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The Costs of a Traveling Photographer


You know that awkward re-entry when you get back from vacation, and you take a look at your ‘regular life’ to-do list and think “Um…. I’m supposed to get ALL of this done?  Like, today?”

It’s as though you’ve forgotten how to be productive or something.

No?  That’s just me?

Okay.  Well, I’m still in the throes of holiday vacation re-entry (I know, I get no sympathy for this).

So while we don’t usually cover camera-related things here at Psychology for Photographers, as I coax myself back into the swing of things this week, I wanted to pose a question to you:

How do you travel with your camera?

There is no right answer to this question….some people want all of their lenses and two bodies, some people manage with only their iPhone.  Some people have quadruplicate backups for personal vacation photos, some people just keep their memory cards close.

It’s impossible to judge what someone else does, because everyone wants something different from their photos, and their experience taking them.

But however you manage your gear and your photos, being a photographer on vacation is hard. Because you don’t exactly know what to do.

The Costs of a Traveling Photographer

For Most Normal People, vacation is when you take out your camera.

For Photographers (who don’t really qualify as Most Normal People here), vacation is sometimes when you most desperately need to put the camera away.  

To see the world with both eyes.  Not one squinched shut and one looking through the viewfinder.  To observe the rising of the sun with the subtle weight of a warm mug in one hand, and with the other hand available for a loved one to squeeze.  Not doing mental math and testing six different exposures to memorialize the glowing orange.

I’m ashamed to say that I have a memory of being on a white sandy beach under a silver dollar moon with a lovely, tepid breeze at my back.  But instead of simply spending the time holding my husband’s hand and talking about our future, or walking along letting the waves cross our feet, I recall fashioning a tripod out of an abandoned lounge chair trying to photograph that moon, mentally cursing the Florida humidity for fogging up my lens, and scolding myself for bringing the wrong camera.

Romantic, huh?

Of course there’s a “balance” to be struck (ugh, I kinda hate that word), of course you can do things like spend fifteen minutes photographing for every two hours you spend relaxing, or identify before vacation which days you’ll carry your camera and which days you won’t.

This isn’t about that.

This is simply acknowledging the problem that no “balance” or “compromise” can fully resolve, which is to say that on some level, whenever you see something beautiful, your fingers will itch for a shutter button.


Whether it’s your allotted 15 minutes or your specified camera day or not. 

I’m married to someone with a doctorate in music, and while he loves listening to music, he can’t just “turn off” his years of training.  He can’t un-hear the out-of-tune voices or instruments, he can’t not analyze the structure and chords and tempo, he can’t not think of the historical contexts of the pieces or not have some reaction to the musical choices being made.

And like that, when I see a sun rising over a lake, I can’t help but think man, if I put my 16-35mm at f/22, that would make the most beautiful 14-pointed sun star.  I can’t un-see the shadows of the decorative bridge railing, the glint off the water between cobblestones, the peachy glow on someone’s skin an hour before sunset.  I can’t erase from memory all the times that I or others were so glad we had a picture of that one thing, and the cautionary note above my head to document what I see.

As much as we photographers can remind and harangue and call each other out over being present and putting the camera away, it’s not entirely about that.

Our minds stay with us whether our cameras do or not. 


And that can be hard on our families, who don’t necessarily want to be herded for one more picture, or want to cut their dinner short so you can make it to catch the sunset over the river at the right time.  Yes, even if they’ll all appreciate having the photos later.  It can still be hard on them, and on us, and we need to acknowledge that.  (My friend Beryl Ayn Young wrote a great post on learning to accept this here.)

It’s also hard on you that even if you sit through a long dinner and just breathe in the sunset from where you are, later you’ll kinda wish you had taken the dang picture.

It’s hard that our hobby, our passion, our profession means that we aren’t always fully present during moments you most want to remember.

Someone has to make that uncomfortable trade-off, and usually it’s us.  (Are you ever jealous of the people who get to just be present and then just enjoy other people’s pictures on Facebook afterward?  I am.  They get the best of all worlds.  I just want my own pictures more.)

There’s nothing “to be done” here.  I just want to give voice to the experience.

To acknowledge that the sweeping brush stroke of “relaxation” and the brush stroke of “wanting to take pictures” create a big X and we somehow sit at the center, wanting to have all of it at once, but chasing any single end can move us away from the others.

But we choose to be here, you and I.  No choice but to relish it.

As kind of a random postscript, I wanted to tell you about two things I was glad I had in my camera bag on this trip.

Just in case you need to know.


1) For U.S. Citizens:  Form 4457, the “Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad”

You know how 99.9% of the time, customs people do little more than look at you sternly before waving you on?

My theory is that Form 4457 was invented to help you that .1% of the time when you get someone whose boss just yelled at them and they’re feeling particularly curmudgeonly.

Basically, the government wants its taxes.  They don’t want you to avoid taxes, tariffs, or duties by going abroad and buying your camera gear there, then sneaking it back into the United States.

And having a US receipt for your gear might not be enough to prove you bought that lens in the US, because receipts don’t contain serial numbers.

Form 4457 formally registers your camera gear, with serial number, as being yours.  It helps prevent customs officials from demanding that you pay duties on your own camera gear when you re-enter the USA.


Yes, I have traveled in and out of the USA without Form 4457 before and never had any problems, but this time I was taking enough gear and was going to be gone long enough that I didn’t want to chance meeting some by-the-book official who was having a bad day.

I have heard tell of photographers having to pay taxes on their camera gear (or hunters on the rifles they took abroad), and whether or not those are just rumors, I think it’s better not to leave such things to chance.

You can download Form 4457 right here from the Customs and Border Protection website, or you can go to one of their offices and get one of their forms.  You fill out the top part, put the name and serial number of your gear in the large white space, and sign the bottom.  Then you have to take it to a CPB office and have them sign and stamp it.  There is a list of CPB offices here – call first and make sure you get info to go to the right place.

I recommend filling out a separate 4457 for each camera body, lens, and other serial-numbered gear.

Yes, you can list all of your gear on the same form, but if you don’t take every single piece when you leave the country, they could say that you must have sold a piece abroad and want taxes on the “sale.”  (Are you rolling your eyes yet?)

The forms are good for as long as they are legible, and you don’t want to have to go back repeatedly to have them sign more than one form.  I filled out separate forms for my bodies, lenses, iPad, hard drives, and a few other items.  (Note:  You can also have a 4457 for things like expensive watches, laptops, etc.)  Now when I leave the country I can just bring the forms for the gear I’m actually bringing.

Honestly, I doubt I’ll ever need to show Form 4457 to anyone.  But to me, that’s not a reason not to have a fistful of them.

Foreign countries can have strange and ever-changing laws, and having a formal U.S. registration could be helpful down the road.  Plus, Uncle Sam can be insanely arbitrary.  I’d rather be safe than sorry.

2) NEXTODI Photo Storage.

I’m absolutely in love with these little beauties:


The NEXTO digital storage drives (affiliate link to Amazon) are magical little photo-backups.

You just pop in your memory card (they take SD and CF), turn it on, press a button, and it backs up everything on the card. 

Then at the end of your trip, you can just plug it into your computer and you have all your pictures in one place.  It organizes them in folders by the date you uploaded them.

I brought two of these (500GB each) on my most recent trip, so that I’d have two physical backups to each memory card.  I kept one in my carry-on and one in my husband’s carry-on, and kept the actual memory cards on me.

They’re relatively small, lightweight, come with a nice case and all the needed cords.  Plus, the battery lasts and lasts.  I charged it once, backed up photos nearly daily for 17 days, and they still showed full or almost-full battery at the end of the trip.  YES.

These would be great for security on any photoshoot, not just a long trip. 

Backups seemed quick – for a nearly-full 16GB SanDisk CF card, the “Copy and Verify” option only took about 15 mins total, and there’s also a “Fast Copy” option.  On most days, my cards weren’t completely full though, so the backup only took about 5-7 minutes.  I could pop in the card and be backed up by the time I was done brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed.

I forsee them going pretty much everywhere with me.

So – how do you travel with your camera?  How do you make peace with the tradeoffs we discussed?  Any nifty things in your bag you’d care to share?  Let me know in the comments!

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  1. Wayfaring Wanderer on January 8, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    My fiancé and I spent two weeks visiting our families in FL and GA over the holidays. During the last few days of our trip, I was reflecting and planning for 2014 with a lot of excitement and determination; I was so ready to come home and TAKE ACTION! That didn’t happen, unfortunately, because we brought back the flu and have spent the last 5 days getting it out of our system.

    Both of us are feeling much better, thankfully; today was the first day I could get off the couch and do some cleaning. I’m so ready to get back into my routine! I have so many new ideas I want to start implementing!

    All my camera gear came with me on this trip because I knew that my sister and I were going to do a shoot together. I brought it out on Christmas Day for a handful of images but I never used it for anything else during my 2-weeks away. Casual pics were captured with my iPhone!

    Now that I’m a full-time photographer, I don’t feel the need to have my beefy gear on me all the time.


  2. Dennis on January 8, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    I totally get this post! For the family summer vacation last year, I forced myself to leave my DSLR and primes at home and took my Fuji XPro1 with two lens; 18mm and 35mm. Best decision I made as I had to really slow down using the XPro1 and think slightly different, but I captured some great location shots and some lovely images of my two youngs girls. I plan on doing exactly the same this summer. … :0)

  3. Allison on January 8, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    Two things – what I take on vacay is usually dependent on where I’m going, but the last several vacations I’ve been on, I’ve taken my whole bag, with all of my gear. Granted, these were driving vacations, and I knew and trusted where I was staying. Last time I flew, I created a smaller camera bag out of my purse (removable velcro dividers and padded inserts made that easy) so I was able to keep the limited gear I took with me, ON me, in a bag that didn’t look touristy.
    The other thing, finding balance, is kind of a downer story… Our dog passed away three weeks ago, suddenly and unexpectedly. We got a call from the vet at 10:30pm that he was gone. In the first 15 minutes of shock and grief, I found myself staring at a toy that he had left on the floor, backlit by the Christmas tree light coming from the next room. Without even thinking, I retrieved my camera and started shooting, freezing that deeply emotional moment forever in time. I had to pause in the middle of shooting to cry uncontrollably, and it was really hard to steady myself from shaking in the low light, but the mechanics really just took over and I got the shot without having to think much about it. My husband understood, and understands, that photography is a huge part of my (our) life, and just as we whipped out the camera the first night Hauser came into our lives 7 years ago, and documented all 7 years of our family together, he had no objections when I wordlessly grabbed it again the first night Hauser was gone. It probably wasn’t the reaction that most people would find appropriate for such a moment, but it was the only thing I knew how to do at that very helpless moment.
    Sorry to bring a sad story to your upbeat (and helpful – Nexto looks awesome) post, but that’s immediately what I thought of when you mentioned balance. It’s still a raw wound. I hope your vacation was awesome – where did you go? ~Allison

  4. Mica on January 9, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Totally get this!! The last few vacations I’ve left the camera at home but I’m taking one body and three lenses on my next overseas vacation next month. It just killed me seeing so many shots that I couldn’t take, even though the mental break and not having to carry gear around WAS nice…

  5. Michael on January 9, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    I weigh what I need/want with how much room I have to store the gear. When I was on a cruise in the Caribbean, I took only a single 18-55 mm lens and my camera body (with a moisture absorbing pack), but on all my other vacations, I pack the pelican case (or back pack) with all my gear in the trunk and hit the road. I’d rather have choices and take good photos than have regrets. I can always padlock it and spend time away from my camera (its hard, ask my wife) so we can enjoy an evening out together.


  6. Tyler on January 13, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    I usually travel alone so photography doesn’t take me away from other people or experiences. In fact, I often use photography to ground me in a faraway place. It gives me something to focus on when I need it.

    As for gear, my 20lb DSLR kit stays at home. I carry a point and shoot. I’d love to upgrade to an X100s because my old p&s is slow and the screen is awful in sunlight, but the image quality is fine. Two magazine spreads and counting!

  7. Carey Ann on January 16, 2014 at 2:35 am

    I’m really bad about the whole “leaving the camera home” thing. When my teenager and husband and I recently traveled for two weeks to the South Pacific, not only did I NOT leave the camera home, I bought two more of the same pro cameras PLUS took our two waterproof cameras. When we went out, all three of us (including the teenager who was suddenly interested in the camera) would shoot.
    This led to 4500 photos, all of which were backed up daily onto a laptop and external hard drive. Which leads me to Lesson 2: one of the waterproof cameras was lost in the drink (wrapped in a towel and flipped out, going away with the tide) and the other waterproof camera was not so waterproof when left in the kayak for an hour. Luckily all the images were all backed up and we lost only a couple hours worth of a church service.

  8. Kaylie on January 16, 2014 at 3:19 am

    Wow! It’s so good to see that so many relate and I’m not alone! All us photographer’s just want good picture’s where we’re making such good memories. It’s such a battle sometimes.
    When I went to the temple square lights after two tries of getting a family picture I cried.. on temple square in the visitors center. No one knows how to use anything but an iphone these days, but then after seeing someone with a nikon strap I got a picture!
    Thank you for doing this blog!

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