Creating Your Travel Kit – A Guide
Travel, we all love it, and we’re all itching to get back on the road and explore new places. And most importantly, capture these places on film. And many of us are willing to give up some high-value items to get out of the house! But with events like spring break and the summer months approaching and things looking better, we might be able to get out safely. But these downtimes allow us to think about what sort of gear to bring along on those trips, so we at C-41 are bringing a guide to help you choose your equipment. By helping you think about your kit critically and then apply some criteria to make choosing your gear easier. Because when you have a selection of thirty or more cameras to choose from, I know it can be challenging to pick which one(s) to bring along and not end up bringing fifteen cameras along for the ride.
Disclaimer: As the global pandemic continues, we at Studio C-41 encourage you to stay safe in these strange times. Listen to local health guidance on travel, respecting all county, state, and federal guidelines on travel and quarantine rules and those of where you are going. Right now, travel outside of your region should only be for essential purposes only. If you are sick or under orders to remain at home, please follow those rules. The more we do now, the sooner we can all get back to travelling.
Before I even look at what gear to bring, I have three pre-flight considerations first. These three things will help narrow down my choices of camera kit. These considerations include the location & activities, mode of travel, and your travel companions.
Location & Activities – Where you’re going and what you’re doing are two of the most critical first considerations to look at when choosing a kit. Are you going specifically to take photos (like an FPP Photo Walk or Photostock Event), or are you going on a family vacation to Disney? Or are you going to a work conference that allows a bit of free time to get out and explore? Your family might not appreciate you taking an RB67 to Disney (besides, they don’t allow tripods in the park). Will you be spending time on the beach, taking long wilderness hikes, driving through scenic locations, or walking city streets? Riding Rides? Taking in Museums? All these things can you choose your 4×5 with Rollei RPX 25 or your 50/1.4 and Portra 800 or P3200.
Mode of Travel – Once you know where you’re going and what you’re doing, you can look at how you’re getting there, between planes, trains, and automobiles, there are several different considerations for each. If you’re driving, you have almost no restrictions besides how big your car is and how much luggage other than camera gear do you need. One thing to do if you are crossing a border with a lot of camera gear is to note all the serial numbers and have a list ready of all the equipment you’re bringing into and out of the country in case you get questioned at the border. Trains offer a unique mixture. For the most part, there is an option for checked baggage and some leeway for carry-on baggage, but it’s always best to check before you arrive. And you always have to be considerate towards fellow passengers. I find it best to stick with a smaller kit on a train than I would in a car. And finally, there are planes. These days, travelling with film by plane can be a time-consuming and frustrating endeavour. Carry-On luggage is restrictive and depends on the size of the plane and the airline. You’re always best to check with the airline well in advance. As for checked baggage, I cannot recommend putting your camera gear through that, as if it breaks there’s little you can do for recourse. Best to carry everything with you into the cabin. But the biggest problem is airport security. Most X-Ray machines will not cause damage to films rated faster than ASA-800, although if a machine is cranked up to see through that lead-lined bag you have your film in, there is potential for damage. And these days, several airports are now using CT Scanners that will roast your film no matter how much you protect the rolls. Kodak has written an article on X-Ray scanners and Film, and Kosmo Foto in 2019 wrote a piece on the new CT Scanners including a list of Airports employing them. For that reason, it’s best to travel with your cameras (and film holders) unloaded. And you can always ask for a hand-check of your film from a security guard. I’ve found most are open to the ask, but always be sure to read the room first before asking. And we’ll get into some additional options in the next section.
Travel Companions – The final consideration to take is who are you travelling with? Not everyone is a photographer, and if you’re going on a family vacation they might not want you running off to take all the pictures. But in some cases, they do recognize your desire to get out and practice your craft, you are on vacation. But you will certainly want to spend more time with them, than you cameras. Of course, if they’re a photographer also, you can both enjoy the hobby together. Just make sure that you have enough film and cameras for the both of you. But you also have to take the time to think about the type of cameras to bring. While a pair of adults travelling together a manual camera is perfectly acceptable as you have some freedom to pose, compose, and meter. Kids might require something with a good fast meter and autofocus to capture those moments. And most importantly, bring along that digital camera and make sure to point the camera at the people that are with you on the trip.
Okay, now we can get to the fun part actually looking at your camera selection and narrowing down the kit you’re going to bring. The camera body, the lens(es), and film stocks. Now you’re probably like me and have a camera for almost every situation out there, from street photography to landscape photography and everything in-between. And while some trips might afford the opportunity to do that, it’s not always wise to bring everything. I’ve had one vacation where it started off with me shooting a wedding, then going into a week-long trip that allowed plenty of different photographic opportunities. And bringing everything did not sit well, and I’ve since learned to find a happy medium.
The Camera Body – At the heart of your whole choice is the camera body itself. Once you know which camera(s) you’re going to bring along, the easier the rest becomes. And you don’t have to bring a system with multiple lenses. Often, you might find that something with a fixed lens will suit the need fine. If you’re going on a long backpacking trip, something like a fixed lens rangefinder or point-and-shoot might do you perfectly. Hiking through the mountains and camping each night. I would personally find someone with an Olympus XA4, or bring along my Olympus OM-1n with a 24mm lens, or Nikon FM with a 15mm. Or if I could spare the space, a Fuji GSW690 or a fixed lens medium format camera. Or if you’re going on a trip with the kids, a Nikon F90 with a 28-105mm kit lens will suit perfectly with fast autofocus the all-important auto-exposure. You also have to consider where you’re going, maybe a camera that functions without batteries is better for a rural adventure where you cannot run to a corner store to buy a new battery. Or a camera that runs fine on AA batteries which you can get at a gas station between Timmins and Sudbury without a second thought.
The Lens(es) – Even if you’re running with a fixed lens camera or an interchangeable system picking the lens(es) that you bring along is important. Here is where location and activity come into play. It’s always best to bring a camera with a good lens on the front to get the most out of your images. Generally, when I travel I decide quickly if I want to go with a single lens system or a three-lens kit. It does depend greatly on the amount of space I have to carry my kit and where I’m going and what I’m doing. Plus, I’m lucky to have a great selection of quality optics at my disposal. The one lens kit requires the choice of a lens that will handle wide to telephoto, now it would be nice to have a fixed fast aperture but that’s not always in everyone’s budget. And often you might not want to lug that 2,000 dollar lens everywhere. Some good options would be a Nikon 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5D or the Minolta Maxxum 28-135mm f/4-4.5 these offer the perfect mix of speed and size and leaves you room to bring a fast fifty. Of course, you can go with something a little shorter and faster, like the Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8D or 24-70mm f/2.8G and skip on that fast fifty as f/2.8 is often more than what you’ll need. Now the three lens kit is based on prime lenses, and I mainly use this with my manual focus cameras, like the Nikon FA (which makes a great travel camera). Usually, I go with a wide-angle lens between 20mm and 28mm, then a fast normal lens either 35mm or 50mm, then a short telephoto or ‘portrait’ lens between 100mm and 180mm. An example would be the kit I brought on my honeymoon to New York City, with the Nikon FA along with the 28mm f/3.5, 50mm f/1.4, and 105mm f/2.5. Of course, there are always exceptions, you might want to add or remove lenses to your kit for what you’re out doing. You might want to skip that 50mm lens in favour of an ultra-wide lens for landscape capture. Or a Tilt-Shift lens for architecture work. But also consider how many systems you bring along and if space is an issue, you might have to sacrifice some lenses in favour of bringing enough.
Film – Alright, so you have your camera, you have your lenses, now it’s time for the film. The first thing you have to think on is what is your overall vision for your travel photos and gear your film selections to that. Are you looking to get a clean smooth look or going for something experimental. Then gather up where you’re going to be shooting, Portra 800 might not be the best choice for a beach vacation, and RPX 25 isn’t the best for museum work. Like anything, it’s best to come with a happy medium, check the weather before hand and go with a film that you know will work. My usual go to films are Kodak Tri-X 400, TMax 400, TMax 100, Ilford HP5+, Delta 400, and FP4+. Or the Kodak Ultramax 400, ColorPlus, Portra 400, and Ektar 100 if you’re into colour. These films offer a wide latitude to over and under exposure plus takes push/pull developing well. Plus they always deliver quality images. While you can do a bit of experimentation, it’s always wise to bring something you’re 100% familiar with and can easily process. And it might also help to be consistent in your choices which will make any post-travel processing faster and scanning easier.
Now, with all the concern about CT Scanners and high-powered X-Ray machines, you might want to forego bringing film by plane altogether. In that case you will need to do research and see if there’s a local source for film. While Google doesn’t always deliver good results, you can always engage folks through Social Media platforms that have International representation. And you never know, you might come across a friendly person willing to donate some of their own personal stash. You can also choose to buy locally and have it shipped to your hotel. Plus you’re supporting local businesses. You might also consider getting your film processed there before flying home. Processed film will not be harmed by these new scanners. But if that’s not possible due to the film type you have, you can pre-ship your film home. I had planned a trip to Europe to capture 100 sheets of 4×5 film at key sites from World War I and planned to send via a courier a box of 25 sheets back to Canada. It’s best to pre-purchase these shipping boxes and avoid normal postal services. And have a safe third-party back at home to receive and store. And make sure the boxes are well sealed and light tight.
The Camera Bag
Now that you have your camera, lens, and film, it’s time to carry everything. Here is also where you have to take a serious look at size and space considerations as these will shape the style and size of the camera bag you’re bringing along. And while it’s tempting to bring your 4×5 on a plane, you might not have the room to bring it on as carry-on luggage. Plus you also have to look at home much walking you’re going to be doing and if you have easy access to store your gear and piece it out for trips and going back to your room. Also if you even have room to carry a separate camera bag. Some of the better brands of bags include Lowepro, Domke, Billingham, Peak Design, and Clik Elite.
Messenger Bags – These are popular because they can be used as carry-on luggage and many fit a lot of kit for their size. Plus they come in various shapes and sizes for almost every situation. Personally, I have two, one small that can fit a camera and a spare lens, or two small cameras. It counts as carry-on luggage and can fit in a storage locker or a mesh bag on roller coasters. Then I have a larger bag, a Peak Design Everyday Carry that can fit enough kit for a weeklong vacation out west with three cameras easily. And with a lot of people carrying them, they look normal in the streets and allow additional room for other items you pick up along the way. Messenger bags are my goto. But they do have drawbacks. Having only one over the shoulder strap can be tiring if you overstuff them, and they can be limiting if you use larger cameras and need lots of space for lenses.
Backpacks – If you need more space, how about a camera backpack? These also come in all shapes and sizes, and can handle far more gear. Usually if you’re running large format, you can fit your whole kit into one bag easily, but leave little room for anything else. Additionally if you’re bringing multiple systems along for the ride, a backpack is a great way to get it all packed. Plus some are small enough to count for carry-on luggage. But many are far too large once you get into larger camera kits. They do offer far better support than your average messenger bags and many offer hybrid options that have plenty of room for camera gear and camping gear if you’re into the backpacking thing.
Hard Cases – These are a must if you’re going to be forced into checking your luggage for a long haul flight. Unlike messenger bags and backpacks, these can hold the most amount of gear in the most secure manner. With hard sides and customizable foam interiors, these will protect your gear like no other. Plus having the capacity to lock, gives an extra layer of security. Make sure that your locks do have the option for custom’s to bypass so that they don’t cut your locks or worse, cut your cases. While not needed for your average 35mm or Medium Format gear, if you’re doing a long project in Europe involving a 4×5 camera, multiple lenses and everything, then a good case is in order. One of the best brands is Pelikan.
Now, you’ll notice that throughout the article I’ve been sharing some of my past travel kits, each different depending on where I was going, how I was getting there, who I was with, and what I was doing. Honestly, I don’t have a set kit of cameras ready to go for a vacation. I take a great deal of time to choose these kits well before I pack them. And the camera gear is always the first thing I pack. Although from my past experiences, some excellent choices for a travel camera are something powerful and yet easily handled. The Nikon FA is my preferred manual focus camera for travel, it takes solid lenses in Nikkor and I tend to stick to prime lenses. Although a Nikon FE, FM, or Olympus OM-1n or OM-2n are excellent choices. On the autofocus side, I will drift towards the Minolta Maxxum 9 and the 28-135mm lens. I’m not a rangefinder shooter, but an Olympus XA or XA4 makes an excellent travel companion when you have limited space. For medium format, a TLR is a great option, but if you aren’t a fan of the square format, a Mamiya m645 with a waist-level finder and 80mm f/2.8 lens takes up next to no space. As for bags, I tend to gravitate towards a messenger bag, the Peak Design primarily. But I also will do a hybrid setup, for an event like Photostock or a trip to Chicago where I brought a lot of gear I used a backpack and a messenger bag. But in the case of Chicago, I only carried a messenger bag when out. Because I was going into buildings, shops, and museums.
And that about covers it, and hopefully when it’s time to dust off the passport and hit the road again you’ll be better prepared to take along a killer travel kit and take tons of amazing travel photos. Two final things to note, first bring a digital camera along. I’m serious, and better if you can share kit between a film camera and your digital. I love film, but something having the capacity to still shoot if a camera goes belly up, is much better and certainly would make your travel companions happy knowing that all is not lost. And second, have a plan on doing something with the photos when you get home. Scan them and print them for an album, or make a photobook or ‘zine if you’re into that. Or even better, shoot slide film and put on a slide show! But most importantly, it will be far easier to look back at those memories while we’re all still stuck at home.