How to plan a photography trip

Here’s a few tips for planning a photography trip.  I’ve been working out a trip of my own for the beginning of October and have some tips that might help you make the most of your time.  (I’ll probably expand some of these in posts later)

Plan Ahead

If there is only one thing you learn, make it this.  Plan way ahead.  Seriously, as far ahead as possible.  Seems like everybody and their mom discovered leaving their home and going outdoors so everything is crowded now.  If you need a place to sleep, a permit, or permission to access a place make sure you find out beforehand and book as soon as possible. We’re talking months ahead.

Make a list of gear you need.

Know how much of your photography kit you need to have with you.  Sometimes you can pack light, other times you need it all.  But make sure you have a checklist of every piece you need.  Then before you leave home lay out all the gear on the floor, and check it off the list as you load it into your bags.  While photographing the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area of Arizona I brought my camera, my tripod, but I forgot the tripod mounting plate.  I even had it on the list but I didn’t check it off as I loaded my bags and it sat on the coffee table as I left (thank god for the most awesome photography shop down in Kanab).

Write things down.

Write down or print out your plans, places to go, sunrise/set times, moonrise/set times, all the research you made.  I love using digital tools to help me take photographs but they always seem to fail me when I get out of signal range and my batteries die.  Although a tourist bureau would have some good ideas of activities for people they don’t really cater to the needs of a serious photographer.  You’re going to need to provide your own info, and even though it’s much easier now that we have internet capable phones to look things up, you never know when that will become unavailable.  The great thing about paper and ink is that it doesn’t’ need signal, never runs out of power, and is lighter to carry.

Know the time of day.

Weird right? But you need to have an idea when the sun rises and sets in the area you’ll be in, that way you can better plan where you’ll be during golden hour and blue hour.  Knowing the exact time the sun will set will help allow you time to get to the place you want to photograph instead of being stuck hiking at the bottom of a canyon when the sun is setting up at the observation point you meant to get to by now.

Know the season

The difference between photographing a mountain in Winter and in Summer is night and day (or summer and winter, more literally).  Make sure you know what you’re getting into, not just so you know what kind of pictures you’ll be making but what personal gear you need to survive taking them.  For example, taking pics in fall may change your whole goal from general landscapes to beautiful autumn foliage.  Also it may mean you’re there during the rainy season, or the dry season and you’ll have to craft photographs accordingly.

Know the Terrain

So you know exactly when the sun will set, and where it should hit the canyon at this time of year.  But you didn’t know that the huge mountain 20 miles away is going to block it all because it stands 20 degrees above the horizon.  Know where the shadows will fall, because sundown at the bottom of a canyon is long before sundown on the shore of the ocean or at the top of a mountain.

Know the points of interest

There are hundreds of good places to take pictures where you’re going. Know where you want to be during the prime photography hours in morning and night.  Obviously it would be ideal to spend a whole summer exploring the area for just the right shots but in most cases you have one chance at it so try to have a good idea of your general area ahead of time.

Make a schedule

Plan where you want to be and when.  You don’t have to follow the schedule but simply having some direction beforehand will help maximize what you get out the trip.  Too many trips boil down to, “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. Where do YOU want to go?”
For some reason just having some movement makes it easier to decide what you really want to do.  Then the discussion becomes, “Let’s go.”
“Even though that’s the plan, now I want to go HERE instead.”
“Ok, let’s go there instead.”

Have plenty of unscheduled time

The best shots usually happen on a whim.  You don’t know when you’ll stumble across a scene that you’ll want to work for a few hours.  If you planned down to the minute it will ruin your whole itinerary.  Have plenty of free gaps in your schedule for rest and impromptu photographs, even if they’re unused you can catchup if you spend too much time somewhere else.  Also if need be throw out the schedule or skip over parts of it if you need to catch up later on.

Don’t forget to stop taking pictures

Be sure to set the camera down, put the camera in the bag and just look around you. Spend some time enjoying yourself and form a few actual memories of your own to go along with the photographs you took.  Besides enjoying the trip more it allows you to connect with your surroundings so when you do pick the camera back up you’ll take better pictures.  It’s better to have a few great pictures and a bunch of awesome memories, than thousands of good pictures but no memory of the whirlwind you just went through.

Hours were spent a home figuring what angle the sun would hit the canyon, and what time I had to be there.  Then I was able to narrow down photo locations to one I though would have the best options.  Getting there 30mins early I had time to walk through the snow and ice and scouted till I found a good anchor subject to tie it all together.  In the last few minutes I decided on the focal length I wanted and set all my camera settings with some test shots.  Then it was just a matter of leaning against the railing and enjoying the view as the sun broke over the horizon before casually getting my shot.



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