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The Photographer's Guide to Planning a Vacation

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A photographic journey is 80 percent preparation and 20 percent vacation. Planning the perfect trip requires a bit of mental elbow grease and a lot of time finding resources, looking up information, and managing logistics. In the end, work you do before you go pays off in spades when you see your photographs. This chapter helps you do the preparation that results in a fantastic photographic vacation.
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A photographic journey is 80 percent preparation and 20 percent vacation. Planning the perfect trip requires a bit of mental elbow grease and a lot of time finding resources, looking up information, and managing logistics. In the end, work you do before you go pays off in spades when you see your photographs (previous page).

Years ago, planning a vacation was a straightforward yet inaccurate affair for the novice travel photographer. Few resources existed besides travel agents, a handful of travel books, and a few travel-related magazines such as National Geographic.

Today, there are almost unlimited ways to find information about your destination. This can make it easier to plan your trip, but it can also bog you down with useless reams of data on nonphotographic topics.

Doing Your Research

Few people wake up in the morning and think, "I'd like to find an exotic locale in which to take pictures!" Instead most people have some general ideas in mind for photographic destinations ( Figure 3.1 ).


Figure 3.1 A photo trip to India is almost guaranteed to produce good pictures. Photographing these spires at sunset, the photographer got lucky when a bird decided to land on one. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)

Whether you've got a destination in mind or you're one of the few who is starting from scratch with nothing more than a plan to shoot in some foreign city, you're in luck. Resources abound for the photographer seized by wanderlust.

Using Search Engines and Photo Blogs

It's not called the World Wide Web for nothing. In fact, it's rarely called that these days, but the Web is a terrific information resource. Search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, Metacrawler, and others can save you a considerable amount of time when preparing for your trip. But they can also deliver an overwhelming quantity of information, not all of it directly relevant. Most search engines offer tips and techniques to help you separate the useful from the useless. Look for the words "Advanced Web Search" or something similar in a central location on the site's home page. Clicking on the phrase takes you to a well-organized page that guides you through a fill-in-the-blanks approach to searching for information. Using that page will aid you in refining and narrowing your search and save you a lot of time. Also, for search tips and a couple of online tutorials on how to get the most out of your search engine of choice, check out the Search Engine Showdown Web site's "Learning About Searching" page (

As useful as the search engines are, I think the myriad online photo blogging communities are also an excellent place to start your research. A blog, short for Web log, is an online journal, and a photographic blog is a site where people post photographs as their journal entries. Some of the hottest photoblogs are and (though dozens more exist) where thousands and thousands of photographers worldwide post images every day. (, "a resource designed to help people find all kinds of photoblogs," is an excellent, frequently updated directory of photoblogs.

Finding what you're looking for on a photoblog is straightforward. In the search box on a photoblog site, type the name of a city, country, or region you'd like to visit; what comes back is a photographic collage—a patchwork mosaic of any place you'd ever want to travel. Though nowhere near exhaustive, these blogs not only give you an idea of what an area is like, but what sort of images people take when they go there. Best of all, these are interactive communities, so you can post questions to the photographers and get firsthand feedback on your destination.

Beginning Your Trip with Magazines, Books, and Libraries

Despite the wealth of electronic information online (or maybe because of it), books and magazines have flourished in this digital age ( Figure 3.2 ).


Figure 3.2 Despite the abundance of online material, you'll also want to visit your local library and bookstore to research the area you'll be visiting. Having a guidebook to take along can be invaluable. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)

Even I—so into technology that I should have a USB cable running out of my noggin—spend most of my pretrip hours poring over books and magazines. Not to say I don't use the Web—I couldn't get anywhere without it—but I like to start researching destinations the old-fashioned way.

If you're like me, to get started, head to the library or megabookstore and look over books like the Lonely Planet guides (chock-full of insider tips for someone who wants to travel like a local) and Let's Go (designed for college students on a budget, but also full of excellent tips); then turn to more traditional guidebook series such as Frommer's and Rick Steves'.

In the periodicals section, you can find any number of travel magazines, including Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Men's Journal, and more, all of which cater to the traveler and provide specific information on destinations, such as the best ways to get there and the best things to do while you're there.

Many of these magazines have extensive Web sites with articles from back issues, travel guides, and forums in which readers discuss their trips and upcoming adventures.

Board-Certified Help

Some of the most helpful (and often overlooked) travel resources are the tourist boards and chambers of commerce of both US and foreign cities and states. Usually paid for by tax dollars, these entities exist solely to provide information and assistance to the visitor. They're able to provide maps and guides, connections to local hotels, tour guides, and more.

Some tourist boards are able to book plane travel and in-country reser-vations, which can be particularly helpful if you're headed to a country with a language you don't speak. Because they're essentially paid to market their country, these organizations stay up to date on all the activities and events that might make photographic subjects ( Figure 3.3 ).


Figure 3.3 There's a Bridge Day festival every year in West Virginia where people are allowed to parachute off the New River Gorge Bridge. It's a great place to make unusual photos. A tourist board can help you find these types of events. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)

In the United States, the local version of the tourist board can provide an amazing amount of assistance, hooking up photographers with locals who can help charter vehicles, plan sightseeing trips, and more. Even if you don't contact these agencies before you leave, keep their numbers handy in case you need assistance when you're on your trip. Just remember, these people are often busy. They'll be better able to help you if they know you're coming.

Don't Forget Travel Agents

It might seem as if they are holdovers from a bygone era, but professional travel agents are still among the best resources around. Professional travel agents know the best locations to visit and to avoid, they're able to book travel on planes, trains, and rickshaws, and they can produce an itinerary that includes detailed plans for every step of your journey.


Figure 3.4 Ask in the town you're visiting if there's a local market. Those are always good places for photos, and the souk in Marrakech is no exception. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)

Not everyone likes to work with a travel agent (and some agents get consideration from hotels and destinations if they recommend certain properties), but if you like the idea of having an actual human sit down with you and help you plan your trip, the travel agent is for you.

The Junket Junkie

Not only are there photographers who travel, there are trips designed specifically for the photographer. These travel junkets take photographers to unique and foreign locales expressly for the purpose of taking great photographs ( Figure 3.5 ).


Figure 3.5 This compelling photo of an Indian woman and child was taken during an arranged village visit on an American Photo Mentor Trek. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann)

Many photography travel junkets are scheduled like fancy group vacations with tours and visitations to photographic locations. Others are educational seminars, with classes and photography critiques.

The photo junket is a fantastic way to go on a vacation that is guaranteed to be photographically interesting. Many of these seminars are sponsored by camera manufacturers and digital photography gear companies that provide materials for hands-on instruction, thus giving you an opportunity to practice photography while using some of the newest and coolest tools on the market. You can usually experiment with some of best of what's available for the photographer, from carbon fiber tripods to lenses, to inkjet printers.

Photo instruction trips aren't for everyone, and different junkets are tailored for different types of students. Some of these trips require all the participants to travel together to different locations, which limits the amount of independent photography time, but ensures that everyone has a chance to see the "classic" shooting scenes. It's slower to move as a group, and you're less likely to be able to spend a few hours lingering over something that you find particularly interesting. On the other hand, there are more photographers around to interact with and it's a more social experience.


Figure 3.6 Reviewing pictures at the end of the day during a photo instruction trip.

Other trips (especially those aimed primarily at pros) require participants to research their own subjects and travel on their own to shoots. The classroom portion of such trips can be an intense experience with guest speakers and instructors drawn from all over the professional world.

And of course there are junkets in the middle, trips that provide a bit of hand-holding but also a range of freedom. That's why it's important to research a photographic seminar with almost the same vigor that you'd use to plan your own itinerary. These trips are often advertised in photographic magazines and in adventure sports publications, or at camera stores. And information can also be found online using a search or at Web sites such as, "a global network directory of photography seminars."

Once you find a seminar you're interested in, check out the list of instructors and seek out examples of the work done by students. Look on the Web and see if you can find anyone who has taken the classes and what they have to say.

Any good photographic seminar should be happy to provide you with a list of contacts for previous students and should be able to answer any questions you might have about the trip. If you don't get your questions answered, don't choose that seminar.

Family Matters

What about the family? Not everyone has a good time taking pictures, so make sure your travel plans include activities for the nonphotographers amongst you. Some photo junkets plan for family members, providing activities for everyone. Junkets on cruises are especially good for a traveling family because there's something for everyone onboard, and plenty to see in port.

Even if you're not on a junket, be sure to plan for your family or travel companions. Your average sightseer moves at a different (usually faster) pace than photographers, who often take their time examining every detail looking for good shots.

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