a separate box in my trunk, completing the set. It’s a simple method, but it works.
What else is needed? Whatever you want – although I’ll emphasize again that minimalism helps even with roadtripping. The more equipment you bring, the easier it is to lose track of small accessories or trick yourself into bringing the wrong lenses on an excursion.
- A camera and one or two backups – might as well.
- All the lenses in your normal rotation. Don’t bring along that old 55mm f/1.8 “manual focus gem” just because you feel guilty keeping it on your shelf for too long. But don’t skimp on something you’d actually use.
- The same goes for accessories. Bring enough to cover reasonable situations, but don’t go crazy. My rule – if I haven’t used it for the past 12 months, and there’s not a specific shot in mind where I know it will help, I leave it at home.
- Two bags. One for organization, which will stay in the car, and one for carrying along.
- At least one box/suitcase of hiking and safety equipment.
You won’t always have the luxury of carrying everything along in a car. Sometimes, it’s just the opposite – it goes on your back, or it stays at home.
Hiking sounds great for landscape photography, and it often is. But poor planning can turn a brilliant excursion into a missed photographic opportunity, or worse. Safety equipment and food are more important than camera gear in the long run. How do you make sure to capture good photos anyway?
Step one is to figure out how much you’re comfortable carrying, and for how long. A rough calculation is that you should not carry more than 25% of your body weight in a backpack, and less if you are recovering from any injuries. For a long hike last summer, I carried about 28%, and my Achilles tendons felt pretty rough by the end. Don’t carry more than that unless you’ve worked up to it – and less will always be more comfortable, anyway.
That doesn’t leave much room for camera equipment. Here’s my default: one camera, two lightweight lenses, and a tripod.
Some people will decry using a tripod on a hike, but I find them so valuable that I’d never be caught without. Others will recommend more than one camera if yours fails, and that’s fair, but I’d make the second camera as lightweight as possible – something like a Ricoh GR III or Sony RX100 series camera.
For the lenses, I recommend a wide angle and a telephoto, without anything in between. You don’t really need those middle focal lengths for most uses, and you can always make a panorama or crop slightly to simulate those fields of view anyway (hey, like I wrote about in my first Photography Life article).
The reasonable alternative is just to bring a single lens instead, most likely a zoom, that goes from moderate wide to moderate telephoto. I just came back from a trip where I did just that (only bringing one lens, a 24-105mm f/4) – but it’s not normally my first choice. As versatile as those middle focal lengths can be, I tend to find the “middle extremes” more useful (the 18-24mm and 100-150mm ranges). But that’s just me.
Either way, the lens or lenses you bring should be lightweight if at all possible. Ditch the 14-24mm f/2.8 for an 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 or 14-30mm f/4. And especially leave the 70-200mm f/2.8 at home if you have a lighter alternative, even an 85mm prime. A great hiking kit is something like a 20mm f/1.8 with a 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, paired with a single camera and a light-to-medium weight tripod. Plus extra Oreos.
- One camera, potentially with a compact camera for emergency backup.
- Two lightweight lenses that cover wide and telephoto, like an 18-35mm and 70-200mm. Or, one medium zoom like a 24-105mm or 24-120mm.
- A tripod. Some photographers will find this excessive, but I find them absolutely essential for landscape photography.
- How heavy of a tripod? Personally, I just use my regular kit (4.3 lbs / 2 kg total) because I’m a stickler for tripod stability, and weight remains the best weapon against the wind. But if you have a lightweight option, now’s the time to use it.
- What about hiking and camping gear? It depends on the trip. You can see my full packing list for a nine-day Iceland trek here, including everything from clothing to food. But the reality is that all hikes are different. Warm weather hiking would have been another list entirely.
- This is as good a place as any to mention my favorite blister-avoidance tip. Just wear two socks per foot: a thin toe-sock liner beneath a tough wool sock. You can thank me later.
International and Air Travel
This is my least favorite of the bunch – not photographically, of course, but in terms of packing camera gear. And that’s because of a difficult dilemma: Either bring a slimmed-down camera kit (about the same size as the hiking kit mentioned above) and carry it onboard. Or, bring all the gear you’d want but leave it in checked luggage under the plane.
I usually go the carry-aboard route, and I’ve been lucky enough not to lose any camera equipment the few times I’ve checked important gear.
Looking it up online, USA Today says that there are 3.09 reports of mishandled/misplaced luggage per 1000 passengers. Or, about one in every 300. That’s still significant if you fly a lot, but even if you don’t, those numbers only account for lost and damaged luggage – not delays.
Personally, my checked bags have been delayed for more than a day at least twice I can remember, which is enough to change the overall structure of a trip if your camera gear is in those bags. I don’t know what the stats are on delayed equipment, but I think it’s fair to say that the odds are not exceedingly low.
If you need to risk it, go for it. Sometimes, you’ll have no choice. Otherwise, I’d do the carry-on route and lean toward the “hiking” recommendations more than the “roadtripping” side of things. That’s especially true if you’re flying on an airline that has strict weight and size limits.
Depending upon the amount of clothing and other travel items you bring, you can probably fit two regular-sized cameras, 3-4 lenses, a tripod, and no shortage of small/lightweight accessories in a carry-on. This assumes that you fill your backpack to capacity with camera equipment, then put the rest of your things (and potentially your tripod) in your carry-on suitcase. If that calculation doesn’t work for your needs, slim down the camera kit as needed.
- Two cameras that, ideally, take the same lenses – one primary and one backup.
- A larger set of lenses than for hiking, but not too many. I generally limit myself to the obvious three: an ultra-wide, medium, and telephoto lens.
- Remember that these recommendations are for landscape photography. Wildlife photographers, portrait photographers, etc., will have their own equivalents.
- A tripod. It can be a bit of a hassle to carry while flying, but not enough to leave it at home. One tip is to remove the tripod head while you fly, making it easier to fit the tripod in your suitcase or the side of your backpack.
- All the important accessories. Most photography accessories are pretty small and light, so there’s not too much of a limit here.
- Noise canceling headphones. They’re a great jet-lag killer.
Photographers often think about camera equipment in terms of the best gear for taking a particular photo, and that makes sense once you get into the field. But just as important is getting your gear there in the first place. Depending on your mode of transportation – driving, hiking, flying, or something else – the kit you can bring will change, often drastically.
Packing strategy isn’t sexy, but it’s just as important as the field-based side of things if you want the best results. The good news is that a lot of this is probably second nature to you already, and you’ll optimize it more and more each trip you take. But little tips along the way can help improve this process, so hopefully this article gave you some useful ideas for your own excursions.
I’ll leave you with one final recommendation: Keep a spreadsheet or checklist of all the equipment you bring on your next trip. List everything, however small. After the trip, go back and add anything you forgot, or gear you don’t own that would be nice to have next time. Delete or demote items you carried along for no reason. Use the same list for your next trip, and keep updating it over time. You’ll end up with a pretty powerful tool toward streamlining your bag as much as possible.