6 Travel Photography Accessories Always in My Bag
As a traveling photographer, there are specific items I won’t travel without. Of course my Fuji X-T4 with my trusty 16-55 zoom lens goes, but the rest varies a bit depending on where I’m going and how long I’ll be gone. I like to travel light, which can be a little hard when you’re carrying camera gear! No matter what though, I make sure these travel photography accessories are always in my camera bag.
Essential Travel Photography Accessories:
what | why | how much
Circular Polarizing Filter
A great quality CPL is one of the most essential travel photography accessories for several reasons. Commonly referred to as a CPL, a polarizing filter has several important uses in photography. In photography, CPL stands for Circular Polarizer/Linear. The filter rotates on the lens, allowing fine adjustment of the effect.
What is a CPL?
Exactly how does a CPL filter work? It has to do with the physics of light waves. Essentially, when light waves pass through polarized glass, some are “straightened out” or blocked. Frankly, physics is not my area – it’s a bit tricky to explain.
A simple example is to think of polarized sunglasses. These are especially popular with boaters and skiers, since it makes it easier to see along a slope or into water. If you’ve ever worn a pair, no doubt you’ve noticed that the skies are more saturated and reflections on glass or water seemingly disappear.
What Does a CPL Do?
A CPL is used most often to reduce glare, manage reflections, and intensify blue skies. Even when it doesn’t serve those purposes, it is still useful. A naked lens is vulnerable to damage from dust, dirt, impact, and scratches. If a lens and camera are weather-resistant, a lens filter completes the sealing. Outside of a studio, I would never skip a filter on my lens. Lens hoods can be bulky and won’t protect against every type of damage.
It’s better to replace a cracked or scratched filter – camera lenses are expensive to repair or replace. UV filters aren’t necessary, and if one comes with a camera kit it’s likely poor quality. Always buy the best quality filter you can afford.
They will be more durable, made of higher quality glass (anything going in front of your lens should not be cheap), and will be more effective. Cheap filters can reduce sharpness or cause weird dark spots because the polarizing effect is uneven.
While a CPL (or nearly any type of filter) will reduce light coming into the lens by about 1 stop, which isn’t always desirable. An ND filter though, will reduce the light coming into the lens by anywhere from 2-10 stops.
Why Reduce Light?
What is a stop in photography? A stop is a measure of light quantity. Think about it like steps. In fact, you may hear the term “stopping down a lens”, which is when a smaller aperture is used in order to slow or reduce light coming through the lens.
It may not seem obvious as to why it would be desirable to reduce the light. Typically it’s “better” to have more light hitting the sensor – allowing for lower ISO settings, faster shutter speeds, or greater depth of field.
The reason for an ND filter is largely creative. When you see photographs of beautiful landscapes with silky water, skies with streaks of cottony-candy like clouds, or a street scene filled with Monet-like figures – it’s likely an ND filter was used. This is even more likely if the photo was taken during the day time.
Other Ways to Use an ND Filter
An ND filter can also be used to empty a busy location in the middle of the day. When there is a long enough exposures, moving elements essentially disappear from the image. In theory, one could just about “empty” Times Square with a long enough exposure.
Another reason to have an ND filter handy, not commonly considered, is photographing a very bright scene with a very wide aperture. Since a wide aperture lets in lots of light, it may happen that there is now way too much light.
If the ISO is set as low as possible, and the shutter can’t be set any faster (most cameras top out at 1/8000th of a second), and ND filter is the only way prevent the photo from being hopelessly overexposed.
Rugged Card Case
Most camera bags have a pocket to store memory cards. I would not recommend storing memory cards in these pockets. They are either hard to get to, or it’s too easy for a card to slip around, becoming damaged or even lost. If the bag isn’t waterproof, a spill or downpour could soak your cards.
Keep Your Memory Cards Safe
It’s absolutely worth investing in a rugged card case. I’ve had my Gepe Card Safe Extreme for at least a decade, but it looks practically brand new. While the most rugged, Gepe is not the cheapest option. There are affordable good-quality alternatives, and many are at least water and impact resistant.
Even though I back up my photos daily (unless it’s a very short weekend trip), I always keep multiple cards in rotation. Depending on your particular camera, an entire vacation could fit on a 64GB SD card. They’ve become very affordable, so it’s tempting to pop a large capacity card in your camera and be done with it.
A Word on High Capacity Memory Cards
One of the biggest mistakes new photographers make, is keeping an entire trip or event on just one or two memory cards. If that card is lost, damaged, or becomes corrupted – it’s all gone. It may sound dramatic, but I’d rather loose my wallet (which I did, in Spain) than even one day’s worth of travel photos.
Since my Fuji X-T4 spits out sizable files, a 32GB memory card does the trick. I have a second (at least) on hand, but even if I don’t fill up the first card that day I use a different one the next. Sometimes I forget to back up that day’s travel photos, but even if I do it’s an extra layer of security. On shorter trips I carry enough cards that I can use a different one each day. That way if something happens to my backups, I’m still covered.
Portable SSD Hard Drive
Following on the keeping travel photos safe theme, a durable travel hard drive is essential. I bought the SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD a couple years ago. It has been reliable, and I’ve used it a lot! This drive is made to be rugged: 2 meter drop protection and IP55 water/dust resistance. It’s also tiny – smaller than my hand and very thin.
Choosing the Right Hard Drive for Travel
Of course this isn’t in my bag when I’m out and about, but it definitely comes with me on my travels. It takes up very little space, and I am able to use it with my iPad, since I don’t usually travel with my laptop. It comes in capacities from 500GB all the way to 4TB! It’s also one of the more affordable options from a trusted brand.
A travel hard drive is not the same as a regular one you might use at home. Hard drives – especially disc based – can be fragile. Even seemingly mild bumps and jolts can scramble a traditional hard drive. No matter which brand you might choose, make sure it’s an SSD – Solid State Drive.
I was lucky to get my Sandisk Extreme on sale for under $100. Currently the same one sells for about $110. It might seem like a lot of money, but it’s definitely not an area to pinch pennies on. While any hard drive can fail, it’s risky business to gamble your photos on saving $30-$50 on an unknown or untested brand.
If I’m being 100% honest, most of the time I don’t end up using my tripod! The quality of higher ISOs on my Fuji X-T4 combined with the excellent image stabilization allows me to use shutter speeds as low as 1/2 second and still get sharp images.
However, the times I don’t bring a tripod, I almost always regret it. And even if I don’t carry it every time I go out, I do bring a tripod on every trip. Of the three tripods I own, my ultra compact travel tripod get the most use – it’s incredibly lightweight and compact without being flimsy.
Choosing a Travel Tripod
Tripods – especially ultra lightweight carbon fiber versions from the likes of Manfrotto or Peak Design – can cost hundreds of dollars. Carbon fiber has long been considered the best material for a tripod to be made from – due to its high strength to weight ratio and durability.
However aluminum has come a long way, and both of my tripods are aluminum. It’s not necessary to spend a fortune for a good quality tripod that is sturdy enough for most gear and will last many years. For 95% of photographers, as long as you don’t recklessly abuse your tripod, carbon fiber is not necessary.
My preferred brand these days is Sirui tripods (pronounced Soo-Ray) – it’s an excellent balance of quality and price. My Sirui T-1005X supports up to 22 pounds of gear, is taller, and a bit more robust. It can still weigh me down when carrying it all day – weighing 2.7 pounds and about 14 inches collapsed.
When every ounce counts, I use the Sirui AM-005K with a slightly smaller ball head. It weighs about 2 pounds with the ball head. It’s also barely a foot long collapsed, so it fits into almost any bag I use. It supports up to 11 pounds of gear – far more than my heaviest camera-lens combo of maybe 4 pounds.
Since a lighter tripod can be more susceptible to tipping over, I always keep a hand right next to my setup just in case. I also don’t let go until I’m sure the tripod is firmly seated in position. This is still a good habit to have no matter what tripod you use.
Alternative to a Normal Tripod
If I’m really going minimalist, I’ll take the Joby GorillaPod instead. It’s perfect for ultra low angles or wrapping around objects like fences, poles, or branches. You do need to be very careful positioning this – the heavier your camera setup, the more care in balancing the Gorilla Pod necessary. Also the legs don’t hold as well around slender or slick objects.
There are several models of the GorillaPod, not all of which are suitable for “big” camera setups. The 3K, which I have, supports up to 6.6 pounds of weight. I wouldn’t test that anywhere near the limit though. I only use it with my lighter kit, especially in more acrobatic positioning of the jointed legs. The 5K is rated for up to 11 pounds, but at that point it makes more sense to use a proper tripod like the Sirui AM-005K mentioned above.
This is likely not what you think of in terms of travel photography accessories. But not all photography tools are obvious, or even originally intended for photography.
What is Gaffer Tape?
The name comes from the job of “Gaffer” – the person on film or TV sets responsible for lighting and electric. It’s used to secure cables, keeping things tidy and avoiding trip hazards. It’s also common in photo studios for the same purposes. It comes in various colors, but I always get black for my purposes.
So what is gaffer tape anyway? Gaffer tape is a cloth-backed tape that is easy to tear and has really good “stick”. It doesn’t leave sticky residue or damage (most) surfaces when used for short periods.
Is Gaffer Tape that Useful?
So why on earth is gaffer tape – something used on movie sets and in photography studios – part of my travel photography kit? It has been useful many times: to repair torn fabric, secure straps, and even to fashion a makeshift lens hood when I’ve forgotten mine. I may not take it for an afternoon wander around town, but like the SSD, it still comes on all my trips.
I’ve found the 2 inch width to be perfect. Since I do also shoot studio-based work, I use it for other types of photography besides travel. Once a roll gets down to about 1/4 of its original size, I throw it in with my travel kit. A roll only costs about $6 and seems to last just about forever
How much are these travel photography accessories?
It will depend on the filter size, as each lens will have a different filter thread. For example, my 16-55 has a thread size of 77mm but my 70-300 has a thread size of 67mm. There are cheap filters, but this is not an area to skimp on. Cheap filters often have a number of issues: more easily scratched, uneven polarization, weak polarization, block more light.
A good quality CPL should be multicoated, made of brass or anodized aluminum, and ideally be labeled as “slim” (or similar), which blocks as little light as possible. This makes it easier to use them in dimmer conditions without having to crank ISO or make other compromises.
For a 67mm filter, expect to pay about $40-$65 for a good quality filter. A top quality filter can run from around $70 to over $100. Don’t worry about designations like “digital”, as that isn’t really meaningful – digital sensors don’t need different types of CPL than film. Schott glass is regarded as some of the highest quality optical glass made, used in most high end brands. Japanese optical glass is also quite well regarded, and generally easier on the wallet.
When searching for ND filters you may have come across something called a variable ND filter. These allow you to change the intensity of the ND, from blocking more or less light. I strongly advise against getting one of these, even though the price and variability are tempting.
There are two reasons I don’t recommend this. The first is a matter of practicality. Particularly in travel photography, a CPL will be needed (or at least desirable) in most situations. Because a CPL works by rotating the filter, you can’t stack it onto another filter that also rotates. Trying to change one but not the other would be nearly impossible. Typically a rotating filter will not have front threads, as it’s intended to go directly on a lens or be in front of any other filters.
The other reason is that variable ND filters are notoriously inconsistent. From the accuracy of the filter intensity to consistency across the image, there is a significant likelihood of difficult or impossible to fix image quality issues. One of the most common problems is a dark X across the image, particularly with wide angle lenses.
So what ND filter should you buy, and how much should it cost? The cost of an ND filter will go up based on size and density. So, a 62mm ND filter with 3 stop density will be cheaper than a 62mm ND filter with 10 stop density. A 3 stop filter will reduce a 1/500th exposure to 1/60th of a second. A 10 stop will drop that down to a full 2 seconds of exposure.
Since ND filters are most often used in brighter situations, I recommend starting with an 8-10 stop filter that fits your largest lens. You can then use a step-down ring to use it on smaller lenses. A good quality 10 stop ND filter, for a 62mm lens will cost around $90. Just like a CPL, multi-coating, brass or anodized aluminum rings, and Schott glass are all markers of quality.
Rugged Card Case
The Gepe Card Safe extreme is $30 and holds 4 SD cards. However, if you’re not in extreme environments, then there are more practical and affordable options. A less rugged card case will cost around $10-$15. Just make sure the it holds cards in place firmly, but doesn’t make it impossible to get them out.
Portable SSD Hard Drive
The Sandisk Extreme Portable SSD comes in 500GB ($80) to 4TB ($350) capacities. I find the 1TB model ($110) ample storage even for months of travel. Samsung, La Cie, and Western Digital all make similar SSDs in varying capacities. They are established brands in computing – important when entrusting your image backups to them,
While Sirui is my current brand (excellent quality and value), there are nearly endless options. For average use, you don’t need to spend a ton of money on a tripod. A moderately priced tripod will suit most casual use. Invest in a good quality ball head – a cheap ball head will wear out and will be harder to use.
The Joby GorillaPod is only $40. The Sirui AM-005K came with a compact but good quality ball head for just under $100 – an incredible value. The T-1005X also came with a ball head for $140. This has been updated to the A1005, at the same price. The Sirui T-025X ($240 with ball head) is about the same size as the AM-005K but is carbon fiber and weighs a spritely 1.7 pounds.
Not all brands offer good travel tripod options. Field Optics, Oben, and MeFoto (by Benro) have reasonable pricing. Premium brands include several models from Benro, Gitzo, Manfrotto, and 3 Legged Thing.
The simplest and most straightforward of all the items on this list – and the cheapest – a 12 yard roll of gaffer tape will only set you back about $6. It is easily found on B&H Photo Video, Amazon, or Adorama.
Putting Together Your Travel Photography Kit
Figuring out what to carry for your travel photography can get a little overwhelming, especially in the beginning. Start with less – you don’t want to wind up with expensive gear that’s hard to resell. Watch out for the cheap stuff too – buying on price alone can mean replacing things more often, or a basket of random accessories you don’t need. There’s no shortage of travel photography accessories available – start slow and buy things that support your style of travel and photography.