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Building your travel photography toolkit

Brian Matiash
September 29, 2022
Time to read:
12 Minutes

As a landscape photographer, I’ve been very fortunate to have done more than my share of travel with my camera gear. But one thing I’ve noticed in my personal experiences as well as those from other travel shooters: The genre of travel photography is so broad and expansive that it’s almost impossible to make recommendations without first learning more about the intent of the photographer who is going on the trip. In other words, what travel photography means to me may be very different from what it means to you. But it’s not just about individual tastes and needs.

Broadly speaking, the destinations I visit during my travels often dictate the type of photography I need to prep for: mentally, physically and logistically. In my experience as a travel photographer, I can lump my intent into two primary buckets: journalistic and landscape (or nature) photography. Sometimes the destination is the first decision made, which usually dictates which bucket I should plan for. Other times, I decide that I want to focus on a particular bucket and choose a destination that is best suited for it.

© Brian Matiash

For example, I know that when I visit Nicaragua, Japan, or Cuba, I’m going to be in more of a journalistic mode, focusing on documenting the countries’ denizens, their culture and their general way of life. This style of photography comes with its own host of requirements. I tend to appreciate smaller, faster prime lenses on these types of trips. I also pack far lighter, and my tripod and filters are usually afterthoughts because they are counterproductive to my mission. On these shoots, the name of the game is being nimble, agile and inconspicuous.

© Brian Matiash

But when it comes to travel photography that focuses on landscape shooting, I have an entirely different approach in how and what I prepare. Everything— from the time I begin to when I’m calling it a day—is different. And that translates into what I’m bringing with me. For example, my bag is also much heavier in these instances because I tend to favor the larger and heavier zoom lenses. And that’s because I rely on the convenience of using these bulkier zooms. I also need a sturdy tripod, at least one filter system and a second camera body. And when I’m in a natural location, for the most part, the last thing I worry about is being inconspicuous.

The tools of the trade

While you can clearly delineate between the specific gear I use based on my intent or destination for travel photography, the overarching gear categories are the same. I always need a camera body, some lenses and a variety of accessories. While I’m going to share my rationale for the gear I use with journalistic and landscape travel photography, you can easily co-opt these recommendations for virtually any type of intent.

One of my typical camera gear load outs when traveling to colder landscape regions. This was taken in Italy's Dolomites region.

The camera body

We really do live in a wonderful time, especially for photography. Digital cameras have matured at such an aggressive pace, and each new camera model, or iteration, that manufacturers release further pushes the envelope in terms of capabilities. And what’s even better is that these innovations aren’t tied to just one company. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Olympus, Leica and the rest have all thrown and answered each other's gauntlets by releasing some truly impressive cameras.

All of this is to say that regardless of which brand you identify with for your camera needs, you likely have some pretty great options available. In my case, I made the switch from Canon to Sony many years ago, when the first-generation full-frame mirrorless camera system, the a7, was released, and I’ve been with them since. As you could also imagine, I’m a big fan of mirrorless camera systems, especially now that all of the major players have released versions for themselves.

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As I mentioned earlier, my needs for the camera vary based on the intent of my shoot. If I’m on a street or shoot, my top two priorities are blazing fast autofocus (when I’m using a lens that supports AF) and a large buffer.

One of the caveats of being inconspicuous is that people will go about their day at whichever pace they choose. The camera has to be able to match that pace by quickly and accurately locking focus and giving you enough of a buffer to rife off the number of frames needed to get that ideal moment. With landscape shoots, I’m not nearly as concerned about AF speeds or the camera’s buffer because I almost always manually focus, and I tend to shoot more methodically.

© Brian Matiash

For these shoots, I prioritize sensor size and video capabilities over anything else. Having a large sensor gives me the flexibility to crop, even aggressively, and not worry about losing critical sharpness or resolution. I also spend a lot of time recording video clips that I contribute to my stock agency, and the cleaner the footage, the better. Ideally, I prefer a camera that allows me to record 4K-resolution video clips at 24- and 60-frames per second.

The camera lenses

Like camera bodies, manufacturers have been releasing very impressive lenses that span speed, focal length and price. There are plenty of compelling lenses that won’t break the bank and won’t require you to sacrifice in optical quality. Generally, your hierarchy of needs related to lens choice falls into three categories:

1. The maximum, or widest, aperture

2. The focal length, or range

3. The size and weight

Once you determine your needs for these three categories based on the type of shooting you’ll be doing on your travels, it should be pretty straightforward to find the appropriate lenses. I almost always veer toward prime lenses for street, or journalistic, shoots. That is doubly true when I’m traveling because I prefer to travel as light as possible on these shoots.

© Brian Matiash

Additionally, my experience with prime lenses is that they’re typically very fast, with wide apertures, and are usually much smaller and lighter than zoom lenses. I’m especially fond of the Zeiss Loxia lens lineup because of how tiny yet sturdy they are. However, they are all manual focus lenses, so I almost always rely on my camera’s focus peaking feature to facilitate focusing.

The complete opposite is true for landscape travel shoots. I almost always grab my zoom lenses that range from 12mm all the way to 400mm or longer, if I pack a teleconverter. While these lenses are significantly heavier and bulkier than primes, it is impossible to beat the convenience of zooming. Also, because I almost always shoot using an ƒ/11 to ƒ/16 aperture range, I'm not as concerned about wide apertures (unless I'm going to shoot a lot of night, or star, photography).

The camera accessories

As far as camera accessories are concerned, my top three categories have always been tripods, filters and bags. Tripods and filters factor in almost exclusively in my landscape shoots because I prefer a pared-down kit for street shooting. However, I definitely have specific camera bags based on whether I’ll be traveling for journalistic or landscape intent. There are a number of other accessory categories to consider, of course, such as media cards and shutter cable releases. So, depending on how you shoot, you might want to consider additional accessories.

Remember to enjoy the travel experience

© Brian Matiash

I can talk about camera gear until my face turns blue, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you about the most important aspect of travel photography: enjoying the experience! While gear is important, don’t let it bog down your ability to be in the moment and truly enjoy your surroundings. Don’t get bummed out if you don’t have the highest-resolution camera or fastest lens. I have friends who have the best time traveling simply with their mobile phones and they always come away with truly beautiful and memorable photos.

No amount of gear should ever replace being in the moment, so get out there and enjoy your travels!

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Brian Matiash

Brian Matiash is a South Florida photo educator who serves enthusiast photographers looking to grow their landscape, travel, and wildlife skills. Learn more on his website and YouTube.