There's nothing quite like a good, long road trip. For a photographer, the flexibility to follow the weather, or the wildlife, or your whimsical nature just isn't available when you book a resort vacation or even a tour of a dream location.
Going Kerouac in the 20-teens poses some challenges the “beat generation” never could have imagined. Especially for photographers, who need to stay connected and charged up at all times. As the (self-proclaimed) Queen of the Canadian road trip, here's my list of must have gear that I would never leave home without.
These days, my partner and I travel with a LOT of devices that need to be kept charged. Two iPhones, an iPad, 3 DSLR cameras, a wifi hotspot, a backup hard drive, a GoPro, and sometimes a laptop, for starters. Then, we have a bunch more stuff that uses rechargeable batteries, like speedlights and flash triggers, headlamps, flashlights, lantern, and Bluetooth keyboard.
We rely on three types of charging devices to keep the power on when we are camping in unserviced sites for extended periods.
A USB Solar Charger
During daylight hours, we use a small, folding solar charger, like this one, to keep our phones, iPad and other USB devices running. When back country camping or canoe tripping for several days, we are heavily reliant on the solar charger.
A Portable USB charger
At night or on rainy days, the solar charger isn't much help. That's why I also carry a portable USB charger, like this one. You plug it into a regular wall outlet to charge it up and then it stores enough energy to fully charge a cell phone several times or a tablet twice. With multiple ports, we don't even have to fight over who's turn it is to use it! It's a real life saver on cold nights when your phone's battery can drain very quickly.
On days when we're driving any distance, we take advantage of the running car to get everything charged back up again. Two USB ports in my car stereo get our phones back up to 100% and a power inverter plugs into the cigarette lighter, giving us another USB and a 110v AC socket that enables us to recharge our camera batteries.
The last piece of our power plan is to carry extra batteries for everything we possibly can. Two batteries for each camera and lots of rechargeables for everything else. We use the Amazon Basics Charger and batteries and make sure those all get freshly charged on the rare nights we stay in motels or serviced campsites.
Every year, we go on at least one extended road trip of 2-4 weeks and spend at least one week at a family cottage that doesn't have the Internet. Every year, I go over my cellular data plan while we are on these trips and wind up miserably trying to conserve data, while not losing all my social media followers and paying through the nose for every fraction of a MB I do use.
This year, I got smart and bought a Skyroam Mobile Hotspot. This device has a universal SIM card that picks up the cellular network, wherever you are. You pay for a day pass and then you have unlimited access for up to 5 devices, for 24 hours (although they may throttle your speed after 500 MB). Day passes cost as little as $8 US each if you buy them in bulk and the device works in over 100 countries. That means no roaming charges or having to get your phone unlocked and buy a SIM card when you get there and this device will serve you well for a lot of travel beyond your domestic road trip.
For me, the cost is similar to what I end up paying my cell service provider to gouge me, but at least I'm getting a useful amount of wifi bandwidth for my money. I love knowing what I'm paying and what I'm getting and I can feel like I'm staying totally connected, even if I only use a day pass every day and a half, or even every second day.
The only real limitation I came up against with this device was a lack of cellular reception in a few of the more remote areas of Canada that we've visited. That said, the reception was very good, considering, and it occasionally picked up a signal even when my cell phone did not. I'm sure this is less of an issue in more densely populated countries (which is probably most).
When coming home with great photos for your portfolio is part of the reason for your trip, it can be tricky to find a balance between bringing a ton of gear you won’t even use and making sure to have everything you will need. Truth is, you'll probably realize at the end of the trip that you barely used at least one of the items you brought and that at some point you had to MacGyver a solution for something you forgot. That's all fine and good, but a backup plan is not something you can afford to forget while traveling, there is simply too much room for things to go wrong.
Extra Memory Cards
A long time ago, I ran out of space on my camera while visiting the Grand Canyon. I had to drive a LONG way to find a gift shop, where I was charged about 5 times what it was worth for a 512 MB SD card (hey, I told you it was a long time ago)! These days, memory cards are inexpensive and they barely take up any space at all, so there is no excuse for not having enough with you. If your camera has slots for 2 memory cards, consider putting a card with a large capacity in the second slot and having that one back up the card in the first slot (rather than using it as extra memory when the first card fills up). Cards can fail and humans can do stupid things. An acquaintance recently formatted his memory card (accidentally), a week into a trip to Alaska. He had to pay quite a bit to have the photos on the card recovered and was lucky to get them back at all. Buying pro level memory cards that come with recovery software is one fail-safe. Having two copies of all your photos in camera is another. When you fill up one of the smaller cards in slot 1 (I, for example, keep a 128 GB card in slot 2 and use 32 GB cards in slot 1) then you should take those out and keep them in a completely separate place, preferably in a waterproof card wallet like this one. I keep my cards separate from my camera and camera bags, usually in my purse or in the glove compartment so that, if my camera bag is stolen, I still have those cards and will have only lost those photos on the most recent card.
I may be a little paranoid but I was raised to “hope for the best and expect the worst”. With that in mind, every couple of days I also back up my memory cards and even my iPhone photos to either my laptop or a small, portable hard drive. I'm sure it goes without saying, that those are stashed in yet another bag, in a different place in the car. Even if my entire car was stolen, I would almost certainly have my camera with me, with all the photos on that second card or I'd have the card wallet and/or back up drive with me, in my purse. I'm never likely to lose every copy of all my photos, at worst I might lose those from the past day or two. I love this wireless drive from Western Digital because it has an SD card slot and automatic incremental backups. That means I can insert my card, wait a few minutes, until the blue light stops flashing and I'm done, with no need to connect to a computer or even bring my laptop along at all. It only copies the new photos that have been added to the card since my last backup.
On my most recent trip, the backup drive saved me in quite an unexpected way. I am able to access the drive through an app on my phone or iPad and can import the photos to those devices for quick edits and sharing. The thing is, my devices can't show previews of the RAW files, so I have to find the number of the photo I want on my camera and then import that one from the hard drive onto the device. When I went to copy a photo I wanted to share over to my iPad, I was surprised to find that I could see previews of a whole bunch of my photos and that was when I realized that somehow my camera had gotten switched over to shooting .jpegs a few nights earlier. (Don't start messing around with your camera settings after the third glass of wine, kids). If it wasn't for seeing those previews, I probably wouldn't have discovered that blunder until I got home a couple of weeks later, with hundreds more of my photos affected.
Ok, it's not a gadget, but as long as we're talking about disasters, what if your gear is stolen from your vehicle or you drop your 70-200 f/2.8? You may think your home or car insurance will cover it, but if you have a photography business and sell prints of your work, your insurance company may say that you were using the gear for business and refuse to cover it. If you are making money from your photography, you should look into getting your gear covered under a business policy so there is no question about whether you will be reimbursed if something terrible happens while you are on the road.
Sometimes, you have to brave the elements to get the best shots. Lightning, rainbows, waterfalls, fog, sun rays breaking through storm clouds, you don't get to photograph these wonders without risking getting wet! The problem is, your camera HATES getting wet. Make sure you're not caught in a downpour without this essential gear.
A rain cover for your camera is super inexpensive and will allow you to get out in inclement weather to get the shots other, less prepared photographers will miss.
Being able to get right in the water with your camera is even better still! Not only will it allow you to take photos underwater, but you can also get unique perspectives by photographing back towards land, from in the water. I happen to have written 2 whole articles on the subject. You can find my review of the Aquapac Waterproof DSLR Bag here and my article about underwater options for some of your other gear like cell phones and point and shoots here.
Keep your expensive gear safe from a leaking tent or a capsized canoe by stuffing it into waterproof, roll-top dry sacks. A bonus for boating is that they will float, especially if you leave some air in the bag.
The last, but probably most essential piece of rain gear is the humble but mighty rain poncho. Available for a few dollars, easy to fit in a pocket and able to cover you, your backpack and your camera when it rains, it deserves a permanent place in your bag, and not only when you are traveling.
If you're on a road trip but barely leave the car, you're doing it wrong. It's all about adventure and exploration, not taking the same photos a billion tourists have taken before you, from the lookouts along the highway. You need a comfortable backpack that can hold the camera gear you need for a hike, with room left over for batteries, memory cards, sweater, rain poncho, insect repellent, sunscreen, lens cloths, first aid kit and drinking water. When you find this perfect bag, let me know. In the meantime, I rotate between this Lowepro sling bag, and this larger one, depending on whether I need room for my 150-600 mm lens (which only fits in the second bag).
I remember my first road trip, with my first DSLR. We went camping on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia and I can still recall an 8 km hike (one way) up a mountain, with that Nikon D3200 and the 55-300 mm kit lens bouncing on my chest, every step of the way. It was at the end of a velvet leopard print neck strap, purchased for style rather than comfort. It was hot and gross and that camera felt so HEAVY. I have to chuckle now because my boyfriend has inherited that setup (the camera, not the leopard print strap!) and nowadays when I pick it up, I marvel at how light it is. I can't even imagine hiking that distance with my D750 and 70-200 f2.8 hanging from my neck, or (perish the thought) my Tamron 150-600. There would be a pretty happy chiropractor when I got back home to Toronto!
A comfortable strap that takes that weight off the back of your neck makes all the difference when you have to carry your camera for a long time. I use the Joby Sling Strap, but there are lots of other options, including holster belts, chest harnesses, and hand straps.
A monopod isn't just to stabilize your camera so you can use a slower shutter speed. I learned this lesson well on my most recent road trip when I developed a severe case of tennis elbow from lifting and holding my camera up with huge, heavy telephoto lenses on it. One morning, I woke up and couldn't lift my coffee mug! I'm still wearing a brace and the injury has not fully recovered after almost a month of trying to rest it as much as is possible (for a photographer in autumn). Use a monopod to support the heavy weight of your camera and lens, especially when using telephotos. Start now. Although it is not as stable as my regular monopod, when I'm traveling light, I use the Mountainsmith Trekker Fx trekking pole, which doubles as a monopod. You've seen my car, I have to save space wherever I can!
A Light Travel Tripod
I'm about to say something that many will disagree with, but here goes. If travel and landscape photography is your goal, don't buy the sturdiest tripod you can afford, buy the lightest tripod you can afford. There is no point in having a sturdy tank of a tripod that you never use because you don't want to carry it anywhere. This was the mistake I made, by following all the advice online to buy a good sturdy tripod and, being unable to afford a good sturdy, carbon fiber tripod, I ended up with one that weighs a hundred pounds. I never, ever use it, but I do use the much less expensive, smaller lighter tripod I bought a couple of years later. Is it as trustworthy in high winds? Nope, but at least I have it with me and I can hang my camera bag from it, set it down low and keep the camera strap looped around my wrist if I'm really worried. It does a much better job than that other tripod, the one that will last me a lifetime (propped in the corner of my closet).
One of the main reasons it's so important for a photographer to stay connected while traveling is to take advantage of all the apps available for your phone. They can help you with everything from pre-scouting locations (stay tuned for a new location scouting app coming soon from Improve Photography!) to predicting great sunsets, to keeping on top of weather systems, to knowing in what direction the sun will rise. I like to stay agile when I'm on the road and I'm always ready to change plans at a moment's notice if the grass is looking greener (or skies are looking more dramatic) elsewhere.
Are there any other road tripping photographers out there? What are some of your favourite, must-have photography gadgets for when you are on the road?
*Please note, that some of the Amazon links in this article are not for the exact product I use. In most cases, they appear to be better and less expensive versions of the gadgets I own, but I have been amassing this equipment over a period of years and I do not necessarily own the newest models available.