Traveling Smart as a Destination Photographer with Michelle Turner
I am a destination photographer. I photograph weddings, portraits and commercial gigs, and the one thing that is consistent across all genres is that I travel quite a long distance to most of my shoots. As a destination photographer, I’m constantly trying to simplify and protect my gear as I travel—it’s my goal to arrive at my destination (and back home again!) with all of my gear undamaged and my images intact.
I’m normally on bigger planes, but sometimes I’m on small regional planes. I’ve been rerouted on 10-seater planes, night buses and crowded commuter trains. I’ve traveled across international borders on the top of buses and on foot after my original travel plans were interrupted. I try to be prepared for any scenario, and follow four rules when I pack my bags:
- My gear needs to be easy for me to carry.
- It needs to fly under the radar of potential thieves.
- It needs to be protected from the elements.
- It needs to fit on even the smallest (or most unconventional!) vehicles while remaining in my possession.
I plan for the smallest vehicle on which I might find myself, and I choose my bag accordingly.
I like my bags to be small and light rather than overstuffed. Since most airlines allow two carry-on bags (even on international flights), I carry a backpack and an ONA bag. The great thing about this is that if I end up on a smaller plane that allows only one carry-on bag, I can condense them into one bag by fitting the ONA into the expandable backpack. No matter what, I make sure the backpack can fit under the seat in front of me since overhead space is unpredictable. Both bags are international carry-on compliant just in case they are ever measured (this has never happened to me, though, because my gear never looks oversized).
I am a gear minimalist. I shoot mirrorless (Fujifilm), so my gear is already smaller than most, but I also shoot mostly primes and I carry a total of two bodies and four lenses, even to the most extensive shoots. With the exception of family portraits (which I photograph exclusively wide), I shoot every scene two ways: wide and tight. I’m a two-body shooter for weddings and commercial gigs, so that works out well—I have a wide lens on one body (the 16mm Fujifilm, which is a 24mm equivalent) and a longer lens on the other (the 56mm Fujifilm, which is an 85mm equivalent).
As with every session, I have backups. While the 16 and the 56 are my most-loved and most-used lenses, I occasionally need to shoot wider or tighter, so the two other lenses in my bag can serve as backups for my primary lenses in case one of those breaks either mid-shoot or en route.
Every piece of gear needs to serve a very clear purpose, but in order to have a backup, I choose gear that overlaps when I select my third and fourth lenses. My clients expect to see wide and tight options, so I also carry a Fujfilm 10–24mm and a 90mm. Those two lenses allow me to shoot wider and tighter than my primary lenses, but they can also take the place of those primary lenses if I break either one.
In other words, I have something else that will do the job and will allow me to provide what my clients are expecting without carrying an exact replica. This allows me to maximize a limited amount of space in my bags.
Because I frequently travel to a location for a shoot that will occur on just one day (no rescheduling or reshoots!), I need to be prepared to create my own light. Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate, and I need to provide images with beautiful light even if the natural light isn’t all that beautiful or golden hour never comes. I choose the best light I can that comes in the most portable package, so most of the time I travel with three Profoto A1’s. Because space is at a premium, I work with umbrellas—I carry both a translucent and a reflective umbrella, which cover all of my needs for my style in the field and are completely collapsible and can be strapped to the side of my backpack.
Whether I need to spread or contain the light, I’m covered. With a collection of corrective gels, I can match or create any temperature of light that I need, and I can even recreate golden hour. I carry a monopod if I need to hold my lights myself, and a small light stand in case I need to set up my light farther away. I don’t work with an assistant for most of my shoots, so I always have a roll of duct tape and a bungee cord/carabiner on hand to help me secure my light stand/gear to something (they are also helpful for making repairs).
Finally, there are a few accessories I bring on location. My laptop goes into either of my bags. My bags also include three times the backup batteries and three times the memory cards I think I’ll need (all precharged and preformatted large-capacity cards). That way, I’m never in a position where I feel like I need to charge batteries or format cards while on location and when I need to change cards on the fly. I’ve found that most memory errors stem from operator error rather than memory card failure—after all, I’m most likely to make mistakes or misplace something when I’m under pressure—so I minimize the need to change or format cards.
I have the once-in-a-lifetime shoot mentality, so I’m shooting backups. In other words, I photograph one card in my dual-slot camera in Raw and one card in the other slot in JPEG. While I prefer to use the Raw files, I’m comfortable using either if one card fails.
My post-shoot workflow is just as important as the gear I bring. I want to protect my gear, but I also want to protect my images on the way home. Because of that, I make a copy of my cards on an external hard drive, and then I separate out my files and keep them in three places. My hard drive lives in my backpack, my Raw cards live in my ONA bag and my JPEG cards are in a small card holder in my jacket pocket (on my body).
That way, if one bag (or even both) gets stolen or damaged, I always have another copy of my images. I’m less worried about my gear on the way home because I’m well insured. The gear can be replaced with an insurance claim, but the images can’t be, so they are my top priority. If I have fantastic Internet access while on location (very rare), I upload my JPEG files to my PhotoShelter account, which gives me unlimited image storage.
When I get home from the shoot, I store my Raw cards off-site until I can process the shoot. Only after I’m finished with the images and everything has been delivered to the client do I bring the cards home and format them and put them back into rotation.
Make it a habit to check and clean your gear after every location shoot—you can’t imagine the amount of dust and sand that accumulates in a bag while on location, and it’s a nasty surprise to find that you have a dirty sensor when you are shooting stopped down in the field without any sensor cleaner. My gear always travels in tip-top shape so I can focus on making great images.