Getting out and exploring largely defines who I am and what I do. If I stopped doing that completely, I would probably go stir crazy and drive everyone at home insane. When I was a kid and gas was under a buck, I would often find roads to drive down and take it as far as I could until I couldn’t go any further, just to see where it would take me. Mind you I could’ve just read a paper map (there was no Google street view in 1996) but where’s the fun in that? Whether it be close to home or half way around the globe, the prospect of getting lost in unfamiliar territory and discovering something new gets me excited to think about.
I’ve learned a lot over the years through my adventures in traveling. I’ve learned how to avoid paying full retail price for most travel expenses and have developed a solid system that works for me when I’m preparing to hit the road.
I decided to put together a not-so-short write-up on what I’ve learned through my experiences traveling as a photographer. In no particular order, here are some of my most useful tips that I felt could be of benefit.
1) Be flexible with your dates. The cost of airfare fluctuates from day to day. I’m able to find the best deals on airfare through Airfare Watchdog by setting up alerts to scan all of the travel sites that then notify me instantly when a deal is found. By being flexible with my dates, I’m able to purchase airfare for dates when it’s cheaper to fly. I managed to fly from Los Angeles to London on British Airways for $425 round trip.
2) Hotel Rewards cards can be very rewarding. I charge all of my gas and food, as well as other miscellaneous expenses, on my American Express Starwood Rewards card and pay it off each month. By doing this, I was able to accumulate enough points to book a five night stay at the Westin in Downtown Seattle.
3) Incorporate flexibility in your plan. Doing a little bit of pre-planning will help the whole trip flow more smoothly. Take some time to research what you’d like to do when you arrive at your destination. If you’re not sure how reliable internet connectivity will be where you’re traveling to, jot down the phone numbers and addresses of some of they key destinations you’re wanting to hit up. By knowing in advance what you’d like to accomplish, it saves you from having to sit down and waste time during your trip to figure out what to do or where to go. Just keep in mind that plans rarely go exactly as planned. If things start to deviate, just go with the flow and enjoy your vacation.
4) Don’t be afraid to try public transportation. Figuring out transportation can be an overwhelming task when traveling to a big city. Thankfully apps like Hopstop and Google Maps make it incredibly easy to find your way around.
Transit directions on Google Maps is the option I’d recommend if it’s available for the city you’re traveling to, and is available on Android phones and iPhones. Hop Stop has more coverage when it comes to needing public transit directions, however, Apple recently purchased Hop Stop and made the app exclusive to the iPhone. The good thing though, is that you can still get directions from Hop Stop through through a web browser on any PC or mobile device. Try both options and see how you like them.
5) Use crowd sourced photo pools for inspiration. If you’re not familiar with the travel photographer Trey Ratcliff and his Stuck in Customs photo blog, he built an awesome app called Stuck on Earth. It’s a crowd sourced app that’s designed to help you discover places to photograph. It’s now available for Android and Apple devices and doesn’t cost a cent. Within the app, you can search any location on earth and see endless amounts of geo-tagged photos that were captured wherever it is you’re interested in traveling to. It’s the perfect companion for doing pre-travel planning so you can find all the cool local spots to photograph from that tourists don’t typically know about. Once you know where you want to go shooting, use Hop Stop or Google Maps to figure out how to get there.
6) Know where the sun will be setting. If you love sunset photography, it’s important to make sure you’re in the right spot at the right time. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a very handy program that is available for the PC, or as an app for Android and Apple devices. It serves as a sun and moon calculator that uses maps to tell you the exact position of the sun and moon at any time throughout the day. If you’re not really familiar with the direction the sun rises or sets in where you’re traveling to, you need this app.
There are many times in which I’ve headed out to the beach for a sunset photoshoot only to find that I’m facing south staring at a pale blue sky while the sun is setting off towards the west. Talk about frustrating. If you’re considering several locations to shoot the sunset from, this tool can be used for researching beforehand where the sun will be setting. This way you don’t waste time traveling to a location that won’t even have a view of all the beautiful colors. If you’re a sunrise photographer, the app works just the same.
7) Be courteous to your non-photographer travel companions. If you’re not traveling alone, chances are the rest of your party will get quite bored watching you shoot photos. What? How could this be?!?! I know, I know, hard to be believe. Trust me on this though, I speak from experience.
If you find yourself at a particularly interesting destination, perhaps at the top of Notre Dame de Paris with a sweeping 360 degree view of the city, take some time to enjoy the moment with your travel companion before you lift the camera to your face and start shooting (tip from wife: otherwise they will get pissed).
If possible, try to plan some time where you can head out alone for a couple hours while the rest of your party engages in more entertaining activities. Or better yet, check to see if there are other activities your party can engage in at the location you’re photographing.
8) Pack snacks for extended outings. If you can spare the room in your bag, load up on a few snacks to keep you fueled up while you’re out on your feet. When you’re out shooting photos it’s really easy to lose track of the time. You’ll be able to focus better on your photography if your stomach isn’t screaming at you for food. If you can’t spare the room in your bag, consider wearing clothing with extra pockets. I almost always wear cargo shorts when I’m out shooting because I like having the extra storage space to store snacks and camera gear.
9) Talk to the locals. There’s no one that knows a town better than the locals that live there, so talk to them. Where ever you are, strike up a friendly conversation. You’d be amazed at how much people are willing help.
When I arrived on Yerba Buena island in San Francisco, a lady on the bus offered to show me different vantage points around the island to help me find that perfect spot I was looking for. Again when i was in San Diego, I was dead set on shooting the cityscape from Harbor Island until a local suggested that I’d have an even better view from Coronado island.
10) Visit the local farmer’s market. Eating healthy is always a good idea, and can also be very difficult to do so when on vacation. Plus, there is never a shortage of incredible photo opportunities at the local markets.
Bonus Tip: Put on your favorite pair of walking shoes, get out of the hotel room, and explore. Some of the most amazing photo opportunities you’ll encounter will be from getting out and exploring. Walk down a street you never would have considered walking down. Go discover things you never knew existed, and photograph them. I found one of the most stunning views I’d ever seen of the Transamerica building in San Francisco because I was lost and went down the wrong street.
Always use caution when traveling to areas you’re unfamiliar with. Although it can be challenging to do so with a camera, do your best to try and blend in. Don’t act or dress in a way that will draw attention to yourself. The only one who doesn’t know you’re not a local is you. If you’re feeling uncomfortable about being in a certain area then follow your gut. If you don’t feel safe, it’s probably best to move on as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. Talking to locals is also a great way to learn about which neighborhoods you should stay away from. The most important thing to remember is to be safe.