The DSLR Travel Kit

I recently wrote an article on sansmirror.com listing several seriously compact, simple, kits of camera and lenses that minimized size and weight for all around travel photography. Today I’m going to tackle the same subject from a Nikon DSLR standpoint.

In my previous article I listed six key factors I was trying to balance in creating a minimal travel kit (dealing with light, perspective, focal variety, position, vulnerability, and fatigue). Generally the last two of those factors are the things that cause DSLR users to start leaving gear back in their hotel room as they travel with their existing kit.

I won’t quite hit the same size/weight goals with Nikon DSLRs as I did with mirrorless. There are two reasons for that: (1) I’d assume that the reason to take a DSLR over something else is that you’re pretty darned critical about image quality; and (2) Despite some downsizing recently, Nikon hasn’t exactly rushed to make smaller, lighter DSLR gear.  

For me, my DSLR travel kit recently has been the D7200, the 16-80mm f/2.8-4E lens, and the 70-200mm f/4 lens. This actually gives me more reach than most of the mirrorless kits I described, but it comes with a size/weight penalty: we’re easily double the weight at 2kg (4.4 pounds). With the D7200, there’s another penalty: no tilting LCD, so less flexibility with position. 

We can solve the tilting LCD problem with a D5500, but then we start invoking other penalties, such as only being able to shoot with Compressed NEF, which decimates highlight information in raw files. We also take a step back in autofocus capability and a few other features.

Which brings me to an aside. The way I see it, you have four basic options for travel photography these days, in order of increasing image quality and flexibility:

1. Your smartphone.

2. An all-in-one compact, such as the latest Sony RX-10 for a true all-in-one experience, or something smaller and simpler such as the Panasonic LX-100 for a more basic approach. The problem at this level is that you’re compromising low light performance, and travel photography tends to have a lot of indoor and night opportunities in it.

3. The mirrorless kits I described in my previous article.

4. Picking a DSLR, the point of this article.

I’m trying to find a balance between all the variables. There’s no one perfect answer, and your tolerance for some of the variables may be different than mine. But I’m still pretty certain that you need to think clearly about this and make sure that your pick of 1,2,3, or 4 is based upon a complete and rational analysis, not a knee-jerk reaction to what you’ve already got or what the latest and most hyped product is.

We’re at US$3500 for the D7200 kit I describe. A number of people wrote in response to my sansmirror.com article that DSLRs would be less expensive. Yes, that’s true if you already have some of the components, but to get better pricing than the mirrorless kits I described, you may have to start sacrificing quality (e.g. D5500 for D7200, 70-300mm for 70-200mm, etc.). At what point then, does DSLR become a clear step upward from mirrorless if you’re making quality sacrifices?

Personally, I also travel with the Tokina 11-16mm when the D7200 is my travel camera, so I’m starting to pile up weight and cost compared to the simple kits I described in my mirrorless article. 

By way of exact comparison, below on the right you’ll find the exact mirrorless kit I used on my recent travels compared to the equivalent I’d have used with a Nikon DSLR on the left (this is a single shot of both items side by side on my light bench, so the size differential you see is accurate).

My contention with travel kits is that they need to be compact and versatile, and that you need to be willing to carry everything with you at all times, lest you miss photographic opportunities. As it is, the Nikon DSLR kit just illustrated maxes out at 120mm equivalent, the Sony mirrorless kit on the right maxes out 100mm equivalent, so neither has much telephoto oomph. On the other hand, they’re both capable of shooting very wide (16.5 mm equivalent for the Nikon, 15mm equivalent for the Sony) and in close, tight spaces, which happens a lot when you’re traveling, especially inside museums and other tourists spots. That’s why the above two choices are my current basic go-to, bare-bones travel kits.

So yes, you can build a DSLR travel kit. I’ve given my basic suggestions above (D7200, 16-80mm, 70-200mm, or D7200, 11-16mm, 16-80mm depending upon whether you favor telephoto or wide angle). If you want to substitute a D500 for the D7200, I wouldn’t stop you, but you’re adding cost and weight. I would probably try to dissuade you from picking a D5500, as you don’t save any tangible size/weight and the only real gain you receive is a tilting LCD and fewer dollars spent, but at the expense of a bunch of real losses in focus system, features, and even in image quality (unless all you shoot is JPEG).

But wait, you say, what about FX? 

Anyone who asks that question is basically saying “I don’t want to compromise.” Yes, you can build an FX travel kit, but I think you’re starting to increase cost, vulnerability, and fatigue. You’re certainly not in the target that my original article attempted to address. Moreover, you may start compromising lens very quickly. 

For example, I’d suggest that a D610/D750 with the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 would be a good base to start from. You can add the 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 for wide, or the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 for telephoto. But these lenses are aperture compromised at extremes, so you’re giving back some if not all of what you gained by picking FX over DX. These are decent lenses, but not top quality lenses: center sharpness is fine, but all three tend to perform less well than someone arguing for “I don’t want to compromise” would want when used wide open or when you need corner performance. You’re also not getting any additional subject isolation from the larger sensor. 

So why was it you wanted FX in the first place? I’m just not convinced that Nikon FX (or Canon full frame) is the right choice to center a travel package around. 

Okay, there’s one travel possibility with FX I didn’t mention: lose the zooms. A D750 with the 20mm/24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm f/1.8 lenses is a bit of a powerhouse in modest proportions. The lenses are all light and relatively small, and they perform quite well. The combo of the D750 sensor and the f/1.8 apertures gives you deep flexibility in low light, plus you’ve re-gained the ability to use subject isolation with the fast apertures.

But the cost is juggling. You’re juggling four lenses. That almost certainly means that some (or all) are in a pack or bag you’re carrying. And you’ve just compromised your shooting spontaneity. Heck, you may have lost it entirely. Moreover, you’re now juggling a bag. You’re either keeping that bag handy and partly in your way all the time, or you’re setting it down to shoot (remember the vulnerability factor I mentioned in the original article; we’re trying to avoid that). 

So maybe two or three well chosen primes. Now we’re starting to compromise flexibility. I’m okay with that if you are, but be careful. One of the things about impromptu travel photography is that you’re going to encounter situations that are spontaneous and that you’re not able to micromanage (e.g. quickly moving into a shooting position because you’ve only got a 24mm lens on the camera). 

Yes, I know HCB (that would be Henri Cartier-Bresson) managed his street photography with only one lens, but he also spent weeks getting one great photo. The premise of the original travel article I wrote was that you had two weeks and were moving from place to place, and you want to come home with a good variety of images that reflect what you saw in your travels. 

We all choose photographic gear to balance our needs for any given situation we intend to shoot in. What I’ve tried to give you in these two articles is some advice on how I think about achieving a reasonable balance. But don’t just willy-nilly take my advice. Think about your goals, your needs, your impediments, plus what you want to accomplish, and then figure out what gear set best helps you achieve that. 

I hope I’ve given you something to think about and focus those thoughts with these articles. 


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