Do you want some advice on how to prepare for a photography trip abroad (even if it’s part of a family vacation)? Do you want some tips on how to make the most of your short time away?
This post should help you on both counts. It’s primarily written for people who use digital SLRs, as opposed to point-and-shoot cameras.
1) Let’s start with equipment
Before you go, write a checklist of the equipment you already have and the equipment you may need to buy or replace.
Think about every aspect of your style, gear and the facilities available at your destination. For example, if you are travelling to a remote region or third world country, you may need to pack plenty of batteries with you as charging the dead ones may prove difficult.
Do you want to travel as lightly as possible? Do you want to cram everything into one bag? Are you able to leave some gear at the hotel while you go out?
Is the place you are visiting hot or cold? Do you need to buy or hire suitable clothing?
This is a typical checklist of the camera equipment you may need:
- Camera and strap (perhaps you have more than one?)
- Lenses (wide angle, telephoto, portrait)
- Battery and at least one spare (if your destination is on the cold side, you may need more than one spare)
- Battery charger (you may also need a plug adapter if the country you are visiting has different power sockets to your own)
- Lens cleaning equipment (brush, blower, wipes)
- Lens hood
- Tripod (perhaps a mini-tripod or other stabilizing tool)
- Memory cards
- Card reader
- External cables
- Laptop, hard-drive or tablet for downloading
2) Storage and logistics
At the the bottom of this list I’ve included a few items that I neglected to think about during my first trip away with my digital SLR. I never asked myself this question – “What do I do with the photos once the card is full?”.
I can laugh about it now, but at the time I was really stuck and ended up buying more memory cards as I couldn’t transfer my images to another device.
Some people suggest that, if you don’t need to preview your images while you are away and want to travel as lightly as possible, you should just use memory cards for storage and download all the images when you get home. This makes a lot of sense, given the size and price of memory cards (anything from $20 – $35 for 32 GB), and the cost of an external hard-drive (which might fail or you might lose).
If you’re going on a short trip and have a tablet with enough free memory, you could use it for storage. Be sure to take all the cables you need for switching files, and don’t forget the charger!
Once onto your tablet, you could transfer your photos to one of the many cloud storage services (Dropbox, Goodle Drive or Microsoft SkyDrive).
One last word on equipment – thoroughly clean your camera and lenses, and consider having it done professionally. If your camera is a few years old, it may be a good idea to have it serviced before setting off on an important trip.
3) It’s all about light
You probably know the best time for capturing dramatic pictures is during the golden hours: just after sunrise and just before sunset. This is when the light is at it’s most dramatic and lends itself well to just about every situation.
Think about all the photographs you really love, and you will probably find they were taken at dawn or dusk. It’s a great time to be out with a camera, but getting up early while you are on vacation isn’t always at the top of your ‘to do’ list.
It really is worth the effort though, and I urge you to take a walk with your camera as the sun rises to see what you can capture.
Before venturing outdoors at such an early hour, figure out where in the sky the sun rises and try to choose a spot bathed with early morning sunshine, rather than one that’s blocked by tall buildings or cliffs.
If people photographs are your thing, morning’s are a good time to capture contemplative photos, work shots or ‘start of the day’ images. You will always (and I mean always) find a lone walker on the beach at sunrise, sometimes there will be a dog too. You will also see the machines and workers preparing the area for the new day. It’s a great time to see the inner-workings of a location.
4) Dress for the occasion
Typically, when I take a holiday, it’s usually to somewhere sunny. And pretty much from the moment I get up to the moment I go to sleep, I wear shorts. They’re great for flexibility when out and about trying to capture my experience.
I can easily kneel, climb and, if I have to, jump out of the way. They also keep me cool.
You should also think about footwear. I like wearing Timberland boots and I wear them whenever I’m in photographer mode. You never know what you are going to see, where you will end up or what kind of terrain you will have to walk across.
5) Insure your equipment
Okay, this tip won’t improve your travel photography, but there is a good chance you and your camera may one day become separated through no fault of your own.
Look at that checklist again. Think how much you spent on your gear and how much it would cost to replace it now, assuming prices have increased since you parted with your cash.
Your household insurance may cover camera equipment while you are away from home. Many policies do. Don’t take it for granted; check your documents or ring your insurer. If it’s not, buy some cover. It could be the best money you ever spent.
6) You only get one chance
Unlike home, where you can visit the same spots over and over, waiting for the perfect light or perfect shot, when you are on vacation you may only get one chance to grab the photos you want. Take your camera with you as often as you can and always be prepared to shoot.
Make the most of your opportunities and don’t let them slip by.
7) Respect the culture
If you travel to places with a vastly different culture to your own, do some research into which types of photography are acceptable and which are frowned upon.
Here are a few examples, taken verbatim or slightly edited from this page:
- In many Asian countries, photographing three people at the same time, in the same photo, is considered very rude. The belief is that one of the people, mainly the the one in the center will soon die.
- Capturing an image of a young lady next to a man that is not a relative, husband, fiance etc. is considered to bring bad luck to this young lady as she will no longer be able to marry an eligible bachelor.
- In many Islamic countries, you should not photograph the faces of women or any unaccompanied female.
- Buddhist countries do not allow photographs to be taken of any religious sites, buildings or images, nor of worshipers. Doing so can result in a brisk beating or scolding.
- In some parts of Africa some tribal customs prevent you from taking their photographs without asking first and will usually require a token of gratitude; a small gift or a trade.
For more information on the specifics of each country, turn to the internet or contact
8) Respect your surroundings
With stories of kidnappings and pedophilia filling our TVs, many parents are very over-protective of their kids, especially in a holiday situation where children are half-dressed; at the beach, at the swimming pool, at the park.
Wandering around a packed outdoor swimming pool with a camera is not a good idea and doing so will surely attract negative attention. You may be shooting your own kids and you may be completely innocent, but the perception of those around you may be quite different.
When you are taking photos of your kids, mostly use a tight composition. Zoom-in on your subject and cut out anyone (other peoples’ kids) you don’t want to include.
Another problem is terrorism. Urban photography in big cities or around sensitive locations is particularly prone to this kind of fear, with some countries banning, or severely frowning upon, photography around buildings that house government offices, royalty and the military.
If you are ever stopped by officials in any of these situations, they will likely take your camera away and study the pictures you’ve taken. Putting up a fight and refusing to abide with their wishes,may result in more hassle than it’s worth. Especially if you have nothing to hide.
9) Make a list
Photographer’s visiting popular cities will undoubtedly want to capture famous landmarks. Make a list of all the places you want to visit and work out an itinerary that will help you achieve your goal. Use Google Maps or Google Earth to work out the distance between each point and the order you should visit them.
Many large cities have reliable and quick transport systems, so you can move around fairly easily. Consider the popularity of the main tourist locations and how busy they will be when you arrive – again, late in the day or early morning may be best.
10) Take off on your own
When I go anywhere with my family (partner, 4 year old boy) I find it difficult switching between photographer and dad/partner. If you’re the same, allocate some time so you can go off armed with just your camera, your plans (if you have any) and a keen desire to capture some exciting images.
You might like to take a whole day and travel to another location, or just a few hours to explore the side-streets your locality. Whatever it is, not having to worry about entertaining your family will increase the quality of your experience.