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Travel Photography: The best gear for the job

What to pack, what to buy, what to leave at home. A small guide by Mark van Laere, traveler-photographer and editor at

Looking at photographic history the size and abilities of a camera are of little importance to the quality of the image. Most notably, the common traits of the camera's of the photo legends through the ages are durabilty and simplicity. NIKON made the SLR big beacuse they made the camera so small and simple you could take it anywhere.

The icons of photography were shot with very simple tools compared to any modern digital compact. In fact, the old film-eating SLR is a wonder of symplicity. A simple to use 50mm lens, a bit of film and a subject is all you need. The really vintage models dont even need bateries and keep fully functional in desert heat and freezing cold. With a bit of training it's just as straightforward in use as any of the so called "point and click" camera's out today and it will allways work.

But enough about the spilled milk. We all went digital and now we have to make the best of it. At least post-processing became a lot easier. Best we can do is try to get equipment that will be as reliable as possible. Generally all digital camera's of serious brands do what they promise. They take pictures, store them on a card and let you fiddle around with the camera settings. Not too many that stop working for no reason at all, like your average PC does once a week. So reliable in a technical sense will be no problem.

More pressing are battery life and ease of use. When your on the road the interesting subjects often appear out of nothing and are gone just as fast. You don't want to be standing there pushing buttons and setting white ballance while that great shot just passes you by. When choosing a camera for travel, take something that you can work fast and makes reasonable pictures in the AUTO mode.

In the end you can not prevent having to change batteries just when a pretty picture presents itself. It happpens to me all the time. What you can do is to get a camera and spare batteries that are easy to change. My old Camedia C2000 holds four penlites wich are a drag to change in anything but a sitting position. Fishing the fresh ones out of your bag can be quite hard when your all stressed out, trying to be as fast as you can. Test this in the store and remember that penlites might be readilly available all over the world, but don't last even half as long as an average Li-ion block. Oh, and don't play around with your zoom and focus buttons. They drain energy fast!

Someone once said to me: "the best camera is the one you have with you". How many times have I just stood there, cursing myself for not bringing my big block of technology while some stunning award winning picture presented itself in front of me. That sickening feeling of having passed up on an opportunity just because you didn't want to drag your gear along is easily prevented.

Myself, I pack a lot of stuff. Multiple camera's, lenses, spare batteries, chargers and extra memory cards and one of those small foldable tripods. Sometimes even a large and sturdy tripod if I think it will do any good and I won't have to carry it on my back the whole time. In fact, when I leave the house, I look like a complete idiot. But in the end I allways end up leaving most of the stuff at a hotel and just walk the streest with a camera and single allround lense or even taking nothing at all.

For such occasions I went and bought myself a small compact camera that fits nicely in my pocket and is stirdy enough to survive even my clumbsiness. I chose the Olympus SW 1030 for this reason, but I guess there are a lot of camera's that will do wonderfully. It will never replace my SLR wich I take with me as much as I can, but it gives my back a break when I just want to stroll along a beach, go for a swim or walk around to pick out a restaurant in the evening.

After having hauled big bags of gear all over the globe I would suggest you find a small reliable camera, stock up on memorycards, take a few spare batteries and the smallest charger you can find. Your camera is a tool, concentrate on what's in front of it. Happy shooting!

Mark van Laere