How I prepare for a long trip

From last year: My total kit for a month in Africa

Every year I do a number of shorter trips, plus one long one (5-6 weeks in length) dedicated to photography.  I have one of the long ones coming up in a few weeks and thought I’d share my thought process when preparing to shoot somewhere I’ve never been.

Research

I’m a voracious researcher, so I’ll normally buy or checkout every book I can on the location.  That not only includes travel guides for the logistics, but also memoirs, travelogues, and even fiction that may be set in that country.  I want to get a sense of the place before I leave.  This will help me in my visualization and shot list (see below).

I’ll use Bing image search and Flickr to see what shots have been taken there before.  I absolutely hate, hate, hate cliché photographs so this will also put a picture in my mind of the shots that I don’t want to get, which is just as important as the ones I do.  Seeing the locations also helps me plan how I could photograph it differently, the times of day that might work best, etc.  Again, building that visualization and shot list in my head.

I’ll read travel blogs which share real world experiences about traveling there.  I can pick up tons of little tips which make a huge difference in the ease and quality of the trip.

Logistics

Through all that research, I’ll also find out about transportation, guides, food, the distance between shots, accommodations, etc.  This will also give me a better idea for how long I want to stay at each place.  I also look at small things like whether laundry is available in order to reduce the amount of clothes I take.

The shot list or series

By this time I have a pretty good mental picture in my head of the country.  I’ll write out specific shots that I want to get, a story that I want to tell, the emotions that I want to convey.  Ideally I’ll have a series of photos in my head that will form a cohesive body of work when I return.  Depending on the subject, I may even storyboard it out.  All these exercises help me clarify the end result I want. Note:  I definitely am open to other shots once I get there, but I at least want this core set of photos if at all possible. This process of visualization is by far the most important part of the planning – spend time on it!

From all of the above, I create an itinerary.  I want to spend x number of days here, x number of days there, etc.  I build in travel time and even rest days, which gives me a great outline for planning.

The gear

I now have the series in my head, so I know the look that I want.  I know how I’ll be traveling (heavy or light.  In my case it’s usually light or lighter).  I also know how long I’ll be there, which will help me decide how much film I need to take, batteries (if applicable), etc.  I decide which cameras I need, which filters, which films (and how many rolls), etc.  I really try to simplify things here.  I don’t take a ton of backup bodies, I don’t carry spare hard drives or laptops (an advantage of shooting film).  I do take my point & shoot but I just use extra memory cards as backup there.  If I lose one, oh well.  Nothing critical goes on there anyways.

A note about traveling with film:  I always, always have it in my carry-on, not in my checked bag. I don’t ask for a hand inspection primarily because I shoot slow film.  If I was shooting at asa800 or above, I’d definitely ask for one, but I usually shoot 25 or 100 film, with some 400.  In traveling many tens of thousands of miles through countless x-ray machines in all sorts of countries, I’ve never had a single problem with fogging.

Flexibility

You might be thinking “yeah, but with a shot list and series and limited gear, that really limits you”.  Well, it does in a way, but I’ve found that the times where I’ve wished for a different piece of gear to be a very rare occurrence.  If there is a limit, it can force you to be even more creative in getting the shot.

So…where am I going?

Well, I’m keeping that to myself for now.  It’s in Asia, lol.  I’ll be taking a 35mm, high end medium format as well as my trusty Holgas. Oh, and a digital point & shoot.  I still have a couple of weeks to refine things though.

I hope this helps.  I’d love to hear how you plan for an extended trip.

Ttyl,

Mark

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3 comments

  1. mark – wow, it’s so interesting to hear just how you approach a project. it’s so different than the way my brain works – ha. no doubt, the images will be spectacular.

    cheers from shana

  2. Great post, Mark. Good stuff!

    As you know, I’ve done a fair amount of world travel, often for over two weeks at a time. I, like you, do a fair amount of research into the location that I’m going. This includes numbers websites (I start with Wikipedia), then the local sites, then anything else I can find.

    And, also like you, I enjoy reading books about places that I’ll be. I pick up a small travel guide (since I don’t want to carry too much) and I often pick up a memoir or work of fiction as well. When i went to Shanghai last year, for example, I read Empire Of The Sun prior to arriving. I agree with you – I want to get a sense as well.

    Since I’m normally traveling on business (though the business is photo shoots), my schedule is based around what our shoot schedule is. We also build in rest and off days. This not only keeps the team refreshed, but it gives us time to explore as well.

    In the past two years, I’ve greatly reduced my baggage as well. Now it’s one bag (carry-on size), a small bag that gets folded upside (my walk-around bag once I get there) and a messenger bag that holds a notebook, my computer, etc. All my plugs, outlet adapters, chargers, etc go in the carry-on bag.

    My one big confession is that I don’t take a normal camera bag. Again, to save space, I pack my camera body and two lenses (24-105, 50 mm) in my carry-on bag. A point-and-shoot goes in the messenger bag. For all the LowePros and ThinkTanks out there…*shrugs* I just don’t use them. So far, it hasn’t been a negative. Again, like you, I try to travel as light as possible and this is the only way I’ve been able to do it.

    There’s probably more I do…maybe it should be a post over at the JerseyStyle blog.

    Oh…and I take Flo. Gotta take Flo the Travel Pig on all my adventures.

    ~ Mark

  3. This is a great post, Mark. I wouldn’t have imagined that you plan shots ahead of time, since your photos feel so natural, but I appreciate the amount of effort you put into your work even more now. I’ve never traveled much for photography, but this post is a great resource for things to consider when I do (hopefully soon).

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