Once again, I’ve been at a loss for words. Quite literally, apparently, as it’s been far too long since updating the blog. But rest assured – I now have a fail proof system to keep me posting every so often! In this case, I’m referring to being held accountable by a group of friends who also are notoriously slow with blog updates. So with that said… I’m going to start by recycling old material. But hey – it’s new to you, dear readers! (Unless you read this article in Professional Photographer when it was published, in which case… well, look, pretty pictures.) I hope you enjoy, and PLEASE – if I go to long without posting – a swift kick to the shins is well deserved.
TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY MADE SIMPLE
Your bags are packed, and you’re ready to go? Not so fast! Travel photography is very different from every-day client work, and how you travel is every bit as important as what you actually shoot. Consider the following tips for travel photography and your next trip should be smooth sailing as far as your camera is concerned!
First and foremost, pack light for your travels. This applies to your luggage AND your camera gear! I truly believe that the fun you’ll have on your trip is inversely proportionate to the amount of “stuff” you’re forced to lug around. Unless you’re traveling for a specific tech-heavy job, pack only your barest of bare essentials. Bring only one camera*, two batteries, a few media cards, your charger, and two lenses – absolute maximum. I’ve traveled for weeks at a time without any other gear (except a lens cloth and my three must-have accessories [see chart below]) – and I promise you do not need to carry more than this!
First, over-packing is uncomfortable. Hefting a huge camera around the ramparts of Dubrovnik, Croatia in 100+ degree heat is not enjoyable – I’ve tried. Secondly, over-packing your camera gear is risky in a new environment. Nothing is as enticing to pickpockets and thieves as someone laden down by a giant, expensive camera bag. Over-packing your gear is not only a drag, but it’s downright dangerous!
Also, think twice about using a backpack; it WILL make you a target. Because they’re behind you, they’re easily accessible to thieves, particularly in large crowds. Leave it at the hotel. If you must carry your gear with you, remove any indications that expensive equipment is inside and wear it on your front in crowded areas / public transit. The best piece of advice to stay safe is simply to stay aware.
Three Must-Have Accessories for Travel
While packing light, there are still three key accessories you’ll need to round out your travel kit: Rain sleeves, a multi-plug adaptor, and a dry bag.
Bring several tiny disposable rain sleeves that fit your camera with your longest lens attached. A good rule of thumb is to bring one sleeve per week of travel. A good rain sleeve will keep your gear dry and sand-free, regardless of whatever plans mother-nature has in store. Keep one in your coat, one in your purse/day bag, and one in your luggage so it’s always easily accessible. A rain sleeve only works if it’s actually ON your camera, and not back in your hotel room! You can buy them online or at your local camera store for around $10 each.
Always carry a universal multiple-plug adaptor when traveling abroad. As most laptops, cell phones, and camera chargers have built-in transformers (or are dual-voltage), bringing a heavy travel transformer is unnecessary you usually just need the plug adaptor. Be sure to buy a multi-plug adaptor – different countries use differently sized plugs (even within Europe), Trust me: Little is less fun than spending a whole day searching for an open electronics store because you left this at home and now have two dead camera batteries…don’t leave it behind! I recommend bringing a USB-to-power plug (and USB cords!) as well. You can buy a good one (or five!) online for less than $10.
Most importantly, if you’re going anywhere that even remotely involves water, don’t leave home without a dry sack! This single purchase has saved me thousands of dollars in preventative repair costs alone… in one week! Purchase a sack that has at least a level-two water resistance, and get a bigger bag than you think you’ll actually need. In addition to keeping your gear bone-dry, even when completely submerged, they make handy beach bags and day totes. Use a dry sack any time you’re even thinking about traveling near water (i.e., beach days, boat trips, cruises Dry sacks can be purchased online at Amazon, or a local dive shop or sporting goods store, usually for around $20 – it will be the one of the best investments you’ll ever make for your gear.
(Bonus item: The Grid-It (R) organizer system by Cocoon Innovations is God’s Gift to photographers! It’s a fabric-covered board with sewn elastic pieces which hold securely everything in place. It easily fits into any backpack, dry sack or purse, and keeps everything you need for a day out. I bring 2: one for camera gear, and another for toiletries – inside a clear plastic bag – so they’re easily accessible at airport security. http://www.cocooninnovations.com/grid.php)
Know Your Surroundings
Before traveling abroad, a few items must be cleared to ensure a safe journey. Find a camera rental company at your destination in case anything goes wrong while you’re on a paid shoot. Make sure you keep a copy of their phone number and operating hours, as well as a few key phrases in the local language. (You may want to call to make sure they’ll have your gear in stock while you’re traveling.) Check out U.S. State Department travel advisories to get any last-minute security information. Also, store a copy of your own equipment serial numbers in an easily accessible file, like in Google Docs, Evernote, or Dropbox. Verify that your equipment insurance covers travel overseas as well as loss due to theft.
Photographing at night is often a better payoff for unique travel imagery. The down-side is the necessity of a tripod – which makes complying with the “pack-light” rule difficult. If you’re willing to make the trade-off, make sure the tripod is small, and extremely lightweight (consider plastic legs, even) – if it weighs more than 2 pounds in your suitcase, leave it at home and purchase a cheap one at the destination. Give it away to another photographer when you’re ready to leave, and earn travel photographer karma points, too!
For night photography, I tend to use the “cheater” star-filter– that is, exposing for 20-30 seconds at the highest aperture possible. By shooting in aperture priority at F-22 and F-32, I’ve made beautiful panoramic images that really “wow” my print buyers. It’s a very easy technique, so I’m always surprised when they say they’ve never seen that effect before!
I’ve noticed very few photographers actually use their cameras’ exposure lock buttons. This single button is the key to great travel imagery. Keeping in mind that your camera loves 18% gray; train your eye to see this tone when you’re out and about. Things like stone columns, cement walls, and even the back of your hand can make easily accessible grey cards. When you’re photographing in center-weighted or spot-meter mode, you can lock your exposure on this gray tone and get a more predictable exposure in extreme lighting conditions.
Manual Focus Lock
While you can easily lock your focus with the focus lock, you may experience some problems getting your camera to focus in low-l
ighting conditions in the first place. Particularly, when photographing in dark churches, museums, or at night, your camera may have trouble finding enough reflected light to lock a sharp enough focus with any accuracy. Instead, focus on a fixed length on some sort of incident light – such as a light bulb, candle, torch, etc. – and flip your lens to manual focus. Anything at the same focal distance at the same aperture will be in focus. This trick works especially well when photographing long exposure shots of interiors and architecture.
The Devil’s in the Details
Look outside the landscape! The best part of travel photography is the unexpected details that make each city so unique. Use a wide aperture to really zero-in on your focal point and remove background distraction. Pay attention to unique souvenirs, foods, flowers, and fabrics that make your destination special. Travel photography is much like wedding photography – shoot with your end product in mind. In this case – photograph for your travel album.
Post Process for Texture
It’s vacation, not work! If you must, must, must post-process your photographs, find a way that can limit your time behind the computer to not actually detract from your traveling. I use Nik (Google) Viveza to post-process for texture and saturation. And (as we say in Italy) “Basta così – that’s enough.” The more time you’re behind your computer, the less time you’re out seeing the world. Therefore, use actions and simple plug-ins to post-process your travel photography and get out from behind the laptop!
Put The Camera Down!
It’s ok… you won’t need rehab, I promise. You CAN leave your camera behind. The best part of travel photography is actually getting to see the world – and you will need both eyes to do that! Around the same time you start bumping into to people because you’re walking around with one eye to a big black SLR is around the same time you need to take a break and get back to your travels. Never ever ever turn down vacation plans just because you can’t bring your camera – it’s always where the best stuff is!
* This is regarding travel photography – not commissioned weddings or portraits. Keep reading for details on securing backup equipment. However, if you’re traveling to a wedding, please bring all your backup gear!