Those who travel a lot and want to come home with beautiful photos know the challenge that emerges when they have to pack their bags and prepare for their journey. You feel you need to be well prepared, you know you will visit beautiful places where you cannot allow yourself to miss any important shot.
Here are some tips, based on my experience as a traveler. You may find some of them come in contradiction with others (life is not made of only black & white aspects), so it’s not really important, or possible to follow all of them at once, just extract the things that apply to your style and existing gear.
1. If you travel the whole day, it’s best to travel light. Switching your DSLR with a good Mirrorless camera it’s the best thing I did. You travel, you do not do studio photography at ISO100 on the peak of a mountain, so ditch your heavy big black beast and breathe easily with a small, but powerful Sony, Olympus, Fujifilm or whatever any other camera. You will find Micro 4/3 and APS-C sensors are not so weak anymore, according to some old myths. More about this on my review for Fujifilm X100S, a great camera for travel.
2. Quality zoom lenses are more convenient that primes. Of course, one or at most two small prime lenses could get into the “travel light” category, instead of two big zooms. It depends on the type of camera and lenses you use. But a standard zoom will replace some prime lenses and you don’t need to change your lenses anymore. It means you are less exposed to missed shots and your sensor stays secure, away from dust. More about this on my article about zooms vs primes.
3. Bring spare batteries and memory cards. You don’t know what time you will be back to your hotel and surely you don’t know how many beautiful places you will encounter when you start the day. Be prepared with fully charged spare batteries and some formated memory cards.
4. A small tripod could help you. Instead of bringing your big, heavy tripod, bring a small tripod that you can put inside your bag. If not, raise your ISO or just try to stabilize your camera on a fence, bench, parked car or other flat surfaced object that fits your needs for a long exposure photograph.
5. Try to get the whole story. Add sense to your shooting day and get some establishing shots, then emphasize on details, taking care of the natural chronology.
6. Step out of the tourist zone. Why? Because you get away from the crowds, which are so annoying sometimes (or most of the times, when you need a well composed photo) and you may find beautiful details that the “typical”tourist will surely miss.
7. Plan ahead your itinerary. If possible, use Google Maps, some paper maps and smartphone GPS based apps like Triposo, Maps ME (plenty of them on Android Market and iOS App Store) to plan your route for the day. It can help you be more prepared, make a list with your important spots and landmarks – you will not go out there aimlessly.
8. Wake up early in the morning. “Why? I’m on vacation!” Well, you will find that the empty streets and places will offer you the opportunity to have some of your most beautiful photos, not to mention the Golden Hour which envelops everything in the most beautiful natural light, so hunted by landscape and travel photographers. Warm light, long shadows – try to be creative with these amazing natural “tools”.
9. Be ready for the second Golden Hour (and Blue Hour). At sunset, you get another Golden Hour, but with different angles and a different flavor. After the sunset and the Golden Hour, you will get the Blue Hour and the twilight when you could capture the magic on your camera. To help me organize myself for those moments, I use Exsate Golden Hour and Sun Surveyor Apps, to get directions about the angle of light and the right moments.
10. Different angles. Avoid clichés. When everyone will take pictures of the same thing from the same position and angle, just step aside and find different perspectives. It will bring you originality and strong composition to your photos.
11. Backup. When possible, backup your work on your laptop, external hard-drive or other means, just to be sure if something bad happens with your camera / memory cards, you will have all your photos securely stored.
12. Weather sealing. This is an important issue. If you want to photograph in sandy / dusty / windy areas, or in the rain, make sure you have a camera body and its lens with the weather sealing certification. If not, protect your gear with plastic bags, specially designed for this purpose, or you could improvise with plastic bags and duct tape. Or simply avoid shooting in this type of weather conditions that could put your gear in danger.
13. Fill flash. Presuming you travel really light and did not take your pro-grade Full-Frame DSLR on your vacation, there is a good chance your camera has a built-in flash. Use it to add fill light when shooting in harsh sunlight and you need to fill those shadowed areas.
14. Backlight photography. Break your routine. Instead of coming home with thousands of pictures with your subjects receiving the light from your back, try to be more creative and get the light from sideways or backside of your subject. It will mess your exposure, but if you know what you are doing with those controls (aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation), you could get some strong composition that really stand out of the crowds.
15. Add life to your photos. Landscapes, streets, architecture, no matter the frame you capture, it will make sense to have a person in your frame (could be your wife, your son, a dog, a cat, a bird or a purple alien who traveled to our planet through hyperspace – in which case your photo will be the most famous in this world) to animate your photograph and give life to your story.
16. Get the local flavor into your photos. This tip strongly relates to tips no. 15, 10, 6 and 5. Point your focus to the small streets, the local market, see the people resting on a bench, the merchants and their merchandise, the flower shop, the bike riders, the artisans, the restaurant waiters, the workers, guitar and flute players, police officers and clowns – you name it.
17. Filters. Important piece of your kit. I have 3 types of filters : UV, to protect my expensive lens, from dust, dirt, accidental hits or water, circular polarizer to cut unwanted solar reflections from shiny objects and surfaces and add more contrast, color and depth to the skies and neutral gradient filter to help me get long exposure photograph in daylight (I use one Hoya ND 8x and one Kenko ND 1000).
18. Organize your bag before leaving home. If you plan ahead your itinerary and know your gear very well, you could make a gear selection and bring in your bag only the necessary items. More about this on my article about the content of my bag.
19. Cleaning products. In case you get dirt, dust, water and other unwanted substances on your lenses, camera and its sensor, you need to have the minimum cleaning kit (cloth, tissue, air blower, carbon tip cleaning pen, etc). If you don’t have the cleaning kit in your bag, when roaming the streets, hills, museums and mountains, at least you know you can rely on it when you get back to your hotel room.
20. Know your gear and trust your feelings. It is essential to have the most positive mood when traveling as a photographer. You should know very well how your camera + lenses perform within their technical limitations and you should know how to change your camera settings quickly and efficiently, to ensure you don’t miss wonderful and unrepeatable moments. And trust your feelings, don’t do all the time what others ask you to do, but listen when someone from your group shows you a great frame that you missed. Don’t force yourself on the “perfection path” and don’t be sad when you realize you don’t have all your photos at the excellence level. Learn from your mistakes, sometimes a picture which is out of focus could be more valuable this way, a miscalculated framed photograph could hold its benefits when looking at that picture after a while. Trust in yourself, go out and shoot!
All photos and text – © Sebastian Boatca 2015 / www.sebastianboatca.com