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One of the great pleasures as a photographer is travelling to take photos, whether on your own, part of a tour or on assignment, it’s all quite exciting. I’m lucky enough to get to travel quite often, mostly on assignment, sometimes as a team leader with my role in The Giving Lens and then a few self-funded exploring trips on top of that. Each trip involves careful planning and research, finding out places to go and explore, precautions to take, flights, travel insurance and hotels just to name a few. I’ve picked up some tips and resources that come in handy in preparing for these trips.
First and foremost you’ve got to decide where it is you want to go, most people have a rough idea of where they want to go, either from recommendations from friends or iconic locations. You can either decide to go solo or with a photography tour / workshop, sometimes this is the easiest way to get an overview of a country or location without having to do all the discovery yourself. I’ve done this in Jordan on a trip with The Giving Lens, a charitable photography tour and education organisation. The research has already been done for you, the permits, accommodation and transfers already organised, all you have to do is turn up in the country and the rest is taken care of. The other option, when you aren’t on an assignment, is to go and explore for yourself and see what you find.
Useful tools for research and planning:
Flights: One of the best resources I’ve found online for comparing flights, including stop overs and multi-city trips is Hipmunk.com, you can sort flights by price or even better by “agony”, agony is a combination of price and travel time. While I’m always aiming to get the best deal on flights, I’d rather not take an excessive amount of time to get where I am going, I’ve got to weigh up if taking an extra 12-24 hours is worth saving a few dollars for. Once you’ve selected each leg of your journey, you can then book the flights either directly on the site, or on one of the partner sites it checks. It can also be used for checking hotel prices at your destination.
Accommodation: There are many sites that offer comparisons of hotel prices, some of the more notable ones are Wotif.com, Trivago, Hotels Combined and Hotelly. You can use these to find the cheapest accommodation and set some requirements for your stay such as WiFi and a Pool.
Insurance: Travel insurance, particularly the medical side of things, is worth every cent spent, for many countries in the world medical care is quite expensive, emergency care even more so. I use SquareMouth to compare insurances, I recommend making sure you have plenty of medical coverage in your insurance plan. Optionally you can add on insurance for your camera gear, although if you run a photography business of any kind, your gear should already be insured.
Vaccinations: Before you start travelling it is almost certain that you’ll need vaccinations, you can research which vaccinations are recommended on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, also book in to see a travel doctor. It can be expensive initially, but many of the vaccinations last for years or may just need a booster at some point down the track. The CDC website will also point out recommendations for the country you are going to like not drinking the tap water and what to pack for a healthy trip.
Trip Advisor: Trip Advisor is excellent for checking the reputation of hotels, tour companies, restaurants and cafes, it can also be used while you are in country to find places to visit locally. Use some discernment when it comes to reading the reviews, 1 or 2 bad reviews in an otherwise stellar reputation, is more than likely someone with a grudge or unreasonable expectations. Other options are Yelp and Four Square.
LonelyPlanet: These are the original and, in my opinion, still the best guides for most countries in the world, they have been written by people who have actually travelled and experienced each country, they are usually fairly accurate, although pricing can sometimes be out a little, depending on how recent the edition you have is. They are also available in digital form, I tend to have both a digital and physical copy with me when possible.
Once you’ve worked out where and how you are going to your location and decided what you want to do when you get there, you’ve got to take into consideration a few extra things you will need to pack.
One of the hardest things about travel is keeping your various cameras, phones and tablets charged. I carry two portable battery packs that can recharge USB based devices such as my phone, tablet and GoPro, these go into my camera bag that I take as carry on luggage. Goal Zero also make some excellent batteries that can charge laptops and bigger devices, depending on how much weight you are prepared to carry and how long you need to be self-sufficient.
Once you are in country, you’ll most likely need an adaptor of some sort to convert the local power to what your plugs are. A great resource for working out exactly what adaptors you need is WhatPlug.info, you simply put in the country you live in and the country you are travelling to and it will tell you what type of plugs you’ll need. I carry two Skross universal adaptors, they have switches on the side so that you can change it to the exact plug you need. One of the adaptors has 2 USB ports on it that I use to charge my phone and tablet. I usually carry a power board with my local plugs on it as well, as many hotels and other accommodation places don’t have many wall plugs, sometimes I need to be charging my phone, battery packs, camera batteries, laptop and tablet all at the same time.
Backup: I always carry at least 1 external hard drive to back up my photos too, there are a variety of brands around, some more expensive than others and some more rugged than others. I have 2 quite rugged drives that have protection around the outside to help them withstand a decent drop.
Memory Cards: you can never have enough of them! They are relatively cheap these days, so buy more and take them with you, it’s always good to have too many rather than run out!
Tripod: Get something carbon-fibre if you can, they are much lighter and easier to carry with you, I use the Induro CT213, often I will travel with it attached to my camera bag, I rarely check it in, I’ve not had any problems flying with it as carry on luggage.
Carrying your gear: A good camera bag that doubles as a backpack is essential as a travel photographer, I personally use and recommend the range of camera bags that F-Stop Gear make (no affiliation with fstop lounge), I bought mine in 2011 and since then I’ve taken it to Cambodia 3 times, through Singapore and Malaysia 4 times each, to Egypt, Jordan and Dubai, all with no problems. They have a great system where you can take out what they call the “Internal Camera Unit” that holds all your camera gear. The ICU is the legal size for carry on luggage, that said, I’ve not had any problems at all taking the entire bag on board with me.
What Camera gear to bring: It is tempting to bring every piece of kit you own on these trips “just in case you need it”, while a great thought, it is rarely great in reality. I travel with 1 or 2 camera bodies and a handful of lenses, usually no more than 3. Shape your kit to what you anticipate you will be photographing, if you are doing just landscapes then a wide angle and something like a 24-70mm will be pretty much all you need. I tend to carry the following lenses: 16-35mm, 24-70mm and a 70-200mm. This gives me a broad range for my focal length and I can photograph nearly anything I want to with this combination. I’m going to be moving to a mirrorless system in the next few months, this will greatly reduce the weight of my camera bag!
Once you are in country the main thing is to have fun and to embrace the experiences that come your way. Learn about the culture you are going to, find out the dos and don’ts of the locals so that you don’t leave a bad impression as another ignorant tourist. Be prepared to have your own cultural norms and way of life challenged and enjoy the differences. Above all else, when travelling (or even at home), make sure you spend some time enjoying yourself, soaking up the experience and not seeing and experiencing it all through your camera’s viewfinder.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” – James Michener