What’s In My Bag: A Travel Photography Gear Guide by Kristin Repsher
For the last four months, I’ve been travelling around northern Europe shooting some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. Nearly every waking moment has been consumed by planning shoot locations, re-planning those shoots when the weather doesn’t cooperate (which is often), actually taking photos, and organising and processing the photos at the end of each day. It’s been hard work, but it’s work I love doing.
Since I get a number of questions about the travel photography gear I use — and since most of that gear has now become an extension of my arm — I thought it would be handy to share it here. This list encompasses everything that comes along with me on a shoot as well as necessary tools that don’t make it into the field but are needed to get the job done.
Note: This is not a list of gear that I recommend all travelers take with them; it’s entirely too much for most sensible people. Stay tuned for a post about what I recommend for the travelling non-professional photographer.
- Nikon D750 24MP FX (full-frame): This is my go-to camera body. Purchased in June to replace my aging (and failing) D700, this camera made me realise how much I’d been missing. HD video, a tilting LCD screen, and incredibly fast burst speed have all come in handy on my trip, and it feels significantly lighter than my D700 as well. Also, its full-frame sensor means I can capture night skies and other low-light scenes with minimal noise.
- Nikon DF 16MP FX (full-frame): Until June, this was my main camera body, but now I use it mainly for telephoto images, time lapses, or the times when I want to use my old manual-focus lenses. It’s a fantastic camera and it looks so beautifully old-school that people regularly stop me and tell me that they love my camera, and is it film?
- GoPro Hero 4 Silver: Such a great camera in such a small package. Attached to the suction cup, it can capture hours of images from driving that can be turned into a time-lapse (or simply capture a moment that I may not have been able to stop for, like a sheep in NZ wearing a high-vis vest on the roadside). With a helmet mount or chest mount, it can do virtually any activity with me. Plus, its case is waterproof, so it fills the void left open when I gave up on waterproof cameras.
- Canon Powershot SD100: A pocketable camera that can go with me when I can’t take my dSLR. It shoots RAW and transfers photos via wifi straight to my phone.
- iPhone 6: I used to shoot Instagram exclusively with my iPhone, and as a result took thousands of photos with it. The 6 has a very good camera and it’s useful for times when my other cameras are not accessible, like at dinners or on plane flights.
Note on mirrorless cameras vs. traditional dSLRs: The mirrorless vs. dSLR debate still rages on, especially with the huge success of the Sony a7 range of full-frame mirrorless bodies. Despite the fact that I used to shoot with an Olympus OM-D as my second body — and the fact that I would love to lighten the load so I didn’t have to break carry-on weight limits every time I fly — I’ve stuck with dSLRs. I’ve mainly done so because I don’t want to re-invest in a whole new lens system when I already have so many Nikon lenses (including a number of manual-focus, 1970s-era lenses), and carrying around equivalent lenses for 2 different systems was a pain.
- 24-70mm f/2.8 AF-S Nikkor: This is my go-to lens and one that I will use in 80% of situations. Some sites will tell you you’re not a real pro if you use a mid-range zoom, and frankly, that’s bullshit. Primes are not often practical for travel and the range on this means I won’t be stopping to change lenses every five minutes. Plus, it’s a bright lens, so in darker settings I can open the aperture up to f/2.8 and still get great photos.
- 16-35mm f/4G VR Nikkor: My wide angle landscape lens and go-to night lens. The ultra-wide scope of this lens means I can take longer exposures of stars without turning them into streaks.
- 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G AF-S VR Nikkor: I don’t shoot telephoto lengths enough to justify the expense (or weight!) of a 70-200mm f/2.8, and in most situations this lens will get the job done when I need it. It’s useful for telephoto landscapes, wildlife photography, and for capturing slightly different perspectives of city scenes.
- 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor, 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor, 65mm micro: All tiny, manual focus lenses that come in handy in less rushed situations when autofocus is not a must.
I now carry 2 tripods with me on most trips — one for day-to-day shooting and the other for time lapses (since I still want to be able to shoot other compositions while the time-lapse is running).
The Vanguard Alta+ 254CT with BBH-300 ballhead is a sturdy and flexible rig that is still relatively small in terms of tripods. The carbon fibre makes it reasonably light and it can fold down to fit in a medium-sized suitcase. The BBH-300 ballhead is a breath of fresh air after the Markins ballhead I used previously that gave me no end of trouble, particularly in the icy cold environment of Lapland. The BBH-300 moves smoothly and is quick to lock into place, and you can even set it to lock when level to ensure straight horizons.
The VEO 265CB travel tripod is my new day-to-day tripod, particularly in cities. This tripod has been designed for the regular traveler with strict weight and size allowances to deal with, yet it doesn’t sacrifice much in terms of stability. I’ve successfully packed it in a daypack (and tripods have never fit in my daypack) and have used it to take photos in cities with no wobbling or other obvious issues stemming from its light weight. That was definitely put to the test in the crazy weather of Iceland last month though, and I’ll be writing a much more in-depth post about using the VEO soon.
I also like that, even though the built-in ballhead is smaller than I’m used to, it doesn’t have issues steadily holding my camera in portrait orientation. The D750 + 24-70mm is a heavy combination and other ballheads have not been able to hold its weight, instead slowly letting the lens sink towards the ground. While this gives photos an abstract feel, it’s usually not what I’m going for!
Everything in this article, bar my tripods, fits into my Vanguard Skyborne 49 camera bag. This bag is an absolute trooper, and I tested within my first week of having it whether my cameras would survive when I fall and land on it (they did — nothing even budged!).
The main compartment of the bag is the typical camera bag layout, with various different sections that you can move around to fit your particular gear best. It’s huge, and easily holds two camera bodies, three large lenses, an array of smaller lenses and flashes, and my GoPro.
The waist straps on this bag are much heavier-duty than on my previous bag, so even though my bag is a bit of a brick, it doesn’t feel quite so heavy on the shoulders. However, the bag is slightly too short for me, which means that the waist straps sit a bit too high, which can be annoying.
The only other gripe I have with this bag is that, if I fill the front pocket, it will not fit in standard overhead bins on airplanes. That caught me unaware the first time and nearly resulted in me having to check the bag; now I have to be vigilant and make sure this pocket is much more carefully packed.
- ND screw-on filters: Until June, my Hoya ND-16 and ND-400 have been my go-to neutral density filters. Essentially, neutral density filters are dark pieces of glass that you put in front of your lens to darken a scene and allow longer shutter speeds. The ND-16 removes 4 stops of light and is often perfect for slowing down moving water without it turning into a complete blur; the ND-400 removes 10 stops of light. As you’ll see below, I don’t use these as often now, mainly because they both have a sickly green colour cast that I have to remove in post-processing. I also find screw-on filters to be much more difficult to clean well.
- Lee filters & adaptor kit: I just bought my first Lee filters in June and I’m now a convert. Even though the kit — which involves a massive bracket that attaches to the lens — takes a bit of getting used to and is more fragile than a screw-on filter, it’s worth it. While there is a colour tint to my Big Stopper (a 10-stop ND), it is a blue tint that is much more easily removed with white balance than the green tinge of my Hoyas. I’ve also branched out and tried graduated filters for the first time because of this kit.
- Circular polariser: Very useful to have in the kit, even though I don’t use it very often. It adds contrast to scenes, cuts the glare on water, and makes rainbows significantly brighter.
- UV filters: Many photographers use these to protect their lenses (since the UV filtering is no longer necessary on digital cameras), and for travel photographers they are highly recommended since you never know quite what environment you’ll be shooting in. They are especially helpful in dusty and salty environments. Just make sure you have good quality ones — it sort of defeats the purpose to buy a fantastic lens and then put a dodgy piece of glass in front of it.
- Step-up rings: Filters can be incredibly expensive, so buying them for each width of lens can break the bank. Step-up rings, on the other hand, achieve the exact same thing for around $5-$10. The ones I have screw into a 67mm filter ring on one side and into a 77mm filter on the other. It looks a bit silly and you have to take extra care not to bash your filter into anything since it’s wider than the lens, but the cost savings is worth it.