Real-world travel photography advice is often hard to come by. This article provides time-tested tips for editorial and commercial photographers to make their travels as comfortable and safe as possible. Many of these concepts will prove useful for amateur shooters, too. Whether you're traveling alone in the Amazon, with a crew to India, or joining your family in Paris, these tips will keep you on your feet.
As a commercial photographer in Los Angeles, my travel philosophy is simple: as much as necessary and as little as possible, so I don't feel encumbered or vulnerable to thieves. Not only will I discuss the essentials I bring to make this philosophy work, but will include perspectives from other pro photographers as well.
The utility tools we bring with need to suit our own particular needs. What we take depends on whether we travel alone or with a crew, what size budget we are working with, where we travel, and traveling experience. For the most part, our approaches are practical and predictive, and are best summed up by San-Diego-based fine art and architectural photographer Philipp Scholz Rittermann: "We have to know where our weak points are. In fact, you should assume they will fail under stress."
With this in mind, Rittermann also goes the extra mile and FedExes extra backup discs to his home address for safekeeping. In the event he were to lose everything, he would still have the discs he sent home.
Predicting potential mechanical and health issues is important to planning a trip, and I have found that most pros travel with at least one first aid kit and a utility kit.
For instance, I always carry dental floss, which in a pinch is good for binding things together, as well as, of course, good dental hygiene. Once, while walking between villages in Oaxaca, Mexico, the sole of my boot started to separate from the boot, so I used dental floss to bind the boot until I could buy a new pair the next day.
Many photographers carry a Leatherman tool and/or a small jewelry repair kit, which are good for tightening loose screws on cameras and laptops. Also, gaffer's tape is essential, along with a spare pare of glasses, critical phone numbers on paper, and a wind-proof lighter.
Gaffer's tape does not leave glue on surfaces like electrical tape, and is therefore good for taping ports and other openings on computers, which are susceptible to dust damage. I might add that some journalists bring additional hard drives with identical software and critical info pre-installed because the computer hard drive is what's most likely to fail.
Photojournalist Les Stone, who for 20 years has covered international conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Kosovo, Liberia, Cambodia, and Haiti, takes extra FireWire and USB flash-card readers. "I take an extra USB card reader on top of my two FireWire card readers because in Haiti my 800 FireWire port went down, so I had to download to the USB port."
Stone also takes two-gallon plastic bags to keep items dry. "Plastic bags are very important because I used them to protect everything from my passport to my cigars. When I was in the Amazon, all my film needed to be stored in plastic bags to protect it from 100-percent humidity, which left everything damp. Plus, you are in wet boats and in the rain all the time." Two-gallon bags are great for keeping dust and moisture out of computers.
As a photographer in Los Angeles, I have traveled often to Latin America. I have developed a set of expectations based on my experiences there. For instance, I expect to contract some form of digestive distress, so I take the antibiotic Flagyl and Imodium for diarrhea so I don't have to stop working and see a doctor. I also travel with amoxicillin and clavulanate (Augmentin) to treat anything from a dog bite to a small wound.
In reality, I seldom get sick in Latin America, but I would be foolish to assume that I never will. I recommend asking your doctor what dosages to take for stomach ailments ahead of time. In most third-world countries I have been to, both of those antibiotics, as well as Cipro, are widely and inexpensively available through pharmacies, as are painkillers.
I also recommend cheap rubber sandals for walking around hotel rooms and showers to avoid athlete's foot and foot rot. I also carry antifungal cream.
My approach to diet is that, if I am in a foreign country for just a couple of days, I try and limit what and where I eat to lessen the risk of digestive distress, but if I am going to be in place for several days, then I will eat everything, expect to get sick, and plan accordingly. I don't like to be limited to what I eat when I am abroad.
I carry Vicodin for major pain and acetaminophen for minor pains and to reduce swelling. I have had several injuries while traveling, including a dislocated knee, fractured ribs, a broken ankle, and a herniated disc. I once had to travel in the back of a pickup truck on a rocky dirt road for 10 hours with a pair of broken ribs, and a good painkiller would have really helped for that ride.
I suffered a herniated disc in Italy recently and could not get a prescription strong enough to moderate the pain. If it had not been for the Vicodin we were carrying, my trip would have been unbearable.
Rittermann wisely suggests that care be taken when traveling with prescription drugs, especially with controlled substances such as Vicodin that could cause problems with authorities. So make sure you have a doctor's prescription for those meds. It has been my experience that if I have a good relationship with a doctor, I can talk to him or her about my specific needs and get a prescription ahead of time. Also, traveling with your doctor's phone number is highly recommended because you will want a voice you can trust, should serious health issues arise. Good medical advice is not always easy to come by.
Over-the-counter flu medicines give me some comfort and make me semi-functional, but prescription medicines like Tamiflu have shortened and moderated my flu symptoms. In short, it kept me working. Tamiflu might be difficult to get because of government stockpiling.
Finally, since I suffer from earaches two to three times a year, I take a very small bottle of hydrogen peroxide and Q-tips. This seems to kill the offending bacteria with four or five applications over an hour or so--very handy and acts as a general disinfectant.
I have no medical training to speak of, and my opinions represent only my own particular experience, and are not intended to replace the opinions of a medical professional. Anyone considering traveling with prescription medicines should consult his or her doctor first.
Commercial photographer and teacher Bobbi Lane works hard to avoid sickness before and while traveling. She increases her vitamin C intake and takes Airborne to increase her immune response, as well as washing her hands frequently, "because when you are on an airplane you are in intimate contact with many people," the probability of sickness increases.
Steve McCurry, a 25-year veteran photojournalist, presents another perspective. He prefers to take things as simply as possible and responds to issues as he goes. "I don't take any medicine or feel comfortable treating myself," says McCurry. "What it comes down to is health, money, and your camera gear. If you get sick, go see a doctor; if your camera goes down, then you use another camera."
On the other end of the spectrum is noted photojournalist Ron Haviv, who has covered some of the most brutal events of the last part of the twentieth century. He has been on a Serbian death list, captured by Iraqi soldiers as well as Serb militiamen, charged with being a spy, interrogated, imprisoned, and beaten. Haviv is also author of the book Blood and Honey, which documents the genocidal insanity of the Yugoslavian civil war and its repercussions .
Among some of the items Haviv brings with him are "hypodermic needles, in case I am in a hospital and I don't trust their needles. For instance, anywhere in Africa or a first aid clinic run by a paramilitary group; they could be reusing needles." He also carries Ciprocycline, Doxycycline, tape, Advil, Tylenol with Codeine, Malarone for malaria, a small water filter, and morphine. Given the extreme nature of Haviv's encounters while covering war and calamity, his medicine kit seems appropriate.
That said, most of us fit somewhere between McCurry's minimalist approach and Haviv's extreme first-aid kits. Most traveling photographers do what works for them based on years of work. I believe most photographers should at least consider realistic possibilities such as the flu, colds, cuts, rain, dust, small breakdowns, and the environment for their travel preparations.
Finally, via Ron Haviv, from an extremely useful travel tips discussion forum on LightStalkers.com, here are links on what vaccinations you will need before traveling.
Airports are always a source of headaches for photographers. When traveling nationally, I try and leave from smaller regional airports, even if it is more expensive, because there is less traffic, parking is cheaper, lines are shorter, gates are closer, and the airlines are often more relaxed about carry-on luggage than at major airports like Los Angeles International. On Southwest recently, I just barely made my flight with three carry-on bags and a camera bag, and they just sent me on board with all four items.
Some smaller airlines like Southwest also allow slightly larger carry-on bags and up to three checked pieces. If you are carrying several thousand dollars of camera gear in a padded soft case, as I do, the last thing you want to hear is that your bag will have to be checked. Photographers should check with their intended air carrier for their particular baggage requirements.
"I always wear clogs because it is a hassle having to take off my shoes when I pass through security," says Seattle and Los Angeles commercial photographer Pete Saloutos. "I also always leave my belt off so I don't have to take it off when going through the metal detector." Saloutos also takes his own bottled water and power bars on international flights "so I don't get diarrhea out of the gate."
Among some of the other things that he takes are a Swiss army knife, Sharpies, gaffer's tape, spare glasses, gloves, and a homeopathic jet-lag medicine.
"I fly direct if possible," Saloutos, "and if there are connections, I avoid those with less than an hour between flights in case of weather delays, etc. A longer delay is less stressful because I don't have to be so concerned about weather delays, and it allows me to make phone calls, charge my laptop, stretch, etc."
"I fly Elite class when I can, which minimizes hassle," says Ron Haviv. "My airline used to hassle me about my bags all the time, but now that I fly Elite class they don't hassle me." Often, frequent flyers can upgrade to a higher flight class for extra privileges, including more lenient baggage restrictions.
When I travel abroad for clients, I try and get there a day early to orient myself to my surroundings and ease into my shoot rather than land and start shooting on the same day. Too much stress keeps me from doing my best work.
Also, in the third world, I have found myself flying on small planes where weight restrictions are strictly enforced for safety reasons, but this, nevertheless, can be problematic for photographers. The solution is to pay for an extra seat, which gets you more baggage weight.
If you are traveling light anyway, you can distribute some of your equipment among the other passengers and be within your weight restrictions. Airlines weigh luggage, not passengers. I do not use a photo vest, but I have seen other photographers place some of their gear in their vest, thus minimizing their baggage weight.
I should add that travel or equipment insurance is a very good thing to have whenever possible. While it is true that I, and many photographers I know, have traveled in our younger days without equipment insurance, I do not recommend it if you are traveling with serious equipment. Digital equipment is extremely expensive and insurance is much cheaper.
Every photographer's traveling methods will vary according to their needs and experience, and what I take with me also varies depending on the job and location. If I am traveling a short distance as a photojournalist, I will travel lighter than if I travel as a commercial photographer overseas. I have included an expanded list of things I take with me sometimes and have bolded items I always take with me.
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