While some photographers stay close to home, others travel quite regularly. I’ve been traveling my entire life for one reason or another. And whether it was for a newspaper job I was essentially commuting to (living four days in Southern California and three days in Northern California every week) or a short trip on a personal photographic exploration, I quickly learned that it’s great to have some creature comforts to keep you company along the ride once whatever glamour of traveling that’s left these days fades away.
No matter how you cut it, yes, this is essentially another list of how to spend your money. But let’s face it: you know what gear you want/need/are going to get soon. You’re not going to wish for a new $6,000 rig you’re eyeing from your wife (or if that’s a possibility for you, I want to meet her) or husband (in which case, I’ll be open; let’s meet him, too). Other expenses in life are coming soon and you know about those just the same.
This is a way to consider the upcoming holiday season in advance and match an opportunity to receive a gift from others (or to gift yourself) with your traveling lifestyle in a way that you may not have imagined before. But if you stretch the budget and treat yourself, these items will pay for themselves with the lasting comfort they’ll supply you on your time away.
Each of these are huge topics. But find one you’re interested in and you’ll hopefully find it as short and equally informative as possible, but thorough enough to get you going in one of a handful of right directions with these mostly non-photo-related items.
We’re creative people. Odds are, finding time to listen to our music collection is our way of meditation. And if we don’t get it, we just don’t feel the same. That’s why it’s important to have the right music with you. That means two things: a subscription music service and the right pair of headphones.
Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music are the big names in music streaming services these days. I won’t go into detail here. You can read reviews elsewhere, and plenty of people seem to already have their opinions about these services (I liked Spotify, but have switched to Apple Music, for example — neither is without their faults).
Services like Tidal and Deezer can offer extremely high-quality streaming, but many people argue about the ability to actually differentiate between high fidelity tracks and their extremely well-compressed equivalents (even I had a hard time hearing a difference in Tidal’s tests with a pair of $1,000 headphones). Either way, you’re sure not going to be able to tell without a premium set of headphones, as that’s what’s going to make the biggest difference.
Finally, don't forget that you have an opportunity to find great music to use for your video or behind-the-scenes productions whenever you're on the go. While you can use your standard streaming services to pick up on fresh tracks you might want to use for your films, odds are, you're dreaming if you think you can get the rights to most of the songs by even somewhat recognized artists out there. We've talked about The Music Bed plenty of times on this site before and they're a great source for finding an array of audio content. And with their recently launched Film Supply, you can find great stock footage for some nice b-roll as well, all while you're waiting to board the next flight.
Headphones and Earbuds
Too many people will unfortunately never satisfy the potential of their ears with truly appetizing sound. They’ll take Apple’s EarPods that come free with the iPhone, plug them in, and call it a day. In my basic tests, the EarPods are actually some of the best headphones for their price, even far outperforming other more expensive earbuds. But once you get to a certain point, there’s just no comparison. You treat yourself to a nice meal on occasion, to a massage on occasion, to some nice candles on occasion, to a beautiful photograph on occasion; so, treat yourself to an astounding audio experience on every occasion for just a little extra dough up front. It’ll be well worth it. Your traveling mind will thank you for the grounding presence of aural excellence.
Where to start? Companies like Bose and Apple-owned Beats have great noise-cancelling tech, but you don’t always need that. And for those who aren’t fans of the bass-heavy sounds of these household brands, you have numerous other options. None of these are cheap or easy to find in stores, necessarily, but do try Bang & Olufsen (specifically their BeoPlay line) and Grado if you get the chance. Bang & Olufsen's A8 or Earset 3i aren’t the most comfortable (I have the 3i for their superb sound, though); so, try the H3 ANC (active noise cancelling) earbuds or H7 over-ear wireless headphones, both of which are just now being released. The H8 is another option for a wireless on-ear headset. And if you don’t have to have wireless, noise cancelling, or any of the “frills,” Grado’s earbuds really perform.
Other popular names to bump up your audio with offerings in a medium price range (meaning low-to-mid hundreds — these things can get very expensive very quickly) include Sennheiser, Shure, Klipsch, AKG, etc.
Nice bags are made of leather. We know that. But here’s the thing about leather: it’s so damn heavy. That’s why it’ll never be a lasting material in any line of photography gear that working, traveling pros find useful. So, whether you’re looking for a nice, general purpose suitcase, a small carry-on for the laptop and essentials, or a great travel photography bag, you’re going to want to consider other material options — and the warranty.
Some other brands have similar warranty policies, but honestly, I’m a huge fan and proponent of Briggs and Riley bags to cover my attire-packing. They’re expensive bags, sure. But they pay for themselves within a year or two with their no-strings-attached lifetime guarantee. For as long as you have the bag — your entire life — they’ll fix the bag or replace it if anything goes wrong with it for any reason at no cost. You have to ship or take it to an authorized repair center. But buy one bag and you’ll essentially have it for life. You can’t beat that, especially when it’s a bag with top-of-the-line tech. If you look around, you can even find decent deals on the bags at the right time of year (though don't expect them to ever be cheap).
The Carry-on/Photography Bag (Combined for a Reason)
This is where it gets tricky. Comparatively, nothing is as easy as finding the right suitcase. But you can go a million ways for your carry-on. Some like backpacks, others like small laptop messengers. But if you’re a traveling photographer, your best bet is to make it a small camera backpack or shoulder bag (I like shoulder bags myself, because with easy access to lenses at your side, they’re great to be out and about with when you’re at your destination). I’ll let you decide which bag. This is a personal preference choice that most photographers are still fighting over within themselves even. Great brands, while we’re at it, are the usual suspects: ThinkTank, LowePro, Tenba, Tamrac, etc. You can have your pick of a carryon roller and a handheld for your two carry-ons.
Premium Options (and Smaller Accessories)
Okay, so you don’t care about extra cost or weight. Who are you? No worries, I have something for you nonetheless. If you want one really nice item to go with all of the practical, relatively visually unappealing gear you otherwise have to carry, there are a few brands to consider in this regard (roughly in ascending order of expense).
Filson: Most of us know the brand behind the popular and highly durable outdoorsman-inspired travel bags. They even make some camera-specific bags that you might find are just worthy enough to take up the precious leg room that extends beneath the seat in front of you. Check out the Filson Steve McCurry camera bag review I did a while back.
This Is Ground is a company out of LA that makes leather accessories with a bespoke feel that are both fantastically beautiful and expensive. They have great accessories from laptop portfolios to small leather goods to help wrap up your cords on the go (you may be more familiar with their “cord tacos”).
WANT Les Essentiels de la Vie sounds like a brand of perfume your girlfriend might wear, but it’s actually a very fine, “mostly leather” accessories company that perfectly fuses the contemporary with classic design reminiscent of the nostalgia of the mid-20th century, all done in a way that does a good job of making you want it. And boy, does it seem essential to life once you have it. Their finely crafted designs are less rugged and more finished than This Is Ground’s merchandise. While both are on par with one another in quality, each is a shift to the right or left of the other in terms of style.
Check eBay for deals from time to time if you want to save a good chunk of change without forgoing the extravagance.
First, again, check out This Is Ground’s expensive, but handy line of leather cord-organizing accessories. They’re as impressively simple as they are excellent tools for on-the-road organization.
A good wallet can be your best travel companion. Bellroy makes great wallets that aim to get you thinking about how to slim down your wallet to the bare essentials. A few years ago, a professor friend of mine gave me one of their travel wallets that fits a passport and adds a handy pen. I still use it whenever I go on longer, passport-requiring trips.
Cards like Coin and Plastc allow you to store multiple credit, debit, or rewards cards on one piece of plastic (quick note: Plastc is more expensive up front, but offers more flexibility and options in a form that you won't have to replace since it's rechargeable, all of which help it get my personal recommendation). E-Ink displays let you press or swipe to switch to a different card and at the end of the day, you can slim down all the necessities to one simple, easy-to-carry card. Some might point to NFC and other forms of payment via your phone as being enough when you travel. I don’t know where they’re traveling these days, but if you’re a normal human being, physical credit cards are still very necessary survival tools on the road and that’s not going anywhere anytime soon (unless you’re never going to leave the big city you live in; in which case, you might be okay sometime in the next few years).
Exclusive Members Programs
Aside from the standard airline rewards programs, there are a number of special membership programs designed to give you discounts on premium services, merchandise, and hotel stays. Founders Card is the one that I have and therefore, it is the best. Ok, so I have no idea if it’s the best, but it’s pretty darn good. Here's a quick note: Using my referral link helps me a little bit, but it helps you a lot more with $400 off the membership (half-price).
From fast-tracking you through tiers of airline statuses, to getting great rates on high-end hotel rooms around the world, to taking some change off your AT&T bill, to getting discounts on premium products and services like Silvercar, Bang & Olufsen audio products, Moo business cards, Apple products for business, and even Audis (yes, the car), there are a lot of ways to benefit from this one through a number of Founders Card’s partners. This list barely scratches the surface.
You have to apply, since it’s built for “entrepreneurs,” but many photographers I know are just that, right? Meetups for card members throughout various U.S. cities further the benefit through a premier networking experience, too. And the several-hundred-dollar yearly expense isn’t the cheapest, but if you use it, it’ll easily pay for itself year after year (which makes this a way to treat yourself without (potentially) spending any money by the end of the year).
Of course, if you're in the market for a new credit card (or for a serious upgrade), American Express' Platinum card will get you into airline lounges around the world while providing countless other amenities, albeit at a cost of $450 per year. But they're airline lounges! Can you say: "Free food and drink?"
Zeiss Lens Wipes
We’re back to photo gear for just a minute, but these are worth it. While everyone I know stuffs half a million accessories into their bags along with their other gear, I don’t add much to my kit alongside my lenses and one or two bodies. I might have a foldable waterproof covering (which is admittedly pointless in California, but El Niño is coming), a filter or two, and some extra batteries and cards, but that’s really it.
One thing I make sure is always in there, though, are these Zeiss lens wipes. They’re quick, extremely portable one-time use wipes that must be 100 percent alcohol-based (so they smell a bit). But one wipe on a lens is all it takes to be ready to shoot. They get all the grime off without streaking. And you can trust them, because they’re Zeiss. If you wear glasses or have a dirty computer screen (although admittedly, they’re a tad small for a laptop), you’ll be even more grateful for these wipes. Get them in bulk at B&H and stuff a generous handful into your bag before every trip. Now, you can leave your stupid, manual squeeze blower at home.
I can't help but feel that I'm missing a few things from my list. But if anyone has anything to add, let us know in the comments! I'll be keeping this post updated as a running list of some of the best premium items to make your traveling life that much more comfortable.