Planning a Shoot [Encore Publication]: A case study in planning and executing a photo shoot

Whether traveling or near home, some of our best photo opportunities occur spontaneously.  Serendipity is part of the fun of photography, but another big part of the photographer’s craft is to carefully plan and professionally execute a photo shoot.  Using a recent shoot in which I collaborated with professional dancer Molly as a case study, in this post I’ll cover the essential elements of planning and conducting a shoot.

Good planning is key to ensuring a fun, safe, and efficient shoot as well as obtaining the desired artistic outcome.  Buy this photo

Elements to Consider When Planning a Shoot:

  • What is the theme or mood?  The artistic concept will inform all the other elements of the shoot.  For the shoot with Molly, we decided on an edgy, urban theme.  Based on that choice, the decisions about location, timing, gear, technique, and post-processing all flowed consistently.

We chose a gritty, urban theme for this shoot, and all other decisions flowed from that choice.  Buy this photo

  • Where is the location?  Often one of the most challenging aspects of planning a shoot is scouting for a suitable location.  The location, of course, should support the theme of the shoot.  It also needs to be accessible, safe (for this shoot, we rejected shooting on or near railroad tracks for safety reasons), and suitable for making the type of images desired.  There are also legal considerations, as in most cases permission is required to shoot on private property and even some public spaces require permission for commercial uses.  Molly and I eventually decided on using the old barracks at the decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco and the adjacent Crissy Field recreation area.  This space was accessible, relatively safe, provided a gritty and urban mood, and afforded sufficient working room for both dancer and photographer.
  • When should the shoot be scheduled?  Obviously, the date and time scheduled need to work for all parties involved.  These parties include not only the model(s) and photographer, but also other client(s) and often an assistant.  Equally important is ensuring the timing supports your artistic choices.  The season of the year and the time of day should offer the best chances of obtaining the lighting you desire.  The scheduled time should also work as well as possible with respect to other considerations such as opening hours of the chosen space, traffic and volume of other people in the location, and even tides, snowfall amounts, or other environmental factors.  Molly and I chose to shoot in the “golden hour” just before sunset on a Sunday to ensure good lighting and access to the location.
  • What gear and techniques should be used?  After choosing the theme and the supporting logistical elements, it’s time to select the techniques desired to capture the images and the gear required to execute.  Elements to consider include lighting (I prefer to work with available light and reflectors/diffusers whenever possible, but sometimes speedlights or portable studio lights are required), lenses (it’s often best to bring a range of lenses for different perspectives), props, and accessories (will you need to stabilize with a tripod, or perhaps you’ll require neutral density filters to obtain the shutter speed and/or aperture you want?).  In the shoot with Molly, I used the camera handheld at mostly fast shutter speeds and low camera angles with fast prime lenses to get that edgy look.

To capture the fast motion of the dancing and to support the urban theme, I worked handheld with fast prime lenses and low camera angles.  Buy this photo

  • How should the images be post-processed?  Again, the overall artistic concept should inform decisions about post-processing.  For this shoot, I aimed for a high-contrast, slightly grainy look and also converted several of the images to black-and-white.
  • How will the images be distributed and used?  All parties should agree before the shoot on how the images will be shared and/or sold.  To protect both model and photographer, it’s a good idea to sign a model release.  For more information on model releases, see this post: Post on Model Releases.

With attention to planning and execution, a photo shoot will be more enjoyable and productive and the artistic results will be better.  Buy this photo

Do you have tips and tricks you use when preparing for your shoots?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about planning your photography?  Find them all here: Posts on Planning.

Planning a Shoot: A case study in planning and executing a photo shoot

Whether traveling or near home, some of our best photo opportunities occur spontaneously.  Serendipity is part of the fun of photography, but another big part of the photographer’s craft is to carefully plan and professionally execute a photo shoot.  Using a recent shoot in which I collaborated with professional dancer Molly as a case study, in this post I’ll cover the essential elements of planning and conducting a shoot.

Good planning is key to ensuring a fun, safe, and efficient shoot as well as obtaining the desired artistic outcome.  Buy this photo

Elements to Consider When Planning a Shoot:

  • What is the theme or mood?  The artistic concept will inform all the other elements of the shoot.  For the shoot with Molly, we decided on an edgy, urban theme.  Based on that choice, the decisions about location, timing, gear, technique, and post-processing all flowed consistently.

We chose a gritty, urban theme for this shoot, and all other decisions flowed from that choice.  Buy this photo

  • Where is the location?  Often one of the most challenging aspects of planning a shoot is scouting for a suitable location.  The location, of course, should support the theme of the shoot.  It also needs to be accessible, safe (for this shoot, we rejected shooting on or near railroad tracks for safety reasons), and suitable for making the type of images desired.  There are also legal considerations, as in most cases permission is required to shoot on private property and even some public spaces require permission for commercial uses.  Molly and I eventually decided on using the old barracks at the decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco and the adjacent Crissy Field recreation area.  This space was accessible, relatively safe, provided a gritty and urban mood, and afforded sufficient working room for both dancer and photographer.
  • When should the shoot be scheduled?  Obviously, the date and time scheduled need to work for all parties involved.  These parties include not only the model(s) and photographer, but also other client(s) and often an assistant.  Equally important is ensuring the timing supports your artistic choices.  The season of the year and the time of day should offer the best chances of obtaining the lighting you desire.  The scheduled time should also work as well as possible with respect to other considerations such as opening hours of the chosen space, traffic and volume of other people in the location, and even tides, snowfall amounts, or other environmental factors.  Molly and I chose to shoot in the “golden hour” just before sunset on a Sunday to ensure good lighting and access to the location.
  • What gear and techniques should be used?  After choosing the theme and the supporting logistical elements, it’s time to select the techniques desired to capture the images and the gear required to execute.  Elements to consider include lighting (I prefer to work with available light and reflectors/diffusers whenever possible, but sometimes speedlights or portable studio lights are required), lenses (it’s often best to bring a range of lenses for different perspectives), props, and accessories (will you need to stabilize with a tripod, or perhaps you’ll require neutral density filters to obtain the shutter speed and/or aperture you want?).  In the shoot with Molly, I used the camera handheld at mostly fast shutter speeds and low camera angles with fast prime lenses to get that edgy look.

To capture the fast motion of the dancing and to support the urban theme, I worked handheld with fast prime lenses and low camera angles.  Buy this photo

  • How should the images be post-processed?  Again, the overall artistic concept should inform decisions about post-processing.  For this shoot, I aimed for a high-contrast, slightly grainy look and also converted several of the images to black-and-white.
  • How will the images be distributed and used?  All parties should agree before the shoot on how the images will be shared and/or sold.  To protect both model and photographer, it’s a good idea to sign a model release.  For more information on model releases, see this post: Post on Model Releases.

With attention to planning and execution, a photo shoot will be more enjoyable and productive and the artistic results will be better.  Buy this photo

Do you have tips and tricks you use when preparing for your shoots?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about planning your photography?  Find them all here: Posts on Planning.

A “Fixer” for the Rest of Us [Encore Publication]: How you can leverage local resources to shoot like a pro

How do professional travel photographers on assignment create those amazing, make-your-jaw-drop images?  You know, the photos we see when browsing the pages of a major travel magazine or website?  There are several advantages the pros have, including technique honed over decades of practice, state-of-the-art equipment (with prices to match), and the ability to spend a lot of time at the same location, returning again and again until the time of day, lighting, weather conditions, and subject matter are perfectly aligned for a great shot.  But one advantage available to the pros can be borrowed, at least in part, by the rest of us who love travel photography, too.  That is the use of a “fixer,” a local expert who knows the region, the language, the culture, and the way to get things done, and whose expertise helps the travel photographer get those incredible shots.

While we were visiting a carpet weaving collective in Goreme, Turkey, our group’s trip leader introduced me to this worker who was enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee during her break.  Buy this photo

If you are traveling on a group trip run by a good travel company, you may already may have a fixer working to make your experience (including your photographic experience) as rewarding as possible.  The operator will likely have chosen an itinerary that will get you off the beaten path and into the settings where unusual and powerful images can be made.  They will have arranged your accommodations and transportation well in advance of your departure.  The company should have planned some activities and excursions that will allow you to interact with local people and see how they truly live.  And best of all, they have provided you with a local expert, often called a trip leader or program director, who knows the lay of the land, speaks the local language(s), and can facilitate your getting the kinds of shots you want.  This is of paramount importance when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own, which I believe is the best part of traveling as a photographer.

For example, I made the above portrait after being introduced to the young worker at a carpet weaving collective by our trip leader in Turkey.  He translated so that she and I could get to know each other a little bit first, and then asked her if I could make her portrait.  It is certainly possible (I’ve done this countless times) to ask for yourself by using sign language, pointing to your camera, and smiling a lot, but having a local person with you can be a great help.

Sometimes, knowing where to go to seek out authentic cultural interactions works magic.  I captured this shot of our host family during a home-hosted lunch on an estancia (ranch) in Patagonia.

Our hosts, Chango and his extended family, were happy to pose for a portrait after we enjoyed their hospitality on their Patagonian ranch.  A local guide and good travel company can help arrange these kinds of authentic interactions.  Buy this photo


Visiting a rural elementary school in Tanzania afforded us the chance to meet kids in the classroom.  This type of experience would be hard to arrange while traveling independently, but a good group leader or guide can facilitate meaningful interactions with local people.  Buy this photo

When the trip is scheduled specifically to attend a special event, it is especially vital to have a good leader who is adept at working with local professionals to plan all the details.  For example, it was quite a major logistical feat to get a large group of scientists and photographers into place to study and view a total solar eclipse in a part of the world as remote and forbidding as Svalbard.  Our trip leader partnered with an astrophysicist who is a world authority on eclipses, beginning years in advance of the solar event, to ensure we had the best chance possible of clear weather conditions and the right vantage point from which to study and photograph the eclipse.  This is the sort of value that an expert fixer brings when you book a trip with one of the top companies.

Our eclipse expert and one of his students set up their gear on the morning of the total solar eclipse in Svalbard.  Buy this photo

To be sure, there are some compromises required for group travel, and having access to a shared program director is not the same as having a dedicated personal fixer to arrange your photo shoots for you.  I like to travel independently in places with developed infrastructure and where I can readily bridge the cultural or language gaps myself.  That said, I also love to travel in small groups run by excellent travel companies, in large part because their planning, coupled with the knowledge of the local trip leader, helps me make those memorable images.

Want to read other posts about planning your travel photography?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/plan/

Have you had a situation where you got your shot thanks to the knowledge of a local expert?  How do you arrange your travel when you’re visiting remote parts of the world or when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!  Please respond via the comment box.

Baggage Claim [Encore Publication]: A photographer’s guide to how to pack for a trip

 Special trips often require specialized gear.  To photograph the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015, I had to pack a heavy professional tripod, 500mm super-telephoto lens, a remote release capable of functioning in extreme cold, and a custom-made solar filter.  Thankfully, most trips are easier to pack for.  Buy this photo

Packing is never the most fun part of a trip, and the special challenges we travel photographers face can be particularly vexing.  But with a few guidelines and some common sense, we can easily bring along just what photo gear we’re likely to need and still be able to make room for some socks and underwear.  Here is my very opinionated guide to how to pack for any length and type of trip.

    1. What type of trip are you taking?
      • If it’s a driving trip directly from your home, you can bring all the gear your heart desires.  Just be sure not to leave valuables in plain sight in the car when you step away for more than a moment (thieves love camera gear), and make sure you have a shoulder bag or backpack to carry just what you need for car-free excursions.
      • If you’re flying (unless you have your own private jet, in which case you also need to make room for me on your next trip), you’re going to have to reduce the gear you carry to just the essentials.  It is possible to customize the foam insert in a hard-sided case to hold your photography gear, and then you can check this bag in the hold of the aircraft, but this requires some effort to prepare the case for your specific gear and then you will likely find the case quite heavy to lug around for the land portion of your trip.  And woe to you if your bag is misrouted, lost, or stolen.  I recommend packing a carry-on item that meets your carrier’s size requirements and filling it with just the most essential gear you’ll need on your trip.  More on that topic in a moment.
      •  For most purposes, a backpack is a good packing solution.  There are many styles available for photo gear, but my favorites are these two:
        1.  For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It is almost always accepted as carry-on, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.
        2. My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.
    2. What types of shooting will you be doing on the trip?
      • Will wildlife or astrophotography be involved?  If so, you’re going to have to strain your back, anger the airline staff, and enlist your travel partner to help, because there’s really no substitute for a long and heavy super-telephoto lens in this situation.  When I’m on safari or chasing a solar eclipse, I pack my massive 500mm lens into the larger of my two backpacks and accept my fate.  You’ll realize it was worth the effort when you get home and are able to share your amazing photos of a leopard in a tree or the sun’s corona on full display during a total solar eclipse.
      • For most other types of trips, you won’t need to pack a really long lens.  My general rule is to pack a range of zoom lenses that covers from fairly wide (about 16mm) through fairly long (about 300mm), including a couple of fast prime lenses for when the light is low and/or the very best optical quality is required.
    3. How much redundancy do you need on the trip?
      • Always bring a backup battery (or several) and a backup battery charger.  Murphy’s Rule as applied to travel photography guarantees that batteries will die just as you frame the shot of a lifetime.  Bring at least one extra.  And chargers are left in hotel rooms or in tented camps on the Serengeti with some regularity, and they tend to get fried when plugged into unusual power grids, so bring an extra one with you.
      • Don’t forget the little things.  Pack several power adapters of the type used in the countries where you’ll be traveling.  These get lost easily and can be hard to replace while traveling.  Bring twice as many memory cards as you think you’ll require; it’s easy to fill them up when you get to shooting a mountain gorilla or carnaval dancers.  If you plan to back up to a laptop or external hard drive, bring extra connecting cables.  While traveling, I back up to a second type of memory card using my camera’s second card slot, so I bring quite a few memory cards of both types with me.
      • Lenses are heavy and expensive, but they sometimes stop working, so if you’re on a particularly important trip you may want to bring several lenses in overlapping focal lengths.  That is, you could bring a wide-angle zoom lens and a wide-angle prime lens, plus a walkaround zoom lens and a “normal” prime lens (about 50mm for a full size sensor or about 35mm for a crop sensor), plus a telephoto zoom lens and a telephoto prime lens or two telephoto zooms with overlapping ranges.
      • If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build your portfolio with very special and irreplaceable images, I recommend bringing a backup camera in addition to your primary camera.  For a recent safari trip in East Africa, I brought two DSLR bodies as well as quite a few lenses so that I’d have a backup solution to any single point of failure.  The more exotic your destination, the more likely that dust, wind, salt, extreme heat or cold, and heavy shocks or drops will damage your gear, so for those amazing one-of-a-kind trips I suggest biting the bullet and carrying backups for any gear that could fail.  For more on shooting in extreme conditions, read this post: Post on Extreme Conditions
    4. What accessories do you need to accompany the rest of your gear?
      • Attach a UV filter to each of your lenses before you leave and keep it on to protect the front element of the lens throughout your trip.
      • Carry a polarizing filter and a range of neutral density filters in the correct diameters to fit at least your wide-angle lens and your walkaround lens.
      • For more on filters, read this post: Post on Filters
      • A flash unit is helpful to have on most trips, unless you’re sure there will be ample natural light or you’re willing to use your camera’s built-in flash.
      • A good lightweight travel tripod with a head and mounting plate that suit your needs is essential gear on many trips.
      • Don’t forget any special-purpose gear that you need for just this type of trip.  When I travel to see a solar eclipse, for example, I need to be sure I bring my solar filter that attaches to my super-telephoto lens.  I also need to bring my heavy-duty professional tripod instead of the lightweight one I typically carry on trips.
    5. How will you be shooting from day to day during the trip?
      • If you’ll have constant vehicle support or won’t be going far from your hotel, you may be able to make do with just the bag you brought on the plane.  Or you can bring along a small shoulder bag to carry just a few items for the day’s shoot.
      • Most of my trips involve considerable hiking and public transportation from day to day, so I either carry everything in my smaller backpack or bring it along in checked baggage during the flight.  Then I can transfer just the gear I need for each day’s shoot into the smaller pack, which makes life easier when hiking 10 or so miles per day.

For a safari you will need a long lens to capture small or distant wildlife.  I recommend bringing a beanbag for camera support instead of a tripod, as the latter cannot be used in a safari vehicle.  Be sure to bring an extra camera and lenses, and carry more batteries and memory cards than you think you’ll need.  Buy this photo

Of course, if you use a mirrorless camera with only a couple of compact lenses or an advanced point-and-shoot camera, you do not have to worry about many of these items, but still be sure to review the list above to ensure you bring all required accessories.

With an overall strategy tailored to your itinerary and shooting style, and careful attention to execution to ensure you don’t forget anything, it’s really not that difficult to pack just what gear you’ll need in a way that will allow you to enjoy your trip when you’re not shooting.  After all, travel is about gaining experiences, and not all of those experiences can or should be photographed.  Pack for your photography, but also for your overall travel enjoyment.

What are your hacks for packing your photo gear for a trip?  Please share your tips and tricks in the comments box here.

Want to read more posts about how to plan for your travel photography?  Find them all here: Posts on Planning.

Luck Favors the Prepared [Encore Publication]: Tools for planning your shot

It was Louis Pasteur who said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”  We usually hear the quote paraphrased as, “Luck favors the prepared.”  For travel photographers, there is often a great deal of luck involved in capturing a truly great image, but there are some very useful tools that we can use to help us plan to be in the right place at the right time with the right gear.  Let’s look at just a few of my favorites.

I’ll start with a quick review of the most obvious resources.  I would never plan an hour-long photo shoot, let alone a month-long trip to a far-flung travel destination, without doing some research.  What are the must-see locations, and what dates and times of day are perfect for each one?  What are the events or activities that most authentically represent the locations I am visiting?  Is there a livestock market, a street festival, or a religious celebration taking place while I’m in the region?  How can I build an itinerary that best incorporates all of these locations?  Great resources for this type of research include guidebooks (online and hardcopy), online review sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp, mapping and navigation apps (Google Maps is still my all-around favorite, but several others have their own advantages), and local weather sites.  I like to build my itinerary by customizing an online map to show all of the locations I’d like to visit, then creating a routing that links the locations in the proper order.  If travel by air, rail, bus, or boat is involved, I research those schedules and fares to determine the best way to get from one place to the next.  Airline consolidation sites such as Orbitz can be quite helpful for finding the best flights at the best prices.  If the itinerary has been pre-planned by a travel company, then I will still do most of this background research to better understand the locations we’ll be visiting.

Once I know where I’ll be going and what events I plan to shoot, I develop a shot list.  Some photographers craft very detailed and specific shot lists, but I like to keep it quite flexible and informal, often simply jotting down my ideas in the calendar event on my phone that is associated with each planned shoot.  After all, if I adhere too closely to a shot list, I will just end up with the same images that hundreds or thousands of other visitors have captured after doing the same research.  Serendipity and the artist’s eye have their place in travel photography, too.  The research phase can also inform me as to what clothing, gear, and other essentials I should bring to each location.

Now I’d like to introduce three smartphone apps that I consider indispensable for travel photography.  First, there’s Photo Pills, an app that incorporates several essential tools into one package.  I use Photo Pills for planning shots where I need to know how to get all the elements, including location, date, and time of day, to come together.  For example, during the Perseid Meteor Shower, I wanted to find a dark sky location with a nice foreground and a view toward the galactic core of our Milky Way.  This way, I could capture images including the meteor shower, the Milky Way, and the pretty landscape in the foreground.  I had a location in mind, a beautiful spot where there isn’t too much light pollution and with a gorgeous view over a reservoir and the Santa Cruz Mountains.  The Planner tool in Photo Pills allowed me to visualize the foreground as viewed by my phone’s camera, superimposed against the Milky Way as it would appear on different days and times of day.  I planned the shot for a certain time on each of several consecutive days, confirmed that the Milky Way would be rising in the desired direction and that the nearly full moon would have already set, and then waited for clear weather.  The first night of the meteor shower was cloudy, but the second night was the charm, and I was able to capture this striking image.
Using the Photo Pills app on my smartphone, I was able to plan in advance for a location, date, and time that would maximize the chances of capturing the Perseid Meteor Shower and Milky Way over the lovely Crystal Springs Reservoir.  Buy this photo

Here’s a screenshot of the Planner tool in Photo Pills that I used to prepare for this shoot.

img_3452

The Photo Pills app has a number of tools to help plan and execute your shots.

Another useful app for planning the best locations, dates, and times for your shoots is TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris).  I find this tool to be especially helpful for visualizing the path of the sun and moon across the field of view for any location I select.  This app is very powerful, and I have only scratched the surface of what it can do to predict and prepare for photo opportunities.

img_3453

The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a powerful tool for planning any outdoor photo shoots.

A final app I will mention here is called Easy Release.  Sometimes (read this post for details about model releases), we need a model release when a person or several people are clearly identifiable in a photo.  I know some photographers who carry hardcopy model releases with them wherever they travel, but I find this to be cumbersome and impractical when on the road shooting.  Instead, I use Easy Release on my phone, so I’m always ready to quickly prepare a release for a new friend to sign when they appear in my images.  Even though the app has the ability to translate the text of the release into several languages, there are situations in which it isn’t reasonable to try to explain to a local person what’s in the release and why it’s required.  Furthermore, I consider it to be exploitative if the person can’t reasonably be expected to understand what’s in the document or why they should be signing it.  But there are times when having immediate access to a model release that can be prepared, signed, and stored right on my phone is a big advantage.

img_3454

Easy Release is a convenient tool for creating, signing, sharing, and storing model releases when a person is clearly identifiable in photos.

With proper planning using readily available resources and various apps including the ones I’ve presented here, we can be better prepared to maximize our chances of capturing memorable images.  Happy shooting, and remember that luck favors the prepared!

Do you have a favorite tool you use to plan for your photo adventures?  How have you used this tool to get your shot?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read more posts about tools for planning your travel photography?  Find them all here: Posts on Planning.

Baggage Claim [Encore Publication]: A photographer’s guide to how to pack for a trip

 Special trips often require specialized gear.  To photograph the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015, I had to pack a heavy professional tripod, 500mm super-telephoto lens, a remote release capable of functioning in extreme cold, and a custom-made solar filter.  Thankfully, most trips are easier to pack for.  Buy this photo

Packing is never the most fun part of a trip, and the special challenges we travel photographers face can be particularly vexing.  But with a few guidelines and some common sense, we can easily bring along just what photo gear we’re likely to need and still be able to make room for some socks and underwear.  Here is my very opinionated guide to how to pack for any length and type of trip.

    1. What type of trip are you taking?
      • If it’s a driving trip directly from your home, you can bring all the gear your heart desires.  Just be sure not to leave valuables in plain sight in the car when you step away for more than a moment (thieves love camera gear), and make sure you have a shoulder bag or backpack to carry just what you need for car-free excursions.
      • If you’re flying (unless you have your own private jet, in which case you also need to make room for me on your next trip), you’re going to have to reduce the gear you carry to just the essentials.  It is possible to customize the foam insert in a hard-sided case to hold your photography gear, and then you can check this bag in the hold of the aircraft, but this requires some effort to prepare the case for your specific gear and then you will likely find the case quite heavy to lug around for the land portion of your trip.  And woe to you if your bag is misrouted, lost, or stolen.  I recommend packing a carry-on item that meets your carrier’s size requirements and filling it with just the most essential gear you’ll need on your trip.  More on that topic in a moment.
      •  For most purposes, a backpack is a good packing solution.  There are many styles available for photo gear, but my favorites are these two:
        1.  For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It is almost always accepted as carry-on, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.
        2. My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.
    2. What types of shooting will you be doing on the trip?
      • Will wildlife or astrophotography be involved?  If so, you’re going to have to strain your back, anger the airline staff, and enlist your travel partner to help, because there’s really no substitute for a long and heavy super-telephoto lens in this situation.  When I’m on safari or chasing a solar eclipse, I pack my massive 500mm lens into the larger of my two backpacks and accept my fate.  You’ll realize it was worth the effort when you get home and are able to share your amazing photos of a leopard in a tree or the sun’s corona on full display during a total solar eclipse.
      • For most other types of trips, you won’t need to pack a really long lens.  My general rule is to pack a range of zoom lenses that covers from fairly wide (about 16mm) through fairly long (about 300mm), including a couple of fast prime lenses for when the light is low and/or the very best optical quality is required.
    3. How much redundancy do you need on the trip?
      • Always bring a backup battery (or several) and a backup battery charger.  Murphy’s Rule as applied to travel photography guarantees that batteries will die just as you frame the shot of a lifetime.  Bring at least one extra.  And chargers are left in hotel rooms or in tented camps on the Serengeti with some regularity, and they tend to get fried when plugged into unusual power grids, so bring an extra one with you.
      • Don’t forget the little things.  Pack several power adapters of the type used in the countries where you’ll be traveling.  These get lost easily and can be hard to replace while traveling.  Bring twice as many memory cards as you think you’ll require; it’s easy to fill them up when you get to shooting a mountain gorilla or carnaval dancers.  If you plan to back up to a laptop or external hard drive, bring extra connecting cables.  While traveling, I back up to a second type of memory card using my camera’s second card slot, so I bring quite a few memory cards of both types with me.
      • Lenses are heavy and expensive, but they sometimes stop working, so if you’re on a particularly important trip you may want to bring several lenses in overlapping focal lengths.  That is, you could bring a wide-angle zoom lens and a wide-angle prime lens, plus a walkaround zoom lens and a “normal” prime lens (about 50mm for a full size sensor or about 35mm for a crop sensor), plus a telephoto zoom lens and a telephoto prime lens or two telephoto zooms with overlapping ranges.
      • If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build your portfolio with very special and irreplaceable images, I recommend bringing a backup camera in addition to your primary camera.  For a recent safari trip in East Africa, I brought two DSLR bodies as well as quite a few lenses so that I’d have a backup solution to any single point of failure.  The more exotic your destination, the more likely that dust, wind, salt, extreme heat or cold, and heavy shocks or drops will damage your gear, so for those amazing one-of-a-kind trips I suggest biting the bullet and carrying backups for any gear that could fail.  For more on shooting in extreme conditions, read this post: Post on Extreme Conditions
    4. What accessories do you need to accompany the rest of your gear?
      • Attach a UV filter to each of your lenses before you leave and keep it on to protect the front element of the lens throughout your trip.
      • Carry a polarizing filter and a range of neutral density filters in the correct diameters to fit at least your wide-angle lens and your walkaround lens.
      • For more on filters, read this post: Post on Filters
      • A flash unit is helpful to have on most trips, unless you’re sure there will be ample natural light or you’re willing to use your camera’s built-in flash.
      • A good lightweight travel tripod with a head and mounting plate that suit your needs is essential gear on many trips.
      • Don’t forget any special-purpose gear that you need for just this type of trip.  When I travel to see a solar eclipse, for example, I need to be sure I bring my solar filter that attaches to my super-telephoto lens.  I also need to bring my heavy-duty professional tripod instead of the lightweight one I typically carry on trips.
    5. How will you be shooting from day to day during the trip?
      • If you’ll have constant vehicle support or won’t be going far from your hotel, you may be able to make do with just the bag you brought on the plane.  Or you can bring along a small shoulder bag to carry just a few items for the day’s shoot.
      • Most of my trips involve considerable hiking and public transportation from day to day, so I either carry everything in my smaller backpack or bring it along in checked baggage during the flight.  Then I can transfer just the gear I need for each day’s shoot into the smaller pack, which makes life easier when hiking 10 or so miles per day.

For a safari you will need a long lens to capture small or distant wildlife.  I recommend bringing a beanbag for camera support instead of a tripod, as the latter cannot be used in a safari vehicle.  Be sure to bring an extra camera and lenses, and carry more batteries and memory cards than you think you’ll need.  Buy this photo

Of course, if you use a mirrorless camera with only a couple of compact lenses or an advanced point-and-shoot camera, you do not have to worry about many of these items, but still be sure to review the list above to ensure you bring all required accessories.

With an overall strategy tailored to your itinerary and shooting style, and careful attention to execution to ensure you don’t forget anything, it’s really not that difficult to pack just what gear you’ll need in a way that will allow you to enjoy your trip when you’re not shooting.  After all, travel is about gaining experiences, and not all of those experiences can or should be photographed.  Pack for your photography, but also for your overall travel enjoyment.

What are your hacks for packing your photo gear for a trip?  Please share your tips and tricks in the comments box here.

Luck Favors the Prepared [Encore Publication]: Tools for planning your shot

It was Louis Pasteur who said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”  We usually hear the quote paraphrased as, “Luck favors the prepared.”  For travel photographers, there is often a great deal of luck involved in capturing a truly great image, but there are some very useful tools that we can use to help us plan to be in the right place at the right time with the right gear.  Let’s look at just a few of my favorites.

I’ll start with a quick review of the most obvious resources.  I would never plan an hour-long photo shoot, let alone a month-long trip to a far-flung travel destination, without doing some research.  What are the must-see locations, and what dates and times of day are perfect for each one?  What are the events or activities that most authentically represent the locations I am visiting?  Is there a livestock market, a street festival, or a religious celebration taking place while I’m in the region?  How can I build an itinerary that best incorporates all of these locations?  Great resources for this type of research include guidebooks (online and hardcopy), online review sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp, mapping and navigation apps (Google Maps is still my all-around favorite, but several others have their own advantages), and local weather sites.  I like to build my itinerary by customizing an online map to show all of the locations I’d like to visit, then creating a routing that links the locations in the proper order.  If travel by air, rail, bus, or boat is involved, I research those schedules and fares to determine the best way to get from one place to the next.  Airline consolidation sites such as Orbitz can be quite helpful for finding the best flights at the best prices.  If the itinerary has been pre-planned by a travel company, then I will still do most of this background research to better understand the locations we’ll be visiting.

Once I know where I’ll be going and what events I plan to shoot, I develop a shot list.  Some photographers craft very detailed and specific shot lists, but I like to keep it quite flexible and informal, often simply jotting down my ideas in the calendar event on my phone that is associated with each planned shoot.  After all, if I adhere too closely to a shot list, I will just end up with the same images that hundreds or thousands of other visitors have captured after doing the same research.  Serendipity and the artist’s eye have their place in travel photography, too.  The research phase can also inform me as to what clothing, gear, and other essentials I should bring to each location.

Now I’d like to introduce three smartphone apps that I consider indispensable for travel photography.  First, there’s Photo Pills, an app that incorporates several essential tools into one package.  I use Photo Pills for planning shots where I need to know how to get all the elements, including location, date, and time of day, to come together.  For example, during the Perseid Meteor Shower, I wanted to find a dark sky location with a nice foreground and a view toward the galactic core of our Milky Way.  This way, I could capture images including the meteor shower, the Milky Way, and the pretty landscape in the foreground.  I had a location in mind, a beautiful spot where there isn’t too much light pollution and with a gorgeous view over a reservoir and the Santa Cruz Mountains.  The Planner tool in Photo Pills allowed me to visualize the foreground as viewed by my phone’s camera, superimposed against the Milky Way as it would appear on different days and times of day.  I planned the shot for a certain time on each of several consecutive days, confirmed that the Milky Way would be rising in the desired direction and that the nearly full moon would have already set, and then waited for clear weather.  The first night of the meteor shower was cloudy, but the second night was the charm, and I was able to capture this striking image.
Using the Photo Pills app on my smartphone, I was able to plan in advance for a location, date, and time that would maximize the chances of capturing the Perseid Meteor Shower and Milky Way over the lovely Crystal Springs Reservoir.  Buy this photo

Here’s a screenshot of the Planner tool in Photo Pills that I used to prepare for this shoot.

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The Photo Pills app has a number of tools to help plan and execute your shots.

Another useful app for planning the best locations, dates, and times for your shoots is TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris).  I find this tool to be especially helpful for visualizing the path of the sun and moon across the field of view for any location I select.  This app is very powerful, and I have only scratched the surface of what it can do to predict and prepare for photo opportunities.

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The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a powerful tool for planning any outdoor photo shoots.

A final app I will mention here is called Easy Release.  Sometimes (read this post for details about model releases), we need a model release when a person or several people are clearly identifiable in a photo.  I know some photographers who carry hardcopy model releases with them wherever they travel, but I find this to be cumbersome and impractical when on the road shooting.  Instead, I use Easy Release on my phone, so I’m always ready to quickly prepare a release for a new friend to sign when they appear in my images.  Even though the app has the ability to translate the text of the release into several languages, there are situations in which it isn’t reasonable to try to explain to a local person what’s in the release and why it’s required.  Furthermore, I consider it to be exploitative if the person can’t reasonably be expected to understand what’s in the document or why they should be signing it.  But there are times when having immediate access to a model release that can be prepared, signed, and stored right on my phone is a big advantage.

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Easy Release is a convenient tool for creating, signing, sharing, and storing model releases when a person is clearly identifiable in photos.

With proper planning using readily available resources and various apps including the ones I’ve presented here, we can be better prepared to maximize our chances of capturing memorable images.  Happy shooting, and remember that luck favors the prepared!

Do you have a favorite tool you use to plan for your photo adventures?  How have you used this tool to get your shot?  Please share your experiences here.

Update–Google Trips now available: A new app for your smartphone can help plan and manage your next trip

Three weeks ago, I published a post alerting readers to the availability of a new smartphone app from Google that claimed to simplify the planning and management of travel.  I am republishing that post here, with an update now that I have tested the app in the field.

Product Update:

I tested Google Trips in the field during a recent two-week trip through Ireland and Scotland.  Overall, the app was pretty good at pointing out local (or sometimes not so local) attractions, but it fell short of meeting its most important promise, namely the ability to navigate around an area using downloaded map data with no need to access cellular data.

I had pretty good luck researching nearby attractions in most of the regions we visited, even when my phone’s cellular data roaming capability was turned off.  This feature worked more or less as advertised, and in some respects replaced my old-fashioned hardcopy guidebook.  However, when I tried to use the offline navigation feature to find my way from one attraction to another, the app did not deliver on its promise.  In most cases, Google Trips told me that the offline maps were not available for the applicable region, even though I had downloaded the relevant map data before leaving home for the trip.  This was disappointing and represents a serious shortcoming with the app.

From my limited experience using Google Trips during our recent travels, I can recommend the app as a planning and organizational tool prior to traveling, and as a reasonable source of offline data for what to do in each area during travel.  However, I cannot recommend Google Trips as a navigational aid during travel because its offline navigation feature does not seem to work reliably.  Hopefully these capabilities will improve as the app matures.  I will provide future updates as I further test the product.

Once again, please note that there are significant privacy concerns with this app.  You should learn about what data Google collects and how they intend to use it before agreeing to install and use this app.

My original post appears below in its entirety:

As I write this post, Google has just announced a new smartphone app (for iOS and Android) that claims to simplify the planning and management of travel.  Called Google Trips, the new tool appears to have some useful capabilities for many travelers, including travel photographers.  I’ve had a chance to download this free app and play around with it a little bit. Here’s what I found:

    • It’s handy to be able to consolidate all of your reservation info in one place. When I travel, I typically enter every flight, ground transportation segment, hotel, meal, and event as separate items in my phone’s calendar app.  I link the email messages containing each item’s confirmation info to that item.  This allows me to access all of my reservation info in one place, but to set it all up requires quite a lot of time and effort.  With Google Trips, you have the option of handling this consolidation in a simpler fashion.  I was not able to try this out, though, because it seems only to work for reservations made using gmail accounts, and I am not a gmail user.
    • The local content is helpful to have in your pocket. The only reason I still carry a small hardcopy guidebook on many of my trips is for quick and convenient access to information on local attractions, restaurants, and nightlife.  With Google Trips, this may no longer be necessary.  I looked at the content for two cities I plan to visit in Ireland, Dublin and Dingle.  For a large city like Dublin, the app seems to have hundreds of local listings, and a cursory glance confirms they appear to be fairly accurate.  However, for smaller towns like Dingle, most of the listings seem not to be local at all, but an assortment of attractions culled from the surrounding region.  One would expect the coverage to get better over time.
    • Far and away the best feature is the capability to download content. My international data plan, probably like yours, costs an arm and a leg, so when I travel I must turn off cellular data roaming on my phone and use it sparingly to avoid massive overage charges.  In one day of using the phone as a navigation tool to stroll around London, I incurred $50 of data charges.  Google Trips has the capability of downloading directly to your phone all of the maps and content about local attractions for your whole trip, which means it is always available even when there is no cellular data signal, and it won’t eat up your international data allowance.  I haven’t had a chance to test this feature in the field, but plan to do so on my next international trip.

In a single day of using my phone to navigate on a family trip in London, I incurred $50 in data surcharges.  Google Trips’s offline data feature could save a bundle in these situations.  Buy this photo

  • I like the ability to find out what is open nearby and to plan an itinerary to see all the attractions I want in a customized fashion. Just as a good guidebook can suggest an itinerary in a given location for one day, three days, or longer, so can Google Trips recommend top local sights to fit into the time you have available.  The difference is that this app can customize your itinerary to include just the sights you’re interested in, and can provide directions from each location to the next.
  • Be careful about privacy if you choose to use this app. I have concerns about what data Google says it may collect and how it may use this data.  I recommend you read their privacy policy carefully and make your own informed decision about whether to use this app.

You can learn more about the app right from the Google horse’s mouth here: https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2016/09/see-more-plan-less-try-google-trips.html.

Note that I don’t specifically endorse this app or Google products or services in general, nor have I had a chance to use this app in the field.  I am providing this information to my readers in the hope that it may be of interest to some.  There also appear to be some privacy concerns in this and other Google apps, so be sure to research what data will be collected and how it will be used before deciding whether to use this service.

Have you tried out Google Trips?  What do you think?  How does it work in the field while you’re traveling?  Please share your thoughts here.

A “Fixer” for the Rest of Us [Encore Publication]: How to leverage local resources to shoot like a pro

How do professional travel photographers on assignment create those amazing, make-your-jaw-drop images?  You know, the photos we see when browsing the pages of a major travel magazine or website?  There are several advantages the pros have, including technique honed over decades of practice, state-of-the-art equipment (with prices to match), and the ability to spend a lot of time at the same location, returning again and again until the time of day, lighting, weather conditions, and subject matter are perfectly aligned for a great shot.  But one advantage available to the pros can be borrowed, at least in part, by the rest of us who love travel photography, too.  That is the use of a “fixer,” a local expert who knows the region, the language, the culture, and the way to get things done, and whose expertise helps the travel photographer get those incredible shots.

While we were visiting a carpet weaving collective in Goreme, Turkey, our group’s trip leader introduced me to this worker who was enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee during her break.  Buy this photo

If you are traveling on a group trip run by a good travel company, you may already may have a fixer working to make your experience (including your photographic experience) as rewarding as possible.  The operator will likely have chosen an itinerary that will get you off the beaten path and into the settings where unusual and powerful images can be made.  They will have arranged your accommodations and transportation well in advance of your departure.  The company should have planned some activities and excursions that will allow you to interact with local people and see how they truly live.  And best of all, they have provided you with a local expert, often called a trip leader or program director, who knows the lay of the land, speaks the local language(s), and can facilitate your getting the kinds of shots you want.  This is of paramount importance when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own, which I believe is the best part of traveling as a photographer.

For example, I made the above portrait after being introduced to the young worker at a carpet weaving collective by our trip leader in Turkey.  He translated so that she and I could get to know each other a little bit first, and then asked her if I could make her portrait.  It is certainly possible (I’ve done this countless times) to ask for yourself by using sign language, pointing to your camera, and smiling a lot, but having a local person with you can be a great help.

Sometimes, knowing where to go to seek out authentic cultural interactions works magic.  I captured this shot of our host family during a home-hosted lunch on an estancia (ranch) in Patagonia.

Our hosts, Chango and his extended family, were happy to pose for a portrait after we enjoyed their hospitality on their Patagonian ranch.  A local guide and good travel company can help arrange these kinds of authentic interactions.  Buy this photo


Visiting a rural elementary school in Tanzania afforded us the chance to meet kids in the classroom.  This type of experience would be hard to arrange while traveling independently, but a good group leader or guide can facilitate meaningful interactions with local people.  Buy this photo

When the trip is scheduled specifically to attend a special event, it is especially vital to have a good leader who is adept at working with local professionals to plan all the details.  For example, it was quite a major logistical feat to get a large group of scientists and photographers into place to study and view a total solar eclipse in a part of the world as remote and forbidding as Svalbard.  Our trip leader partnered with an astrophysicist who is a world authority on eclipses, beginning years in advance of the solar event, to ensure we had the best chance possible of clear weather conditions and the right vantage point from which to study and photograph the eclipse.  This is the sort of value that an expert fixer brings when you book a trip with one of the top companies.

Our eclipse expert and one of his students set up their gear on the morning of the total solar eclipse in Svalbard.  Buy this photo

To be sure, there are some compromises required for group travel, and having access to a shared program director is not the same as having a dedicated personal fixer to arrange your photo shoots for you.  I like to travel independently in places with developed infrastructure and where I can readily bridge the cultural or language gaps myself.  That said, I also love to travel in small groups run by excellent travel companies, in large part because their planning, coupled with the knowledge of the local trip leader, helps me make those memorable images.

Want to read other posts about planning your travel photography?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/plan/

Have you had a situation where you got your shot thanks to the knowledge of a local expert?  How do you arrange your travel when you’re visiting remote parts of the world or when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!  Please respond via the comment box.

News Flash–Google Trips now available: A new app for your smartphone can help plan and manage your next trip

As I write this post, Google has just announced a new smartphone app (for iOS and Android) that claims to simplify the planning and management of travel.  Called Google Trips, the new tool appears to have some useful capabilities for many travelers, including travel photographers.  I’ve had a chance to download this free app and play around with it a little bit. Here’s what I found:

    • It’s handy to be able to consolidate all of your reservation info in one place. When I travel, I typically enter every flight, ground transportation segment, hotel, meal, and event as separate items in my phone’s calendar app.  I link the email messages containing each item’s confirmation info to that item.  This allows me to access all of my reservation info in one place, but to set it all up requires quite a lot of time and effort.  With Google Trips, you have the option of handling this consolidation in a simpler fashion.  I was not able to try this out, though, because it seems only to work for reservations made using gmail accounts, and I am not a gmail user.
    • The local content is helpful to have in your pocket. The only reason I still carry a small hardcopy guidebook on many of my trips is for quick and convenient access to information on local attractions, restaurants, and nightlife.  With Google Trips, this may no longer be necessary.  I looked at the content for two cities I plan to visit in Ireland, Dublin and Dingle.  For a large city like Dublin, the app seems to have hundreds of local listings, and a cursory glance confirms they appear to be fairly accurate.  However, for smaller towns like Dingle, most of the listings seem not to be local at all, but an assortment of attractions culled from the surrounding region.  One would expect the coverage to get better over time.
    • Far and away the best feature is the capability to download content. My international data plan, probably like yours, costs an arm and a leg, so when I travel I must turn off cellular data roaming on my phone and use it sparingly to avoid massive overage charges.  In one day of using the phone as a navigation tool to stroll around London, I incurred $50 of data charges.  Google Trips has the capability of downloading directly to your phone all of the maps and content about local attractions for your whole trip, which means it is always available even when there is no cellular data signal, and it won’t eat up your international data allowance.  I haven’t had a chance to test this feature in the field, but plan to do so on my next international trip.

In a single day of using my phone to navigate on a family trip in London, I incurred $50 in data surcharges.  Google Trips’s offline data feature could save a bundle in these situations.  Buy this photo

  • I like the ability to find out what is open nearby and to plan an itinerary to see all the attractions I want in a customized fashion. Just as a good guidebook can suggest an itinerary in a given location for one day, three days, or longer, so can Google Trips recommend top local sights to fit into the time you have available.  The difference is that this app can customize your itinerary to include just the sights you’re interested in, and can provide directions from each location to the next.
  • Be careful about privacy if you choose to use this app. I have concerns about what data Google says it may collect and how it may use this data.  I recommend you read their privacy policy carefully and make your own informed decision about whether to use this app.

You can learn more about the app right from the Google horse’s mouth here: https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2016/09/see-more-plan-less-try-google-trips.html.

Note that I don’t specifically endorse this app or Google products or services in general, nor have I had a chance to use this app in the field.  I am providing this information to my readers in the hope that it may be of interest to some.  There also appear to be some privacy concerns in this and other Google apps, so be sure to research what data will be collected and how it will be used before deciding whether to use this service.

Have you tried out Google Trips?  What do you think?  How does it work in the field while you’re traveling?  Please share your thoughts here.

Baggage Claim: A photographer’s guide to how to pack for a trip

 Special trips often require specialized gear.  To photograph the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015, I had to pack a heavy professional tripod, 500mm super-telephoto lens, a remote release capable of functioning in extreme cold, and a custom-made solar filter.  Thankfully, most trips are easier to pack for.  Buy this photo

Packing is never the most fun part of a trip, and the special challenges we travel photographers face can be particularly vexing.  But with a few guidelines and some common sense, we can easily bring along just what photo gear we’re likely to need and still be able to make room for some socks and underwear.  Here is my very opinionated guide to how to pack for any length and type of trip.

    1. What type of trip are you taking?
      • If it’s a driving trip directly from your home, you can bring all the gear your heart desires.  Just be sure not to leave valuables in plain sight in the car when you step away for more than a moment (thieves love camera gear), and make sure you have a shoulder bag or backpack to carry just what you need for car-free excursions.
      • If you’re flying (unless you have your own private jet, in which case you also need to make room for me on your next trip), you’re going to have to reduce the gear you carry to just the essentials.  It is possible to customize the foam insert in a hard-sided case to hold your photography gear, and then you can check this bag in the hold of the aircraft, but this requires some effort to prepare the case for your specific gear and then you will likely find the case quite heavy to lug around for the land portion of your trip.  And woe to you if your bag is misrouted, lost, or stolen.  I recommend packing a carry-on item that meets your carrier’s size requirements and filling it with just the most essential gear you’ll need on your trip.  More on that topic in a moment.
      •  For most purposes, a backpack is a good packing solution.  There are many styles available for photo gear, but my favorites are these two:
        1.  For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It is almost always accepted as carry-on, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.
        2. My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.
    2. What types of shooting will you be doing on the trip?
      • Will wildlife or astrophotography be involved?  If so, you’re going to have to strain your back, anger the airline staff, and enlist your travel partner to help, because there’s really no substitute for a long and heavy super-telephoto lens in this situation.  When I’m on safari or chasing a solar eclipse, I pack my massive 500mm lens into the larger of my two backpacks and accept my fate.  You’ll realize it was worth the effort when you get home and are able to share your amazing photos of a leopard in a tree or the sun’s corona on full display during a total solar eclipse.
      • For most other types of trips, you won’t need to pack a really long lens.  My general rule is to pack a range of zoom lenses that covers from fairly wide (about 16mm) through fairly long (about 300mm), including a couple of fast prime lenses for when the light is low and/or the very best optical quality is required.
    3. How much redundancy do you need on the trip?
      • Always bring a backup battery (or several) and a backup battery charger.  Murphy’s Rule as applied to travel photography guarantees that batteries will die just as you frame the shot of a lifetime.  Bring at least one extra.  And chargers are left in hotel rooms or in tented camps on the Serengeti with some regularity, and they tend to get fried when plugged into unusual power grids, so bring an extra one with you.
      • Don’t forget the little things.  Pack several power adapters of the type used in the countries where you’ll be traveling.  These get lost easily and can be hard to replace while traveling.  Bring twice as many memory cards as you think you’ll require; it’s easy to fill them up when you get to shooting a mountain gorilla or carnaval dancers.  If you plan to back up to a laptop or external hard drive, bring extra connecting cables.  While traveling, I back up to a second type of memory card using my camera’s second card slot, so I bring quite a few memory cards of both types with me.
      • Lenses are heavy and expensive, but they sometimes stop working, so if you’re on a particularly important trip you may want to bring several lenses in overlapping focal lengths.  That is, you could bring a wide-angle zoom lens and a wide-angle prime lens, plus a walkaround zoom lens and a “normal” prime lens (about 50mm for a full size sensor or about 35mm for a crop sensor), plus a telephoto zoom lens and a telephoto prime lens or two telephoto zooms with overlapping ranges.
      • If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build your portfolio with very special and irreplaceable images, I recommend bringing a backup camera in addition to your primary camera.  For a recent safari trip in East Africa, I brought two DSLR bodies as well as quite a few lenses so that I’d have a backup solution to any single point of failure.  The more exotic your destination, the more likely that dust, wind, salt, extreme heat or cold, and heavy shocks or drops will damage your gear, so for those amazing one-of-a-kind trips I suggest biting the bullet and carrying backups for any gear that could fail.
    4. What accessories do you need to accompany the rest of your gear?
      • Attach a UV filter to each of your lenses before you leave and keep it on to protect the front element of the lens throughout your trip.
      • Carry a polarizing filter and a range of neutral density filters in the correct diameters to fit at least your wide-angle lens and your walkaround lens.
      • For more on filters, read this post: Post on Filters
      • A flash unit is helpful to have on most trips, unless you’re sure there will be ample natural light or you’re willing to use your camera’s built-in flash.
      • A good lightweight travel tripod with a head and mounting plate that suit your needs is essential gear on many trips.
      • Don’t forget any special-purpose gear that you need for just this type of trip.  When I travel to see a solar eclipse, for example, I need to be sure I bring my solar filter that attaches to my super-telephoto lens.  I also need to bring my heavy-duty professional tripod instead of the lightweight one I typically carry on trips.
    5. How will you be shooting from day to day during the trip?
      • If you’ll have constant vehicle support or won’t be going far from your hotel, you may be able to make do with just the bag you brought on the plane.  Or you can bring along a small shoulder bag to carry just a few items for the day’s shoot.
      • Most of my trips involve considerable hiking and public transportation from day to day, so I either carry everything in my smaller backpack or bring it along in checked baggage during the flight.  Then I can transfer just the gear I need for each day’s shoot into the smaller pack, which makes life easier when hiking 10 or so miles per day.

For a safari you will need a long lens to capture small or distant wildlife.  I recommend bringing a beanbag for camera support instead of a tripod, as the latter cannot be used in a safari vehicle.  Be sure to bring an extra camera and lenses, and carry more batteries and memory cards than you think you’ll need.  Buy this photo

Of course, if you use a mirrorless camera with only a couple of compact lenses or an advanced point-and-shoot camera, you do not have to worry about many of these items, but still be sure to review the list above to ensure you bring all required accessories.

With an overall strategy tailored to your itinerary and shooting style, and careful attention to execution to ensure you don’t forget anything, it’s really not that difficult to pack just what gear you’ll need in a way that will allow you to enjoy your trip when you’re not shooting.  After all, travel is about gaining experiences, and not all of those experiences can or should be photographed.  Pack for your photography, but also for your overall travel enjoyment.

What are your hacks for packing your photo gear for a trip?  Please share your tips and tricks in the comments box here.

Luck Favors the Prepared: Tools for planning your shot

It was Louis Pasteur who said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”  We usually hear the quote paraphrased as, “Luck favors the prepared.”  For travel photographers, there is often a great deal of luck involved in capturing a truly great image, but there are some very useful tools that we can use to help us plan to be in the right place at the right time with the right gear.  Let’s look at just a few of my favorites.

I’ll start with a quick review of the most obvious resources.  I would never plan an hour-long photo shoot, let alone a month-long trip to a far-flung travel destination, without doing some research.  What are the must-see locations, and what dates and times of day are perfect for each one?  What are the events or activities that most authentically represent the locations I am visiting?  Is there a livestock market, a street festival, or a religious celebration taking place while I’m in the region?  How can I build an itinerary that best incorporates all of these locations?  Great resources for this type of research include guidebooks (online and hardcopy), online review sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp, mapping and navigation apps (Google Maps is still my all-around favorite, but several others have their own advantages), and local weather sites.  I like to build my itinerary by customizing an online map to show all of the locations I’d like to visit, then creating a routing that links the locations in the proper order.  If travel by air, rail, bus, or boat is involved, I research those schedules and fares to determine the best way to get from one place to the next.  Airline consolidation sites such as Orbitz can be quite helpful for finding the best flights at the best prices.  If the itinerary has been pre-planned by a travel company, then I will still do most of this background research to better understand the locations we’ll be visiting.

Once I know where I’ll be going and what events I plan to shoot, I develop a shot list.  Some photographers craft very detailed and specific shot lists, but I like to keep it quite flexible and informal, often simply jotting down my ideas in the calendar event on my phone that is associated with each planned shoot.  After all, if I adhere too closely to a shot list, I will just end up with the same images that hundreds or thousands of other visitors have captured after doing the same research.  Serendipity and the artist’s eye have their place in travel photography, too.  The research phase can also inform me as to what clothing, gear, and other essentials I should bring to each location.

Now I’d like to introduce three smartphone apps that I consider indispensable for travel photography.  First, there’s Photo Pills, an app that incorporates several essential tools into one package.  I use Photo Pills for planning shots where I need to know how to get all the elements, including location, date, and time of day, to come together.  For example, during the Perseid Meteor Shower, I wanted to find a dark sky location with a nice foreground and a view toward the galactic core of our Milky Way.  This way, I could capture images including the meteor shower, the Milky Way, and the pretty landscape in the foreground.  I had a location in mind, a beautiful spot where there isn’t too much light pollution and with a gorgeous view over a reservoir and the Santa Cruz Mountains.  The Planner tool in Photo Pills allowed me to visualize the foreground as viewed by my phone’s camera, superimposed against the Milky Way as it would appear on different days and times of day.  I planned the shot for a certain time on each of several consecutive days, confirmed that the Milky Way would be rising in the desired direction and that the nearly full moon would have already set, and then waited for clear weather.  The first night of the meteor shower was cloudy, but the second night was the charm, and I was able to capture this striking image.
Using the Photo Pills app on my smartphone, I was able to plan in advance for a location, date, and time that would maximize the chances of capturing the Perseid Meteor Shower and Milky Way over the lovely Crystal Springs Reservoir.  Buy this photo

Here’s a screenshot of the Planner tool in Photo Pills that I used to prepare for this shoot.

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The Photo Pills app has a number of tools to help plan and execute your shots.

Another useful app for planning the best locations, dates, and times for your shoots is TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris).  I find this tool to be especially helpful for visualizing the path of the sun and moon across the field of view for any location I select.  This app is very powerful, and I have only scratched the surface of what it can do to predict and prepare for photo opportunities.

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The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a powerful tool for planning any outdoor photo shoots.

A final app I will mention here is called Easy Release.  Sometimes (and exactly when is a good topic for a future post), we need a model release when a person or several people are clearly identifiable in a photo.  I know some photographers who carry hardcopy model releases with them wherever they travel, but I find this to be cumbersome and impractical when on the road shooting.  Instead, I use Easy Release on my phone, so I’m always ready to quickly prepare a release for a new friend to sign when they appear in my images.  Even though the app has the ability to translate the text of the release into several languages, there are situations in which it isn’t reasonable to try to explain to a local person what’s in the release and why it’s required.  Furthermore, I consider it to be exploitative if the person can’t reasonably be expected to understand what’s in the document or why they should be signing it.  But there are times when having immediate access to a model release that can be prepared, signed, and stored right on my phone is a big advantage.

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Easy Release is a convenient tool for creating, signing, sharing, and storing model releases when a person is clearly identifiable in photos.

With proper planning using readily available resources and various apps including the ones I’ve presented here, we can be better prepared to maximize our chances of capturing memorable images.  Happy shooting, and remember that luck favors the prepared!

Do you have a favorite tool you use to plan for your photo adventures?  How have you used this tool to get your shot?  Please share your experiences here.

 

A “Fixer” for the Rest of Us: How to leverage local resources to shoot like a pro

How do professional travel photographers on assignment create those amazing, make-your-jaw-drop images?  You know, the photos we see when browsing the pages of a major travel magazine or website?  There are several advantages the pros have, including technique honed over decades of practice, state-of-the-art equipment (with prices to match), and the ability to spend a lot of time at the same location, returning again and again until the time of day, lighting, weather conditions, and subject matter are perfectly aligned for a great shot.  But one advantage available to the pros can be borrowed, at least in part, by the rest of us who love travel photography, too.  That is the use of a “fixer,” a local expert who knows the region, the language, the culture, and the way to get things done, and whose expertise helps the travel photographer get those incredible shots.

While we were visiting a carpet weaving collective in Goreme, Turkey, our group’s trip leader introduced me to this worker who was enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee during her break.  Buy this photo on my website

If you are traveling on a group trip run by a good travel company, you may already may have a fixer working to make your experience (including your photographic experience) as rewarding as possible.  The operator will likely have chosen an itinerary that will get you off the beaten path and into the settings where unusual and powerful images can be made.  They will have arranged your accommodations and transportation well in advance of your departure.  The company should have planned some activities and excursions that will allow you to interact with local people and see how they truly live.  And best of all, they have provided you with a local expert, often called a trip leader or program director, who knows the lay of the land, speaks the local language(s), and can facilitate your getting the kinds of shots you want.  This is of paramount importance when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own, which I believe is the best part of traveling as a photographer.

For example, I made the above portrait after being introduced to the young worker at a carpet weaving collective by our trip leader in Turkey.  He translated so that she and I could get to know each other a little bit first, and then asked her if I could make her portrait.  It is certainly possible (I’ve done this countless times) to ask for yourself by using sign language, pointing to your camera, and smiling a lot, but having a local person with you can be a great help.

Sometimes, knowing where to go to seek out authentic cultural interactions works magic.  I captured this shot of our host family during a home-hosted lunch on an estancia (ranch) in Patagonia.

Our hosts, Chango and his extended family, were happy to pose for a portrait after we enjoyed their hospitality on their Patagonian ranch.  A local guide and good travel company can help arrange these kinds of authentic interactions.  Buy this photo on my website


Visiting a rural elementary school in Tanzania afforded us the chance to meet kids in the classroom.  This type of experience would be hard to arrange while traveling independently, but a good group leader or guide can facilitate meaningful interactions with local people.  Buy this photo on my website

When the trip is scheduled specifically to attend a special event, it is especially vital to have a good leader who is adept at working with local professionals to plan all the details.  For example, it was quite a major logistical feat to get a large group of scientists and photographers into place to study and view a total solar eclipse in a part of the world as remote and forbidding as Svalbard.  Our trip leader partnered with an astrophysicist who is a world authority on eclipses, beginning years in advance of the solar event, to ensure we had the best chance possible of clear weather conditions and the right vantage point from which to study and photograph the eclipse.  This is the sort of value that an expert fixer brings when you book a trip with one of the top companies.

Our eclipse expert and one of his students set up their gear on the morning of the total solar eclipse in Svalbard.  Buy this photo on my website

To be sure, there are some compromises required for group travel, and having access to a shared program director is not the same as having a dedicated personal fixer to arrange your photo shoots for you.  I like to travel independently in places with developed infrastructure and where I can readily bridge the cultural or language gaps myself.  That said, I also love to travel in small groups run by excellent travel companies, in large part because their planning, coupled with the knowledge of the local trip leader, helps me make those memorable images.

Have you had a situation where you got your shot thanks to the knowledge of a local expert?  How do you arrange your travel when you’re visiting remote parts of the world or when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!  Please respond via the comment box.