I've had numerous Nikon and Canon DSLRs as well as a smaller Fuji mirrorless camera but none quite felt right to me compared to the full-frame mirrorless cameras that Sony has been making for a few years now. The Sony a7 formula is simple: use a high-quality sensor with extremely high dynamic range and built-in sensor stabilization then pack it with features rivaling larger DSLRs. All in a smaller form factor. I find it to be the perfect travel camera system.
This is my fourth full-frame Sony camera (RX1R, Sony a7S, Sony a7R II previously) and I love the size, build quality, image quality and high resolution (42MP!). Not to mention Wi-Fi and mobile apps for sharing photo previews on the go.
I recently upgraded from the a7R II to the a7R III. While the upgrades seem incremental, for me this latest revision is a game changer for two reasons: it uses a much larger battery and it has two SD card slots. The previous generation used a small battery that was so insufficient I used to travel with handful of batteries. On my most active day of shooting while on a safari game drive in Tanzania with the a7R III, I barely got close to using 2 batteries. As for the double SD card slot situation: while on a trip I can set them up to mirror the cards for redundancy if I'm not traveling with a laptop or larger hard drive to backup the shots.
If you don't need something as advanced, expensive and large as the α7R III, I've heard great things about the Sony a6500.
Sony α7R III
42MP, 5-axis stabilization, 425 AF points
Sony HVLF60M flash
Big flash with LED light for video
Newmowa dual charger
Extra Sony batteries
I got 3 extras
Sony glass screen protector
I rarely shoot with a flash (and never travel with one) but ended up getting Sony's largest flash for the occasional nighttime indoor events, team outings and such that I attend and want to shoot.
That being said, when it comes to looking for lenses I don't obsess over every professional review. I am not a professional photographer. I do this purely for fun. It's my passion. My photos end up on this website downsized and compressed so I don't exactly care about a bit of lens distortion, chromatic abberation, edge sharpness or any of the other things professionals fret over. I want something I will be able to trust to get the job done while traveling.
24-105mm G OSS
90mm Macro G OSS
70-200mm G OSS
100-400mm GM OSS
One of my first lenses, the relatively lightweight 24-70 has been my all-around performer for years. It provides a versatile zoom range that suits the vast majority of my travel shots. If you're just starting out, this is among one of the lenses I would get first if you're looking for a general purpose do-it-all lens.
Fast-forward several years and Sony added the higher-end 24-105mm G lens. While it's more expensive and heavier than the 24-70, this thing achieves sharper images. But mainly I like the improved zoom range. That extra 35mm of zoom is very noticable and appreciated.
This is about the closest you can get to a slim pancake lens on the a7 system. I use the tiny Sony 35mm when I want a lighter camera, usually when walking around at night exploring a new city or when I'm not sure if I'll need my camera and just want to have it in my bag. And at f/2.8, this prime is fairly capable in low light situations as well. That being said, it's a fairly unremarkable lens. You don't have the zoom range of one of the lenses above, nor do you get the lovely depth of field achieved by the 55mm. As such, if I was just starting out with an a7 camera, this would not be my first pick.
After a few trips I ended up wanting a wide-angle lens to capture more of some dramatic landscapes and architecture. While there are plenty of wide-angle primes that are faster, I opted for this 16-35mm zoom to reduce the need to change lenses while out shooting. At the furthest reach of 35mm, this can almost pass as general purpose travel lens to have around.
The 55mm was added when I wanted better portraits (with more bokeh!) of family. It has become one of my most used lenses due to its compact size, sharpness and good low light performance and now I find it handy for everything from product shots to general walking around shots while walking around a new city.
I then added the massive 85mm GM lens to add on to this interest of portraiture while at team outings and while shooting product shots for this site. It is a very heavy lens so I unfortunately rarely travel with it.
One of the most recently added lenses to my collection, I got this for close up product shots. I wish I had it when photographing some items in my Lightroom PC post, so when I began writing my next post I made sure to get it.
At some point I got the 70-200mm out of my curiousity for better city skyline shots from afar. Despite being a long lens it's still fairly compact and I really got to love the range (and the lens compression effect) when I took it to Newport, New York and New Zealand.
There is a larger and heavier version of this lens that is f/2.8 but I already have a hard enough time trying to pack light and a telephoto like this isn't always a requirement to pack so I figured I should stick with the lighter one that I would be more likely to travel with.
This one probably needs the least explanation and just speaks for itself. I got it for my trip to Tanzania where I was shooting wildlife out of a safari vehicle for days. Sometimes we would get fairly close to the animals but often were were quite a bit of distance out. I wanted to avoid having to change lenses too often in such a dusty environment while on game drives and the 100-400 was such a convenient range. The pictures were just stunning.
I also purchased a 1.4x teleconverter for this that I used when shooting the Super Blue Blood Moon we had in San Francisco in early 2018. That made the 400mm closer to 560mm.
While the vast majority of my shooting is outdoors I have been curious about a basic studio setup for product shots and tinkering with flash portraits. I have little experience in this realm so I just wanted something basic to start with but powerful enough to still create some solid product shots. I ended up with a two 400W strobe kit from Neewer along with a white cloth backdrop.
Neewer strobe kit
2x 400W lights & stands
Neewer wireless trigger
16 channel, 3 receivers
Julius Studio white backdrop
10x20 ft, muslin fabric
LimoStudio backdrop system
6 pack, 4.5-inch
Neewer light reflector
43-inch, super useful
there's something very satisfying about shooting reflective things with bright studio lights pic.twitter.com/5WZWTTynms— Paul Stamatiou 📷 (@Stammy) December 20, 2017
With the a7R III pumping out massive 42MB RAW files (even more for uncompressed RAWs), you need to have gobs of storage at hand, especially if you want to have backup redundancy while traveling. I shot 848GB of photos and videos on my New Zealand trip alone! But having enough storage on the go is not enough — you also need fast storage. I travel with a ton of SD cards since I never empty the cards while traveling: I always have a copy on the card and on my laptop for redundancy until I can back them up to my NAS. While only a few cameras support the new UHS-II standard for the next generation of faster SD cards, there's still a benefit to using UHS-II cards: you can import photos to your computer much faster.
However, there are times when I need to travel light and can't take a tablet or laptop (that I could otherwise use to backup photos to local and external SSD storage). My Africa trip was like this — due to weight restrictions on some of the tiny planes we took between Serengeti camps I left my laptop at home. Since the a7R III has dual SD card slots I configured it to save a copy of each shot on both cards. Then when I filled a card up, I would put it in a separate SD card holder that I kept either on me or in a different bag for redundancy.
There are purpose-built portable hard drives for this task that can backup SD cards entirely on their own without connecting to a computer. I purchased one such device: the WD My Passport Wireless Pro. While it seems like it can get the job done I actually had to leave it at home too. It was a bit too heavy and bulky to bring along with me.
I have something like 15 or 16 SD cards totaling over a terabyte. There's a handy website dedicated to in-depth SD card benchmarks so it's always worth looking up any card before you buy it, especially if some time has passed and I haven't updated this section in months.
On my last trip I shot with two SD cards in the a7R III mirroring each other. Since the a7R III only has one UHS-II slot and one UHS-I slot, I opted to have some extremely fast cards and some cheaper, slower cards. If you're looking for the best of the best, at this moment it seems like the SanDisk Extreme PRO 300MB/s UHS-II cards and the Sony SF-G UHS-II 300MB/s cards are the leaders here.
Since I've purchased some of my SD cards over time, I have a bunch of older discontinued Lexar cards as well as some of these newer ones.
128GB SanDisk Extreme PRO
300MB/s read, 260MB/s write, UHS-II
Pelican SD card case
Holds 12, rugged & waterproof
ThinkTank Pixel Pocket Rocket
9 SD card holder
1TB Samsung SSD
This thing is tiny!
As for having an external SSD, well it's just very likely I'll run out of space backing up SD cards on my laptop if I'm traveling with one. Samsung's USB-C SSDs were just what I was looking for: tiny, lightweight and fast. I have two now — the original 1TB T1 model and the later 1TB T3 model. Though there is a newer T5 model out now.
But if I were looking for such a drive today, I would be considering a Thunderbolt 3 supported NVMe-based SSD like the Samsung X5 or do-it-yourself with an external enclosure.
At the heart of my camera setup is a Synology NAS. I use this to archive photos from Lightroom with my desktop PC, as well as back up those local files to several cloud services for safekeeping. My first foray into Synology NAS devices was with a 4-bay DS415+ that I originally wrote about at length in Storage for Photographers (Part 2). That one had four 3TB drives and upgraded RAM.
However, in recent years desktop 3.5" hard drives have gotten much larger (at the time of this writing there are now 15TB models available) so I decided to downsize to a smaller 2-bay model with two Seagate Ironwolf 12TB drives.
I also prefer the smaller DS218+ over other models because it uses a simpler and smaller power brick than other Synology models. I really hated the older style power brick they used that did not make a snug fit. One nice feature of the DS218+ is that RAM is user-upgradeable (previously you had to take apart the whole NAS). As such, I installed an 8GB RAM stick for a total of 10GB of RAM.
2-bay, dual-core 2GHz, upgraded to 10GB RAM
quad-core Intel Atom, 4-bay
For my heavy photo and video editing I built a water-cooled and overclocked 5.2GHz 6-core Windows 10 PC and wrote about it in detail in my longest article yet: Building a Lightroom PC.
The first thing I do with any new lens is put on a UV filter. This is mainly to protect the lens from any accidental scratches or drops. I'd rather replace a cheap filter than the lens. I tend to prefer low-profile UV filters when I can find them as they're ideal for wide-angle lenses so it doesn't get in your shot. However, that usually means the lens cap doesn't quite fit as well and more easily falls off.
I also get a circular polarizer for each lens which I use when shooting outdoors with anything involving reflections (like buildings), sky, water or anything with glare. In a nutshell, it will cut through haze, increase color saturation and make sky shots more vibrant. When I'm traveling, most of my shots are outdoors so I usually entirely take off my UV filter and only leave the polarizer on for the duration of the trip. With a polarizer you always need to rotate it to get the desired effect and this depends on your direction with respect to the sun. It'a also advised that you try to avoid using a polarizer with wide-angle lenses as it can cause a weird effect where only part of the shot is polarized where the rest is less polarized (but I still use them on wide-angle lenses sometimes).
One more polarizer caveat: You usually want to take it off if shooting through a helicopter window. They tend to be plexiglass and any slight scratch in the plexiglass would be very apparent when using a polarizer. Also speed matters when you're moving that fast and you might prefer a faster shutter speed than polarizer effect.
I used to also travel with some ND grad filters to reduce the brightness of the sky in landscape shots on bright days. Graduated neutral-density filters look like a gradient and put your entire composition into the dynamic range of your camera by reducing clipping. Though I've found myself shooting more bracketed shots for HDR to fix this rather than carrying and putting on an ND grad filter.
So what brands to I typically purchase for my filters? There is a bit of a religous debate with respect to how much to spend on a filter in the photography community. The typical argument is that if you just spent a thousand dollars or more on a high-end lens you should not degrade the image quality by putting something in between the glass and the outside world; or that if you do, it has to be a pristine high-end filter as well. I definitely lean more towards the latter.
I have typically purchased B+W filters with multi-resistant coatings in the past. However, on my latest trip I tried out a relatively new brand called Breakthrough Photography. They boast some impressive claims and reviews seem positive but they are very expensive at around $150 each. The only issue I have with mine is that the ring on one of them is a bit larger than normal and it makes it hard to put the lens hood on for one of my lenses.
A new addition to my kit, the sheer diminutive size of this DJI Spark made it hard to avoid. No, it doesn't shoot 4K video. It doesn't have a 3-axis gimbal; merely getting by with a 2-axis gimbal. It also doesn't shoot RAW photos like it's bigger brother the Mavic Pro. But it's tiny and easy to toss in a bag that may also be accompanied with a camera, tripod and a bunch of lenses.
My first time traveling with it was on this trip to Grand Cayman island and I had a blast with it. Unfortunately, traveling with a drone, even as small as this, is a bit of a hassle. You have to do your research and see if it's even legal to bring it into some countries and learn about where you can fly safely. When I flew to Rwanda, they were confiscating drones at the airport.
DJI Spark bundle
Polar Pro filters
Polarizer and ND filters
The one part of my gear that seems to change more frequently than anything.. my travel and photo gear bags. As much as I'd love to find one do-it-all bag, I really think they are all task-oriented and I won't be able to get away from having a few depending on what I'm up to.
Peak Design Everyday
34L, Special Forces-grade materials
Patagonia Black Hole duffel
45L, lightweight, weather-resistant
Patagonia Black Hole duffel
60L, lightweight, weather-resistant
Pacsafe Metrosafe LS350
Incase DSLR Pro
customizable camera dividers
Minaal Carry-on 2.0
This is the workhorse. I use this thing every single day. The Everyday has quickly become my daily backpack for taking my laptop, sketchbooks and various items to work and for tossing a few lenses in to go out and shoot some photos on other occasions. I initially disliked the adjustable internal compartment system because I felt it left my lenses too loose and free to roll around compared to the Incase DSLR Pro Pack below. The handy magnetic flap and waterproof construction makes it great for weathering the elements. I also like that it has some straps that you can extend to attach other gear to the bag, which I commonly use when lugging around my tripod.
I had the original charcoal version but unfortunately after a year or two I had some premature wear on one part of the bag so I purchased a new black version at a discount with the warranty.
I no longer own a suitcase. Between this GR2 and the Minaal bag in the next section, I only fly with a backpack and never check it as luggage. I've always wanted to pack lighter and fit everything into one backpack. After a bit of research, it seemed like this Goruck was the one for the job. Extremely durable, tons of compartments and add-ons that can be strapped into the MOLLE webbing system. I also have the padded GR2 field pocket add-on. I've taken this on countless short work trips and I lived out of it for a month while traveling through New Zealand. Compared to the Minaal, the GR2 is fairly no-frills, heavy and rugged.
I originally purchased a 45L duffel as I needed something lightweight and soft for my trip to Africa, where it would have to be squished the cargo bay of a small Cessna (we had a strict 33lb limit for all bags, including camera gear so I thought the GR2 was a bit too heavy and rugged). The Black Hole duffels are affordable and are versatile enough to be worn like a backpack.
I found myself using the duffel on other trips afterwards and ended up adding a larger 60L model as well. I still use them as carry-ons.
Now you may be asking what purpose the Minaal has if I have the similarly-sized GR2 backpack as well. That's a good question and I do tend to use both backpacks interchangeably. However, the Minaal is a bit more feature packed for frequent use: even more compartments, support for any laptop/tablet size, the ability to completely hide the straps, lockable zippers, side handles, compression straps and more.
My complaint with the Minaal is that the outer pocket holds most of the volume of the backpack. As such, I find opening it a bit cumbersome because you have to make sure all your stuff doesn't fall out as you look for one thing since stuff is now split half in the outer flap and half in the backpack. It's also a big awkward to use the laptop compartment since if you have any stuff there it will just apply (in my opinion too much) pressure on it without the rear section being too rigid. And finally, if you have lots of clothes and stuff in it, the rear tends to curl away from your back. Compared to the GR2 that has a very rigid plate on the back so it's always flat.
Marked this one as retired as I always end up taking the GR2 on trips these days when I need something this size.
This might seem like an odd backpack for the line up. It's not geared towards camera gear and it's not large enough to stuff clothes in while traveling. So what's it good for? If you're not familiar with Pacsafe, they make bags with unique features tailored at theft prevention. Things like cut-proof straps, steel mesh inside the bag, lockable compartments and so on.
The LS350 15L daypack is no exception. It's great for exploring new countries while trying to remain discrete. Nothing about it screams "I have $10K+ of camera gear in here!". There are no dividers or useful features for storing camera gear specifically, so I use it alongside some padded lens pouches to make due.
While the Everyday backpack is made for photographers in mind, the 20L size I got can only easily house a few lenses and items. For the times when I need to carry a lot more gear and have it well-protected, I turn to the Incase DSLR Pro. Such as on my trip to New Zealand where I brought a tripod, 4 lenses, et cetera.
It's still smaller than other professional camera backpacks. The top has a quick unzip section so you can quickly stow your camera away without having to completely flip the backpack upside down to access it. I've also hiked miles with this thing on without issue.
One complaint I have with this backpack is that it's not weatherproof and you always have to carry a waterproof cover in case it might rain. Another issue is that there are not enough zipper sections inside the main area where you put your laptop and other gear. This means you have a lump of stuff hiding near the bottom that you continually have to reach around for.
Marked this one as retired as I haven't traveled with it in two years. I try to simplify and only take 2-3 lenses on trips now if possible, so I don't need as much storage.
I typically prefer to have my camera straps only mount from the bottom screw position using one point. I just do not like straps that attach from the side as I feel like it gets in the way. My favorite camera strap of all time was the original Luma Loop that mounted on the bottom, had a swivel and also a super nifty quick disconnect feature. Unfortunately that model is now discontinued and after years of trusty service, I ended up losing mine.
When it came time to find a replacement I ended up going with a few BlackRapid models. First off is the wrist strap that I've had for over 5 years now. I use it when I'm using one of my smaller lenses and just going out for a night on the town while traveling and don't want to look like a super tourist with a bulky camera strap.
BlackRapid wrist strap
Soft nylon strap
BlackRapid shoulder strap
BlackRapid Cross Shot strap
The other two straps are basically identical except for length: one is meant to be worth across the shoulders. I typically prefer to shoot off of one shoulder due to ease of taking the camera off and getting the strap out of the way quickly. However there are times when I'll use the longer strap, such as when hiking or out somewhere where I think it would be too easy for someone to grab the camera off of my shoulder and run away.
You need this. Buy it. Right. Now. It's a tiny, hyper-versatile tripod that's sturdy enough for even a big DSLR. I've taken this on numerous international trips. It fits in a bag, in a jacket, hanging off of a belt loop, et cetera. It's all I need for a quick night timelapse shot while walking around a new town. I recently added the slightly larger but expandable PIXI EVO model.
tiny travel tripod
Manfrotto PIXI EVO
expandable, tad less tiny tripod
While the tiny Manfrotto Pixi is my versatile city and street tripod I needed to complement it with a larger tripod on longer photo journeys. I needed something relatively small and lightweight and I'm also not a professional so I didn't want to spend $1,000+ on a tripod and ball head.
I eventually settled on this Sirui T-025X. It's just about the smallest tripod I could find that could extend a few feet and still collapse and fit inside my backpack and not require being strapped outside. This tripod also has a center column that I removed so that it packs down even smaller.
light carbon fiber tripod
larger quick release plate
It also has a little carabiner under the camera mount so you can attach additional weight to further steady the tripod. I ended up just attaching a water bottle to it most of the time and this did a good job and keep it steady when shooting in the wind.
One thing I didn't like about the T-025X was the tiny mounting plate it came with. It required using a tool to screw into the camera. Too slow for me and I would quickly lose the tool. I purchasing a larger quick release plate which has enough room to use a D-ring screw so I don't need any tools to mount it to my camera.
While this tripod is fantastic for traveling, it's really not a flawless all-around tripod. Even with a solid weight attached to it, it was still a bit shaky during breezy conditions while trying to shoot the moon with my heavy 400mm lens. But you just can't expect a lightweight travel tripod to excel in those conditions.
This was a new one for me. I had been researching shooting on a safari game drive for my trip to Africa and there seemed to be two common ways to shoot, depending on the type of vehicle. For some vehicles that are more open it seemed like one of the most favored things to do was shoot with a large sand bag (travel with it empty and fill locally with beans usually) that you can rest on top of the vehicle or the window sill.
The other option seemed to just be shooting with a monopod. Tripods are a non-starter in this situations with limited room between seats; it would just be a massive hassle. But do you even need such a thing like this if you're shooting during a bright day? Yes! Aside from some vibration reduction, I found the main purpose to be more about shooting with comfort. Shooting with a heavy lens for hours at a time can get very tiring, so I welcomed anything to take some of that burden from time to time.
Sirui P-326 monopod
6 section, Carbon fiber
Sirui tilt head
with quick release plate
I opted to stick with Sirui and go for their carbon fiber model. Then I got their tilt head to make it easier to manipulate camera position. I appreciated the massive knob the tilt head has to adjust the tilt. The last thing I wanted was a tiny knob that would make my fingers sore after adjusting it countless times per day. The only complaint I have is that there is no way to set the end positions for safety. If you're not careful and the dial is even a bit loose, you'll have your camera tilt all the way up or down in an instant. That happened to me quite a few times.
While you can just have the camera always on a shutter release timer to reduce vibration from pressing the shutter button before beginning any long exposure, I find using a wireless control to be much easier.
Foto&Tech IR remote
While the Sony model works extremely well and has solid range, it is quite a bit larger and requires putting an external IR sensor on the camera. Sometimes I just want to toss something in my bag quickly on the off chance I'll need it or when traveling and for that the tiny Foto&Tech remote works fine. It does not have the best range and is hard to operate from behind the camera until you find the right angle but it's pretty cheap.
On more than a few occassions I've ventured out to take sunset photos and had trouble hiking my way back in complete darkness aided by just my phone's weak LED light. I've since added a flashlight to my standard set of camera gear. One that I can charge via USB, lasts for hours and bright enough to light up a path on long night hikes.
1000 lumen, USB-chargeable
Small, 360 lumen, USB
While I got the larger MH12 model for hiking in New Zealand, I ended up adding the much smaller TIP and Tube models for more everyday use and having in my bag at all times just in case. The TIP model in particular came in handy in various situations on my trip to Africa where I needed something basic to get between tents in the evenings.
I first got a GoPro when writing Getting started with drones where I had a DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter with a GoPro and FPV setup. But then I began using the GoPro much more on its own on trips: for underwater usage, easy timelapses and car-mounted video. When I went to New Zealand I found it extremely fun to use the GoPro with a 3-axis gimbal to produce stable video in all conditions. I have a Feiyu Tech gimbal but there are better ones now so I won't bother linking to it.
I have the old GoPro Hero 4 Silver and while I think the GoPro is a perfect travel companion for most situations, I don't use it nearly enough to justify keeping up with the latest models. For my trip to Grand Cayman island I just rented the latest model from BorrowLenses.com (LensRentals.com is also popular), which has a location near San Francisco so I just pickup locally.
That being said there are a few extra accessories I find quite handy for a GoPro. There's a gimbal which I mentioned already. Then having a very strong suction cup mount like the ones by RAM mounts for use in the car or elsewhere. Finally, there are two clip on attachments that are handy depending on what you'll be doing: a polarizer and a red filter. I almost always shoot with the polarizer for richer colors and reduced glare. And having a red filter is handy if you'll be doing a lot of underwater shooting. I didn't take one on my last trip and really regretted the odd colors I got while recording.
I use Level Frames to quickly frame some of my better travel photos to hang around my house. I have about 8 so far and love the quality and simplicity.
I have also started making simple photo books of my trips using Google Photos:
Aside from extra batteries, chargers, external Anker battery packs, lens wipes and lens pens, having a variety of padded wraps and pouches to safely store gear and organize things is always handy. I could probably write another post entirely on all the little stuff sacks I use and how I pack my gear.
Made with cuben fiber
Tenba padded wrap
for lenses and more