6 Top Travel Photography Prep Tips
Prepare for lift off!
Travel is quite possibly the greatest gift you can give to yourself, broadening your mind and feeding your soul with new experiences, people and foods. A visit to new and distant lands bring feelings of almost overwhelming excitement, transforming you back to a child on Christmas Eve bursting with the anticipation of the events and presents that are seductively obscured by a single nights sleep. What will you see, hear, taste, experience or you're next adventure?
For the travel photographer, however, these positive feelings can be tinged with pangs of anxiety which gather like a storm cloud casting a shadow of doubt over the upcoming trip. Unless you are of the lucky few who are free to travel unreservedly and can return again and again to get your shots right, traveling is a treat limited to short bursts in which you seek to capture as much as you can in a short period of time.
So how do you make the most of your travel time as a photographer? Here I'll share with you the free tools I have collated and use in my workflow when planning a trip to maximize photographic opportunities and ensure you hit the ground running and capture as much of your destination as possible. I'm going to explore this workflow with you by sharing some of the plans for my fast approaching trip to Greece, featuring stops in Athens and Santorini. Without further ado, let's kick off with the first step and tool!
Step 1 - Get Inspired with Pinterest!
If you don't know, Pinterest is the digital equivalent of a scrapbook or mood board in which you can save 'pins' and view as a collection in one place. Creating a board is a simple as creating an account and hitting create, you are then free to scour other boards on Pinterest, or the wider web and save images and build up an inspirational collection of images. To learn more visit Pinterest yourself and have a play with it, it really is as simple as that.
My workflow begins by creating a board of images taken from around the web that feature shots that perfectly sum up the destination I am traveling to, such as typical scenes and famous sites. Of course, any photographer worth their salts wouldn't seek to emulate these common postcard shots as millions have done before, but when visiting a brand new destination these popular images and sites are a good starting place and ease you into the trip, providing a solid base to work from.
Close the image to visit my Greece Inspiration Pinterest Board
To fill my board I will simply type the destination into Google images then open up pages where the image has jumped out at me, saving any image that takes my eye and captures my imagination. This will throw up a lot of the same obvious shots, and once these have been exhaustive it's time to be a little creative by searching for more unique or specific shots of the destination, or dropping in keywords such as 'Athens Street Photography'.
Once the board is filled with a decent array of deeply inspiring images, it's time to do some real work, but first, let me tell you what you can do with these pins. When you start taking notes, make sure you click through the pins that you have saved and visit the websites and blogs they have come from as they often offer a world of advice for traveling to your destination. Articles such as '50 Best Photo Spots in...', '6 Top Sunset Locations in...' and 'Best Street Photography Locations in...' are very useful for your further research. We'll come on to how to document this information shortly.
Step 2 -
Start Planning with OneNote!
Microsoft OneNote is our next free tool, one that I am using increasingly more and more in my planning and general note taking (I am writing my first draft of this blog in it right now!). In OneNote, you effectively have a digital notebook in which you can create different notebooks with sections and pages that can be accessed across multiple platforms. It has a desktop app which is very useful for collating information at the reasearch stage, and a web interface and a mobile app through which all your information is seamlessly sync'd and can be accessed on the go at any time so you won't be lost for that important piece of information when arriving at your new land of discovery.
These pages are pretty much yours to do with as you wish. Want to create a bulleted or number list? Go ahead. Want to stick in some pictures or screenshots? Or handwritten notes on the go? The possibilities are endless, and at your fingertips right now, you just need to download the apps to get started.
(Similar platforms are available, and I can't say for sure if they operate in the exact same way, but I am sure the principles are the same. Search for similar apps and find the one that works best for you!)
My travel itinerary page is where I collate all my of key pieces of information in one place. I am generally a tidy person, but my page does tend to get a bit messy to start with as I pull information in from all over the place. These pages are fully customizable, so you can literally dump things onto the page and move them around as you see fit. When pasting things from the web, the app automatically includes the source web address, which is very useful if you need to go back to the site for more details.
So what goes onto the page? Well, to start with the most important information to include are the dates you are traveling, sounds pretty obvious I know, but if you are traveling to various locations during your trip it's handy to note these when flicking between web pages and making further notes. I list the following at the top of my page so I always have it as a reference:
🛫 Dates of Travel
🛫 ETA at Accommodation
🛫 Address of Accommodation
This information is repeated for each location of the trip, so for my upcoming trip, I have 3 columns, London to Athens, Athens to Santorini and Santorini to London. This is the basis of my whole trip and informs me how long I have from arrival to departure at each destination and so I can plan my shooting itinerary accordingly.
Not sure how to calculate the time to the destination? This can be as easy as Googling transfer times from your point of entry (in this case the airport) to the city, or for a fairly more accurate duration use, Google maps to calculate the travel time. If your unsure of how to do this, don't worry, we'll look at this in a little more detail later on.
By putting your accommodation addresses at the top of the page you instantly have access to the most important detail of your trip. There is nothing more daunting than arriving in a strange and foreign land with no idea where you are, or how to get to your place of refuge. Having the address instantly to hand means you can ask for assistance on arrival, or even show to a cab driver which takes a lot of pressure off especially if there is a language barrier.
Another good idea is to find out how much your transfer should cost so there are no surprises on your arrival. Popular travel site like TripAdvisor will have users providing typical costs for taxi journies from key ports to major cities which are good as a reference. Alternatively, Google the cost per mile for local taxis at your destination and make a note of this. You can use this information to gauge costs quoted when you've got boots on the ground as there's nothing worse than being ripped off the second you start your trip!
As photographers, there are other key details that we would benefit from researching and recording to maximize shooting opportunities:
Weather - grabbing an extended forecast that covers the trip will aid in gauging when is the best time to visit the locations you want to visit and help to avoid a disappointing shooting experience. If rain is likely, this would be an ideal day to do something indoors for example. This isn't always going to be perfect, but keeping an eye on it in advance will give you a fighting chance once you're on the ground. I like to grab a screenshot of the weather so I can quickly reference it and plan my day's accordingly.
Sunrise/Sunset times - yes, the golden hour. This is optional as not everyone is likely to spoil their holiday by getting up at stupid o'clock for sunrise, but for the serious picture taker, this information is very important and provides invaluable information when planning the locations you want to visit.
Key Locations - start a list of key locations, these could be famous landmarks, top tourist spots, recommended streets or neighborhoods to visit. Whatever you want to see and capture when you're there, note it down. Use the information you gather from online research (or travel guide books) and note it here, don't worry too much about a sequence at this stage, we'll come back to that later.
Day by day itinerary - once all the research is in, make a day by day list of places you want to visit. This is the very last thing you do and will be informed by many factors.
With your research coming on nicely, it's time to form a plan and start to really build the buzz!
Step 3 - Get local with Google Maps!
Did you know you can create your own unique map in Google maps? Or that you can save a local map to your phone so you can take it with you on the go! To create your map, click on the hamburger menu button on the top left-hand corner and follow this sequence -
Your Places - Maps - Create Map
It's as simple as that!
Now you can create layers over the map, and save pins on each layer making it easy to locate your key locations and plan your trip. Here you can see the proximity of locations from each other and add notes under the pins to remind you why you saved it in the first place. Handy layers to have are:
Accommodation - I keep a separate layer that just shows the spot where I am staying.
Photo opportunities - This could be separate layers if you like for different locations, but I like to keep it simple.
Food/Drink - Your research is likely to throw up interesting places to eat and drink, so worth making a note of these, but keep them separate from photo location (unless they are subjects in their own right) so as not to confuse the two.
The map of the local area can be saved offline, which can be used without draining expensive roaming data. This is a great tool to have because local area maps I find don't tend to have enough detail and precious time is often lost trying to get bearings (Lonely Planet travel maps are particularly bad!). Unfortunately, the local map saved does not include your saved pins, which sucks, so a detailed list of addresses would be useful as you can still use the map to search and navigate.
This is a distant land, so how do you know how long it takes to get from one place to the next? Don't worry, Google's got you covered here too. To work out the distance between locations, open up Google Maps and type one of the locations into it and search bar. Once located, you'll be given an information panel on the left-hand side which will have a button called 'Directions' - by clicking this you'll be given the option to input a start/finish point, with your initial search already populating one of them. Input the destination you think you will be traveling to/from and then select how you intend to travel (foot, car, public transport, etc..) and hit go. Google will plan the journey for you and provide an estimate for travel time with your chosen mode of transport.
Let's look at a practical example of this. I want to shoot the Parthenon at sunrise, which I know from my earlier research will be at around 6:30 am. Google tells me that to walk from my apartment to my spot where I think would be best to capture the sunrise will be around 20-25 minutes, so I know I need to be leaving around 5:45 am to make the journey, and get set up in time to take the shot. A look at the weather tells me which day is most likely to give me the best opportunity for this shot, so I know what time I need to leave and which is the best day and can plot this into my daily itinerary.
Step 4 - Get closer with Google Street View!
Another excellent set of tools that you should fully exploit in Google Maps is the 3D rendering in satellite mode, and better still, Street View. When viewing in satellite mode you can spin your plane of view round in various directions and see the destination side on. This is especially handy if you are trying to identify locations which offer the best perspective of landmarks or vistas in your photo wish list. This will also give you an indication of terrain and give you more of an idea of what to expect when you are there.
To change the view, hold 'Ctrl' then hold the left click of your mouse; if you then drag upwards whilst holding the left click you will move the view downwards so you are looking straight on. The flat bird's eye view comes alive in front of you! Yes, it does spoil the mystery of your destination a little bit, so if you would rather be surprised then leave this out. But for those keen to make the most of the trip photographically, this is a life saver!
One thing that will definitely spoil the allusion is Street View. For those unfamiliar, this is the tool in Google Maps that enables you to digitally walk the streets as if you are already there. As with the 3D rendering, this tool is great for looking at real images of the streets to identify lucrative photo real estate which can then be pinned and saved in your layers.
To access this mode, click and drag the little yellow man in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen and drag over the map where you want to view. When hovering the man across the map you will see light blue lines and dots appear, these indicate locations where street view is available and you can drop yourself right into the map. The lines indicate paths that you can move through in street view, whereas the dots are static locations which are usually a 360° view from that spot. Using this tool is great for giving yourself and head start and hunting out great photo opportunities before you've even packed your camera!
Step 5 - What about the Weather?
The weather, it can be your best friend, or worst enemy as a photographer, or casual traveler alike. It is the biggest gamble when booking a holiday to a destination where good weather isn't guaranteed and can be the biggest disappointment if not in your favor. The best thing to do then is to get ahead of the weather as best you can to manage your expectations, right?
Now, there are many sources for weather forecasts, and some are more reliable than others. Even the most reliable sources will post changes on a daily basis as your departure date approaches so this is best to be checked regularly so you can fine-tune your plans to suit. I tend to use the BBC as they are more reliable than most and easy to navigate and search.
I will screenshot the forecast and stick it on my OneNote page as a reference and check updates daily to see if any significant changes have been made. I'm not so concerned about temperature unless in the extreme ends of the scale, but cloud cover and more crucially rain are top of my agenda. I'm no fair weather photographer, but I do have a clear idea in my mind of the shots that I would want to capture, and with one chance to take certain images I'd like to think I have given myself the best chance in that location with regards to the weather in the limited time I have.
Step 6 - Find the best time with TPE!
Now we know where we want to go and what the weather is doing, it's time to start making some anchors and build a plan. This tool is great not just for travel photography, but shooting anywhere at any time by taking the mystery out of the best time of day to shoot. This is where we unleash the secret weapon and start bringing all our research together.
The Photographers Ephemeris or TPE is a web application and mobile app which displays a map of the world, similar to using Google Maps, but with a very useful addition. In this app, you are able to drop a pin on a specific location and track the movement's of the sun and the moon on any day throughout the year. A slider at the bottom of the map can be dragged through the 24 hours of the day and a projection is provided of the movement of the sun in its path around the globe.
From here you are able to ascertain to the minute where and when the sun will breach the horizon, the duration of golden hour, the length and direction of shadows through the day to sunset at the chosen location. As the suns path alters throughout the year, it's essential that you select the day's of your travel to ensure the data provided is specific to your visit.
With this information, you are able to plan the time you need to be in your chosen location for sunrise/sunset and then plan the day in between accordingly. This takes a lot of pressure off by removing the guesswork of where the light is going to be best and so can be planned in advance. The web app is excellent and very useful for planning in advance, but what if you're on the ground and you need a little guidance?
The TPE app priced at £2.99 provides the same features as the free web application, only you can have it in your pocket on your smartphone. For a long time, I have relied on this very useful tool, but recently I have discovered a more advanced application which leaves TPE in the shade. Photo Pills priced at £6.99 offers the same function as TPE, but with a plethora of additional handy tools for all manner of photographic scenarios. You will find an Exposure Calculator, tables for Hyper Focal Distant and FoV, star trail plotters and many more. The most exciting feature of this app is the AR (augmented reality) facility for tracking the suns trajectory.
Once properly calibrated you can direct your phone to the scene in front of you and see the path the sun will take overlaying the scene captured by your phone's camera. This is an incredibly powerful tool for planning your next move and ensure that you capture your subject in the best light. If you've seen the perfect scene, but the lights not quite right, whip your phone out and see in real time when the best time is to return to capture the winning snap!
Ready to put the plan together!
Now we know roughly what we want to shoot, where we need to be, the best days and times to shoot, it's time to start putting this information together into an itinerary. So back in OneNote, I find it best to start by plotting the dates of the trip in a list from arrival to departure and then build on the plan from there.
With so much information now collated it can be little overwhelming when it comes to putting it all together, but it doesn't have to be. It's best to start with something fairly static and work from there. For example, if you know you want to take a specific shot at sunrise, then this should be your starting point for one of the days. Let's look at the process of putting this into the plan:
Pinterest - has told us the sort of shots we'd like to take.
Google - has told us where it is and how long it takes to get there.
BBC Weather - informs us that our first morning is the best opportunity to get this shot.
TPE - tells us when the sun will breach for sunrise.
For the same day, if you follow the same process for sunset then you know where you want to be at the beginning and end of the day (in terms of natural light), and now it's a simple case of filling the gaps. When looking at Google Maps you can see where you are starting and finishing and can easily see what's in between. That's your first day planned! It's important not to make the plan too rigid and allow yourself plenty of time to venture around in between, after all, for many, this is a holiday and should still be an enjoyable fun experience!
Here's an example of my first day in Athens:
• Sunrise -shooting the Parthenon from Andero viewing platform
• 30min walk to spot, leave around 5:45 to make breach in time
• Shoot sunrise until around 7:30
• Walk to the west gate of Acropolis; find breakfast along the way
• Acropolis for open to miss tourist rush, 8:30
• Explore Monastiraki Square, Ermou Street, and surrounding areas
• Sunset glow on Parthenon from Filopappou Hill from 19:30
It's a full day dedicated to one subject, but this being the biggest site in Athens it does warrant some time dedicated to it. I started at the beginning and end of the day and was able to fill in the rest with some areas around the historic site that I also want to take in whilst I'm there.
For each day I will fill the days in a list like this, and on completion will return to my map in Google Maps and use the drawing tool to draw over the areas covered each day. This is useful and a visual representation of the trip day by day showing the areas I anticipate covering during my stay.
It's a lot of work and takes a bit of time to pull together, but the rewards are huge, so the extra effort is more than worth it. A strong plan going into your trip takes a huge mass of pressure off and get you on your way to capturing memorable photographs you'll be happy to share with the world!
So there you are 6 tips for planning your next trip. I hope you have taken some inspiration for the planning of your next adventure.