What photography equipment should I take to Europe?

Gordon Smith eating dinner
Gordon Smith enjoying dinner in Paris
 Unlike a road trip from one state to another state in America, a trip to Europe requires more selective packing. When I traveled there for 3 weeks with my family, we decided that we would be traveling very light. Everything that we took to Europe and everything that we brought home had to fit in our carry-on backpack.

Besides the usual requirements of shirts, shoes, pants, socks and shaving equipment, I was most interested in knowing what camera equipment I could bring. What would fit and how heavy would it be to carry? My camera is a Canon 1Ds Mark 3. An all-purpose lens such as the 24-105 f/4 L IS is a no-brainer. If I could only take one lens, this would be it. I took the majority of my photos using this lens. The architectural wonders of Europe also made me want a wider lens with perspective correction. The 17mm tilt-shift lens fit the bill. This lens is very big and heavy but nothing else can do what it can. It made the cut. The 70-200 f/4 L (without IS) is light for it's focal length. This extra length allowed me to focus on some distant details. This gives more creative options when shooting landscape and travel photos. This also made the cut only after I'd packed all my stuff in and decided I could squeeze in a little bit more!

To shoot longer exposures and night shots, a tripod was necessary. Gitzo's traveler series GT1542 with a Markins Q10 ballhead supported my kit just fine. I took lots of memory with more than a dozen 16, 32 and 64 GB flash cards and compact flash cards. The Canon 1Ds saves two images simultaneously so I had a backup for all my shots as I went along. I have 3 rechargeable batteries and a charger that also went. And that's all I took. No filters, no timers, no other lenses. I certainly could use all those things but they wouldn't fit my packing requirements.

This is how the weight added up:
1Ds Mark 3 camera: 1400 mg
17mm f/4 tilt-shift lens: 820 mg
24-105mm f/4 L lens: 670 mg
70-200mm f/4 L lens: 710 mg
2 extra lithium batteries: 400 mg
battery charger + cord: 200 mg
Gitzo GT1542 tripod: 1000 mg
Markins Q10 ballhead: 490 mg

Grand total: 5690 mg = 5.6 kg = 12.3 pounds
Packing things away for a move from one town to another.
My backpack is green, my wife's is red.
Not all backpacks are made equal. I actually got a backpack (from Rick Steves) and tried taking a full load to the British Virgin Islands. That backpack was extremely uncomfortable and I would not recommend it to anyone. The backpack I found and now love is the Mountain Smith Approach 40. This is comfortable and can be carried onto a plane. It's just the right size: not too small, not too big.  I had a flimsy day-bag for trips around town or to a museum.  I typically had my camera around my neck and an extra lens in the day bag.

With my tripod, ballhead, 3 lenses, camera body and all my ordinary stuff (clothes, guidebook, etc) my pack weighed 25 pounds. In comparison, my youngest daughter's pack (same Mountain Smith Approach 40) weighed 12 pounds with just her smaller clothes, iPad, book and a point & shoot camera. You can see the difference was that 12.3 pounds of photography equipment I hauled along.

Study Abroad in Europe

Young women sits in window in Venice.
Although you cannot see it, the canal is below her.
During my journeys in Europe, I saw many students.  They were traveling overseas or studying abroad and searching for cultural experience.  The deep history Europe offers is undeniable.  You simply cannot be unmoved after touring the Louvre, climbing an ancient castle rampart or watching the sun set over the Salute Cathedral in Venice.  I felt enriched when I first visited Europe as a student and I enjoyed seeing others repeating that same experience.  

As a photographer I tried to capture some of that with these photos of young students in ancient surroundings.  The contrast between young and old, life and death, student and history is what I hoped to show.
My daughter in the window of
Beynac Castle
Study abroad: student before ancient
tomb in La Frari church of Venice.  

Night Photography in Venice

Vencie gondola at night
Gondolas and Venice Lagoon

A great way to have a wonderful photographic city all to yourself is to wander around at night.  The crowds vanished for me as I went from the Accademia bridge to La Salute church and then ended up back at St. Mark's Square.  There are lots of things to keep your camera snapping.  

One essential tool is a tripod.  Although it is challenging to carry a tripod while traveling light, I managed to bring my Gitzo Traveler tripod (GT1542) with Markins Q10 ballhead.  This was large enough to support my camera with some medium-weight lenses and yet small enough to fit into my backpack which I carried on to the plane along with all my other photographic equipment.  This allowed me the freedom to take very long exposures and get creative.
Italian Couple

Venice Salute cathedral night
Night Water Taxi

Old Venice

Old Venice

This is another discovery as I wandered off by myself.  I found this beautiful opening onto it for now.  Directly across there was the doorway to another building.  I tried to frame these 2 portals so that they would mirror one another, emphasizing the arch on top as well as the rectangular opening on all the other side.

Spooky Alley and Doorway in Venice

Spooky Alley and Doorway
As I got lost in Venice at night I came across this spooky alley.  Nobody was around even though this was only about a one minute walk from a main thoroughfare filled with pedestrians and shops.  You do not have to wander very far to find yourself alone in Venice.  All you have to do is duck into a dark alley to disappear from the crowd.  I tried to capture the desolate, spooky feeling in this photograph.

Focal length 45mm; aperture f/11; shutter speed 30 seconds.  Shot with a tripod.

Doge's Palace Photography

Doge's Palace:  Arches and Columns

The Doge's Palace is a must-see to any visitor of Venice.  So much history, power and art are on display here.  The exterior is an architectural wonder.  The interior is also magnificent.  Although photography is not encouraged inside, the details outside can be photographed freely.  Here are some of my shots.  In order to have an empty corridor of arches, I had to arrive very early in the morning.  I came back later to enjoy the official tour.

Details of the Doge
View from the top of Doge's palace stairs
You can sneak a few photos here and there.  I found the "no photo" policy widely abused by all travelers.  Everyone had their cameras out and shot here and there.  For about every 1,000 photos I saw taken, I heard one guide saying "no photo."
Art-covered ceiling inside Doge's Palace
While I was there I also got to see Manet's Olympia displayed next to Titian's Venus.  This was a historic artistic display in which the original work of art was compared with another artist's interpretation of the same scene.

Manet's Olympia and Titian's Venus:
side by side for comparison

Saints John and Paul Cathedral

Eight Massive Columns
inside Saints John and Paul Cathedral

In Venice there is a wonderful church in the north part of town.  Nobody goes there at least not very many people.  However it is incredibly beautiful, religiously peaceful.  I felt like I had made a wonderful discovery when I walked through the doors of Saints John and Paul Church.  It is not named after the John or the Paul in the New Testament but you do not need to know that in order to enjoy the beauty.

Extremely wide and high pillars stretch forth the ceiling.  The ceiling itself is a wonderful work of symmetry.  As you can see from the photos, the place was empty.  I did not have to Photoshop anybody out to have a clean view.

Light of God
Cathedral Heights
At this church I used my 17 mm tilt-shift lens almost exclusively.  In order to prevent lens distortion, I shifted up and composed very carefully for taking the shot.

Canal Photography

Water-level view:  taken from a gondola

Here's a collection of several canals and boats that I saw while in Venice.
Green Boat
Reflecting back on Venice
Gondolier at work
Grand Canal
photo taken from Accademia Bridge at sunset

St. Mark's Cathedral: Inside Photos

Black lantern within St. Mark's Cathedral
Photography is forbidden in St. Mark's Cathedral.  However everyone around me was taking pictures.  The peer pressure was too much and I broke out my camera and started shooting.  You have to shoot quickly and you cannot have a tripod.  A big tripod and a slow photographer would attract too much attention from the understaffed guards.  A discrete photographer with a high ISO and a steady hand is able to come back with a few good pictures of this incredible historic religious building.  The mosaics are breathtaking, truly magnificent.  Please enjoy.

The floor is a rolling irregular mosaic
Golden chest from the Treasury
Gold Mosaic of Christ washing the feet
of Peter
Incredible Golden Dome
Inner Sanctum
Mosaic detail
Enormous mosaic of the house of Israel and
all the branches.  This was huge.
Angel slaying a dragon

Venice Photography: Trying to get an original composition

Shooting under the horse to frame the campanile
beneath its' chest took me to my knees and required
an acute neck angle to get this shot.
Just like in Paris, Venice challenges the photographer to discover a new composition.  This ancient city has been photographed millions of times and has also been painted by the old masters.  How could I possibly go to this location and come back with something original?

Well, I am not sure if I did come back with anything original but I tried.  I tried by getting down on the ground and shooting up, I tried by using my telephoto lens to pick out just the details and bring pieces of buildings closer in a photograph than they appear in real life.  I tried by getting up early in the morning and I tried by staying out late.  I also tried by not having specific locations programmed into my mind.  I let myself wander and discover.

Here are some photographs of Venice that I hope are unique.

This shot was much harder than it appears.  I wandered
through the northern section of town where I saw
no one but locals, and only few of them.  
A detailed shot on the Doge's palace with the red brick of
St. Mark's campanile in the background.  I shot this very telephoto shot
to brink these two elements together.
Doge's Column:  each face was unique
Colorful authentic Venice courtyard

Trail Report: Sella Ronda

Passo Pordoi Lift to the Mountaintop
The Sella Ronda is the term used for going around the Sella Mountain group.  This particular group of mountains is surrounded by several skiing towns.  Some people travel by bicycle, automobile and hiking.  I was with my family and we traveled by car.  Some of the great highlights include 3 high mountain passes.  These are Pordoi Pass, Sella Pass and Gardena Pass. 

The first pass is Pordoi.  This pass has a list that goes to the top.  It opens earlier in the summer than most other lifts.  We took the ride.  I would highly recommend doing so.  In just a few minutes you ascend thousands of meters into the clouds.  While we were on top, beautiful sunshine hit us in the face.  20 minutes later it was snowing.  Unforgettable.
Sella Pass
Sella Pass has 3 ragged peaks shooting into the sky.  As you drive from pass to pass, your neck might start to hurt because you'll be looking straight up at some of the mountains directly above you.  A sunroof or convertible car are recommended.
Sella Ronda road
The last pass before completing the circuit is Gardena.  This pass has a lovely church and a lovely view in all directions.  If you are as lucky as I was when you do this trip, you will then return to your hotel for an afternoon at the spa.  Good luck!
Gardena Pass View

Colfosco, Alta Badia

Colfosco, Alta Badia
This entry will be brief but to the point. If you are ever in the tiny town of Covara, you should get up in the morning and see that beautiful light on the mountains and churches. From the town up to the top of the pass, the scenery cannot be beat. It is a time you will not forget.
Gardena Pass Peaks
Lower in the Valley of Alta Badia

Dolomites and Dome

Mountain Hut

Gardena Pass Sunrise

Gardena Pass Church at sunrise
I found myself on top of Gardena Pass waiting for the sun to rise in June.  According to my calculations and the Internet, the sun was due to rise at 5:20 AM.  I was in position at 5 AM.  I wandered up and around a lovely church.  Above the church the trail extends farther into the mountain peaks.  The wind was blowing and warmth nonexistent.  The storm had come through the area the previous several days and today the storm had finally cleared out.  A few clouds were here and there.  I expected it to be a beautiful sunrise.

Slowly the light grew.  I was in position to catch the very first light shining on this beautiful mountain church surrounded by rugged peaks.  5:20 passed.  Now was 5:21, then 5:22 and still no sun.  Because I was so cold, time slowed down and 10 minutes seemed like an hour.  The sun finally rose at 5:30.  I've never known the sun to be tardy before but on this day it was.  I will forgive it this day because it brought an unforgettable beautiful sunrise.

San Giovanni Church

San Giovanni Church (also known at St. John's Church)
After looking at several photographs of the dolomites, it became apparent that several picturesque churches would you be found in the valleys and on the peaks. This particular church got my attention and I wanted to find out where it was.  After a little bit of research I discovered it is in the Val di Funes.  This is a short trip from Bolzano.  That is not to say it is a straight path.  Following GPS instructions I was led on several winding roads, sharp turns, small streets that seem to be designed more for cows than automobiles.  The farther I traveled the more beautiful scenery became.

Me and my family had this lovely valley to ourselves.  A few cows joined us.  As you can see in the photograph, there had been a storm.  In fact it was raining when we arrived.  The rain was very light and I took several photographs, not knowing what the scenery might be later.  After we hiked on the Zanes trail, I returned to this church and took several more photographs in better light.
Val di Funes after a storm
I utilized my 70-200 mm lens.  The farther I got away from the church, the longer the focal length I could use in order to make this wonderful scene more compact, bringing the mountains in closer if you will.  The church itself is very small but decorated beautifully with painting and architectural detail

After wandering the wet fields getting different viewpoints, my shoes, socks and pants were saturated from the knees downward.
Getting low to get the flowers in the shot