Whether you’re going on a half-day or week-long photo tour, here is a handy checklist of items you should seriously consider on every trip.
Be it northern or tropical destinations, it’s vital to consider both warm and cold weather gear for any possible weather on any trip. Murphy will always be with you. Since we offer tours in Alaska, this list is slightly biased toward our area of the world, but you’ll find plenty of relevant ideas. You’ll want to consider not just basic travel or survival gear, but other items that will be well worth their weight and bulk to keep you shooting as long as possible.
If you’ll be taking small charters or commuter flights, also keep in mind that they might weigh your carry-ons, and there is usually a limit of 15-20 lbs/bag, usually 2 bags allowed (you can leave all luggage with us). Also might depend on your weight as well (although they do this more in Europe and other countries than in the US), I’ve never felt it was fair to apply a standard carry-on weight limit regardless of the traveler’s body weight. Why should a thin healthy traveler be subject to the same carry-on weight limits as an obese person?. (Tip #7 under Photo equipment is worth its weight in gold)
1. Clothing: Think in layers.
1) Gloves: 2 pairs: liners for shooting, and a heavier pair for weather and walking with gear (they can double as camera/lens supports on rocks).
2) Hats: 1) Sports cap (we have one for sale with our logo and tagline “Bear with us…”) for rain and sun; 2) Flexible wide-brimmed nylon-type rain hat; 3) Wool-type stocking cap for warmth.
3) Pants: Cotton quick drying pants (and/or a pair of zip-off shorts) with or without nylon shell. Not recommended for bear camp are Levi denims as they are heavy cotton — heavy in wet conditions and take forever to dry.
4) Socks: Preferably wool. (your socks will get wet at some point). Bring at least 3-4 pairs.
5) Long underwear: Top and bottom breathable type, cotton or polypro. Rather than 100% cotton or polypro, best types have a blend of 50/50 – 70/30 (more polypro, the better) and/or some nylon or spandex.
6) Rain/wind shell: Breathable, waterproof top and bottom, with hood
7) Light boots (we do very little hiking) and/or tennis shoes. A pair of light sandals or flip-flops are also handy. Waterproof clogs or sandals are usually supplied at bear camps.
8) A few T-shirts (quick drying nylon/rayon and/or cotton)
9) A warm fleece sweater or lightweight nylon shell/synthetic fill jacket – no goose or duck down
10) A cloth belt: Lighter and more flexible than leather, can double as a rope around equipment, bags, etc.
2. Other handy items to consider:
1) Pocket knife or multi-tool with tiny camera screwdriver(s) (remember not in your airline carry-on bag!) 2) Sunglasses with retainer strap 3) Small daypack (~1500 cu inches), rain/windproof, or boat dry bag with backpack straps. See plastic bags/liners recommendation below. 4) Insect repellent; possibly a headnet (not required; only if you are really sensitive to mosquito bites) 5) Personal items (earplugs, eyeshades, sunblock, extra glasses /contact lenses & meds w/ prescription) 6) Water bottle 7) Clear plastic bags: Ziplocs for small items (batteries, liquids) + 1-2 small garbage bags to line inside of daypacks or put clothing/packs during transport) 8) Compact, preferably waterproof binoculars. My favorite are Canon’s IS compact line. 9) Duct tape or electrician’s tape — don’t take the whole roll. Roll up a few feet onto a smaller cardboard roll or something cylindrical.
Single lens reflex cameras with long lenses are the best cameras to bring on specialized photo tours, especially for bears and wildlife. The newer mirrorless cameras can save weight and bulk as carry-ons, fitting easeir into pockets or backpacks, but are very costly.
1) 1-2 DSLR cameras
2) 3 lenses minimum: 24-80 or 28-120mm for aerials, people, scenics; 80-200m; 300mm or 400mm for wildlife
3) A top quality 1.4x tele extender (Nikon, Canon, Olympus, etc.) is also well worth its weight and cost. Better, lighter, cheaper for most folks than lugging a 500-600mm if you’re already bringing a 300/400mm lens.
4) A good point-and-shoot camera (in addition to your cell phone) — worth their weight for videos, wider angle shots, and as a backup camera if/when your main camera gets dunked or hurt beyond field repair. (I saved a photographer’s camera on one tour when it fell into shallow salt water. It was completely submerged, but we managed to have it dried out and fixed up enough to finish his trip. Someday I’ll write a page on field camera repairs…)
5) A few back up batteries (AA, specialized camera batteries and flash) & charger
6) Extra media cards for your camera in ziploc or sturdy zippered or velcro pocket case.
7) A sturdy tripod with ball head for longer lenses (Gitzo, Bogen, Wimberely, Really Right Stuff, etc.)
8) Photo vest – great for field use and taking carry-on gear on airlines and charters (not counted as carry-ons!). Tip is to put heaviest, least bulky items in inner pockets and zip up vest. Smaller heavy items can go in outer pockets. (I’ve never been asked to “weigh my clothes”). If asked for your body weight, be sure add gear weight to your number.
9) Filters: polarizing for saturation on nice days; graduated ND filters for scenes with dark/light areas
10) Detachable flash with either an off-camera cord or ability to trigger wirelessly with infrared or RF
11) Lens cleaning microfiber cloth
12) Laptop computer with editing software such as stand-alone Photoshop or Lightroom
13) Flash drive(s), external hard drive, and card reader. (Always carry spares of each of these items)
14) Sturdy camera backpack or flexible carrying case (no large hard cases – hard to use/pack on flights). This is in addition to a photo vest.
Extra wide angle lens (<24mm);
Wrist straps and tethers for cameras and lenses (cheap insurance, especially for aerials).
Poncho, short umbrella or other rain cover(s) for camera bags, longer lenses and cameras on tripods
A Go-Pro or other underwater camera or underwater bag for your existing camera or point & shoot for river or lake over-unders, if you have the desire.
Solar battery charger (Goal Zero is excellent and the industry standard, but there are other good brands)
A pdf copy of your camera manual(s) on your computer or phone. They can usually be found on the camera manufacturer’s website. Great to review on the plane, and could be a life saver!
Knee pads — (considered by some photographers as mandatory, not optional) If you have bad or marginable knees, padded slip-on knee pads can be great when kneeling on rocks or hard vehicle floors. They are lightweight and can double as telephoto lens pads on vehicles or rocks. Alternatively, other padded items you may already be bringing could be used as knee pads in a pinch.
Weeks before the trip, make sure your camera gear is clean and operating perfectly. If it has been sitting on the shelf or not in use for a while, dust and dirt may settle into lenses or sensors. You may still have time to to send it off or a quick repair/cleaning.
Ron Levy has photographed for commercial and editorial clients worldwide for over 35 years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and elsewhere throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska, and currently leads photography tours to popular wildlife and scenic destinations in Alaska. Ron also enjoys working with companies, agencies and NGOs involved in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects anywhere in the world.