7 Essential Equipment Needs for the Nomadic Digital Photographer & Storyteller

I’ll be placing my digital nomadic visual journalist hat on for this entry.  Whew, a mouthful.

Packing is an art-form and for the digital storyteller, packing is one part art, one part physics and one part miracle.  Anyone who has had to sprint through the Atlanta concourse lugging 40+ pounds of gear in order to catch the last connecting flight home after 4 days of flying from the far reaches of the world can attest to the essential art of packing.

Carrying a Heavy Load in Sangihe, Indonesia

Carrying a Heavy Load in Sangihe, Indonesia

I’m going to look at the essential hardware elements needed to produce your visual content on the road, with weight and space as major elements of concern.

1.  The Still Camera. Obviously, this is one of the most important parts.  Let’s assume that you don’t have the shiny new 5D Mark II which makes this a non-issue. Are you more of a videographer and less of a still photographer?  Then lugging your DSLR might not be the best option for you.  Leica (go to the site and drool, just a little) and Canon both have excellent point and shoot hybrid cameras that can meet your multimedia needs without having to lug the DSLR and all her lenses around in your travels.  The more non-essential elements you can compress into one device, both in size and usability the better.

But for the DSLR shooter whose work is heavily weighted in still photography, the essential hardware will entail the camera (Captain obvious here) a wide zoom and a telephoto.  Or, if you’re shooting heavily for editorial outlets, you’ll want two bodies for each main lens.  Two bodies, a 16-35 mm zoom and 70-200 mm zoom and one portrait lens should do; plus batteries a flash and more batteries. That should fill your bags and your weight limit.  Add your laptop and you’re looking at 40+ lb.  At this point, you’ll want to debate the merits of shooting video as well and the size of your audio equipment.  Or arrange a porter/Sherpa for your destination- not likely.

I often have this camera debate, as I am conflicted when it comes to my DSLR.  I would prefer to shoot my still digital images with one camera at a fixed focal length of 28 mm.  The technology is almost at an acceptable level with the higher end point and shoots and smaller 4/3rds SLR cameras that this goal of one small multimedia device is almost attainable for me.  I would prefer to shift my limited weight capacity and space for my film SLR, my 28 mm and 20-50 rolls of BW film.
2.  The Video Gear. Assuming you’re shooting heavily on the stills, I’d stick to a small consumer camcorder that shoots HD.

I use a Canon Vixia HV30 that shoots on HD tapes and it fits well in my bag and is very light.  I am about to use this for stills as well and test out its ability to shoot small short form street multimedia videos (the Crackberry is only so fulfilling as a multimedia tool).  This topic is open for debate as is its still camera brethren.  If you are a heavy video shooter, you’re video gear will go beyond the scope of this article and you may not have any room left for all the fancy still gear from the above point.

3.  The Audio Kit. This, for me, is almost as essential as the still camera.  If you are a heavy still shooter, you can almost eliminate or minimize the video footage as long as you have excellent audio gear.  Audio is key.  Because no, you can’t just slap some music to your documentary images and have a story.  You need to put the audience in the room with your subject.  And this is done through sounds and the subject’s own words.

Marantz is still one of the best audio device producers with the Olympus Zoom running closely behind.  I have worked with both of the Marantz devices used by most journalists today and chose to invest in the smallest version.  Its not perfect, but the size is.  You will also want some excellent headphones and a shotgun mic.  These are not cheap and they take up valuable space, but they are essential to capturing quality audio.  I always bring two backup XLR cords plus adapters and a cheap backup mic.  And if I’m traveling to the remote jungles of Indonesia, I bring a backup Sony MD recorder.  Just in case.  Seriously, if you’re a multimedia storyteller and you don’t have the audio, you don’t have a story.  No, narration is not an option.  Well, it is, but not the best option.  Your subjects trusted you to tell their story, don’t screw it up by botching the audio.  Enough said.

4.  The Laptop. Essential.  Essential.  Essential.  PC vs. Mac.  Two years ago, I would have said there was no question, but with the advent of the PC net books, I am revisiting the issue.

This all depends on the type of content you are gathering and if you’ll be producing on the road or just downloading the content to your external devices.  If you are producing video or want to work at all with video/audio content, then the Mac is essential.  Net books are great in size, but they don’t have the power for serious processing and obviously can’t run Final Cut.  Mac has reissued the smaller Macbook Pro, so that’s a plus, but they aren’t entering the net book realm, yet.  Besides, could you imagine trying to edit video on an eight inch screen?  I piss and moan when I have to edit without my second monitor, the thought of an eight inch screen makes my eyeballs hurt.  But, the thought of writing in a coffee shop on a tiny little laptop that fits in my hip bag- heavenly!

5.  Backup Storage. Another necessity!!  You must have backups for your backups.  I can’t stress this enough.  Here’s a snapshot of my digital workflow on the road and why backup is essential.

After I upload the images to Lightroom, I export them to my external hard drive.  I use a Lacie Rugged. No, you can not use your normal external desktop hard drive.  It is not meant for backpacks and hostels and will crash and burn with all your content inside.  Poof, gone.  After the content is on the Rugged, I take the top edit and export it to my thumbnail 8 gig flash drive and put it in a separate bag from the rest of my gear.  This contains only the top edit due to the size of the drive.  I then take the top edit and second edit, and depending on the internet speed of the country I’m in, I upload it to my Photoshelter account and/or my Box.net server.  This is backup for my backup.  Once the images are in the ‘cloud’ I can sleep.  If my gear is stolen or dropped in a raging Himalayan river, my images are safe in the arms of the internet.  If internet speed is a problem, I burn DVDs of the top edits and mail them home.  Yes, its anal, I get that, but I’m not traveling across the world, risking my sanity to tell a story and then lose all the images because of human error.

6.  A Bag.  Or two.  I daydream and concoct elaborate schemes to cary all the above gear in one rolling bag that converts to a backpack.  Good luck with that.  I envy the flash-packers and would love nothing more than to toss a couple shirts and pants into a backpack with a net book and call it done.  But that’s not going to happen.

I use Think Tank, love them, love their work and they make my life easier.  I am currently using the Urban Disguise 50 that holds my still, video and audio gear along with my laptop.  Its a tight squeeze, but it fits.  I also use their hip belt with a few bags connected for shooting in the field.  I try not to check bags on overseas flights, so this gets a little dicey when it comes time to pack.  I usually spend between 5-8 hours packing, repacking and analyzing every item in my bag and its relevance 48 hours before departure.  The timing also gives me time to make any last minute major equipment adjustments.  I am still reevaluating my approach and my shooting methods in order to keep the bag as light as possible.  Its a never ending process, but with advancing technology, the chore gets a little easier each year.

7.  Moleskins. Yep, Moleskins journals are essential and I never leave home without them.  Not even to go to the grocery store.

You never know when a story will cross your path, so a moleskin is just as important as the camera.  And there’s nothing more exciting then embarking on a journey with 2-3 blank journals just waiting to be filled with your brainstorms and brilliant ideas.  And don’t forget your lucky pen.  You know you have one, the pen that just feels good and inspires greatness.  Bring it.  The chewed up pen from the hostel front desk won’t do your Moleskin justice.

I’m sure I’m leaving out a few essentials and there are 1000 ways to pack for a digital storyteller.  This is just my way.  I will be revisiting this topic often in the near future!

Feel free to post your essentials below!


  1. says

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  2. says

    Have you tried the Lowepro range of camera rucksack bags. I used to use a shoulder camera bag such as a Billingham, but have found it much better to have the weight distributed across my back rather than off one shoulder. Grant

    • says

      I used to use a Lowepro backpack and while it was great for carrying lots of gear- I found it difficult to access and cumbersome. I love Think Tank and am looking at one of their Rucksack style bags that looks nothing like a photo bag. Love to just blend in. An ongoing debate!

      Thanks and have a great weekend!

  3. says

    Wondering how long it takes you to upload your photos – what kinds of internet connections do you find, how big are your files & many photos do you upload at a time? Seems like 25mb files aren’t that practical to be uploading, even with a good connection! I’m thinking of going strictly with an external drive & dvds, though it would be great to upload.

    • says

      Hello Liz!

      The only place I’ve found with questionable internet connections was in rural Nepal, so I just backed up my images on external drives and DVDs until I returned to the city with a strong connection. I try to upload only the top edit- the images I know are the most important- to my online account (Photoshelter) and in the smallest size I can get away with and I back the RAW files up on the external and DVDs and ship the DVDs home periodically. I would stick mainly to those two options and only upload JPG files of your best images to the “cloud” at the smallest size you can muster- this will depend on the final outcome of your image. A majority of my work will not be enlarged in print past an 11×14 size and, worst case scenario, if you had to go larger than that with a JPEG you could use some special software, like Genuine Fractals, to upscale the image- and pray to the photography gods.

      Good luck and let me know if you have anymore questions!!

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  7. says

    There are a lot of “what’s in your bag” posts out there…but this is definitely one of the best and most practical I’ve read. Great article!

    For audio, I’ve been carrying a tiny Olympus DS-30 digital recorder. I know, the quality doesn’t compare to a Marantz…but neither do the cost or size.

    For backups, devices like this can be nice:


    They let you burn direct from card to DVD if you’re going fast and light without a laptop….though they’ve gotten less practical with increasing RAW file sizes.



    • says

      Thanks for the information and feedback, Andris! I will check out your links- and love the skipping of the laptop! Less weight and less gear makes me a happy traveler! Hope your travels are going well- and I’m guessing there are some good adventures on your horizon!!