I've been asked to put some of my photography travel tips into writing,
so here it is. (Revised 01/05)
I've been contemplating revising this article for some time to include both digital and new developments on the travel front. The digital end changes so quickly that I wanted to make changes that would at least withstand the test of time. I hope that is what has been achieved with this update.
Before you leave the house:
It's assumed that you'd have an itinerary, either from your travel agent or from resources like the Fodor's Guides or AAA to places you want to visit. These things help you get the most out of your trip and still be able to get good pictures of it without having the enjoyment of the place or location be sacrificed. If not, then just be aware that you may need to make contingency plans for shooting purposes. You may want to check the FAA's Web site at: http://www.faa.gov/ ...too, for any changes and advisories that may be enacted prior to your trip.
You should begin your planning with insurance of your cameras and equipment you plan to take with you with your insurance carrier. Be up front and honest with them, and tell them that you want to insure it for your trip. Most carriers will simply cover them on your homeowners/renters policy, and some with separate policies. Either way you're covered for loss or theft of the equipment. You will need to get serial numbers, make, model and descriptions of all the gear you plan to take. Digital photos wouldn't hurt, either. You'll also want to go down to your local US Customs Office and fill out what's called a "Certificate of Registration" for personal effects like this you may take abroad. This is Form CF4457, and can only be acquired at the agency's offices. You can locate your nearest US Customs Office at the following web address: www.customs.ustreas.gov. You must physically bring the equipment you plan to take to their offices for their inspection, and they will then confirm the information on the form and stamp it. This is done for the purposes of being able to get your gear back into the country without having to pay duty on your own equipment, or even jewelry and watches, or other such valuable items. Their stand is that just because you say you left the country with it, doesn't mean you really did. This form proves that, and will make the possibility of potential problems go away. Travel insurance for travelers outside the U.S. is also highly recommended, for the obvious reasons. You might also want to check with the CDC's web site for health related issues, and the US State Department's web site for travel advisories.
If traveling overseas to a country that does not speak your language, try to learn some key phrases in their language. There are some quite good phrase books and CD-ROMs that will help you with these tasks. This also gives a measure of confidence in showing that you know what's going on, thus maybe preventing any problems with communications. A few well placed phrases will be critical in being able to get to where you want to go or what you want to eat or drink. Or, be able to find a restroom in a hurry. I think you get the picture.
Be prepared with proper clothing for the climate you're visiting. This is where these travel books and web sites come in handy. For example, August in Fairbanks Alaska may seem mild to someone from Minnesota, but a bit cool to someone from, say, Louisiana. And, don't forget that bugs and other such things will also affect what you pack to wear. Thin clothing may not work with the mosquitoes in the Alaskan Bush Country.
One other possibility you should seriously consider is to ship your luggage and gear ahead of time to your destination. With the difficulty in having your checked luggage being unlocked and open to theft, this option may be somewhat less expensive than having to have to replace your belongings away from home. Most hotels will be more than happy to store your stuff for you with confirmed reservations with them. Calling/emailing ahead of time will assure this, and be sure to get names of all personnel that will be responsible for its storage and protection before/after you leave. You have several options with this process, from shipping companies like FedEx, UPS and DHL, to services such as Virtual Bellhop. These type of things are not bullet proof, and I'm sure someone will have had problems at a given time with theses types of services, but they are insurable. Key here is to minimize the loss with a bit of planning and research, and this may be just the ticket.
What and how to pack your camera gear in:
According to the FAA, you are now limited to one (1) carry on piece and one (1) "personal item" loosely defined as a briefcase or purse on any flight originating in, and returning to, the U.S.. I suspect this does not mean you'll be able to get away with a fully loaded backpack or photography vest coming on board along with your designated carry on, so plan accordingly with a contingency. That may mean that you will either need to check your gear in something a bit more secure (a good Halliburton case is my recommendation), or be able to fit all in one carry on and a "briefcase". Be prepared to have it "dump searched" to make sure it does what you say it does. I'm told they will treat it as a laptop and need to see it before they'll pass it through. Again, plan for a contingency, as this is all still being defined. The FAA tells me that you can still request a hand search of your film, but it will be at the screener's discretion, and based on how crowded it is at the screening post. So my advice is to ask for the hand search, but don't get bent if they make you run it through the gate scanner.
I have learned (the hard way) that if you're going anywhere, have an extra change of clothes and an overnight kit with you in your carry on luggage. But be sure to not have any item inside the overnight kit that could be construed as a weapon. Refer to the FAA's web site for those items. When we went to Egypt a while back, our luggage was delayed by 2 days, after a day and a half it took to get there. Being a plus size, you don't just run out and buy more clothes in downtown Cairo, because that particular size is simply not available. So, do be aware that you can get half way around the world and not have a thing to wear but the clothes on your back. The same goes for your cameras, prescriptions and other valuables.
You need to be sure that you don't pack your film in your checked luggage, and don't leave an exposed roll of film in your camera. This will be ruined by the scanners they use now. If you are carrying on your gear/film, and you're asked to make it operate at the security checkpoint, you may need to open the camera's back, thus ruining your exposed film. By carrying the film handy in one of the outside pouches of your carry on, it can easily be extracted and shown to the security people for hand checking at the security gates without inconveniencing other passengers behind you in line. I recommend putting your film rolls in clear plastic tubes available from Porter's Camera for around $3/each. These are sturdy containers, and allow for quick and easy inspection.
Know that your 120/220 medium format and sheet film has a greater chance now of being scanned if it is still in the foil pouches/boxes they come in. I honestly don't know what would be worse; having it scanned or having it exposed to light outside of the foil pouch, so use your best judgment on this one. Porters Camera does sell colored plastic film boxes that open easily for inspection and have a good light seal. This may be an justifiable alternative. I suspect that you shouldn't bother with the lead-lined bags any more. That just invites it being scanned with the CTX 5000, and you then risk it being pulled aside as a possible threat, delaying your bags, possibly indefinitely.
I've traveled to several different Middle Eastern and Southern European countries during the Y2K scare of December 1999, and my film was not x-rayed a single time, because the security people at the checkpoints could see the film canisters clearly in the tubes and knew that it was indeed film. That, most likely, will never happen again, so don't argue if they make you run your film through the gate x-ray.
What film/cameras/lenses you should take:
First, be sure to carry multiple rolls of various speed films, like ASA 400 or even 800. Take as much film as you think you need and double it. Lighting is something that is often taken for granted in some of the more economically depressed areas of the world. Most interiors will not have the light needed to get a good image on slower film (ASA 100, 200) and with slower lenses (f/4 or higher). Be sure to carry at least 2 rolls of a name brand ASA 800 speed film. A single trip to a museum or religious building that does not allow flash photography or tripods will burn up a roll of 800 easily. The higher speed film will allow the camera to be hand held steadily enough to get a clear picture. I recommend staying away from ASA 200 film, as it has been neglected by the film manufacturers with the increase in quality emulsions. That means you'll get as good or better prints from ASA 400 than from 200, and get the added ability of having a sharper picture with slower lenses and lower light.
Some quick words on the shooting process/planning. Film is cheap, and it's better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it, so, try to split up your shots of a single location or event on more than one roll. Bracketing may help you do that. And, if a roll gets damaged (for whatever reason), you're not out all of your priceless images that were all on that one roll. Be sure to carry enough film to change one out in the middle of the roll, too. Again, this protects you from losing a whole roll of a single place or event. FYI, I shoot almost exclusively print film, and don't bother with slides because of the necessity of internegs to get them to prints, or the likelihood of poor knowledge of the positive transfer paper for prints. Unless your a working photographer planning on making money from submitting the images you shoot, stick to print film.
Most people touring other countries like to carry an instamatic camera. I do too, even though I have carried pro cameras like the Nikon F5 or the Pentax 67II. Carrying an instamatic is a good rule of thumb as a backup. But I want to focus on a higher end camera because of what and where you'll be shooting. Early morning and late afternoon are best times to shoot (called "magic time" for the rich and vibrant light), but many times, the tours you'll be going on will be during the worst part of the day for quality photography and you'll be far closer to the site details than your instamatic camera lens will be able to capture. I'll not get into the different arguments for manual vs. auto focus, but I will recommend that you get a camera that will accept a variety of lenses. One lens in particular is a 20mm to 24mm fast (f2.8 or faster) wide angle lens. This will be your primary lens in trying to capture the grandeur of the Temple of Karnak in Egypt or the splendor of the Cathedral in Seville, Spain. For example: a 35mm lens has a horizontal field of view at 50 feet of roughly 62 feet across; a 20mm lens has a horizontal field of view of 105 feet at the same distance! That means more stuff on the print that would not otherwise be there with a longer focus lens. I recommend you put this fact to the test at any higher end camera store where they will let you look through the lenses for comparison. But remember: the faster the lens, the less light you need to get a good picture. This means that if you buy a wide angle lens, it needs to be f/2.8 or faster, so that you can get enough light to be able to hand hold the shot. Of course, expect to pay handsomely for this aperture, especially for perspective corrected lenses. The Nikon 20mm/f2.8 D AF was $500.00 when I bought it. My Pentax 45mm/f4 (equal to 22.5mm in the 35mm film format) for my 67II was a grand. But believe me; it's worth every penny when the prints come back, especially from a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
I usually carry a Pentax 67II medium format (120/220 roll film) kit when I travel. I have a Fuji GA645zi for a backup and for light weight, and a Fuji 35mm instamatic that I absolutely love. The key here is knowing the capabilities and limitations of anything you take with you, and you'll bring home what you intended; great pictures that will represent a trip of a lifetime. I took an F5 to Egypt and Greece and my 67II to Spain. The medium format images enlarge much better than 35mm, but the gear does weigh a ton to carry around in rough terrain. The F5 kit I took to Egypt was on the edge of being inconvenient, based on the physical demands of accessing the monuments. We went into the middle pyramid on the Giza Plateau and you had to literally crouch down to climb down to the tomb. A big camera and allot of gear is not what you want to haul around in Egypt, especially in the heat of the summer. Spain, on the other hand, allowed me to carry much bulkier gear and still be able to be mobile enough to enjoy myself without being overly inconvenienced by it's size and weight. The logistics of seeing the monuments and events there were not as demanding. Knowing these things in advance will help you decide what to bring along for the tours.
There are alternatives to all of the equipment you take with you to shoot with. The Contax G2 is a superb outfit, and you can get a variety of superior Zeiss manufactured lenses, including a 21mm/f2.8 for it. A cheaper alternative is an old and trusty Olympus OM2n and their fine 24mm/f2.8 Zuiko lens. Just make sure you get the camera serviced and the light seals replaced (if it's not been done in the last 5 years), and put a roll of film through it before you leave. And, as always, take plenty of batteries. But in the end, you just have to understand what you're gaining and what you're giving up by making compromises. Knowing your camera's capabilities and limitations, before you depart for the trip, is the key to understanding these compromises. But most of all, remember that this is a vacation, not a job assignment. To be inconvenienced by a load of camera equipment will definitely suck the enjoyment right out of a really nice place to see and experience. If you're gonna work; work. If not, don't. Knowledge, here, is the key.
I realize that all photography experts say to put your camera on a tripod, or at least a monopod whenever and wherever possible. A whole industry exists around light travel gear such as that. Well, I'm letting you know here and now that they are very much frowned upon almost everywhere you'll go, especially in Egypt, and especially in any museum or large center of worship on the planet. Some places will not even allow them to be physically taken into the monument or facility, making you have to either check it with security or leave it outside somewhere, like back at the tour bus. Against some people's better judgment, I'm recommending that these items be left at home (or at least back at the hotel), and simply shoot faster film. Unless you have the luxury of being in a place you want to shoot for an extended period of time to scout it out, leave the tripod and monopod at home, and make an effort to find something to brace up against. That little technique will make all the difference in the world, and not bend the security people out of shape. After all, most of the touring you will do, initially, will be with an organized tour group, and time is often of the essence. Tripods and monopods are simply not conducive to this, regardless of how well they are designed or organized.
To keep your camera and optics clean, you'll need to bring a good cleaning kit, along with a window cleaning cloth. You may need to shoot through the tour bus window, or other such obstacles. Wet weather protection is also a must. A 2X tele-converter is an option that can double your focal distance, while saving you from having to bring a much heavier lens along. But remember that it also cuts your f-stop in half. Also, a little trick I learned was to paint the outside of my lens caps with bright colored spray paint to be able to keep up with them. It looks goofy, but it works without having to use those lens keeper things that do nothing but break or get in the way.
I freely admit that I have been drug into the digital world kicking and screaming. And, as a fine art photographer, I have committed the ultimate sacrilege and purchased a digital camera. I don't, however, believe that digital is "there" yet to make the jump with exclusivity. I know there are those who would disagree with me here, and that's a good thing. Given that more digital cameras are being sold world wide than film cameras, information about it's use does indeed belong here in this article.
Its really nice to be able to just pass the camera through the gate scanners and be on your way. Its really cool to be able to email those snaps to friends and relatives from the field. And, there is nothing film based that is more convenient to use, operate and process. So, lets walk through some items you may want to keep in mind.
All of the information about film cameras here can also apply, such as the cameras that have detachable lenses. The same reasons apply; flexibility. Rechargeable batteries are a must, and be sure you have a camera that can take standardized batteries. Some manufacturers have now figured out that a camera battery adapter that accepts AA batteries is worth it's weight in gold. Be sure to check this possibility out before you purchase a digital camera.
Also, I'd take the camera's operation manual with you, too, because you might just need it. If you want it to do something that you've forgotten how to make it do, that hard copy of the manual will save a picture and a lot of frustration.
Know that you need at least 4 megapixels in order to get a decent 8X10 print of the image. And, beware of the dreaded "digital zoom". That is an upbeat and positive sounding way to say that it will crop in your digital sensor to the appropriate size, thus reducing your pixel count and, thus, quality of image. Get a camera with the widest optical zoom you can afford, if the lens is not removable.
There is one little gizmo that I've found to be indispensable. It's Delkin Devices USB Bridge. This neat little gizmo allows you to dump your images from your digital camera to your iPod or other USB storage device without the need for a laptop or computer. Just hook the 2 devices up to this unit via the USB cables, and copy the the images over with the press of a single button. It all operates with battery power, so no electrical outlet is needed. Its a really cool thing to have if you are out in the field and run out of room on the camera's storage card.
And finally, these cameras can be weather sensitive. As with film-based cameras, both operation and battery efficiency are affected by extremes in temperature. Memory units can also be affected in efficiency, so be sure to keep this in mind when you head out to shoot.
Keep a journal, including notes, to refer to on your trip. Then, tell a story with your shots, including the fun stuff. People shots require people skills, so be hospitable and sensitive to their feelings about being photographed. Keep the camera at eye level for people shots and try using a diffuser with fill flash to soften harsh light to make the eyes stand out. That's where the sharpest focus should be. If you want to eventually publish these images, get a release. An excellent way to do this is to have them printed on 3X5 note cards, or even the large Post-It Note Pads. But don't shoot just for that reason. Use the light to your advantage, and compose as a photographer, not a painter. For instance, try and take a different viewpoint of your subject than the average shot everyone else takes. Shoot both horizontal and vertical shots. Pay close attention to the background and keep the foreground strong. Reflections can often add impact. But, reflection on the front of your lens is a bad thing, so use lens shades that work with whatever filters you want to use, like a good polarizer. Be sure to label everything, both on your film canisters and in your journal so you can keep up with it. And, remember to reduce your impact on your surroundings by not throwing your trash out, including film wrappers/battery wrappers or the packaging it came in.
Some basic travel tips when traveling with film and photo equipment:
I do, believe it or not, recommend you process your film before you return home, but only if you feel confident that the place you choose appears capable of doing it competently. If you have to x-ray exposed film on your return home, you still run the risk of fogging your exposed images. By getting the film developed over there, you get to see the results in time to maybe do something about fixing a potential camera operation problem in the field. You also get to walk them through the metal detectors without x-raying them, and then be able to review them on that 10+ hour flight back home because the movies stink. But be sure to confirm that the photo processing shop has one of the good automated mini labs, and that you process the film in a major metropolitan or population area. Also, don't try anything fancy, like push processing or enlargements. Just get proof prints and get reprints and enlargements after you get home. But I do recommend maybe giving them a test roll to do before giving them your priceless pictures to develop. That's a good test of their competence, and establishes a rapport with the developer.
Most of these type of outfits have the ability to make sure that their high-dollar mini labs work right and are regularly serviced. Look for the Fuji, Kodak or Konica mini labs in the photo processing store, and they should be able to give you an acceptable level of quality and service. Most places that have this level of equipment have the signs out front advertising that fact. But make sure that you actually see the machines in the storefront. Also, if you have multiple rolls, you'll need to nail down a firm completion time, regardless of the language barrier. You might also inquire as to a quantity discount. We had 40 rolls developed in Athens, and the clerk was more than happy to give us a quantity discount if we could give him a little extra time, which we did. And we got very good prints and were very pleased with the turnaround.
You should also be able to get your digital images printed out on the newer digital mini labs. Look for the kiosks that allow this to be simply done, but make sure its digitally delivered to the big processor and not the inkjet units that are "while-u-wait". These images will have a shelf like and are subject to being damaged by moisture and other contaminates.
In predominately Islamic countries, be EXTREMELY careful to know the local religious customs and beliefs, and respect those beliefs in your photographic approach. Almost universal taboos include photographing Islamic women, and anything that could be remotely construed as a site of national security.
Ask around, or check with your hotel, about a good guide and pay him or her well. A good guide will be as instrumental in getting good pictures as your technique. Be generous to a fault in tipping, but don't flash allot of bills around. Also, it is important to realize that your high end camera probably costs more than many in a third world country make in year. Same thing with your high-dollar watch, rings and other jewelry. Being sensitive to this means being careful to not flaunt a level of wealth that would invite ill feelings or criticism, or worse.
I should cover some things about your personal security, now more than ever. It's real easy to be completely enthralled by the grandeur and splendor of some of the world's wonders. That is precisely what a thief counts on when walking off with your bag or camera. Simply being aware of your surroundings, and being a bit more careful about what you are doing, is the best and least expensive way to protect yourself and your gear. I would also recommend you place your equipment either in the provided hotel room safe when not in use, or locked back up in your luggage while out of your hotel room. After all; out of sight, out of mind.
As we've learned, our personal safety is of primary concern. While this does not mean we should all become hermits, it does mean that we MUST be both diligent and sensitive wherever and whenever we travel, especially abroad, and very especially throughout the Middle East and neighboring Islamic countries. Do NOT depend on the government to be everywhere you go, as this is an unreasonable expectation. But being informed and prepared will do more to guarantee your safety than anything else.
And finally, understand that you're a visitor in their country, not the owner. Being polite and respectful makes everyone that much more aware of how much we all have in common, rather than accentuating our differences. And be aware that sometimes the vendors are just trying to make a living. Although they may be annoying (haggling is an art form and a source of immense pride and enjoyment in many of the places you'll visit), it's all part of the game that's played out on a daily basis. As long as your money doesn't come out of the pocket it's in, there's no point in getting or being upset over any exchange that might be taken to be anything other than it should be; part of that game.
And remember, by keeping your eyes and ears open, you can make a trip of a lifetime just that!
Jay is a Multimedia Specialist at Tomball College