What's in a Photographer's (Minimalist) Bag: Packing for 3 Months

by Kate Siobhan Mulligan Jan 25, 2018

I thought I was a lightweight traveler. Then I had a kid. Having a baby — and a budget — forced my travels into a minimalist lifestyle whether I liked it or not. So, as I stared into our overweight bags just an hour before we had to leave for the airport to begin a three-month trip to Mexico, I realized: holy shit, kids need a lot of stuff. It was a physical reminder that babies change everything; there was no room left for my old “life” in these bags. So, this isn’t a piece about baby travel gear — it’s actually about my gear. In this case, while we were going as a family to Mexico for three months, I still had to work, shoot, and keep up from the road. What made the cut? What didn’t?

Before a baby, I traveled for photography, a lot. Workshops, speaking gigs, press trips, personal trips, you name it. I run a company called The Giving Lens, work here at Matador, speak for Sony, teach online, and get out to shoot my own stuff, too. Working from the road requires me to have photography gear and a portable office — and it all needs to be carry-on because like hell I am putting all that out of my sight. By the way, twice so far this trip, our bags have not arrived, so never, ever send your important (and expensive) tech under a plane.

Let’s start with my office.

Mobile office

A. The first thing you’ll notice is that I don’t have a MacBook. You can close your mouth now. I have a Dell XPS 15″ laptop with i7 brains. I need 15″ if I’m working from the road long term, as I am used to my 27″ back home. This Dell has a touchscreen and has been upgraded to 32gb ram so I can work on photos and video with ease.

B. The Dell’s power bar, inside a water-resistant bag that also protects from sand, dust, and sticky fingers (that would be the baby). I use this bag to bring my phone to the beach, along with my notebook, and it keeps both sand free.

C. My camera. In this case, it’s a Sony a6300. It’s sitting on wet bags. Wet bags are usually used for dirty diapers or clothes to get them home without ruining anything else in your bag — they keep wet stuff in. I have multiple large versions — check the video below — but while this small version is actually meant for snacks, I find it’s a perfect fit for my camera. As good as it is at keeping wet stuff in, it is equally good at keeping wet/sandy/sticky stuff out. I’ll talk more about my camera soon but I now always keep it inside a bag like this, because I can chuck it in my purse, backpack, stroller, etc. and back again without worrying about sand and scratches.

D. This blue bag is 100% waterproof and this is what I use to take my cell phone, keys, and money on the ocean with me so that I don’t have to worry about what is onshore (assuming I did not bring my laptop to the beach, which people only do when they’re posing for a photo to make it look like they’re working at the beach. Have you ever worked in full sun? It’s the pits. No thanks.). I would not call this piece essential to my office but if my phone got stolen my lifeline to the outside world would be gone. Ever had the wifi go down, and had a deadline? I have. And data tethering has saved my butt. So, yeah, keeping the phone safe is pretty vital for me.

E. Bullet Journal. Either you love it or never heard of it. For me, it is a system that lets the chaos in my head make its way to paper without having to form ten different types of lists. This is amplified on the road when I am also constantly hearing of places to visit, restaurants or bars to check out, or otherwise adding to all the noise in my head — which consists of deadlines, emails, endless tasks, budgeting, networking, marketing, and now about a million things related to raising up a small human. A blank journal and good pens = essential.

F. Portable battery. This sucker can charge my phone and my camera and recharges in an afternoon. For so many reasons — work, safety, my kid, photo opps — I can’t have my phone die on me during the day.

G. Really, really good headphones with a mic, for taking calls and blocking out distractions.

H. Wacom Intuos Touch. This little tablet comes with a pen — seen on top — and is my “mouse.” I have a much larger, cushier version at home but this little guy does the job on the road. For one, I get repetitive motion pain using touchpads all day on a laptop. A normal mouse is a fine alternative but the Intuos is slim, and holding a pen is much easier on my hand joints than a mouse or a touchpad. It also has hotkeys you can assign as shortcut keys to just about anything, and they can be modified for different applications. The shortcuts I have for web browsing are different from the shortcuts I assigned to photo editing, for example. Which leads me to the second reason I love this little guy: editing photos with a pen is the shit. You get much more creative control.

I. Hard drive. I opt for 4TB. It lives inside a hard shell which often is found inside one of my 3 water-resistant/waterproof bags. My images are part of my work and keeping them safe is a priority. My images live here and are uploaded to my Amazon Prime account when I have good wifi, as well as living on an SD card for as long as possible. Pro tip: I rarely keep my used SD cards and my hard drive together, so if one bag is stolen or lost, at least I have the other.

J. Bluetooth speaker. Cause this mama needs a groove to really dig into work.

K. Cocoa butter stick. Wholly unrelated to the rest. Just one of my favorite items ever.

So that’s part one. That’s my office. When I get set up I look like this:

Photographer working in Mexico

Which makes nomad life look good, no? Here’s what it actually looks like pulled back:

Working in Mexico with family

But that’s just my reality. Working away from my home desk is tough (Boo hoo, right?). It’s hard to focus when there are carne asada and a cold cerveza waiting for you. It’s also really hard to focus with a kid coloring on your leg. But I digress. All of the above helps me get into a working mindset from anywhere in the world, without too much bulk.

The second half of my set up is my camera bag.

I used to look like this when I traveled for photography:

Woman in Cuba

That’s in Cuba, exhausted from lugging that bag of gear all over Havana — at least 20lbs of gear. Though, I was also carrying another 20lbs in my belly, as I am six months pregnant in this photo. For comparison, here’s what made the cut this trip:

Camera bag

At home and on former trips I have the Sony a7rii and about 6 lenses, a carbon fiber tripod, filters, and more — it can fill a bag the size of a carry-on suitcase. I could have brought it all, but I no longer have the drive to haul all of that around any longer. I don’t have the same hunger to do that as I did when I was a fresh-faced travel photographer. In fact, part of the reason I switched from Canon to Sony was that all the weight was taking its toll on my body — and my creativity. Switching to mirrorless helped bring the weight down a ton, but for this trip, all that gear still felt a bit hefty for space, and like a creative hindrance.

Have you ever heard of lens anxiety? It’s when you have too many options and can’t make a decision, and before you know it the moment is gone. I didn’t want that on this trip, and I was already juggling work and traveling with a baby so I knew it would happen. So, instead, I removed the temptation, and in doing so, also removed the weight. Here is what I did bring:

L. Camera insert. Rather than buy a camera bag, I bought this adjustable little home for it that I can put into any bag and cinch shut. Camera bags often just beg to be stolen, unless they’re really worn in, and I also now need space for beach items, sunscreen, baby stuff, etc. A dedicated camera bag just wasn’t worth it for this trip.

M. My Sony a6300, a cropped sensor mirrorless camera. It is 24 megapixels, crazy fast focusing, can shoot 11 frames per second, and sensitive up to 51,200 ISO. It can also shoot 4k video and 1080px footage. Before I had a kid I didn’t do much video but now that I have her, and I have her in Mexico, I can’t really stop. It has incredible focus-tracking, which you can see in little green dots bouncing across the screen as your subject (ahem, child) runs towards you. It has focus-peeking, whereby I hit a button and can see everything that is sharp outlined in red. It has wifi to send images to my phone, for sending back home or getting high-quality images online fast.

N. The lens on my a6300 here is 16-70mm f/4. 16-24mm is great for landscapes and big wide scenes, the 24-50mm is perfect for street scenes, environmental portraits, and semi-close compositions, while 50-70mm is great for portraits. Of course, you can do many different things at any of these lens lengths if you know what you’re doing. I find 16-70mm suits travel perfectly as you may shoot a landscape and turn around and shoot a portrait. It’s so handy when you just don’t know what’s next. This whole set up is insanely lightweight but powerful.

O. Dust blower. Don’t ruin that pretty little sensor by getting it all gunked up.

P. SD cards. All sizes from 16gb to 64gb. Bring many, so you aren’t always clearing them.

Q. Batteries.

R. Headband. Also works as lens wipe, face protector (dust, sand, bugs), some sun protection, forehead mop, and eye mask (for sleeping, not for shooting). For me, it keeps the insane amount of hair I have from blowing into my photos.

S. Black Rapid strap. Because hanging a scratchy camera strap around your neck all day sucks. Padded, and has a pocket for a wipe and an SD card.

T. A 35mm f/1.8 portrait lens. This is the cropped sensor version of the 35mm lens. It’s uber light but still gets me epic portraits and creamy backgrounds.

U. Circular Polarizer. This is a tool for when shooting in bright light, to tone down harsh reflections and bring color back to a scene — especially with water.

V. A sensor brush, in a protective sleeve, which I put inside a ziplock bag. This is for when the blower, above, isn’t doing the trick.

I can shove all of that into the blue camera insert, and shove that into any bag I want — especially a banged up bag that doesn’t look like it’s got expensive gear inside — and away I go. Like this:

Minimalist camera bag

And believe it or not, even in this mediocre sized shoulder bag I can fit the camera insert and some extras: my bikini, sunscreen, small towel, wallet, phone, portable battery, and a bottle of water. Oh, and a diaper, a baby’s sunhat, and a cold can of Pacifico.

Note: not pictured, by accident, is a small travel tripod like this one.

What to take in camera bag

I can fit all of this — and much more — into one bag. I could actually fit everything from both pictures into that shoulder bag, but it would be very heavy for one shoulder to bear. However, everything fits easily into this lightweight Hershel backpack (which weights nothing at all and folds super flat for packing) and then some. Here’s proof:

If you didn’t catch it all, I got all my laptop gear, and all my camera gear in there, plus a bag of daily essentials like sunscreen, diapers, sunglasses, a muslin blanket (normally for babies, it also works as a towel, blanket, shade, and scarf), and a bathing suit. Now, it’s not groundbreaking to be able to fit all of that into one backpack, per se, but bare in mind I used to have a bag larger than this for just my camera gear. Also, I rarely set out for a day ready to work, take photos, and go to the beach. But if I had to, I could.

Items not pictured that I am super happy to have:

  • An Amazon account for backing up photos AND because Mexico has Amazon Prime now
  • A Netflix account and a Chromecast
  • A Spotify account so you can download music to take on the go
  • The LectroFan Micro, a super small but very powerful white noise machine for sleeping that doubles as a spare Bluetooth speaker
  • Gorilla Tape to fix anything
  • Power bars to expand any outlet into multiple plugs and USB ports
  • Approximately 90 different charging cords because you will lose 89 of them before the trip is over
  • A cell phone case that has a flip-stand
  • Airbnb rentals set up for laptop workspaces and tripled checked have reliable wifi
  • Co-working spaces found in major cities, like The Nest here in Playa del Carmen, or Convivo in Oaxaca, where we are heading next.

Having a child forced me to rethink what was absolutely required to get work done abroad. Gone is my favorite travel pillow, hello travel crib. Goodbye massive bag of lenses, hello diapers and wet wipes. See you later cute sundresses, and welcome aboard white noise machine, blackout curtain, and favorite stuffed animal. That said, I am successfully doing my work from Mexico, my baby sleeps all night long, and we all get tacos for dinner, so in the end, everyone is winning.

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