Confessions of a Photographer Who (Formerly) Packed for Every Possibility

Confessions of a Photographer Who (Formerly) Packed for Every Possibility

I’m done with it. Seriously.

As a 6’1” guy with 20+ years in the Army National Guard and a lot of construction projects behind me, I’m fairly used to carrying heavy things. Recently, my wife and our three kids (all under five years old) took an overnight flight to Lisbon, Portugal. Traveling from La Crosse to Amsterdam via Minneapolis with only one flight left, the airline gave away my seat to someone else — just my seat, of course. According to their system, I never showed up at the La Crosse airport despite getting on two planes thus far and everyone in my party traveling with me. Nevertheless, I was stuck in Amsterdam alone, waiting for the next flight, while the rest of our group went to Portugal without me so the kids could get there before nighttime.

The Epiphany

Prior to this seat-being-given-away episode, we had been awake for 22 hours and just raced across Schiphol Airport because of a short layover. When I say race, I mean fast walking with two or three of the kids in a stroller and 42 lbs of camera gear in my backpack. For this trip, I had four lenses, two Canon mirrorless bodies (an R5 and R6 II), an Insta360 X3, a Profoto A2 flash, two microphones (I had no use for even one mic), and two ball heads, among other countless accessories. That's not even counting my tripod in our carry-on. I decided to pack lighter after a trip to Hawaii with the kids in December. How did I do this time? I left my drone at home, mostly because of the confusing drone laws in Europe. But hey, I felt pretty proud about reducing my kit!

At this point, I was standing at Schiphol's epicenter, where they reschedule all the flights (it's a big operation to fix things as often as they need to). Before I found a stale baguette sandwich with my $12 food voucher, I had an epiphany. This epiphany was mostly through discomfort and soreness, along with not showering for a day, but an epiphany nonetheless. The truth is, even though I brought all this stuff, I rarely used much of it while on past vacations. I mainly just get a psychological boost knowing I can access it if I need it. In the midst of this catharsis, I decided I didn't need most of my gear. To take architectural photos and candid moments, I need (well, want) a wide and mid-range lens, respectively. My camera needs to be stabilized long enough for some of those, so I also needed some sort of tripod. That's it, nothing more.

Rather than thinking I could access everything during this adventure, I decided at the airport that I would just stick to the essentials. It was easier to free myself from my gear if I limited my mind beforehand. I identified three key components of this strategy.

Lens Selection

In preparation for this endeavor, I spent a lot of time thinking about my lenses. On previous trips, I switched between a wide zoom (maybe 90% of the time) and a telephoto (the other 10%). This worked fine before kids, but I wanted to minimize lens changes so I could focus on the moments. Keeping this in mind, I bought the Canon RF 24-105mm f/4 beforehand. Even though I'm a recovering gear nerd, my inner technical snob questioned the f/4 aperture, but I liked the idea of a small and light lens. Honestly, I can’t say enough great things about this lens. While it's not a wide enough focal length for some places like European churches, I used it for 90% of the trip.  Between this and my RF 15-35 f/2.8, I had everything covered with two lenses instead of four.


I’ve already been moving away from using a tripod since I discovered the Platypod 4-5 years ago. I believe that compelling images show you the world in a way you’re not used to seeing it. When I use a Platypod, I can get the camera low while only using just enough room in my bag to fit an iPad mini and with something that weighs less than 10 oz. Apart from self-portraits and possibly using it as a light stand with the new Platypod Handle, my tripod has almost become obsolete.                                  

Camera Bag

I've been using the Peter McKinnon 35L bag from Nomatic and the Peak Design Everyday Messenger bag for travel (both amazing bags). These are both really nice, but I didn’t want to carry the backpack all day, and the messenger bag didn't fit in our luggage amid all the other stuff. At the last minute, before leaving for the airport, I remembered a small sling bag Canon sent me with a new camera purchase recently and put it in our carry-on. As part of this airport epiphany, I decided to use only what I could fit into this bag the size of a small purse. Surprisingly, I was able to include the RF 15-35mm, Profoto A2 flash, a ball head, and my Platypod Extreme with some ND filters.

So, How Did It Go?

I loved it! Limiting what I used allowed me to create better photos. Although I didn't do as much architectural photography as I usually do (three kids under five), my work was better than anything I've ever done before. I also felt more confident knowing I didn't have to take all these things. I might still bring a backup camera body in my carry-on, but now that the iPhone is so amazing, I'm even doubtful about that.

For all those who feel like they need to bring it all, it’s OK to leave some things behind. To be blunt, you should distill your kit down to the essence of what matters to you.

I played on the JV golf team in high school for a few years (free green fees were a nice perk), and our coach once had us do a round with just a 5-iron, pitching wedge, and putter. It was the best score of my life.

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I agree with your comments. As i got older I also have reduced my gear that I pack for a trip. I used to take enough for every precaution, now its the minimum.

Thanks Kevin--it's amazing how little you actually need to create great work

Much depends on what you are photographing and where. If you have to lug everything through Central America's hot, humid rainforests taking only essential gear makes sense. But if you're going on an African safari and your equipment will ride alongside you in a vehicle, and you only have to worry about carrying it to and from, it makes sense to bring whatever you might need.

I too agree with your comments, and I often find myself carrying too much. But as the saying goes, it's better to have and not need than need and not have.

I too have a lot of gear of lenses, cameras and closet full of tripods! I never fly but travel by truck with a topper or SUV. BUT have grown to find a 16-35 and 24-240 with a A7iii to be the most used and all fit in a teardrop bag along with lens/sensor cleaning supplies and batteries and a charger. The thing one learns is it is not so much the camera or lens but software. I started in '10 with a Canon T2i with two kit lenses then '14 a A7s using old Canon FD lenses for a year +. I learned on a trip to AZ with all my gear that using my second camera in '17 the A7RM2 that it did handheld Bracketing while at Antelope Canyon as well as great night shots during the night tour while others were on tripods doing long exposures. And even with the A7s in by bag at the Grand Canyon I put the A7rii on sticks for a star shot and got also the deep canyon with hiker headlamps at different levels, the lights from the hotels lit up the canyon. IBIS made little use of sticks over the years, but I bought every lightweight tripod that came out. An old lens the E 10-18mm f/4 OSS was/is used the most 16-27mm in 35mm but I used a lot at 12mm in full frame doing Milky Ways before a 12mm was thought about.
The point with the ramblings is look at your gear for all possibilities that you have used for, and that APS-C mode will give a longer reach like 24-240 = 36-360. The A7Rii also as pano mode and in camera apps like Digital Filter that gives great milky waves/falls.
I saw 2 cameras in your bag!!!

Beautiful work Edwin! Couldn't agree more

I used to carry lots of camera gear with me. That changed once my first boy was born. The baby bag was the priority not my lenses. Over the year my setup and kit has evolved. I have 1 small backpack. My rule is simple: I can own all the camera gear I want as long as ALL of it fits in this small back pack. So I own 1 camera 4 lenses and 2 small accessory bags. I don’t travel with my flashes or light gear. No video gear. No drones. The whole kit weight 15 lbs. Then there is the tripod. I know there are tons of categories for them. Since I don’t have large heavy lenses I have found over the year I only need 1. This goes in the carry on when I travel. This tripod + head + leveling base + carry strap is 4 lbs. That would be what I carry IF I take all my gear with me…which I never do. I take 1/2 that. I travel with only 2 of my 4 lenses. Interesting enough I have never missed anything I have left behind. There is always a technique to succeed with just what you have at hand.

I'm increasingly appreciating this concept:"There is always a technique to succeed with just what you have at hand."

Very well said

In 2015 I recall taking D300s with 17-55 2.8 and D7000 with Tokina 11-16 2.8 on a trip to Santorini.

2018 it was 2 X D700 with 28, 50, & 85mm lenses.

This year for our trip to Malta it'll be just the one camera body and 50mm with Rollei mini tripod (if I can be bothered 😜).

When you get older you feel it!

I've found that I can get almost all the shots I want with 1 camera and 1 lens (24-200). I just need more time to set up the shots. All of us know that time is of the essence.

I'm a bit of a research geek. Love researching things. Must be the engineer in me.

When travelling overseas, I only take what I think I'll actually use. Partly because the carry on limits tend to be tight.

My last trip was 2 bodies, 2 lenses and one flash. Obviously there was some ancillary gear as well, but lets ignore that. Two bodies because I knew that I could be shooting short one seconds, then needing to shoot long the next. I literally went from shooting a spider with a 24-105 to shooting a snake with a 200-600 a few seconds later. The flash because I knew that I'd have some challenging backlit situations and didn't want to rely on technology to resolve the subject.

My next trip will probably be only 1 body, 1 lens. I may find that I'd like 200mm for some photos, but I'll make do with a 24-105.

I've never been one to pack for all eventualities because I appreciate the value of flexibility. It also helps that technology has come so far over the last decade, allowing us to smooth over imperfections to some extent.