What to think about before you board the jet

Be it for work-related purpose or holiday, just about everyone carries some form of camera with them when traveling. It could be as simple and compact as the cellular phone, or as bulky and complex as a full-fledged DSLR camera with an assortment of lenses and other accessories.

Whatever the reason or camera, travel photography has become immensely popular due to the widespread access to cameras. Find out how to get started on this exciting new hobby with some pointers on the equipment and planning needed for a “photo-filled” trip.

People first, equipment later

The first consideration for travel photography has nothing to do with your gear. The most important factor to consider when traveling is your travel companion, if any. It is not uncommon for photographers to spend hours at a location waiting for the “decisive moment”, and the last thing you need is for your companion to sit at one corner wondering whether the whole trip was a big mistake.

Understanding the needs and priorities of your companion would help balance the objectives between your own photography needs and the needs of your companions (think shopping, sleeping, eating…). This is especially true if you are uncomfortable traveling alone, but the only travel partner you have is completely uninterested in photography.

Of course there are few things better than going on a photography trip with another like-minded photographer. However since not all of us are fortunate enough to have such company, careful planning of a trip’s itinerary beforehand to include appropriate areas of interest for both would help to prevent a lot of disappointment during the trip.

Perhaps the worst kind of company for travel photography is to travel in a large group of people with diverse objectives and needs, especially if you’re going on a tour. There will be itinerary and schedules to follow, fixed meal times at fixed (and often overpriced) restaurants, and nobody would wait for you to get your decisive moment. Traveling with a large company limits the amount of time you can spend at a location, and would probably be a serious hinderance if you need the time and space for photography.

If you are unable to find an appropriate company, traveling alone might be a wiser choice than to compromise both the needs of you and your companion.

What are you doing with the photos?

Ask not what the camera can do for you; ask what you are going to do with your photos. An important consideration when purchasing a camera is: what are you going to do with them?

If you’re only going to upload them onto your Facebook account, and perhaps print some postcard-size photos to please the folks, then a 21-megapixel camera is not going to perform any different from a 3-megapixel camera. In fact, a photo from a 3-megapixel camera is larger than all but what a 30″ monitor can display at its full size.

Even if you could, there is hardly a reason why you would want to upload a photo larger than 1-megapixel (about 1,000 pixels on each side). Nobody’s going to appreciate you clogging up their bandwidth for uploading images that they won’t be able to view at its full size anyway. Hence megapixels cease to be a limiting factor if all you want is to post your photos online, send them via emails, or even make small postcard-size prints from them.

However if you’re intending to sell your photos on microstock agencies or make poster-size prints (if you’re thinking “maybe”, we’ll tell you that you won’t be), megapixels start to make become an important consideration.

Stock agencies impose a minimum number of megapixels for submission, which ranges from a meagre 2 megapixels to a whooping 17 megapixels on Alamy. Most agencies are however happy with 4-megapixels photos. However you may want to get a something more for microstock since selling larger-size photos can earn you more.

As for printing, theoretically you need at least an 9-megapixel photo to print up to A4-size (or S8R, 8″ by 12″). In practice however, even a 6-megapixel photo can be printed up to A4-size without much problems. We have even printed A3-size (S12R, 12″ by 18″) photos with 6-megapixel photos for exhibition. Thus any modern digital cameras—which usually come packed with at least 10-megapixels—should suffice for your printing needs.

What to carry?

Most shopkeepers would spare no means to convince you that you need a tank complete with a few lenses to start off on your travels. Having a DSLR in no way guarantees perfect pictures, if there is such a thing to begin with, but it most definitely guarantees a big hole in the pocket, especially for the budget traveller or backpacker.

The next consideration in travel photography is to understand what sort of a traveller you are. If your primary objective is to wander around places, meet people and capture some moments and “record shots” of yourself, then getting a reliable point-and-shoot camera might be more than adequate to meet most of your requirements.

Family travellers can benefit from these compact cameras too as they take up very little space and leave plenty of room for the baby’s food. They also have programmed functions for taking that sunset or portrait shot, saving you time and effort from reading the manual or figuring out the complex controls while traveling, if that’s not your kind of thing.

For those who have a passion for photography and are interested in widening their perspective on the world without burning a hole in their pockets can purchase higher-end compact cameras that offer manual exposure controls. Not only are these cameras capable of performing like a DSLR, they save you the hassle of changing lenses and attract less attention that DSLRs tend to.

If you decide that your baby’s needs should be subordinated to your photography needs (and that you know exactly why you need a DSLR), and you’re absolutely certain that your spouse will not complain, then by all means get a DSLR.

Whether you choose a compact camera or a DSLR in the end, the last thing you need is for your bulky and heavy equipment to tire you out even before your passion for photography catches fire. So make sure you’re comfortable with carrying the equipment of your choice around on your trips. Remember: the best camera is the one that you carry with you.

What do you want to achieve?

Even the most capable compact camera out there cannot do certain things that a DSLR can. For some people, these differences do not matter; for others, they are dealbreakers. And the choice between getting a DSLR and compact is quite a subject in itself, so take a look at our article on “Choosing between a DSLR or a compact camera” to see if these extra functions and capabilities are what you really need in order to achieve what you want for the trip.

Flexibility is a double-edged sword. Thanks to the endless possibility of adding on to your DSLR system, they can quickly become a costly undertaking if you don’t keep your spending under control. Many photographers end up spending a lot more than the initial costs of the camera body by purchasing additional lenses, accessories, dry cabinets, bags (you’ll have many in the course of using your DSLR) to tote these monsters around.

Most recommendations thus far have been for digital cameras. That is not to say that film cameras are passé. An old film camera if used correctly with the right film will still give any digital camera a run for its money. If its your dad’s old SLR camera, then it might not even need batteries and the only start up cost you might incur is the cost of film!

Of course, film photography leaves a lot of room for surprises—some of them unpleasant—hence film is better left to those who have used it before and are comfortable with its nuances. Film is still available in remote villages of many developing countries where the batteries or memory cards have not quite made it. Hence bringing your dad’s camera for your next “exotic” trip might not be a bad idea after all.

Point & shoot or DSLR, film or digital, just remember, to a large extent, your creativity is the limiting factor in photography, not your equipment.

The case for a tripod

Yes, a DSLR can help in low-light, but nothing can replace a good old tripod when it comes to (beautiful) low-light and creative photography: think beautiful sunrises and sunsets, silky smooth waterfalls, intentionally blurred motion, etc.

The tripod opens up your creativity and affords you new perspectives in night photography and other long exposure modes. It also allows you to take that family portrait in front of the Eiffel Tower instead of having to rely on some stranger and his unpredictable hands!

Many people feel that a tripod is too much of a hassle to carry around. Well it is, we’re not denying it, but the whole lot of creative options that you have at your disposal with a tripod means that you no longer have to pack your camera when night falls. It’s the reason why we carry it from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, Saigon to Hanoi.

If however, you choose to ignore our advice, then the tripod may be substituted with whatever you find at the location for support: anything from a railing to a dustbin depending on your luck and the location. But trust us on this, nothing beats the convenience of the tripod when it comes to getting the composition that you really want, and not what the dustbin or railing gives you.

Buying a tripod that suits your camera—and one that you’re going to carry with you on your trip without cursing at us for making you do it—is almost an art in itself. We’ll explore it in-depth in another article to come, but here’s a brief overview.

Too many people have spent a fortune buying a tripod that they’re not going to carry around, not even from their house to the MRT station. On the other hand too many people have bought flimsy, low-cost tripods, which have toppled in the slightest breeze. The rule of thumb: don’t buy that monster the shopkeeper tries to sell you if all you are shooting with is a tiny point-and-shoot camera; and not that stick insect either just because its cheap if you are using a DSLR with heavy lenses and accessories. And get something that you’re going to carry, please. Balance is the key here. Literally.

Final words

Being aware of the camera’s capabilities and limitations is essential in the planning of the trip. Having adequate batteries, storage space, films etc are all considerations that have to be looked into before the trip and not after you touch down at your destination.

Cheaper budget hotels in many cities do not offer adequate security, hence bringing a laptop around and uploading images on a regular basis may not be a feasible idea. Having adequate storage cards for the camera would be a better alternative. Compact flash cards of up to 16GB are now available at the fraction of the cost of a 1GB card a few years ago. Having a few of these should satiate your appetite for photography throughout a month long trip.

On the other hand, most cities have cyber cafes hence uploading images on to an online storage space or even your Facebook account might be another option to ensure adequate storage space. If you’re shooting film, they can be found in most cities, but do not expect professional slides or black and white films in the less developed ones. It would be best to stock up on these in your home country.

Travel photography should be a pleasurable and relaxing experience. At no point should you feel burdened by your equipment or companion, while at the same time you should not feel constrained by a lack of equipment. Striking a balance between what you need and what is feasible to carry around is the key to making every trip a pleasant experience and every picture a reminiscing moment of that experience.

Bon Voyage!

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