In taking a trip anywhere, some photographers only want the casual snapshot and want to spend as little as possible. Others want to emulate the pros -- or are pros.
I've been on both sides of the fence. For years as a National Geographic photographer the sky was the photographic limit. Now as co-photographer/author of a series of travel guides on photographing the major cities of the world, I've had to understand the viewpoint and needs of the average travel photographer.
My new viewpoint wasn't really planned. We started in Rome with all of our usual shooting gear: field-tested lenses, 11 of them, in focal lengths of 15 mm to 500 mm; four Nikon bodies, and a battery of filters and accessories. On arrival at Fiumicino airport we packed all our gear into a rental car and headed toward the Eternal City.
Still within sight of the airport's Leonardo da Vinci statue, our plans and our fortunes suddenly changed. In quick succession we had a flat tire and a robbery -- all our gear was stolen. As a result we had to make a decision -- either go back home, or go ahead with less equipment and on a reduced budget.
We chose the latter and bought just the bare minimum of equipment: two M-2 Nikon bodies and lenses of 24, 35, 50, 105 and 135 mm, and a zoom 43 mm to 86 mm. This may sound like a lot to my Instamatic readers, but believe me, it didn't replace what we lost -- and we were camera-shy and nervous at the start. dBut 2 1/2 months and four cities (Rome, Amsterdam, Paris and London) later, we completed our coverage with this off-the-shelf equipment. In a way, our misfortune was fortunate because we were able to say that all of the pictures in the books were taken with cameras and lenses that most photographers use.
In fact, you don't even need all this gear for a very respectable coverage of your trip; after all, we had to illustrate four books with more than 400 photographs in color.
A page right out of one of our books lists the equipment that would duplicate all of the pictures published. We call it an equipment checklist for travel photography.
For a camera we recommend an SLR that will accept interchangeable lenses, so you'll be able to vary the viewpoint and style of your pictures.
The lenses: Besides the normal 50 mm (which you should trade in for a 35 mm), you should buy both a wide-angle and a tele. But you don't have to go all-out for either, since fisheyes can be costly (and, after a while, boring) and long teles are awkward and heavy to carry. Settle for a 24 mm or a 28 mm, if you've kept the 50 mm normal; and for a tele, choose a medium 85 mm to 105 mm. If you want a longer lens, use a doubler to increase it to the 200-mm range. An option is to buy one of the lightweight zooms, such as the 43-mm to 86-mm, and add a wide-angle 24 or 28 mm.
Filters come in endless colors and effects. They're a lot of fun at home, but on a trip what you will need are the basics:
A 1-A skylight filter to warm up cloudy-day landscapes, distant scenes and aerial views;
A polarizing filter, not only to eliminate reflections when shooting through glass, but also to cut distant haze and to give you that blue-indigo sky background without changing the color of flesh.
An 80-A and an 85-B conversion filter. Use the 80-A to convert outdoor color film to indoor picture-taking and the 85-B to enable you to continue to take pictures on that same roll of indoor color film out in the sunlight.
Tiffen FLD or FLB fluorescent light correction filters. Use the FLD when shooting with daylight film and the FLB when using tungsten -- with fluorescent lighting. (If you've ever taken color shots under fluorescents that turned a sick green, you'll understand this recommendation.)
UV (ultraviolent absorption) filters to protect your lenses from Sahara-sand or sandlot-scrimmage scratches.
If you're still into black-and-white, or sometimes shoot a roll, then a K-2 yellor, and an orange and red filter that will give you some colorful contrasts of dark skies and white clouds. And if the sunset just won't color-up for your slide shot, be a little sneaky and snap on that same orange or red filter to your color film as well.
Tripods are the curse of the working class of photographers, and they're the last thing you want to lug on long trips. (Not to mention the nerve-fraying experience of carrying that long barrel-shaped object past gun-toting security guards in airports.) Our recommendation is to minimize this nuisance by opting for a tabletop model. These can be set up on a table, a wall or the top of a car (but it better be your car, or be extra careful about scratches).
This lazy-man's version of the full-size tripod is remarkably adaptable; you can even press it up against a wall, or an overhead doorjamb. What's more, they are a fraction of the cost. We bought one for $10 in Paris -- made in Japan. Just test a few and buy a sturdy one.
Accessories can accumulate after a while. But you need a lens-cleaning brush and lens-cleaning fluid -- to save your shirt-tail or necktie from spots and your lenses from scratches; a jeweler's screwdriver or substitute -- for those screws that later fall out; and a cable release for steady, long exposures of night scenes instead of jarring the camera by pushing down on the release button with your finger. (If you don't have a cable release, you can use the delayed release lever to trip the shutter.)
To flash or not to flash is sometimes the question. There are some pictures, such as fast-moving activities at night, for which you absolutely need a flash; and there are others, such as stage-lighted performances, that are better pictured with available lighting. Generally, the flash-on-the-camera technique is no longer in mode; today's look is more candid.
For the needed flash shots in our books, we carried a Vivitar Auto Thyristor 283 model with a sensor for automatic exposures. Since then, we have replaced that model with a Vivitar Zoom Thyristor 2500 that is lighter but still gives sufficient light for the occasional flash picture.
A gadget bag is the last thing you'll need -- and you can use your regular traveling bag instead. In fact, an ostentatious bag will yell "Come and pick me up" to the average thief; and fortunately preying on tourists is big business today. If you have a lot of gear, get a simple bag sturdy enough to carry all that you take along, and don't buy it until you do have it all together -- so that it will fit. (Photo gear just seems to keep growing as you travel.)
Film is the final filler. Take along enough for estimated needs for the entire trip -- you don't want to be confronted with a once-in-a-lifetime shot just when you've run out of ammunition. We base our per-day film consumption on an average from previous trips.
Take a balanced assortment of regular color film or negative color and some special films like ASA 400 Ektachrome or Kodacolor for those unusual, low-light situations. And some type B (tungsten) for indoor lighting.
As I mentioned, everyone's picture needs differ, as does the equipment you'll need to take on your trip. But these items were the ones that worked for us.