Photography & Videography on the road

A great picture is worth a thousand travel miles

Before you start packing your $900 Nikon and assorted lenses, buying extra memory cards for your digital camera—or even going old-school and stuffing rolls of Fuji into a lead bag—you need to come to terms with one thing.

Someone with an array of equipment far more sophisticated than yours, with a tripod, who could afford to wait 365 days for the best light and waste 36 exposures to get everything just right has taken a much better full-frame picture of that monument, church, or painting than you could ever hope to get.

It’s called a postcard. Accept this and buy a shot of St. Peter's or the David that was made by a professional.

Of course you’ll take a picture of it anyway, and I'm not going to stop you. Just don’t waste more than one shot on an overall view. Instead, make your photos interesting, make them unique, and take home chips full of travel memories and great pictures, not just snapshots. The next page contains tips for doing just that. But before the shooting tips, a few general pointers.

What kind of camera to bring

Unless you’re a professional or a real heavy-duty amateur, the fanciest camera you need is a basic Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) and the kit lens it comes with (though do look for deals that include two lenses, one wide-angle—say an 18–55mm—and a second lens for telephoto—perhaps 55–200mm). Get a lens cap with a little string to dangle it from the lens so you don’t lose it.

This should cost you no more than $700—unless you want it to.

Sure, you could easily spend $5,000 on a good digital camera, but the "prosumer" models—Nikon D7100, Sony alpha series, Cannon EOS Rebels—all clock in around $650 to $1,300 (largely depending on how good of a lens you spring for).

Of course, you can also get by perfectly well with a pocket point-and-shoot digital camera. These days you can get quality digital cameras that shoot 10 megapixels, remain waterproof up to 10 feet underwater, and come with all the bell-and-whistle features for well under $300.

Bring several spare batteries (if you're using rechargeables, you must pack these in your carry-on bag due to new TSA rules as of 2008).

Use a UV filter on the lens to protect it from scratches (not a polarizing filter, which messes up more shots than it helps if you don’t use it correctly).

Can't I just use my phone as a camera?

I always bring at least a pocket camera.

Sure, I have my phone, but it comes with several drawback as a main camera when traveling.

  • My phone's battery inevitably runs out before the day does, even with moderate use. If I am snapping away all day—and especialyl if I am roving for WiFi to upload images or anything—the phone will die by mid-afternoon. With a pocket camera, I never worry about running out of battery power. Not only it the battery designed to last much longer, but also (a) I charge it up every night in my hotel room; (b) I always carry a spare, and (c) I avoid using playback mode to sift though my images while I am out and about. (This is the one thing I see draingin the batteries quickly for many travelers. Besides, you should be enjoying whatever comes next, not looking back at memories from 10 minutes ago.)
  • Great though it is—the quality of the pictures I get on my iPhone are nowhere near as good as with my pocket camera—especially in low-light situations.
  • I can get a true zoom with a pocket camera. If you "zoom" on a phone camera, it is not an optial zoom (achieved by altering the distance between a set of lenses), it is a so-called "digital zoom," which actually just crops out the pixels along the edges and enlarges what's in the middle, inherently lowerig the quality of the image.
  • I never run out of memory with a pocket camera. With a phone, I often fill up the memory and have to face the painful decision of what to delete to make room for more pics. With a pocket full of memory cards (and the option to easily buy more on the road), I can take as many pictures as I want without worry.
  • My pocket camera is the waterproof, sporting kind, so I can take it skiing, snorkleing, swimming, kayaking, and in other places where I wouldn't want to risk my iPhone.

Invest in at least a low-end pocket camera; don’t bother with a disposable camera, which take, at best, passable pictures and even then only under full, bright sunlight.

The only useful disposable cameras are, if you think you’ll need one, the ones that work underwater.

Before you leave home: Know thy camera

Practice with your camera before you leave the States, especially if it’s a new one and you’re not sure how it behaves. Visit the sights of your home city, pretend you’re in Italy, and snap away. Get to know the camera. Bracket your shots by shooting the same thing several times using different settings, with and without flash, and so on. Write down carefully exactly what you did or varied in each shot so that, later, you'll know which ones worked best.

Sure, you’ll waste half a day doing all this, but it’s better to know how the camera handles with different films and in different situations before you go off and miss that perfect shot on vacation.

Don’t leave home without memory cards

Buy all the memory chips you'll need for your digital camera (and, for that matter, your film) in the United States. It’s cheaper, and you can be sure it hasn’t been sitting on the shelf since 1998.

If you're taking memory chips, I'd suggest bringing a bare minimum of 8G (gigabyte) of memory for every two days on of your trip. Myself, I routinely shoot about 3G a day (more if a festival breaks out), so I travel with enough memory cards to total about 8G per day to be safe.

Make your cards last longer by performing imagery triage as you go, deleting extraneous images each evening—those too blurry, underexposed, or poorly framed to be worth keeping—so as to free up more room on the chip for the next day. I tend to do this at dinner table after I've ordered (and taken my notes on the restaurant) and am awaiting my food.

I prefer carrying a handful of 16G and 32G memory cards and swapping them out as they get full rather than taking, say, a single 64G or larger SD card. This is just for insurance purposes. If that one mega-chip gets corrupted, lost, stolen, or dropped in the toilet, at least you haven't lost an entire vacation's-worth of photos.

If you do have to buy photo supplies, film, or memory cards abroad, go to a camera shop or department store. Never buy memory cards or film from a souvenir stand near a tourist sight. The markup is almost criminal

A few notes in film

If you're still into film, buy enough to shoot at least one roll a day, more if you know you’re the shutter-happy type. Bring more than you think you’ll need. You can always use the extras after you get home, and it might save the day if you run into a festival and find yourself going through a roll an hour.

Hold on to the plastic film canisters and store them in big, see-through plastic baggies so security people at the airport will pass it around the potentially harmful X-rays (the higher the film speed, the more likely multiple exposures to X-rays will fog the film).

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