If you are anything like me, you thrill at the thought of traveling somewhere new and exotic. We drool over the thought of capturing the fruits of our exploration with our cameras. Travel photography is an especially decadent genre that presents some varied challenges from the mundane to the extravagant. Here are 12 ways to make sure your trip and your photographic endeavors are everything you want and more!
1) Be reasonable
Before you even leave, think about what you can reasonably carry and what you’ll actually use. Don’t take so much gear that you end up leaving it locked up in your hotel, but you do want enough that you have a little versatility. My travel bag usually consists of one camera body, batteries, memory cards, battery charger, one zoom lens, one prime lens, my laptop and one portable hard drive. I also take a very light-weight, compact tripod and sometimes a waterproof housing for my camera, depending on my location. That’s it, no more, no less. The goal is to find a balance between enough and too much.
2) Pack your gear carefully
I never recommend checking your gear and sending it away to brave the depths of the cargo bay all alone. If you can manage to take it on your person and keep it with you, that’s the best case scenario. If you don’t pack too much stuff it usually isn’t a problem. Make sure your camera bag is in a proper travel bag with separate, padded compartments that keep the lenses and other items from banging against each other. There should be very little movement, even within the individual spaces. Most forms of transport are bumpy and pose a threat to gear that isn’t properly prepared for takeoff and landing, or the crazy taxi ride. Regardless of brand, when selecting a camera bag look for something sturdy with interchangeable padding that allows you to customize the inner configuration to meet your needs. Also, pay attention to the dimensions. You will want to buy something that can be taken on the plane as a carry on.
3) Insure your gear
Before you even leave home, insure your gear. If you aren’t a professional, your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance could cover theft, fire, and other calamities, but check your individual policy to make sure it covers travel. Many companies require you to obtain additional cover to protect your gear when you are out of the house. If you make any money off of your photography, whether you sell prints or photograph weddings, your renter’s/homeowner’s insurance isn’t going to cut it. Once any of your income is produced using your gear, you are considered a professional and you are going to need a policy that covers your gear specifically. Professional photography organizations often offer coverage with membership, so if you are a member, you might already be covered. Outside of those options travel insurance purchased to protect your trip as a whole might also cover damage to your gear or have an option to add an additional rider to cover your equipment. If it’s a concern, make sure to specifically ask if your camera and lenses will be covered before you purchase travel insurance.
4) Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
First of all, make sure you have all your documentation in order. Having your photo ID, passport, and necessary visas somewhere safe but accessible makes it easy to quickly prove you have a right to be where you are if your gear brings you under fire from the local police or customs agents.
Take multiple memory cards and batteries in case one malfunctions. I also always take a portable hard drive with me and back up identical copies of all my files to my portable and laptop hard drives at the end of every day. That way, if a card gets corrupted, a camera gets stolen, or my laptop bites the dust, I’ll have a backup.
If you are going somewhere it rains three hundred plus days a year or where sand storms are a legitimate concern, consider getting an inexpensive underwater housing to help protect your gear from the elements.
Before you leave you need to research, at a minimum, these two things. The first is the cultural norms of your destination. The last thing you want to do is visit somewhere without knowing what is and is not socially acceptable. You are there to experience the culture, not offend residents. This is especially important when traveling outside of familiar cultures. For example, while pointing is socially acceptable in some places, there are more places where it's not. Internationally using an open palm to indicate which or where is a more common gesture.
The second thing to research should be the locations you intend to visit. While a lot of your photos are going to take place as you wander down side streets, I would hate to get home and realize I missed an amazing opportunity because I simply hadn’t done enough research. Another photographer I know went to Cambodia and didn’t visit Angkor Wat. Now he’s planning a trip back to right this wrong. While he’s happy to go back, he feels like he is missing out on another vacation because of it. Don’t make his mistake, make a list of the must hit spots and prioritize them.
6) Hire a local guide and get off the tourist beaten path
If you are looking for street cred, look for a local who speaks both your language and the local language. Then hire him or her to be your guide, even if it is just for a couple of hours. They will be able to give you insider knowledge about local events, translate for you, point out the best eats, and photo locations you never would have been able to find on your own. Also, as a bonus you’ll also be supporting the local economy.
7) Travel during the slow season
Traveling during off peak months allows you to capture the life of locals instead of the vacations of a bunch of other tourists. A friend took her first trip to Rome in June. It wasn’t a mistake, Rome is never a mistake but it wasn’t until the second time she visited in late autumn that she realized the Rome from her first trip was the tourist’s Rome. The second time she went, the streets were busy, and the foot traffic plentiful, but the vibe was different. The people she saw were people who lived in Rome, the inhabitants that had gone on vacation to avoid the summer crowds. Her photos from the second trip were more interesting and they felt more authentic, she felt that she had experienced the city as it was meant to be.
8) Composition is key
Travel photography is one genre where it’s hard to do it over. Unlike photographing your own neighborhood, photographing a faraway location requires funds and time. This makes composition a very important factor. You don’t want every photo you take to feel like a snapshot. Instead think before you shoot. Find interesting angles. Keep your eyes open for color, texture, and patterns. Find curves and lines that lead your eye across your photograph. Why are you taking the photo? What inspired you to bring the viewfinder up to your eye? Was it the way the light bounced off the water or the symmetry of the architecture? Dissect why you love something and then decide the best way to take it home with you.
9) Dress appropriately
This is twofold. First of all, you want to dress in a culturally appropriate manner because this allows you to blend in with the local population. It’s also an indicator of the respect you have for residents who live and work where you are traveling. The other reason is you want to be able to move. Traveling often includes a lot of walking. Photography often includes laying down, climbing, hiking, squatting and leaning in order to snap that perfect photo. Make sure the clothes you pack and are wearing don’t hinder you from taking the photograph.
10) Take photos that help you tell stories.
Back in the day, we would go on a trip and then we would come home and present a slide show of our travels. I can still remember sitting through a slideshow of my grandparents’ trip to this place or that decades after they had returned. In those moments I was enamored with photography’s ability to take me to, for example, the Pyramids and the Western Wall. Now we have blog posts and social media platforms that have transformed out ability to shares stories with each other it can be both instantaneous and global. Photography is a tool to help us express our interests, our likes and our dislikes, our politics, how we see beauty, and to tell our story. As you compose your photos, think about what story the photo will help you share with others.
11) Don’t forget the details
There is something epic about travel. It makes us feel worldly and gives us new perspectives. Those understandable feelings of grandeur often have us searching for wide angle landscapes and huge architectural feats. They may make us less likely to photograph the small details that make each different location unique from other cities of the same caliber. Don’t forget to see the intricacies and record them. It’s often the little details that escape us as the time between our travel and the present day expands.
12) Challenge yourself
Perhaps the most important tip is to use these new and possibly exotic locations to hone your skills and pique your inspiration. When I travel, I make a point to work on adding those large scale shots to my portfolio. Being somewhere new frees us from the bounds of normalcy and has the power to free us from our usual constraints. Challenge yourself to focus on the aspects of photography that don’t come easily.
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