Posted by: kerryl29 | April 13, 2015

Preparing for a Photo Trip

Several years ago, I wrote a guest blog entry on 1001 Scribbles that dealt with photo trip preparation.  As I’m poised to head off on such an excursion myself (to the Oregon Coast and the redwoods area of northern California) in less than three weeks, I thought it would be appropriate for me to revise that post and present it here.

For those of us with cameras, there are two types of trips:  trips where we take photos and photo trips.  It may seem that there’s no distinction between the two, but I assure you there is.  While just about anyone with the shutterbug will take a camera and snap some shots during a trip, a photo trip is one that is specifically designed to accommodate photography.  Stated in other words, a trip that is created for the primary (or sole) purpose of photographing is a photo trip.  Anything else is trip where you take photos.

Just to be clear, I don’t mean dismiss trips that aren’t specifically intended to further one’s photographic pursuits–there is, quite obviously, absolutely nothing wrong with them.  But they are different, and it’s the photo trip excursion I’m going to discuss in this post.

I try to take two extended photo trips each year, though I’m not always able to do so.  This year, my first trip begins on Sunday, May 3, when I fly from Chicago to Portland, Oregon en route to spending approximately 12 days on the southern Oregon Coast, Redwoods National Park in California and Silver Falls State Park in north-central Oregon.

Because it’s been very much on my mind lately, this entry will provide some suggestions relevant to photo trip planning.

Conduct Advance Research on Your Destination

Being in position to obtain the best shots—particularly in an unfamiliar locale—demands some background research on the location.  For most places, there’s a tremendous amount of material available for you, in the form of printed guide books, e-books, websites, blogs and online forums.

Swift Creek Overlook at Sunrise, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

Swift Creek Overlook at Sunrise, Red River Gorge, Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky

I’ve been to the Oregon Coast (not Redwoods N.P. or Silver Falls S.P.) once before, but it was about six years ago and it was a parts-of-four-days whirlwind, covering the entire coast from Cannon Beach in the north to Port Orford in the south.  So, for that trip I ordered a couple of books on photographing Oregon from Amazon (one dealing with the Coast specifically); did extensive research on Redwoods and Silver Falls on the Web; and engaged the always helpful services of Gunta at Movin’ On, because of her extensive experience in the region and willingness to help.  And that’s just for starters!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t expound a bit on the last point above.  It’s always a huge benefit when you have someone who has a home base knowledge of an area and a photographer’s sensibility to consult; I’ve leveraged this sort of assistance over the years in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Red River Gorge region of Kentucky, western Pennsylvania, northeast Ohio, West Virginia, New Mexico, the Canadian Rockies and elsewhere.

By consulting these myriad sources, you can learn an incredible amount—in advance—about prime shooting locations, best times, weather considerations, what gear to bring and utilize and countless other handy bits that will allow you to hit the ground running and make the most of your time when you arrive at your destination.  There’s nothing worse than arriving at an unfamiliar spot and flying by the seat of your pants.  Photo opportunities will always be relatively limited, so it makes sense to give yourself as much of a chance to take advantage of them as possible.

Waterfall, Ash Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

Waterfall, Ash Cave, Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio

Don’t Overschedule

There’s an inclination, when planning a trip to a distant place (you know the kind; the one you’re not sure you’ll ever be able to return to) to try to see everything.  Resist this urge to the extent possible.  (I know it can be difficult; I’m as guilty of this as anyone.)  If you put too much on your plate, you’ll inevitably end up giving short shrift to everything and you’ll miss out on the pleasure of really working specific spots that particularly appeal to you once you’re on the ground.  You’ll also lose the opportunity to return to especially enchanting spots.

My suggestion:  Take the time to prioritize—to the extent that you can—the places you most want to see and then put together a list of alternatives to draw from, without committing to them.  This will give you the opportunity to maximize the places of appeal as you experience them in real time.

Aspen Hillside, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

Aspen Hillside, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

Retain Some Flexibility

In line with the above, don’t pigeonhole yourself into going to certain places on certain days or at specific times.  Give yourself the flexibility to adapt to the conditions.  For instance, a “must do” sunrise location will work best with scattered clouds.  Keep an eye on the forecast and if it’s going to be clear one morning, you might put that location off for another day.  Some locations work best under overcast conditions, while others do best when sunlit.  Give yourself the chance for the best opportunities by tailoring your spots for the conditions you face.  (If you’ve ever been on a photo workshop or tour, you already know this mantra.)

Freeland Farm Dawn, Tucker County, West Virginia

Freeland Farm Dawn, Tucker County, West Virginia

Leave the Non-Photo Family Members at Home

This is going to be a bit controversial, but…photography is a terrible spectator sport.  It is extremely difficult—and probably unreasonable—to bring non-photographers on a true photo trip and expect them to keep themselves amused all day, every day, while you’re out in the field.  There are some very rare people who will do this without complaint (my wife happens to be one of them, bless her), but you may still find yourself feeling guilty wondering what on earth they’re doing to keep from being bored to tears while you’re waiting for the sun to peek behind a cloud or the wind to stop blowing…and that may make you rush and…let’s just say it’s not a good scene.

Photo trips are best handled when they’re exclusively limited to photographers.  I almost always partake in my photo trips entirely alone these days.  That will be the case for my upcoming Oregon/California trip.

Middle Prong of the Little River, Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Middle Prong of the Little River, Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Be Comfortable with your Gear

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway:  don’t buy a new piece of gear the day before you leave.  A photo trip is not the time to be experimenting or learning the ropes with unfamiliar equipment.  Be entirely facile with your equipment well in advance of your trip so that you don’t spend time in the field, missing the opportunities that you’ve sacrificed time and money to obtain, fiddling around with camera menus or lens settings.

Similarly, if you haven’t shot with your existing gear for awhile, be sure to get out into the field a time or two before you hit the road for your photo trip, just to re-familiarize yourself with in-field workflow.

Elowah Falls, John B. Yeon State Park, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon

Elowah Falls, John B. Yeon State Park, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon

Be Prepared for Changing Weather

Depending on where you’re going (and when), be prepared for changing climatic conditions.  The Oregon Coast in spring, for instance, is prone to some rainy conditions–not as bad as winter, but it’s by no means a slam dunk to be dry, as is almost always the case in the summer–with temperatures likely to range from roughly 40 to 60 degrees, F.  As a result, I’ll be bringing plenty of warm, waterproof or water resistant clothing.   When I was in West Virginia a few autumns ago, it was snowing when I arrived, for the first few days the high temperatures never got out of the 30s and I dealt with near constant light rain.  The back end of the week I was there, mid 70s and sunshine were the order of the day.  I had a similar experience when I was in New Mexico five years ago, dealing with 90 degree temperatures and snowfall on the same week long trip!  The same thing happened on my trip to Utah and Nevada in May of 2012–I had temperatures in the low 20s at daybreak at Bryce Canyon and dealt with temperatures above 100 degrees in the shade at Valley of Fire.

It’s almost impossible to concentrate on photography when you’re uncomfortable, so take that possibility out of the equation by being properly equipped.

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Prepare Your Gear for Any Special Consideratons

If there’s something unique about your destination, as it pertains to your photo gear, find out in advance and prepare accordingly.  For instance, cameras, lenses and tripods positively hate sand and saltwater.  Guess what exists in abundance on the Oregon Coast?  Right.

Whenever I shoot at the seaside, I make sure that I always have several things with me that I don’t necessarily bring when photographing elsewhere:  lots of fresh water (to wash down tripod legs at the end of the shoot to eliminate any sand/salt residue); plenty of clean towels (to dry off gear); high end clear filters for my lenses.  I only use the filters if I’m going to be shooting around salt spray (sometimes wind driven), to keep traces of that material off the front element of my lenses.  Similarly, if I’m shooting in snowy conditions or in dusty conditions, I make the necessary allowances for my gear.

The point, really, is to take note of any special shooting circumstances and make allowances for your gear accordingly.  Have what you need when you need it.

Au Sable Point Light, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Au Sable Point Light, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Take Proper Care of Yourself

This is going to have to fall into the “do as I say, not as I do” category, but do yourself a big favor and don’t push yourself beyond your comfort limits.  I have a nasty history of really pushing the envelope on these photo trips, to the point where things can get out of hand.

For instance, when I was in the Pacific Northwest for two weeks six years ago, I was dealing with 17 hours of daylight per day.  I was awake a couple of hours before sunrise every day, to get myself in place for pre-dawn shooting, and out well past sunset night after night.  I was literally getting less than four hours of sleep per night.  I was in the field just about all day every day and I wasn’t eating properly or hydrating properly either.  I got some great pictures, but…  The upshot of it was that I was sleep deprived, lost 12 pounds (and I didn’t go into the trip needing to lose weight) and two days after I returned home I suffered through a brutal kidney stone episode (caused by the extended period of improper hydration).

I’ve continued to push myself pretty hard on trips since then, but never to that extent and I’m now very careful to properly hydrate.  Do yourself a favor and learn from my (bad) example; it’s not worth putting your health at risk for any shot.

Similarly, don’t take dumb, unnecessary chances with your safety.  Don’t go hiking alone in bear country, don’t get yourself stranded because of the incoming tide, don’t get too far out on the cliff face on wet rock surfaces just to get a slightly better (or even much better) shot.  I’m probably more willing to push the limits than most (but definitely not all–I’ve seen some people do things in the field that were patently insane), but I never go beyond my innate comfort level and (at least partly) as a result, I’ve never gotten myself into any truly dangerous predicaments over the years.

Live to shoot another day.

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah



  1. I think your advice to leave the non-photographers at home on a photo tour is good. It might not be too popular, although I don’t see any critical comments here yet.

    I wrote about a similar thing several years ago. I’ve gotten used to the schedule, but it took a while.

    One suggestion is when you’re out like that, the light tends to not be good in the afternoon (say noon to 3 pm approximately). The hubby and I head back for a nap so we aren’t sleep deprived and miserable.

    I reference an article from the Wall Street Journal in there that’s really good on sharing passions. It helped us both a lot when we adjusted to me doing photography with him.


    • Great piece–thanks for linking it. There’s no question, at least in my mind, that if there’s a commonality of interests among members of a couple, you’re in great shape. If not–and especially if one person is extremely serious about photography while the other isn’t, it’s not the best arrangement to try and split the difference (so to speak).

      BTW, a mid-day nap if the light stinks isn’t a bad idea by any means. I tend to spend that “bad light” time scouting, but I know a lot of people who, when the opportunity presents itself, use that time to catch up on some much needed sleep.

  2. Beautiful shots! And precious pieces of advice – thank you!

    • Thanks very much!

  3. Excellent points and lovely photographs!

  4. Excellent, informative and beautifully illustrated post. ‘Photo trips’ are my favorite trips and I do leave hubby at home. No sooner back from a photo trip to the Charleston area and planning my next!

    • Thanks! Agreed, nothing beats a photo trip for me and, at the very least, I try to have a loose list of possibilities for “the next one,” often before I’ve even departed for the one I’ve already mapped out. 🙂

  5. Perfectly said, Kerry! I already know that you have the same mindset on a photo trip so I will just say that I understand for sure how those 17 hour daylight days could really wear you out. I know that when I am on a trip and the harsh light shows up my non photo attendees think that is time to do something else but we know that is just time to go spotting the next locations. Great photos as always and I look forward to our next outing.

    • Thanks, Terry! As to those long days…I’ve barely scratched the surface in my description. Maybe I’ll produce a post devoted to that subject one of these days.

      I’m looking forward to the next time too.

  6. Excellent thoughts. And your usual disgustingly stunning pictures. 🙂

    • “Disgustingly stunning”? I’ll have to remember that. 🙂

      Seriously, thanks, Frank.

  7. Thoughtful and informative as always, Kerry. A couple of observations. These days I make the trips where I take photos more often than photo trips. I wholeheartedly agree with your distinction and have certainly done my share of photo trips.

    One thing I have learned is that no matter how much research you do on your intended destination you cannot really envision the site until you have actually been there. I always try to arrive at a shooting location prior to the best light. Sometimes that means the day before.

    The second thing is that I often find images that were not within my research or part of the iconic shot for the location.

    I think both of these fall within your advice to stay flexible.

    • Thanks, Andy, for taking the time to comment.

      Good points. The advantage to doing research is getting a good feel for where–generally–to go. It definitely is not a substitute for scouting those locations in the flesh, when specific compositions can be pondered.

      Re the other point, I’ve always been a big advocate of keeping an open mind for taking advantage of serendipitous opportunities. 🙂

  8. Thanks for the shout out! Really, really looking forward to seeing what you’ll come up with from my neck of the woods!

    • Thanks, Gunta. Me too. 🙂

  9. Great post!
    In the tropics I might add an umbrella and large plastic bags to cover the camera and long lenses on a tripod.

    • Thanks for the additions. I haven’t done any photography in a tropical location, so I appreciate your sharing your experience.

  10. woww !!! this so beautiful …

  11. Beatifull landscape, light, waterfall, pictures, everything…

    • Thanks very much!

  12. I’ve only taken one trip that I’d classify as specifically for photos, but all your tips are spot on for it, and I’ll join the chorus endorsing that recommendation to leave the non-photographers at home. My poor previous girlfriend spent far too much time watching me take pictures….until I convinced her to borrow her dad’s camera, then suddenly she was the one doing it!

    • Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I’m not sure that there’s anything worse than a trip, scheduled as a true photo trip, that includes non-photographers. Almost literally without exception, at least one person is going to be very unhappy. Much of the time, everyone is going to be unhappy. That just doesn’t sound like much fun. The obvious alternatives–both of which are viable–are:

      1) leave the non-photographers at home

      2) make it a non-photo trip; a compromise may well work for some, where the photography is a bit more catch-as-catch-can, much like that practiced by seasoned travel photographers. That kind of approach certainly facilitates the inclusion of non-photographers. And, as long as the person with the photography bug understands that the opportunities are going to be different than they would be on a true photo trip, there’s no reason this sort of approach can’t lead to a pleasant experience for everyone.

  13. awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! it was nice

  14. We love your photos!!!

    • Thanks very much!

      • Do you go take photos in different provinces/states?

        • Yes, I do. I’m based in Illinois and Indiana, but twice a year I try to go further afield for photography. I’ll be in Oregon and northern California beginning the week after next and this fall I hope to return to the Canadian Rockies (I was there for the first time last autumn). If you look through my archives you’ll see images from some of my excursions.

          Thanks very much for stopping by.

        • That is really cool!!! Do you ever go to New England?

        • I spent some time shooting at Acadia NP in Maine nine years ago next month. I’ve had plans to shoot in both northern New England (Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine) and southern New England (Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island) in the fall for years now. In fact, at one time I had plans to travel to northern New England this coming fall, but that’s been short-circuited. Maybe next year…

  15. wow amazing picture. I wish I could do photography that well! 🙂

  16. […] enough time to have a real chance to, in fact, succeed.  I’ve hinted at the importance of this axiom in the past, but it’s almost always easier said than done, particularly when traveling to a place as […]

  17. […] of you who have been reading this blog for some time know by now that when I take a photo trip it’s usually a carefully researched solo endeavor.  There were some significant divergences […]

  18. […] had some experience doing this (I’ve discussed photo trip planning in a previous post on this blog; I wrote specifically about limiting photo gear on challenging hikes in another […]

  19. […] for images and an outing that involves the occasional casual taking of pictures.  As I’ve said in the past on this blog, there’s a qualitative distinction to be drawn between a photo trip and a trip where one […]

  20. […] discussed this point before.  I find it nearly impossible to truly take my time when I’m out in the field with […]

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