Travel and photography seem like hobbies made for one another. They are both about exploration and having fun. However, doing two things at once is never a recipe for fun or success even when the two things are related. Yet, the multi-tasking aspect of travel photography is unavoidable. In this post, I explore how I focus my effort on traveling instead of photography. By doing so, I enjoy photography more and ultimately produce more interesting pictures in the end.

The One Thing

As Gary Keller said in his book, The One Thing, people always achieve the most when they focus on one most important thing at a time. For travel photography, what should be this one most important thing? Most people would argue that anyone can travel as long as they have the time and money. But not everyone can take good pictures and have fun because photography requires passion, expensive cameras and years of experience in addition to the time and money. Traveling seems easy while photography seems difficult.

From years of travel photography, I found that the opposite is true. Photography is easy but traveling is difficult. For the starter, traveling with cameras and lenses is exhausting depending on how big and expensive they are. Before traveling, I research what kind of photos I want to take. Taking photos that have already been taken before is boring, so I like to find less popular places that people don’t often go. This usually requires some exploring on the location. Carrying a heavy bag drains my energy very fast. The less I carry, the more I can explore new places.

In order to focus on traveling as the one thing and take new and interesting photos, I try to only bring the bare minimum with me.

Bare Minimum

Since I take photos purely just for fun, I do not need the perfections of full-size cameras. I can use a smartphone camera to get pictures that I am happy with. I am using LG G4. Despite the infamous boot loop problem, I am very happy with LG customer service. LG replaced my phone’s motherboard even after the warranty expired.

A Sunrise at Seabrook, Texas.
A Sunrise at Seabrook, Texas. Taken with LG G4 using a long exposure on a tripod.
See more at Smartphone Photography at the Beach

Beyond the Minimum

However, the lack of physical controls and the slow response speed on smartphones makes photography less engaging. So in place of a smartphone, I use a compact camera like the superzoom Panasonic FZ300 that has a lens with very wide zoom range. It is a fun camera that can take all type of photos such as landscape, macro, wildlife and even nebula without ever require lens change.

Victory Monument, Bangkok
Victory Monument, Bangkok. Taken with Panasonic FZ150 using a cheap variable ND filter. This picture won the grand prize of Kenko Tokina International Filter Photo Contest 2012-2013
Shot with FZ300 with Raynox DCR-150 Macro Converter
A Spider’s Macro. Shot with Panasonic FZ300 with Raynox DCR-150 Macro Converter
Just a Dear
Just a Dear. Shot with Panasonic FZ300 at 600mm equivalent focal length on 35mm full frame format.
A closer look at Orion Nebula. Now we can see the clouds of gas more clearly. Panasonic FZ300 at 600mm (35mm format equivalent) f2.8 13 seconds, ISO 320 35 stacked frames mild light pollution
Orion Nebula. Taken with Panasonic FZ300 at 600mm (35mm format equivalent) f2.8
13 seconds, ISO 320, 35 stacked frames

As versatile the superzoom cameras are, the only weakness is their lack of color range (dynamic range) and poor low-light performance. So it’s only good for outdoor photos in daytime.

For more demanding scenarios, I use Olympus and Panasonic interchangeable lens compact cameras known as Micro Four Third (MFT) system cameras. For my use case, these cameras have enough dynamic range and low-light sensitivity. There are several specialized lenses for these cameras for all kind of photography. The MFT telephoto lenses are very compact and easy to carry.

I got closer for close up shots. It swam away, probably disappointed that his camouflage failed. The size of this one is a little bigger than an adult person.
Alligator in Ghillie Suit, Brazos Bend, Texas. Taken with Panasonic G5. As I hiked along the trail, I looked back and found this alligator. I didn’t expect it there at all. I happened to have a telephoto lens with me. Still, I got closer for close up shots. It swam away, probably disappointed that his camouflage failed. The size of this one is a little bigger than an adult person.
Glowing Alligator
Glowing Alligator, Clear Lake, Texas. Shot with Panasonic GX7. Alligators eyes are extremely sensitive to light like cats’ eyes. I used a flash to cause a reflection on one of the eyes. The reflection turned into a star because the lens is attached with a star filter.
Dinosaur Caves Park, Prismo Beach, California
Milky Way at Dinosaur Caves Park, Pismo Beach, California. The only thing I wish MFT cameras get better at is low-light performance. Currently, it is barely enough to take night sky pictures without having too much noise. This one is taken with Olympus E-M5 Mark II.

In addition to camera and lenses, I usually carry a tripod with me for long-exposure photos. By using cameras that are lightweight, the tripod can be lightweight as well. My preferred method of travel is on foot and public transportation. Carrying a small and light tripod makes another difference in the weight.

Huế Imperial City, Huế
Huế Imperial City, Huế, Vietnam. Taken with Olympus E-M5 at 8.3 minutes exposure.
A Yaksha at Wat Phra Kaew. Think of it as an equivalent of an ogre in Buddhist literature
A Yaksha at Wat Phra Kaew. Bangkok Thailand. Taken with Olympus E-M5 Mark II at 1-minute exposure
Trujillo, Honduras. It took 5.4 minutes to take this picture. I was talking to a local while waiting. As beautiful as this place is, he told me about many people dying. I wasn't able to ask him how exactly as he did not speak English well. I'd guess it's the violent crimes. There is a team of police walking at the ship port. One of them carry what appears to be an auto shotgun.
Trujillo, Honduras. Taken with Olympus E-M5 at 5.4 minutes exposure.

Travel with Little

Another advantage of small cameras is the low cost. I believe that when a person has more to lose, the person has more reasons to fear. A person who is afraid operates on cautions. Traveling is about taking risks to see explore things people don’t see often. A person with a defensive mindset avoids taking necessary risks to create interesting results.

Unless I am a monk who renounced everything, traveling with expensive items always make me afraid. I might forget them somewhere or someone might steal them. By using inexpensive cameras, I minimize risks should anything bad happen. By having this assurance, I can take risks and explore the unknowns.

Paradise Cove (Freeport, Bahamas) is also known as Deadman’s Reef. I wasn’t sure why such a scary name until I swam to one of the reefs while snorkeling. The reef was very jagged and sharp. Still, I managed to carefully stand on it and took this picture with Olympus E-M5 inside a plastic waterproof bag. I would not want to risk a $2,000 camera in this kind of environment.
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre at Sunset, San Francisco, California
Sunset at Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, San Francisco, California. At one time, I visited this place. I saw several cars parked nearby with broken windshields. I think it’s always an advantage to stay safe by having fewer valuables with me.

Focus on Traveling

Other than looking at other people’s pictures (so that I can avoid taking the same pictures) and searching for locations, I do not plan much for travel. Plans don’t go as planned. When this happens, it ruins my expectation. I travel without much expectation so I am never disappointed.

Taken after ~4 miles hike on a mountain nearby. I was running down the mountain with my tripod to get this before the sundown.
Sunset at McWay Falls, Big Sur, California. Taken with Olympus E-M5 after 4 miles ~4 miles hike on a mountain nearby. I was running down the mountain with my tripod to get this before the sundown. I knew lost some weight after that.

The same philosophy applies to travel photography. I do not plan to get specific photos I want. When I have an image in mind I want, I often fail to see other images around me. For this reason, I missed several opportunities for good images that I didn’t plan for. Travel photography is about documenting the experience as genuinely as possible. I like to capture the images as they appear naturally. The only controls I have when taking pictures are my camera’s settings, where I point the camera, and when I press the shutter.

A woman drinking alcohol in front of the temple.
Got very lucky with this shot of a woman holding a beer bottle in front of a temple in Phitsanulok, Thailand. There were too many people, I didn’t notice her with the bottle prior to taking this picture.

I do, however, plan on visiting places at the best time. For example, I wake up early for the twilight and golden hours. Even with this bit of planning, I do not have any expectation of certain pictures I want before arriving at the location and seeing it for myself. Weather, for example, could be unfavorable for a sunrise picture if the clouds completely block the horizon. For this reason, I try not to have an image in my mind before seeing the place. I focus on making the best image of what I see.

Sunrise at Lake Tahoe, California. I thought the clouds would block the sunrise in this photo. Fortunately, they moved away just in time. Taken with Olympus E-M5 Mark II
Sunrise at Lake Tahoe, California. I thought the clouds would block the sunrise in this photo. Fortunately, they moved away just in time. Taken with Olympus E-M5 Mark II

For people, I usually do not ask people to smile, pose or do anything they won’t do if I was not there. I try to be invisible as much as possible. Most modern compact cameras can take pictures in complete silence using electronic shutters. This helps make people less scared of being taken pictures of.

Homeless in Bangkok
A Homeless in Bangkok, Thailand. Took this photo while on a bus with Panasonic GX7. The bus driver said he regularly see this person sleeping here.
Hmong People at Phu Tub Berk, Thailand
Hmong Girls, Phu Tub Berk National Park, Thailand.


Travel photography is a fun hobby. It’s easy to try too hard on the photography part. Just have fun traveling first and great photos will come afterward. Trying using small cameras to capture the experience. Forget about the technicalities and have fun! Great photos come from an inspired photographer who live the experience.

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Categories: Philosophy Travel

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