We profiled photographer Jordan Matter in the November 2015 issue of Digital Photo Pro, and since then he’s been on the road continually working on his newest book. In fact, Matter’s been on the road nearly constantly for the last few years, shooting images and compiling material for his various projects. We couldn’t think of anyone with better insight into the frustrating, challenging, yet essential skill of globetrotting, so we asked him to share his hard-earned advice.—Editor
To produce my newest book, Dancers After Dark (Workman Publishing, fall 2016), I traveled to seven countries and 30 cities, spending dozens of evenings in hotels, motels and Airbnb’s. I navigated highways in every vehicle imaginable and logged over 50,000 miles in the air. Over the past five years, I have spent countless days on the road. Through it all, I’ve learned many lessons about the ins and outs of travel, but none more important than this: It’s all about the coffee.
Let me clarify. One of my first photography trips was to Chicago in 2011. I had five days of shooting lined up, but I hadn’t selected the locations and I had nowhere to stay. I had never been to Chicago and had no clue as to what the different neighborhoods were like. What’s more, I am not a planner; I do not enjoy research. I like to arrive somewhere and just figure it out.
Unfortunately, that method doesn’t work so well when it comes to travel arrangements. So I was in a complete tailspin trying to book my hotel, overwhelmed by the deluge of information I was getting when searching “Chicago neighborhoods” on Google. My wife listened to my complaints with patience and then took over the computer. She used Yelp to find popular coffee bars and chose the one with the most favorable reviews, Intelligentsia Coffee. Then she searched for hotels near Intelligentsia. This was brilliant! Cool coffee shops are usually centrally located and surrounded by great food and public transportation. They offer a perfect spot to meet clients and edit after shooting, they have free WiFi, and the baristas are usually hip and knowledgeable about the city, so they can steer photographers to interesting and unexpected locations. Plus, good coffee is my greatest vice.
Once you’ve found the best area, the next step is to settle on a room. This is really a matter of budget and personal preference, but here are a few questions to ask yourself: How much time do you expect to spend in the hotel? Will you be meeting clients in the lobby? Do you want a hotel with a bar and restaurant? Will you be waking up late or going to sleep early (very important when considering potential exterior noise)?
One morning I was awakened at 7 a.m. by skateboarders on the Venice boardwalk, and I decided right then to avoid rooms facing popular tourist attractions. Though Airbnb is a great option, I prefer the predictability of an established hotel. Most important to me is fast (and free) Wi-Fi, a comfortable bed, an exercise facility (either in the hotel or close by), and an elevator (seems obvious until you’ve lugged your equipment up four floors through Amsterdam’s notoriously narrow stairways). My favorite website for finding good deals on hotels is TripAdvisor.com.
Of course, before you can check into your hotel you have to get there. For many years I just booked flights on Kayak.com and chose the cheapest option. Then I saw the light when I applied for an airline credit card. Since the airlines usually have similar rates for most destinations, sticking with one carrier and using your credit card whenever possible makes a lot of sense. In the case of American Advantage Platinum, I get double the miles, one free checked bag, extra leg room (essential because I’m 6-foot-4’) and priority boarding. This last bit is crucial–if you’re carrying your photographic gear with you (and you should be), if you board in Group 4 or Group 5 (the last to board the plane), there will likely be no room in the overhead compartments, and you’ll have to check your cameras and lenses and hope to retrieve them unharmed in baggage claim.
If you’re flying a carrier where you don’t have priority boarding, you can often pay for the privilege, usually between $30 and $50—much cheaper than the cost of replacing broken lenses.
I like to pack light, meaning one durable equipment case (I use Think Tank Airport Takeoff, which is large enough to hold two 35mm bodies and seven lenses, but small enough to fit in almost all overhead compartments), a carry-on Tenba messenger bag with computer sleeve to stow under my seat, and one piece of checked luggage. If you are traveling with lighting equipment, you’ll want to bring as portable a kit as possible (for strobe, Profoto and Broncolor are great options). Portable LED lights are also great for location photography
Getting through security can be a major hassle, so it’s essential to apply for TSA Precheck. Go to TSA.gov to get the details. It will save you lots of time and sanity. Overseas travelers can apply for Global Entry at ww.cbp.gov, and this program automatically enrolls the traveler in TSAPre. American Express Platinum card holders get their Global Entry fee refunded. Another benefit of having an American Express card is the access to a global concierge for travel emergencies, and the card also covers insurance for rental cars booked with the card—so you don’t have to pay for damage coverage. (Check with Amex for information.)
If you do plan to travel overseas with gear, stop in customs before boarding the plane. You’ll need to fill out Form 4577 and have it signed by the U.S. CBP at the Port of Entry prior to departure to prove ownership of your equipment. Otherwise, you risk the possibility of being taxed on all your equipment when you return to the U.S. (Full disclosure: I’ve only done this once because it’s a huge pain and I’m always running late, but you should do as I say and not as I do).
Two of the most helpful advances in the past few years are Uber and satellite navigation. If you plan to do a lot of driving, Google Maps and Waze are indispensable. The best website for car rental is Kayak.com, though as with airline frequent flyer programs, being a car rental premium member gets perks.
Whenever possible, I prefer to pay a little extra to get my car at the terminal, rather than waiting for a shuttle—as I’ve said, I’m always running late, trying to milk every last moment of shooting before rushing to the airport, and I missed a flight once because the rental car shuttle was delayed. (Ed. Note – National Car Rental and several others have programs where you can simply walk on the lot and pick a car from a designated section if you’re a member of their programs. This is one of the biggest time savings I’ve found.) If most of your shooting will be in close proximity to your hotel, then forget the car and opt for Uber or Lyft, a convenient 24-hour taxi app.
My process of location scouting is a bit atypical—I don’t do it. I rely 100 percent on my instincts and the suggestions of locals to guide me. I ask lots of questions and pick their brains about destinations I couldn’t have found through impersonal research on my laptop. Then I arrange a central meeting spot (a.k.a., a coffee shop or hotel lobby) with my subjects, and we head out to explore the city. I rely heavily on spontaneity, always assuming the next shot is right around the corner. I’ve found that by opening my process to serendipity, the images have an element of adventure I could not have constructed.
Obviously, this process does not suit everyone. If you are more comfortable making a plan in advance, or if your client demands it, I recommend Google Earth (download the desktop app rather than using the website). Reddit, the popular online news site, is another great way to find tips, as there are subreddits available for any destination. However, I strongly recommend adding some time in your schedule to put all your plans aside and just let fate be your guide; you’ll be thrilled with the results. This sentiment is best summarized by my favorite quote, which is written on tape inside my camera case: “Leap and the net will appear” (John Burroughs).
My father once told me, “Traveling as a tourist is fine, but seeing a new environment while living your passion is thrilling.” This is the best piece of advice he ever gave me, and I’m passing it along to you. Take every opportunity to grab your camera and go. And if those opportunities don’t present themselves, do it anyway.