8 Tips for the Traveling Photographer with Alissa Zimmerman
Traveling the world doing photography is one of my favorite parts of the job. Many of us are wary of all the hassles and unexpected challenges of travel photography. It’s not always glamorous, and it takes time to learn how to manage the chaos. Here are my own hard-won Top 8 travel tips for photographers anxious to hop on a plane and cross an ocean with a bunch of gear in the overhead.
Be Realistic About Travel Time
It doesn’t matter if you’re driving, flying, taking a train or walking—you have to be realistic about time. I use Google Maps to plan trips. If Google Maps says it will take three hours and 45 minutes to get from point A to point B, I allow an extra hour or two for stops along the way, traffic and any miscellaneous event that can happen that’s out of my control. This ensures I’m not scrambling to get somewhere on time (which can get you two speeding tickets in one trip, which I heard happened to a photographer recently, but, ahem, I’m not saying who it was).
Plan Your Downtime
Being realistic about downtime is also important. Let’s say you have five days in one city. It’s instinctual to want to plan photo shoots and excursions every single day you’re there to take advantage of the locations. There’s nothing wrong with that, but after years of trying to do it, we have realized that everyone needs down days. For us, a down day doesn’t mean watching TV in bed all day. We have a business to run back home, so staying caught up on email and tasks is vital to the success of the company (which is ultimately what allows you to take these trips, right?).
Nine out of 10 times, a down day means pajamas and no showers while checking email. Comfort and relaxation is important to the creative process, and you’ve got a jam-packed schedule full of photo shoots that require all the creativity you have. You also need coffee. Lots of good, robust coffee.
Be Realistic About Eating
No one wants to work with a hangry photographer. Whenever Sal and I land in whatever city we’re going to, we get to our hotel or Airbnb, drop off our bags and go to the nearest market to load up on snack and meals for the time we’re there. Think about the days you’re on photo shoots just as much as your down days so you don’t have to keep making trips to the store when you run out of food.
- Coffee (hopefully your hotel or Airbnb has a coffee maker for those down days when you have no intention of getting out of your pajamas)
- Breakfast stuff
- French bread and cold cuts with cheese for sandwiches (keep it simple)
- Wine (for me, mostly)
Be Realistic About Location Scouting
Most of the time, we don’t have the luxury of knowing what’s around these cities outside of searching online and using Google Earth. I add on at least a half day on the front end of every city to give us time to scout locations in person (or at least check our prescouted locations in person to make sure they exist and they look like the images we found online).
Be Loyal to Companies and Reap the Rewards
Loyalty in the travel world pays off in so many ways while you’re on the road (or in the air). Do the research upfront and select the company with the best rewards programs.
For airlines, we started our international travel with United Airlines back in 2013 and have been consistently booking our international flights with them ever since. The points add up. We’re able to upgrade to business class on 14-plus-hour flights. There’s nothing better than getting upgraded for a flight when you know you’re going to be thrown into chaos the second you hit the ground. Side note: Be careful with the upgrades. Once you’ve flown the friendly skies in business class, economy class will never be the same.
For domestic flights, we have been using Southwest Airlines for the past six years. That loyalty has earned us access to a companion pass, which allows me to fly for free anywhere Southwest flies as long as I’m flying with Sal. Huge perk.
Hotel member benefits are more of a comfort thing, honestly, but the comfort matters after a long day of travel. It comes in handy when you’re on a trip that requires a lot of gear or suitcases. We are Diamond members with Hilton, which usually means we get upgraded to a suite or larger room at no additional cost. The extra space is awesome, especially on those down days when you’re spending the entire day in the room.
Never Sacrifice Your Comfort
When we first started traveling internationally, we tried to cut costs every chance we got. Obviously, this will be the case for many of you as well. But after years of cramming too many people into a small room with one bathroom, spending way too much time trying to shove eight suitcases into a tiny car and more, we realized our comfort was well worth the extra couple hundred dollars.
If you’re traveling with two or more people (and don’t share a room with that person already), rent an Airbnb rather than multiple hotel rooms as a major cost saver and a good way to live like the locals.
If you need to rent a vehicle for on-location photo shoots, spend the extra money on a mid- to full-size SUV. This gives you plenty of space for suitcases and gear and plenty of legroom. You can lay out dresses and other wardrobe across the back row of seats to avoid wrinkling.
The Internet Is Your Best Friend
I cannot stress enough the importance of research before going on any kind of trip, large or small, domestic or international. You have the breadth of human knowledge at your fingertips. You have no excuse going unprepared.
I read reviews of everything when we travel, including reviews, forums and blogs on restaurants, hotels and other services. I use TripAdvisor.com religiously overseas. Sure, it’s littered with nonsense and terrible information, but if you get smarter about the phrases you use when searching, the results can be a game changer for you. Just type in the exact question you have in your head, and you’ll be amazed at how many other people posted the exact same question.
Don’t ignore blogs. I spend hours reading travel blogs about other people’s experiences at our planned destinations. This is a great way to get real-world advice from someone who has been where you’re going. There’s a lot of crap out there. Weed through the ones that don’t fit what you’re looking to accomplish, and you’ll find some gold.
Pack Smart and Light
I have a routine that works pretty well for me. It’s time-consuming, but it works. I lay out anything I might need for the length of time I will be gone—dressy outfit for a nice dinner? The essentials? Shoes? Check. Round one: complete. From there, I start narrowing it down to what I actually need until I get it to under 50 pounds. Put the priority on things like laptops and hard drives that you won’t be able to replace at your destination. Things like clothes are much easier to replace.
The number-one tip I can give anyone, not just photographers, who are traveling: Pack smart and light. There is nothing more obnoxious than having to lug around three or four suitcases in and out of airports, onto trains and into taxis.