What is this article about?
You’re about to embark on your trip around the world and need to pick your photo equipment. I’ve done myself quite a bit of research roughly 6 months ahead of my departure but had a hard time finding good resources for more advanced amateur photographers. That’s why I wrote this quick guide to help you pick the right gears for your trip and cover the vast range of situations you’ll encounter. This guide is really for “generalists” who want capture everything from cities to birds and landscapes.
Check out my other related articles here.
Who is this article for?
This article is not for experts but neither it is for beginners (if you don’t know what exposure, ISO or aperture means, I guess this is not the right article for you). I mainly target enthusiast photographers who wish to hone their skills while travelling for a long time. In other words, those who are willing to invest a lot of time and (unfortunately) money to bring fantastic memories from this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Weight vs quality vs versatility
That’s probably the very first dilemma you’re going to face when picking your gears for this trip. (Note that I excluded one criteria: cost. Here’s my opinion: I’d rather sacrifice a bit of that trip for the sake of bringing terrific pictures. After all, you can consider it just as important as your plane tickets, hence with a similar budget.) You probably already realized that a single body-lens combo that can shoot a small bird flying 50 meters away as well as indoor paintings with fantastic image quality doesn’t exist, whatever the amount you’re willing to spend. So, it’s all about compromises.
Hybrids vs DSLRs
Now, the second question is whether you’d go with a mirrorless system (such as the Sony A7RII) or a DSLR. Although high-end hybrids are a bit lighter than semi-pro DSLRs, your full equipment is going to be negligibly lighter (only by 3% if you consider 2 pro lenses). According to some reviews I read, mirrorless cameras aren’t as good for action shooting, which is something I happened to do a lot (mainly with birds and other animals). Besides, they’re still a lot more expensive than DSLRs for comparable performance. Finally, ergonomics is something I thought shouldn’t be a criteria until I started shooting 100 to 500 pictures a day… Make sure you try the cameras in a shop or, better, borrow one from a friend for a few days.
Go for a semi-pro DSLR
At the end of day, you’ll probably end up, like me, with one option for Canon, the 5D (6D is pretty outdated), and 2 options for Nikon, the D750 and the D810. The pro bodies (D5 and 1D) are just too big and heavy to be carried around for a one-year trip and plenty of tricky situations (climbing, trekking, horseback riding). I ended up getting a D750 as I wanted to get the best low light capabilities as possible, that’s to say more versatility. I agree that I would have been happy with the extra megapixels of the D810 as I tend to crop pretty often. If you’re planning to do large prints or shoot small animals the D810 may actually be a good option. If you don’t plan to carry a tripod, a tilted screen is very useful (and pretty much your only option) when laying the camera on the ground for long exposure shots.
A battery grip isn’t a must have for a RTW trip
I realized that a battery grip would have been very handy when taking hundreds of pictures a day (and 30% in portrait mode). I’ll definitely buy one when I’m back home. However, it makes your camera bigger, heavier, and almost impossible to fit in a small backpack (see below).
Look at the warranty
Note that Canon offers a warranty for its pro and semi-pro bodies and L lenses against rain contrary to Nikon. I ended up with a D750 because it was a bit lighter, smaller and cheaper than a 5D. It turns out that my Nikon equipment behaved very well under adverse conditions (see here).
Bring a compact camera
There will be a few occasions when you don’t want to carry around a big DSLR. For example, if you’re visiting a not-so-safe city at night, eating at a nice restaurant, going out in a bar, etc. a good compact camera is going to be very handy. However, these are mostly low light scenes where compacts don’t excel. We have a Sony RX100 II, which opens quite wide at f1.8 and provides decent results at 800 ISO.
Pick only 2 lenses (eventually 3)
You want to carry as few lenses as possible to cover as many types of scenes as you can. Above two, you’ll realize that you’re carrying as much photography equipment as what’s in your other backpack (your “home”). This could be problematic as carrying 2 heavy backpacks (one in front and one in the back) is close to impossible for treks or walks longer than 30min (you’ll just break your back).
The wide angle: your everyday lens
I opted for a prime 35mm as my wide angle. A 50mm prime is too long for photographing buildings (and isn’t a wide angle by the way). On the other hand a 24-70mm f2.8 is too bulky and too slow for indoor photography. You could go with a 24mm f1.4 but I find it a bit too wide for some shots, especially portraits. I chose the Nikon 35mm f1.4, which is probably the lens I ended up using the most. It’s perfect for cities, indoor, and portraits of your better half (if you don’t want to walk 20m away from her/him).
Telephoto, a must have for animals and details
My second best friend is a 70-200mm f2.8. I hesitated a bit looking at the weight but I got used to it very quickly and was more than happy with the toughness and the speed of that lens. The f4 version wouldn’t have done the job in many low light situations or action shooting, period. This is the lens I use for shooting animals, building or landscape details, some portraits, etc.
Super telephoto: great for birds (but optional)
Now, 200mm is a bit short if you want to shoot animals, especially birds. I bought a 2x converter (providing a f5.6 aperture with a 70-200mm f2.8) but was pretty disappointed with the image quality. Halfway through my trip, I got a 200-500mm f5.6, which was fantastic in many situations (but unfortunately too slow in others).
The 200-500mm f5.6 was pretty much my only option. It’s great for shooting still animals from far away or bits of landscape (glaciers) that you can never reach by car or foot. However, it’s slow for shooting flying birds. It’s also too slow to shoot action with a polariser. Image quality is awesome and I have no regret as the 200-400mm f4 cannot be used handheld and costs… $7,000.
Get circular polarisers for all your lenses
I keep a circular polarizing filter on my 35mm and my 70-200mm at all times. Since these are fast lenses, I don’t have to crank up the ISO. I simply remove the filters when the light is insufficient (indoor or in a dark forest for example). I’d say that 60 to 70% of the time the filters are extremely useful for either boosting sky contrast or removing reflections (wet stone, windows, tree leafs, etc.) On my 200-500mm, I only put the filter when not shooting action or when I have plenty of light, otherwise this lens is just too slow to lose 2 stops.
If you intend to take a lot of pictures in the sea or in rainy / wet environments, this filter is an absolute must-have in my humble opinion. Good ones aren’t cheap but are well worth it.
Don’t forget filter wrenches
Take good care of them as they can be hard to replace (actually impossible in South America). Also get filter wrenches built of metal. I initially bought ones in plastic, which I broke after 2 months. The problem is no one (in photography shops) was able to remove the filter on my 35mm (I was in Lima), simply because no one had filter wrenches… I had to wait for 2 months to get new wrenches brought by my family. Since they’re hard to find, take a spare one with you and store it in your other backpack. A 77mm wrench usually works fine on a 67mm, so no need to bring different sizes.
Carrying your gears
There’re plenty of options here. I bought a LowePro ProTactic 350 AW that allows me to store all my equipment (except chargers). The side openings are really convenient as my partner can take a lens out and pass it to me while we’re walking (without putting the bag down). It’s not the most comfortable backpack ever but it’s still decent and holds up pretty well after 6 months of rough and everyday use.
- Nikon D750
- 35mm f1.4
- 70-200mm f2.8
- 200-500mm f5.6
- 3 Circular polarising filters
- GPS logger BadElf 2300
- Mackbook 12inch
- Sony RX100
- Filter wrenches
- SD card reader
- 6 x 32GB SD cards (high speed, high quality)
- 3 batteries
- Microfiber cleaning cloth for sunglasses
- Blackrapid sport strap (the extra security under your arm is indeed very useful)
- Rain cover
- Hard plastic cover for your Macbook