Thank you for subscribing!
Got it! Thank you!

Digital Travel Photography: Planning Your Trip from a Photo Perspective

The anticipation leading up to your departure can be delightful, especially if you spend some of that time planning your trip. Here's what you need to take and what to remember.

One of the most enjoyable parts of any trip is the anticipation. The days and weeks leading up to your departure can be delightful, especially if you spend some of that time planning your trip. Part of your planning should include a photographic perspective so you'll be prepared to get the most from your digital camera during your travel. It doesn't matter whether your trip is by guided motor coach with a full slate of activities scheduled down to the minute, or a self-navigated walkabout with an itinerary that can change as the mood strikes you. Planning, even if only for the broad spectrum of possibilities, can make your photo safari that much more successful.

Five Things You Must Take With You


If you learn nothing else from this Quick Tour, you should know about the five most important things that absolutely must go into your luggage, camera bag, purse, or other carry-all.

1. A camera and a spare

Don't laugh. People have been known to climb into the minivan and get partially out of the driveway without one of the kids. Inadvertently leaving the camera behind is within the realm of possibility. While you can certainly purchase a replacement camera anywhere you go (there are even single use digital cameras now), you'll take your best pictures if you have your familiar, full-featured digital camera with you. Don't forget it!

A spare camera is something that many travelers forget about. Within a family or group, one member is often the most enthusiastic or skilled photographer, and given that there's so much else going on during a typical trip, it's easy to anoint that person (probably you) as the official (and only) photographer.

In practice, though, it's usually a good idea to have a second person with an additional camera to serve as a backup should the main camera become broken, lost, or stolen, and, most importantly, to provide another perspective. You'll find that your photographic second unit may capture pictures that you miss or even include you in a few shots so you're not relegated the invisible person of the trip. This additional camera (or two) needn't be as sophisticated as yours. Of course, travel photography is so much fun that backup photographers may not be a problem. It's likely that everyone in your group will want to have a camera of his or her own.

2. Plenty of digital film cards

Back home, you probably find that as your digital memory card fills up, it's easy to copy all the pictures to your computer to make room on the card for more. As you travel, you find that your cards seem to fill up much more quickly. And your computer, which you probably left behind, can't be used to offload your shots (unless you take a laptop computer with you.)

You'll need to have a lot more digital film. So, plan on buying one or two extra memory cards for your trip. That way you have spares as well as enough capacity for a day or two of shooting as a bare minimum. How much memory is enough? If you were shooting with film, it wouldn't be uncommon for you to shoot two or three rolls of 24- or 36-exposure film a day. Because you won't be paying for film processing and need to make prints only of the shots you want, you'll probably shoot more digital pictures.

If you have enough memory cards, it costs no more to shoot ten shots than it does to shoot 1,000. It's wise to plan to have enough digital film to shoot at least 100 pictures a day -- more if you're a dedicated photo buff. Even if you find yourself in a seeming photo wasteland and discover something interesting enough to snap off two or three photos every 15 minutes or so, that's still more than 100 pictures in a typical day.

The size and number of memory cards you need varies depending on the resolution of your camera and the capacity of the cards you choose. Insert a blank card in your camera, and set the camera for the resolution you'll be using. Note the number of pictures possible (it will appear on the status LCD of your camera), and divide your daily target shooting goal by that figure to arrive at the quantity of cards you'll need. A photographer with a 5- to 6-megapixel digital camera typically needs two or more 512MB film cards to handle a day's shooting.

3. Extra batteries and/or a charger

If your digital camera uses AA batteries, you'll be able to find fresh replacements nearly anywhere in the world. But if your camera uses an oddball lithium or alkaline battery, you might find yourself far from a camera or electronics store when your old one fails. Should your camera use rechargeable batteries, make sure you take your charger and that it's physically and electrically compatible with the power system at your destination. It's not a bad idea to have an extra rechargeable battery along, both as an emergency backup and as a pop-in replacement if your original battery tires out during a long shooting day.

4. A one-gallon zippered plastic food storage bag

Sometimes the simplest must-haves can be lifesavers. This all-purpose storage container can hold your memory cards, batteries, and other accessories separate from your other personal items in your luggage, purse, or camera bag. This extra protection can shield your gear from moisture -- or worse. In a pinch, a zip bag can function as a raincoat for your digital camera. Don't leave home without one.

5. Your camera manual, my book, and a travel guide

Okay, that's three items -- but one of them (your camera manual) might not be necessary if you've absolutely memorized how to use each and every feature of your digital camera. If not, it's a good idea to take along your manual so you can quickly look up -- if necessary -- how to operate that self-timer you almost never use so you can get into a picture yourself, or how to set your camera for shooting rapid sequences. Or, perhaps you'd like to add a special effect or, for the first time, use your camera's facility for slimming down big pictures to e-mail size.

My Digital Field Guide is also useful to refresh your memory on some technical points such as use of flash or focus settings, plus it's packed with ideas for special shooting situations and recipes for getting great pictures in those situations. A field guide serves you best in the field.

A good travel guide, such as those you'll find on, not only helps you find places to stay and things to do, but can also spark ideas on the most interesting photo opportunities. I took along one of Arthur Frommer's $5 a Day books on my first trip overseas (yes, it was that long ago), and liked the way it provided me a key to each city's and region's primo sights and sites.

Choose Interesting and Photogenic Sites

It's a smart strategy to think about the photographic possibilities that may unfold as you plan your trip. I recognize that the main goal of your travels may be sightseeing, business, or something other than photography. But it's even more likely that taking pictures will be an important part of your experience. If you're a very serious photographer, picture-taking may be your primary motivation.

A few years ago, I spent seven full days of a 10-day solo visit to Spain in a pilgrimage to the magical medieval city of Toledo. I allotted that much time specifically to take pictures of a town I'd visited more than a dozen times before and knew well enough to want to document its people and sights. In this particular case, my destination was chosen specifically for its photographic possibilities.

You probably won't go that far, but you may want to keep photographic interests in mind as you plan your itinerary. Here are some things to think about:

  • Get lost.
Be alert for off-the beaten-path photo opportunities along your planned route. Perhaps the world's biggest ball of twine isn't your cup of tea, but you might be passing by the birthplace or former home of a president or of some other person you admire. A little-known glacier formation or an unusual monument might yield an interesting picture quite different from that with which everyone else ends up. Don't forget out-of-theway places found in larger cities, too. In Paris, you'll certainly want a photo of the Eiffel Tower, but you might get a better picture in a secluded little park you discover a few blocks from the Seine.
  • Plan for festivities. Local events, fiestas, fetes, and celebrations can provide memorable photo opportunities, but only if you are at the right place at the right time. Holy Week in Spain, Cherry Blossom season in Washington, D.C., the annual Chicago Blues Fest, or Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro can be once-in-a-lifetime photographic treasures for travel photographers. You might plan your trip around one of these major events or simply do some research in's events section to see what other things are going on during your visit.
  • Explore the quirky. Some of your favorite photo opportunities can turn up in places you'd ordinarily never visit. You might not think of journeying, say, to Fairmount, Indiana (population 3,300), because it's a mundane and quiet rural community most of the time. But late in September each year it's invaded by hordes of fans for the annual James Dean Festival, thus qualifying for both my off-the beaten-path and festivities guidelines.
  • Plan for the weather. Some destinations are a lot of fun, no matter what the weather. For example, Europe can be spectacular and uncrowded during the winter months. However, if photography is high on your list of priorities, keep the limitations and advantages of rainy seasons, gusty weather, and the possibility of scorching days in mind. Some times of year are better than others for certain types of photography. You might want to shoot surfing pictures when the seas are a little rough and the waves high, or tour New England during the fall when the changing colors of the leaves are breathtaking.
  • Choose your sites. On a typical trip there are more than enough interesting things to see and visit. Plus, if you're a typical traveler, you'll want to spend time actually doing things such as scuba diving, windsurfing, rock climbing, or enjoying local foods (even dedicated tourists do more than tour).

So, it's important to choose your photo opportunities carefully. Mix in some particularly photogenic stops along with those that are important for other reasons. For example, the Louvre in Paris prohibits photography in certain parts of the museum (generally the busiest areas). Those same galleries contain some of the most important works, so you'll want to visit them even if you can't take pictures. Instead, try a visit to, for example, the gardens of the Musée Rodin, where the photographic possibilities are spectacular.