People often ask, “What is the best travel camera?”
The easy answer is the best travel camera is the one you have with you.
The honest answer is slightly complicated, because I use a few, including my iPhone. But, to answer the questions in some detail, here is the travel camera equipment I have been using to illustrate Travel Past 50 and get the Photo of the Day shots for the past four years. Some equipment comes and goes, but this is what’s currently in my bag.
I don’t often carry it all with me, unless I’m going somewhere in the US in my car. All in all, it’s certainly too heavy to lug around all day, so I usually pare it down to what I’ll be using every morning before starting out. Often, that’s just the camera body and one lens, depending on what I’m after.
So, here is (almost) all the camera equipment I’m currently using.
My go-to camera body is the Nikon D810. It shoots monster RAW files at 36 megapixels, and the sharpness and color rendition is unmatched. Nikon recently released the D850 model, which can do everything you’ve ever thought of doing in a camera. But, the D810 is still an amazing camera, and the price is coming down with the D850 introduction.
My other body is the Nikon D750 which, for my purposes is just as good as the D810 for everything except landscapes. It’s much lighter than the D810 and a bit smaller. It’s the one I use when I’m carrying it around all day and shooting in the city. With a prime lens (usually the 35mm) it also provides less of an impressive “I’m a pro” profile when you’re trying to be less conspicuous. And, of course, it’s a back up if the D810 is out of action for some reason. And vice versa.
A camera I’m becoming increasingly fond of is the small Sony RX100-III “point and shoot.” Although it’s much more than a point and shoot. It has a pop up viewfinder, and an amazing 20 megapixel sensor which allows a lot of enlargement with no drop off in detail. It has the equivalent of a 24-70 mm zoom lens, which is exactly the same focal lengths as the Nikon lens I use most often. And the lens is made by Zeiss, which is simply the best glass there is. And, best of all, it is very small and light and absolutely quiet. And, for street shooting, that’s important. And, if you don’t want to make the substantial investment in a top level professional system, this is a fantastic camera at a fraction of the price.
We recently bought the updated version of this camera, the Sony RX100-V, which is essentially the same camera, but with more buffer (for continuous shooting) and 4K video capabilities. It’s still tiny and light, but what a camera! We’re hoping to explore some video production this year.
Zoom Lenses for the Nikon
Probably 95 percent of the shots I’ve taken in the past four years have been with one of these zoom lenses. They offer perfect coverage of most any situation. With the exception of the 70-300 and 150-600, they’re also fast enough to shoot hand held indoors, especially in the churches that I love to shoot.
Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 ED zoom
This is the lens I use most often. At 24mm it’s wide enough for most landscapes and interior building shots. And at 70mm it makes a very nice portrait lens, or gets you a little closer to that detail of a scene you want to highlight. Of course, it’s also sharp as can be. And, with a maximum aperture of 2.8, you are able to hand hold in a lot of dark places.
Nikon 14-24 f2.8 ED zoom
This lens is usually the second lens into my day pack. Like the 24-70, it’s fast and extremely sharp, so those cathedral vistas really pop. And it’s also a 2.8, so it’s certainly possible to hand hold inside a dim church. It’s a lot wider field of view, too, and more depth of field, so it also is an indispensable landscape lens.
Nikon 70-300 f4.5-5.6 ED VR zoom
This is the other lens that I rely on, and the one I used to take my North American Travel Journalists Association Gold Prize winning photo at Joshua Tree National Park last year. It doesn’t have the speed of the other two lenses, so it’s mostly good for outdoors or on a tripod indoors for those detail shots. This lens is a cost compromise. The 2.8 fixed aperture version (70-200mm, instead of 70-300mm) is a budget buster. But, if you need the speed, (and if I needed the longer focal length more often) I’d go for that.
Tamron 150-600mm f5-6.5 zoom
Frankly, this thing is a monster and I’ve used it a grand total of two times. I admit there were a couple of other times I wish I’d had it with me, but no way I’m lugging it around unless I’m damn sure it’s gonna get used. That said, I got some really cute pics of a young bear with it in Quebec, and some other shots of Kris climbing a mountain. I never would have bought it if I hadn’t got a really good deal on a used one. It’s probably cheaper to rent one when you need it.
Prime Lenses for the Nikon
Prime lenses are definitely occupying more of a place in my photography all the time. An expensive and heavy zoom can’t do anything a good assortment of primes can’t do. And the primes are much much cheaper, and lighter. And lighter gets much more important as a long day of shooting wears on. I can see that I’m tending more and more toward primes. And the day might even come when I get rid of my zooms. It’s not here yet, but someday.
Nikon 35mm f2.0 D
This is, more and more, the first lens I’m putting on the camera if I’m shooting outdoors in a city. It’s the perfect “people on the street” lens. It’s small, light, and a lot less obtrusive than the 24-70 zoom. And the focal length is right in the middle of that range. If you set the camera settings right, when you’re using this lens, the camera almost becomes a point and shoot. Great for that elusive moment involving people.
Nikon 24mm f2.8 D
The other prime I’m in love with. It’s wider than the 35mm, and is small enough that it can go in my pocket–literally. It’s the lens when I need a bit wider city shot such as an interior or an architectural tableau. It’s the same speed as the zoom it substitutes for too, so it’s plenty fast to use inside.
Nikon 50mm f1.8 D
This is my least used lens since I’ve pretty much fallen in love with the 35mm. But, the 50mm is the so-called “normal” lens. And it is the fastest lens in my bag. And, I’ve taken some very nice shots with it. So, maybe I just need a little more practice. It’s also a great “street” lens and was the focal length used most by the greatest street photographer who ever lived–Henri Cartier-Bresson. So, maybe I need to give it more of a workout.
Here are all the things, other than the cameras themselves, that you need to fill out your kit.
Manfrotto MT190CXPRO4 Carbon Fiber Tripod with Ball head
There are many cheaper–and many more more expensive–tripods out there, but for me this one is a good balance of cost, weight, and stability. It’s not as heavy duty as many, but, honestly, there’s only been one time I felt I needed something more substantial. And that was when I was way up in the Swiss alps and a serious wind was blowing. (When that happens, by the way, hook something heavy to the bottom of the center pole to keep the tripod in place.) The ball head I use doesn’t offer all the convenience of having a handle to exactly position things the way you want them, but again, it’s a small compromise to save a few hundred dollars. Don’t forget to get a head for the tripod. It won’t work without it.
Vello Shutterboss Cable Release and Timer
If you’re using a tripod, you’re going to want one of these. You can use it as a timer for taking a selfie. Or for setting up a time lapse shoot for those gorgeous moving clouds. But why you’ll use it the most is for image stabilization. There’s no sense of mounting your camera on a tripod to eliminate camera shake, and then just reintroducing camera shake by pushing the shutter button manually. This trips the shutter electronically. That keeps things motionless. That’s better, especially for a slow exposure landscape or moving water shot. Believe me on this.
The Peak Design Black Slide Camera Strap SL-2
I absolutely love this strap. I traded up to this from the Black Rapid strap I used to use because the Peak Design attaches to the camera in two spots–the bottom tripod plate and the side strap ring. That means that the camera will lie flat against your hip instead of swinging and bouncing around like one that attaches at a single point, e.g. the Black Rapid. The Peak Design strap also detaches from the camera at the push of a button, which is very handy when you want to quickly mount it on your tripod. Believe me, when you haul a heavy camera around all day, the two point attachment is a huge improvement.
The Peak Design 20 Liter Camera Bag
Another huge advance from Peak Design is their new 20 Liter Camera Bag. It is, frankly, the best thought out bag I’ve run across. It has, like most bags, adjustable inserts to conform to your particular gear. But it has three unique features that I particularly like. One, it opens from both sides with easy, big, zipper pulls. And that means all of your equipment is within your grasp without having to take the bag off both shoulders. Second, it has pockets for your laptop and tablet that are accessible from the outside of the bag. In other words, you can pull them out at airport security without having to open the entire bag. And finally, it has multiple exterior straps that can be configured pretty much however you want them to hold your tripod, jacket, water bottle, or whatever. Add to all that both side and top handles, and it’s a damn fine bag. It also comes in a 30 Liter version, if you need more room.
La Cie Rugged 1TB External Hard Drive
If you upload your photos every day to Lightroom on your laptop, like I do, you need to back them up. Do it as you go with one of these. I’ve carried them everywhere for four years and they’ve never failed me. Knock on wood. Backup. Backup. Backup.
And speaking of backup, I also backup automatically on line to Crashplan. You’re crazy if you don’t do something like this. It’s the only way to protect yourself if your laptop and external drives are stolen or lost.
Now remember, of course, to have plenty of memory cards and extra batteries at all times. And, if you’re using a big file camera, like both the Nikon and Sony mentioned above, get the fast memory cards. Believe me, there’s a difference.
Here are the SD cards I use in both cameras. Get three or four at least.
Here’s the CF card that the Nikon also uses.
I use a photo storage and sharing service called Smugmug, too. There you can organize, display, store and share your photos. If you buy certain programs, you can even allow people to buy prints or digital versions of your photos. Please click here to see my photos at Smugmug, or here to sign up for your own plan. It’s worth it.
Finally, I use Lightroom to both edit photos and organize them. There’s a great book that teaches you how to do both by a guy named Scott Kelby, who is editor of Photoshop Magazine when he’s not being a terrific sports photographer.
Click here to see all of our other suggestions for travel gear.