The Ultimate Packing List for Travel Photography

It’s time to start packing for that once-in-a-lifetime photography trip or family vacation.  There are plenty of gear lists out there, but this comprehensive packing list for travel photography is for people who want to make sure they have all the essentials for a photo adventure, from the camera to creature comforts.  You don't want to carry 100 pounds of gear or forget that allen wrench you'll need to fix your tripod. And why not have some great podcasts to help while away the time waiting for sunrise?

The checklist is based on my experiences over multiple photo workshops and photography trips in the US and overseas and contains what I consider the bare minimum, plus a few “nice to haves.” If you’re traveling on assignment or to unusual locations, you’ll likely also need other gear, accessories and paperwork.  And if you're checking bags or traveling in your car, you can add extra clothes and other items.

ESSENTIALS

  • Camera and appropriate lens(es)
  • Batteries and charger
  • Memory cards and storage case
  • Filters
    • Polarizer
    • ND
  • Travel Tripod (and/or Platypod/Gorillapod)
    • Ballhead
    • Allen wrench and multi-tool
  • Wireless Remote/Cable Release
  • Cleaning supplies
    • Microfiber cloth/Pecpads
    • Rocket blower
  • Backpack/messenger bag
  • Plastic trash bag
  • Smart phone & charger
    • Photography apps
    • Weather apps
    • Maps
    • podcasts

PERSONAL ITEMS

  • At least two shirts, underwear and socks
  • Sturdy pants
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Light to medium jacket
  • Waterproof hiking shoes
  • Photography gloves (if necessary)
  • Medications & toiletries
  • Insurance
  • Passport

NICE TO HAVE

  • Laptop
  • Portable backup drive
  • Card reader
  • Square or rectangular filter system (e.g. Lee, Formatt-Hitech, etc.)
  • Bestek International Travel Converter & USB charger
  • Drone, batteries & charger
  • Rain cover for your camera
  • Speedlight & batteries (charger, if necessary)
  • Scott e-Vest or photo vest
  • Water bottle
  • Snacks
  • Small flashlight or headlamp
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Umbrella
  • Laundreez
  • Wash soap/Woolite
  • Instant coffee or tea

GEAR ESSENTIALS

Camera & lens(es):  Of course, you’re taking a camera and lens.  But it’s worth thinking about what you really need, since this is the heaviest part of what you’ll be carrying.  Can you get by with one camera body and an all-purpose zoom lens, like an 18-300 mm or 28-300 mm or would you rather have “the trinity” (for my Nikon D750, that’s a 15-30 f2.8, a 24-70 f2.8 and a 70-200 f2.8), or your prime lenses?  On vacations, I can get by with just a Nikon 24-120 f4.  If I’m looking for portfolio-worthy images, I'll travel with the trinity and, sometimes, a 20mm f1.8 because I’m frequently shooting in low light, at sunrise or sunset or blue hour or inside buildings.  I’ve never had a camera body fail, but I’ve seen it happen, and I've seen cameras dropped off cliffs and into water.  If this is a paid assignment or the images are critical, consider a backup body, renting one if necessary.

Spare batteries and charger:  If you’re traveling to a foreign country, don’t forget to bring an adaptor for that country’s electric system.

Memory cards:  Even if I’m downloading all the images from my memory cards each night, I don’t reformat the cards.  Instead, I keep them as an additional back up until I’m home and can ensure the images are backed up in multiple places.  Whatever your backup system, you’ll be carrying several memory cards and a sturdy case, like the Pelican 0915 for SD cards will keep them safe.

Filters:  I’ll bring a polarizer and a 10-stop ND filter that fit the largest lens size I have and a step-down ring to attach to the smaller lenses.  XUME magnetic filter adaptors make switching filters a breeze.  Square and rectangular filter systems take up too much space for an essential list but, if I have the room in checked baggage, I might bring it.

Tripod and Ballhead: You’ll want a tripod for low light and long exposure shots, but it has to be light weight and relatively compact.  I have the Feisol CT 3442 and love how light, strong, stable and compact it is.  Others swear by Really Right Stuff, Induro, Manfrotto and other brands.  If you are looking for a great travel tripod and ballhead, check out Improve Photography’s tripod reviews and Recommended Gear.

Most US airlines allow tripods in carry-on baggage, but many European airlines do not, so a good travel tripod should also fit inside your suitcase.  For overseas trips and flights on small regional jets with tiny overhead luggage bins, I’ll pack my tripod in checked luggage, but bring the ball head in carry on.

Some photographers love using Gorillapods or Platypods because they’re compact and can be taken into places where tripods are often prohibited.

Don’t forget to bring whatever tools you need, such as an allen wrench, to tighten or adjust the tripod and ball head.  I forgot to bring the wrench one time and a loose joint on a tripod leg became incredibly annoying! A multi-tool can also come in handy, but one with a pocketknife might not make it through airport security, so it goes into checked baggage.

Wireless remote or cable release

Cleaning supplies:  Lenspen and microfiber cloths and/or Pecpads are essential for keeping my camera and lenses clean and dry.

Rocket Blower

A Rocket Blower is handy for blowing dust off your camera, lens or sensor.

Backpack: You’ll probably want to use your favorite backpack or messenger bag and there are quite a number of pack reviews on Improve Photography.  Be sure to check the carry on size limits for the airline you're flying.  Gate agents rarely check the size of backpacks so you're probably OK if your pack is an inch or two over the limit, but you might be forced to gate check a very large pack.  Whatever you prefer, it’s really handy to have a pocket for a water bottle and some room to stuff in a jacket and some snacks.

Plastic Trash Bag:  I always bring at least one large bag.  It takes up almost no room in my pack, but can cover my backpack or camera in the rain and can be used as a ground cloth if I want to kneel or lay down in a wet or muddy area to get a particular shot.

Smart phone, charger and power converter plug: Your phone is your connection to the world, your alarm clock and so much more.  In addition to packing it, make sure it is packed with useful apps and podcasts. And don't forget to bring a power converter plug if you're traveling to a country with different electrical outlets.

Apps for Photography:

  • Really Good Photo Spots (coming in early June 2017) boasts thousands of locations for great photos, all over the world, vetted and rated by the Improve Photography team.  It's great for planning or if you find yourself with unexpected time on your hands or in an unexpected location, this app will tell you what photographic opportunities are within an easy drive
  • I repeatedly use Photographer’s Ephemeris and Photo Pills to plan where I need to be to take advantage of the golden light of sunrise and sunset, a full moon, or the Milky Way.
    • Photographers Ephemeris is easier to use.  It lets you find out where the sun or moon will be at any given time, on any day, anywhere in the world.  Going to be in Paris on Bastille Day this year?  Ephemeris will show you where and when the sun will rise and set so you can grab that photo of sunset behind the Eiffel Tower or full moon over the Arc de Triomphe.
    • PhotoPills is more complicated but also includes an amazing array of features that will help you spot specific stars and plan for the position of the Milky Way, as well as some nifty Artificial Reality features. In addition, it has handy tables for determining depth of field, hyper focal distances and for time lapse photography. Plan It! for Photographers is the Android equivalent.

Apps for Weather: Take along your favorite weather app to keep abreast of changing weather conditions, clouds and the potential for great color at sunrise or sunset.  Clearing storms offer dramatic light and compositions.  I’m partial to Weather Underground and Storm, but MyRadar also has many fans in the IP Community.

Podcasts: Travel is a great opportunity to catch up with podcasts, both on planes, trains and boats as well as while standing on location waiting for sunrise or sunset.  Improve Photography has a podcast for every photography interest, including one dedicated to travel photography called “Latitude.”

If you’re traveling to a different country, Rick Steves has interesting podcasts and interviews about the food, culture and sights of many countries and regions on his website, and audio books or e-books can also be a boon in the quiet time between shoots.

Maps:  Google Maps lets you download for 30 days maps of most locations, so you can use them without needing wireless.  Very helpful when traveling.

PERSONAL ITEMS

Jim Harmer posted a video and list of recommended clothing for traveling photographers.  I have most of them and can vouch for their quality and utility.  I typically take two shirts, underwear and socks and each day I wear one and wash one.  If I take a checked bag, I’ll throw in an extra set of clothes, just in case.

Medications & toiletries:  Make sure you’ll have enough of your prescriptions to cover your trip, plus a day or two in case you’re delayed returning.  It’s surprising how few toiletries you actually need, but some, like deodorant and toothpaste, are essential and others are provided by hotels or can be purchased once you arrive.

Insurance:  Make sure your health and car insurance will cover you where you are going.  There are sometimes exclusions for foreign travel or out-of-network problems domestically.  Know whether your homeowners or business insurance will cover loss or damage to your gear while traveling.  You don’t want to suddenly have to pay to replace a stolen camera system or a transatlantic medical evacuation!

Passport: While it may seem obvious that, if you're traveling outside the country, you'll need your passport, I have seen people tripped up by some of the details.  For example, many countries will not let you in if your passport expires in six months or less, so make sure it's valid for longer.  If you need to apply for or renew your passport, it can take up to eight weeks to process, so apply early.

NICE TO HAVE

Laptop, power cable and backup drive:  For my personal and business needs, I can get by traveling with my phone but, if I have the room, I’ll bring my laptop, backup drive, card reader and all the connecting the cables and power cords.

Bestek Travel Converter and Charger

The Bestek International Travel Converter & USB Charger allows me to charge and power multiple devices at the same time.  It’s a godsend in older hotels that might only have one electrical outlet and comes with plug adapters for all over the world.

Many photographers love their drones, and you can certainly get some unusual shots and videos.  If you plan on taking your drone, make sure you know the rules for flying them at your destination and have plenty of spare batteries.

If you’re headed into rainy climates, a camera rain cover is a nice addition to your kit.  I’ve had one for a couple of years and only used it once or twice, but it was a big help in those downpours.

Speedlight, batteries, charger and trigger:  I usually leave the speedlights at home, but I know some photographers who regular use them for fill flash in all kinds of photography.

A 3-in-1 reflector can be really handy if you do macro or portraits and doesn't take up too much room.

If you’re trying to get by without checking a suitcase, you can cram all sorts of items into a photography vest.  I’m partial to the Scott e-Vest—it’s lightweight, durable, stylish and has an insane amount of cleverly designed pockets you can stuff with small electronics, extra clothes, and food as you go through the airport.  It can save you from having to check a bag.

Water Bottle

Snacks

Small flashlight or headlamp:  I’m partial to a headlamp that has a lens for bright white light and one for red light.  The white can light my way to that sunrise shot or home from that sunset one, while the red light allows me to see my camera controls at night without losing my night vision.

Sunscreen & bug spray depending on where and when you’re traveling.

Umbrella:  If you’re expecting a lot of rain on your trip or need some extra shade.

Soap:  If you’re washing out your clothes every day, get a small bottle of soap or pick up a box of 10 Woolite packets which I like because they don't take much space.

If you have room for it, I love my Laundreez Portable Clothes Washer.  You add soap and water, then your dirty clothes and shake the bag a few times.  Drain, add fresh water and shake to rinse.   Drain again, roll out your clothes to squeeze out excess water and hang to dry.  It’s really fast and easy and only takes up a little more space than a fleece vest or jacket in your suitcase.

Instant coffee or tea:  A lot of small hotels or hotels overseas don’t have in-room coffee makers.  If, like me, you could use a boost to get out the door at zero dark thirty for that sunrise, taking some packets of Starbucks VIA or other instant coffee or tea and some hot tap water can be a relief. If you absolutely cannot live without a coffee machine in your travels, I highly recommend checking out my lads Homegrounds.co Top Picks review article for the best portabe coffee makers designed especially for on-the-go people like you and I.

HIT THE ROAD

I'm all packed up and ready to hit the road for some amazing photography opportunities!  What are your essential items and your favorite creature comforts?

8 thoughts on “The Ultimate Packing List for Travel Photography”

    1. Frank Gallagher

      Thanks Ed. I was just in Italy for 10 days and the experience was very fresh when I was writing this!

    1. @Bob: Sling strap? Like a Black Rapid or Cotton Carrier walk around strap or harness? A lot of people like them.

      A battery pack for your phone could be important if you’re using it a lot for directions, shooting, etc. I had one with me in Italy recently, but never needed it.

  1. HA! I have that same FESIOL tripod in my travel bag. It’s so light and stiff. Been with me for at least 5 years,

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