The days are counting down and you can hardly wait. It’s vacation time, finally. Precious days, away from work, in some awesome place you’ve been dreaming about for a long time. You have the photo gear you think you need, so what else is there to do until you arrive in your chosen paradise?
Well, quite a bit, actually. If you want to make the most of your trip, from a photographic perspective, there are five things you should do before the trip. Everyone thinks the photography part happens when you get there, but the truth is, it begins long before you arrive. Preparation is key to taking the best photos you can possibly take. So get the jump on your next photo vacation. Here are five simple steps to get started.
In the weeks leading up to your trip, you should get outside and practice taking pictures. Seems kind of obvious, I know, but nobody does it. No matter how much natural talent you have, if you want to get really good at something, you have to practice. Tennis star Rafael Nadal doesn’t just show up every year in Paris and expect to win the French Open. Well, actually, maybe he does, but that’s because beforehand, even though he’s spent countless hours on clay courts over the years, he spends the weeks leading up to the tournament practicing on clay. A lot. It’s like anything. You wouldn’t give a speech in front of hundreds of people without a lot of practicing, would you?
When it comes to taking pictures, practice doesn’t mean merely depressing a shutter release. It means finding angles, composing, judging the best direction of light. The act of doing all these things gets you into a mindset. Go out to the park, or your kid’s soccer game, or the local farmer’s market—wherever—and take pictures. You’ll see that at first you might be a little rusty, but that’s the point. Get into the groove before you go on your trip.
There will always be room for learning new techniques and approaches, but in the meantime, practice what you know already. Back in the days of film, it cost a lot of money to practice. But with digital, it’s free, so what are you waiting for?
2. Know Your Gear
The battery in my Sony mirrorless camera weighs a mere 57 grams, or 2 ounces. Now, I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I when I pick up my camera, I can tell whether there’s a battery inside or not, just by the weight of the camera in my hand. That’s because I use my camera A LOT. And over time, you just get used to it feeling the way it should.
The point here is not to get to know how much your camera weighs, it’s to become really familiar with your gear. And that comes with using it frequently. On the first day of your vacation, as the glow from the sky fades behind the Trevi Fountain in Rome, you don’t want to be thinking, ‘Now how the heck do I get out of self-timer mode?’
Let’s face it, today’s digital cameras have more buttons and features and menu settings than you really need. You don’t have to attempt to master them all. But you should learn the ones that are important to you. Things like frame rate, exposure compensation, ISO. Get to know the important functions so that in the heat of the moment, you’ll be ready.
Every now and then, when you’re on the road, you might want to take a picture using some of the more esoteric features of your camera. Or maybe you’ve encountered some kind of problem and need some troubleshooting help. That’s why I download electronic versions of the instruction manuals of all the devices I own. I keep them in a folder on my smartphone so they’re always with me. I use an app called Evernote, which I highly recommend, but you can use whatever you like. The important thing is that you have those manuals with you at all times.
There is a famous expression related to photography that says, “The camera points both ways.” It means that the camera takes a picture of something, but the choice of subject also reveals something about the person who took it. The same is true of your favorite photographers. Maybe your favourite photographers are the same as mine, or maybe not. But that doesn’t matter. They’re YOUR favourite photographers because their style appeals to you. And to cultivate your own style, you need to look at pictures that you like.
So go online and get inspired. Look at images that get you excited about taking photos. Think about what it is about certain photographs that you like, and how the photographer achieved that end. The main thing here is not to learn new techniques, necessarily, but to get psyched up about getting out there and taking great pictures. Just as you have to charge the batteries for your camera, you’ve got to get yourself charged up, too.
If you’re reading this, you’ve got an internet connection so there’s no excuse. Research the heck out of your destination!
This doesn’t just mean going through guidebooks or websites that list the most important attractions of a place. Sure, that’s a great start, but once you have a handle on what your destination has to offer, it’s time to dig a little deeper. Decide what you’re most interested in taking pictures of, and then google it. Choose the “Images” tab in the search results and see what you come up with. The main benefit here is gathering intelligence. This is a great way of discovering, for example, different vantage points. Another great resource for this is alamy.com.
Let’s say, for example, that your destination has a fantastic Roman theater near the ocean. You go there, but the photos from within the theater are not that interesting, and besides, you can’t see the ocean. But from your research, you’ve seen a picture of the theater with the sea in the background, so you know there’s somewhere, maybe a hilltop of a rooftop patio, from where you can get that shot.
One last tip: when you get to wherever you’re going, check out all the postcard stands. Sometimes they can give you a great idea that you wouldn’t have found anywhere else.
5. The System
I once used a photo vest with so many pockets that on the inside of each front panel there was a map to show you where they all were. Whether you use a vest or a shoulder bag or a backpack or a fanny pack or whatever, it’s important to establish a system for where everything goes because with so many possibilities, it’s easy to misplace things. And even more important, once you create a system, you have to stick to it.
If you take off a lens cap, for instance, store it in one particular place. Memory cards always go back…wherever you’ve decided they live. Same goes for microfiber cloths, extra batteries, lens adapters. As photographers we carry a lot of gear around. There’s the main stuff, such as camera bodies and lenses, but also a lot of widgets and thingies. All of those bits and pieces should have a home. Otherwise, when you need your polarizing filter, you’ll wind up pulling everything out of your bag looking for the thing and if you’re really unlucky, you’ll miss your shot.
I’ll add one more thing here. Take an emergency memory card. I don’t mean an extra card. You should already have at least four or five memory cards, but this one should not be in your regular rotation. In other words, buy all the cards you think you’ll need, then buy one more. Keep it somewhere else, apart from your other cards. One day, that emergency memory card might just come in handy.