Choosing what photography gear to take on holiday with you can be a difficult job. You will likely need to make some trade-offs between bringing the equipment to get the best photo for each situation you may come across, to just bringing enough gear to produce good results in most situations.
Amount of equipment to take
The first thing to consider when deciding what photography equipment to take on holiday with you, is whether the holiday is primarily for photography or not. If the holiday is primarily for leisure you'll probably just want a small lightweight camera that won't weigh you down.
The next thing to consider is whether you will be staying at the same hotel for the whole trip. If you will be staying at different locations throughout the holiday, it is unlikely that you will enjoy the extra burden of lugging around a large amount of photography equipment along with the rest of your luggage.
If you are staying at the same hotel for the whole trip, this should allow you to bring a larger selection of photography equipment. Then you can just choose from your selection on each day of the holiday what you think you will need that day.
If you're looking to take something more than simple holiday snaps, but want to travel as light as possible, a high-end compact camera, such as the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 series would be a good choice. These cameras offer a useful zoom range from a wide angle to a short telephoto (depending on the exact model). They feature wide apertures and relatively high sensitivity sensors (for a compact camera), making them also useful in low light situations.
High end compact cameras also offer manual controls, which can sometimes come in handy. The only other things to consider are a lens cloth for cleaning the camera's lens, and possibly a polarizing filter. Of course, a larger camera will give better results in low light, but high end compacts with 1″ and larger sensors give very good results in a small form factor.
Not quite as light, but more flexible
If you would like the option of interchangeable lenses, or prefer the shallower depth of field that a larger sensor camera will give you for a given field of view, but don't want to lug around a heavy DSLR, then maybe a MILC with an APS-C or 4/3 size image sensor would suit you.
MILC stands for 'Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Camera'. They are essentially the same as a standard digital SLR camera, but have no mirror or optical viewfinder. This makes the camera and the lenses that can be built for these cameras much smaller. Currently these cameras include the Canon M series, Sony Alpha E-mount series, Fuji X series, Panasonic G series, and Olympus Pen series. All current models tend to produce very good results.
You can see in the below shots that the larger sensored MILC photo has a shallower depth of field than the compact camera photo. This results in a more out of focus background, making for more pleasing portrait photographs.
India - Koyambedu Market - May 2010 - Picture Project 10 by Kirsten on flickr - taken with a compact camera (licensed CC-BY-SA)
The choice of lenses with a MILC is also an important benefit if you want to do more than snapshot photography. With a lens like the Panasonic LUMIX G VARIO 100-300mm F4.0-5.6 MEGA O.I.S, you can have an image stabilized zoom lens that will zoom to the 35mm equivalent of 600mm, in a lens that will fit in your pocket. Other lenses, such as fisheyes, super wide-angles, and large aperture lenses (e.g. the Nokton f/0.95) are also available, particularly for the Micro four thirds cameras, which has the widest lens range available.
This makes the MILCs an attractive proposition for holiday / travel photography when you want to travel light but don't want to limit your options. The lenses are small enough to fit in jacket pockets, and not particularly heavy.
Obviously, a MILC and selection of lenses will not be as light or easy to carry around as a compact camera, and it will certainly be a lot more expensive. You will probably also want to take a sensor cleaning kit, to clean off any dust that might get on the camera's sensor while changing lenses.
A polarizing filter and possibly a set of split neutral density filters might also come in handy, and don't take up much space. You might also want to consider a monopod or tripod, which you can leave in your hotel room most of the time and just take with you if you are going out for some sunrise or sunset photography.
Traveling heavy with a DSLR or Full-frame MILC and lenses
If you are going on holiday primarily for photography, a Digital SLR with a few lenses might be your best bet. This will allow to capture large high quality images, even in very low light, especially if you have a full frame DSLR or MILC. Although full-frame sensored mirrorless cameras are slightly smaller and lighter than full-frame DSLRs, when you take into account the size and weight of the lenses there is little difference in practice. Add in a few lenses and accessories and you will end up with a bulky and heavy kit either way.
What you intend to photograph should determine what lenses you bring.
If you are intending to photograph wildlife, a telephoto lens should be on your list. The super telephoto lenses are large and heavy, but a lens such as a 300mm f/4 (possibly with a teleconvertor as well), or 400mm f/5.6 should be more manageable.
A 70-300mm or 100-400mm zoom lens will provide a good compromise between weight/size and reach. This might be preferable if you are intending to photograph wildlife for only a small part of the holiday.
If you plan on photographing architecture and city streets, a wide angle lens would be a good idea. If you are really serious about architectural photography, a tilt-shift wide angle lens and tripod would be even better.
For capturing portraits, either of the locals, or your family, a fast medium prime such as a 50mm f/1.4 lens or 85mm f/1.4 lens would be ideal. Alternatively, a fast zoom such as a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens will also be able to supply a very shallow depth of field for portrait photography.
You may also want to bring a flash unit and mini-softbox to diffuse the flash. In this case I would suggest you also bring a good supply of rechargeable batteries and a battery recharger.
Landscape photography is generally best done with a wide angle lens and tripod. You may want to bring a set of split neutral density filters for sunrises and sunsets as well. If photographing moving water, you might want to bring some neutral density filters to increase the exposure and so blur the water.
Gangnyeongjeon, Yeonsaengjeon, and Gyeongseongjeon by David Kennard Photography - taken with the Nikon D200 and Tokina 10-17mm fisheye using a tripod and panoramic head
If you enjoy capturing panoramas, you will very likely need a tripod, or at least a monopod for best results. You will probably also want to bring a panoramic head for your tripod or monopod. A fisheye lens in this case will help you capture 360° panoramas in less shots than with other lenses.
Famous Kyushu Pork Soup Ramen - Duck Duck Goose Yum Cha Silver AUD18 by Alpha on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)
If you intend on sampling the local cuisine while you're on holiday, you might want to take some photos of the meal. A lens in the 30-50mm focal length would prove useful for this, being wide enough to allow you to get the food in a shot while sitting at a table. Although a fast prime lens would normally be preferred for food photography, a zoom lens that covers this range will be useful for other photographic opportunities during the holiday, and so may prove a better choice.
A macro lens probably isn't worth taking specifically for its macro / close-up capability unless you are holidaying in the jungle and expect to see lots of interesting insects. However, depending on the focal length of the macro lens, it may work well as a portrait lens or telephoto lens, with the added benefit of allowing you to take close-ups when wanted.
If you don't have a macro lens, consider bringing a close-up diopter filter. This is a small lens that attaches to the front of your lens and allows you to focus at close distances. This is much cheaper than a macro lens, but beware of the cheap low quality single element diopter lenses. High quality diopter lenses include the Raynox DCR series, Canon 500D, Nikon 4T and 6T, and Olympus MCON series.
A diopter lens won't take up much extra room in your luggage, and although you might not use it much, it's useful to have available when you do want to take a close-up shot.
If you're not sure what you're likely to come across on a day out, a walk around lens such as a 24-120mm zoom lens will be good. Although you may miss some shots where you needed a wider angle or longer zoom, a walk around lens covers most things you're likely to come across.
Camera Gear for trip to Hong Kong / 20080308.SD850IS.2266 / SML by See-ming Lee on flickr (licensed CC-BY-SA)
Alternatively, you could try taking a selection of lenses with you, so you can switch to the best lens when the situation arises. DSLR lenses can be quite bulky and heavy though, so it is unlikely you'll want to carry too many lenses around with you. For carrying a large camera and multiple lenses, you will probably want a photography backpack, or you can also buy photographic vests.
Photographic vests allow you to store your lenses in the vest, making them easy to access. You can also use a fishing vest, or any other vest / gilet that has lots of large pockets for this. The problem is that if you get hot, you can't just take the vest off and carry it, as it will be quite heavy when it is full of DSLR lenses.
As with MILCs, you will probably want to bring a sensor cleaning kit to ensure that your camera's sensor stays clean and dust free. I would suggest cleaning the sensor with something like a rocket blower or arctic butterfly at the end of each day. After doing this, check the sensor is clean, and if it is still dirty consider doing a wet clean.
Items you'll want whether traveling light or heavy
Depending on the amount of photos you intend to take, it may be worth considering a memory card backup hard-drive. These devices allow you to plug the memory card into the drive, and then they automatically back up the memory card. This allows you to delete the photos from the memory card and use it again. Considering that these devices are usually around 1 - 4 TB, they work out much cheaper than buying the equivalent amount of memory cards.
If you don't mind the extra luggage weight, a laptop or tablet computer, such as the ipad, can also be used for backing up memory cards. These also have the added advantage that if your room has an internet connection, you can post some of your photos to the internet while you're still on holiday.
If you want to geo-tag your photos, to keep a record of where each photo was taken, then you'll probably also want to bring a GPS device. Some cameras have a GPS built in, while others have GPS accessories available. You can also use a standard GPS to record a tracklog, and then sync this with your photos on the computer to geocode them.
If you want your photos to have the local time of your holiday destination recorded in the EXIF data, then make sure you adjust the clock on your camera to the correct timezone. Remember that some countries may also employ Daylight Savings Time.
It's a good idea to clean your camera and lenses, and make sure all your equipment is working a few weeks before you leave. Then if any of your equipment is not working (I have the most problem with shutter release cables breaking), you can hopefully get it fixed or find a replacement before you have to leave.
Traveling by plane - carry on and check-in luggage
If you are travelling relatively light camera wise, you should be able to either include your photography gear in your carry-on luggage, or put it in your coat pockets. If you are bringing a DSLR and selection of lenses, I would recommend that you pack them in your carry-on luggage. At the very least pack the camera and lens you think you will use most as part of your carry-on, or hang the camera and lens round your neck when checking in.
You don't want to arrive at your destination, then find the checked bag with all your camera gear in has been lost.
When packing your carry-on bag, be careful to ensure that it is under the maximum size and weight requirements of the airline you are flying with. Camera gear can be quite heavy, so if your carry-on is too heavy, when you arrive at the airport you can take some lenses etc. out and put them in your pockets. After checking in and having the carry-on weighed, you can then put the lenses back in your carry-on.
A tripod will need to be checked, and can usually just be checked in its tripod bag. Other accessories or lenses that you couldn't fit in your carry on can be packed in a suitcase with your clothes. Wrap the clothes round the items to give them some padding.
Check your travel insurance to see what the maximum claim is for a single item, and if it has any specific restrictions relating to electronics or cameras. You will probably find that it will provide enough cover for the loss of a compact camera, but not a DSLR and lenses.
If you have home contents insurance, check with your insurer whether your camera and lenses would be covered when taking them on holiday with you. Otherwise you may want to consider taking out additional insurance, depending on the cost of the insurance, and how likely you think it is that your gear might get broken or stolen.
Make sure you check out whether your destination has a reputation for pick pockets before you plan what gear to take. A large DSLR screams 'wealthy tourist', making you more likely to get pick pocketed. If you bring a large amount of equipment and carry it round in a bag, this also makes it more easy for you to be pick pocketed.
A small light camera that is constantly hanging round your neck or in your hand will be less attractive to pick pockets, and also much harder for them to steal. Likewise, small lenses kept in pockets are less obvious, and harder to steal than lenses kept in a photography backpack.
When packing, it's a good idea to check what the weather is likely to be like where you're headed. If it's going to be rainy, pack rain covers for your gear. If it's going to be hot you may want to consider cutting down on what you plan taking. Carrying heavy photographic equipment on a hot day isn't pleasant!
Is photography allowed?
If you are planning on visiting specific locations, such as historic houses or temples, make sure you check whether they allow photography. There's no point lugging photography equipment round with you if you're not allowed to use it.
Some countries are less camera friendly than others, so if you are visiting one these countries, consider bringing only a minimal amount of gear.
Specialist photo holidays
If you are really into your photography, consider one of the holidays run specifically for photographers. These holidays include photographic instructors to help you improve your photography, and also scout out the best photographic locations for you beforehand.
Typically the leader of the holiday will handle the hotel booking, bus booking, any model shoots, etc. so you can focus entirely on photography without having to worry about anything else.
With a specialist photo holiday, they will often have a list of suggested equipment on their website, or you can contact them for advice. These holidays do tend to be quite a bit more expensive than a standard holiday though.