Traveling With a DSLR
May 13, 2008 10:43 AM   Subscribe

Backpacking with a DSLR Camera - Any advice?

From December I'll be traveling around Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with my DSLR in tow. I'll be sorting out specific travel insurance for it, and have taken into account the fact I am carrying expensive kit from a financial point of view.

But given there is little point in owning a nice camera and leaving it behind when going places you really want to take good photos, does any one have any experience or advice regarding SLR photography when backpacking?
posted by paulfreeman to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I recently returned from a backpacking trip to New Zealand. My approach was to go as light as possible as we were walking up to 6 hours a day. So, I left behind the extended battery grip and all my extra lenses. I had my 70-210 zoom, because it was the most general purpose lens I had, 4 2Gig memory cards and a small carrying bag for my belt. It worked great and having the camera bag on my belt meant it was very accessible.

I did have access to power from time to time so I didn't have to worry about battery life too much.

As far as wear and tear, I figured, hey, you bought it to take pictures so what if it gets dirty. And it did get dirty, but I have some amazing memories captured forever.
posted by pixlboi at 10:51 AM on May 13, 2008

Some of the more obvious bits:

Get a lot of memory. Many smaller memory cards is better from a theft-proofing perspective. Bring three times as many as you think you need.


Don't haul a lot of lenses around. One zoom's not a bad idea; I might toss in a lightweight normal but no more. My father, a pretty-serious amateur and former pro photog, went to Israel with a 70-200 and a 50, but he was seriously thinking about doing the entire trip with the normal and nothing more.

Assume your lens is going to get dirty a lot, and pack a small cleaning kit.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:54 AM on May 13, 2008

I backpacked with my digital rebel and a laptop in tow. I only had one lense, a 17-50. This is my first dSLR, but it proved to be surprisingly durable. I didn't baby it, but I didn't bang it against the walls either. No regrets.
posted by aeighty at 10:55 AM on May 13, 2008

We went last year to Thailand, I took my D80 with the 18-200 VR lens. I suggest taking a very flexible lens as opposed to multiple specialty lenses with you, it worked out well for me. You'll be able to source parts local in the country, I busted 3 filters backpacking/trekking and replaced them in the major cities.

I found humidity and constant heat to be a major factor leading to some issues with the battery performance but usually quick power cycle fixed it. For this reason I kept lens swap outs to a minimum and tried to do them only in the hotels we stayed in.

When we stayed in town we kept everything in the safe, when we didn't we carted the camera/etc around with us in our day bags.

It's absolutely gorgeous over there, bring lots of memory cards and maybe a portable vault. I backed up photos every couple of days via the abundant internet cafe's in Thailand.
posted by iamabot at 10:57 AM on May 13, 2008

I have done so once, with what I thought at the time was an expensive camera and lens kit and managed to get home with it in tact. I used a cheap old messanger bag as my camera bag when walking around. Kept the body in there when not using it and the other lenses in there when I was. Pretty innocuous looking and goes around your body so it can be hard to pull off you by a passer by.

I read a few other tips about using a generic neck strap with no brand name on it, taping over the name on the body. If it is a pro-sumer outfit with a grip, consider taking the grip off.

May want to consider a pac-safe bag if you are staying in hostels and want to leave your stuff there and go out.

Insurance is smart. If you are fully insured on it, keep that in mind and enjoy the trip. If someone wants the camera and threatens you, just give it up, know that if you do get ripped off, that it will be covered. The important part is the photos you took. So consider a way to save them as you go. Maybe a small storage drive of some sort. Either that or take a bunch of cards and just fill them and store them somewhere safe.
posted by WickedPissah at 10:57 AM on May 13, 2008

If you don't have one already you can look into buying a UV or 1A Skylight filter for your lens. It knocks down some of the haze but more importantly, should anything happen, you end up with a scratch on an inexpensive filter that can be removed and/or replaced not on your expensive lens.

Also, seconding the more memory cards the better. Several smaller ones are better than one large one in case of theft or read errors. And don't keep them all in the same place.
posted by pixlboi at 11:05 AM on May 13, 2008

I travel with my DSLR and have a couple of suggestions:

Get a tight fitting neoprene cover for your camera, you can get one at a good camera store. The covers fit snugly and protect the camera in your backpack. They are light, space efficient and worth every penny for the level of protection they provide.

Charge your batteries every chance you get, no matter how full they are.

Carry enough extra batteries to last you 150% of your estimated longest time between charges. You don't want to miss any shots or have to conserve on shots.

Take the printed manual. If you are like me, you can't remember all the things your camera can do and how to do them. If you know what special features you want to employ, you can read up and practice them during downtimes in airports, etc.

If you can burn CD's of your picture files, burn two; keep one, mail one home. Take the padded mailers with you, they are light and tough.
posted by gnossos at 11:16 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Pretty much what the others have said; I specifically bought a 28-300mm lens for a trek up Kilimanjaro so that I didn't have to carry - and swap - lenses; perhaps a bit of a compromise on image quality (and size/weight/conspicuity!) but better than getting the sensor trashed. I was extremely pleased with the results, anyway.
Some people have mentioned a 70+mm lens - it strikes me that you'll miss out on an awful lot of shots if this is the widest you can go (purely based on other pictures I've seen; I haven't been there myself). A 24-70mm or 24-105mm may be more flexible, but you'll probably miss out on telephoto wildlife shots (anecdotal evidence: I had a holiday in Prague, and only took a 16-35mm lens; I got a lot of good shots, but there were many, many more that I wanted to get but couldn't - very frustrating!)
It may be worth also taking a small, light, cheap lens that's good in low light - just so you don't miss any evening or indoors shots. Canon's 50mm f/1.8 is perfect for this, but I'm sure that Nikon and other manufacturers have their own equivalent.

Consider whether you can carry a charger with you, or whether your camera has the facility to use standard batteries; for example, the Canon 5D battery grip comes with a little adapter to let you use a bunch of AA batteries - which should be readily available pretty much anywhere.

Also, it may be worth considering taking a memory card reader; as gnossos says, you may be able to burn CDs somewhere - an internet cafe, perhaps - but that assumes that they can handle your memory cards. You may also find it useful to upload everything to a website (Flickr, etc.) on a frequent basis as a form of insurance.

Also also, get yourself a bag that's (a) easy to carry, (b) comfortable, (c) quick to get the camera out of when you need to, (d) and fits everything you need during the day into it. The Lowepro Slingshot or Toploader ranges are good for this - I got the latter to use skiing, with a chest harness; perfect for balance, and very easy to access the camera. Having it in a big rucksack type bag is OK, but when you have to unclip, shrug it off your shoulders, find somewhere (dry, safe, etc.) to set the bag down, unzip, get camera... missed photo.

Lastly, I'd probably suggest taking something like a GorillaPod for a dSLR - saves having to lug a big tripod around, and enables you to use any remotely solid piece of local environment as a temporary tripod - very handy in a pinch.
posted by Chunder at 11:44 AM on May 13, 2008

Silica packets!!

Buy lots of shoes (or don't) and collect all the little silica packets that come in the box (check your consumer electronics boxes too). Ask friends that have lots of shoes for their silica packets.

Put all of the packets into a sealed plastic baggy with your lens cloth, except the two to three packets that you're keeping in your camera cases at all times. Dropping and breaking a camera is bad. Theft is worse. Destroyed by a bit of humidity like some digital wicked witch of the west is really awful.

Oh yeah, lenses. Bring two. One to use 90% of the time, and the other one to regret bringing 90% of the time. Or just bring one.

And filters.
posted by terpia at 12:51 PM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Agree with everyone here on limiting your lenses. I usually just carry one good zoom (I use a 17-85), and sometimes I bring the 50mm, but I've found that I can get away with just the one.

To store photos, I use a CompactDrive PD70x (reviews via Google) which is basically just a hard drive enclosure with a built in card reader. There's nearly no interface to speak of, all it does is download the contents of your memory card onto the hard drive. This was really useful when all I had were three 512MB cards and I was switching them out every day. Of course, you'll want to make sure that you keep it close to you or somewhere safe, because you're storing all your photos in one place.

Other equipment you might want to consider taking (depending on the kinds of shots you want to get): a flash unit (you can keep it on-camera for fill purposes) and a small lightweight tripod, better than nothing for steady night shots. Personally, I've decided against taking them just to pack light, but there's been plenty of situations when I wish I had them.
posted by lou at 12:54 PM on May 13, 2008

Echoing a few things other folks have said here:
* Pack light. Lenses are bulky and heavy. Figure out what you like to shoot and try to take ONE lens, if at all possible.
* Figure out how you like to carry your camera. Some people like to carry it around their neck with no bag, while others prefer a backpack or camera/messenger bag. Your decision here affects how you pack.
* I carry a bean bag rather than a tripod. Tripods are too bulky to carry when you want everything to fit on your back. Some people go even simpler - a plastic bag that they fill with whatever rocks or dirt are found nearby. I also carry an image stabilized lens that lets me handhold decent night shots for reasonably bright scenes.
* If your photos are really important to you, keep them in two places. Flash cards die and they can be lost or stolen. Buy enough flash cards to last the whole trip, so you don't have to overwrite them. Take a photo vault (drive enclosure with card reader) or small laptop with you for backup. I think trying find a place to upload photos is a poor way to spend your vacation. You have to find an Internet cafe, hope they have a card reader or will let you plug yours in and hope they have bandwidth to upload your photos. I average 100 or so photos a day on vacation, which is 300 MB per day on my Rebel XT. That would to take forever to upload unless the Internet cafe's connection is pretty fast.
* Make sure you have power adapters or converters for every country. I didn't have the right ones for Switzerland or Italy. I was able to borrow one for Switzerland and buy one in Italy, or I would have faced dead batteries. Make sure you have at least two batteries for every device.
And oh yeah, PACK LIGHT.
posted by cnc at 2:24 PM on May 13, 2008

I recommend you look over the forums at This question has been asked and answered for about any given situation and equipment list.

I agree with packing light if you have to carry your pack all the time. Zoom lenses can help create the range you need. Very few high quality lenses will reach from ultra-wide to deep telephoto, so you may need two lenses. A fairly wonderful setup for a Canon would be something from about the 17-55 range and the great 70-200 (2.8 IS is the best, but heavier) with maybe a multiplier lense for more telephoto.

The better SLRs have extremely long battery life, so I really wouldn't worry too much. It takes thousands of shots to run a full battery down without flash or a lot of low light hunting for focus with cheap lenses. Still, pick up a compact version of the charger - some have the plugs in them that fold down, others require a separate cord. Pick the former.

BRING LENS CLEANER/clothes and a blower - can't stress that enough.

Lens caps, fliters, etc. - all good ideas.

Then, you need to pick a bag. There are several backpack models out there if you want a single backpack as a camera bag and a daypack. Tamrac has a whole line of backpacks. In your case, if you can only take one huge backpack for all your stuff, you may want a hip pack style. I suggest you go to a good camera store and look over the models. The bag may be your most important decision. Crumpler makes probably the least camera bag looking bags, and they are highly portable.

As for memory, there are lots of ways to store shots ranging from many cards to storage devices you can dump photos to. If you are able to go to internet cafes that have computers that will allow you to upload pictures to a website, set up an account and take a compact card reader with you so you can just upload the pics - that will be the safest way to protect your shots.
posted by Muddler at 2:51 PM on May 13, 2008

Bring a point-and-shoot camera to supplement your DSLR.

Don't be thinking about taking pictures all the time. Experience the trip fully with all your senses, not just through the viewfinder.
posted by randomstriker at 4:43 PM on May 13, 2008

Some good advice here--I'd recommend thinking about how important you pictures will be to you, and then pack accordingly. If you absolutely need to have every shot, consider buying a few hard drives (or just big CF cards, even) and keeping many backups on you at all times. I would pack light regardless, because I always assume that my stuff will be stolen if I'm in a foreign place.

Speaking of which, try to not broadcast "I've got ___ thousand dollars of equipment on my person;" leave the expensive lenses at home if you can and any big zoom lenses too (which always look expensive). A friend of mine put a few pieces of gaffer's tape on his lenses to make them look like they were beat up--from far away or even at a glance it did the trick. Somebody told me you can buy tape that looks like rust and put that on the outsides of your lens; I've never seen it but I think that would be an awesome invention.

If your pictures are more than just a secondary thing, I'd definitely bring another camera, be i film, point-and-shoot, disposable, whatever. If your goal is to take pictures, and your camera is stolen, then your remaining time is wasted.

And I wouldn't invest too much into something to lug around, simply assuming you might lose/break it or it'll get stolen/confiscated. Keep things simple, and you'll be good to go.
posted by BenzeneChile at 6:05 PM on May 13, 2008

Speaking as someone who had his bag stolen from his room in Laos - backup as much as possible. I backed everything up to a hard drive, but that was stolen. Thankfully I had my camera on me, so they didn't get that. Also, thankfully, I'd been burning to DVD and mailing those home. A two DVD system might be best though. Keep one, mail the other.

I used three memory cards, and always kept the two unused ones in my money belt. Accessible if I needed them, and safe from thieves (mostly). Since the theft, I pretty much always take the camera out with me, but at the very least I take the memory card.

If you're coming from north america, you shouldn't need any electricity converters. It's pretty tough to find padded envelopes in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, but they have them in Thailand (bangkok at least).

Most internet places have memory card readers, but I'd suggest bringing your own, just in case. Internet speed is pretty slow in Laos and Cambodia, but good in Thailand and Vietnam. If you have the room, carrying some dvds might be worthwhile. They charge a lot, otherwise.

I've met lots of people who've had computers eat all the pictures on their cards (or at least infect the card with a virus). I use SD so I always lock the card before hooking it up to a computer.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:35 AM on May 21, 2008

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