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Planning a Photo Trip (2018)

How to plan for your next photo trip.

[Updated June 2018] I am one of those photographers who prefers to shoot familiar locations off-season, generally during the winter months. Doing so meshes well with my work schedule, but more importantly, there are fewer tourists (and photographers) to deal with. I'm a compulsive planner when it comes to travel. I've learned how to wring the absolute most out of my time on the road; this is the planning process that works for me.

First Steps

Pick a location: I have a list of places I want to shoot, a list that only gets longer. I have found that photographing a location makes me appreciate it more than if I just visited.  I fell in love with the Southwest after I went to Arizona for a conference and had a free day to shoot in the Tucson area. I had been to the Southwest a number of times, but having a camera helped me really see it.

Pick a time frame: Most people take vacations in summer; I prefer to travel when most others have to stay at home (i.e., after school starts). First, it will probably be less expensive. In many areas hotels want to fill empty rooms and they offer attractive rates during the off-season. Since lodging may be my biggest expense, this can make a real difference in my travel budget (my hotel bill is often half what it would be during high season.)  Airfares may be a bit lower as well. Car rental rates are usually lower. (Tip: Costco consistently offers the best rates.) Finally, and most importantly, popular destinations will often have many fewer visitors, which can mean better photo opportunities and quieter locations.

The cooler seasons provide other advantages. Winter skies are usually free of haze and the days are shorter. If I'm shooting sunrises, sunsets, and throughout the day in between, it's nice to have a shorter day. Otherwise, I'm up at 0400 to catch the sunrise and return to my hotel sixteen hours later after sunset and maybe some night shooting. I've done it, but I prefer a more leisurely day. Finally, because the winter sun is lower on the horizon I can get some interesting light and shadows and backlit scenes that would otherwise be flat and uninteresting.

Finally, I take a look at the lunar calendar as I sometimes try to time my visit with the full moon. I use The Photographer's Ephemeris to get moon rise, moon set, sunrise and sunset times for any place on earth, any day of any year and visually show me the location of both sun and moon at any time. I have an app on my Android phone, Sun Surveyor, which is a great planning tool and even more useful on-site with its augmented reality feature that lets me see in real time where the sun and moon will be while I'm on location. (There is an iOS version as well.) It shows me the locations of the sun and moon at any time, and the times of the golden and blue hours.

Climate & Weather

The weather I'll encounter at my destination will influence clothing choices and my packing list. I use Wikipedia to find typical weather conditions for most locations. If there is no entry in Wikipedia, I consult the U.S. Climate Data website. It's not much to look at, but it has useful information. As you get closer to your arrival don't overlook forecasts from local televisions stations, many of which have smartphone apps you can download. In my experience, local forecasters have a better sense of the nuances of local weather, while NOAA or the Weather Channel paint with broader strokes.

Information Management

Finding information is one challenge, organizing it so it's actually useful is another task altogether. All the apps I use sync between my laptop, iPad, and Android smartphone and I can access them from the web if needed. On location I can access the info on my smartphone or iPad.

I have switched from Google Docs/Drive and Evernote to Microsoft's (free) OneNote, which is far more powerful and has many more features. In OneNote I store maps, travel info, shot lists, itineraries, photographs, reservation information, and links to websites. I use the OneNote web clipper app in my browser to save info I find online. I have OneNote on my phone and iPad as well, so they stay synced.

Creating Shot Lists

Having identified my destination and time frame, I begin making tentative shot lists for my destination. This helps me make the most of my on-site time by identifying where I may find the best shots, and it may determine where I'm going to fly into and out of. As I prepare my shot lists, I create a map in Google Maps to help me plan the travel involved getting from place to place. By the time I leave for my trip, I know the area very well, including travel times and routes. Since I sometimes return to favorite locations, I annotate my shot lists after the shoot for future reference.

Image Sites

There are a number of sites that I use when creating shot lists. When I find a particularly helpful or evocative image, I save the link to OneNote.

Flickr: Ordinary people and photo enthusiasts alike post photos of locations all over the world on Flickr. While the quality of the photos varies, they can help identify places to shoot and give an idea what you'll find there. Many of the photos have EXIF and some have GPS coordinates. You can also get information from the groups on Flickr, although in my experience forum traffic is sporadic. The search tool is pretty good.

Google Maps & Google Earth: Google Maps is indispensable to me. I create maps of planned shoots in My Maps for later reference, including recommended restaurants, lodging and other points of interest. The Street View function is very useful for pinpointing locations and getting a feel for the area I'll be visiting. Google Earth helps me preview the terrain I'll be dealing with.

500px: has emerged as a top quality photo hosting site. The photos are often qualitatively better than those on other sites. I've found that the location data is usually accurate and the 500px interface is cleaner than Flickr's.

Youtube & Vimeo: have countless thousands of videos between them, and it's worth searching them for sites and locations at a destination. I generally find some helpful videos, some of which are professionally done for tourism sites. (I've noticed that RVers are great resources on YouTube.) While the videos can provide helpful information, few people narrate what they're recording, so it can be difficult to determine exactly where they are. Still, it's worth a visit. (There are thousands of useful videos on photography, too.) There are many other photo-hosting sites out in the wild, but the ones I've listed reliably provide me with ideas and, perhaps more importantly, inspiration.

Online Resources

There are thousands of photography websites, probably hundreds of thousands when you consider personal blogs. I will only suggest a few that I have found consistently useful.

Outdoor Photographer: Outdoor Photographer Magazine is available in print, electronically, and the print content eventually shows up on its web site. There are good articles and images of locations. Worth checking out.

Photo.net: I'm a member of Photo.net and frequent visitor to the travel forum. The participants are active photographers, so I can often get equipment and travel advice within hours of posting a question.

Tripadvisor.comThe travel forums on Tripadvisor can be enormously helpful for general travel information. Many destinations have experts, designated by Tripadvisor, who are exceptionally knowledgeable about their area. The information is not usually photography-specific, but it's a great place to post a general question about a destination and the forums are very active. One caution: some people complain about the most trivial things and give lower ratings to hotels, restaurants or destinations because they didn't like something that I consider unimportant. (I don't need to be friends with my hotel desk clerk, so  I really don't care if he/she is "unfriendly," as long as the service and property are satisfactory.)

Visitor's Guides: Virtually all cities, towns, recreation areas, and of course the National Park system, have visitors guides. They provide event calendars, local maps and useful information on weather and activities. The NPS web sites are generally thorough and quite well done and some include photo recommendations.

Google Search & Google Images: Last, and certainly not least, Google (and other search engines) help me find information about just about anything. I frequently use "photographing [location]", "visitor's guide to [location]" or "photographer's guide to [location]" as search terms to find blog posts and other resources buried on the web. I don't find searching Google for images to be particularly efficient, as all kinds of irrelevant images appear in the search results, so it's usually last on my list for image searches.

Books & Maps

People still read books and increasingly, ebooks. Good examples of the former are Laurence Martres' books on photographing the Southwest. Self-published ebooks are a recent resource and have become very popular with photographers. I bought Cheyenne Rouse's ebooks and found them particularly helpful for planning trips to Utah and New Mexico.  Digital Photography School offers a number of ebooks, and you can find electronic versions of many print books on Amazon. Most of the ebooks I've found are on general digital photography. Finding ebooks about specific locations can be tricky and a task for Google. I use "photography ebook about [location]" as my search term.

One disadvantage of DRM-protected ebooks is that I cannot copy and paste excerpts into OneNote for later reference. One workaround is to scan a page with my iPad using Microsoft Lens and upload it to OneNote.  With PDF ebooks I can copy text into OneNote, which helps me find the most important information. (I honor the author's copyright and do not share these excerpts or the e-book itself.)

I almost never buy a Frommer's or similar traditional guide for travel. (Exception: The Lonely Planet Guide for Cuba.) I can find everything I want online, and it will be more current. Despite the fact that I use a GPS for road travel, an old-fashioned road map is still invaluable. Amazon and local bookstores are generally the best place to obtain these. National Geographic's maps are probably the best topographical/hiker's maps.

Other Issues

Reservations: I make flight and hotel reservations only after I have my tentative shot lists and worked out a rough daily itinerary. I spend little time in my room, so as long as there's a bed, shower, TV and wifi, I'm happy. I manage reservations with the Hotels.com and Priceline apps on the road.

Packing and Equipment: I travel as lightly as possible, but as I accumulate equipment my luggage has grown as well. One practice that helps me limit what I will need is to keep a master equipment list in OneNote. I customize it for a given trip, depending on the expected weather and kind of shooting I'll be doing. After the trip I go through the list and delete what I did not need and (rarely) add something I wish I'd taken. Over time, my list has been distilled down to a combination of "must-haves" and "nice if I can spare the space." If I'm on the fence about taking something I consider whether I can buy it at my destination if I absolutely have to have it. I've rarely had to purchase anything on a trip. I also save space by doing a load of laundry halfway through the trip and I'll do hand laundry in a pinch. (One advantage of traveling alone is that there's no one to smell you or frown at your wrinkled clothing.)

On the other hand, I have learned the hard way about the value of redundancy. I once misplaced a connector for my camera battery charger halfway through my trip, which meant I could not charge my batteries. With careful use (and the fact I had several fully-charged batteries) I made it through the week. But, I now travel with camera TWO battery chargers, as they’re not something I can pick up in the middle of the New Mexico desert.

Camera bags and luggage are very personal decisions. I have learned that the bigger the bag, the more likely I am to fill it with "just in case" items, so smaller is often better. My main piece of luggage is a 30" drop-bottom rolling duffel. I put my tripod and heavier items in the bottom and my clothing, etc., in the top. (As an aside, tripods always attract TSA attention due to their appearance on x-ray. Get used to finding those little notes.)

I prefer to carry two camera bags on a trip: a camera backpack (a Lowepro Pro-Runner 350AW, no longer made) and a Vanguard Havana messenger. I put all of my crucial camera equipment and 13" laptop in the backpack and use the messenger bag as a man-purse to carry my cell phone, iPad, keys and other essentials. My rule of thumb is I carry everything I cannot live without on my trip. When I get to my destination I carry whatever bag suits my purpose. I also sometimes wear a photo-vest in the field. Yes, vests are cheesy clichés, but sometimes a vest is all I need at a location and I avoid carrying unneeded equipment.

If you're flying, the particular aircraft that you're scheduled to take can have an impact on your equipment planning, particularly if your last leg is on a small, puddle-jumper with limited storage in the cabin. I recommend Seat Guru for aircraft information, such as the size of the overhead bins. You may not get exact dimensions, but you can get an idea about whether you can count on getting your camera backpack/roller into the cabin. So far, I've been lucky, but I've had some close calls. On a couple occasions I have paid for early boarding, to make sure I have overhead space.

Be Flexible: After compulsively creating shot lists and itineraries you might think I'm bound to my schedule. To some extent that's true, but I try to build in a flex day if possible and I'm quick to change plans if something interesting turns up or the weather changes (or the White Sands Missile Range announces a test.)  Sometimes, I nap in my car after lunch or do a little shopping. I don't race down the highway to get to my next waypoint; I take my time and keep my eyes moving. Overall, I try to be spontaneous and to capture the essence of where I am. As a result, I've had a great time on my trips and brought home the images I wanted.