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Travel Photography: Doing More with Less

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Khara Plicanic, author of Your Camera Loves You: Learn to Love It Back, is an adventurer at heart. Though she loves to record her travels with photos, she's not crazy about lugging the weight of a full-size camera and a hefty bag of gear to every new destination. With a lot of research and a little experimentation, she's found a way to ditch the extra bulk yet still capture incredible images to share with folks back home.
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You've been there. It's late at night, your early morning flight to someplace exciting leaves in only a few short hours—and you still haven't packed. Forget about which shoes to bring. The real question is, how much gear can you stash in your carry-on?

Even though my husband and I consider ourselves very light travelers (weeks at a time with only a backpack), selecting and packing photography gear for "trip of a lifetime" excursions is not done without care.

Questions like these were becoming all too familiar: "Which camera body should we bring? How many lenses are really too many? Laptop?" "Of course we need the laptop! Do you think our images will process and blog themselves?! Pfft!""

My usual travel rig includes a dSLR body and two lenses (50mm/1.2 and 16-35mm/2.8). And because I'm a freak about storing my gear properly (I know other professional shooters who stash their personal photo gear in their purse, wrapped in a sock!), toting even the most modest of rigs, such as a body and two lenses, also means bringing along a dedicated camera bag to keep everything in. Boo.

When we got the opportunity to go camel trekking in Morocco's Sahara desert and camping in a bivouac tent, I knew we would need a new solution. Riding a camel through the desert to sleep in a tent in the sand is awesome, but it's not the kind of trip where I want to carry around an extra 25 pounds of photo gear! (I'm sure the camel would agree.) What's a gal to do?

Small Gear for Big Opportunities

Thankfully, manufacturers are building some pretty rad cameras these days, packing a whole lot of photographic punch into compact—and lightweight—models offering coveted features like full manual control combined with pocket-sized portability and a decent resolution. Score!

Like any totally rational person, before jumping on the plane I did a ton of research. Then I agonized over my favorite focal lengths and apertures, and spent eternity debating between obsessing over the differences between Canon's S95 and G12 before ultimately deciding on the S95. Once I had made a decision, the question became whether I would eventually chicken out and bring along my big rig anyway. After all, wouldn't it make me crazy to witness the most glorious of all sunsets amidst the sand dunes without a full-frame sensor, my favorite wide-angle lens, and a boatload of megapixels?

Happily, once we were airborne, I didn't look back. In fact, I reveled in my newfound photographic freedom, taking advantage of every opportunity to push the envelope and see what I could get away with while using this tiny but impressive pocket-sized camera. (Check out Figures 1–7 for some examples.)

Figure 1 The majestic dunes of Morocco's Sahara Desert, as captured from atop a camel.

Figure 2 The 28mm focal length of Canon's S95 was wide enough to convey the vastest of the dunes.

Figure 3 The patterns in the sand were an endless source of fascination.

Figure 4 The small size of the S95 (with optional neck strap) made it easy to sling over a shoulder and grab shots like this while perched atop a camel.

Figure 5 Shutter-lag on the S95 is virtually nil, enabling shots like this one, where timing is critical.

Figure 6 The color rendering of the S95 was impressively rich. Too bad we were traveling with just backpacks—so many beautiful things, so little packing space!

Figure 7 The size and weight of our compact camera was so unnoticeable, I had to check now and then just to be sure that I hadn't left it behind somewhere! As a result, I had it with me everywhere—including when we stopped at this restaurant for dinner.

Because we saved so much room by bringing along only a compact point-and-shoot camera, we had plenty of space to pack a small gorillapod, too, making long exposures like the ones in Figures 8–10 easily attainable in almost any location, including the streets of London during an extended stopover.

Figure 8 This 15-second exposure was captured in such dark conditions that I wasn't even sure of what was in the frame. Our small tripod not only helped to steady the camera, but allowed me to make changes to composition between captures.

Figure 9 London's Trafalgar Square, as captured in a five-second exposure with the Gorillapod placed atop a ledge. The minimum aperture of f/8 is responsible for the starbursts.

Figure 10 Even in a brightly lit scene like London's Trafalgar Square, the Gorillapod, f/8, and an ISO 80 helped me to pull off this five-second exposure, softening the flow of water from the fountain.

The bonus? Because our gear was so lightweight and easy to tuck into a purse or pocket, I'm convinced that we got considerably more use out of it than if we had brought the big rig instead. We certainly enjoyed less hassle from curious customs officers, too.

Bottom line—we were hooked!

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