Doing Your Homework - Part II
by Gary W. Stanley
Traveling these days can be somewhat uncomfortable to say the least. With all that's happened since 9/11 I still get a little nervous! And besides that, since part I of this article was written, we've added a war to the list of reasons that we need to use some common sense and caution when traveling.
We could sit around and feel sorry for ourselves, but please don't give up on traveling just yet. If I can do it, you can too.
If you've ever attended one of my seminars, or been with me on a tour, you would know that I am very outgoing and have an extremely warped sense of humor. Behind the mask, however, hard as this may be to believe, lives a more timid individual. One who avoids confrontations and whose stomach turns inside out at the thought of not having correct change at a tollbooth for fear I might get arrested. As a result I tend not to leave anything to chance. On my trips up to Maine, I have enough quarters stacked in the coin holder to sit at the slots in Vegas for hours.
The good news about all this is that whenever I travel to a new location to photograph I have to do my homework. I mean really do my homework. I tend to worry about all the little details that most people who travel don't even work up a sweat over. I mean think about it. What if 'they' think the tripod I've packed in my checked luggage looks too much like a missile launcher? Will 'they' be waiting for me when I get off the plane? If not, will I ever see my trusty tripod again?
After all, if you're like me, you just want to get back to the joy of photographing without all the complications. Perhaps it sounds a bit selfish, but we here in America have been spoiled a little and we need to pick ourselves up and get back to enjoying things the way we used to. With all of that said, let's take a look at some of the ways we can prepare for a trip to a new location and what we can do to insure a successful photo-shoot.
1. Location Homework: Learn as much about the destination as you can. In today's world the computer can make this much easier. I can go online and find virtually any location on this earth, and find out something worthwhile. Let's say I'm planning a trip to J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida to photograph wintering birds. First, I'll go to a search engine such as Yahoo or Google, type in a key word such as "Ding Darling" or "Florida", and do a general search, then pick from that list. On my first try I got the Ding Darling Wildlife Society at www.dingdarlingsociety.org. From there, I was able to get quite a bit of information about the refuge and the area. Now, let's say we are planning a trip to Zion National Park this fall. I will do one of two things. First, check out the National Park service, www.zionpark.com. I may visit (on-line) the state that the park is in, in this case Utah. You can again use a search engine, type in a key word Zion or Utah, and pick from that list. I may even go online or purchase a topographical map from someone like DeLorme ($99 for the whole US) at www.delorme.com or www.topo.com for National Geographic topo information. This helps me understand the lay of the land, direction of certain landmarks and where the sun should come up. Don't forget, there are government agencies on the web that give you free access to mapping locations as well.
2. Photographic Homework: If you have any kind of photographic library at home or close by, I recommend looking at as many photographic books on the subject as possible. This is about a close as you'll come to pre-visualizing a photograph before you actually get to do it in person. Notice that I didn't say copy the image. Every photographer should have his or her own visual approach to any given composition, and that's fine. Looking at a book on Florida Birds by Arthur Morris or the book National Park Photography by Tim Fitzharris put out by AAA for example serves to excite and stimulate the 'mind's eye' as to the potential for great photography and provides many tips on great shooting locations as well.
3. Who's Been There First? There are other resources to consider as well. Let's assume that you already know that there are numerous photo tour outfitters out there that would be more than happy to take care of your every need for a fee, myself included. After all, we've done the homework for you. "No thanks, my wife and I just want to take an easy, casual trip." Great! Try a resource like, Photo Traveler Publications www.phototraveler.com. They produce travel guides for photographers, by photographers who have been there before. Short of telling you where to place your tripod, they'll fix you up with just about all the details you'll need.
4. Getting There: Thanks in part to all the news relating to 9/11, most of us know that we have to allow a little more time if we a going to be flying to our destination. Also, common sense goes a long way as well. Jim McGee's articles and recent updates regarding air travel can be reviewed in the pages of this magazine.
5. Where Are You Going? Well, obviously you need to know your destination. If you are traveling overseas, most preparations remain the same. Do you have a passport? Is it current? Is the photo current? Do you need shots? Not photographs, I mean the kind of shots that sting. Remember you need a photo ID even for travel within the U.S.
6. What To Pack: I pack my camera equipment as my carry-on, and check everything else. I'd much rather lose my clothes than my camera gear. I do pack my tripod carefully in with my checked luggage. Be sure to transfer any tools, pocketknives, etc. out of your camera bag, and into your checked baggage. Be a little careful about the size camera bag you choose to take, recent weight and size restrictions could cause you problems. I use a Hakuba brand backpack that is more compact than say a Lowepro Photo Trekker, but will hold about the same amount of stuff. Lately I've scaled down even more by purchasing a Lowepro Mini Trekker, and taking out equipment that I never use anyway. This saves the worry of having the bag checked because it is too big and weight is not an issue either. You can pack non-essentials like filters, flash accessories, and converters with your checked luggage to help lower any size or weight issues.
7. What About our Film? I used to put all of my film cassettes in a big Zip-lock bag for easy 'hand' inspection. When I went out to Zion National Park by way of Boston last year, I handed the security person my film the way I always do, and they proceeded to set it in a basket and let it go through the x-ray machine. Same thing on the return trip from Vegas. When I went down to Florida it was the same thing. Of course, in spite of my worrying, my film was fine. The x-ray machines here in the U.S. are not as potent as some of the foreign versions, and I never shoot with film any higher than ISO 100 anyway, so it wasn't an issue. Here is a little hint: Don't send your film through with your camera bag. Put you coat and watch or pocket change in a tray and send that behind your camera bag, then send your film through. Why? Because inspectors may perform several scans of your camera bag to see what is in there - backing up the belt and running the bag through the scanner several times. Why have your film go through any excessive scans if it doesn't have to? According to some sources, you can demand a hand inspection of your film. However, if you don't want to spend an hour having someone handle every roll of film you brought, and don't want to risk missing your flight altogether, I'd say don't do it (hey, there's always digital!).
Because I took the time to do my homework, my time shooting over the three days in Zion was very productive.
Mother nature blessed us with a fresh snowfall, and clear weather, so the rest was up to me. It used to take me a few days to settle in and to get comfortable with my new surroundings.
On the trip to Zion it took me only my first morning shoot before I knew how to work my subject and to get those creative juices flowing. In Florida, it was my third trip in three years, so there were no surprises there other than it was a bit colder than normal.
Why not help air travel return to a level of normality and take advantage of some incredibly low airfares in the process? Start planning those get-away photo trips that you've been putting off. When looking for airline tickets, shop around for the best prices by going on-line to places like www.orbitz.com or www.expedia.com.
We need to photograph! It is our best therapy in a confusing world. It's our dessert, our treat, and our way of knowing that things are still okay. If I can do it, so can you! Why not take some of the pressure off, make things a little easier, by 'Doing Your Homework'.