Travel Portraiture: The Photography Gear I Travel with Through Africa
Updated: Jun 4, 2019
Photography Gear: Setup and Visual Style
Before Face of Africa Today was a travel photo blog, it was just me travelling through Africa taking portraits of the people I met along the way. Taking great portraits, was therefore at the basis of my original Africa photography goals.
Before leaving for my first trip to Africa, I thought a lot about my gear setup and visual style, as I believe they're the two most important factors when taking on the challenge of producing a large body of work.
Identifying my Visual Style
I have seen some INCREDIBLE portraiture done in Africa by some INCREDIBLE photographers.
Originally I was inspired by the Profoto blog post On-location photography with Esam Hassanyeh, where he shot elaborate tribal portraits with multiple studio lights and large reflectors. I also admire techniques like using sheer black backdrops to create a dramatic, classic effect and isolate a subject from the background, or, posing a subject against an iconic African landscape with the savannah sun setting in the distance.
Being self-funded, I quickly realized I would need to step it down a notch, or two, in the equipment department. This meant high-tech shoots like Esam's were out of my realm.
I also decided that I would keep it super simple in terms of the visual style. My goal was to take environmental portraits that communicate the lifestyle, character and day-to-day reality for the people I was photographing. Therefore, finding a beautiful sunset and pinnacle to pose every subject on, would not be possible. But I was definitely OK with that. By focusing on producing poignant, evenly lit, realistic photographs of every one of my hundreds of subjects, my impact would be made through having a consistently stylized large body of work through which viewers could use to connect with Africa.
Choosing a Gear Setup
(For a quick view at the equipment I went with, check out the Gear Breakdown list below.)
There were a lot of logistics to consider to ensure I could successfully travel through Africa with a large gear bag, and take great photographs. Below were my primary considerations:
1. Compact and light-weight
2. Quick and mobile
3. Secure backup plan
4. Protection against the elements
Along with these factors, I also wanted high-quality photos that would bring my subjects to life, which leads me to a break-out topic of...what brand do I shoot with?
Well, my first DSLR was a Canon 20D, and ever since the good ol' days of slinging that hardy piece of equipment over my shoulder and heading out to shoot whatever inspiring subject I could find, I've never faltered from using Canon. When I first started the project, Canon hadn't released their mirrorless full-frame yet, so I departed for Africa with my two 5D Mark III bodies, which still had a lot of shutter life left in them.
Ok, back to the gear considerations.
Compact & Light-Weight
For a few reasons, one of my primary concerns was having equipment that would be compact and light-weight. I wanted to conceal my gear to avoid the type of petty theft that happens in major cities (I've had a camera stolen in Spain, Argentina and Peru), and make it small and light enough to meet airline restrictions so I could travel with it as a carry-on and avoid lost luggage. Lastly, having a compact setup would also be useful during long days of walking.
To keep my setup minimal, I took along a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L for shooting wildlife and candid street scenes, a Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II for low-light situations, then chose one lens to shoot the portraits. I was adamant about using the same lens for the portraits, to keep the look and feel of the series consistent.
The lens I chose to shoot the series with is the Canon 24-70mm f2.8L II. When travelling it's important to have versatile gear, so I went with a zoom over a prime lens in order to have that versatility. I like the intimacy of shooting portraits at 35mm or 50mm, but if my subject is a bit shy, having more distance at the 70mm range tends to create a more comfortable atmosphere. Other advantages of the lens are beautiful bokeh, a set 2.8 aperture, and a quiet AF. All in all, it's the perfect travel portraiture lens (IMO).
Quick & Mobile
I knew I wanted to shoot a significant number of portraits, so speed and mobility would be important. As mentioned above, I dreamed of taking portraits like those of Esam Hassanyeh, so I originally planned to bring a one-light setup using one of my Dynalite B6 studio lights. After remembering my priority of speed and mobility though, I opted for a more portable setup using an off-camera speedlight.
To maintain low aperture depth of field, and increase the shutter beyond the Mark III's sync speed of 1/200 to drown out the strong African sun, I chose the Canon 600 EX-RT and ST-E3 transmitter - which did an incredible job. I knew having the high speed sync capability would make my images pop, and the setup takes mere minutes to prepare, allowing me to be quick and mobile when on the go.
In terms of light modifiers, I relied solely on the Rogue soft box kit. It's the perfect tool to use for a one-light portrait, because it softens light while reducing contrast and excessive highlights, and its flexibility allows you to have great control over the shape of the light - even creating a snoot if needed.
Secure Backup Plan
First off, I insure my gear under a tenant's policy and wouldn't leave home without it. As mentioned above, I've had three cameras stolen while travelling so if I was going to travel with professional level gear, it must be insured.
Next came the decision of backing up. After losing valuable images in the past, this is now a critical step in my gear setup. For travel photography, I spend a bit more budget to have the high quality LaCie 1TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drives. Travelling in a vehicle along bumpy roads for many months at a time means I need durable hard drives I can trust, and the LaCie Ruggeds do the trick. I travel with four drives and make a carbon copy of everything. I also store the drives in separate places (two in one bag and two in another, or if in a vehicle, I’ll split them up into different lock boxes). For extra assurance I send drives home once they're full, and do my best to get at least the raw files backed up to my cloud storage whenever I find good internet.
Protection Against Elements
Another major consideration was the environments I would be shooting in. My gear would be exposed to everything from the sand and wind of the Sahara, to the relentless downpours of the equator's rainy season.
Thankfully, protection and maintenance gear doesn’t break the bank. The main items I brought were: a sensor cleaning kit and squeezable air blaster to keep dust from building up in the camera body and lens, and I always had a rain sleeve, raincoat and waterproof backpack on hand since I didn’t want bad weather to stop me from heading out in search of my next great shot (my ultimate back-up is always have a high-quality rain coat on hand - if there's no time to put the camera away, tuck it under the rain coat for 100% protection). Neoprene camera cases also do wonders for keeping gunk out of precious equipment, when it's being tossed into a backpack while out shooting.
Adding Video Equipment
After my first trip to Africa in 2016, I realized I wanted to return and continue working on Face of Africa Today. I also realized I wanted to incorporate video into the mix.
Since highschool, I’ve been passionate about filmmaking and storytelling, and Africa is an incredible place to do this. When incorporating video I wanted to follow the strategic considerations discussed above – most important being mobility and light-weight. For this, I would need a run and gun video setup.
These days there's a lot of information online about how to buy a run and gun video setup for under $5000, or what run and gun items are most critical to have, helping amateur filmmakers decide how to spend their limited budgets. Personally, I knew I wanted to prioritize audio and stability, which meant having an external recorder, quality microphones, and some sort of stabilizer. In a dream world, I would have been able to afford a Canon EOS C100 to have the higher quality of video as well, but budget-wise this wasn't possible. Thankfully, aside from a few small downfalls, particularly in the focusing department, the Canon 5D Mark III does a great job at filming HD video.
(For my full video setup refer to the Gear Breakdownlist below)
Publishing a Travel Photography Ebook
During my travels through Africa I keep a detailed list of tips, tricks and personal experiences I think could be helpful for other beginner travel photographers. Last year, I decided to publish them into an ebook, Travel Photography: A Guide to Gearing Up, Shooting, Processing and Sharing, which I'm excited to announce is now available on Amazon, Kobo and iTunes.
The book features lessons like how to take great travel portraits, and how to improve your wildlife photography. It's written for anyone who wants to improve their travel photography skills, whether using a DSLR or iPhone.
I've built up some muscle carrying the following gear around on my travels through Africa, that's for sure, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Here's the complete list of my photography gear, which I use for portraiture, landscape, wildlife and street photography.
Body & Lenses
2 x Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera body
Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L II
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II
Canon Extender EF 2X III
Variable ND filter
Flash & Lighting Accessories
Canon 600 EX-RT speedlight
ST-E3 wireless transmitter
Rogue FlashBender2 Large Soft Box kit
Canon off-camera shoe chord OC-E3
MeFOTO Backpacker tripod
Extra batteries and plenty of memory cards
Sensor cleaning kit
Black Rapid RS-2SS sport camera strap
2 x LaCie 1TB Rugged Mini Portable Hard Drives
13” MacBook Pro
2 x fitted neoprene camera cases
Lowepro Rover Pro 35L backpack
Tasacam DR-70D Portable RecorderRode
NTG3 Shotgun Microphone with Universal Shock Mount with 3ft XLR cable
Intellytech Luma Bi-Color 100W Soft LED Panel
Manfrotto Pro Video Tripod Head
Sony ECM-77B - Miniature Omni-directional Lavalier Mic
Zhiyun Crane 2 Follow Focus 3-Axis Handheld Gimbal
How Happy am I With My Setup?
I'm extremely happy with the gear setup I use to photograph Face of Africa Today. I'm also overjoyed with the experiences I've had so far when photographing people throughout Africa.
Having the chance to build a series that honestly depicts the lives of those living in countries far outside of our daily purview, has been an honour. By putting together a light-weight, mobile setup that I felt prepared to care for while travelling, I've been able to produce an art project that my 8-year old self dreamt of while devouring her parent's National Geographic magazines over a cup of chocolate milk. Thanks to this gear, my childhood dreams have come true.