If you’ve ever attended one of my seminars, or been with me on a tour, you would know that I am outgoing and have an extremely warped sense of humor. Behind the mask, however hard this may be to believe, actually lives a much more timid individual. One who avoids confrontations and whose stomach turns inside out at the thought of not having correct change at a tollbooth for fear I might get arrested. As a result, I tend not to leave anything to chance. On my trips up to Maine, I have enough quarters stacked in my coin holder to sit at the slots in Vegas for hours.
It also means that whenever I travel to a new location to photograph, I have to do my homework. I mean really do my homework. I tend to worry about all the little details that most people who travel don’t even work up a sweat over. I mean think about it. What if ‘they’ think my tripod that I’ve packed in my checked luggage looks too much like a missile launcher? Will ‘they’ be waiting for me when I get off the plane? If not, will I ever see my trusty tripod again? You think I’m kidding, but with all that’s happened since 9/11, I do get a little nervous!
After all, I just want to get back to the joy of photographing my world the way I see it. I know it sounds a bit selfish, but just scouting a new shooting location has always been plenty challenging all by itself – let alone the challenges of getting there. With all of that said, let’s take a look at some of the ways we can prepare for a trip to a new location and what we can do to insure a successful photo-shoot.
1. Location Homework: Learn as much about the destination as you can. In today’s world, the computer in many ways has made our life a little easier. I can go online and find virtually any location on this earth, and find out something worthwhile. Let’s say I’m planning a trip to J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida to photograph wintering birds. First, I’ll use a search engine such as Yahoo, Google or AOL. Type in a key word such as Ding Darling or Florida, and do a general search, then pick from that list. On my first try I got the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society at www.dingdarlingsociety.org. From there, I was able to get quite a bit of information about the refuge and the area.
Now, let’s say we are planning a trip to Zion National Park. I will do one of two things. First, check out the National Park service, www.zionpark.com. I may visit the state the park is in, in this case Utah. You can again use a search engine, type in a key word Zion or Utah, and pick from that list. I may even go online or purchase a topographical map from someone like DeLorme at www.delorme.com or www.topo.com for National Geographic topographical information. This helps me understand the lay of the land, direction of certain landmarks and where the sun should come up. Don’t forget, there are several government agencies on the web that give you free access to mapping locations.
2. Photographic Homework: If you have any kind of photographic library at home or close by, I recommend looking at as many photographic books on the subject as possible. This is about as close as you’ll come to pre-visualizing a photograph before you actually get to do it in person. Notice I didn’t say copy the image. Every photographer should have his or her own visual approach to any given composition, and that’s fine. Looking at a book on Florida Birds by Arthur Morris or a National Parks book by David Muench for example, serves to excite and stimulate the ‘mind’s eye’ as to the potential for great photography.
3. Who’s Been There First? There are other resources to consider as well. Let’s assume you already know there are numerous photo tour outfitters out there that would be more than happy to take care of your every need for a fee, myself included. After all, we’ve done the homework for you. “No thanks, my wife and I just want to take an easy, casual trip.” Great! Try a resource like, Photo Traveler Publications www.phototraveler.com. They produce travel guides for photographers, by photographers who have been there before. Short of telling you where to place your tripod, they’ll fix you up with just about all the details you’ll need.
4. Getting There: Thanks in part to all the news relating to increased security, most of us know we have to allow a little more time if we a going to be flying to our destination. Also, common sense goes a long way as well.
5. Where Are You Going? Well, obviously you need to know your destination. If you are traveling overseas, most preparations remain the same. Do you have a passport? Is it current? Is the photo current? Do you need shots? Not photographs, I mean the kind of shots that sting. A good place to start looking for information on immunizations is the CDC Web site (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention). They have a whole section dedicated to information for travelers that can be found at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/. The State Department Web site also contains valuable information for overseas travelers including immunization information, crime bulletins, and reports of political unrest. In some cases there may even be advisories warning travelers not to go to a specific destination.
6. What To Pack: I pack my camera equipment as my carry-on, and check everything else. I’d much rather lose my clothes than my camera gear. I do pack my tripod carefully in with my checked luggage. Be sure to transfer any tools, pocketknives, etc. out of your camera bag, and into your checked baggage. I use a photo backpack. This saves the worry of having the bag checked because it is too big. I also try not to bring every piece of photo equipment I own, so weight is not an issue either.
7. What About our Film? I used to put all of my film cassettes in a big Zip-lock bag for easy ‘hand’ inspection. In December, I went out to Zion National Park by way of Boston. I handed the security person my film the way I always do, and they proceeded to set it in a basket and let it go through the x-ray machine. Same thing on the return trip from Vegas. Two weeks ago, I went down to Florida and again the same thing. Of course, my film was fine. The x-ray machines here in the USA are not as potent as some of the foreign versions, and I never shoot with film any higher than ISO 100 anyway, so it wasn’t an issue. According to some sources, you can demand a hand inspection of your film. However, if you don’t want to spend an hour having someone handle every roll of film you brought, and don’t want to risk missing your flight altogether, I’d say don’t do it.
Because I took the time to do my homework, my time shooting over the three days in Zion was very productive. Mother nature blessed us with a fresh snowfall, and clear weather, so the rest was up to me. It used to take me a few days to settle in and to get comfortable with my new surroundings.
On the trip to Zion it took me only my first morning shoot before I knew how to work my subject and to get those creative juices flowing. In Florida, it was my third trip in three years, so there were no surprises there other than it was much colder than normal.
As air travel returns to a level of normality, start planning those get-away photo trips that you have been putting off. We need to photograph! It is our best therapy in a confusing world. It’s our dessert, our treat, and our way of knowing that things are still okay. If this guy can do it, so can you! Why not take some of the pressure off? Make things a little easier, by ‘Doing Your Homework’.