A photography trip is an exciting thing to plan and do. It’s possible to combine your vacation with updating or refreshing your portfolio or even making photographs for commercial sale. Here, we’ll guide you to getting the most out of your time away so you’ll return home with beautiful and useful photographs, and incredible memories too.
Part 1. Plan the Trip
Research and Make a Rough Itinerary
Unlike an assignment, there’s usually no brief for a photography trip, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare or research.
How much do you already know about the place you’re visiting?
Use Guide Books
My first step after deciding where to visit is usually to get my hands on a guidebook. I know it can seem a bit old school when it’s so easy to look things up online (and even on the go), but I still favour a guide book initially. The internet can be too full of information at times; a guide book has limited space and so they’ve had to carefully choose what they include.
When you find things in a book that you want to visit or do, add them to a list or mark the pages. You can use this with further research online to build an itinerary. Put absolutely everything that interests you on the list at this point. You’re creating an ideal list that you can narrow down later.
One caution with using a guidebook: be wary of the publication date. I tend to buy new guidebooks for this reason; the information can date very quickly. I once spent a weekend trying to locate a market in Berlin that obviously didn’t exist anymore.
Take Advantage of Google Images
Generally, I use Lonely Planet guides, but I do find their lack of pictures frustrating. For photographers, the potential for some great images is a large part of the reason for travelling and choosing places to visit. It’s tough, then, to make a decision with no images.
Using the images option in a Google search can help you visualise where you’ll be. Most recently, I’ve been researching a trip to Switzerland and wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to visit. I grabbed my Lonely Planet Europe and read about the “beauty of Lucerne.” One quick Google image search later and Lucerne was added to my itinerary.
Using images is also a handy way to see what you might want to photograph, especially if you like to photograph landscape, architecture, or well-known sites. If there’s a particular viewpoint or scene that I want, I’ll add it to the sites on my itinerary list and put the picture beside it so I remember which one it is.
Try Google Maps for Planning Your Route
Once you have a rough idea of where you’d like to go, you can use Google Maps (or an equivalent service) to plot your destinations and stops and determine first, how long you should allow for travel between locations and second, whether your itinerary is viable in the time you have. This is where you’ll start thinning down your list.
Remember that maps and travel times are averages. For example, a route in Scotland that says 60 miles (travel time 60 minutes) can actually take two hours when you consider the narrow roads and hills. Motorways will generally be quicker but not as scenic and they are more prone to road closures and delays.
Check Trip Advisor to Sort Wheat from Chaff
The next stage for me is Trip Advisor. This is a tricky one because others’ interests and standards could differ from your own and you don’t want to miss out on anything you might have really enjoyed. So use online reviews just as a guide and look for trends. Chances are, if 99 percent of reviewers have given an attraction one star and said it’s not worth the time, then it’s probably not worth a visit.
Select Transport and Where To Stay
Research Local Transport Links
You can save yourself time and money by sorting out what public transport links take you where you want to go. Rather than hopping in a cab from the airport, is there a bus that goes to your hotel? If you can work out which transport you’ll be using, you can take advantage of purchasing transport tickets in your destination country; these can save you a fortune.
Make sure you note when buses/trams/trains finish for the night so you don’t get stuck. Pick up a transit timetable as soon as you can and keep it with your travel documents so you’ll have alternatives if your transport is delayed or cancelled.
Accommodations: Find a Suitable Path or Base
If you don’t mind unpacking and packing, you can make the most of your time by staying at each location along your travels—thus moving in only one direction instead of back and forth to one central place. This way cuts down your travelling time and increases the number of places you visit.
If, however, the places you want to visit are scattered without a clear route from one to the next, then it might be wise to have a base somewhere near the middle and travel from there to a destination each day.
The type of accommodation you stay in requires some thought too. A small bed and breakfast will be ideal if you’re up in the morning, out for the day, and back at a reasonable hour in the evening. If, however, you plan to be coming and going at all hours (for example, heading out at 4:30 a.m. for that sunrise shoot and 11:00 p.m. for the stars), you might disturb the other guests at a small place. Staying in a larger hotel, self-contained apartment, or cabin might be a better (albeit more expensive) option.
Part 2. Get Ready to Go
If you’re planning to travel by car, then, obviously, you have space to take more with you than if you were flying, for example. However, you should still try and be conservative about what you take. Ask yourself if you really need every lens or accessory. Chances are, even if travelling by car, you’ll end up doing a fair amount of walking, so don’t weigh yourself down or you’ll end up exhausted and sore after a couple of days.
Using the right camera bag is important too. You should use something that spreads the weight over your body evenly, like a backpack rather than a shoulder bag.
Which tripod will you take? If flying, large tripods will require separate checking under ‘”unusual items”; they can also be cumbersome to carry when walking to sites. Think about using a sturdy, foldaway tripod that will fit in your luggage and is much easier to carry. If you’re travelling with a partner or friend (who is also taking photographs), is it feasible to share a tripod?
Remember your charger, spare battery, and spare memory cards. You don’t want to be on the trip of a lifetime only for your batteries to die or your memory cards to be full, leaving you with no way to capture any photographs.
Do you need vaccinations to visit the country you’re travelling to? When I took a trip to Tunisia, it was only booked two weeks before we were due to travel. I called the doctor’s office and asked whether we needed anything specific, and was told we needed to come in right away as the injections we were supposed to have needed to be given at least two weeks before we left. The doctor or travel clinic may also have to order in specific medicine or injections, so allow time for that.
Determine whether you need a visa or other paperwork to travel, and make copies of everything in case you lose the originals. Be sure your passport is in date and that it has at least six months left on it before expiry. That’s a requirement when travelling to many countries.
If you’re driving, are you correctly insured? If it’s your own car, do you have everything you might need to travel, such as breathalysers, warning triangles, and high visibility jackets? The RAC offers a great driving and travel checklist that tells you everything you need to drive in a new country. Automobile associations in your destination country, such as the American Automobile Association, can also be a help.
Insure yourself and your kit where possible. This might be available through an existing policy for your home or car, so it’s worth checking those before buying separate insurance. You can read more about the type of insurance you might need in How to Plan Your Travel Assignment.
Try not to wander around with your expensive looking kit! Your safety takes priority. While visiting new and unusual places get you some amazing photographs, it’s still wise to take every precaution you can and not take undue risks for a picture.
Think about letting someone know where you’ll be and check in with them at an agreed time. Keep your camera in a bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag, such as a backpack, and only take it out when you’re actually using it rather than keeping it around your neck or in your hands. If you’re travelling with a companion, take turns keeping an eye on the surroundings while your vision is focused through the lens of your camera.
Best not to get yourself arrested while on holiday either if you can avoid it! Some places are off limits for visiting or are okay for visiting but don’t allow photography. Some places, particularly busy religious sites, may require that you pay for a permit to take photographs. If you don’t speak the local language, watch for obvious signs. I accidentally fired my flash while visiting an attraction in Prague and was immediately scolded by the guard.
If you want to photograph very famous landmarks—the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty, for example—then try to do it in a different way. Research before you travel; look to the internet, books, and magazines to see what has been done before. You’ll quickly notice which are the popular shots and can then start to think about what you’ll do differently.
The time of day you visit might have an impact on your photographs—more or fewer tourists, timed activities, and most important for a photographer, the light. Apps like SunCalc can really help with capturing the light. It will tell you which direction the sun will be shining in a particular place at a particular time.
Small things can help you construct a photograph that is a different take on the usual. It may be a case of using a super wide angle lens for a different perspective, or a long exposure to eliminate moving crowds of people.
Photography might be the reason you’re travelling and it might be what you like to do, but the most important thing is still to have a nice time, else why are you doing it?
When you’re travelling on a work assignment, you have a very specific brief and goals, and those are your priority. But if it’s a holiday, then things can and should be a little more flexible.
I’ve talked about making an itinerary, and I do think it’s important to have an idea of what you want to do and where you want to go, so as not to waste time or get distracted. But flexibility is key. If you fall in love with a place and want to spend more time photographing it, then you absolutely should! Don’t regret or resent parts of your trip by not allowing yourself the time to fully explore and add to your experiences. One of the reasons for doing so much prep before you left is so you can relax and enjoy while you’re away.
Another reason for flexibility, of course, is the weather. Forecasts can only go so far and you might arrive at your perfect mountain vista to find everything obscured by drizzle or fog! Make allowances for weather and work from the assumption that none of it might go the way you intended, but you can still enjoy the trip.
Talk to Locals
Language might be a barrier but even so, try to talk to locals where possible. Not only will you probably learn a little more about where you are, but the locals are also likely to know some of the best places to get the photographs you’d like. Nobody knows the land like the locals do and investing a little time and effort can reap rewards.
People make the place and taking the time to engage with a few can be the difference between visiting a country and really seeing the country. Some of my best memories and favourite stories to tell revolve around people.
This happens to photographers all the time: we’re so busy taking pictures or footage that we’re not in anything ourselves. I make a point of taking a “snappy cam” or phone with camera every time I travel and force my partner into a series of touristy shots so that I also have memories of us on holiday. Pretty pictures of scenery or pictures of the local culture are fabulous, but they’ll be just that in a few years’ time. Pictures of you in that place and at that time are priceless and will instantly bring memories and experiences flooding back.
Make a little home movie as a different way to engage your friends and family with your trip. My partner makes films and occasionally makes a holiday film of us that not only shows the area we’ve been but also the two of us being a bit daft! It’s the perfect memento of a trip and your friends will love it more than if they had to sit through hours of slides or photos.
Part 4. Make Great Photographs
Treat the Trip Like Your Dream Trip
There’s a temptation while travelling to try over-schedule every day, just so that you can see everything.
You can’t. Focus on what matters and remember that it’s better to do a little well than a lot poorly. Missing out some elements is a good excuse to come back at a later date. And, if you feel like you’re missing too much, you probably haven’t planned enough time at your destination.
Have a Flexible Itinerary
I mentioned earlier that it’s good to be flexible, and that applies to your itinerary too. Just because it’s written down doesn’t mean you’re forced to do it. Even if you’ve booked tickets, sometimes losing the cost of the tickets can be better than missing something you’ll later regret not seeing or doing.
A good way to ensure that you have all the time you can is to plan good connections. You don’t want to waste hours sitting around the airport or between train journeys. It’s not always possible to have such fluid travel arrangements, and if that’s the case, try to make the most of any time you do have to spend between destinations. Are there any sights you could pop out to see while you wait? You could do some people-watching and get some great portraits. Try to make the most of every opportunity.
Make Real Connections
Everyone has a story to tell and if you learn to become a good listener, you can make some meaningful connections and perhaps even some life-long friends. People living in a culture different than yours can be fascinating, as you might be to them, so don’t be afraid to share a little piece of yourself.
A friend of mine now has friends in many different countries around the world. When he re-visits a particular country he stays with his friends there or a group of them get together. It’s really nice.
I think regularly mixing with many new people in different situations creates an open-mindedness that we tend not to develop from staying where we’ve always known. Differences become more easily accepted, and the norm and connections become easier as a result.
All that said, don’t forget to take time to connect with yourself. You will not take good photographs or enjoy yourself if you’re emotionally or physically tired. Seeing new things, meeting new people, and walking and shooting all day can be exhausting. Some people need more recovery time than others; know yourself and plan accordingly.
Travelling will occasionally, push your boundaries and not always successfully. Some of the best experiences and anecdotes come from making mistakes. What may seem like an awful experience at the time can become trivial and even funny, given time. If you’re documenting your trip, document the things that go wrong, too. You’ll be pleased you did once you have the benefit of hindsight.
Tell a Story
As well as simply documenting your trip, think about the story you’d like to tell about each places you visit. Think about the establishing shot and the detail shot. Can you show people where you are? Can you show them how it feels like to be there?
Establishing shots give your audience an overview and idea of what you might be trying to say, with just enough information to pique their interest. This is your first and maybe only chance to grab your viewer, so make it count!
The detail shot(s) give interest and context to your story. These are usually closer shots of things or people of interest.
Let’s say you were shooting a huge outdoor market. Your first shot could be the market as a whole, from a high vantage point with a wide-angle lens, all of the stalls laid out in front of you. The detail shot could be a closeup of the colourful spices on one of the stalls.
Start to research your location(s) and make your ideal list.
Look at images online to get a better idea of where you’ll be and the terrain.
Use Google Maps to plan your route and see what’s feasible.
Use sites such as Trip Advisor to weed out any places that may not be worth the visit.
Check local transport links and make notes.
Find a suitable base to stay.
Only take the equipment you think you’ll need; don’t be tempted to pack everything.
Sort any required paperwork, including insurance and travel paperwork, and get injections where advised.
Be safe and sensible. Be discrete with kit and money, and stay out of places you shouldn’t be.
Make your photographs different from the typical shots. Try a different time of day, unusual angle, or long exposure.
Relax! Take days off and when you feel like it; go with the flow!
Talk to the local people; engage and give. You’ll make some amazing memories and get insider knowledge on the best places to go.
Remember to include yourself and who you’re travelling with in pictures and footage now and then.
Even if you’re combining travel with a bit of work or a commission, going on a photography trip is an absolute joy. You’re not constrained by the pressures of a brief and it’s a fantastic opportunity to go with the flow.
Remember, although you’re going to take photographs, this is almost secondary. If you get great images, brilliant; but the really important thing is to make sure you have a terrific time and make some lasting memories.