The Piece of Equipment That Instantly Improved My Life While Traveling as a Photographer

The Piece of Equipment That Instantly Improved My Life While Traveling as a Photographer

I have no doubts there will be lots of people who are familiar with this item, but for those who aren't, this little tip could drastically improve your quality of life while traveling with your camera.

Whether you are a traveling photographer, or a photographer who travels, you invariably take your camera with you and use it. Even if you don't, you'll be using your smart phone to take photos. I always had one little bugbear with travel, particularly to places that aren't major cities, and that was the internet, or rather the lack there of it. The places that are the most exciting for us photographers and videographers to visit are often out of the way and off-grid. As a result, if you have any mobile reception you're lucky, and Wi-Fi is an extreme long shot. That means backing up your images, checking your emails, uploading work, or even just sending snaps and messages to loved ones becomes somewhere between difficult and impossible, depending on your location.

I had naively accepted that this was the state of play and I dreamed of a time where I could stay constantly connected — no matter where I was — and back up my images to the cloud while driving or traveling from place to place. There's often so much time where your camera is not in use, it would be the perfect opportunity to get those files safe and sound online. What many people seemed to have known, but I didn't, was that all of this was possible already using a mobile Wi-FI device.

"Huawei E5785 White, 4G/ 300Mbps Travel Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspot with Long-lasting 3000mAh Battery – Unlocked to all Networks" on Amazon. Not a recommendation but rather an example of the type of device. Purchasing this device would still require a SIM card that works in the relevant country.

What this is, is a battery powered mobile router that usually up to around 20 devices can connect to, just like you would at home. The little box has a SIM card in it and will connect to 4G like a mobile phone would. Except instead of using your data roaming at a large cost, you can use a rental company's plan. This also can save you from using your own phone as a hotspot. What astounded me most, was just how effective this was. Let me give you an example of a reasonably long-term use.

Last year my girlfriend and I traveled to Iceland, rented a Jeep, and drove around the island for a week. I had multiple shoots to perform, and we had a great many destinations to visit. My car rental company (and this is in no way unique or unusual) offered a mobile Wi-Fi device to be rented alongside the car for about $10 per day with unlimited data. I plugged the USB in to my car and my girlfriend and I were connected to the internet 100% of the time we were in Iceland. That's not an exaggeration to push my point. Despite sometimes being so far in the wilderness we didn't see cars for an hour, we always had an internet connection. This meant we could send snaps and videos to friends and family, the passenger(s) can browse social media, check emails, and I could back up my images as we drove from place to place. The coverage, speed, price, and ease were truly staggering.

In a few weeks I am doing a similar trip with scheduled shoots and lots of driving over in Norway. We are staying in a cabin which is 2 hours from the nearest major town and yet again the price is low, the data is unlimited, and the coverage is vast. I cannot believe this little device would so profoundly impact my traveling experience. Some may prefer to remain unplugged while globetrotting and I respect that, but however depressing you may find my desire to remain connected, it's impressive that it's possible.

Speaking of what's possible, you can buy your own mobile Wi-Fi device and a roaming SIM card (these hotlinks are examples, not suggestions) but I found it to be too much work and money for little return. Photographers tend to gobble up data and having a pre-loaded SIM with the best coverage and unlimited data, without having to buy a device outright, was too convenient to turn down. There are of course also some benefits of these setups that could be used by a hard salesman (neither of which I am in this case!). Allow me to offer just one.

The honeymoon period before we got stuck mere minutes later.

While in Iceland, during a 6 hour drive from a location I had scouted, I pulled over for a breather and to take in the magnificent mountainous panorama. The snow at the side of the road was deeper than I thought and the car slid in to a small ditch. The Jeep was upright and none of the bodywork was touching anything, so it wasn't dangerous, but even the four wheel drive couldn't get us out. While we sat in the car pondering what to do as we hadn't seen another car for a long while, we looked at our phones and saw no reception. There were no houses or buildings in sight, and to make matters worse, there were only about another 2 hours of sunlight left. What we did have, however, was a perfect internet connection. Fortunately, two cars drove past while we nervously laughed at our predicament and helped us out. It's easy to imagine us driving there a little later and seeing no one and with no mobile Wi-Fi hotspot and no reception, we'd have had a cold night.

I asked a few fellow photographers if they use it and the bulk of the responses were either "no, but I've heard of it" and just straight out "no". That said, I anticipate many commenters passionately voicing their incredulity towards my revelation. Have you used mobile Wi-Fi while traveling? Was I a mere dullard, thoroughly out of the loop, or is this helpful advice? Let me know in the comments below.

Log in or register to post comments

29 Comments

Smartphone can save the day and does make nice images, sometimes it is just the only thing you have handy so take it, too bad for haters =)

"The places that are the most exciting for us photographers and videographers to visit are often out of the way and off-grid. As a result, if you have any mobile reception you're lucky, and Wi-Fi is an extreme long shot."

so wait, how does this wifi hotspot solve the problem you outlined? Why was the SIM in iceland able to connect to cell towers that neither of your phones could? Were your phones locked to carrier?

Rayann Elzein's picture

I was actually wondering the same haha. How can one have "perfect internet" but no GSM reception whatsoever? Unless that's on different networks/carriers and as you say the phones are locked to carrier... But then it's just a coincidence that the carrier of the Wifi hotspot of the rental company was working there.

Robert K Baggs's picture

It's a good question and I'm not sure I have the full answer. Both of our phones had very spotty reception (we were with two different networks) and they weren't locked as far as I know. The only reason I'm aware of the difference is I would usually leave the mobile Wi-Fi in the car when we went out roaming nearby, and neither of us could really use our phones with any sort of consistency; reception would blip in and out. Then we'd get back in the car, connect to the mobile Wi-Fi and forget about reception altogether. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable in mobile networks can shed some light.

Either way, if I were to reduce or remove that claim, the unlimited data and freeing up your phone from being a hotspot makes it still very much worth its weight in gold for me!

Yeah they do have their place. I only used one in Japan, and definitely loved it. But to really get off the beaten path, out exploring, off-grid (by that very definition!) this mobile wifi hotspot solution is not a solution at all. Would hate for others to buy thinking that somehow they get reception(internet) where they in fact would not.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

I used mine on Iceland for about a month. The dedicated device (if big enough) will have bigger antenna than a smartphone, thus better signal reception. For the most time I had at least decent connection to check email or send some messages.

Einar Gudmann's picture

I use this when on the road in Iceland where I live. When you have no or poor signal on your phone this device gets you connected. The antenna is much better.

Lina Forrestal's picture

Mobile Wifi is worth every penny while traveling! We always grab one when we're traveling and it definitely pays for itself. Allows us to work while on the road!

Rob Mitchell's picture

Very handy indeed. Always have one in my bag when on trips outside the EU.
I have a regular gig in Geneva, proper danger zone for getting stung with roaming costs as you hook up to a French operator which is local tariff, take one step to the left and you're on a Swiss operator. Hellishly painful when you get the bill.

Just a heads up, but if you're EU based you won't incur additional roaming charges for data, texts or calls made or used in any other EU country. You're counted as using your home plan abroad.

Keith Meinhold's picture

I have made multiple road trips with a mobile hotspot almost exactly like the one in the photograph above. There are services that allow you to buy SIMS for your phone or hotspot and travel the world, some will even rent the hotspot to you. Many hotels charge for WIFI (although that is becoming less common) that make the device essentially pay for itself. An added advantage is security because you are connecting to your own network, whereas connecting to a hotel or other public WIFI is a big security issue.

The hotspot allows us to connect to the internet while on the road, where for example we can search and make hotel reservations minutes ahead of arrival. All that said, it is not foolproof and when crossing borders it is likely that you will have to change settings - requiring some technical accumen. Most of the major US carriers have international travel dat plans that are pretty reliable, but comparatively expensive. All that said, hotspot or phone you are connecting over a cellular network in the end, so it is not as fast as land based WiFi and data costs more.

I would add two more indispensable items for the traveling photographer:
1. Offline maps that you can download to your phone/tablet that work without requiring a cell or wifi signal.
2. An indépendant GPS device (about the size of a matchbox) that will allow you have a track of your entire trip, this will allow you to have not only a track on a device that typically runs for days, but allows you to sync GPS info with your photographs across all cameras in post. I am not a fan of camera based GPS, because it requires the camera to be on and take some time to get a fix.

Einar Gudmann's picture

What GPS device are you using?

Keith Meinhold's picture

Bad Elf 2200 GPS Pro. NOTE: I had previously used the i-gotU GT-600, I did a great job, but the software is lacking.

Rod Bruno's picture

I always have my phone with an international data plan when I travel, as a backup a garmin in-reach for "off grid" help where cell network is not available.

I still don't understand what this has that an unlocked smartphone with a local sim card doesn't.

Tony Northrup's picture

My wife and I have phones on different carriers (VZ and ATT) and they both have pretty inexpensive international data plans for *most* countries. We pay extra for tethering on both phones, and just use them as hotspots. Often, one phone will have a much better data signal than the other, so we will tether between the two phones as needed.

There have definitely been times when neither of us had a signal - like most of Morocco or Puerto Rico during disaster recovery. Will the mobile hotspot get us a data signal when an unlocked phone would not? Is it just more powerful?

Keith Meinhold's picture

Like your phones on different carriers, it depends mostly on the network the device is connected to than the device itself. Which network(s) you get depends on the SIM you buy, the device allows you to pick network you want to connect to, but depending on the SIM providers agreement, you may or may not actually connect. Generally I found the device more reliable than the connection out cell phones had. Many hotspots have a port to add an external antenna for better range, but may not be legal in all countries. Just a few years ago international data and roaming on your US carrier was prohibitively expensive, while still not as cheap as a local SIM/plan it is competitive enough not to bother. There are plusses and minuses - we tethered using the ATT plan to our phones as well, but we generally preferred connecting through the hotspot - it was more reliable and seemed faster. It can also serve as a WiFi extender, which we have found useful.

Bodkin's Best's picture

I think the real issue is you're addicted to being connected. It's not as essential as you've come to believe...

In Asia you just buy a sim card with unlimited data for around $20/mo, pop it in your phone, and you're good to go.

Christopher Newton's picture

Its's most likely because the cellular radio that is in the car has a far more powerful transceiver than what a hand held mobile phone has allowing it to connect with the towers.geater range.

Keith Meinhold's picture

And these devices typically have an option for external an antenna.

Ryan Stone's picture

Obligatory faaaack huawei and their Chinese government backed fentynal money laundering.

Connected 100% of the time? That sounds miserable.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding (or even insulting) the livelihood of thousands of Instagram influencers, but yeah....insert "the whole point of the outdoors is to get away from the rest of the world" comment here.

I bring enough memory cards to shoot backups of everything, even if I'm going to be gone for 10 days and shoot 10,000 images as a timelapse photographer. Then I turn my phone off, or put it in airplane mode if I need it to program a timelapse or GPS log a KML file for later, ...and then I enjoy the peaceful solace that is found in total isolation.

Keith Meinhold's picture

Used for much more than social, finding a restaurant or a hotel when on the road for example. Connected tech can interfere for sure, but it also opens up options. I go places I never would have if I still had to rely on the Rand McNally.

That's why I google things before I go on a trip, or if I'm "on the road" near civilization, then my phone itself works just as good as a traveling wifi device. Maybe a mobile wifi device is useful when traveling in certain countries that otherwise can't for cell service everywhere, as this wifi device seemed to magically do in Iceland. Personally, though, I'm talking about the times when you're actually out shooting, NOT the time spent sitting in a car on the side of the road.

Either way, I agree with what Kurt said below in this regard, even when you're on the road: And that is, human beings shouldn't be encouraged to rely too much on technology when they're going off into the wilderness, whether on foot or by vehicle. Trusting technology as a compensation for a lack of experience or preparedness is a great way to win a Darwin Award. And if you truly are going somewhere remote and want to "play it safe", then a GPS device like an InReach is a FAR better choice than any cellular wifi device.

These devices clearly rely on cellular connection. They say they will run on any cellular network, so if your phone doesn't have signal and it does then your phone is using a different network that isn't available. It's not a magical "4G anywhere" device. I would 100% NOT rely on one of these to save me in any kind of mishap. Having people know where you are and when you are expected back + having an actual device to communicate anywhere in the world (like a Garmin InReach) is way better. That being said if having wifi with you all the time is something you want then go for it. Unlimited data sounds nice for backing up the most necessary files as you go.

Welcome to 2014 . . .

Iain Stanley's picture

Funnily enough, when I'm out in far-flung places travelling and shooting, the last thing in the world I want is connectivity (unless I break my leg of course!)