Dan’s Travel Gear Essentials
Before we get started with this, an important disclosure.
Photographers love to travel, and over the years I’ve done many laps around our beautiful planet with my camera gear. Over that time I’ve put together a travel kit that comes with me on every trip, no matter how big or how small. This kit, detailed on this page, lives in my main travel bag and is always ready to roll at a moments notice.
Osprey Shuttle 130 Roller Bag
The Shuttle 130 (called the 36 in some markets) is a roller bag with an absolutely giant capacity. Importantly for my photography purposes, it’s long enough to accommodate my tripod, as well as lightstands and some light modifiers like softboxes and umbrellas. Whilst the 130 litre capacity might seem excessive, I regularly fill it when I’m adding in things like sleeping bags and winter clothing. If it’s not full, the compression straps do a great job of keeping excess material out of the way. As well as the main section, there’s an almost bewildering array of additional smaller pockets to help organize things to your liking. For a number of years I stayed away from roller bags because they were too heavy, but with the Shuttle bags, Osprey has managed to make robust rollers that are actually lighter than some of the regular duffle style bags I have bee using for the past few years. I’m definitely glad to have wheels back on my main bag!
Eneloop Rechargeable Batteries
I always carry at least 8xAA Eneloop batteries with me in a Think Tank AA battery holder. The great thing about Eneloops is that they don’t discharge over time, so I can keep them in my travel bag and they’re always ready to go. I have more of them in general rotation through my gear and in my office, but keeping a set permanently in my travel bag means I don’t have to remember to pack the others when I leave for a trip.
Kikkerland UL03-A Universal Travel Adapter
Travel plug adapters are obviously a necessity for many countries. Don’t bulk your bag up with those giant cube shaped ones! These awesome little adapters are small enough to fit in a pocket because they have a much flatter design. They’re cheap too, so I have a few of them sprinkled around my different bags and that way I know I’ll never be without one of them.
Travel Power Strip
This little power strip gives you 4 very nicely spaced plug sockets in a pocket-sized design. They key to its usefulness is that the sockets are on both sides, and they have enough space between them that even bulky camera battery chargers can be used right next to each other. I can comfortably use two Canon battery chargers and two AA chargers on it at the same time. With this power strip I set up a charging station right away wherever I travel, so I don’t have to crawl around under hotel beds unplugging the bedside lamps and alarm clocks. Having all your chargers in a central location also makes sure that you don’t leave any of them in a hotel room plugged into a socket in a forgotten corner.
Anker 5-Port USB Charger
This Anker USB charger is the third part of my self constructed power station after the plug adapters and the power strip. The one in the photo contains 4 x USB-A plugs (what we think of as “normal” USB plugs) and 1 x USB-C which is the new emerging standard. As the years go by, USB-C will take over, so I think it’s a good idea to buy this one so that you at least have one of the ports to get started with. If you’re dead against it, Anker also sell many other variations of this product with different numbers of ports. I usually have my GoPro, iPad, iPhone, Goal Zero battery pack and head lamp charging on my five ports.
Nemo Designs Fillo Pillow
The amazing little Fillo Pillow from Nemo Designs has been the subject of one of my Gear Check videos in the past because I’m such a huge fan. Plain inflatable pillows SUCK, but the Fillo has a one inch layer of memory foam on top of it, and a super comfy cotton cover for it. These things are just plain awesome, and once you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder why you ever used a pile of clothes or those awful u-shaped neck pillows while you’re traveling.
Camera Rain Cover
The requirement for a rain cover in my travel kit comes from wanting to maximize my time and financial investment into a specific photographic trip. I can’t afford to go somewhere and not get any photos if it happens to rain or snow a lot, so it’s important to be prepared to make the best of bad conditions. There’s always photos to be had in poor weather, you just have to work a little harder. A rain cover is relatively inexpensive compared to my electronic equipment, and some of them take up very little room in a bag.
There’s currently two kinds of protective camera covers in my gear closet: Think Tank Hydrophobia and Vortex Storm Jackets. The Think Tank covers are bulkier, heavier and more expensive, but they do provide total protection and a better shooting experience. They are best suited for situations where you know you are going to get wet and need to shoot in the rain. If it’s a foregone conclusion, the Think Tanks are worth taking for the job. On the other hand, if you’re just taking a cover on the off-chance that it might rain, then the Storm Jackets are the way to go. These things are so small and lightweight that you can lose them in the corner of your bag and it’s really not a problem if you carry them around for weeks and never end up needing them. The Think Tanks are too big and heavy to do that, Take your pick!
Goal Zero Venture 30 Battery Pack
On long travel days it’s almost inevitable that your phone is going to run out of battery power. That’s really the last thing you want because it’s more than likely that you have maps and booking details for your destination on your phone. There are many great battery pack options for charging small devices like your phone or tablet, but I like the Venture 30 for its rugged design and dual USB ports that allow me to charge both things at the same time. You can read the full Venture 30 review here.
I think it’s a great idea to have a good travel tripod in your kit if you’re somebody that really likes to clock up those Airmiles. Baggage limits are getting smaller every year, and a smaller tripod can make a significant weight saving in your checked luggage, or even it into your carry-on luggage if permitted by the airline.
My personal choice is the 4-section TQC-14 tripod from Really Right Stuff, but there are lots of other options out there to suit all budgets. So what makes a “travel tripod”, then? There’s no clear cut definition, but generally we are talking about tripods that have a much shorter folded length than a regular tripod, which makes them easier to pack into a suitcase or backpack. The two main ways to achieve a shorter folded length, yet still maintain a decent minimum height when extended, are to have a centre column and 4 or 5 leg sections. The more leg sections you have, the shorter the folder length, but be aware that this also reduces stability. A lot of travel tripods also have ingenious ways of folding the legs back around the tripod’s top plate as well to that the depth of the top plate is stored within the folded length of the legs.
A good tripod is a really important part of any photographer’s kit, and if you only have a large, heavy one, then there’s a good change that you’ll be tempted to leave it at home when you’re trying to pack your gear with the airline’s weight constraints. All of this is not to say that you absolutely need to have two tripods, either. If you carefully choose an excellent travel tripod, then those using smaller setups like mirrorless cameras, or small-bodied DSLRs, can comfortably use a travel tripod for everyday usage. I love my travel tripod and actually use it more than my larger one, but I keep a bigger one for wildlife photography with my large super telephoto lenses.
One Short Prime Lens
If I’m taking the time and effort to travel somewhere new, I want to make sure I maximize the number of different photos I bring back with me. One of the easiest ways to do this is to travel with a short prime lens that has a much faster maximum aperture than my usual zoom lenses. When you shoot wide open with something like a 24mm f/1.4 or a 50mm f/1.8, it can create a very distinctive look that can’t be replicated by a standard zoom like a kit lens or a 24-105mm f/4. This means I come home with a broader variety of images.
Since short prime lenses are usually quite small, they also make excellent travel companions. On top of the distinctive look to their images, the wider aperture also comes in handy for getting a faster shutter speed at night, or a lower ISO when you’re exploring dark interior locations such as a church. Whilst I’d never go anywhere without a standard zoom like a 24-70 or a 24-105, you’ll always find a faster prime lens in my bag as well.
Think Tank Roller Bags
Roller bags make a lot of sense for airline travel, particularly if you’re travelling with more than a couple of lenses and more than one camera. When it comes to the picking the best rolling camera bags, you need look no further than Think Tank Photo. Whenever you walk into the media centre at any major sporting event, it’s literally littered with Think Tank roller bags in every corner and locked to every desk. They make a pretty large variety of rollers to suit various national and international carry-on limits, although my favourite is the Roller Derby which is pictured above. They build these things for heavy professional usage and every feature is meticulously thought out, they’re just a real treat to own and work out of!
Note: Whenever you use my links to shop and spend more than $50 on the Think Tank website, you’ll be able to choose yourself an awesome free gift at the checkout.
Laptop / Shoulder Bag
A good shoulder bag is an important part of my travel kit because I always want to take advantage of as much carry-on allowance as I can. Most airlines stipulate that you can have “1 bag + 1 personal item” and this personal item can be a laptop bag. The great thing is that a laptop takes up relatively little room in the bag, and this leaves me space for additional lenses and other necessary accessories like hard drives and battery chargers.
My current picks for shoulder bags are the Think Tank My 2nd Brain 15 Briefcase, and the Peak Design Everyday Messenger. Both bags are a little different in their usage cases, though. The Everyday messenger is much bigger and is capable of holding cameras and lenses, although it doesn’t do such a good job at organizing smaller accessories. On the other hand, the Think Tank MSB15 is probably the best organizational bag I’ve ever seen for photographers, but it’s depth means it doesn’t hold cameras well at all, and any extra lenses you want to cram in it would probably be limited to one or two small primes. Don’t buy the Everyday Messenger bag if you’re only looking for a laptop bag, the Think Tank bag is a much better “portable office”. Equally, don’t buy the MSB15 if you want to have a multi-purpose bag that can also take camera gear when needed.
I think a good tabletop tripod is a great addition to any travel bag because these days you’ll almost certainly come across a “no tripods” zone where your larger tripod will be forbidden. The important thing is to make sure you have something that wil comfortably hold your typical setup. Before I shelled out for the reasonably expensive RRS TFA-01 (pictured above), I tried a few cheaper Manfrotto options and some generic brands, and found there to be a lot of poor products in this part of the photography market. Some that I tested in a store were pictured with DSLRs on the package, but would barely hold a point and shoot. You can take my word for it that the TFA-01 is brilliant, but if you want to go for something a little lighter on your wallet, just make sure you either try it in a store, read some trusted reviews or buy from somewhere like B&H Photo who have excellent return policies (I actually returned one of the cheap Manfrotto ones to B&H when it wasn’t up to scratch).
When it comes to using it, don’t forget that they don’t have to be used on a table! A lot of times I end up using mine to brace my camera against a wall or on top of some kind of railing.
Non Branded Camera Strap
In many places it’s a good idea to be a little bit more discreet with your camera gear and the first way you can do this is by removing the brightly coloured manufacturer’s camera straps. My preference is to use the Peak Design straps, my favourite of which is the ultra light Leash strap that’s pictured above. Peak Design have a variety of different sling-style straps though, so there will be something subtle to suit most people’s needs.
After a few incidents at airports where I was forced to do that terrible shuffle of things from one bag to another, on the floor next to the check-in desk, I purchased one of these scales. Now I know exactly how much each of my bags weighs, and it helps to make the travel process as smooth as possible. This one that is linked above on Amazon is the exact model I own and I think for about $15 it’s very good. I have had been given some of the cheaper ones that appear similar to the $10 ones on Amazon and I tossed them right in the garbage. This is not a product you can get for $10 and be satisfied in my opinion, so if you are buying from Amazon I really would suggest at least going with the one I’m using.
I love to have the option of charging camera batteries in the car while I’m driving, so a 12v inverter is always in my travel bag. There’s lot of options to choose from, but for travel, the smaller plastic ones obviously make the most sense, although be aware that they offer a lower wattage.
Bose Wireless Headphones
I admit that this is a luxury item and probably not an “essential”, but I don’t go anywhere without them so they have to be on my list. Bose make a a variety of wireless Bluetooth headphones and ear buds and the first time I used a pair, I knew I could never go back to the pesky cabled ones. With many phone manufacturers doing away with 3.5mm headphone ports, these kinds of things will continue to gather popularity. The large over-the-ear ones are comfortable for hours upon hours of listening, and I also really like my weatherproof SoundSport Wireless earbuds as well for my outdoor adventures.
I’m a bit of stickler when it comes to organizing things in my travel bags because I find that it ensures I don’t forget anything when I’m packing, and also prevents me leaving things lying around along the way. This little pouch is called the Field Pouch and it was the winner of Carryology’s Best Accessory award in 2016, for very good reason. Not only does it have a good selection of elastic pockets and zippered pockets, but it’ll also fit on your belt, or you can turn it into a small shoulder bag by using the aforementioned Peak Design shoulder straps. At current count I have four of these pouches for different purposes. Made from extremely thick and rugged waxed nylon, these things will last a lifetime of adventures.
If you’re travelling with any sort of large battery pack, usually for a battery-powered strobe, you’ll want to make sure you have the necessary certifications for airline travel. Most strobe manufacturers either have these available on their website for downloading, or they are included in the instruction manual. The batteries that usually cause the most issues are sealed lead-acid batteries such as those found in the Elinchrom Ranger or Profoto B9, but large Li-Ion packs can also raise some eyebrows at security checkpoints. Make sure you know where these can travel, for example lead-acid must be in the hold, li-ion should be in your hand luggage. Explain to the check-in staff what you have, and have copies of the certifications on hand to give to them if necessary. Also include copies in the checked baggage so that inspectors can see them alongside the battery if the bag is opened for further inspection.
If you’re interested in travel gear, you might also like to check out a post that I put on Shutter Muse about flying with your camera equipment. It’s actually one of the most popular and most shared posts I’ve ever written on that site, and it details everything from how to deal with cabin attendants who tell you that you can’t take your bag on board, to the correct way to fly with film when it needs to go through an X-ray machine. I also tell the story of how I once delayed an entire 747 full of people and was escorted off the plane…
Got a gear question?
Leave it in the comments below!