It’s no secret – Jeff and I have nice cameras. And nice lenses. It’s kind of a requirement in our profession. It’s also no secret that we like to travel. In fact, back in 2010 Jeff and I spent two months living in Singapore and traveling through Southeast Asia, specifically Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In fact, if you were to ask us to list our hobbies, we would list drinking good wine, eating good food, wearing Rainbow Sandals (yes, its a hobby), and dragging our cameras through the back alleys of the world. And lastly, it’s definitely no secret that we look like complete tourists when we travel. Why? Well, we’re tall, white, brown-haired Americans, and we tend to look a little “different” than you’re typical Southeast Asian. So when you toss all of that information into a travel equation (white tourists + big cameras + remote area of the world), the big variable becomes how to travel with these nice cameras while being safe and secure – and not breaking your back in the process. Glad you asked. After taking a poll of our traveling photographer friends as well as traveling ourselves, we’ve come up with five basic rules of thumb to keep in mind when bringing along any kind of DSLR while traveling in another country. This post deals with personal travel only (i.e. sightseeing, tourism, etc), so check out our post on traveling with your gear for weddings and shoots for a more *eh-hem* professional solution.
1. Pack it up between locations.
We used two bags for our camera gear while traveling Southeast Asia (pictured below). The bag on the left was a nondescript camera backpack (i.e. no camera logos like Tamrac or Tenba on it) that our good friend (and super talented photographer), Jason Ward, let us borrow (thanks Jason! You rock!). The bag was a MountainSmith bag – they actually don’t carry the EXACT one we used anymore, but it’s most similar to this one. The great part about this bag is that we were not only able to fit the gear we needed in it, but it’s designed for backpackers, so it has all kinds of pockets for maps & documents and such. There’s even a laptop pouch, which is rad. While the MountainSmith bag on the left was full of our cameras and laptop, and the one on the right held both of our clothes & toiletries (big thanks to Jackie VanHatten for hooking us up with the blue bag). We kept it light and easy. We used these two bags to carry all of our gear between destinations until we reached our next hotel or guesthouse. Then we would unpack our Shootsacs from our luggage and use them to tour around our particular location or city, leaving our luggage and camera backpack at a secure, well recommended hotel. This system worked absolutely perfect for us, especially since we have two people to carry two bags. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Use a Shootsac
Ok, stop staring at the computer screen in disbelief. Yes, I just told you to use a Shootsac for travel, and I’m dead serious. There is absolutely no other bag on this planet that will be easier to use than this one when you’re on the road. First, backpacks are absolutely MISERABLE for sightseeing. You will have a sweaty back and sore shoulders within seconds of putting it on. Keep in mind that you’ll be lugging your backpack around all day through cities and temples, in taxis and tuks tuks, and they are downright awful to carry. Second, only wedding photographers know that a Shootsac is used for professional cameras. To everybody else in the world, we just looked like some dirt poor twenty-somethings with a weird messenger bag. Any kind of thief would go straight for the guy carrying the backpack with the huge Canon logo on it. Third, Shootsacs are truly safe. Use a neck pouch for your backup cash, but use the inside pockets on the Shootsac that are always next to your body for money or phones or tickets. The pockets are tight and don’t let things come out easily – that’s how they were designed. A backpack is actually easier to snatch items from since it’s behind you and you can’t keep tabs on what’s happening with the small front pockets, especially in crowds. With a Shootsac, it’s right next to your hip where you can feel what’s going on at all times or keep a hand on it in uncertain areas. Trust me, we use ours everywhere we go. They are small, compact, light, and – most important – inconspicuous.
3. Pack light
If you use prime lenses (i.e. fixed focal length) like we do, choose two lenses (one wide, one long) to bring sightseeing and leave the rest at home. We bring our 24m f/1.4 and 135m f/2.0 everywhere we go as our default lenses. Since there are two of us, we typically grab our 50m f/1.2 or 35m f/1.4 as our secondary focal lengths. Remember that your shoulders have to carry anything you bring, so keep it simple and challenge yourself with one or two lenses. When you’re on vacation traveling, you have TIME to move around and wait for the perfect shot, so you don’t need the full arsenal of lenses you bring to a typical shoot for a client. Another thing to remember is that if you bring fixed lenses like the 135 f/2.0 you’ll get a nice length without the size of the 70-200 so you’ll stick out a lot less.
4. Remember you’re not alone
These days, everybody has a DSLR, and this is especially true for tourists in Southeast Asia. I’m not kidding when I say that we saw more tourists schlepping around multiple 1D camera bodies and several 70-200 f/2.8L lenses at the temples in Cambodia, than we see at WPPI – in other words, a lot of people had very large cameras! So even though our equipment was just as nice as theirs, our 5D’s with no battery grips, worn out shoulder straps, and the 50mm f/1.2 looked tiny and inexpensive in comparison – especially while wearing a Shootsac! Ha! So much to our surprise, we didn’t stick out at all by having our cameras with us. We fit right in with the rest of the population that carries nice cameras on vacation.
5. Be Aware
The most important thing you can do when traveling is to simply be aware at all times. Things tend to get stolen when you look the other way for just a moment or get jostled around on a subway or in a crowd or leave a bag hanging loosely over your shoulder. Always wear your camera strap around your body, keep your Shootsac at your side or in front of you where you can feel it at all times, and keep your eyes peeled for shady situations. Just be smart about your camera gear, and you’ll have a great time! Ok, one last thing I need to say…
6. Keep Perspective
Unless you are getting paid to take travel pictures, remember that the pictures you take are for your own enjoyment or for the enjoyment of friends and family. Don’t stress out if other tourists keep standing right in front of the waterfall you’re trying to capture at sunset, destroying the perfect image that you’re going to put over your grandmother’s fireplace in the fall. Have fun and get creative, but also remember to put your camera down and just enjoy where you are. Images are wonderful, but memories are priceless.