Travel tips from a non-travel photographer
First off, I'm not a travel photographer. I don't have the resources to travel to exotic places for extended periods of time just to make photos.
Second off, when I do wind up visiting some place new, it's typically for a visit with family or a non-photography, work-related event. Either way, time is often limited when I travel.
That was the case last week when my wife and I flew 2,699 miles across the U.S. to Washington to visit with family. Between visiting with folks in Seattle for under twelve hours and then trekking over the Cascades to Cashmere to see more family for a few days before circling back to Seattle for the flight back east, there was very little free time for hunting out good shots.
But this didn't stop me from making some photographs I'm pleased with, and I think it's because I approach my travel photography with very few expectations and follow the same game plan where ever I go. So, from this non-travel photographer, here are my tips for coming away with memorable images from any trip.
Do a bit of pre-game research!
This one is pretty obvious. Before I go anywhere I fire up the Google and start searching for things and places that might make for good photo opportunities. I look for high locations if I want to get panoramas and use Google Maps Street View mode to scope out the areas right around where I'll be staying. If I see a park or a monument, I'll research it a little more to see if it looks worthy of my time. Maybe there's a lake or a public market. Whatever it is, I jot it down as a possible shot. Also, do a search of images for where ever you're heafding. I guarantee you there are photographers there who've already taken great shots, so why not capitalize on their location scoping?
And finally, if you know anyone who lives where you're heading, ask them to take an hour or so to give you a little tour of their world. I had my brother-in-law drive me up to the salmon hatchery on the Columbia River he oversees. It was on the drive up that I spotted the painted barn in the lede shot of this post, and at the hatchery that I noticed the concrete pilons that I thought made for a neat composition.
Forget the attractions!
Seriously. You can find photos of big attractions for purchase online if you need to have them. Instead, just shoot what catches your eye as you're going about your business. Spend time with family or on your work, but grab shots as life goes by, the way a photojournalist would.
Don't get me wrong, if you can get a shot of the tourist attraction, have at it, just don't pass up a handful of other great moments that you'd miss by waiting in line to get the same shot a thousand other tourists are going to take. In the end, your shot of the random street corner scene you shot while taking a quick 20 minutes to yourself will bring back way more memories than that shot of the memorial statue.
In my case, I got a little lucky in Seattle as my sister-in-law decided we could squeeze in a quick spin through Pike Place and her apartment building roof had a view of the Space Needle. Sure, I'm glad I have those shots, but I'm much happier with my sunrise shot of Lake Union.
Maybe the above shot tipped you off to what I'm going to bring up next - stealing time. If you're on a work trip, things never start much before 8 a.m., and even that early is a rarity I've found. If you're visiting with family, most of them are probably still in slumberland in the wee hours. But even if you're not a morning person, force the issue. Get up, get out, explore and shoot.
I don't normally get out very early. Unfortunately for me, the Golden Hour doesn't really fit with my schedule. Except when I travel. At those times, I'm usually up and out before dawn, wandering the streets and finding scenes that catch my eye. Of course, the light is always fantastic in the morning, but for me, I love watching new places wake up and get moving.
Now Cashmere, Washington isn't exactly a booming metropolis, nor is it a destination spot full of excitement. Early morning, it's just like any other small place. Except that it sits smack in the center of the apple capital of the U.S. When we first arrived, the two things that stuck out to me were the apple crates all over town, and the desert hills. So on morning one I was up and out and able to grab this shot of an early morning light breaking over apple crates stacked up along the desert hill. And the best part: by the time I returned to my family's house, coffee and breakfast were ready!
I used to cram a whole lot of equipment into my bag when travelling, reasoning that decision by saying "well I want to be prepared for whatever comes up." The thing is, if I'm going someplace for a week or less, I've learned to slim it down to the bare minimum. Why? Well, lugging a heavy bag of gear around gets pretty lame after a few hours, and since I'm usually on the go when I'm travelling, it's best to have a manageable weight hanging off my shoulder. And also, I rarely wind up using more than a standard zoom and a single body. Here's what I generally take if I'm flying:
A standard zoom
SB-600 speedlight and Sto-Fen diffuser
Lens cleaning supplies
If I'm checking a bag, I'll cram a tripod in there as well, but that's a rarity on most trips. And that's also a little tip -- don't check your gear. Honestly, I don't trust anyone with my equipment, least of all the baggage gorillas at the airport. So whatever you want to bring, make sure you can fit it into the overhead, and it doesn't necessarily hurt to throw a t-shirt or two strategically in there for extra padding.
Put the camera down...
As a photographer, I'm guilty of spending way, way too much time watching the world pass by my lens. One thing I've learned, though, it's important to just experience a new place without being overly concerned about capturing the moment. By all means, shoot, but remember to just enjoy watching and being part of the scene as well.
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