The Commando Photographer Guide to Travel
If you were dropped into the middle of the Bali with a camera, I'm willing to bet you could come up with some terrific images. Let's face it, a seriously large percentage of good photography is inspiration. When I go on holiday, I like to pick a place that's going to inspire me and the photos come pretty easily. On these trips, I can pick the location and take my time. My job sometimes enables me to visit interesting places. I can't take my time during these trips and what time I have is limited to non-working hours and occasional weekends. As a result, I've adopted the "Commando Photographer" approach.
The Commando Photographer travels light, is quick in, gets the job done, and quick out. Leave as little mess as possible.
Do Your Research
I hate researching. I would much rather travel with someone who has done the leg work for me so I could just tag along, but that almost never happens. Do a web search for the location you're visiting and you're presented with way too much information. So few sources are geared to photographers so you have to wade through countless articles in the hopes you might find something photo worthy. I'm too lazy for that.
The first thing I do is visit the book store. A good travel guide is worth its weight in lenses (more on that later). My two favorite travel guide books are "Insight Guides" and "Eyewitness Travel Guides." Flip through one of these and you'll see what I mean. They are chock full of photos. Good photos. Inspirational photos. This sort of guide book will show you where you can get great photos. You don't even need the latest edition. Whenever I see a good photo guide book at a used book store, I'll pick it up for future reference. Most of the places I want to visit are at least a few years old and I don't use these things for their train time tables!
Speaking of old, whenever I'm at a rummage sale, I keep an eye out for old National Geographic magazines. Because they put the table of contents on the outside (thank you, National Geographic!), you can quickly identify locations. I pick up copies of whichever issues have places I want to someday visit. In addition to good information, they are full of excellent examples on how to create interesting travel photos.
I rarely take a travel guide with me on a trip. Since they're worth their weight in lenses, I take careful notes and leave them behind. When I arrive at my destination, usually by air, I conduct the next phase of my research: the postcard kiosk. The airport always has a few shops selling post cards. Spend some serious time here. The local photographers are showing you where the really cool stuff is located. If you recognize the place, you might be inspired by the photographer's choice. If you don't recognize the place, buy the card and use it as a reference when inquiring about its location. Send the cards home to friends and family.
I check to see if anyone I know has been to the place I'm going and pump them for suggestions. In foreign lands, confront backpackers laden with guidebooks. They'll likely have seen a lot more than you have by the time you arrive and are often more than willing to give advice. Locals are surprisingly bad at suggestions for photogenic locations. They're good with directions, though ... the exception being Parisians, for some strange reason.
The Commando Photographer has just enough information to accomplish the job.
Choose Your Equipment
If you're on photo safari, take whatever you can. When you're commando, you want to move fast. A single camera with a good lens will enable you to get great photos ... if you know what you're doing. Here's something that might shake you up a bit: the less you have, the more creative you are. While on a trip, I was once questioned by a very experienced photographer. Seeing the camera I was using, he guessed that I was shooting this particular wide angle zoom lens, this particular medium zoom and this particular long zoom. In his experience, photographers weighted themselves down with the full range of lenses to accommodate every angle. I was traveling with a super wide angle and a fixed focal length medium telephoto. That meant that every scene I viewed, I envisioned through those lenses. I forced myself to make the most of what I had, rather than leaving the door open to every possibility.
I must admit that I do travel heavy as much as I can. I really do use two lenses more than any others, but I also appreciate some of the more specialized lenses I have and am loathe to leave without them. I travel with a super wide-angle zoom, a portrait lens and a 300mm telephoto. I sometimes bring a fast 50mm as it can go in a pocket with ease.
To carry this gear, I typically use a belt-bag and harness getup that takes the load off my shoulders. It passes for a carry-on bag through airport security. The only problem with this arrangement is that it looks very imposing, like tactical gear. If I'm carrying a bit less gear, I go with a courier-style bag. I keep it over my left shoulder so my right arm is free to shoot. This arrangement gives me quick access to the gear. I replaced the standard woven nylon strap with a nyoprene strap. Sometimes I'll use two of them so I can distribute the weight between two shouldeers.
I've used backpack-style bags and really don't care for them. For me, the point of having a bag is not to carry my gear, but to access my gear while I'm carrying it. If I go super light, I use a small shoulder bag equipped with a broad belt. The belt holds the weight of the bag and does not allow it to fly all over the place. Why is this important? I use this bag when I'm scrambling over rocks, picking my way through ruins, climbing trees or other more strenuous activity.
I use a carbon fiber tripod. I served my time lugging a gigantic Benbo tripod through two major European trips and numerous North American excursions. I have to admit that the light-weight carbon fiber is the way to go. I pack it in my luggage as it's too large for carry on. The head is equiped with a quick release mechanism so there's not fooling around when I'm in a hurry.
I also carry a strobe. I don't know why as I rarely use it. Every time I try to leave it home I think "Well, maybe this time I'll need it." Most shots taken with on-camera flash are horrible, but with a diffuser "soft box" that folds up small, you can almost get away with it. Once exception to horrible on-camera flash is when you use it during daylight. If you don't now how to do "fill flash," learn. If your camera kit enables you to do off-camera flash, learn to do this as well. You'll turn ordinary images into extraordinary images.
The Commando Photographer travels with the essentials.
What you wear can make or break your trip. The most essential is footwear. If you want to move fast, you need footwear that supports you. I have found hard sole hiking shoes superior to running shoes. That being said, there are times where a pair of sandals are even better, particularly in a place where you're expected to go barefoot a lot. Since flip-flops weigh next to nothing, I carry both. Switching from one to the other can really ease the aches in your feet. If you wear shoes, you need socks, and good socks are expensive and worth it. Look for thick socks with lots of extra cushioning around the heel and toe. If I'm going to be walking all day, I wear super-thin sock liners beneath whatever socks I've got on.
Pants with big pockets are ideal for moving and shooting. By transferring gear from your bag to your pockets, you can ease the weight on your shoulders and arms. Establish which pocket holds which essential items and stick to that arrangement.
The rest of your clothes depends on the climate. I have a few nylon blend shirts that travel beautifully. They don't wrinkle and they evaporate moisture, whether it be rain or perspiration, fast. In cooler climes, I wear a wicking undershirt. I'm more often too hot than too cold, so light-weight layered clothing is a must. When it's really cold, I wear mittens that include slits for my fingers. My hands stay warm and only the required fingers venture out as necessary.
The Commando Photographer dresses for success.
The best way to get ready for a trip is to train your body and your brain. Spend a few weekends practicing your craft in your hometown or a nearby location. Spend the morning or late afternoon walking the streets and training your eye to spot worthy photo subjects. Even if you don't find anything inspirational, it's good practice and good exercise.
Take with you all the gear you plan to use. This includes day packs if you use them. This includes your luggage if you plan to shoot on the run. Learning just how difficult it is to haul all that stuff around will make you reconsider some of your choices.
The Commando Photographer practices dry runs.
Hit the Ground Running
What little research you have done will now start to pay off. Have a map of the area and identify key photo locations using your guidebooks and fellow travelers. Get a rough idea where everything is and figure out the best route between them. In major cities, you'll likely be traveling by subway or bus. I recommend the bus because you will see more and remain oriented.
If you have enough time, consider a guided tour with those horrible tour buses. They take you to all the important locations so you learn the location of all the important stuff. Come back to the more photogenic locations the next day when you know where everything is.
In more remote locations, you may have to rely on hired transportation. Keep an eye out for fellow photographers. It's worth teaming up with one or two others to share a ride, share the expense and share ideas.
Get up early. Really early. The best light of the day is just after dawn and just before sunset during the "golden hours." Don't sleep through this amazing shooting opportunity. Not only is the dawn light beautiful, but the air is clear and there are usually fewer people than at sunset. If you're really tired, discover the therapeutic wonders of the afternoon siesta.
Getting up early is especially important if you're on a work assignment and trying to squeeze in photography. It's too easy to be enticed out with your colleagues after work, so morning is your best shooting time. Watch the sun come up from a new location every morning before going to work.
The Commando Photographer catches the worm.
What to shoot, what to shoot, what to shoot? You'll no doubt be shooting the location's prime tourist attractions. If you end up duplicating the tourist postcards, you're actually doing pretty well, but see if you can't add your own personal twist to the typical images. The guide book and National Geographic photos are good for reference here.
Imagine yourself on assignment for National Geographic. What would they want to see in your submission package? Look for details that tell a story. Look for faces that tell a story. Look for juxtapositions that draw attention to something we might miss otherwise. If you think of yourself as a photojournalist, you'll start taking photo-journalistic images. If you think of yourself as a tourist, you'll take humdrum snapshots.
If you're traveling with an image viewer (e.g., smart phone), bring along a collection of photos you really admire. When you lack the gumption you need to create great photos, look through your collection of inspirational images. You'll be surprised at how quickly you'll start seeing your environment in a new light.
The Commando Photographer understands the mission.
I bring the laptop on short trips and leave it behind on long trips. Having your laptop is a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in that you can view your photos critically and make decisions based on what you see. It's a curse because you end up spending much too much time fretting over your photos, editing them and not keeping to the mission objectives. You can edit your images for the rest of the year, so get out and shoot.
Unless you're traveling with a pocket full of memory cards, you're going to need to dump your images to an external drive. While you might think this is another plus for carrying your laptop, it's not. A laptop is too easily stolen or damanged while a hearty external drive can be safely hidden and stowed. I take two different external hard drives with me. I carry whatever drive I used on my last trip, because I know it works, and I carry a new drive that has extra capacity just in case I need it. If a drive dies, I have a second one as backup. I keep the two drives in two different areas so if a bag is lost, I don't lose all my images.
Moving the files to the drives can be a bit of a bother. If you're in a good hotel, you can use their business center to make the transfer. If you're not in a good hotel, get dressed up and visit one. Explain your situation to the conceige and you might get access to their business center. If that's not an option, internet cafes are very common, particularly around college centers. If worse comes to worse, beg the use of laptop from fellow travelers; bribe them with beer if necessary.
Load up a couple of USB thumb drives with a collection of portable applications. These do not require installation and can be run directly from the USB drive. I never use the browser on a foriegn computer, but use the portable app version of Firefox and Chrome. I keep several other utilities, including a virus scanner, on these drives so I have all I need when I want to connect.
The Commando Photographer has the right tools for the job.
Choose Your Battles, Cut Your Loses
Don't try to do everything. Whenever I meet someone who is embarking on a first trip to Europe, they tell me they're buying a rail pass and plan to visit eleven cities in eight countries in two weeks. Whenever I meet someone who is making their third trip to Europe, they tell me they're visiting one city and three towns in two weeks. Pace yourself. Trying to do it all will lead to a collection of mediocre photos that will remind you of how miserable you were on that trip.
Even within a city, trying to do it all will have you scampering from venue to venue like a rat in a cage. What's worse is that you might find an absolute gem of a photographic site and instead of taking advantage of it, you race off to the next location just so you can tick it off your "to shoot" list. Don't do it.
When you have to choose between two venues, pick the one that affords the greater opportunity for photography.
There may be many fabulous museums in the place where you are visiting. Do you have time for them? Maybe. Breeze through the place to get a taste of it if it's cheap enough. For more expensive museums, arrive an hour before they close. You can often score a better price and sometimes they'll let you in for free.
The Commando Photographer has objectives but may quickly trade them for targets of opportunity.
Get Off the Beaten Path
Chances are you will be photographing things everyone else has photographed at some point or other. There's nothing wrong with that, but try to come up with some unique angles so your images stand out from the rest. You should also try to get off the tourist merry-go-round and venture into new territory when time allows. Don't expect to discover great new vistas, but look for hidden gems among the tailings.
The Commando Photographer seeks alternate routes.
Pick Up Some Souvenirs
Traveling light means you don't have the ability to pick up large souvenirs of your trip. Hopefully, your photos will be enough. If you're determined to return home with physical evidence, consider how you will use the item. I typically aim for small items like crafted jewelery or for items that I can use right away like clothing or baskets.
The Commando Photographer considers the weight and utility of souvenirs.
Take Lots of Snapshots
Even if your goal is to create the perfect travel photo, make sure you take plenty of mundane snapshots. These are not for publication or public viewing, but to serve as memory triggers. Whether you use your primary camera, a pocket camera or just your cell phone camera, be sure to take plenty of photos of the places you visit. They may be terribly dull places, not worthy of capturing otherwise, but such images will help you later when you recreate the trip in your mind.
The Commando Photographer uses snapshots to help remember the trip.
Include People in Your Images
I used to try to make sure there were no people in my landscapes and architectural shots. It took me a while to realize that they add a different dimension and actually added to the image. That got me around to deliberately photographing people. They are now my favorite subject.
The world is not just geography and architecture. People have more to tell you than any inanimate object, so go out of your way to photograph them.
When and how to photograph people is a matter of taste and style. The easiest way is to simply have people present in your image. This provides a sense of scale and sets the scene. Street photography, quickly grabbing candid photos while the subject is unaware, is very popular but requires excellent timing. It captures the human condition better than most techniques.
I usually try to engage the subject before taking their photo. You may lose the spontaneity, but you may also get a more engaging image. I particularly enjoy photographing animators or performers. They know they will have their photo taken and are used to the attention. Another photographic subject is the natural ham, people who are eager to get their photo taken. I love this group because their personality really shines through the image. Another favorite photo subject is the merchant. They deal with people all the time and are usually willing to be photographed ... particularly if you are making a purchase.
The Commando Photographer includes the human element.
The Commando Photographer on tour:
- does just enough research to get the lay of the land,
- brings only the essential equipment,
- wears clothing that supports the photographic objectives,
- prepares for the trip by field testing creativity and luggage,
- is on location early,
- emulates other great travel photographers,
- is prepared with redundant image storage solutions,
- changes photographic objectives as conditions change,
- explores new areas in hopes of discovering new image opportunities,
- comes home with lots of photographs and few artifacts, and
- recognizes that people are fascinating subjects.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.