Travel Photography: How to Get Fabulous Images and Still Have Fun
By Stephanie Millner, Cr.Photog., CPP
Your bags are packed, and you’re ready to go? Not so fast! Travel photography is very different from everyday client work, and how you travel is every bit as important as what you actually shoot. Consider the following tips for travel photography and your next trip should be smooth sailing as far as your camera is concerned.
This applies to your luggage and your camera gear. The fun you’ll have on your trip is inversely proportionate to the amount of stuff you have to lug around. Unless you’re traveling for a commissioned job, pack only the barest of bare essentials. Bring one camera, two batteries, a few media cards, your charger, and two lenses at most. I’ve traveled for weeks at a time without any other gear, and I promise you do not need to carry more.
Over-packing is uncomfortable due to weight and bulk, and it can be risky in some environments. Someone carrying a big expensive camera bag is enticing to pickpockets and thieves.
Also, think twice about using a backpack; it will make you a target. Because the pack is behind you, it’s easily accessible to thieves, particularly in large crowds. Leave it at the hotel. When you carry gear with you in a bag, remove any indications that expensive equipment is inside and wear it on your front in crowded areas and on public transit. Stay aware.
There are three more things you need to round out your travel kit: rain sleeves, a multi-plug adaptor, and a dry bag.
Bring several rain sleeves that fit your camera with your longest lens attached. A good rule of thumb is to bring one sleeve per week of travel. A good rain sleeve will keep your gear dry and sand-free, regardless of what Mother Nature dishes out. Keep one in your coat, one in your purse or day bag, and one in your luggage so it’s always easily accessible. A rain sleeve only works if it’s actually on your camera, not back in your hotel room. You can buy them online or from a camera store for less than $10 each.
Always carry a universal multiple-plug adaptor when traveling abroad. Most laptops, cell phones, and camera chargers have built-in transformers (or are dual-voltage), so you usually just need a plug adaptor and not a heavy travel transformer. Be sure to buy a multi-plug adaptor to accommodate different countries. Searching for an open electronics store because you have two dead camera batteries and you left your plug adaptor back home is not fun. I recommend bringing a USB-to-power plug and USB cord as well. You can buy a good one (or two) online for less than $10.
Vatican from Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome ©Stephanie Millner
Most important, if you’re going anywhere that even remotely involves water, bring a dry sack. This single purchase has saved me from potentially thousands of dollars in damage. Purchase a sack that has at least a level-two water resistance, and get a bigger bag than you think you’ll actually need. In addition to keeping your gear bone-dry, even when completely submerged, they make handy beach bags and day totes. Use a dry sack any time you’re even thinking about traveling near water (beach days, boat trips, cruises). You can find dry sacks online or at a local dive shop or sporting goods store, usually for around $20. It will be the one of the best investments you’ll ever make for your gear.
Bonus item: The Grid-It organizer system is a fabric-covered board with sewn elastic pieces that securely hold everything in place. It fits into any backpack, dry sack or purse. I pack two: one for camera gear and another for toiletries—inside a clear plastic bag—so they’re easily accessible at airport security.
Before traveling abroad, there are things you can do to ensure a safe journey. Find a camera rental company at your destination in case something goes wrong if you’re on a paid shoot. Make sure you keep a copy of their phone number and operating hours, as well as a few key phrases in the local language. (You may want to call to make sure they’ll have your gear in stock while you’re traveling.) Check out U.S. State Department travel advisories to get any last-minute security information. Store a copy of your equipment serial numbers in an Internet-accessible file, such as Google Docs, Evernote, or Dropbox. Verify that your equipment insurance covers travel overseas as well as loss due to theft.
Night Photography: Photographing at night is often a better payoff for unique travel imagery. The downside is that you’ll need a tripod, which pushes the "pack-light" rule to the limit. Make sure it’s small and lightweight, less than 2 pounds. Alternately, you can purchase a cheap one at the destination and give it away to another photographer when you’re ready to leave. For night photography, I tend to expose for 20-30 seconds at the highest aperture possible—a cheat method to get a star-filter look (above). By shooting in aperture priority at f/22 and f/32, I’ve made beautiful panoramic images that really wow my print buyers. It’s an easy technique, so I’m always surprised when they say they’ve never seen that effect before
Exposure Lock: I’ve noticed very few photographers actually use their cameras’ exposure lock buttons. This single button is the key to great travel imagery. Keep in mind that your camera loves 18-percent gray, and train your eye to see this tone when you’re out and about. Things like stone columns, cement walls, and even the back of your hand can make easily accessible gray cards. When photographing in center-weighted or spot-meter mode, you can lock your exposure on this gray tone and get a more predictable exposure in extreme lighting conditions.
Manual Focus Lock: You may experience some problems getting your camera to focus in low-light conditions when it can't find enough reflected light to lock in on. Focus at a fixed length on some sort of incident light—such as a light bulb, candle, torch, etc.—and switch your lens to manual focus. Anything at the same focal distance at the same aperture will be in focus. This trick works especially well when photographing long exposure shots of interiors and architecture.
Details: The best part of travel photography is the unexpected details that make each city so unique. Use a wide aperture to really zero-in on your focal point and remove background distraction. Pay attention to unique souvenirs, foods, flowers, and fabrics that make your destination special. Travel photography is much like wedding photography; shoot with your end-product in mind—your travel album.
Post Processing: It’s vacation, not work. If you must, must, must post-process your photographs, limit your time behind the computer so as not to detract from your travel enjoyment. I use Nik Viveza or Topaz Adjust to post-process for texture and saturation. And then, as we say in Italy, “Basta così — that’s enough.” The more time you’re behind your computer, the less time you’re out seeing the world. Use actions and simple plug-ins to post-process your travel photography and put the laptop away.
Put The Camera Down
You can leave your camera behind. The best part of travel photography is actually getting to see the world, and you need both eyes to do that. When you start bumping into to people because you’re walking around with one eye in the viewfinder, you need to take a break and just enjoy the place where you are and take it in. Never turn down plans because you can’t bring your camera—that’s always where the best stuff is.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II
70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 L lens
24-70mm f/2.8 L lens
Paid shoots only: a 14mm f/2.8 MF Rokinon instead of 70-300mm
If room is available: lightweight cheap tripod
Universal travel adapter
2-3 Rain Sleeves
Grid-It Organizer that contains USB cord, 1 USB-to-power adaptor, two camera batteries, camera charger, three 8GB Compact Flash cards, lens cloth, Chapstick, eye liner, and a tiny pill box for DayQuil and Tylenol
Stephanie Millner, Cr.Photog., CPP, MBA is a portrait and travel photographer based in Rome, Italy. She is the organizer of PhotoJourney Workshops, luxury photography workshops in Europe. The next event is October 14-21, 2012 in Rome and Tuscany with instructors Darton Drake, Kim Larson, and Chris McLennan.