The Things I Carry: Tips for the Traveling Photographer

It’s that time of the year again. When nature and landscape photographers all over get the itch to hit the trail and gear-up for the spring shooting season. So much to photograph, so little time. Not to say that winter can’t be a good season for outdoor photography. It can be as long as you’ve got some good, clean white snow to work with. But late winter in the Midwest has a tendency to be a bit dreary and challenging for the creative eye that seeks color, contrast and lively subjects. It seems that the first signs of spring always brings a sense of excitement and renewal for those of us who pursue our passion for image-making.

As I’m writing this entry I’m preparing for my first field outing of the spring season – a weekend of nature, landscape and Civil War battlefield photography down in dear old Virginia, specifically the scenic Shenandoah National Park and at least four major battlefields with the historic town of Culpeper serving as my base of operations.

Perhaps it’s my background from serving in the military, or maybe it just comes from experience, but I like to do as much as I can to prepare for an outing or trip of photography in the field. Like the vast majority of photographers out there – both pros and avid amateurs – my time and resources available for shoots such as this are very limited. I have to make the best of the opportunity available, so I gather my maps and road atlas, measure distances between the locations I want to hit, check the weather forecast, make reservations for overnights, etc.

When it comes to my camera gear I make sure my batteries are charged-up, sensors cleaned and flash cards cleared and ready. These are all important considerations, but I’ve learned from painful experience that it is often the non-photo/camera gear that is packed – or overlooked – that can mean the difference between a successful field photo shoot and a disaster.

Now is a good time for me to inventory and organize the variety of items and tools that keep me going when shooting on the road and in the field. In doing so I’m also presented with an opportunity to share a listing of all that non-photo gear “stuff” that I’ve found to not only be helpful, but a necessity, whether I actually use it or not. Almost all of these kits are either packed and stowed in the back of my Honda Pilot (I actually use the “utility” in SUV) or packed with my camera gear in my LowePro Super Trekker AW II backpack:

Gear Pack #1 –

The Things I Carry gear pack 1 for field and travel photography by Jim Crotty

This one stays in my car, and includes jumper cables, socket wrench set, fuses, tape, and the prerequisite first aid kit. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve used the cables, and I’ve probably dug-in to the first aid kit at least two or three times since I first purchased it, about two years ago.

Gear Pack #2 –

The Things I Carry gear pack 2 for field and travel photography by Jim Crotty

I’ve hiked in knee-deep snow up in Grand Teton National Park on the 4th of July and nearly froze my fingers one April morning while waiting for sunrise in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Cold ears and hands can quickly turn any photo shoot, no matter how exciting the subject, into an uncomfortable experience. My cold weather gear includes hat, ear covers, gloves and thermal socks. Also in this group is perhaps my most often used and least expensive item, a hotel shower cap. This was a tip I picked-up from another nature photographer on what to use to keep your camera dry when shooting in the rain. I’ve used this same shower cap for the last seven years. It’s not custom-made to fit a camera body, but it does the trick.

Gear Pack #3 –

The Things I Carry gear pack 3 for field and travel photography by Jim Crotty

My little zip-pouch-folder where I keep business cards, small promo cards that include sample images, a pen, copies of my standard model release and copies of my standard property release. This one applies more to those photographers who photograph for a living and are perhaps essential for pro photographers when shooting in the field. For one thing you never know who will come across when traveling. Even when on the trail while photographing nature and landscapes I am almost always stopped and asked “who are you shooting for?” or “do you sell your pictures?” or “do you have a web site ?” Also, shots with people enjoying a park or out in nature are highly sought-after images amongst editors, art directors and stock agencies. I work quite a bit with a publisher here in Ohio who publishes many of the city guides for convention and visitors bureaus throughout the state as well as Ohio Magazine. I always keep this in mind when out in the field, and that’s why I carry copies of my standard releases. Usually if someone is in a public place or at a public event, and the image is not just of that particular person, then most photographers can get by without a signed release, however, I’d rather error on the side of caution.

Gear Pack #4 –

Gear Pack #4 Things I Carry for travel and field photography by Jim Crotty

Two Leatherman tools (what can I say, one of them came free with a subscription), GU power gels, my EpiPen auto injectors, dive watch with alarm, tissues, sunscreen and Emergency Pro (flashlight, radio and alarm powered by hand-crank). Oh, and a corkscrew bottle opener. Leatherman tools are always nice to have handy, but make sure you pack them with your check-in luggage when flying. The GU gels are great when you need a quick burst of energy for that last mile to your car. I got hooked on these when I started cycling last year. Not the best tasting in the world, but they’ll do when in a pinch. My allergies to several types of grasses as well as Ragweed are off the scale (literally, my reaction spots were larger than the measuring device when I had my allergy screening). That’s the reason for my EpiPen. Always good to have tissues handy, although I think this is a sign of my old age. It won’t be long before I have box on top of my dashboard or behind the back seat. Sunscreen is self-explanatory, although I usually wait until after I get burned before putting it on. The Emergency Pro is a neat little device I picked-up at Walgreens while waiting for a refill on my allergy medicine. You crank it up to provide power versus having to use batteries. It also includes a number of power connectors for various cell phones. Unfortunately out of this bunch the most often used item is the corkscrew.

Gear Pack #5 –

Gear Pack #5 in pouch Things I Carry for travel and field photography by Jim Crotty

Gear Pack #5 unpacked Things I Carry for travel and field photography by Jim Crotty

Most of the other packs and gear, when not in use, are kept in the back of my car. However, this is the one I always have with me when I’m on the trail. I keep it in the side pouch of my LowePro camera backpack and is a composite of several older “survival kits” mixed with a few personal choices. I able to fit all the items in a 5″x7″ zip lock bag. There’s probably too many to list and describe, so I will say a word or two about the most important items. Neosporin has come in handy a number of times, particularly when one or both of my little assistants (my daughters) are hiking with me. There is almost always going to be a cut, scratch and/or bug bite. My Balance Bar is my back-up food choice (do I put too much emphasis on having food available ??). This is my third bar I’ve included with this pack, so yes, I do eat them out on the trail even when I’m not starving. Just about any other type of energy bar will do, but Balance Bars are my favorite. Toilet paper. Very important. I’ve learned the hard way. No need to go into further details there, but I did have that bad experience while photographing birds at the Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina as well as some close calls in Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio and out on the battlefield at Gettysburg.

More bandages and lip balm as well as a whistle-flashlight-compass-clock thingy that I picked-up out of the National Geographic catalog. It also has a small mirror (once again, you never know who you could meet on the trail) as well as a magnifying glass, just in case my kids need some “exploding ant” entertainment. Cancel that last statement. My kids are girls. More business cards, Advil Cold and Sinus tablets, some half-opened TUMS, eye drops, matches and a little hook and line for when I get REALLY hungry. I think the duct tape is for that very rare possibility that my wife may get some crazy change of mind to go hiking with me and then starts complaining about how I want to stop and photograph everything, how tired she is, how hungry she is, blah, blah, blah.

Gear Pack #6 –

Portable digital darkroom for field photography by Jim Crotty

Here again, this is probably something that applies to pro photographers, a portable, digital “darkroom” for editing and uploading when in the field. If you were to ask me what item represents my absolute favorite piece of gear and equipment – cameras and lenses included – I would have to say it is my MacBook Pro. I am a prior Windows user who switched back to Macs last year, with the purchase of the MacBook. It is an absolutely amazing machine. I run both Photoshop CS2 and Aperture on it. I also have a power adapter for the car as well as Bluetooth capability on my Verizon Pocket PC, which I can use as a modem when there isn’t a wireless network available. My two-year agreement with Verizon ends next month. The Pocket PC is okay, but I have a strong feeling that the iPhone will blow it and all other PDA’s away, so I’m holding out till July. For now this set-up allows me to edit, burn and upload when in the field or traveling, and there have been several times when the client needs the images ASAP or an editor is under a tight deadline. I am longer chained to my desktop system back at my studio. I also have a portable LaCie hard drive just in case in need more memory with this system.

Gear Pack #7 –

Gear Pack #7 Things I Carry for travel and field photography by Jim Crotty

Okay, these items probably fall more within the category of “suggested clothing for nature and landscape photography,” however, I’ve found them to be just as important as a first aid kit, laptop and Balance Bars. My Vasquez hiking boots are now about 10 years old. They’ve been through hell and back, again and again. Soaking wet, full of mud, coated with ice and snow, blistering heat – you name it, these boots have been through it. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of proper boots when hitting the trail. Also, I shoot quite a bit in rainy weather, and this hat (originally purchased about the same time as my boots at a tourist gift shop just outside Bryce Canyon National Park) does a great job in keep the water off my face and off my viewfinder.

So there it is, all the non-camera stuff that I take with me when I hit the road. Most of it I will probably never use, but the peace of mind that comes with being prepared is well worth the investment. Even if I never use some of these items, the chances are pretty good that someone else with me could be in a situation where something as simple as Neosporin could make the difference between an enjoyable outing in nature and a miserable, painful experience for all concerned. Many of these items cost very little and can be found at just about any drugstore, Wal-Mart, Target, etc.

Before heading-out for that state or national park this summer, take a minute or two to inventory your non-photo gear. A little preparation can go a long way.

Now where did I put that cable release ?

About the author: Jim Crotty. Website:

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