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Photography and Travel – A personal experience and some tips

Sunset over the Mekong - Don Det, Si Phan Don (4000 Islands), Laos
This is a post I wanted to write since long. Traveling and photography: perfectly complementary. Let me start with some personal experience. Last year I was abroad for three months, traveling South-East Asia on my own. You know, the backpacker thing? My journey went mainly through Laos and Cambodia. I was alone, on a budget (i.e. I wanted the trip to last as long as possible), and I was traveling light. That’s to say that I had a light backpack, just 9 kg (~19.8 lbs). So, the biggest question to solve while organizing the whole thing was if I should carry a DSRL (and lenses) with me, or if I should not. Not as trivial as I thought it was.


Being on a budget, I wasn’t sure I would be in places where I can let my gear in some safe place (like a room in a trustable hotel – indeed, i wasn’t always). In other words: I had to take in account that I would have to carry all my valuable stuff with me for most of the time. Hence, the decision concerned how much stuff I was willing to carry around with me. My journey took me in rural areas, sometimes off the beaten track. I have been in places where no one spoke English (not even enough to understand a question like Do you speak English?). It wasn’t always an easy walk.


The DSLR of choice was my old EOS 40D (a great great cam) with a couple of primes (EF 28mm f/2.8, and the mighty EF 50mm f/1.8) and a cheap Sigma 18-125mm (decent optics, poor AF). Nothing I couldn’t afford to loose. But…all together, with the charger, a spare battery and some other stuff, this package was over 2kg (> 4.4 lbs)! I had also a small day-pack, where all my valuables fitted into. I was asking myself for weeks: Do I want to add >2kg to the stuff I would have to keep with me most of the time? At the end I opted for an old, 6MP PowerShot S3 IS 12x zoom (and a 1st gen iPad for all the rest, backups, Internet etc). Just a note: I hate the 4:3 format. :-) And another one: the articulated display of the S3 IS is great for candid shots


Did I regret it? No, not really. There have been (obviously) some places/moments where/when I really missed the DSLR. Mostly for low light settings (noise is really bad on such outdated compact cams) and because I didn’t have a wide angle lens (great landscapes, but also street scenes). But at the end, being able to travel light was the winning point in my three months journey. Sure, I would have shot technically better pictures, but it would also have been rather stressful (for me) to carry around all this stuff, while hopping on and off from terrible buses, in countries where you have more than 39°C (102.2° F) and >90% humidity. Being lost in Laos with little valuables made it better. Not having a DSLR in Angkor Wat (Cambodia) was a pity. Same for the great sunsets over the Mekong (the pic at top of this post), or for some night shots. I also missed the 6fps of the DSLR sometimes (good for portraits). Yes, in three months there have been days where I definitely wished to have a better cam with me. But most of the time the S3 IS was enough and easy to carry around.


So, this is my advice: if you are taking a long journey and want to experience the adventure that’s happening along the road, then choose to stay light with your gear (especially in the tropics). The memories you will be fond of are in your mind, everything else can be caught with a Point&Shot camera (well, almost everything). But then, this is my opinion. Your mileage may be different, totally different if you earn a living with photography. And different again if you are not on a budget or are traveling for a limited period (or if you are a very tough guy). However, never forget the photographers mantra: the best camera is the one you have with you. Mantra’s addendum: it’s the photographer that makes the difference, not the gear. At the end it is all about preferences: traveling with little worries or carrying heavier gear to shot better pics. On the other side: I would have been very happy if I had the PowerShot G1 X. Well, maybe next time. :-)

That said, I would like to point you to two post about travel and photography. The first one is an educated list of 8 tips every photographer should take in account while shooting abroad (each point discussed and explained in the post):

  1. Include signage in you picture
  2. Include people in your frames
  3. Create a photo story with a handful of frames
  4. Avoid those boring family group shots in front of landmarks
  5. Resist taking those traditional postcard shots
  6. Practice your food photography on location
  7. Pick a theme or two each day
  8. Be a gear minimalist when traveling (!)

Next, a video about traveling and photography [via fstoppers]. Good hints, even for experienced travelers. Nothing better than sharing experiences among fellow travelers.


Safe travel! :-)


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