It was too often the case that I would try to pack everything I could into my carry-on. I had no idea what photographic opportunities there would be at my destination, but I had to be prepared for everything. So, I brought everything, and because I was anxious about leaving things in the hotel, I carried everything on my back. It was a chiropractic nightmare. The truth was that I used one camera and two lenses at most. It was better for my photography (and my back) to leave most of my gear, save for extra batteries and SD cards, at home on later trips.
The real benefit lies in the creative and technical challenges that come with limiting yourself. When we say limiting, we mean one camera and one prime lens. Depending on their range, zoom lenses offer a degree of flexibility that allow you to stay put. You can photograph comfortably at a distance. If all you’ve got is a zoom, try to stick to one focal length, but if you’ve got the prime, bring the prime.
With this simple setup, you’ll interact with your destination more as you’ll have to zoom with you feet. Capa’s adage “If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” will sit at the back of your mind as you walk around to figure the best way to frame your image. Shooting with a prime is a physical experience, physical in it is mobility, not so much the heavy lifting.
Unless you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, where you’re offered a vision of paradise with fragmentary elements of the local culture, a vacation is about exploration. You go to a new place with the intent to relax and try something new. There’s an exploratory factor, too, and what better way to explore a new place than with a simple setup? Make it about the destination, not the gear. If you’re constantly switching out lenses, the experience of the place takes a backseat.
It’s also wise to not photograph the first couple of days, particularly if it’s a place that’s commonly held to be exotic. It can be visual overload, and you might photograph things that aren’t terribly interesting. By holding off, you’ll give yourself some time to get used to the visual aspects of the place.
Culturally speaking, a “one camera and one lens” approach is less intrusive. With a smaller setup, you have a greater chance of making subtler photos because it isn’t about the camera. It’s never actually about the camera. The camera’s a means to an end, not the end in itself. The two essential elements are what exists in front of the camera and the person behind it.
If you’re going on a safari, ignore all of this and bring that super-telephoto!