Friday, January 31, 2014

Planning a Photo Trip

I enjoy traveling, I enjoy photography, and I enjoy planning my photography trips. I admit, I'm a compulsive planner when it comes to travel, though not elsewhere in my life. I've learned how to wring the absolute most out of my trip; 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 single greatest 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, although I'm not sure I save much. Car rental rates are usually lower. Finally, and maybe 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. That may sound like a disadvantage; however if I'm shooting sunrises, sunsets, and throughout the day in between, it's nice to have a shorter day. Otherwise, I'm getting up at 0400 to catch the sunrise and returning 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. 

Android: Terrain Maps
One of SunSurveyor's Screens
Finally, I take a look at the lunar calendar as I usually try to time my visit with the full moon. I use The Photographer's Ephemeris to get moonrise, moonset, 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, SunSurveyor, which is a great on-site and planning tool. (There is a 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. There is a virtual mode that lets me see in real time where the sun and moon will be while I'm on location. You have to see it to believe it. 

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

I use Google Drive  to create itineraries, shot lists, and packing lists that I transfer to Evernote as needed. (Drive's document creation is much more flexible than Evernote's, so I use it when I need to make a table, for example.) use Google Keep on all my devices for quick note-taking. 

A Shot List in Evernote
My favorite information tool is Evernote, which I use for all of my personal information management, including travel. I store maps, travel info, shot lists, itineraries, photographs, reservation information, and links to websites. I use the Evernote web clipper app in my browser to save info I find online. If you're one of the few who hasn't tried Evernote, I highly recommend it. I'm a premium user, which brings some extra features, including off-line access to my notes when I don't have cell coverage.

Creating Shot Lists
Having identified my destination and time frame, I then begin making tentative shot lists for my destination. Making shot lists 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 in 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 Evernote.

In order of usefulness (to me):

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

Panoramio: Panoramio is a Google product that is home to hundreds of thousands of photos that are geo-located on Google Maps. The geographic accuracy of the photos varies and relies on the photographer, unless there is GPS info embedded in the image. (Viewers can suggest relocating the photos for greater accuracy.) Many of the photos also have EXIF information. Others fall into the "snapshot" category and may be less helpful in narrowing shot choices, but I've seen snapshots of quirky or obscure subjects that gave me good ideas.

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 and other points of interest. The 3D trips are fun and informative. The Street View function is also very useful for pinpointing locations and getting a feel for the area I'll be visiting. One shortcoming: My Maps is no longer available in Android or iOS; however, I have been able to access them in Safari on my iPad.  There is also a third party "My Maps" app for iOS that is useful, although it is not as powerful as the original Google version. Google Earth helps me preview the terrain I'll be dealing with. 
My Map: Arizona 2013

500px: 500px photos are generally 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: Youtube and Vimeo have hundreds of thousands of videos between them, and it's worth searching their archives for sites and locations at my destination. Chances are pretty good I'll find some helpful videos, and some of them are professionally done for tourism sites. On the other hand, I've been unimpressed with Youtube's search function, which often recommends irrelevant videos. Also, while the videos can provide helpful information, too 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 tons 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. 

Photography Travel Sites 
There are thousands of photography websites, probably hundreds of thousands when you consider personal blogs. I will only suggest two 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. I'm a member of and frequent visitor to the travel forum at The participants are active photographers, so I can often get equipment and travel advice within hours of posting a question. The travel forums on Tripadvisor can be enormously helpful for general travel information. The information is not usually photography-specific unless you ask, 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 can provide event calendars, local maps and useful information on weather, events, and activities. The NPS web sites are generally 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 often, 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. Otherwise, finding ebooks can be tricky and a task for Google. I use "photography ebook  about [location]" as my search term. Most of the ebooks I've found are on general digital photography.  One disadvantage of DRM-protected ebooks is that I cannot copy and paste excerpts into a document for later reference. One workaround is to photograph a page with my phone and upload it to Evernote. However, with PDF ebooks, I can copy text into Evernote, 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.) 

As an aside, I almost never buy a Frommer's or similar guide for travel. 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 your local bookstores are generally the best place to obtain these.

Other Issues
I make flight and hotel reservations only after I have my tentative shot lists and worked out a rough daily itinerary. (I use Expedia for flights, Costco for vehicles, and for lodging.) I prefer to make hotel reservations in advance so I can pick quality properties at the best price.  Depending on the season and your need to be flexible, you may want to wing it when you get to your destination. (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 and Tripadvisor apps on the road.

Packing and Equipment
I travel as light as possible, but as I accumulate equipment, my luggage has grown as well. One practice that helps me to take what I will need is to keep a master list in Evernote. 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 should have 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 ask myself, "can I buy this at my destination if I absolutely have to have it?" If the answer is yes, I take a chance and leave it at home. I've rarely had to purchase anything on location. I also save space by doing a load of laundry halfway through the trip and I've even been known to do some hand laundry in a pinch.

On Location
You might think that after compulsively creating shot lists and itineraries that 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.  I'm not against napping in my car after lunch or going 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. So far, I've had a great time on my trips and brought home the images I sought.

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