Getting ready for your next trip? Travel is hard enough as a tourist, but as a nomadic photographer, a lot can go wrong. Whether the plane runs out of overhead storage or you’re in a car crash, solid packing will help you to comfortably face the unexpected so you can shoot from dawn till twilight, then change plans last minute with as little inconvenience as possible. Here are some techniques that have helped me nail ultralight packing to travel indefinitely as a nomadic photographer—or skip to the end for my one bag packing list! Travel is hard enough as a tourist, but as a photographer, a lot can go wrong. Here are a few scenarios that have happened to me in the last 10 months:
- The plane’s overhead storage is full: do you have to check your delicate camera equipment?
- Your next layover is canceled: is it stressful to drag all your luggage to a hotel half a mile away and return for an early morning flight?
- You’re in a car crash: is it stressful to gather all your luggage and walk to the nearest bus stop?
Although a crash or canceled flight is unwelcome no matter how prepared you are, effective packing will help you to comfortably face these scenarios. (Here are 19 ways to make travel logistics less painful).
Transit isn’t the only area your luggage will get the better of you. Landscape photography is fundamentally riskier than many other genres since you can’t control the weather, lighting, or crowds. With solid packing, you can shoot from dawn till twilight without making hotel stops, then change plans or rebook accommodations with as little inconvenience as possible.
Are you getting ready for a trip or starting the journey to becoming a digital nomad?
1. Laser Focus With Realistic Shoot Goals
The best way to travel is with a single carry-on bag and zero checked bags. It’s better yet if the carry-on is a small daypack that will fit under the plane seat and weighs under 10 kg (22 lbs).
Sound like a pipe-dream? I thought the same a few years ago. Since becoming a nomadic photographer, I’ve frequently nerded out on gear trying to get down to one bag. By the time I packed my camera equipment, I had already filled a dedicated duffel bag—forget weight restrictions!
But the lightest equipment is the equipment you don’t bring.
Pick a genre and medium, then commit to it 100% for that trip.
I used to take a drone and video stabilizer. But after lugging around two bags on several trips, I noticed a recurring pattern: most of that equipment was only used 10% of the time, and I produced publishable work with it on only one occasion.
I decided to focus 100% on wide-angle landscape photography. That meant leaving the drone and glidecam at home. This got me down to one bag, but it was still on the heavy side. Which lens(es) and filters would I bring? Would a lighter ballhead do the trick?
Brainstorm how you want to improve your craft. Before the trip, I outlined how I wanted to improve my landscapes:
- Create a sense of depth with elements like fog and haze
- Root the viewer’s interest with stronger foregrounds
- Consciously focus on shapes in the composition
- Capture the energy in water and clouds with long exposures
- Take 20% fewer photos with a higher ratio of winners
- Enhance the print’s impact with skewed aspect ratios like verticals and panos
My cumulative “mission statement” for the trip became: I focus 100% on wide-angle landscape photography, primarily verticals and panos for greater dramatic effect in large-scale prints.
Not only did brainstorming my goals help me shoot with more intention, it meant a handful of filters and lenses became superfluous. Bringing laser focus to your equipment can feel limiting, but it also means fewer decisions when you’re out in the field.
2. Pack Just Enough Equipment to Shoot 90% of Your Focus
After perusing my photo library, I found a common focal range for 95% of my top landscape work. With that in mind, I set aside my nifty 24-105mm and travel with one lens: an ultra-wide 16–35mm.
It’s strangely alienating to see all my photographer buddies carrying around two to four lenses, but I love the freedom of carrying a single lens.
One lens = one set of filters! I own two NDs—a 6-stop and 10-stop—but after some testing found the 6-stop covers all my use cases. So in total, I pack just two filters: the 6-stop ND and a CPL.
For the shot goals I had in mind, I would need to bring my tripod on every hike without hesitation, so I grabbed an ultralight tripod and ballhead that fit in my daypack. To shrink the tripod further, I removed the center column extension—the reduced max height of 49” cut down weight and space without compromising stability.
3. The Complete One Bag Packing List
All told, here’s (almost) everything I pack in one bag for indefinite travel as a nomadic photographer:
- One camera body
- One lens
- Ultralight tripod and ballhead
- 6-stop ND filter (brass B+W)
- CPL filter (brass B+W)
- Plenty of SD / CF cards for backup
- One extra battery
- Neck strap that doesn’t scream Canon or Nikon. I haven’t had success with shoulder straps, but I’m considering these straps by Peak Design.
- Fantastic gloves. I love cold climates, so I’m not sure how I went three years without them. My family got me merino wool gloves from Vallerret—the fit is a bit weird on me, but they are exceptional otherwise.
After equipment, clothing usually takes the most room. But unlike your camera equipment, you can ruthlessly cut down clothing without compromising the quality of your work.
Eliminate 100% cotton, no exceptions. Cotton is miserably uncomfortable when you sweat and turns to rock when air dried. Instead, opt for nature’s miracle fabric, merino wool. It insulates in cold or warm weather and resists odors—sometimes for weeks at a time. It’s definitely pricey, but one shirt will replace five others in your pack. You can easily find merino wool clothing at half price in spring and summer.
- Two to three pairs of merino wool socks. They’re worth their weight in greenbacks—insulating, odor resisting, and hand-washable. I’ve worn the same pair almost every day for 2 years.
- Two to three merino wool shirts: a short sleeve and long sleeve will cover a wide range of temperatures.
- One pair of merino wool leggings to line your jeans in chillier weather. I found a pair for $20 at a T.J.Maxx.
- One pair of jeans with > 20% polyester. Polyester mix jeans are my favorite budget hack for travel clothing: they are incredibly lightweight, compact, stretchy, and dry out quickly—yet they wear well for business travel! It’s pretty easy to hunt down a pair for $20 at a department store.
- Three pairs of underwear that aren’t 100% cotton. I still haven’t found any I particularly like, but for now, I use some polyester pairs that are easy to sink wash.
- Lightweight down jacket. Combined with merino wool base layers, you can comfortably hike in 20–80 degree weather with the same wardrobe. Down jackets are pricey, but I did well with a $50 REI Coop jacket for a couple years before upgrading to a Patagonia down jacket. Both were a fabulous investment and easy to squeeze in my camera bag.
- Compact rain jacket. It usually stays in the bag, but for icy climates like Iceland or Norway, the wind protection is indispensable. Your down jacket may already double as a rain jacket with its DWR treatment, but it’s best to have separate layers that “do one thing well” so you can mix and match. Sadly, my North Face Venture jacket gets crazy clammy—I’m considering the Outdoor Research Helium or something with Gore-Tex, but they are quite expensive.
- One pair of waterproof hiking shoes. Leave the shoe gallery at home and invest in one pair you can wear everywhere. My Gore-Tex low-cut hiking shoes have been through bogs atop Lake District fells and slush puddles in the Pacific Northwest. They’re caked in mud but haven’t leaked once.
I squeeze just a few more must-haves in my bag:
- 12” MacBook. Since I edit on the go, lugging around a 15” brick is out of the question. I loved using a 13” for a couple years, but the 12” is the last word on portability—albeit editing is painfully slow.
- Compact 2TB backup drive. I make daily backups of my photos for a total of three copies: originals on the SD cards, imports on my laptop, and a copy on the backup drive. In case my bag is stolen or my camera drowns, I keep backup devices in at least two locations. When driving, I keep CF cards in my pocket and the backup drive with the rest of my equipment. Most car accidents are rear-end collisions, so put your equipment in the rear passenger seats or on the floor instead of the trunk.
- Foldable nylon daypack to shove clothes in on arrival.
- USB car charger. I live off Google Maps and cellular data—a dead phone is my panic button. A poor converter can damage your phone, so opt for a thoroughly reviewed charger.
4. Iterate, Introspect, and Improve!
After compiling my packing list, I did a quick Google for “one bag travel,” and James Clear’s packing list came up. His list is remarkably similar, one would think I had plagiarized it—I think it highlights that in time, one bag travel tends to converge on many points!
But ultimately there’s one way to find packing that suits you: try it! Get out in the field, jot down any complaints that detract from the trip and synthesize your learnings to remove fluff or make additions.
With a couple iterations, your packing will enhance rather than hinder your craft.
Lead image by Alice Donovan Rouse via Unsplash.
Which backpack did you use?
I used a North Face backpack until recently (hurray T.J.Maxx.) which met all the criteria, but that was before I stopped bringing a dedicated camera sling as well. I finally got a backpack designed for a camera—the Lowepro Photosport II 300: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1163435-REG/lowepro_lp36890_photo...
I've not been overwhelmingly happy with the Photosport—the straps have a way of smacking me in the face on windy days, there's no way to strap a tripod, and the padded camera compartment takes quite a bit of room. The waist straps can be awkward too when you don't need them.
So I'm still looking for a better one-bag set up =)
I got a pair of those Valleret gloves. They are not cheap but they are very good. Designed for photographers so ideal.
It has gaps for your thumb and forefinger to do complex adjustments to your camera..
I find this whole packing thing is that the one I really need is at home.
I'd agree on Merino clothing. Works great in cold climates.
I pack too much always just in case but its a killer carrying it around.
I don't know how I went so long without decent gloves—the Vallerets are quite nice, and the folks were great about helping me figure out the right size. Sadly, my hand didn't quite line up with their sizing, but they're still great, no more frozen fingers!
Definitely, is it the weight or multiple bags that are a killer?
My problem is I can't stop buying merino wool things. I have another shirt waiting on my doorstep right now =D
I used the Vallerret Ipsoot gloves (XL) with their merino liners in the western Himalayas (far northern India) in late Jan early Feb this year. Day time temps got upto -5c, overnight lows got down to -20c. I found the Vallarret gloves disappointing. The fold back fingertips allowed too much cold through when closed and when opened the magnetic holders different work. The liners after 6 days of use lost their grippy tips and then perished to become holes. Fortunately I took a pair of older Sealskinz as backups and whilst they have no removal tips etc they kept me more than warm allowing me to concentrate on my photography even without merino liners!
Nice article Jonathan! I too have been able to whittle down my gear/clothing into one bag. I'm able to carry more lenses as I shoot Fuji, so I'm not a 100% minimalist yet! As for a bag, I've really come to love my Douchebag Hugger. The brand name is goofy, but their luggage is no joke! I show my setup here:
That's fabulous Ryan! Do you shoot a mirrorless? I'm tired of lugging the heavy 5D Mark III around, but the battery life on the Sony mirrorless doesn't yet seem long enough for a day in the elements.
And thanks for the bag link! Is it easy to get your camera in and out, or do you pack a dedicated camera sling/bag to use in the field? Trick is I'm looking for a pack that works well in the elements, say on a hike. Maybe it's a pipedream—photosport is supposed to be that, but it isn't quite there.
For sure. I'm just wondering how often I'll forget to recharge since I would probably need to keep 3 juiced up? But I agree with you, the weight is probably less and would be much less bulky.
A7RIII should have enough juice with 2 or 3 batteries. Also, you can charge batteries inside the camera. So just bring the regular phone charger and you can charge the battery at night.
The 16-35 GM is also well regarded, smaller, lighter and a bit better than the canon and nikon counterparts.
Anyway, very good article, I'm going to paris for a weekend and I was planning to bring 4 lenses, my A7 and my tripod.
Looking for a bag for all this gear and some clothes :p
I just saw the new Sony A7 and got a little too excited—it just might be time to start looking into a mirrorless. So theoretically, you could charge batteries in the car?
Have a great time in Paris!
if I may state... using Unsplash on fstoppers.com does seem like a bit of a push and maybe not exactly the best corporate image to showcase.
that being said... great article.
This article came at the perfect time. Currently planning a 6 week euro trip that I somehow have to figure out how to take some camera gear.
I just picked up a farpoint 55 for the trip and have a little camera insert, kind of like what fstop makes, that I’ll be using. I’m thinking of going with just my camera and 16-35 but I really want to bring my 70-200. Haven’t made the decision concrete yet. Obviously the bag carries much more than you’ve allowed yourself. So I should have the space.
Wow, this will be the perfect trip to try! Take notes, I'd love to hear how it goes.
Your arsenal of lenses looks quite familiar; I sold my 70–200 not long ago, it was a difficult transition to give up the razor sharp clarity =) have you enjoyed the 16-35mm? I'm looking forward to my next trip to put it to the test!
The 16-35 is the lens I shoot the most on, probably a large percentage which is why it's hard to decide if the extra space and weight of the 70-200 is worth it. I'm surprised you haven't looked into a larger bag that you can still get away with on flights, although I guess weight is a concern.
If I got a larger bag... I would fill it! That's the danger =)
The Photosport is probably as large as I'm willing to go, since it doubles as my camera bag in the field. It also flirts between carry-on and personal item, so I can *technically* put it under the seat if overhead storage is full.
With the detachable 15L bag on the Farpoint, I can keep any camera and equipment in there in the event I can't carry on the bag. I totally understand going as minimal as possible. I kind of want to try!
Oh nice! That bag looks crazy big =D I love the idea of a removable camera bag, I wonder if there's a bag like that that doesn't add much bulk compared to an integrated camera compartment?
I use this:
Mostly because I bought their bag and it works great with it.
Other options that I've found are:
Probably the most known brand
This ones a little much for what I need.
Basically it enables you to switch your camera around to the bag that suits your trip. For example, I want to use the Farpoint 55 on my trip to europe but I'm also looking into using the Opsrey Stratos 24 as a main hiking camera bag. Specifically because these bags distribute weight SO much better than most camera bags.
For landscapes (and actually for most uses) I have swapped my 70-200 f2.8 for the 70-200 f4 - half the weight/size!!
Backup drive? Or do you mean backup camera equipment? I definitely have a backup drive.
Yes, backup camera and lens.
No accidents yet =) if I were shooting a live event, a backup camera would probably make sense—but for landscape photography, in the worse case I would have to hunt down a local camera shop or get a replacement expedited. Till then, let's hope statistics stay in my camera's favor.
I hear you and that makes sense. If you have the time to wait for a replacement and are shooting for leisure -- and your entire point is to minimize your travel bag -- I can appreciate your thinking. Last week I was at a conference and took just one camera and lens with me for fun, opportunistic shots I might find, so I was employing the same logic there. Sounds like if you were on a paid or time-sensitive or no-second-chances gig, you'd have a backup of at least your camera and lens selection. Thanks for the clarification.
You've nailed it on merino wool and forsaking cotton. That's hiking 101 and translates to any activity where you're basically going portable, in addition to photography which could be a busy endeavor where you work up a sweat.
I've got more bags that I know what to do with. If I were backpacking around like this, I wouldn't be adverse to wrapping the camera up in a tshirt or two and stuffing it in the pack protected by a cocoon of clothes. If I needed it handy, I'd go with a Peak Designs clip for one of the shoulder straps, or go with their sling. I have both and will swear by them. I really love Osprey packs lately.
For sure. I just got another merino wool shirt—they're pretty awesome, and some of the Icebreaker shirts also look quite dressy, which means the same wardrobe works for business. If only my jacket was odor resistant =)
Wrapping a camera in a tshirt is certainly much more space efficient compared to the dedicated compartment—so long as you don't plan to use the bag in the field as well. I was using a camera sling + North Face daypack for a while, I almost like it better than the one Photosport bag. But it's more difficult to get around with the 2 separate bags.
The Osprey bags look great, if they combined with Lowepro I'll bet a pretty awesome camera bag would come out.
I'm an Osprey convert for backpacking packs.. but there's plenty of good options out there with durable, light materials. On LowePro, I'm hesitant. I have a Slingshot Edge 250 https://store.lowepro.com/slingshot-edge-250-aw that has a nice, sleek profile and is useful for a simple setup, but I'm not really sold on the materials and would question if it held up with a lot of use. Aside from that, it doesn't provide enough storage for stuff other than camera gear. So... its size isn't bang-for-buck, if you will.
I've done used Domke wraps as well; they work in the same manner as wrapping in a tshirt but provide more padding. They'll take up more space due to the material, but they work. It will all depend on what you're packing the camera in.
On the Peak stuff, I hold it in high regard. Durable, good designs.
I hadn't seen the slingshot, that's pretty slick! Probably too big to squeeze in my one bag =D I was using a cheap caselogic shoulder sling that has worked great, but it needed just a bit more room for a spare jacket. A slightly smaller version of the slingshot looks like the ticket?
I should probably grab some Peak straps... the OEM neck strap is surprisingly hard to beat for compactness, but they're uncomfortable for long treks. Do you have the v2 of the straps, or the newer v3?
I believe I have the v3 - I picked it up just a couple months back. Comfortable and strong.
Hmm, are they really light and compact? And can the metal handle be removed so I don't scratch up the camera when packed?
Fairly light. It's basically like seatbelt material. Though there is a pad-reinforced section where you wear it over your shoulder. Not terrribly thick, but it's there. It prevents you from rolling it over itself into a smaller 'footprint' for your bag. I fold mine up and stash in a side pocket of a Manfrotto backpack. The metal buckles can't be removed from the strap (I've never tried, honestly).
Remember, you unhook the camera from the strap with the anchor points (great system of theirs). I unhook mine if I'm putting my camera in a bag.
here's their link:
True—I don't have many scenarios though when I'd want to unhook. I prefer to always have the camera attached to me until it's 100% in the bag =)
I've got some on the way to take for a spin. We'll see how it goes. Thanks for all the info!
One of the best things I've used while traveling (and cheap too) is compression bags. Benefits include; compressing clothing, particularly bulky items for more space, waterproofing for inclement weather, and easy visibility for going through customs. Two of these in a backpack and I was able to go two weeks in the rainforests of Costa Rica. One other thing I always travel with is a quick dry towel (thanks Douglas Adams).
Thanks for the link, I've been on the lookout for some good "stuff sacks". I saw one with a really innovative compression system, but the cylindrical shapes don't fit well in my small bag. Luckily I've only got a few shirts to squeeze into my bag =)
FYI, I don't necessarily recommend these specific bags. They all work pretty much equally well, they just don't last very long. Cheap ones are fine, I think I got the ones I have now from walmart. I've yet to try anything more expensive or innovative.
I would highly recommend the peak design stuff. I swear by their clips! They work great if you just attach them to your bag or belt. Instead of using a big camera strap I just use the clip and their "cuff" strap, it's just a simple hand strap, but since its peak design you can switch out the hand strap for a full camera strap if need be.
It's definitely on the list to try out! The clip seems like it would potentially be frustrating, but the shoulder strap might be the ticket. Any experience with the strap? Canon's OEM neckstrap is hard to beat for weight, size and security, but uncomfortable after an hour or so of hiking.
Hmmmm some things are missing here:
Toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, eye drops, contact lens solution, extra pair of glasses, moisturizer, floss, shampoo (if you can't tolerate hotel shampoo), ibuprofen, any prescription medication you might need, small hand towel... you get the point.
Wallet, passport, copy of passport.
No lighting gear? I'd need one speedlight, micro radio trigger, clamp (in lieu of a light stand), 8 Eneloop AA batteries (or 4 batteries + charger), few CTO gels, small roll of gaffer tape, Lumecube.
I can live without a photo umbrella if someone can hold a sheet of white paper at just the right angle for a bounce surface...
And yeah, what's with the Unsplash stock photo at the top of this article? Isn't the author's photo more relevant to the story??
Just my 2 cents of course.
Ha, yes a few things missing, but actually not much. My toiletries are minimal (mini deodorant and toothpaste is about it). I use 1Password to backup my passport and other travel documents.
I can see how lighting would add a lot more. I shoot 100% landscape when I travel, so that's not an area I have had to optimize.
RE pic, that's on me. I went to snap a better photo of the packing, but couldn't hunt down a solid backdrop in time, so I stuck with the stock photo over my iPhone shot =)
I do not travel abroad all that much: don't have the time nor the budget. But I do go on hiking trips/landscape photo trips around my area almost every couple weeks. Feel kinda empty if I don't.
And you can't imagine how helpful all that laser focus stuff was. Been slightly let down with my photography lately (that's what happens when one learns and improves, I suppose: I'm no longer astounded by my own work). But I've noticed that in my latest trips I make less photographs and I have a higher winner ratio than before.
Maybe unconsciously, I don't know.
But all that bit about laser-focusing and outlining what I want to do prior to the trip is definitely what I have to do consciously from now on.
Thank you! :)
Pablo! I'm so glad you shared that—very similar feels from my last trip. I came away with much fewer winners than usual despite spending 4 weeks. It was discouraging during the trip, so I went a few months without doing much editing. But after a season, I edited some photos, and they're some of my all-time favorites.
Artist's highs and lows I guess =)
I can't wait to see how your intentionality improves your craft!
Neither can I! :)
For now, there's this one I made on my last trip, when I felt this winner ratio was higher than ever. Got lucky with the clear sky! :)
Wow, I need something like that in *my* backyard! This looks like the Dolomites?
Nope, Aragonese Pyrenees! You need to put them on your list. Favorite mountain range, just a couple hours away from home! :)
Snow? In Spain? *books a flight*
What times of year have snow?
Hahaha, it depends on the area and the year!
In the Pyrenees, there are several mountains over 3000 meters high, and most of the mountain range is over 1000 meters high. That guarantees plenty of snow between December and April, sometimes even May. Some snow patches last until the end of the summer. I've seen people ski in July!
And the southernmost glaciers in all of Europe are here! (non-comprehensive list here: http://bit.ly/2FoaE1i ). They sadly are getting smaller every day, though.
If you were to visit the Pyrenees (please, do!) the best thing you can do is fly to Zaragoza or Barcelona. Also, shoot me a message so I can tell you proper-er recommendations!
Absolutely! Spain was not on my radar, but it looks like it should be. If I make it out, I'll give you a shout =)
Ahhh the life! I dream of not having 3-4 gear bags to check.
But I definitely cram my soft goods in all the nooks and crannies!
It is indeed a wonderful life =) it takes a lot of stress out of travel for me.
But you can always aim for it! Maybe 2–3 bags on your next trip?
I will! I'm working on miniaturizing my kit. I am going to really work on permanently cutting out a bag this year.