Being a travel photographer is a dream come true for many amateur and professional photographers alike. Sure, there’s a downside—most notably the travel to and from a destination—but those long airport TSA wait lines and cramped airline seats are worth the torture (for me) when experiencing and capturing a special moment on the other side of the state, country or even the planet.
In my career, I’ve traveled to around 100 countries, amassing a collection of tips and recommendations for the aspiring travel photographer. Many of these were learned the hard way, after something went haywire in travel or in the execution of a shoot.
Here’s the main idea when traveling: You want to be as prepared as possible, and you want to avoid bad surprises. With Google (and other research tools), thoroughly investigate—well in advance—your location. Check out the weather, topography, religious customs, medical recommendations, passport and visa requirements, and so on. The more you know, the fewer surprises you’ll have on site. These tips, and our guide to The Fine Art of Travel Photography will help you prepare for your trip, and come back with a masterpiece, instead of a postcard.
Print out and bring with you as much of this documentation as you can—many places have dreadful Internet connections, and if you need to look up information on the cost of mass transit, the location of a consulate or the best place to buy camera gear, having it on a sheet of paper can be a real lifesaver.
This is especially true for your travel itinerary. It’s always good to have a printed sheet with the flight information, name and address of your lodging and any other pertinent information. In just about any country that has taxi drivers or other livery, even if you don’t speak the language, you can still hand them your hotel’s information.
Be sure to have this information using the local language. A taxi driver in Beijing is unlikely to know the English name of your hotel or the street that it’s on. I like to carry a card in my wallet with the hotel information printed on it, which makes it easier to be sure I always have the info—even if the battery in my phone dies.
You also will want a copy of your passport if traveling abroad. Having a copy of your driver’s license doesn’t hurt either. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency now allows the use of an app called Mobile Passport when entering the United States, and airports often have expedited lines.
Global Entry and TSA PreCheck are both essential programs for the frequent traveler. TSA PreCheck gives you access to an expedited screening line where you don’t have to remove your items from your bag or take off your shoes. Global Entry radically speeds up the process of going through customs, but it’s the program you should apply for even if you never leave the country—you get a TSA PreCheck identification number with your Global Entry registration.
Packing Photo Gear
I recommend that you carry all your photo gear with you when traveling by plane. That may make for a heavy bag, but it’s just not wise to put expensive camera gear in checked luggage. If all your gear doesn’t fit in a carry-on bag, shipping by FedEx or UPS is an option as they’re insurable and trackable.
Quick tip: take more cash and pack fewer clothes. When traveling, it’s not a fashion show. It’s okay to wear the same clothes for a few days. For a weeklong trip I pack: two pants, three T-shirts, one pullover, two collared shirts, and underwear and socks for every day.
I always pack a raincoat and hat—and the jacket I pack depends on the weather conditions. It’s always best to bring a jacket that works down to the lowest temperature you might encounter.
Gloves that give me easy access to my camera controls are important, too, when shooting in chilly conditions. In very cold conditions, I wear Heat 3 Smart Gloves, which are perfect for giving me control over my camera.
For your checked luggage, soft bags are best, especially when traveling by small plane and by bus with other folks.
That extra money I said you should pack? That’s in case you find yourself needing something unexpected. Weather is unpredictable, and you never know when a spring day might suddenly turn into a snowstorm. And who doesn’t want to come home with a Machu Picchu souvenir sweatshirt?
Traveling With Gear
My gear philosophy when traveling: out of sight, out of mind. When I leave my hotel or lodging, I put my computer and back-up photo gear in a drawer or the safe. I know it’s not a guarantee that my gear won’t walk off, but it’s an extra step of protection against theft. Many hotels have a safe in their offices for valuables. You usually can’t put a MacBook there, but sometimes you can.
Beginning my first day of shooting, I keep a hard drive loaded with my current images in my pants pocket with me at all times. That way, if my laptop does go for a walk, I’ll still have my photographs.
Of course, the reason to go through the hassle of travel is to capture images of new and exciting locations. All the gear in the world won’t matter if you don’t know what to shoot.
Whether you’re shooting at home or abroad, you should be courteous and sensitive to local customs. You probably wouldn’t go right up to a child on a playground in the U.S. and start snapping away, and you shouldn’t do so in a foreign country, either. (See my previous comments about researching your destination’s customs with the same attention as you research the locations and subjects.)
Many photographers feel overwhelmed in a new location—especially on trips overseas—and they end up trying to take a photo of every new object they see. That’s fine, but you’ll end up mostly with a collection of snapshots, not a range of interesting travel photos.
To combat this shutter-happy approach, some photographers give themselves an assignment during travel—looking for interesting local food or documenting local customs or capturing landmarks in an interesting way, for example.
If you’re interested in great travel photography featuring local people, the best way to capture good images is to connect with them. Even if you don’t speak the language, you can gesture to people and make them feel comfortable. A great thing about digital photography is that you can show anyone the LCD screen so they know how they look in your photos. I like to keep the phrase, “Do you have email? I’ll send you the photos,” in the local language handy. Many people are thrilled to get a good portrait. (For more on photographing people, see our Portrait Guide.)
Don’t be afraid to move things around to get the photo you want—unless you’re on assignment for a news outlet, you’re free to move around people and items to get a good shot. Want a photo of someone in a café drinking a cup of tea? Find a willing subject and buy them some tea!
Also, don’t be afraid to get involved with your subjects to get a better shot. If you see a group of teenagers you’d like to photograph playing soccer, they might invite you to play with them. Doing so will get them a lot more comfortable. If someone offers you some hospitality—invites you to dinner or gives you a gift—by all means accept it (in many places refusing it is an insult), but use your research to find out how to thank them appropriately.
For shoots in places where you don’t speak the language, but want to connect with people and find the best locations, consider hiring a translator. They have inside knowledge of the best spots, can grease the wheels of communication and get you into places you couldn’t go without speaking natively.
It sounds like a massive hindrance, but bring a tripod with you. You might not need it if you’re out in a plaza at noon, but early in the day and late in the evening a tripod can be the difference between a successful shot and a blurry mess.
Speaking of blurry messes, pay attention to the backgrounds and foregrounds of your photos. Many photographers get dazzled by the vibrant colors and design elements of a scene and forget good composition. Double-check to make sure there aren’t distracting elements in your scene. Many an image has been ruined by a stray palm frond or McDonald’s wrapper visible in the photo.
That said, it’s always a good idea to take your photo first and then refine it if the subject is fleeting. Sometimes if you stop to get the “perfect” shot, the moment ends and you’re left with nothing. Cameras are fast enough that you can shoot something as soon as it captures your eye and usually still have time to recompose. If you don’t get that first shot in before the scene changes, the opportunity is gone.
- You snooze, you lose; get out early and stay out late to catch the best light.
- Be prepared with the right lenses, accessories and clothes so you don’t miss a photo opportunity.
- Tell the whole story. Take a variety of pictures, from close-ups to wide-angle views, which help you tell the story of a location.
- Hit the ground running. You never know what can happen or what might cancel the shoot. Even if you’d like to just relax the first day of a trip, go out and take some shots anyhow.
Rick Sammon is a longtime friend of this magazine. Visit with Rick on his website, ricksammon.com