5 Tips for Photographers Traveling to the Developing World

The central highlands of Sri Lanka.

The central highlands of Sri Lanka.

1.) LESS IS MORE

Traveling is an inherently frustrating affair. Taxis, buses, trains, planes - it’s easy to find yourself out of sorts as you haul your belongings and expensive camera equipment from place to place. In my experience, each bag I carry increases my frustration level by an order of magnitude.

To ease your pain, lighten your load. It is entirely possible to live for thirty days with two pairs of pants, two t-shirts and two pairs of underwear. Recently a friend turned me on to the joys of convertible travel pants like those sold by North Face and Patagonia. I travel with two pairs - dark gray and khaki - two colors that go with nearly anything. Thirty days deep in the jungles of Sri Lanka demonstrated just how comfortable and flexible such pants can be, quickly zipping into shorts for dips into the lagoon or on days where the heat was unbearable.

When choosing shirts and underwear, look for anything made from merino wool. Merino wool is lightweight, wrinkle resistant, dries quickly, is cool in the summer, warm in the winter and, best of all, it’s naturally antibacterial so it won’t smell. It’s more expensive but the practicality of merino wool T-shirts and underwear cannot be overstated.

Convertible pants, like these from NORTH FACE, are a godsend. I practically wore this pair every day for a month. 

Convertible pants, like these from NORTH FACE, are a godsend. I practically wore this pair every day for a month. 

Whether you're strolling the streets of Paris or bouncing around in the back of a 65-year-old Land Rover in Wasgamuwa you'll be cool and comfortable. Best of all, everything can be washed in a sink, bucket, river or stream making your life that much simpler.

 

2.) CHOOSE A FOCUS

What's more important? Taking great photos or lugging 60 lbs of equipment around? While it may be tempting to pack every lens and camera body you own along with reflectors and your Phantom 4 drone, actually carrying all that gear with you day after day can be a major pain in the ass. Even if you plan on leaving some of your gear in the hotel you run the risk of unscrupulous staff pilfering your bags when you aren’t around. Who needs that headache?  it pays to be realistic here. You can't (and won't) be prepared for every eventuality so pack a light kit and have fun.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This is what overpacking looks like. On my last trip, 75% of this gear didn't get used. Everything that did fit into the bag on the bottom left. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This is what overpacking looks like. On my last trip, 75% of this gear didn't get used. Everything that did fit into the bag on the bottom left. 

Ask yourself; “What am I most interested in photographing on this trip?” Is it the architecture? The people? The food? Once you’ve chosen a focus, pack your kit accordingly. As a portrait photographer, my primary interest is people so I typically will travel with a 50mm f/1.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8. In fact, on my most recent trip to Sri Lanka, I never once swapped lenses, shooting entirely with my 70-200mm 2.8 for an entire month. Were there times that I wished I’d had a wider lens? Of course, but in those cases, I reached for my iPhone which had the dual benefits of a wide lens and video capability.

Remember; high-speed, low-drag. You’ll run circles around other photographers who chose to cart along their entire studio in multiple bags and you’ll challenge yourself to be more creative by limiting your kit. Best of all you can spend your time and energy on enjoying yourself rather than fretting over if your gear is safe or if you’ve forgotten something.

A good exercise is to limit yourself to a single backpack. Pair down your clothing, toiletries, and gear as much as possible to ensure that everything fits into that bag. If it doesn't fit you've got too much stuff. Eliminate something and try again. 
 

3.) THINK AHEAD FOR DATA

It’s very easy to take for granted the fact that in the first world high-speed internet is practically a birthright. Internet in the developing world, however, is often a work in progress. If you’re planning on traveling to the developing world and spending any amount of time online it’s crucial to think ahead. If you have an unlocked smartphone make certain you buy a local sim card when you get where you’re going. Data is relatively cheap by first-world standards when purchased this way. Roaming on your domestic network, however, is not.

If your phone is not unlocked, no problem. Simply purchase an older, unlocked phone that can double as a wi-fi hotspot online and install a sim card from a local carrier when you arrive at your destination. You’ll be an island unto yourself and won’t be at the mercy of questionable or otherwise shoddy wi-fi connections wherever you may find yourself.


4.) BRING OUTLET ADAPTERS & A SQUID

I have a rule for mission critical items; two is one and one is none. When traveling overseas it's vital to plan ahead when it comes to keeping all of your electronics charged up and topped off.

This little fire-hazard situation was the result of poor planning. Due to a shortage of proper outlet adapters charging capacity was in short supply. A little ingenuity solved the problem but not before blowing a few fuses through trial and error.

This little fire-hazard situation was the result of poor planning. Due to a shortage of proper outlet adapters charging capacity was in short supply. A little ingenuity solved the problem but not before blowing a few fuses through trial and error.

Be certain that you are clear on what outlet adapters are necessary for the region of the globe you'll be visiting and then buy more than one adapter. You'll also want to purchase a power strip to expand your charging capabilities or, better yet, a squid (pictured below.) 
 

A power squid makes simple work of charging electronics with bulky power adapters. I prefer these over the more commonly used power strips.

A power squid makes simple work of charging electronics with bulky power adapters. I prefer these over the more commonly used power strips.

5.) DON'T RELY ON CHEAP EXTERNAL HARD DRIVES

If you're on the road, chances are you're shooting to memory cards, backing up to external hard drives and sorting through everything later. When it comes to purchasing external hard drives there is no substitute for quality. Stick with well-known brands like LaCie (rugged) or G-Tech. Avoid the temptation to purchase lesser brands to save a few dollars. I've been burned more than once by substandard hard drives that failed for no apparent reason when I needed them most. 

BONUS TIP: Never format your memory cards and re-use them unless you've backed everything up to TWO separate hard drives. If an external hard drive fails you can always return to your original memory cards as a plan-B. Remember, when it comes to backups of mission-critical data two is one, one is none.

Do you have any travel tips? If so, let me know!

Keep shooting, 

-C