Days In The Life Of A Travel Photographer

Days In The Life Of A Travel Photographer

In planning my trip to Myanmar, I knew that I was going to be photographing in many Buddhist temples, and that wearing shoes is a no-no, so I traveled with slip-on shoes. © Photo by Rick Sammon

As a photographer who has traveled to almost 100 countries, I relate to these two quotes. Over the past 40 years I have had wonderful trips that have yielded a high percentage of “keepers,” and I have had trips that were almost total blowouts, where I was sicker than a dog, thought I was going to die, came home with only two or three good shots, but told my stories with a smile and good laugh (in the safety of reminiscence).

I’d like to share what it’s like to be a travel photographer, in the hope that it will prepare you for this exciting, rewarding, challenging, frustrating and would-not-change-it-for-the-world career. To illustrate my points, I’ll share with you some of my travel photographs. But first, a quick tip: travel photographers need to make “not specializing” their specialty. That is, the travel photographer needs to do it all: people, wildlife, action, landscapes, seascapes, HDR, event, street photography … and more.

“An adventure is misery and discomfort, relieved in the safety of reminiscence.”— ­Marco Polo

Basically, my days of being a travel photographer are divided into three segments: pre-trip planning, working on site, post-trip work. Let’s take a look at what I do on those days, and what you may do if you are in my shoes—or sandals or hiking boots.

But first, I, like most of my travel photographer friends, put a lot of pressure on ourselves to come back with meaningful photographs. I feel the pressure before and during a trip, on each and every trip, because I just don’t know what’s going to happen. The pictures are the main objective. Sure, traveling can be great fun and quite rewarding, but I feel that if I don’t get the shots, I’ve failed. Even though that has never happened in all my travels, I still feel the pressure. So my advice is this: if you want to succeed, take your work very, very seriously.

Days In The Life Of A Travel Photographer
I pack a pair of NEOS—flexible, lightweight and waterproof boots that slip on over my shoes or hiking boots. NEOS fold down almost flat, so you can keep them in an outer pouch of a backpack. © Photo by Rick Sammon

Pre-Trip Planning

The HDR photograph that opens this article illustrates one of the most important aspects of being a travel photographer: planning.

In planning my Route 66 trip, I found many photographs on Google of the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M. I wanted something different, perhaps a bit more creative. Using Photo Sundial, a sun/shadow finder app, I determined where and when the sun would rise on the east-west-running street on the days I’d be there. Planning paid off, and I got the shot I envisioned before I left New York.

Planning involves checking everything, so you have fewer unpleasant surprises on site. I check the weather, permits, travel advisories with the U.S. State Department, medications with the Center for Disease Control, carry-on restrictions, size of overhead compartments, and local customs and religions.

Days In The Life Of A Travel Photographer
If I could give one tip for shooting on site, this is it: “Work with the best guide you can find.” A good guide will be the least expensive part of a trip, and can pay off big time with great photographs.

This planning takes months, and is essential to a successful travel shoot.

In planning my trip to Myanmar, I knew that I was going to be photographing in many Buddhist temples, and that wearing shoes is a no-no. So, I traveled with slip-on shoes. Sure, that’s a small tip, but if I had worn my lace-up hiking boots, it would have slowed me down before and after each temple visit, and believe me, I visited a lot of temples.

When I know I will be shooting in and around water, I pack my NEOS (flexible, lightweight and waterproof boots that slip on over my shoes or hiking boots). NEOS fold down almost flat, so you can keep them in an outer pouch of a backpack.

Travel photographers must be prepared with the right clothing, from head to toe. Remember, there is no such thing as a bad day for photography, unless you are not dressed to handle the elements.

Planning, of course, also involves the photo gear you will need. When I go on an African photo safari, I pack long lenses and test new lenses at a zoo before I leave home. When I do a road trip like Route 66, where there are many wide-angle lens possibilities, there is no need for super telephoto lenses. Planning the type of pictures you like to take will help you pack and travel wisely and lightly, when it comes to cameras, lenses and accessories.

Speaking of accessories, in planning my travels I try to envision the accessories I’ll need to tell my story. In Iceland, for example, I wanted to tell the story of the waves crashing on the ice on a black beach. To tell that story, I needed a sturdy tripod/ball head combination (Really Right Stuff) and a ND filter (Tiffen). Don’t leave home without the accessories you need to tell your story.

When I travel by air, I carry on all my photo gear—except for my tripod. I even hand-carry my ball head for my tripod. I figure if my bag (or tripod) goes missing, I can buy a tripod and use my top-of-the-line ball head.

I’d like to go back to medications, because the last thing you want to do is to get sick. When I go to East Africa and India, for example, I take malaria medication. I also make sure my typhoid, yellow fever and tetanus shots are up to date.

Days In The Life Of A Travel Photographer
My guide, Simon Sitienei, helped me get this shot of a lioness and her cubs by putting me, in the best possible position for a backlit photograph. © Photo by Rick Sammon

I don’t eat street food. I only eat in good hotels and restaurants. I also use hand sanitizer before each meal. The one time I got violently sick was when I was on a ship eating food from a buffet line and did not use the hand sanitizer before I ate. Evidently, the guests, using the same utensils, spread a virus from person to person.

“Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.”— ­ Susan Sontag

Basically, my days of being a travel photographer are divided into three segments: pre-trip planning, working on site, post-trip work. Let’s take a look at what I do on those days, and what you may do if you are in my shoes—or sandals or hiking boots.

I also apply sunscreen and insect repellent religiously when required.

There is one more thing I do before a trip: exercise daily. I want to be in the best shape possible, because a healthy travel photographer is a happy travel photographer.

Working on Site

If I could give one tip for shooting on site, this is it: “Work with the best guide you can find.” A good guide will be the least expensive part of a trip, and can pay off big time with great photographs. My guide, Simon Sitienei, helped me get this shot of a lioness and her cubs by putting me, while tracking these animals on the Maasia Mara for about a half-hour, in the best possible position for a backlit photograph.

My second tip: You can sleep when you are dead. You must get up early and stay out late to capture the best light of day, as I did at sunrise while exploring Mt. Rainier in Washington state.

One thing you can’t do is process your pictures when you are dead. That’s why I never go to sleep without selecting the best pictures from a day’s shoot, no matter how tired I am.

Days In The Life Of A Travel Photographer
In planning my Route 66 trip, I found many photographs on Google of the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. I wanted something different, perhaps a bit more creative. Using Photo Sundial, a sun/shadow finder app, I determined where and when the sun would rise on the east/west running street on the days I’d be there. Planning paid off, and I got the shot that I had envisioned before I left New York. © Photo by Rick Sammon

And speaking of my pictures, I always save my pictures on two 500GB hard drives, so I never lose an image.

When it comes to specifics for “a day in the life of a travel photographer,” no day is the same, except that I work my butt off each and every day. I hit the ground running, setting up my gear and photographing as soon as possible.

My days begin before sunrise and end after sunset. During the midday hours I download and nap. Often I say to myself, “It’s not easy having fun. It’s a lot of hard work!”

Post-Trip Work

When I get back home, there is more work to be done. The first thing I do is back up my images on two more hard drives, one that’s in my house and one that’s in my office. I don’t want to lose an image, like this image of Carmargue horses that I worked so hard to get.

Over the next few days I process my images (on my calibrated monitor) and then back up those images.

Then I get to work sharing my images on social media and selecting images for my books, magazine articles and slide presentations.

The next step: planning the next trip.

The downside of being a travel photographer

Again, I would not trade being a travel photographer for the world. For example, seeing and photographing a sight like these Mongolia soldiers reenacting a Genghis Khan charge, was an awe-inspiring experience. However, there are downsides to being a travel photographer:

Traveling—Traveling to places like India can take 32 hours or more, including a 10-hour plane ride. You can only watch so many movies and eat so many meals. TSA pre-check and global entry easy the pain, and I strongly suggest that travel photographers enroll in these programs.

Jetlag—Jetlag can be bad. On site, I often wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. and toss and turn until it is time to meet my guide, which may be several hours away.

Days In The Life Of A Travel Photographer
Planning, of course, also involves planning the photo gear you will need. When I go on an African photo safari, I pack long lenses, and test new lenses at a zoo before I leave home. When I do a road trip like Route 66, where there are many wide-angle lens possibilities, there is no need for super telephoto lenses. Planning the type of pictures you like to take will help you pack and travel wisely and lightly – when it comes to cameras, lenses and accessories. © Photo by Rick Sammon

In planning my trips, I consider jetlag, because it takes a few days to get accustomed to a different time zone at the beginning of a trip, as well as when a trip is over. Coming back from India, for example, it took me more than a week to get back to normal.

Seasickness—There are two states to being seasick: Stage one, you feel as though you are going to die. Stage two, you wish you were dead. If you are prone to seasickness, ask your doctor about medications that can help you avoid both stages.

Food poisoning—Happened to me once, and I hope it never happens again. Again, choose your food wisely.

Homesickness—Yes, even after all these years of travel I still get homesick. Every trip I take is one day too long.

Bad weather—Yes, you can plan for good weather, but it’s not guaranteed. Being rained out for even a day can be frustrating.

To end on a positive note, all the trials and tribulations of being a travel photographer are worth it, especially when you get a knockout photograph like this image of two lions mating on the Maasai Mara.

What’s more, as a travel photographer you may experience different cultures, as I did while exploring the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan. It’s the people that make traveling the most wonderful experience for me.

Want to get started as a travel photographer? Travel close to home and make travel-like images, as illustrated here by this picture I took of a Buddhist temple, which is about five minutes from my home in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Go back to the same place again and again. Shoot from different angles and with different lenses. Try to tell a different story on each of your visits.

Most of all, have fun! 

Rick Sammon is a long-time friend of this magazine, Visit with Rick at ricksammon.com

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