1. Your camera is the most important thing you own
It was three in the morning. I was lying on my back on a two-seater in a bus heading north from Dallas, Texas. It was the middle of August, and it had to be near eighty degrees outside, but the bus driver thought that forty-five degrees was the right climate for the interior of the vehicle. I had packed light, extremely light, just a knapsack and my Canon slung around my neck, resting on my chest.
I was asleep, mostly, but freezing. I remember snapping to attention suddenly when I felt the atmosphere around me change. When I opened my eyes, I saw a tall dark man in a hooded sweatshirt leaning over me, looking at me. I sat up instantly, hands grasping for my camera, wishing I had stowed it better, wishing I had brought something to stow it in.
Before I could say anything, he thrust a blanket at me. “Here,” he said, “I could hear your teeth chattering from the front of the bus.” Then he smiled at me, a wry, self-gratified smile that caught me off guard. “Thanks,” I said, taking it gratefully. I was really cold, and this was obviously a random act of kindness. My camera wasn’t in peril after all.
Still, that moment made me think. What was I doing? Here I was on the road, exposing my most precious belonging to anyone audacious enough to take it. It wasn’t secure. Even if no one dared to take it, anything could have happened. I could have rolled over and knocked it into the plastic of the wall next to me, cracking the lens. The air conditioner could have dripped on the Canon while I slept. At three in the morning, my brain came up with a great diversity of horrible consequences for my lack of preparation.
Obviously, I was never in any real danger, but I learned from this experience. I recognized how fortunate I had been, and that, most likely, I would not be so in the future. So, I decided from then on that I would protect the most important possession I owned.
As a traveling photographer, your camera is not just a possession; it is an extension of your person. Without it, you wouldn’t have a job. You need to take every precaution necessary to ensure that nothing happens to it. Buy a bag with a padlock and never let it out of your sight.
2. Every moment is an opportunity
One of the great joys of travel is not knowing what to expect. Even if you’ve been to the same place hundreds of times, the next time will be different. The light will have shifted subtly, the people mulling about will be different from before. Odds are, if you’re on the road, you haven’t been there before, and every passing moment is an exciting opportunity to capture something extraordinary. Keep on your toes and look for the small details. You’ll be surprised at how many new and wonderful things will present themselves to you.
3. Choose your moments wisely
Just because every moment is an opportunity doesn’t mean that you should take every opportunity. Wait for the right moment. Settle into an environment, find a wall to lean against or a bench to rest on, and watch the world go by. Be patient and watch events unfold around you. When people become used to your presence, they’ll act more naturally, and, if you’re lucky, they’ll ignore you entirely.
Don’t want to commit to a space? Start walking. Wander through areas and observe. If you find something you like, capture it and move on. You’ll discover what you’re most comfortable with as time goes on. I’m a walker, but there are often times where a space is interesting enough for me to wait. Some places are worth it.
4. Stay with people who know the area
Now sometimes, this just isn’t possible. In those cases I recommend you find a place that is closest to the center of activity as possible, so that you don’t waste time getting to where you need to be.
However, there is absolutely nothing that compares from seeing a new place through the eyes of people who live there. As a tourist, you only have access to a few different things, but with the locals, you will be able to see and experience a world of things you never knew existed.
5. People aren’t as afraid of you as you think
You’ve probably seen hundreds of portraits that have been taken by travel photographers, many of these images were not taken against the will of the subject. You’ll find that people aren’t terribly afraid of the camera, hesitant maybe, but ask them politely if you can take their picture. Sure, they might say no, but they might say yes.
6. Be invisible
Like I’ve said before, don’t be that guy in the corner snapping pictures of everything. Before you go to a location, do some research, find out the cultural taboos and avoid them. Don’t wear bright colors in an area where the prevailing spectrum is black and gray suits, or a dark suit in a sweltering climate. Work to blend in as much as possible.
If you seem strange, people will take notice and won’t act naturally around you. Be patient, and if you find that an atmosphere isn’t a welcoming one, find somewhere else to be. If you absolutely have to take a shot, do it swiftly, but move on. Remember, you are a guest in a different place, be respectful of your environment.
7. Choose a theme
If you’re planning to tell a story featuring your images at a later date, find a way to connect everything. One of the quicker ways to do this is matching tones and color schemes. Other ways include shooting a number of locations with the same lens in the same way. Photo stories need to build off the individual photos in a set, they don’t have to match, they just have to express similar ideas.
This goes back to tip #1. Ask yourself how you would react if your camera was damaged or stolen on the road. Without insurance, you are making things much more difficult on yourself than they have to be. What insurance you get depends on the type of equipment you use and what you use it for.
If you are a professional photographer making money from your profession, you will most likely need to get a Inland Marine Insurance Policy, which covers property that is moveable in nature such as computers, tools, and, for your purposes, camera equipment.
9. Travel light, but carry extra
In comparison to your camera equipment, you don’t need clothes, food, or toiletries. When traveling, pack only the necessities, as you’ll be carrying much more than you ever really need. Take out the additional three pairs of underwear. You probably won’t need them. What you will need are extra batteries for your phone and your camera, various adapters so that you can recharge on the road, multiple SD cards, a laptop for storing photos, and, if you’re really serious, an external hard drive.
Naturally, it wouldn’t hurt to have an extra camera body and lenses, because the kit you bring is the kit you’re stuck with. The last thing you want is seeing the perfect opportunity arise and not having the right gear with you.
Then, after adding all these absolute necessities, if there is any extra room in your pack, you can put your additional clothes in.
10. Get a notebook
One of the greatest photographers in history, Ansel Adams, once said, “Get a notebook. No photographer should be without one.” He was absolutely right. You may have the best memory in the world, but you will forget things. You don’t have to meticulously detail everything that occurs during your trip, but you will need to write down names and places, where you were on what day and with whom. Even if you can remember, spare yourself the unnecessary brain strain by writing it down. You’ll have a handy guide when you’re editing photos later on, and you won’t have to ask yourself, “Where was this, and why did I take this picture?”