Travel Photography the Frugal Way

Travel. Adventure. Learning more about yourself. Sweet photos.

There are many reasons why we love to travel. The trips themselves tend to be unforgettable and stirring…but are your photos?

Below I’ll teach you how to combine camera and lens choice along with lighting in the best, most frugal, and lightest way possible!

Some Background

I picked up the photography bug, hard, in 2009 during my first trip to Japan. My then-girlfriend (now Ms. Moose) is part Japanese and we visited that wonderful country to visit family and enjoy some time off.

I have vivid memories of Gion, one of the cultural centers of the city of Kyoto. My feeble camera was not quite adequate enough to capture the image as I composed it in my mind’s eye and I missed the shot of a lifetime. My dream photo of a geiko shyly emerging from a traditional house at dusk was neither crisp nor vivid. It was instead a blurry mess. That moment in time is gone forever.

Upon returning home, I began to study photography so that I wouldn’t miss a shot like that again for lack of competence or inferior equipment.

Fast forward to 2011.

I entered my MBA program as a photographer with several weddings under my belt. I used my skill behind the camera to help raise funds for business school. Along with weddings, I had some experience shooting fashion photography and landscapes.

During b-school, I continued to use photography as both a way to express myself and make money. I swore off wedding photography because I never enjoyed it and it was very stressful. However, I worked as a part-time fashion photographer and worked with some fairly well-known models on cool locations like mega-yachts.


Photo Credit: Moose

I continue to make photographs as an outlet and hobby. Here I will show you some tips and tricks to help you elevate your photography game without breaking the bank!

The Best Camera

The best camera is the one that’s with you. – Chase Jarvis

The lightest, most travel-friendly camera ever invented is likely in your pocket right now. Camera phones now have the capability to take stunning high-quality images. Moreover, your smartphone is probably with you at nearly all times. The images of Mini Moose below were taken using my current phone.

toddler, beach, photography

Mini Moose at the beach. Photo Credit: Moose

toddler, girl, pout

Mini Moose pouting. Photo Credit: Moose

If you are not already familiar with how to operate a DSLR, your smartphone is your best travel photography bet. The vast majority of people who buy or are gifted a DSLR have no idea how to use it.

Why lug around the extra weight and spend more money (especially on lenses) if you can’t harness its power? I’ve seen tourists with $10,000 cameras use them to grab snapshots of equal quality to those from your phone. Don’t be that guy (or gal) with an expensive paperweight flashing “rob me, I’m a creampuff” to all nearby thieves! Whenever I’m traveling, I cover up all the logos on my camera with black gaffer tape to make the camera ugly and uninteresting.

If you are experienced behind the lens, I recommend getting the cheapest high resolution full-frame camera possible. I first bought my first Nikon D800 for approximately $3,500. Three years later, I bought one used for $1,200. Buy a used (good condition) but slightly dated camera for significantly less than the MSRP. Another excellent choice is the Nikon D700. I don’t know the Canon equivalents well because I’ve never shot them, but comment below if you have some recommendations.

Why do I insist on a full-frame high resolution camera?

While a DX camera provides you with extra built-in zoom due to its crop factor, full frame (FX) wins out for me due to its versatility.

The Best Lenses

Before I began this FI journey, I was a massive spendthrift. My camera equipment cost approximately $20,000 (paid for largely by my work as a photographer). I had an assortment of the best, most expensive lenses and some very fancy lighting equipment. However, you can achieve 90-95% of the quality of these expensive tools for far less!

One giant expense for many photographers is a zoom lens. A sharp, fast zoom lens often costs into the thousands of dollars. The zoom lenses for wildlife photography cost into the tens of thousands of dollars. Additionally, they weigh a ton. This is not conducive to blending in on your travels. It also makes you LESS likely to take photos because you don’t want to lug this hunk of metal around town or on a hike.

What do I recommend instead?

Fast prime (ie non-zoom) lenses! They are incredibly cheap and light relative to zoom lenses. They tend to also be sharper. They are phenomenally good in low-light conditions, especially when coupled with the larger pixel size of a full frame camera.

I prefer manual focus lenses because it helps to keep the cost and weight down most of the time. Additionally, tbe build quality of older Nikkor (Nikon) lenses is exceptional. Below are some rules of thumb about lens focal lengths:

  • 24mm lenses are great for landscapes
  • 35mm lenses are an old favorite for street photography
  • 50mm lenses are great all-around lenses and exceptionally cheap
  • 85mm lenses are usually used for portraiture and fashion, especially 3/4 length shots

My current kit consists of a 28mm f/1.4 lens, a 50mm f/1.2 manual lens, a 50mm f/1.8 autofocus lens, and a 35mm f/1.4 manual lens. I bought many of these lenses off of eBay, albeit with great care.

Won’t I miss some shots without a telephoto lens? Not if I plan around it. Look at the photo below.

Moose, no crop

Photo Credit: Moose

Can you find the moose? He’s tiny in this frame.

However, since I used a high resolution camera, I can zoom in on him (crop) and compose the photo as if I had a zoom lens!

moose, crop

Photo Credit: Moose

Additionally, I kept a good 50 meters away from him for safety reasons, just as I would have with a monster zoom lens. He chased after me in the end because he recognized a fellow moose on his turf.

The 50mm lens I used costs less than $200, which is a massive improvement on the $10,000+ zoom lenses normally used to capture wildlife photos.

I broke convention by using a “normal” 50mm lens for the landscape photo below instead of a wide-angle lens. However, the subtle use of HDR and the sharpness of the lens combined to make one of my favorite photos. It didn’t necessitate several thousand dollars worth of glass. I’ve never been able to get a landscape to look quite so three dimensional as I do with that 50mm f/1.2 lens.

greece, landscape, travel

Photo Credit: Moose

The Best Lighting

Please, never ever use the pop-up flash that typically comes with cameras. The lighting is harsh and it’s head-on. It makes most photos look like mug shots at your local DMV. Muy mal.

Lighting is a very complex topic in and of itself, but you can massively increase the quality of yours with a few simple rules:

  1. Diffuse/bounce your light
  2. Get it off-camera
  3. Place your light source as close to your subject as possible

Diffusing or bouncing your light means that you should either bounce it off of a reflector or umbrella or wall/ceiling, or cover it with a translucent fabric of some sort. This changes the quality of the light and typically makes it more natural versus the jarring harsh look of on-camera flash.

Getting your light off-camera avoids that dreaded washed-out look. Hold the camera in your right hand and hold the flash in your left hand at a 45 degree angle (or 135 degree, depending on perspective). This is a fairly easy tried-and-true angle for lighting that’s great for shooting on the run.

I personally like to diffuse the light with a Honl travel softbox but you can make a decent diffuser by cutting up a plastic milk jug. My Honl softbox is a legacy item from the days when I treated money like it would give me Ebola.

You can use an expensive $300-500 flash like I used to (or $2,000, for the professional work I did). Or, you can buy a flash that operates at 95% of the expensive flashes capacity and costs 1/10th as much. I used a cheap $50 flash in Japan along with a Honl travel softbox to take this photo of Mini Moose in Japan. Notice the detail in her yukata and how soft the light is on her face. Unfortunately, there’s some blur near her hands (because: toddler).


Photo Credit: Moose

The closer to get the light to your subject, the softer it will be. Sunlight is extremely harsh because the source of light is millions of miles away. If you push your light as close to your subject as possible without entering the frame of the photograph, the light envelops and caresses them. It lends an angelic and dreamy quality to the photo.

Lighting, more than any factor, determines the quality of your photos.

Tallying the Cost and Weight

Old Moose

  • D800 Camera, new: $3,500, 2 lbs
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 lens: $2,800, 3.15 lbs
  • 14-24mm f/2.8 lens: $1,900, 3.4 lbs
  • SB-5000 flash: $600, 14 oz
  • Total: $8,800, 9.4 lbs

New Moose

  • D800 camera, used: $1,200, 2 lbs
  • 50mm f/1.8 autofocus lens: $170, 6.5 oz
  • 50mm f/1,2 lens, used: $300, 12.7 oz
  • 35mm f/1.4 lens, used: $350, 14.1 oz
  • 28mm f/2.8 lens: $290, 7.2 oz
  • Knock-off flash from Amazon: $50, 1.1 lbs
  • Total: $2,360, 5.6 lbs

My new photography kit saves me $6,440 and almost 4 pounds! Those 4 pounds make a massive difference whilst traveling and the money saved is enormous, as per the Money Multiple.

My kit is also much easier to lug around.

camera cat

Compact travel photography kit, Moose Cat 2 for scale. Photo Credit: Moose

Sure, $2,400 is still a LOT of money. I allow myself to spend on this because truthfully I’ve cut most expenses out of my life and won’t deny myself photography. We all draw a line somewhere, the important thing is to be smart about your one indulgence and keep its cost minimal.

I hope you found this useful. Leave some comments and photos if you use these techniques!

What is your favorite photography gear? Are there any other techniques you can think of to save time and money?