AHave you ever found yourself wishing you knew how to take better travel photos? Do you enjoy travel photography but you want to “up your game” a bit? Well, then…we have the advice you need! This post is the second in a four-week series loaded with our top travel photography tips for beginners. Last week I covered Today I’m sharing my best tips and advice on preparing for a travel photography trip.
Top Travel Photography Tips for Beginners – The Series
Our four part series covers the essential tips you, as a beginning travel photographer, will need from the time you’re planning your trip until you’re back home and sharing your images. The series will be organized into four parts:
- Travel Photography Equipment Tips
- Preparing for A Travel Photography Trip (this post)
- Making The Most of Your Travel Photography Trip
- The Best Way to Organize Travel Photos
Preparing For A Travel Photography Trip
For me, every trip away from home is a potential travel photography trip. On many occasions, being prepared just means having my smartphone (an iPhone XS Max) charged up and in my pocket. I’m planning a future post on smartphone photography because the cameras on most smartphones are pretty awesome these days.
When I’m taking a real vacation trip, I like to make sure I’m adequately prepared. I’m always afraid I’ll leave something out or miss some “must see” places on my trip, so preparing for a travel photography trip has become a ritual of mine. As you’ll see below, being prepared isn’t just about the equipment I carry – it’s also about being mentally ready and focused on taking the best photos I can of each place I visit.
With that, here are my top five tips to think about when preparing for a travel photography trip:
1. When In Doubt, Leave It Out
I tend to be a chronic over-packer – both with my clothing and accessories as well as my camera gear. I’ve mentioned this story in a previous post, but it bears repeating: we took a cruise a few years ago that went to Iceland, and I packed six cameras (2 digital, 4 film) and several lenses for each camera. It turned out to be a waste of time, energy and space: I ended up shooting with only two of the cameras throughout the whole trip.
A trip to Africa a couple years ago got me into the habit of packing light. I learned to be more deliberate in my planning and packing for a trip. My rule became “when in doubt, leave it out.” If I pack a few extra shirts or socks, no big deal. But camera equipment can be heavy and bulky, and I find most of the time I don’t end up using a lot of what I brought.
Packing less equipment not only means you have less stuff to haul around, but it also simplifies your photography. On that trip to Iceland I felt like I had to use as much of the equipment I brought as possible. I kept debating whether to shoot a certain scene with a panoramic film camera, or with a medium format camera, etc. I spent almost as much time picking a camera as I did in composing the shot. The kicker is, I ended up shooting with my trusty Nikon D610 DSLR about 80% of the time anyway.
Lesson learned on my part.
2. Use A Checklist When Packing
Let’s assume you know, based on the tip above, you’re not going to pack as much. Great…what DO you need to pack? Camera body and lenses – sure, that’s easy to remember. But what about the other stuff? Preparing for a travel photography trip means that you have to remember the other stuff as well.
That cruise I mentioned that went to Iceland? I ran into another photographer on that same trip who had forgotten to pack a charger for his camera battery…and he only had one battery with him. Yikes. I saw him later in the trip, and he was fortunate enough to find someone else on the trip with the same camera who was gracious enough to loan out his charger for a few hours.
I created my own checklist to use when preparing for a travel photography trip. I’ve tweaked and tuned it over the years. It covers not only my travel photography equipment but additional items I carry for safety, comfort and recreation. If you’re interested in getting a copy, you can get one by signing up for my mailing list. Just fill in your email address in the form below, and you’ll receive a copy of my checklist (and get access to other free giveaways as well)!
3. Planning Is Key
To paraphrase an old saying: “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Photography.” If you downloaded my travel photography planning checklist above, you’re off to a good start. But there’s more to preparing for a travel photography trip than just making sure you bring everything you need. A few key planning tips have helped make my travel photography trips so much more rewarding.
- I’ve been really getting into the habit of bullet journaling lately. I have a collection in my journal called “trip planning.” I tend to remember things better when I write them down by hand (as opposed to typing them out on a computer or smartphone), so I lean on the journal heavily when doing my planning.
- I like to study the places I’ll be visiting on a trip. I read up on things like climate, weather conditions, native flora and fauna, etc. Knowing what the conditions are like when I go will help me bring the right gear and accessories for any conditions I may encounter.
- If you’re traveling with a non-photographer companion, make sure you both agree to clear expectations on when you can do your shooting, and when you should put the camera down. I’m an early riser, and so my wife is perfectly fine with me venturing out early to catch a sunrise during a vacation. But I also need to be present when I’m spending time with her alone, and so sometimes it’s better to leave the camera in my suitcase.
- Buy a travel guide or two. Fodor’s and Lonely Planet are generally my go-to resources for location guides. I scour the guides to find where the hidden gems are – those places off the beaten path that are filled with natural beauty or interesting scenes.
- Check to see if your destination is open all the time, or only during certain hours. This can really mess you up if you’re not careful. I was in Boston a few years ago and decided to head out to a local lighthouse to catch the sunrise. I got up at 4AM and drove an hour to get there…only to discover that the area surrounding the lighthouse – and the exact spot from which I wanted to shoot – were not open to the public until a couple hours after sunrise. Talk about a wasted trip…
- Use Google Maps to scout out a location in advance. You can get a good sense of the topography of the land and figure out the best vantage points for shooting. Use the street view feature if at all possible – this gets you on the ground and shows you the exact same view you’d see if you were at a given location. I’ve found it indispensable for setting up great shots.
- I also highly recommend a smartphone app called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris.” The app shows you not only sunrise and sunset times for a given location, but also the angle of the sun at sunrise/sunset and it’s transit path across the sky. The app is available stand alone (iOS users can follow this link) or as part of a bundle with some other really helpful tools (iOS users can follow this link).
4. Find And Follow Other Photographers
Preparing for a travel photography trip is as much about what you’re shooting as it is about what you’re shooting with.
I’ve heard many travel photography experts say “Don’t take the shot everyone else is taking.” Unless you’re shooting for stock photography or for commercial purposes, I disagree with this sentiment. Thousands and thousands of people over the years have shot gorgeous photos of Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. That doesn’t mean that my photo of it, taken a few years ago on a trip with my nephew, is any less meaningful or (dare I say?) beautiful.
I make it a habit to check out what other photographers are doing in a given city, national park or area. Their photos inspire me and clue me in to a lot of hidden gems I might not find otherwise. I don’t necessarily look to duplicate the work others are doing, but a regular part of my ritual of preparing for a travel photography trip is trying to see my destination through the eyes of others.
Go on Instagram, Flickr or 500px to check out other photographers’ work and see what interests you about the destination to which you’re headed. Depending on where you’re going, you may even find a lot of photos of your on Facebook. You’ll also want to check out the destination’s official tourism page, as many of them have galleries of curated photos to inspire and educate you.
5. Read Up on The Language and Culture
This is one that I think a lot of people miss, but this has always been a very important tip for me to follow. In many cultures, it’s considered disrespectful to take a photo of someone without their permission. There are also times where objects or landmarks must be approached carefully and respectfully. The more you learn about a country or city’s culture, the more you can be respectful of what’s important to them. Especially if you’re traveling outside your home country, you have to realize that you are a guest. Know when it is and is not appropriate to take a photo.
If the people living in your destination city speak a different language than you, it’s important to learn at least a few key phrases and words in their language. Again, it’s a sign of respect for others’ culture and way of life. At a minimum you should learn the words “please” and “thank you” in the local language of any area you visit. You don’t have to be an expert at pronunciation, just making the attempt helps a lot.
I remember making a trip to Paris and being greeted by a waiter at a café with a hearty “Bon jour, monsieur! (good morning sir!)” Because I was tired and distracted, I didn’t respond. The look on his face told me he was offended by my rudeness in not greeting him in a similar style. I eventually returned the greeting, and stumbled through enough of my high school French to say “Je suis desolé, mais je suis tres fatigue maintenant (I’m very sorry, I am really tired right now).” He smiled broadly at me after that, and I think it made things better.
Eating at a café or trying to take a photo of someone…it all demands you show respect and deference to the other’s culture. Simple common courtesy gets you a long way.
Top Tips for Beginning Travel Photographers: What’s Coming Next Week?
Now that you’ve mastered your photographic equipment and done all the right preparing for a travel photography trip, it’s time to talk about what to do while you’re on your trip. In Part III of this series we’ll talk about some handy tips for taking photos on your trip as well as organizing and editing them in the field.