Tips & Tricks for Travel Photography

I think it's pretty safe to say that most photographers fantasize about being a well-paid, globe-trotting, travel photographer. Ahh, to photograph beautiful places, experience the culture, share the amazing imagery, meet wonderful people…sigh. Maybe it won't be a complete reality for most of us, but any photographer can put their vagabond photo skills to the test by embarking on a photo tour or workshop. We've been leading photo workshops to Italy for many years and this year we are also leading our first South African photo safari. Whether you are traveling to photograph for fun, documentary work, or a charitable cause, you can never have enough photo travel tips. So, in your pursuit of becoming the seasoned photo traveler, here are a few to add to your collection.


Rent unusual lenses.

A photo excursion is the perfect opportunity to try out that groovy lens you've been drooling over, but haven't been able to justify buying. Renting is the perfect solution if you only need a special lens on occasion. I even recommend that new wedding photographers rent good lenses for their weddings until they can afford to buy them. Using great lenses helps you get great images, which in turn brings you more business – so don't skimp on image quality, even if you are just starting out. For our African Photo Safari workshop, I plan to rent a nice long telephoto lens to capture distant beasts, and I do hope they keep their distance. LensProToGo.com is my favorite place to rent photo gear. They are incredibly helpful, have great service and prices, and carry just about any piece of gear you could want. They even have an iPhone app where you can browse stuff and rent directly. Sweet!

Carry your gear on your back – and hips.

I learned long ago in my mountaineering days that a good pack can make or break you – and your back. I also learned the importance of a hip belt on that pack. Keeping 80% of the weight on your hips makes a dramatic difference in your mobility and fatigue level at the end of a long day exploring. A photo backpack is essential for the adventurous photographer, so find one that fits you well and carries enough, but not too much gear. The bigger the pack, the more you'll fill it, and you often realize you've packed stuff you don't need and are now too darn tired to even go on a photo walk. Learn to pack light and put it all in a conservatively sized pack with a hip belt and you'll be a happy camper. Two of my favorite packs from Tamrac are the Evolution 9 and the Expedition 7X. Both fit well, carry just the right amount of stuff, and have that all-important hip belt to relieve your aching back. They also have built-in rain covers for all-season protection. For a wee extra deterrent to wandering hands, use a miniature locking carabiner to connect the zipper pulls together. 

Secure your camera.

I'm not a fan of traditional camera straps. If I use a strap, it's something like the Black Rapid or this newest, super versatile strap from Peak Designs. The strap must go across my body, not on a shoulder or dangling un-ergonomically from my neck. What I really like for travel is the Peak Designs Capture clip system. (You can save $10 by using code: kkubota at checkout). This attaches your camera, via a clever quick-release system, to your belt, backpack strap, or just about any strappy thing. Again, keeping the weight off your shoulders is key for extended travel and hitching it securely to a waist belt is the way to go. With the Peak Designs system, you can have a shoulder strap for added security and also clip the camera directly to their Capture belt connector. Both work together nicely. I used the Capture Clip on my last Italy workshop and found it easy to operate and unobtrusive. 

 

Another great option is the Cotton Carrier system. They also have a quick-connect attachment for your belt, pack, or chest harness. There are myriad options available for just about any need you'll have. The nice thing about this system, especially for wedding shooters, is the added padding and protection under the connector that guards your body and clothing from abrasion. This was part of my wedding "tool" belt system.

 

Keep used media cards in a pocket, separate from other gear. Label them.

A camera is replaceable, but once-in-a-lifetime images are not. As soon as I'm done filling a media card, I pop it in my pants pocket. If you don't wear pants, find another well guarded crevice to store it in. Just don't put them in your photo pack. Even if my backpack and all gear gets lost or snitched, I know my images are safe with me. It's also a good idea to write your name on all your media cards. I also write "REWARD for return" and my studio 800 number. If you travel internationally a lot, you might put "Call collect…". Also, make sure you actually have enough cards. How much is enough? See the next tip.

Backup cards nightly.

There once was a time when media cards were expensive and rare. There once was a time when simple calculators were as big as iPads and costs nearly as much. Those days are gone, so make sure you buy enough media cards that you don't have to re-use any on your trip. Keep all the images on the cards, and back them up each day when you return to your hotel, tent, or lean-to. If you have your laptop, use that to back them up to a small portable hard drive that you also tote along and keep protected in a small waterproof Pelican case. If you aren't traveling with a laptop, you could use a portable multimedia storage device

A less expensive and more reliable option, provided you have a camera with dual media card slots, is to use the extra card slot for backup. Just purchase a matching size card for the other slot and set your camera to write to both cards simultaneously. It's like a RAID drive for your camera. When the cards are full, pull both out and store them both in separate locations for added security. This option can be less expensive then using a portable multimedia storage device and much simpler and more compact. 

For example, my D800 has a CF card slot and an SD card slot. I'll use a 64GB card in each slot and, using the setup menu, tell my camera to shoot to the CF and backup all images to the SD card – essentially creating two copies of every image on the fly. The D800 shoots HUGE RAW files, each being about 46MB. I can fit about 1400 images on a 64GB card – two of which would be enough for a short trip. To buy an extra 64GB SDXC card is about $50. Two of these is still much cheaper than a portable drive and it doesn't require batteries or the packing space. Double that for a longer trip, shooting 5600 images on 256GB, and you're still only looking at $200 in backup storage. Compare that to at least $450 for a decent portable storage device.

If you aren't bringing a laptop and you don't have two card slots in your camera, then a portable multimedia storage device might still be the best solution. If you are using any other camera with smaller RAW files, then your storage requirements will be more modest. Calculate it out ahead of time to know what you'll be needing and use smaller matching cards if you prefer not to put all your eggs in one basket. 


Bring duct tape, zip ties, and large heavy zip-lock bags.

 

No self-respecting pseudo or bonafide MacGyverist would be caught dead without a sampling of duct tape somewhere on their person. I like to add some zip ties and plastic zip-lock bags too. The ties can also be used as makeshift hand-cuffs in case you participate in a citizens arrest somewhere. The plastic bags can protect lenses and other valuables inside a pack when it really rains hard. I've had one come in handy as a barf bag too for my son on one particularly bumpy bus ride. Remember, when you are traveling and away from amenities, even the smallest break or mishap can ruin your day. Be prepared. It's a great idea to carry a small multi-tool as well, and something like this, from Leatherman, is airline TSA compliant – so it shouldn't get confiscated. Oh, and don't forget that all-important mini flashlight for finding spare change in the bottom of your bag at night and occasional power outages in the 3rd world hotel. Heck, you might even use it for some photographic lighting!

Do you have some travel photo tips of your own? Share them in the comments!