So you’re going on that journey of a lifetime, and you want to document it. Take pictures, write detailed blog posts, send out real-time updates to friends and family. Or at least, this is the grand plan you set out to achieve. The end result usually turns out to be sporadic updates on your favorite social network, along with a few selfies and a few more pictures with semi-detailed captions. The best anecdotes and stories you share verbally with a few close friends or colleagues, and it’s all forgotten. If you’re like me, maybe a blog post will come out of it in a couple of months.
There’s always folks who’re going to debate you on this, and I will too – Are you going there for the experience, or for the pictures and words you’re going to get out of it? If you answer this question first, you can set clear priorities that will help you make your decisions. For example, when I go on a photography trip, I pack as much gear as I need, and build my itinerary in such a way that I am at the best spots in the best light. Conversely, when I’m just out exploring, I just have my DSLR with one lens fixed and that’s it. If I get a good shot out of the trip, I’m happy. I’ll also probably shoot way more often with my phone than with my DSLR.
Video clips add an interesting dimension to documenting a trip – some things are conveyed better through videos. Things like the speed of a bullet train or the intensity of emotions at the Wagah border ceremony are typical examples. Your smartphone or a compact camera can make decent videos, but if you are focussed on making a lot of videos, a compact video camera system like a GoPro would be a good choice.
Writing about stuff is way more simpler, or way more complicated – depending on how you look at it. There’s the immediacy factor that is served by social network updates – this is for when you have to scream out “I am here now!” to everyone you know. Then there’s the ‘feeling’ factor that touches the writer’s chord in you – “I’m feeling this feeling NOW and if I don’t write it down now, it will be lost forever.” And then there is the compulsive journaling that some of us indulge in – “Having breakfast – 4 puris and bhaji and a masala chai for just Rs. 12.50 – how cheap this is!” There are a lot of approaches to this, and there is much to be said for writing immediately versus writing at the end of every day versus making notes and writing all at the end of the trip (almost never happens).
However, when you are planning a longish trip (Anything more than an extended weekend is for me, a longish trip. Your definition might vary.) it pays to think ahead a bit so that you take along everything that you need without carrying a bunch of stuff you end up not using at all.
Over the years, one thing I’ve learned is that we do easier things more often, and difficult things less often. Especially when traveling. I’d rather click pictures of my delicious-looking dish with my phone than bother to pull out my DSLR, switch to the appropriate lens and then proceed to spend the next five minutes setting the thing up so that the light hits it at exactly the right angle. Phone cameras have become better and better, and it just doesn’t make sense to ignore them. Also, they’re always with you.
So, that makes item number one on your list your phone – which doubles as your camera as well.
I would strongly recommend carrying a compact camera as well with you – something that is small enough to carry in the front pocket of your jeans without causing you any discomfort. Give them to strangers to click pictures of you in spectacular places – they are less fiddly than your smartphone and easier to figure out for anyone. They are great to use indoors, especially in places where a DSLR would be more obtrusive and more discreet equipment will be appropriate. However, I don’t recommend using them in places where photography is forbidden – getting yelled at during a vacation is definitely not a pleasant experience – and in extreme settings, this might get your equipment confiscated, or you jailed.
Unless the focus of your trip (or at least part of it) is photography, I don’t recommend carrying your DSLR at all.
As I said before, writing is trickier. I consider two things indispensable – my smartphone and a paper notebook. A lot of the time, my smartphone is enough, but there is no denying that it’s a bit fiddly, and quite power-intensive. This is where the paper notebook comes in – it helps in low-power situations or where you need to make notes unobtrusively when someone is talking. It’s also relatively easy to carry around. A bunch of cheap ball-point pens are good to have in different pockets of your luggage. One good thing to plan is a writing schedule – unlike photography, which has to be done in the moment and when pictures present themselves, writing has to be a bit more planned – if you don’t plan, you won’t do it regularly. Late at night before falling asleep and in the morning with your breakfast are good times. However, late-night partying or really early morning starts can mess with this, and this is where the planning helps. If you’re not the long-form writing fan, you can still put together a “things I did today” list on your social network at the end of the day – this works as a great aide-memoir even if you plan to knock out a travelogue later.
So far we have – smartphone, compact camera, paper notebook, and usually this should suffice. Things I have learned not to carry around out of experience are my DSLR and my notebook computer – both are heavy to carry around, need safekeeping from thieves and rain and dust and being thrown around. The only time I carry both around is when I’m on a photography trip, in which case they are the main tools for the trip and most of the time, both get used pretty intensively.
Connectivity for your smartphone is infinitely simpler now – in India, 3G roaming is so cheap now that it makes no sense not to have it. In most other countries, getting a local SIM with data is very simple and relatively inexpensive.
Point and shoot cameras have evolved so much that for the purposes of travel photography, there is almost nothing separating the frontrunners – while Nikon and Canon are the usual suspects, Sony and Fujifilm also have several models worth looking at. My strong recommendation is to go and try out a few at your local electronics store – you will know it when you hold it!
I have learned from bitter experience that lugging around storage solutions – either a computer to copy out all images or a gadget that will copy them to a hard drive – are time-consuming, add bulk and take away your holiday time. My simple solution to this is to carry enough memory cards for the entire trip – they are cheap, easily available and very easy to carry around. I would strongly recommend buying a tough and waterproof case that accommodates all of them though.
The paper notebook scene is way more complicated now than it was before. However, for travel, don’t carry your fancy notebook or your designer pen – an exercise notebook from the local stationery shop and a bunch of cheap ball pens should be enough. You can write everything in your Moleskine with your Waterman once you are back in the safety of your home.