Photography & the Art of Travel: A Brief Guide
A Brief Guide
What I have attempted to do in this section of the website is to capture my thoughts and experience as it relates to travel photography, perhaps with a focus more on the travel aspect than on the photography though I will offer some suggestions. I have included 6 sample itineraries; 3 in Europe and 3 in Asia. You do not need to travel to the other side of the world to do what can be considered “travel photography”. A weekend trip to another city would suffice. I’ve only chosen what I am most comfortable with and if I must confess, I rarely do much photography when not traveling to far off destinations.
Interestingly when I travel to Europe I do more landscape and architectural photography but when I travel to Asia it’s more about people and street photography. I will try to add more architectural photography on my next trip to Asia and we’ll see how that goes.
Travel is now the world's biggest industry, according to the World Trade Organization. Entire countries depend on it to bring in much-needed revenue and a downturn in tourists can have severe repercussions. Travel has two main goals; to get away from somewhere and to go somewhere one or the other being paramount. Many travelers just to follow the weather, like the snowbirds of the Eastern seaboard of United States. Ironically if you live in California, going to Europe for a summer holiday means you are missing some of the best days of the year back at home.
During Golden Week (7-Day National Holiday) in China, it’s estimated that 700 million Chinese are on the move. In France some towns may seem almost deserted after Bastille Day when the locals have left for the countryside to enjoy their annual 4-5 weeks of relaxation, something most Americans can only dream of. In fact any vacation of longer than two weeks will have many worried about their job security
While the benefits of relaxation can never be overlooked this author’s travels focus is on cultural, social and historical immersion. In fact, the “tie-in” is usually to something that I have read and wish to observe and experience personally.
When is the best time to travel? Well, it depends. Assuming you have some flexibility it’s the time that gives you the best opportunity to experience (photograph) the subjects that you most want, in a setting that is of interest to you.
Event Driven Considerations
When traveling to a particular region look for any cultural, historical, religious or occupational-based events that are held there. If you are planning to photograph fisherman, find out when the fishing season is held. Are you planning to photograph on a boat or back on shore? You need to triple check the dates because these events can fall on different dates each year, especially when based on a calendar different from your own or events that may have multiple dependencies, like harvests. Having a local contact on the ground will help you here. If none is available to you search for an affiliated Facebook page where you can message the participants. When traveling don’t make assumptions. Once you get on the p[lane your timeframe is limited unless you’re a professional photographer and even then you have a budget or deadlines meet.
Local festivals can sometimes be preferable to the national events or other well-publicized festivals with their hordes of tourists and over the top production values. These will be more intimate and you’ll often have greater access to the participants. Size does not always make the photograph.
Consider environmental situations as well, such as pollution, monsoon season or even smoke. Visiting Singapore in June when there is smoky haze from fires in Indonesia can really put a damper on your picture taking. Visiting Beijing, India or Mexico City can even be detrimental to your health during periods of high pollution.
Don’t limit your vacation to summer which often can be the worst time to visit. Consider the shoulder seasons for that location. Don't be a fair weather photographer. The local chamber of commerce may wish you to believe that the sun shines every day in their city, but the sun shining and clear skies can be boring. Inclement weather can often result in the best photographs. Avoiding summer will also mean less congestion and lower flight and hotel costs. Unfortunately, fewer festivals are held offseason.
Still, the weather must be taken into consideration if for nothing else it will determine what you pack and how much you have to pack. Surprisingly people are still caught unaware when traveling to another hemisphere that the seasons are reversed. Local micro-climates can also affect the weather you experience. Who can forget the famous quote about the city by the bay; "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."
Early morning mist, damp streets, striking cloud patterns before or after a storm can enhance your photograph.
Hub and Spoke
Many travel “experts” recommend this approach to travel where you select a few major towns or cities and supplement those with day trips to nearby places. Some have even mentioned that this home base approach would mimic life at home but in a foreign city!
One of the first issues I have with this approach is that I don't want to feel like I am at home! I want to feel like I am traveling going across a particular region of the world experiencing the changes that occur as I go from one location to another. Changes in climate, language, and even culture within a single country or between countries. To learn how history has influenced the changes that I see going from place to place. Returning each evening to my “hub” would have an incongruous effect on my travels.Sample Printed Itinerary
Taking this approach, I would become a “day-tripper” little different from the hordes that descend from countless tour buses each morning at their appointed hour. If instead, I travel from town to town I can go to bed and wake up the next day or two in a new town as if I lived there. Sure it means having to tote my luggage more often but that effort can be mitigated. Being in a town after dark and seeing it as it awakes gives you a better sense of place. Whether you are a night owl (not) or an early bird (sometimes) is of little importance.
In Europe I normally drive a car, but that's just me. When driving from one destination to another I try to keep driving time no more than 2 ½ hours and only drive during the daytime. If going over that ideal can’t be helped I’ll stop somewhere in between for lunch. I’ll normally be up by 7:00 on the road by 9:00-10:00 on any getaway day. The time between having a quick breakfast and hitting the road is often taken up by a little photography. It’s not out of the question to get up by dawn, do some shooting and come back for breakfast.
For me, It’s easy to bring everything but the kitchen sink. I’m not one of those that take one carry-on and wears the same pair of underwear for four weeks. I’ve listed what I brought for a 3-week vacation to Germany and the Czech Republic in my clothing & equipment section. I want to be comfortable and stylish at the same time, whether it’s vanity or the fact that I just like equipment is not something I really think about.
The clothes that I bring must look good but are also fully functionally. That means they need to fit comfortably, not have too many moving parts or metal that will set off alarms and not too heavy. I will often carry less but wash the clothes when they become dirty so they need to be quick drying.
Clothes that are used by hikers usually work well in these circumstances and an outdoor store like Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) has what I need. This includes the underwear and socks that I wear as well as the shoes. It does not pay to skimp on clothes.
If you are planning to buy some new outfits make sure you wear them at least once before your trip. They may look good in the fitting room but a complete disaster far from home and your stuck carrying something you’ll never wear again. Also, keep in mind that closes will be packed and often crushed so make sure they can withstand any “indignity”.
And since you don’t know when you’ll next have the opportunity to wash your clothes you’ll want to stay away from whites and go more with khaki and olive colored clothes. Even black can sometimes be problematic, especially with pants and dirt.
I almost never buy clothes online from brands that I am not familiar that make all sorts of claims or use the word tactical somewhere in their description. Buy it in a store unless they don’t have your size or color then order directly from the manufacturer. Be aware though that even the best have clunkers so make sure they have a flexible return policy.
Everything begins and ends with the underwear and socks you purchase and for me, there is one brand that stands above all others, Smartwool. Most of what you buy from them is made of in some part, merino wool. Not the itchy wool that you may be familiar with but one that is super comfortable. I use their Merino 150 Print Boxer Briefs which is their lightest layer and is made with 87% Merino Wool, 13% Nylon.
The box-brief style being a good compromise between the two tight brief and the bulky boxer.
- Base layers
Base layers are an essential piece of clothing that function of layering. They are meant to go you’re your underwear providing additional warmth. These normally come in three weights, light, medium and heavy. I normally stick with the lights to medium. The bottoms are similar to long underwear and tops are like t-shirts but with form-fitting sizing so that they can easily be worn over underwear and under overwear.
Again I like Smartwool and also Kuhl here and use their 150 and 250 weights. The Smartwool baselayers are typically constructed in 87% Merino Wool, 13% Nylon Core blends. Kuhl has a really nifty top they call the “M'S AKKOMPLICE HOODY” A silly name but with a really nice Ninja-style hood that is super comfortable while being very warm, that can be lowered to around the neck as the day heats up.
For socks, I turn to Balega Enduro Low Cuts from South Africa if I am wearing quarter or no-show socks. These have a medium cushion and are extremely comfortable. I use Smartwool for crew and mid-crew socks and like their Performance in the Highest Degree (PhD) line with a light cushion. These socks are 56% Merino Wool, 40% Nylon, 3% Elastane, 1% Polyester. Good socks are essential for blister control because you are going to do a lot of walking.
In this section, I will cover pants, shorts and what are known as convertibles, pants with zippers that turn into shorts. Personally, I normally bring pants AND shorts rather than convertibles because the shorts once you remove the legs are often too short for my taste.
Take a look at the weight of the fabric if it is specified in GSM stands for grams per square meter (g/m2). For summer I stick with pants that are around 150-175 gsm which would be considered lightweight. For fall and winter, I’ll go up to 295 gsm, anything over 300 gsm I find too heavy.
I have multiple styles from KÜHL® that I have tested and chosen as the best pants for me, from their RADIKL™ and SILENCR™ lines. The SILENCR™ pants have mesh side vents plus 9 pockets: 2 front, 4 back, 2 side zipper, 1 welt drop-in.
For shorts, I like the RADIKL™ with a 12” inseam. Like their full-length pants, these have strategically placed knit panels that allow the pants to stretch and come with a UPF 50 rating.
Another company that makes great pants and shorts is prAna, a California based company that started in providing clothing for yoga and climbing.
Here I’ll talk about t-shirts, shirts and sweaters. T-shirts more than anything are very practical when traveling but not the 100% cotton ones, rather t-shirts which are made with a synthetic blend. I prefer a regular fit, not too tight or too loose.
Some of my favorite brands are again Smartwool, Arc'teryx, KÜHL® and Solomon. A lot of t-shirts will mention breathability but unless they state the exact materials used, and even if they do always wear/test them first as you would all equipment that you bring along. Treat your clothes as equipment, you’ll be glad you did. I wear mostly short sleeves as I can pop on a sweater if the weather gets cooler.
I’ve taken shirts along on my trips, both short and long sleeves but I never find them all that comfortable when I am moving about. I would rather bring a long-sleeved t-shirt or a polo shirt in both long and short sleeved. I find them much more comfortable and that should be the name of the game when you are traveling. Brands I favor for polo shirts are KÜHL® and Arc'teryx. A really comfortable long-sleeved t-shirt is the BRAVADO™ LS by KÜHL®, but I tend to go for short sleeves primarily.
For sweaters, I like ones with full-length zippers that can be open or zipped allowing for easy temperature control. I stay away from too heavy of a sweater, around 250 gsm. Fleece or blended wool work well but again not too thick. I’ll often wear a sweater under a jacket or rain jacket so you want to keep it light. My favorite piece of clothing is actually something called a sweater jacket by KÜHL®.
There's nothing so frustrating as acquiring new clothes and gear and leaving some critical or desirable item at home because you forgot to pack it. Normally you can buy a replacement on the road but you're either duplicating the purchase or replacing it with something inferior.
What lenses should I Bring?One question that keeps popping up is what lens or lenses should I bring. I see many photographers carry large zoom lenses like 55-300mm and while this may cover every possibility encountered on a trip I have found that unless I am shooting wildlife the maximum focal length is much too long for 95% of my subjects. In fact, if I am shooting wildlife 300mm may be too short.
With my Fuji X-System camera, which has an APS-C (23.6 x 15.6 mm) sensor and a 1.5 crop factor compared to full-frame, I will be taking a 23mm, 16-55mm, 90mm & 50-140mm lenses on my next trip to South East Asia. Quickly you’ll notice some overlap in the focal lengths but each lens has a particular use.
The 23mm f2 lens is my walk around lens. It’s the one I use when I don’t really want to carry my camera. It weighs in at a paltry 180g and is weather resistant. I find the focal length more usable than the 35mm which I think is a little long, especially in Europe where I even go with a 10-24mm wide angle. I even bought a square lens hood purely for aesthetics, shown here with Fuji’s 35mm f2 lens.
When you are on a crowded street in a foreign land jostled by the hustle and bustle of city life, having this shorter lens allows you to get closer to your subject. Set the aperture to f8 - f11 and the shutter speed to 1/125 allowing the ISO to be set by the camera. Even if you get some motion blur it will look natural and you’ll also have a fairly deep plane of focus (PoF).
The Fuji 16-55mm f2.8 is normally my go-to lens. The lens that I use when I “go to” take pictures. Not a svelte lens at 655g, image stabilization would be nice but hopefully the new x-Pro3 will have IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization). Much has been discussed regarding the IQ (Image Quality) of primes over zooms but as I try frame each shot in camera, being able to zoom helps me to frame my shot. If I used a fixed length lens, I would have to crop the image. Cropping the image results in much poorer IQ than a zoom lens, especially this lens.
The Fuji 90mm f2 is my portrait lens. I will use this lens wide open to maximize bokeh, giving me separation between the subject and the often-chaotic background that I will see in Asia. If I need more length that’s where the 50-140mm f2.8, Fuji’s premier zoom comes into play. To further increase the reach of my 50-140mm f2.8 lens I’ve purchased a 1.4x Tele-Converter that I will use to further isolate my subject from and distracting background.
Of course, the lenses that you bring is based upon the type of photographs that you expect to take. You should have a plan for each day’s photography. This requires some flexibility on how you transport your equipment. On an extended trip I may take with me two bags and Think Tank Photo’s belt system.
For long-range transport I will use a Deuter front-loading backpack and an f-Stop shallow medium insert. For the day’s activity I will use a belt system and/or some type of shoulder bag, currently I’m using one by Think Tank Photo called the Speed Demon which for some unexplained reason has been discontinued.
After taking my 50mm f2 lens to Europe and almost never using it I have decided to leave it and the 16-50mm at home and replace it with the new 16mm f2.8. The gap between the 23mm f2 and the 90mm f2 will be covered by the 50-140mm f2.8 zoom.
In the future I may replace this combination with a Voigtlander Ultra Wide-Heliar 12mm f/5.6 Aspherical III Lens for M-Mount with manual focus. The Voigtlander is dependent on whether Fuji comes out with a 10mm lens and what the angle of view is.
To avoid any unwanted surprises be sure that you know how to use every piece of gear before you board the plane. This is especially important for photographers and videographers. That shiny new piece of hardware can become a useless lump in your pack. Also, bring plenty of extra batteries and their appropriate chargers.
The most important thing to test before your trip is your shoes or boots, especially if you’re wearing leather boots that you have to break in. You don’t want to discover during the first day of a trip that your footwear causes blisters.
Don’t let your ego get in the way of bringing the various equipment manuals, you might even learn something new.
Montezuma's Revenge and other Fun Maladies
In Europe yes, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore as well but you might want your water bottled in other countries. I’ve even used bottled water to brush my teeth in some places. One useful suggestion is to drink beer with youir meals instead of water.
One of the joys of visiting a foreign country is eating local food. Especially that which you can eat on the street but be forewarned if this is new to you or even if you think you have an iron stomach you will get gas, diarrhea or constipation. It goes with being on the road, so bring the necessary medication.
Visiting a foreign country can be a scary experience for many people. Not knowing the language, worried about personal security, wanting to maximize one's experience on a limited budget all lead to purchasing tour, whether with random people or a group of friends.
Traveling in a group, especially a large group can be quite challenging. Knowing your fellow travelers means you’ll get to explore the world with some of your favorite people. In practice, it can devolve into fights over itinerary, haggling over hotels, and even bickering over gerneral travel "goals". Often the hardest part is just aligning busy schedules.
The overall goal of the group can be a big bone of contention with some just wanting to relax while others may want to visit every museum that they can cram into an eighteen-hour day. Cultural immersion or “landmark collecting” can lead to completely different vacations.
The following are some tips that can mitigate any conflicts:
- Consider renting a house or selecting a resort – If the group is not too large the advent of Airbnb makes finding a house easier. You’ll save money on lodging and food plus it’ll "force" you to interact. For a larger group selecting a resort would remove a lot of potential conflicts.
- Use a tour agency – Allowing an agency to make most of the decisions regarding itinerary removes the responsibility from one or more of the group.
- Communication – Set expectations and allow each of the participants to express their goals and priorities and concerns.
- Do not compare the country you are visiting with the country you live in. Save that for when you get home.
- Do not over-consume alcohol. This is a bad idea anywhere.
Notice I didn't say great photographs but if you take enough decent photos some "great" ones will invariably slip in. The first step in taking decent photographs is understanding your camera. We will assume that you are using more than a point and shoot and can change the focal length of your lens either through zooming or by changing the lens. This is not to say you cannot take good to great pictures with a point & shoot, a fixed lens camera or a smartphone. Many of the suggestions I will make apply to any device you can use to record images.
The Golden Hour
I'm sure most of you have heard of the golden hour, but for those that haven't the term “Hour” is figurative here. The golden hour refers to the period just after sunrise or just before sunset, and its length depends on where you are, what time of year it is, and the weather conditions. There are several aspects to take into account for what makes it special but basically it means you'll need to get up early on your vacation.
While selfies are great and a lot of fun do not overdo it. Pictures of you in front of the Eiffel Tower, Parliament and Coliseum get old fast. With your giant head blocking all of the surrounding scenery you might just as well taken pictures in front of the TV and saved yourself the money. Wait till after sunset to start taking pictures again by stopping for a bite to eat. Shooting on a full stomach actually works.
Use a program that can read your camera's EXIF data so that you can analyze this data to understand what was happening when you took the photograph. First of all look at the focal length especially when you are using a zoom lens to understand what focal length works best for the photographs that you like to take. Consider using a prime lens for this length in the future. Look at the exposure, to see what shutter speed was being used. Was the depth of field what you expected/wanted? Were the aperture and ISO within the optimum range?
For example you have a picture of a street vendor using a 35mm lens on you mirrorless APS-C camera and it’s noon under a cloudless sky. Your exposure is 1/15 sec at f /16 and your ISO is 1600. You notice that there is a general softness to your picture. This is an extreme example but you might have had one too many cups of coffee this morning and your shutter speed was too slow to compensate for your quivering hands! The small aperture introduced diffraction and your “high” ISO, noise. This is an extreme example but serves as a useful tool for taking better pictures.
Use the shutter speed that’s at least equal to your largest focal length, in this case 1/40 sec unless you have some form of stabilization. Most lenses have a sweet spot between f /5.6 and f /11.0. Try to keep ISO as low as possible to minimize noise. Rather than going full manual you might want to try an aperture or shutter preferred setting. Look at all of you viewfinder data before pressing the shutter. Slow down!
This last suggestion is probably the single most important tip to improving your photography. Most if not all people wait for just the right moment when composing their shot but don’t really pay any attention to what their camera is doing.