The Photographer’s ‘Small Bag Challenge’: What Items Would You Take?

The Photographer’s ‘Small Bag Challenge’: What Items Would You Take?

The photoshoot of a lifetime just landed in your inbox, but there's a major snag. You can only bring one small bag of gear with you. What makes the cut and what doesn't?

Somewhat recently, an opportunity arose with a client that required me to travel incredibly light, much lighter than I am used to on a commercial shoot. While I'm not one for large entourages or truckloads of gear, there are a few items that I'd rather not leave the studio without. The whole event got me thinking about what is truly essential for a photoshoot and which items may be weighing us down. This kind of exercise is beneficial for photographers to consider, as it could change the way they shoot and the gear they buy.

In no particular order, here are the items that I managed to pack during my "small bag challenge."

1. Camera

A camera is obviously going to be on my list of items to pack. Although for me, it's not just one camera but two as there is no way I would want to risk a camera failing and not having a backup at hand. For many years, the Canon 5DS has been my workhorse, but more recently I've been using the Canon 5D Mark IV instead. As space is of a premium, it makes more sense to have two identical cameras as it means just one set of accessories is needed. If you don't have two identical cameras, even two bodies from the same manufacturer will help you to not double up on various items.

2. Lens

For the same reasons mentioned above, I will be packing two lenses. On this occasion, the lenses won't be the same, but having more than one in my small camera bag gives me some security if a lens was to break. My two favorite focal lengths to shoot on are the 50mm and the 100mm. These two lenses tend to cover the vast majority of situations I find myself in. It wouldn't be ideal if my Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens broke, and I had to resort to shooting on my Canon RF 100mm f/2.8 L Macro IS USM lens, but I could make it work, and it's better than not having anything to shoot on at all.

3. Power Bank

A slim-lined power bank such as the Belkin Boost Charge USB Type-C Power Bank has enough juice to charge any phone a good few times. This means that everyone can stay connected while we work and things tend to run more smoothly when everyone is charged up. A good power bank can charge multiple items at once, is reasonably light, and takes up little space in a small bag.

4. Battery Chargers

While I always make sure my batteries are charged up before a shoot, I still like to take chargers for my various batteries with me. Mains chargers will charge things quicker but I do have USB versions of my battery chargers and these take up much less space in my bag. If I'm shooting somewhere off-grid, the USB versions are what I'd take anyway. One advantage of the USB chargers is that I can use the power bank mentioned above to charge them. For my camera batteries, I use the Jupio USB Charger Kit and for all things AA I use the Panasonic Eneloop Batteries and Charger.

5. Memory Cards

Several memory cards will keep me shooting all day without having to overwrite anything. I like to make sure everything is wiped before a shoot and that I have everything organized in a way that I know which cards are which. A handy CF card wallet not only helps with this but also gives the cards a little additional protection. After a shoot, I move this wallet to my person so it never leaves my side. A lost camera bag and its contents would be devastating, but a lost camera bag containing several memory cards full of images would be even worse. As you will notice in the picture above, I like to keep the capacity of my cards on the smaller size and spread the load rather than having fewer cards that can store more on them. The reason for this is that if a card fails I've only lost 16 GB worth of images and not 256 GB worth if I was to use much bigger card sizes. For as long as I can remember, I have always used Sandisk Memory Cards, and as they have never let me down, I have stuck with them.

6. Lens Cleaning Kit

Dirty lenses can give you hours of extra work in post-production later. It goes without saying that your lenses should be clean before you start shooting, but it's no guarantee that they will stay clean for the duration of a day. That's why a small lens cleaning kit is a worthy addition to your camera bag and will help you to keep things as clean as a whistle.

7. Gray Card

Color accuracy is important to me especially when it comes to skin tones. A collapsible gray card folds neatly in my small camera bag and helps to give me something to reference from when I come to process the images later. This particular gray card can also double up as a handy flag for those moments when you need to stop light hitting your lenses and giving you lens flare.

8. Gorilla Pod Tripod

A full-size tripod will unfortunately not make the cut when traveling light. I don't tend to use a tripod anyway so I won't miss not having one. On the rare occasion that I might need to use a tripod, something like the JOBY GorillaPod 5K Mini-Tripod would work in a pinch. This type of tripod can also double up as a stand for an off-camera Speedlight which is more likely how I'd use one of these. Thanks to their flexible legs, these things can attach to just about anything that may be close to. I've used them on handrails, lamp posts, and even the back of a chair when some height was needed.

9. Speedlight Kit

A single Speedlight like the Canon Speedlite 580EX II is all I'm going to be able to squeeze into my small camera bag along with some colored gels and a cold shoe so I can mount the light on the above-mentioned tripod. This light is there to add a little to the scene rather than do a lot of the heavy lifting, which you may expect from a full lighting setup. While I do like using lots of artificial light in my shoots, this small bag challenge will not allow for a full lighting setup.

10. Trigger Set

A small trigger set like the Vello FreeWave Trigger and Receiver Kit will allow my camera to communicate with my speedlight wirelessly. My triggers use AA batteries which is handy as they are the same type I use in my speedlight. This means only one battery charger is needed to charge both pieces of gear and helps to save space in the camera bag too.

11. Tape

A few rolls of ProTapes Gaffer Tape will always come in handy on a shoot. Be it for quick repairs, holding things together, labeling things up, or even used to mark things out. If you can't fit full rolls inside your small camera bag, then a few half-rolls should be plenty. You may find that with half-rolls, you can fold them flat so they take up less space.

12. Black and White Material

A folded piece of material which is black on one side and white on the other has a hundred uses while out on a shoot. You can lay on it if you find yourself shooting low angle, you can shield yourself from the elements with it, and you can use both the black and white sides to either add or subtract light in your scene. This may seem like a silly item to add to the list, but a piece of material like this has so many uses. I use 8 by 4 ft sheets and can easily squeeze one sheet into a small camera bag on top. As an added bonus, the folded sheet adds some extra protection to the gear in the bag.

Notable Omissions:

The laptop, full-size tripod, and lighting kit were never destined to make the cut for this small bag challenge due to their size. While those items are all important parts of a photographer's arsenal, it is more than possible to produce great work without them.

So there you have it, all the items that I managed to pack during my "small bag challenge." It may not be the most exciting gear list you've ever read, but it is a thought-out collection of equipment that would allow me to do my job and, most importantly, travel light on this occasion. While the contents of every photographer's bag will be somewhat different, I believe many of you will relate to the items that made the cut. I must admit that I found the whole process quite liberating and urge you all to try a similar exercise yourselves. You may just be surprised to learn how little you need to take with you on your next shoot and how that freedom may enable you to explore places you never thought possible.

Could you comfortably shoot with just the contents of this camera bag? Are there any important items you think were missing from the list? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Paul Parker's picture

Paul Parker is a commercial and fine art photographer. On the rare occasion he's not doing photography he loves being outdoors, people watching, and writing awkward "About Me" statements on websites...

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I think "small" has to be defined, but for me I have a case that meets airline carry-on standards that I consider my "bare" minimum kit. It has everything I need to succeed in virtually any shooting conditions. That kit never leaves my sight when travelling. Currently, it contains the following:

- Camera body
- SD card case
- charging accessories
- 4 lenses. (35, 50, 85, and 135)
- 3x SB-700s + triggers (I used to just use 2 but I find if I'm digging deep into HSS during broad daylight I need 3 to overpower the sun. Especially if I don't have any modifiers and am having to bounce off a surface like a wall)
- Lens cleaning tools
- batteries for all of the above.

"If" I had to go smaller I'd probably drop the 135 and a speedlight first.

Small bag challenge. An iPhone! I joke but...

I had to do the small bag last year as there were lots of flights involved.
I went with:

- 2 Leica M240s
- 1 spare battery
- 12mm, 21mm, 35mm, 75mm and 135mm.
- Fold-up 5 in 1 reflector.
- 1 Godox Ad200 flash
- 2 Godox Ving 850s
- 1 small stand
- 1 tripod that could double up as a light stand.
- MacBook Air
- 2 usb powered hard drives - One in my clients pocket and the other in the videographers pocket. Just in case I lost my laptop and kit.

The stand and tripod went in my checked luggage case the rest in hand luggage, the laptop was out and handheld.

The small form factor of the Leica worked for me but funnily enough it is not that light.

Rather than one full-size speedlight, you could bring a pair of smaller Godox TT350 / Flashpoint Zoom Mini units that run on two AAs and have radio transceivers built-in - no separate triggers needed.
For gray card, something like Xrite's Passport slips into a shirt pocket and provides not just WB but also the ability to generate custom camera/lighting profiles for use in postproduction.

Good suggestion using the Godox.

I carry use a V860II because it lasts forever on a charge and is damn powerful. Can be charged via USB-C, too.

My advice is charge as much as you can via USB-C, even if it means buying a powerbank that supports multiple devices or a charger that does the same...

I have several full-size Godox speelights for off-camera use, but the little TT350 is great on a small camera and for travel. The only feature I occasionally miss is an AF aid light.

I imagine for the right kind of photography, the TT350 would be pretty awesome. Just not the photography that I tend to do :(

I'm a glutton for punishment I think. Pared back to 10KG and walked 21KM on the first day and still happy with my loadout for my last trip, but that was wildlife photography.

For street, A7RIII + 24-105 in a satchel is all I need. Fill flash would be nice sometimes, but usually when I've taken a flash I've found it to be too much hassle and it can take me out of the moment. Mind you, the last time I did any street photography I was also lamenting not having longer than 105 for some building detail shots.

I like the small size of the TT350 partly for a lightweight travel kit, but mostly for the reduced on-shoulder burden when working long hours on multi-day conference jobs. I used to shoot with Canon 1-series bodies, big zooms, and full-size, even handle-mount, speedlights. That was when I was 15 years younger, and even then the burden left me exhausted at the end of Day 2.
Since then, I've lightened the load in several ways, one of which is moving as much lighting off-camera as possible. With a speedlight or two lighting the space, I only need fill on-camera. And, with higher ISO values now practical, I need even less power as I balance with ambient. The full-featured TT350 fills this role admirably, it triggers and controls my off-camera flashes, and two AA Eneloops last all day.
FWIW, the TT350 does have an AF aid light. But, as far as I can tell, it doesn't work with Sony MILCs. OTOH, Godox X2T's does. So, if I need that assistance, I can put my TT350 on top of an X2T.

I 2nd what Ryan Cooper said about "small" needing to be defined.

My last trip was going to include a lot of walking in high 90's% humidity and 30+ Celsius temp. My first day covered 21km, which was about 1.5 times what I planned on.

My packlist was pared down to consider the conditions and what I was shooting, but was still around 10KG.

- 2x camera bodies
- 2x spare batteries
- 2 lenses (24-105, 200-600)
- 1x Godox flash and transmitter
- SD card case
- USB power bank
- USB charger
- Powerbank/router/backup device with inbuilt card reader + external NVME drives
- Medical supplies, water, etc.

The Godox V860II has a built in receiver, so one less piece of kit. Also the battery lasts forever.

No need for any battery chargers, just a USB charger. All my devices supported charging the batteries in situ, which whilst not the fastest isn't a problem at the end of the day.

I have in a safe most every Sony lens and 5 Sony cameras collected since '14 i carry a small teardrop shoulder bag with two zipper compartments on one side a A7iii with the FE PZ 16-35mm f/4 G APS-C 24-52.5mm, for a fast find. The other side the FE 24-240mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS in APS-C 36-360mm, a blower, a blue towel, the orange sticky pen sensor cleaner in metal case (cleans and renews with just soap and water), a folded clear trash bag for changing lenses (for no dust/salt air), cases for CPL's. Inside pocket on left side spare battery and charger. Never needed a flash, ever. Two outside pockets for spare SD's (never needed) and whatever. I take astro MW's with 16mm f/4 at 25s and have taken Hummingbirds at 360mm and flying/treed Egrets and other critters at 240mm. Tripod rarely need but a travel size in car.
It is a size to have with me anywhere and keep at my side even when in a restaurant. Another that could be a bag is a photographers vest with inside and outside pockets all around great for plane travel wear not having to put in overhead.
I do like to watch those travel tubers on trips to far off location and overnight trails with a backpack that includes food, tent, sleeping bag etc. and have no idea how, once saw one with two bags but his cook stove and bottle did not match.

I don't understand the leading photo. Why would you take a bare 3.5 inch hard drive anywhere? You'd also need a computer, adapter and all associated cabling. Another pointless "how-to" article.

It's an illustrative image. Also, "how to"? Bro, did you even read the article?

These days few people would carry a hard drive, but if you wanted to there are small adapters that connect a memory card and drive, and do automatic backups with no computer necessary.

Rather than a bunch of small memory cards, I opt for a bunch of large ones and discipline myself to swap them out often, long before they're full. Far more flexibility that way, plus larger cards tend to be newer designs, faster, and more reliable.