I am fortunate to have a day job that has me travel the world, which allows me to get to some amazing parts of the world. Whenever possible, I try to extend my work trips a few extra days, or over a weekend, so I can get out and explore the cities and people and experience, if only briefly, new cultures and ways of life. Since my time for photography is limited on these trips, I do a lot of research before I go, so that I can optimize my time with my camera.
Researching the Location
I usually will start with doing a search on 500px for photos from the area I will be visiting. 500px has many incredibly talented photographers and the quality of images is excellent. A quick search here shows me the potential of photographs for the city or area I will be visiting. I look for specific locations, time of day, and camera gear and settings used. Next, I check out “Stuck On Earth”, an app developed by Trey Ratcliff, of Stuck in Customs. Here, using google earth, you can zoom into any part of the world and see photos from Flickr that have been geotagged. The quality of images varies greatly, but you can pinpoint the exact location where shots were taken. The whole idea is to know where and when to be at a specific spot, to get that shot that you are after. I also use TripAdvisor for tips on where to stay, issues or obstacles that I may encounter, and which guides are recommended.
Hiring Local Guides
When in a country where safety is an issue, or if I have limited time to explore on my own, I will hire a local guide to bring me around. I use TripAdvisor to get the names and contact info for guides, and I have not been disappointed yet with any of the recommendations. You pay a little extra for a good guide, but they can make all the difference in the world in the quality of photos you come home with. Good communication ahead of time is important so the guide knows what I’m after. I make it clear that I am there for photography, will point out locations that I want to see, and ask for them to bring me to hidden areas that they are familiar with. They will bring me to places I wasn’t aware of, can break the ice when photographing the local people, and get me into areas that are usually off-limits to tourists.
Giving Up Sleep
The key to any good photograph is good light, and that mostly means early morning or just before/after sunset. Some locations are best at sunrise only, and this makes it more challenging, as you typically need to get there in the dark to be ready for the good light. That makes research beforehand or scouting the location the day before essential. You also need to forget about sleeping in, as you will guarantee to miss the shot if you sleep in.
Mount Bromo – I was in Jakarta Indonesia for work and had found amazing photos of Mount Bromo at sunrise during my research. Since I had only two days, it required basically an all-nighter to pull off. After working all day on Friday, I took a short flight to Surabaya Indonesia and had a prearranged guide pick me up at the airport at about 9:30PM. From there it was a 4 hour drive to the small town near the volcano. I rented a room but knew I would only have about one hour to use it to relax. From there, it is an hours drive in a small Jeep-like vehicle to the overlook. It’s a very popular spot, and most people plan to get there at about 4:30 AM. I was hoping to get some star shots before the sunrise, so left for the overlook at 1:30 AM. I was the first person there, allowing me to get the best spot, and to photograph the lightning storms as they passed in the distance as the fog and clouds passed by and the sun came up.
Situ Gunung Lake – I flew into Jakarta Indonesia, arriving at my hotel at about 9:00PM. I had found some amazing shots of this lake at sunrise, and found that it was about a 3-4 hour drive from Jakarta. After just a few hours at the hotel, I had prearranged for a local guide to pick me up at 12:30AM, to drive me to the trailhead of this lake. We arrived at 3:00AM, slept in the car for an hour, and then started the 2km or so walk to the lake to wait for sunrise. Once the sun was up, it was back to Jakarta and off on my next adventure.
Patience to get the shot. I used to be impatient and rush a photo, so as not to inconvenience others, or to keep to a set schedule. I’ve learned that if I’ve traveled half way round the world, dragged all my camera gear with me, and may not ever be back to that spot again, that it’s worth it to take an extra few minutes to get the shot that you were going for, rather than take a few quick shots and move on, realizing later that if you had just moved a little this way or that, or been sure to nail the focus, that you could have had a prize winner, but instead you just have a good photo.
Article by Dale Johnson
I received my first Nikon camera as a graduation present from high school, over 30 years ago. I began taking pictures seriously in the late 1980’s after taking classes at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, and soon after moved up to medium format and then 4×5. In the 90’s I had a well-equipped darkroom at my house and photographed mostly landscapes, as well as the nude in a landscape setting. Selling my work to family and friends and eventually having my work displayed in the Ansel Adams Gallery in Pebble Beach, CA.
Photography took a back seat for a few years while digital was maturing, and I finally made the switch to digital in 2006 and have been learning ever since. I work full time for a company that has me traveling the world, and so my focus lately has been documenting the cities and countries on my travels. I usually try to extend trips a day or two to explore with my camera.