A travel photographer's 24-hour day arguably begins in the middle of the evening. Having found a meal and somewhere to sleep, and consolidated the previous day’s work, it is time to check that everything is in place for the following day’s activities. Make a point of cleaning your photographic equipment. It is not a big job. Brush dust off lenses and cameras and generally remove any soiling that is apparent. Also check that all the settings are reasonably sensible for the start of the following day. Check batteries and replace or recharge anything that looks a little tired, and stock up on spares. Return filters and accessories to their normal storage so that they can be easily found. Having prepared equipment properly for the next day you can then relax, and do a bit of research, by reading about tomorrow’s intended subjects.
Planning is an important element of any successful trip, and will normally include a list of key locations and subjects that you want to photograph. Take care with these shots, and use whatever time is available to find a variety of different approaches and camera angles. Remember that local hours may be quite different from those to which you are accustomed. In hot or tropical climates businesses may close for two or three hours in the middle of the day. This is because too much activity during these hot hours can be unpleasant. In general it is best to accept the limitations this imposes because the light is harsh and flat and contrast is severe. Relax and enjoy lunch in the shade, and plan to do as much as possible of your photography at the beginning and end of the day. A tripod should be used unless there is a good reason not to. Otherwise adopt a good posture with your feet well apart, or kneel as though firing a rifle. Alternatively lean against a tree or something solid and cradle the lens with your second hand. These precautions lead to sharper images and are therefore well worthwhile. However, don’t let too much planning destroy flexibility or spontaneity. Willingness to change plans is a necessary part of a travel photographer’s mindset, and reaction to the unexpected must never be stifled. Many great images are completely unplanned.
Dress down so that you don't stand out or attract undue attention, and be prepared to just wander around and explore. Don’t be afraid to get lost. If the prospect bothers you then make a conscious note of significant landmarks, or carry a card or brochure bearing the name of your hotel or something similar. Turn off main thoroughfares and walk a few of small lanes and footpaths used by the local people. It is in these areas where everyday life is most apparent. The fewer the photographic opportunities there seem to be, the closer it is necessary to look. Try zooming in within images for other shots, and then within those for real close-ups. Most streets in the world contain sufficient potential subjects to fill a book. Finally, include people where possible. If you don’t like approaching strangers you probably need some practice, so get started by finding a smile and speaking to someone with a friendly face.
Keep hold of your camera bag all day – never let it out of your sight. I have been ridiculed on numerous occasions for apparently obsessive behaviour when taking a heavy bag of equipment to breakfast in a restaurant. I keep it under the table with the strap looped around my leg. When on buses and trains I keep the strap in my hand or fastened with a lock onto a seat. If I fall asleep the equipment remains relatively secure. I recall travelling on a bus in Peru which stopped in a small town to allow the passengers a short break. The driver assured us that it was quite safe to leave our baggage on board. I took mine with me to the toilet and when I returned the driver was still in his seat on the bus but two camera bags had been stolen, allegedly through an open rear window.
During a day of photography, make sure camera settings are continuously checked and rechecked. Modern cameras display all the key settings in the viewfinder or on an LCD panel, but when working in dynamic environments it is easy to overlook a small symbol telling you that something is wrong. Every time I set the exposure compensation to something other than zero, I make a mental note to reset it. The viewfinder display tells me that it is set, for example, to +2/3 stop and the LCD panel on the top of the camera indicates a non-zero setting. However, I have been known to continue working for a couple of hours before realizing that all my exposures are incorrect, simply because I did not look. In this respect, automation works against the photographer. We can be tempted to rely upon the camera too heavily and run into trouble. It is also worth getting a feel for the sound of the shutter at various speeds. A shutter released at 1/60 s makes a quite different sound to one released at 1/125s, and given some experience one can become attuned to this audible warning.
Many photographers shoot only destinations, but excellent images can be found along the way. Keep a camera handy and ready to use during the journey. It should be set for the prevailing circumstances, fitted with a good general purpose lens, loaded with film or a memory card with plenty of spare capacity, and switched on. Don’t keep a lens cap on unless it is really necessary to protect the lens. It is amazing how quickly unexpected opportunities disappear. I recall travelling by car through the paddy fields of Vietnam, apparently miles from anywhere, and coming suddenly on a wedding party escorting a beautiful young bride to her wedding – on bicycles. She was dressed in a traditional white gown, holding a white parasol above her head, and somehow clutching her other accessories as she sat side-saddle on the rear carrier of a bicycle peddled by a well-dressed man. There were about thirty other cyclists in the group. My immediate reaction was to pass the group and stop a couple of hundred metres along the road. I scrambled to get an appropriate lens onto a camera body loaded with suitable film, and then switched on to set an initial expose. As I raised the camera to my eye the group turned off the main road down a narrow footpath presumably heading for some unseen small village. The opportunity had gone but a lesson had been learned.
Another approach, which can lead to quite different situations, is to team up with a local guide. If you choose the right person this can prove beneficial, but take care because some so-called guides are nothing less than fraudsters. This is something about which it is difficult to generalize because success is dependent upon the type of work, one’s ability to assess the intentions of a complete stranger, and a bit of luck. Guides that tout for business around tourist attractions are likely to be a nuisance to serious photographers. At best they will lead you to well-known vantage points and generally hurry you along. They want you to pay them so they can move on to another client. At worst they may know nothing about local sights or history, and may become aggressive when their increasingly extravagant demands for money are refused. However, I have derived huge benefits from honest youngsters wanting only to improve their language skills. A teenage boy in India spent a number of days with me and showed me things that I should never have found on my own. His knowledge of the area, and of people who could make things happen, led to my gaining access to all sorts of places and situations. He was extremely friendly, spoke the local dialect, and wanted nothing in return. I eventually found a way of thanking him and we remained in touch to some extent. Ten years later I received an invitation to his wedding.
Most travel photographers accept that it is necessary to take lots of pictures to get good images. Don’t worry about the cost of film and processing, or filling up memory cards. The cost of the journey itself is usually the principal financial consideration, and you may not get the chance to make a return visit. If you see what you came for, take some shots. If the light is not ideal it maybe tempting to leave it until tomorrow but that is a recipe for disaster. Take it today and again tomorrow if it looks better. I have seen people save a few frames of film because they didn’t like the clouds, only to wake up the next day to thick fog. It is also worth shooting even in adverse conditions. The images may not be what you had in mind but can nevertheless be excellent.
Once the day's objectives have been achieved, or at least tackled, some time should be given to a process of consolidation. Think through the various locations and activities and make sure that notes are completed and safely filed. Store films securely and in an organized manner and transfer digital images from memory cards to mass storage media. Format memory cards ready for a fresh start. By now it is probably the middle of the evening and time to begin all over again.