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CNET's ultimate travel photography kit guide: Cameras, tripods and more

Hoping to capture the world now travel is opening up? Make sure you take the right kit.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that travel has been off the cards for most of us for some time. But that's steadily beginning to change, and you may be excitedly planning some trips to feel connected with the world again. Whether that's a jaunt on a jet to an exotic island, a hike into snowcapped mountains, or simply a long weekend away in your local countryside, your holidays can provide brilliant opportunities for photography. And with amazing cameras stuffed into phones like the iPhone 12 Pro Max and the Galaxy S21 Ultra, along with a plethora of amazing mirrorless cameras from the likes of Canon, Sony and Fujifilm, getting great images doesn't mean hauling a huge kit bag with you on your travels.

Here, I'll take you through the essential gear you need to bring with you on your trip, as well as some extras to consider if you want to return home with creative pieces of art, rather than just plain holiday snaps. 

Choose the right camera

Choosing the proper camera is basically a balancing act between overall image quality and the physical size of the camera. Your phone, for example, is small and fits right in your pocket, but though top-end phones have multiple lenses and can take amazing shots, the enthusiasts among you will likely want to upgrade to a proper camera system that allows for lens swapping. If you do decide to go with just your phone, then make sure to check out CNET's phone photography 101 page for a wide variety of shooting advice.

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Katie Collins/CNET

Traveling photographers have more choice than ever these days, with mirrorless cameras offering much smaller body sizes than the traditional DSLRs of previous years. Micro four-thirds cameras like the Fujifilm X-S10 are easily carried around your neck and are quick to operate, so you never miss a shot. I like to shoot on full-frame cameras, which have larger image sensors that offer better dynamic range -- ideal for pulling back highlights on those sunset shots, or raising the shadows of those nighttime images looking down old Italian avenues. 

My favorite option is the Canon EOS RP, a full-frame camera with an incredibly compact body size that makes it ideal for keeping in your backpack. Paired with a 24-105mm f4 lens, it can take wide-angle shots of sweeping landscapes and also zoom in to focus on smaller details. Having a broad zoom lens means you can probably do your whole trip with just the one lens and not feel weighed down with additional kit. 

If you want to travel exceptionally light, then Canon's recent 50mm f/1.8 lens (often referred to as the Nifty Fifty) is incredibly small and light and when paired with the EOS RP makes for a superb street and travel setup, with a fast aperture that provides beautiful bokeh. If possible, take a look at the camera you're considering in a camera shop and see how it feels in your hand or when hanging around your neck. If you'll be doing a lot of hiking, or long walks around the city, then every bit of weight matters. 

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Canon's EOS RP offers full-frame quality but in a very compact size, particularly when paired with the tiny 50mm f/1.8 lens.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The best travel tripod

A tripod isn't essential for all travel photography, but when the light fades and you need to slow the shutter speed to several seconds to get a good exposure, you'll need one to secure your camera. You'll definitely need a tripod if you want to nail those nighttime shots overlooking a gorgeous bay, capture the stars above those snowcapped mountains, or pull off those artful long exposures of waterfalls.

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By using a sturdy tripod, I was able to slow the shutter speed right down to capture the motion of the water and clouds over the Forth Bridge.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Again, size matters and you should look for a compact, travel tripod that can easily fit in your backpack -- or attach to the outside of it. Modern materials like carbon fiber will keep the weight down, but they also tend to be more expensive, so you'll need to decide how much you're willing to shell out. 

As its name suggests, the Peak Design Travel Tripod is a great tripod for traveling, thanks to its very small size when folded down and its light weight. I've done all-day hikes with this strapped to my back and barely noticed its presence -- something I can't say for most tripods. Make sure to check out my full roundup of the best tripods you can buy in 2021. Or, if weight is really an issue, you can even try using your own DIY tripod.

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Katie Collins/CNET

A proper adventure backpack

A dedicated photo bag should be high on your list -- after all, you don't want your fancy new gear getting knocked around and breaking, do you? A good bag will have compartments to keep your camera safe and secure but will also let you access it quickly. It's important, too, to find one that also has plenty of space to keep other items you'll need while out and about.

If you're going to be out with it all day, then I recommend a backpack with two shoulder straps, rather than a single-strap messenger bag. It'll spread that weight over both your shoulders and keep you comfortable longer. Look for things like side-access zips, so you can quickly get your camera out when inspiration strikes; plenty of additional pockets for batteries and snacks; weather-resistant materials; and mounting points to help carry your tripod. 

I've done a lot of the hard work for you in rounding up my top photography backpacks for 2021. There are options for all kinds of photography, from short city breaks through to multiday hikes with lots of gear. Have a read-through, and make sure that what you're taking is suitable for where you're going.

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Always keeping your camera handy means you're ever ready to shoot when you see a good opportunity.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The important extras

The list above is really the essential stuff you'll need to take with you. How much more you bring will depend on how seriously you take your photography. Always consider having multiple spare batteries and a charger, as even the best cameras will tend to give you only a day of photos. There's nothing worse than getting to a beautiful afternoon destination only to find you exhausted your power in the morning. Keeping a spare in your bag will let you swap it out and keep on shooting into the evening.

If your goal is to capture stunning landscape vistas, filters called graduated neutral density filters are well worth considering. These will darken only the top half of a photograph -- to help control an overly bright sky -- letting you capture an evenly exposed scene. Shop around for square filter sets that let you use adapter rings for a variety of lens sizes.

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By using a neutral density filter, I was able to blur the motion of the water until it became a smooth and silky surface.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

If you want to experiment with long exposures, then you'll benefit from solid neutral density filters. These will dim the light across the whole scene, allowing you to use longer shutter speeds without resulting in a photo that's completely washed out. The Big Stopper by Lee Filters is a superb filter, so dark it allows you to take photos several seconds long -- or even longer -- in broad daylight. For capturing cloud trails streaking across the sky, it's worth checking out, though it doesn't come cheap.