Why Photography Is Like an RPG

A few months ago on Twitter I mused that preparing a photography kit for a trip was a lot like equipping your character to go to battle in an RPG. Why? Assuming you don’t have a bag of holding,* you only have limited space to carry things in most travel-friendly bags, so you have to plan ahead about what kinds of foes (read: photographic opportunities) you will face. As I get ready for my next trip, I’ve put a little more thought into this metaphor, so what follows is part photography guide and part geek-out session.

For instance, every fighter has his favorite sword, and every photographer has his favorite walkaround lens. Some of us like a superzoom, while others (like me) go for quality and image stabilization of a shorter zoom. My Tamron 17-50 VC doesn’t have great reach, but it serves my purposes well both in daytime and in low-light. A walkaround lens is a Jack-of-All-Trades, which means it won’t give you the best possible results, but its flexibility means you shouldn’t go on a trip without one. In fact, it may be the only lens you take! But one word of warning: the kit lens that came with your camera is probably not your best choice for a walkaround lens — it’s a little bit like leveling up your character in an RPG but still using the first sword you ever bought.

Specialists, though, will often choose a difficult weapon to master. In an RPG this means a weapon that starts out weak but builds a lot of power as your skill increases. For a photographer, the closest experience is having a prime. We children of the digital age are a bit spoiled by zooms and variable focal lengths, yet the prime lens is an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. The fixed focal length of a prime means that you can’t use it in every situation, but having a couple primes in your bag will prove valuable on most trips. My Canon EF 50mm II, aka the “nifty fifty,” is light and, at a price of $90, it’s almost disposable in the event of evil wizardry a travel accident. It works well as a portrait lens, a low-light lens, and a street photography lens. My Canon EF 28mm isn’t nearly as versatile, but is suitable for use in close quarters and when photographing museum pieces** — but stay out of the sun with that one! At the longer end, my Canon 85mm is great for portraiture and sneaking up on targets, though in some situations I need something with even more reach.

If the trip includes a zoo, outdoor performance, or a sports game, you might want to hit far away targets, and the photographer’s longbow is the telephoto lens. Regrettably, this is the weakest lens in my kit, a Canon EF-S 55-250 IS, but that’s because I do most of my fighting, er, shooting up close. Yet it’s also a very light lens, meaning I can always pack it and still have room for my good lenses.

On the other end of the focal range are flowers, bugs, and other small subjects, the kinds of things you’d like to shoot in a park during spring or early summer. Though you’re photographing tiny things, the best lenses in this case are actually pretty hefty, such as my Canon EF 100mm Macro. It’s easily one of the heaviest lenses in a photographer’s kit, and though it doubles as a long portrait lens on my Canon 50D, its bulk and narrowly defined function means it stays at home most of the time. (It’s a little bit like that Mace of Undead Smiting in an RPG that doesn’t work so well against other beasties.)

Let’s talk about something more useful. A wide-angle lens is like an area effect magic spell; sometimes there’s just so much in front of you that you want to get it all in one shot. You should consider a wide-angle lens such as the Canon EF-S 10-22mm if you’re going to be shooting moderate-to-brightly lit interiors, such as Chinese temples, or most landscapes or public squares (Tiananmen, here I come). Note, however, that a wide-angle lens won’t work miracles in dark places. Most lack stabilization and are just too slow.

To complement your array of weaponry, you’ll need a good spellbook — or just nice accessories. If weather is a danger on your quest, consider All-Weather covers for your camera, lens, and bag. If you must journey into dark caves and hollows, your external flash and bounce filter makes for a nifty globe of illumination. If you don’t know how long it’ll be before you can return to town, a battery grip and a few spare batteries can make the difference between life and death taking or losing great shots. Also, a Lenspen, while not a complete cleaning solution, is a veritable cure light wounds for your camera’s filters and objectives. Last but not least, a carbon fiber tripod is every photographer’s friend when a hex potion curses you with unsteady hands or you don’t trust another adventurer to take your picture. (I usually don’t.)

Finally, no would-be warrior or photographer would be complete without his sidearm. In most RPGs this means a dagger or other short weapon, but for photogs, it’s a Micro 4/3s camera or other quality compact. In my case it’s a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, which is more of an enthusiast’s camera than the latest and greatest piece of kit. But it’s pretty powerful in its own right, and lets me work HDR magic or take nice black and whites. The main advantage of a compact backup camera should be obvious the first time you’re shooting with a telephoto lens and suddenly need to go wide on a shot.

So there you have it: 13 years of photography and 16 years of playing RPGs crammed into one 1,000 word blog post. The important thing to take away from this is that planning for travel photography should begin as soon as you have your itinerary ready. Think through the venues and your photographic needs and choose the lenses that best correspond to your overall plans.

* I have it on good authority that LowePro is set to launch their Camera Bags of Holding line any day now.

** Don’t underestimate the value of a fast, short lens for museum photography. As long as you don’t use a flash you can shoot freely in most museums.