I’ve read too many lists online of “travelling photographer tips” that don’t actually appear to be written by actual photographers. Some things work in the real world, others simply do not. Here are some collected tips shaped from seven years of travel experience on the road. I don’t think you’ll find most of these anywhere else.
Make Your Camera Look Like a Heap of Trash
My first tip for travelling photographers is to protect your gear from theft. There are thieves in every part of the world, not just developing countries. They know how much your pretty camera can fetch for on a black market, and they will risk a lot to steal your gear. When travelling, I make it a point to make my camera look crappy and old. I cover it with duct tape, carry it in a normal, dirty backpack, and make sure all recognisable logos such as “Canon” or “Phase One” are hidden. A nice-looking camera case is also a red flag. I prefer typical “consumer” travel packs or using older weathered bags that have seen better days.
When I travel with ugly photography equipment, attention is diverted away from my stuff. A potential thief may determine that stealing my camera is not worth the risk of being caught. After all, they can’t sell an old hunk of junk for the price of a “new camera”. Let the thief go after the next unlucky traveller.
Other than thieves, there are other people looking to give you a hard time for your nice-looking camera — I’m talking about airport customs officers in foreign countries. In fact, I have a lot more problems with these often uninformed, egomanical workers than thieves. This is even more true for developing countries that are not used to living around this kind of expensive-looking photography gear.
I’ve been to many countries where the customs officer at the airport takes one look at my photography gear and gets very suspicious, even if I have a legal work permit for a shoot or letter from whom I’m working for. Is this guy working in the country illegally? Is this guy a spy or photojournalist with bad intentions? Is this guy going to sell the equipment here for profit? A trashy-looking camera in a old dirty bag doesn’t look valuable, so it’s easier to get it by with less hastle.
Thinking of customs officers sends a shiver down my spine, which brings me to my next tip for travel photographers…
Don’t Put “Photographer” On Customs Forms
Disclaimer: When travelling for jobs, I always have the right working permits and carnets in order. and I write “photographer” as my occupation on customs forms. I don’t mess around with this because it could jeopardise the shoot and a large production. Getting a carnet (a temporary passport for your equpiment) is easier than you think — this website is a great resource. However, for personal trips, creating my own photo series without a client other than myself, I don’t bother. I often won’t say I’m a photographer on my customs forms.
OK, I may be suggesting you break the law here, however, I don’t feel bad in doing so. In my experience, customs officers waste their time singling out professional photographers above many actual potential threats to their counties. They are often uninformed and uneducated about what we do. Unfortunately, they lump every photographer into one category — “EVIL-DOER”. If you are respectful and educated about your subjects and doing good in the world with your work… great, follow my advice. If you aren’t, then my advice is not for you.
Instead of “photographer”, I often write something more specific like “advertising retoucher” or “graphic artist”. That way, the conversations at customs can be more focused on what happens after the photographs are taken. If they do inspect your gear, then finding a bunch of cameras isn’t so surprising for them. The worst scenario would be for you to say you are a vegetable salesman, then the customs officer finds a bunch of cameras in your bags. What’s a vegetable salesman doing with all this stuff, huh? Hmm, suspicious… You need a story that can flow together with what you are travelling with should your bags be inspected.
When things are more fair for us photographers in immigration lines, I will tell the truth. Until then, I will bend the truth.
Keep At Least Two Hard Drives Safe
When I travel for photography, I know that the most valuable things I have are not my cameras or equipment. The most valuable thing I carry are the images I am creating. Gear can be replaced (get it insured worldwide), but the photographs cannot.
I have a very simple formula: I travel with a laptop and dump my images to two different hard drives. Each drive is an exact replica of the other. I then always keep those two hard drives in different places. For example, one is in my pocket at all times and the other is left at the Indian guesthouse. Or, perhaps one drive is in a piece of checked baggage being chucked in the bottom of the plane, and the other is safe with me in a carry-on bag. With this system, it is very hard for both drives to go missing.
On more rugged trips or journeys into dangerous areas, I can take as many as four drives with me. That way, I can mail one home halfway through the trip, and another at the end of the trip before I fly, while still carrying two hard drives home with me. Call me paranoid, but I do not take any risks when it comes to losing images.
I strongly recommend the external Lacie Rugged Hard Disk, (pictured above).
FTP or “drag and drop” online image storage systems, like Dropbox, are also great in some places, but there is often no way I can upload the large amount of images I am creating. Many places I travel to often have slow internet connections or no internet at all.
If you have time to make image selections while on the road, you could always upload only your favourites to Dropbox and take a risk on losing the rest. However, I still prefer carrying the physical drives containing every one of my photographs.
Stay in Touch With the People You Photograph
For all the countries and places I’ve travelled to in the world, I could have actually gone to triple the amount of locations. But that’s not as important to me as maintaining an in-depth relationship with the select places I choose to visit and re-visit again and again. You can have more “authentic” cultural experiences as people warm to you and share their knowledge and lifestyle with you, and also create much better photographs when people trust you.
An example is Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. I’ve met several photographers who had a frustrating experience in the area with the tribes. “They are spoiled! All they want is money!” One man said. “I can’t get any good shots, they all stop what they are doing and bother me for photos when I’m trying to get intimate candid moments!” Said another.
I ask them, “Well, how long did you stay?” “Which village exactly did you go to? The first one off the road that has been spoiled by mass amounts of uninformed tourists?” And most importantly, “Do the people care about your photography?”
OK, so what if someone you didn’t know walked in your backyard, took photographs of you and your children, and then exchanged money for the interaction. Over time and countless repetition of this, you’d probably act the same way, right?
If you don’t genuinely care about your subjects and respect them, it’s very difficult for them to care about you and your stupid camera. Do things that show you care. Stay in touch when you leave (exchange mailing addresses or email), send copies of the photographs you created together back, and revisit the area if possible.
In the future, if/when the Hamer tribe of Ethiopia gets the internet and Google themselves, I want them to find my images. I want them to find photographs from someone who knew their names, who respected their culture, and told their story to the outside world as best as he could understand.
I don’t want to be another looky-looker, like in the photo above.
I can’t stress enough how important it is for photographer’s to hire locals when travelling.
I realise that not everyone has months to spend when travelling getting to know people, so I always suggest involving the locals as much as you can in your work. Hire a local guide and fixer from the same area or culture as you are photographing. (I wrote an entire blog post about finding a local guide, which falls under this principal.) If you require a crew or a little extra help, hire locals as workers and involve them in your productions. You might even want to hire the people you plan on photographing, so they can always be with you and understand your work. When your team is local, it is easier for the rest of the people you come across to develop a sense of trust and respect for your photography.
Other Random Do-dads and Gadgets I Find Useful When Travelling
Wi-Fi Signal Boosting Antenna: I use this little gadget in places with dodgy wifi, such as a hotel or guesthouse. After plugging this antenna into my laptop, I can often get a much stronger signal, or I can punk someone else’s better signal far away. “Hey — I’m not stealing your Wi-Fi… your Wi-Fi signal is trespassing into my room.”
Hyperjuice 100Wh Battery: Flights and long car rides are where I get a lot of my work done, but my Macbook Air battery only lasts a couple of hours. Plugging your laptop into one of these external batteries can extend its life up to 26 hours.
220 Voltage Converter with Fuse: Most standard travel converters don’t have a fuse and simply just re-route the power from a foreign plug. For those of us using electronics with 110V plugs, this can be dangerous. If you plug a North American electronic rated at 110V into a foreign outlet rated at 220/240V, there’s a good chance you’ll blow it up. This little box converts the power.
Credit Card Sock: While this is extremely dorky, I find this is the perfect size to hide compact flash cards, money or my passport.
Enjoy your own trips. Remember, you don’t have to travel across the globe to experience new things. Your own backyard is the farthest place away to someone else on the other side of the world.
Editor’s Note: Joey L. is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City. There are less than 20 hours remaining on a very ambitious Kickstarter project for a personal film project set in Southern Ethiopia — a trip in which he will surely be putting these travel tips into motion. There are many interesting rewards for those who pledge, so don’t miss this opportunity to get involved in a truly unique film.
5 Critical Tips for Travel Photographers [Joey L.]