Between you and me, I'm convinced that camera gear has nothing to do with good travel photography.
Pack light for flexibility
You know what I love about travel? I love meeting people, getting lost in new places and – most of all – the delicious, mind-bending scents. So that I can soak it all in, I keep my gear real simple. Here’s what is in my camera bag.
Pack for the jet-lagged soul making the pictures
Travel light. It is worth giving up some creature comforts in exchange for speed and flexibility. I like to travel with a just a carry on – a daypack – when I can. Yeah, this means washing my clothes in the hotel sink but experience has taught me that is always worth it to pack light. It’s less stressful, too.
Batteries are not where you want to get cheap. Bring extra.
Cameras need to be hardy, discreet and lightweight. Usually I carry a pair of old Canon EOS M bodies. Usually. For their flaws, they are very well built. Lens mount adapters come, too, because I don’t have any EF-M mount lenses.
Cleaning supplies for my lenses and my camera sensors.
Any leftover space in my bag is stuffed with sachets of Starbucks VIA instant coffee or its equivalent.
I like wool socks and quick-drying sneakers. Bring something comfy because you’ll be walking a lot in this town.
Gaffer tape fixes everything but a broken heart.
Insulated water bottle
Hydrate. I bring an insulated water bottle because you can count on every airport, bus and train station in China having a boiled water dispenser. Also great for coffee, tea or soup on those long winter train rides.
Lighting is the biggest technical challenge with travel photography. A pocket-sized LED light and a collapsible, 12-inch reflector are always in my bag.
Small, simple tools are enough to deal with many scenarios – like closeups and pulling a subject out from a murky background.
Lightweight, versatile lenses
Lenses will vary depending on the shots I’ve got planned. Because it’s tiny and an optical delight, the Canon 40mm 2.8 STM always comes with me. The focal length is versatile even on APS-C cameras. For street portraits, and medium shots of landscapes or architectural details, the lens is great.
A lungi is like a colorful, comfy Swiss Army Knife. You can use it for anything.
You might know this big, square piece of cotton as a sarong. Mine was given to me by a buddy after a trip to Bangladesh, where it is called a “lungi.” Call it whatever name you want: there is a reason why these things are everywhere in Southeast Asia.
(I’d guess the only reason Douglas Adams wrote that a towel is the most useful travel accessory in the galaxy is because the poor guy didn’t have a lungi.)
Reservations in a neighborhood with visual potential. My favorite Beijing neighborhood is Gulou 鼓楼. Admittedly, I’m a little biased. I used to live in this neighborhood, in an old siheyuan.
Rice or silica gel packets
Silica gel packets help dry out soggy gear. Rice is a good substitute, and is easy to find on the ground.
Shot list. The point here is to zero-in on your most important subjects and compositions. Doing my research and writing down the critical shots I’ll need to bring home helps me think through the process. This list becomes the road map for the trip. Once I’ve got this sorted out I’ll know:
- What to pack.
- Which locations will require more scouting.
- Where to spend extra to time to maximize good light.
Because having a list frees up time and mental bandwidth, I can make better use of spontaneous moments that pop up, too. Try it.
Smecta is an over-the-counter medicine used to treat diarrhea. It’s easy to find at Chinese pharmacies. Smecta 思密达 is the best thing in my bag. Electrolyte tablets are a good idea, too.
Sooner or later, I get delayed or lost and end up tired and hungry. Coffee can only do so much. I pack energy-dense stuff that won’t melt in my bag.
Traveling with a tripod is a hassle. Even if you need to lock things down, consider your options. If you can get your shot with a clamp, beanbag or some other camera support, do it. You’ll save weight – and the hassle of dragging those sticks around town.
Weather in this town might be curse for tourists but it’s great for photographers. I bring a battle-tested UV Buff to help deal with sunburn, bugs and winter wind.
Read the field guide for more on dealing with smog, dust storms and tips on the best locations for capturing Beijing's seasons. And remember, wherever you are, bad weather makes better pictures.