Mistakes in Travel Photography

What drives a person to explore new slices of the world? For some, it’s running away from boredom. For others, perhaps it’s the sense that a cavalcade of adventure is waiting just around the corner. Whatever the reason, the truth is that both as travelers and as photographers, we’ve never had it this good.

As camera jockeys, we find ourselves in the golden age of equipment and opportunity; never before have we had such an immense number of great choices available to us, each perfect to a particular style of photography.

If you’re expecting to be out on town, shambling around after one too many Sangsom Buckets, you can bring a digital camera that is cheap enough that you wouldn’t lose sleep over drunkenly misplacing it. If you’re traveling as light as possible, there are ultra-compact cameras available—like the Canon S110 —that deliver almost impossibly good photos. The slightly larger ‘bridge’ cameras give SLR’s a run for their money in terms of photo quality, and can still be carried around in a jacket pocket. SLR cameras come in all sizes, from ones that are small and light enough to carry all the time, to serious high-end equipment that takes photos worthy of the biggest bill-boards. The new breed of EVIL cameras are shaking things up further, with odd-shaped cameras that in some cases are so good-looking that it’s easy to forget that they are serious pieces of photography equipment as well (Olympus OM-D, I’m looking at you…).

If the camera jungle is bewildering, the vast expanse of real jungle that’s available is practically impenetrable. If you have access to an airport—and most of us do; from where I am writing this in London, I have five international airports within 45 minutes travel—you can travel to nearly anywhere in the world in less than twenty-four hours, for less money than ever in the history of mankind.

In the past four and a half months, I have been ‘home’ in the UK for less than two weeks. With such a large amount of time spent on the road, I had to make some really tough choices for what I needed in terms of photography equipment.

It turns out I’m pretty lousy at hovering over my cameras cupboard, picking the right tool for the job. My only firm conclusion is that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ travel camera.

I own a frankly ridiculous amount of photography stuff, and I have, from time to time, traveled with most of it.

I once spent six months in Vietnam and Australia, traveling only with a entry-level Canon body and a 50mm f/1.4. The photos I have from that trip are amazing; they are sharper than a barber’s blade, and I feel I’ve been able to capture certain aspects of my journey incredibly well. However, I don’t have a single useful landscape shot (I really missed my 17-40mm), and I failed to capture any of the magnificent wild-life we saw (Why did I leave my 70-200 f/2.8? Why?!).

I did try to use my Canon S95 to document some landscapes. It does have a rather fabulous wide-angle lens, and I did get some gorgeous shots. However, when seen in context with the shots that came from my SLR, it turned out that I couldn’t exhibit the two sets of photos next to each other. As lovely as the S95 is, there’s still a visible difference in quality between the two.

I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried photographing only on my iPhone for a leg of a trip. It was a bad mistake, photography-wise, but great for rapid sharing to Facebook.

I’ve tried going back to film to try to limit the number of photos I take; to force myself to think more carefully about each shot. Worse mistake; the photos are good, but it turned out that the long pause between taking the photos, developing, scanning, and seeing them on my computer screen was more of a turn-off than I had feared.

I’ve even attempted to carry three camera bodies and nigh-on dozen lenses to ensure that I couldn’t possibly miss any shot ever. Worst mistake. Most memorably, I missed a shot of an Orangutan in the wild because I was futzing around trying to attach the exactly perfect lens to the perfectly matched camera body. Yeah, you may laugh, I was one of ‘those’ guys. On top of that, my chiropractor will probably be able to retire six years early due to the sheer weight of the photo bags.

For one of my extended trips, I tried going the other extreme, traveling as lightly as possible. For this trip—mostly in Turkey—I was taking photos only with my Olympus E-P1. It’s a gorgeous camera, but I found myself longing for wide angles, better low-light performance and shallower depth of field.

On my most recent trip—my honeymoon, in fact—to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia, I brought my Canon 5D Mark III and a 24-105 f/4L lens. Whilst, after years and years of only shooting with prime lenses, the novelty of being able to zoom was fantastic, I found myself shooting most of the photos either at 24mm (indicating that I probably would have chosen a wider focal length, if it were available), or 105mm (leaving me pining for my longer lenses). Invariably, I ended up cropping the fully-zoomed-in shots quite a lot, and I did end up with a rather impressive number of useable shots due to the ludicrous number of pixels I had to crop into on the 5D Mark III’s raw files….

But I was still left unhappy. Most importantly, I found myself taking photos a lot less often, and I kept putting my camera away due to rain showers (it was a rain forest, after all). Worst of all, because of the heft of the 5D and 24-105 lens, I missed a lot of photo opportunities because my camera was in my bag instead of in my hand, where it belongs. About half-way through the trip, I realized that I had made a very stupid mistake: Sure, the equipment I brought was much ‘better’ than the equipment I had traveled with in the past, but in photography, it’s better to have a camera capable of taking decent photos in your hand, than a camera capable of taking the perfect shot in your bag.

I suppose it depends on your style of travel. If you are travelling on a safari, you can probably take an educated guess on the type of equipment and lenses you are going to need to capture photos of big cats. If you’re big into birds, you’d bring a formidable telephoto lens. If you like photographing people, street-photography style, you probably have an equipment set-up you’re comfortable with, and you can take your photos any way you like.

My problem—and yes, I am painfully aware that this is about as first-world a problem as you’ll find—is that I frequently travel without a particular goal in mind. I don’t really plan my travels ahead of time. That’s great from a traveling point of view—if you like somewhere, stick around. If you don’t, pack your bag and head off to the next place. But as a photographer, it’s incredibly tricky. You’ll find yourself hiking eight hours to the top of a mountain one day (perfect camera: Olympus OM-D with a wide-angle lens), in a sanctuary for rare birds the next (bring a 400mm lens on a crop-sensor SLR), then with a scuba-tank on your back, 20 meters under the surface of the ocean (bring a Peli-case full of underwater housings, lighting, and camera equipment, not to mention all the dive gear you need…), and finally, capturing a timelapse of the sun setting over the beach (sturdy tripod, Triggertrap, an old SLR body where you don’t mind if you wear out the shutter by taking 2,000 photos in a single evening).

In short, if you’re an all-round traveller and an all-round photographer, you’re screwed: of course there is a perfect camera for each situation you might encounter on your travels. The problem is that there isn’t a perfect camera for every situation you might encounter. Put simply, the laws of physics are conspiring against you.

Ultimately, I am taking photos for a particular purpose: my photos have to be of a high enough quality to use them in the books I am writing.

It took me the better part of ten years of traveling, tens of thousands of photos, and more than a few missed opportunities to reach this conclusion: The next time I get on the road, I’ll bring a light-weight, full-frame sensor (Canon 6D, probably), my trusty 50mm f/1.4, my Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro, and a Gorillapod.

Yes, traveling with a prime lenses is incredibly restricting, and you’ll probably miss more shots than you get. It’s frustrating, without a doubt, but I think it’s a matter of priorities: I think I would rather capture crisp, near-perfect shots in a limited set of circumstances, than end up with a hard-drive full of ‘nearly-there’ photos.

Besides, there’s something quite liberating about shrugging, realizing that your subject is out of reach, putting away the camera, sitting back, and enjoying the view.

You are on holiday, after all, and forgetting that is the biggest mistake in travel photography.

Haje Jan Kamps has written half a dozen books about photography, and is the CEO of Triggertrap, a company that creates tools for creative camera triggering.

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