My Minimalist Gear Setup for Travel Photography

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I’m on a constant, ongoing mission to whittle my gear down to the bare minimum of what I need to effectively do my job out in the field. There’s a fine line though, and sometimes you don’t know you’ve crossed it until you’re out in the field looking for a piece of gear you left at home! On the flipside, I’ve picked students up on workshops (men too, not just women) who have two full-size suitcases, a mid-sized suitcase, three rolling camera bags, a backpack, and a laptop bag; and all of that for a 5-day workshop. For some, that may just be how they prefer to travel. But for me, the thought of having that much gear and luggage on a trip is a nightmare.

In this video, I’ll show you all the gear I’m taking on my trip to Oregon with Brian Matiash and Nicole Young. I’ll go over the camera bag I used to use, and why I made the switch to my current bag. Every switch and modification I’ve made over the years has revolved around the goal of getting me out the door, through security, onto the plane, and out into the field as fast and efficiently as possible.

Some of the items mentioned in the video…

  • F-stop Tilopa (my ‘old’ camera backpack)
  • Mindshift Backlight 26L (my current backpack)
    • I don’t mention this in the video, but one of the main reasons I use a backpack like this (same goes for the F-stop) is that I can access all my gear without ever taking the backpack off. I simply keep the waist strap connected, remove the shoulder straps, then rotate the entire bag from my back to my front. The bag then hangs down horizontal to the ground so I can unzip the back and access all my gear. This ability is a lifesaver when you’re in the mud or wading around in a river, and super convenient regardless.
  • Mindshift Filter Hive
    • As I mention in the video, I remove the insert from the outer case and fit the former inside a little slot in the Backlight backpack.
  • Tripod
    • A high-quality tripod is an absolutely essential piece of gear for travel and landscape photography. I use Really Right Stuff TVC-34L legs and a BH-40 LRII ball head. RRS is notorious for their seemingly meaningless model numbers, but they get a pass because they also make the best tripods on the planet. That said, not everyone can afford them (it took me years to finally make the jump).  I made a post on my blog a while back with recommendations for tripods at each budget level in case you’re interested: https://www.jamesb.com/my-budget-specific-tripod-recommendations/
  • Pluto Trigger
    • Still forming my opinion on this trigger but I’m sure it will stay in my bag for the foreseeable future. Without it (or another type of intervalometer) there’s no way to go beyond 30 seconds or do timelapse.

The rest of the gear mentioned is pretty standard and easy to find, but if you need links let me know if the comments. And speaking of comments, let get a conversation started! If you’ve got any additional tips, let us know!

35 comments on “My Minimalist Gear Setup for Travel Photography”

  1. On May 15, 2018 at 11:39 am Frank Wolfert wrote:

    Do you happen to have a comparison of the Pluot trigger vis a vis the MIOPS?

    1. On May 15, 2018 at 1:47 pm James Brandon replied:

      I don’t. Haven’t used the MIOPS and really haven’t even had a chance to use the Pluto much yet beyond getting a feel for how it works in my office. The main reason I went with the Pluto is because of the lightning trigger. Unfortunately, storm season here in the south has been a huge bust so far, so haven’t had a chance to test it out.

  2. On May 15, 2018 at 9:01 pm Richard wrote:

    Using the filter hive inside the bag – any problems with damage? Think it would accommodate the 150mm x 150mm filters?

    Any tips to handle an over-eager airline rep who demands the bag be gate checked?

    1. On May 16, 2018 at 8:46 am James Brandon replied:

      Nope, never had any issues with it at all. It will hold 100×150 filters, but 150×150 would be too big.

      Regarding over-eager flight attendants: That’s one thing I do miss about the f-stop bags. They use ICU’s, which can be removed from the backpack completely. Meaning that if someone insisted on you checking your bag, you could theoretically remove the ICU and put it under your seat.

      That said, I’ve never experienced this. My Mindshift bag fits under every seat I’ve ever had in front of me and I’ve never had someone insist that I check it. If that did happen though, I would at least try and make a case for the importance of keeping the bag with me and explain the contents inside of it and how valuable it is. I don’t ever want to be in that situation though, hence the switch to a smaller bag that will always fit below a seat.

      1. On May 16, 2018 at 9:52 pm Nick Marshall replied:

        What is an ICU? (other than intensive care unit – I can’t get google to answer either)

      2. On May 17, 2018 at 6:45 am James Brandon replied:

        It stands for “internal camera unit.” They’re just removable pouches that fit into the camera bag. You can buy small, medium, large, etc. fstopgear.com/products/icu

  3. On May 16, 2018 at 11:33 am James Lassoie wrote:

    Have you ever used a vest? I find them to be handy for smaller items that can get lost in a bag…also provide quick and easy access while on the plan… ya do need to take it off at TSA.
    Jim
    PS: I prefer a smaller backpack these days as a senior citizen!…still have a brute that sits home mostly. In my back-packing days I found the larger the bag, the more stuff I packed, paying for it while trudging up hills!

    1. On May 17, 2018 at 6:48 am James Brandon replied:

      I have not, but I know a lot of people do and love them. What kind do you use?

      1. On May 24, 2018 at 5:17 pm James Lassoie replied:

        Domke
        Pros: lots of cool pockets for pens up to a 80-200 and even a laptop in the back flap; great tough construction
        Cons: not for hot humid tropical climates and it makes you look like a photo nerd!

  4. On May 16, 2018 at 1:06 pm Jack Nilles wrote:

    Excellent tips for those of us who keep trying to add “just one more thing” to an overstuffed backpack. Backpacks are easier to bear when you’re down to bare minimums.

    1. On May 16, 2018 at 2:06 pm James Brandon replied:

      Truth! I can’t believe I used to lug around a rolling camera bag AND a rolling suitcase.

  5. On May 16, 2018 at 1:07 pm David Price wrote:

    Hi James
    The one question that you need to answer, is just how big is a bag that fits under an aeroplane seat? Because, the same sort of bag can have a completely different name and number in another part of The World.
    I think that many of us might be interested in a video explaining how a trigger works, I have never used one and I must admit that I hadn’t realised that such things could be triggered by lightening. Best wishes
    David Price

    1. On May 16, 2018 at 2:15 pm James Brandon replied:

      That’s easier said than done! I suppose you could research the airline with the smallest space available beneath a seat and get a bag that would fit in there. For me though, I’ve never been on a plane where I couldn’t squeeze the Backlight underneath a seat. I’ve come close though!

      Tha Backlights exterior dimensions are 11.42 x 20.28 x 7.87 inches / 29 x 51.5 x 20 cm.

      For the trigger, I’m planning on making a video about that as soon as we get some decent storms down here in Texas! Storm season has been virtually non-existent thus far though.

  6. On May 16, 2018 at 1:16 pm Sandy W wrote:

    What do you use for chargers, emergency repair, cleaning, etc?

    1. On May 16, 2018 at 2:11 pm James Brandon replied:

      I have one of these (amzn.to/2L9bAWu). It fits chargers for my cameras, drone, phone, watch, etc plus extra cables and misc adapters. I also put my Garmin car GPS in there as well. All that goes in my suitcase though, not my camera bag.

      My batteries, however, go in my backpack. Sometimes I check my suitcase, sometimes I carry on. Because of this, I always keep batteries in my backpack to prevent the eventual mistake of checking luggage with lithium batteries which is a TSA no-no.

  7. On May 16, 2018 at 2:58 pm Joan Carroll wrote:

    Nice to see someone else traveling light! I use an f-stop Guru UL bag which is also 25 L and a Rimowa rolling suitcase (Salsa 22″) for overhead compartment. That gets me through 1 week- 10 day trips with no problem. I don’t have/carry as much photo gear, just one camera body and 2 lenses, some filters, data cards, battery. Mephoto tripod fits in the rolling suitcase. The benefits of traveling light FAR outweigh the disadvantages esp when traveling alone and/or using public transport!

    1. On May 17, 2018 at 6:46 am James Brandon replied:

      Nice! I’ve always wanted a Rimowa bag but haven’t convinced myself they’re worth the price tag yet, haha.

  8. On May 16, 2018 at 5:17 pm Steve Forbes wrote:

    Hi James,
    I’ve got essentially the same camera and lens kit as you (A7RII is still my main camera), and have travelled with it previously. I am doing a 6 week trip to Japan later in the year and am torn whether to take my main camera or hone down the size/weight even more and only take my A6300 with the 18-135mm and 10-18mm lenses. BTW, I’ve got the Mavic Air which is next level for a travelling drone!

    1. On May 22, 2018 at 7:35 am James Brandon replied:

      I like it so far, but really wish some storms would happen down here so I can test out the lightning trigger!

  9. On May 19, 2018 at 8:19 am David wrote:

    Great Video James – Thanks! I am a heavy business traveler that is an amateur (travel/street) photographer & I love seeing how someone else does minimal rigs, since the photo gear I travel with is an add on to gear I am traveling with for business… Couple tips I would offer:
    1. Really appreciated your comments about traveling light and you don’t need I all. I started out with carting lots of things around and worrying that I would need everything. A really useful tip I was given was to look at what I shoot (presumably when you have a full kit), and use that to tune what I carry: Go to Lightroom (oops – I meant Camera RAW), and do a search and grouping of your catalogs by lens metadata. It will show you what lenses (and focal lengths) you are actually shooting. This can be really insightful to identify what you REALLY want to carry.
    2. You mention that you are trying to travel light and do carry-ons, but that you have kids and want to bring things back for them (been there, done that). My suggestion would be get a small rugged duffle (there are lots of sources, but something like this from Cabela’s), and stow it rolled up in your bag as you leave. I tend to purchase stuff towards the end of my trip so I am not hauling it around the whole time, and then you can use that extra bag for extra space on return. Ideally you carry if back in an overhead, but if you get ones that are built rugged enough, if you need to check it, you can – but you will only have to do checked on return. This has been a life saver for me in my travels.

    1. On May 22, 2018 at 7:37 am James Brandon replied:

      Good idea on the duffel! A few times I’ve just bought stuff for the kids at the airport and kept it in a bag from the store but a dedicated bag like the one you mentioned isn’t a bad idea.

  10. On May 19, 2018 at 9:22 am wmsj wrote:

    James, thanks for the showing how you travel. Once you have arrived at a destination and go to the place you are photographing, do you put snacks, water bottles and things like that in the compartment that held the laptop? I am thinking about getting the same backpack for a trip where I am going to be hiking to spots every day. I am curious how you handle that with the Mindshift.

    1. On May 22, 2018 at 7:39 am James Brandon replied:

      Good question, it just depends on where I’m going to shoot. I usually carry a water bottle in one of the side pockets but I don’t typically carry snacks unless I’m going on a decent hike/excursion. If so, I usually just bring a few energy bars which easily fit in just about any part of the backpack.

  11. On May 19, 2018 at 5:53 pm David sweet wrote:

    James I just went the the Pluto website and the device looks interesting. Does it require an adaptor for the hot shoe on your a&Rlll I could not understand the website? You said that you had not used it for Lightening. What other features have you used it for and how do you like how they work? I currently use a Foot&Tech remote for landscape shots on my a7Rll&lll buy it is a little slow for any kind of action. How does Pluto work for action? I agree with your selection of camera and lenses as well as the drone. With 42 meg pixels on the Sony there is no need fore a mid range lens. It is amazing how much you can crop and still get an excellent image even on a 5K monitor. I get everything in a Peak Design 20L pack. I do also carry a belt pouch that can hold my camera and lens. It is great to not have to open your pack for a shoot. If I need to change lenses the Peak Design pack can stay on my shoulder and just slide around to get side access. I never take the pack off. That keeps me clean and my gear clean.

    1. On May 22, 2018 at 7:41 am James Brandon replied:

      It does require a specific for cable for whatever brand camera you’re using, but there should be an option to select your camera type during the checkout process.

      So far I’ve just downloaded the app and verified that it works as a remote, for long exposures in bulb mode, for timelapse, etc. I even played some storm videos on my iMac to test out the lightning trigger and it did work! Just waiting on a decent storm here in the south now to test it out in real life, haha.

  12. On May 22, 2018 at 5:38 pm Geoff Wagner wrote:

    I didn’t see any chargers for the camera batteries, for the Mavic (which certainly needs it with only 27 mins flying time at best), or your Macbook Pro – these also take space and add weight to the pack. Most airlines have a 7kilogram weight limit on carry-on luggage and many are now weighing these bags at check-in. Surely your travel kit doesn’t meet these requirements?

    1. On May 24, 2018 at 11:53 am James Brandon replied:

      Hey Geoff! Batteries for the Mavic are at the 5:00 mark and laptop is shown at 9:30.

      Regarding the 7kilo weight limit: what airline have you run into this with? I’ve heard stories of airlines weighing bags but it seems most of the time it tends to happen when the bag is obviously huge and the person is having trouble carrying it around. This Backlight is the size of a normal backpack for the most part, so it does a good job of flying under the radar.

  13. On May 22, 2018 at 8:55 pm Neil Shapiro wrote:

    Thanks for the video James. Mindshift makes great stuff. I was sold on the pretty expensive Rotation Pro, with the advantage of not having to take the pack off when changing lenses. But the bag is a monster in size…I’m not sure I can even get it through all the various security scanners (I recall O’hare / United — at least from a while ago — has some pretty small “mouse hole” type things in front of their scanners which your bags have to fit through. I left it behind when I went to Iceland because the internal flight I went on limited us to 10 lbs carry on! So I am thinking I should have gone smaller/lighter. Though I do have a million bags already. Your bag does look interesting in that you can open it in front of you as well…and it seems to hold a lot from the Mindshift site. Do you ever open it that way?

    Also, your bag fits under the seat which way? Sideways? Or lengthwise…and if so, doesn’t it stick out into your leg space (which besides being annoying I think the stewards don’t allow if they see it.)

    1. On May 24, 2018 at 11:56 am James Brandon replied:

      Yes, I always leave the bag on and rotate it around my waist to access the gear inside. I tried the rotation for a while but it wasn’t really my cup-o-tea for various reasons.

      The bag always fits lengthwise but there are a few planes with more space beneath seats where I’ve put it in sideways. It may stick out a tiny bit, but enough to cause any issues with flight attendants. I can still put my feet in front of me and not on top of the bag.

  14. On May 22, 2018 at 9:53 pm Neil Shapiro wrote:

    Also, FWIW, my “minimum” kit to travel with is the Fuji X-T1 or X-T20 (or both), the 18-135, the 10-24, and a Rokinon Fisheye. That works for a day trip to the city easily. But I find it harder to pack for “general travel”, where you might do city as well as landscape.

    The above does leave me without anything longer than 200mm effective, so then I become tempted to throw in the very good Fuji 55-200. And of course, nothing for dark indoor architecture…so the incredible 16mm f/1.4 is tempting. The 35mm f/2 is much smaller and lighter, but it’s basically a 50mm lens so not wide enough for indoors.) Then of course, if there’s going to be a nice garden, I could throw in a 60mm (90 effective) macro. Even with APS-C, things get heavy fast, especially Fuji lenses which are metal. With just the smaller X-T20 and all those lenses, the fanny pack of the Rotation Pro weighs 9 1/2 lbs, including 4 batteries. Doesn’t sound like much compared to lugging a FF Nikon with the holy trinity lens set, but the rest of the pack adds weight too, as carrying such “options” as water, some glass filters and a tripod, even though I can opt for a carbon travel tripod.

    I wish Fuji would make an 18-200 or better yet a 16-200 which would relieve me of carrying the both the 18-135 and the 55-200

  15. On May 24, 2018 at 5:32 pm James Lassoie wrote:

    In summary…after decades of international traveling associated with work…Africa, Europe, UK, Latin America, Asia…where I’ve fit in photography around work I’m now enjoying NOT dealing with TSA and van camping across N. America. Means I’m no longer constrained by what fits where! (<:
    Maybe that next great image is in your backyard?

  16. On May 27, 2018 at 2:26 pm James Lassoie wrote:

    I tried (successfully) to do on (international) location out of the camera ‘fine art’ work…am shifting to post processing work that reduces input devises (amount of heavy hardware) and emphasizes pre-visualization, thoughtfulness in the field, and creative post-processing. Guess this depends on your ‘artistic goals.

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