The great photography critic Susan Sontag famously said, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” Travel photographers are some of the very few people who come close to realizing that dream, and for the rest of us, their pictures give us the chance to experience the globe vicariously.
The life of the traveling photographer is exciting and glamorous, but it’s also hard work. Every breathtaking photograph requires days of meticulous preparation, and behind those faraway sunsets, unexpected turns, and delicious local meals are hours and hours of planes, trains, and automobiles. When wandering photographers aren’t making images, they’re going through security checkpoints. They’re looking at the map, and they’re carrying tons of weight in gear.
Henri Cartier-Bresson once said you have to take 10,000 photographs before you get a good one. If that’s true, it’s safe to assume that it takes many years of traveling to master packing for a photo trip. Unless you have someone experienced to show you the ropes
We asked some of our favorite travel photographers from the Shutterstock community to tell us what they’ve learned throughout the course of many journeys. Here, they share the indispensable items they always keep in their camera bags, along with some tips for traveling smart and light.
1. “Always arrive at the location early to adjust your point of view and composition.”
What’s the story behind this photograph? This photo was shot in the Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia, Argentina. An incredibly beautiful Cerro Torre reflects in the lake. There was a real storm at this location. Strong winds lifted piles of sand from the slopes of the mountains, and the tripod just couldn’t stand, as it was moved by wind. The next morning, the wind had brought a few small pieces of ice from the glacier near the lake to the beach. And there was beautiful light, which played on the peaks of the mountains.
What’s in your camera travel bag? I have been using Canon cameras for quite a long time. There is an old 5D Mk II with few lenses in my backpack. I use Tokina lenses, which are good alternative to original Canon ones. I have walked across the arctic tundra and sandy deserts with this camera. It has never failed me. I also have the set of filters – Gradient ND and polarizing. Almost all my shots involve the use of filters. I can’t do without them. These are most valuable things in my backpack after camera and lenses.
I use a shower cap to cover my camera in the rain. It works perfectly. I also keep a roll of masking tape just in case. Every time I go somewhere far, my son presents me with a toy. It is my mascot. And one more toy is always in the backpack: a lego-man.
Pictured:  Image by Anton Petrus  Image by Anton Petrus  Image by Anton Petrus
Pro Tip Always dress for the weather. A photographer must not interrupt shooting because he is cold, hot, or wet. Monitor the weather. Listen to the forecast, and learn to predict things like thunderstorms, fog, and ice. Always arrive at the location early to adjust your point of view and composition. I use an app called The Photographer Ephemeris (TPE), which provides the exact times of the sunrise, sunset, dusk, dawn, moonrise, and moonset for a particular location. The same app also shows the position of the sun at any given time. The app is invaluable.
In general, planning is very important. The main goal is shooting. Study the location, and look for the best points of view. Even simple software like Google Earth can give you a lot of knowledge about the place you intend to visit.
Where do you find inspiration for your photography? I browse the works of well-known photographers quite often. Even my Facebook feed works as incentive to upgrade and seek new locations. Inspiration is a very personal thing, and most of my inspiration comes from within. When I see beauty in nature, I don’t need any additional sources of inspiration.
2. “Great travel photography is about getting perspectives never seen before.”
What’s the story behind this photograph? I did a 45-day road trip around Croatia and its islands with my partner, sleeping wild in my van, stopping here and there. As the summer went on, I realized I wanted to create a series of photos which are shot perpendicular to the ground, meaning turning the gimbal completely down. I managed to create a beautiful series, which I then exhibited in the capital city Zagreb.
What’s in your camera travel bag? In general, I like to travel light, meaning not too many lenses. If you have too many lenses, exchanging them increases the risk of getting the sensor dirty, especially in the desert or in windy areas.
I have moved onto filming and shooting aerial, and DJI has really pushed the limits with regards to accessing easy-to-fly machines. There is only a limited number of angles you can get with a regular camera on the ground, and flying with a drone has given me new inspiration and perspective.
I also take a ton of batteries with me, as well as many memory cards. I also take four or more hard drives so I can do double back-ups. I regularly send hard drives home by post if I am traveling for a few months at a time. I’m never afraid of getting my camera stolen, but I am very afraid of losing my material. Cameras are replaceable; moments are not. In the seventeen years I’ve been traveling, I have never had anything stolen.
My travel tip is to mask all logos with black tape. I also sew a black cotton strip on my camera strap. When I see tourists with their hefty cameras and big logos on their straps, it seems like an invitation to get robbed, but it also makes them stand out like tourists, whereas I am a traveller. I try to blend into the scene as much as I can.
I intentionally never look at what a place looks like prior to going to shooting a country. I don’t want to fill my mind with what has already been shot by other photographers. I don’t want to know what a place looks like before I get there, or else it spoils my trip.
To be able to get different shots, I sometimes need get to areas that are not accessible to the public, so before my shoots, I’ve gotten passes to locations that are normally off-limits. Great travel photography is about getting perspectives never seen before.
Where do you find inspiration for your photography?
I travel to get new inspiration. I also find new technologies push my limits and get me excited. The first time I flew with a drone, I had butterflies in my stomach. The butterflies have now turned into amazement of all the different naturescapes I can shoot.
3. “Travel photography for me is about a maximum amount of flexibility and a minimum amount of planning.”
What’s the story behind this photograph? I captured this photo in Paraguay, a rarely-visited country in the heart of South America, where I was invited to stay with an indigenous community. In the village, I met people from a Paraguayan NGO supporting the indigenous communities in a law case against the government, which has sold their ancient lands. To protest this, the remote community had opened a traditional ceremony to a few government representatives and journalists. The night before the ceremony, I was kept awake by a swarm of mosquitoes, but the amazing performance kept my eyes wide open, and I was able to capture this unique moment.
What’s in your camera travel bag? My photography gear is a compromise between the flexibility of light travel and the aspiration to shoot photos of superb quality. I travel very light, with a total luggage weight of 10kg, which leaves only about 2kg for Camera Body, Lens and Equipment. I shoot with a Sony Alpha 37 and a SAM 18-135 f3.5-5.6 travel zoom lens, and I carry two ND-Filters and a remote shutter for long-exposures.
Leaving my tripod behind is a hard choice to make, but I’ve found that this also enables me to find some new, interesting positions to shoot from. I’ve used rocks, trees, backpacks, and guidebooks as unusual tripod-replacements. My 18-135mm lens is great for 99% of travel photos and enables me to quickly capture moments without needing to swap the lens. For shorter trips, I sometimes also carry wide-angle, macro, or lenses with a low f-stop, but for a longer trip with a light backpack, this is just not practicable.
Pictured:  Image by Julian Peters  Image by Julian Peters  Image by Julian Peters
Pro Tip When traveling, I am only planning a rough route, and I am open to recommendations and changes of plans. I try to learn the local language and have a low budget of $15-25 per day. This way, I get to know many wonderful local people and get insights into the society and culture of the host country.
I sometimes look at photos of subjects I plan on capturing online beforehand, but mostly I just improvise and try to find interesting subjects and perspectives while wandering around. Travel photography for me is about a maximum amount of flexibility and a minimum amount of planning.
Where do you find inspiration for your photography? The places I visit, the people I meet and the experiences I make are my inspiration – I always carry my camera, and I try to capture life as it really is. I’m looking for a beautiful side street at sunset or an old local woman in front of a never-renovated facade, rather than the typical tourist sights.
4. “Make sure to keep all of your stuff organized and well-packed, but with easy access.”
What’s the story behind this photograph? This photo was shot in the Maldives during an epic sunset that only lasted ten to fifteen minutes. It was my honeymoon. Once we caught the right moment, I needed to set up pretty quickly and make some sample photos before the real shooting began. We were using a portable timer, connected to the camera and activated by the remote control. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that one of my hands is kind of hidden from view since I needed to hold the remote. In the end, we made one-of-a-kind photos and great memories.
What’s in your camera travel bag? Since I travel a lot and am always on the move, I don’t like to carry lots of camera equipment with me. I’ve tried different variations from Canon and Nikon, and I ended up with Canon 5D Mark III and 24-105mm lens. Very powerful camera and a perfect lens for close shots with some zoom options for further details.
Other than that, I always have my GoPro 5 Black action camera, which also shoots in RAW format for extreme conditions or underwater shooting, the DJI Mavic Pro drone for aerial footage, and a Sirui T-024X Traveler Light Carbon Fiber Tripod for static night photos. This was actually the lightest tripod I could find.
Pictured:  Image by Ingus Kruklitis  Image by Ingus Kruklitis  Image by Ingus Kruklitis
Apart from camera equipment, I don’t leave anywhere until I have my iPad mini (still first generation, but I love it) and wireless Bose QC35 headphones. I’m planning to get a small skate board, the one that fits in your backpack, and use it for quicker transportation in airports or on the streets. In some places, it helps a lot. Also I always try to have some meal-replacement chocolate protein bars, in case I’m too far away from any restaurant or just too busy for them.
Pro Tip Make sure to keep all of your stuff organized and well-packed, but with easy access. It doesn’t matter what camera you use and how many lenses you bring. You’re constantly on the move, going through airport security checks, where you need to pull most of the stuff out and then put it back in again. Order goes a long way. I used to have a lot of problems with that, especially when I got myself a drone. The best solution for me was a Lowepro Whistler BP 350 Backpack, which is very durable and comfortable. It also has a lot of space for technical gear.
Before you go to a specific destination, make sure to explore it in more detail. Try to search for similar places on Shutterstock and other websites. Find out what places look good and what could look better. If you’re lucky, find something that is still missing. In other words, do your homework. Don’t be afraid of popular places. Try to find an interesting angle or interesting lighting conditions. Play with composition.
Where do you find inspiration for your photography? Before every trip, I go through existing photos of the places I’m about to visit to see the best shots or photos that I could improve upon. I am also following bloggers and groups on Instagram and Facebook. You can seek infinite inspiration there.
5. ” In the case of aerial shots, I always make sure to talk to the pilot a few days before the flight so he can plan the flight accordingly.”
What’s the story behind this photograph? This is Mont Tremblant National Park in Quebec, one of my favorite places to hike. Although I know this place well, I had to come back several times at sunrise until I got the perfect light I wanted.
What’s in your camera travel bag? Before I travel, I always spend a fair amount of time double-checking all my equipment, making sure everything is fully operational (sensor clean, lenses and filters free of scratches, set of batteries fully charged, etc). I always pack my principal camera, which is a Nikon D800, together with a full range of telephotos- 14-24,24-70, and 70-200 f-2.8- that give me a lot of flexibility when I’m in the field. I also have a back-up camera, which is an APS Nikon D300. I never travel without my trusted set of LEE filters and my favorite Really Right Stuff Tripod.
Pictured:  Image by Richard Cavalleri  Image by Richard Cavalleri  Image by Richard Cavalleri
The unconventional item I always bring with me is a shower cap, which always comes handy when shooting in a wet location, during snowy/rainy days, or windy days with sand. It is light and takes up no space, and you always get new ones for free in hotels.
Pro Tip The best tip I can give to other photographers is to always know in advance what you’re going to shoot. I personally use a lot of Google Maps and The Photographer Ephemeris to plan what and when to shoot. No matter if it’s a road trip or a helicopter flight, everything is always planned in advance. In the case of aerial shots, I always make sure to talk to the pilot a few days before the flight so he can plan the flight accordingly.
Where do you find inspiration for your photography? I find inspiration for my photography in magazines, on social media (mainly Instagram), and through photographers I follow. But when I’m travelling to a new place, and once I have planned the location I want to shoot, I try to avoid looking at too many pictures of that place. Once on site, I find my own inspiration.
6. “Choose the right time. Choose the right gear. Choose the right camera setting.”
What’s the story behind this photograph? The Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran, has one of the world’s most beautiful ceilings, and I was focused on capturing a photograph from an unusual perspective. The blue colored iwan with the complex muqarnas next to the golden ceiling gives a pleasant contrast. The chosen perspective makes the iwan looks bigger and higher than it actually is. I visited the mosque in the early afternoon, when the interior light conditions were balanced and only few people were visiting.
What’s in your camera travel bag? My preferred camera is the Nikon D750 attached to a standard zoom. I travel with 2 FF camera bodies (Nikon D750 and Nikon D610) and Nikon 24-120/4 or 24-70/2.8, 70-200/4, 50/1.8. If I have planned architecture or astronomy shoots, I take an additional Nikon 14-24/2.8 or 20/1.8 or Sigma 8/2.8. I carry a carbon tripod Sirui N-2204 with K-20x ball head, IR remote control, 2 spare batteries, 10x 16GB SD Cards and SD Card Reader, a ND 1000 Filter, Pol HD Filter, and HD lens protection on all lenses, a maxed out Macbook 12″ loaded with Adobe Lightroom, a 1TB Hard Drive, lens cleaning equipment, and a Jack Wolfskin ACS Photo Bag Pack Pro.
I also pack gaffer tape, a torch or headlamp, a carabiner, a Swiss pocketknife, and small medical kit when traveling outdoors because I’m a physician.
Pictured:  Image by Jakob Fischer  Image by Jakob Fischer  Image by Jakob Fischer
Pro Tip If you are really keen on travel photography, you should prepare your travels in advance. You might get some good shots by chance, but most of the time, it’s all about planning. Make a shot list; choose the right season of the year; find out about the direction of the subject and whether to do morning or afternoon shoots; try to avoid construction on the site, and look out for festivals and events.
Before you start, try to imagine how the picture could look and follow these steps: Choose the right time. Choose the right gear. Choose the right camera setting.
Plan enough time for the shoot, as weather conditions can change. If you’re shooting in the early morning, make sure to be there around 30 minutes before the sunrise. Avoid harsh noon light and try to to finish your work in the morning and afternoon.
If people are part of your shoot, I recommend to asking them first to get permission and avoid sneaky pictures. You will be rewarded with higher quality pictures.
Where do you find inspiration for your photography? I can deeply recommend the Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Photography from Richard I’Anson. I mostly use media and photography websites as inspiration when I’ve already chosen the destination. It helps me to be better prepared and have a good overview of the sites.