Quite often I find that I write things about which I most want to know. I am planning a photo "safari" for this spring that will take me on a more than 3000 mile journey across the South. In order to figure out how to go about planning that road trip, I decided to simply write about my present research and past experience. Hence this blogpost.
A photo safari isn't necessarily one in which you travel to Africa to capture wildlife or landscapes unavailable anywhere else. It can be any extended trip taken with the goal of bringing home a "trophy" shot to hang on your (or your clients') wall. That trophy shot could be photos of people, places, things, or whatever you enjoy photographing.
In this writer's view, all of that takes planning. How much is up to you.
Planning all aspects of a photo road trip makes the trip less worry-free and much more productive.
I've done it both ways — planned and spontaneous — and my preference is to plan. Up to a certain point.
Over-planning can lead to a dullness, a sameness, and a lack of spontaneous adventure that can stifle the best photographer.
When you know what you're going to be doing every minute of your trip, something inside you relaxes. It's easy to become complacent. You're not as alert as you might be, otherwise. And when you're not alert you either miss shots or you don't care that you miss shots. "Oh, well. I'll get the next one." Trust me; the next one never seems to come. Remember why you're on this photo safari to begin with.
Under-planning can take your focus (pun intended) away from your photography and onto the thousand decisions we all make in a day:
- Where am I going to eat breakfast/lunch/dinner?
- Where can I. . . "relieve" myself? Several times a day.
- Is this place safe to sleep in the car for a few hours? Or legal?!?
- Do I really need to stay in a hotel/motel tonight to get a good night's sleep?
- When should I hit the road on the next leg of my trip so that I arrive at the next waypoint when the light is good instead of in the middle of the day?
- And so on. . . .
How Long Will You Be Gone?
The amount of preparation necessary for a photo road trip increases almost geometrically the longer you plan to stay on the road. What seem like luxuries for a weekend trip become necessities when you stretch the trip out to a week or more.
For the purpose of having a starting point, we'll assume that you're going on a one week trip. So, let's get started.
1. Preparation Tools
A trip can be surprisingly complex. Holding all the information about it in your head can be all but impossible. That's why I use a few tools to help me keep everything organized:
Pick your poison — paper & pencil or a to-do list or outliner on your favorite device. Make it simple. Use it. Make it complicated. That's up to you. But use it. Make a list or make several. You're the one who'll decide how casual or how formal a process you want to make it. Use your gut as your guide. That's what will work best for you.
I suppose everyone is different but I rely on Google Maps. There are pros and cons to every kind of map, of course, whether you fold it up and keep it in the glovebox or download it or interact with it, such as Google Maps or Yahoo Maps. However, although I'm an Apple fanboy, I'm not a big fan of Apple Maps. My view is that it's still not ready for prime time because of inconsistencies and lack of data. YMMV.
For me, a combination of using my phone for turn-by-turn navigation and my iPad for longer-range planning works better than anything else I've tried.
But that's just me. You may prefer "old school." Carrying around a dog-eared atlas that's big enough to read in dim light and has plenty of detailed insets may make more sense for your way of traveling.
Whatever your preference, make it as simple and natural to use as possible because I can almost guarantee you that there will be times on the road when you need to get the information NOW, not five minutes from now. Out on the road, it can mean the difference between being safe and. . . well, you know. Not.
Websites and Apps
There are any number of websites and apps that have plenty of useful information or which provide services for travelers. Here are a few:
2. What Are Your Photo Goals for the Trip?
Goals can be as vague and unstructured as photographing people or landscapes. Or they can be as specific and structured as shooting every diner with neon signs between here and Amarillo or telling the story of the changing fall colors across Vermont during September.
My belief is that you should create goals that are important to YOU and not someone else. The more invested in your goals you are, the better your photographs are likely to be.
3. How Much Gear Do You Need? And What Type?
This is a difficult question to answer. I would say that it depends on your shooting style and what type of photographs you want to shoot.
If what you want to do is shoot people in their natural environments, a single 24-70mm or 24-105mm zoom along with your camera of choice may be all you need.
Shooting huge panoramic landscapes requires precision to make sure all the photos of the entire scene stitch together well. You might want to carry a pano-gimbal head and heavy-ass tripod. Or if you want to automate the process, carrying a Gigapan Epic Pro (and a heavy-ass tripod) plus a spare battery or two might be the way to go.
Gear choice is up to you. But it's best to put some thought into what you're going to shoot before you start packing. Let your goals be your guide for how much and what type of camera or lighting gear to pack.
4. What Kind of Accommodations Will You Need?
Depending on your tastes and comfort needs, this can be an expensive option, particularly if you're on the road for a significant length of time.
I typically only stay overnight at a hotel/motel if I desperately need a good night's sleep after pushing myself to the limit for two to four days. Springing for a nice bed and a hot shower can rejuvenate you and prepare you for another few days on the road.
I'm not exactly the Great Outdoorsman but I kind of like camping. It's challenging, it's almost guaranteed to get you out of your routine, and you never know who you'll meet. For me, those are all good reasons to choose camping over other accommodations. Camping almost requires that you be creative. I certainly find that to be true more often than not. For me, it always rubs off on my photography.
Sleeping in Your Vehicle
Okay, I have to admit, being 5'4" does have its advantages when it comes to sleeping in my vehicle. These days, I own a Toyota FJ Cruiser. The back seat, when it's folded down, is almost level and it only requires that I scrunch up a tiny bit, which I do naturally, anyway, when I sleep. I throw down a couple of yoga mats, a sleeping bag, make sure I'm parked in a safe place, and catch a few hours of Zzzzzzs before getting back to shooting on the road.
I've never done this but I've been told by several people who have, that Walmart parking lots are safe, hassle-free locations to park to get some rest on the road. I'll probably give it a try on my next road trip. Let me know about your experience.
I hear varying stories about rest areas on the interstates but I've never been bothered at the ones I've used for sleep. Be prepared, though, for a tap on the window by Smokey Bear. And remember to be nice. . . it goes a long way.
5. What Kind of Weather Do You Expect?
On every road trip I've ever taken that lasts longer than a couple days, the weather changes. And, sometimes, it becomes an issue. It can be more than an issue if you're in a low-lying area and the sky opens up with a frog-strangler. You may have no choice but to find higher ground. Or just sit where you are and tough it out.
On one leg of road trip I took a couple years ago, I had just gassed up near Fort Stockton, Texas when clouds started rolling in. At first, the rain was welcome relief from the heat that July afternoon.
Soon, though, it began coming down in torrents and not being able to see more than a few feet in front of me, I pulled over to wait it out. The rain continued and was accompanied by lightning very quickly. The rain let up a bit but the lightning continued. Now, my instinct was to grab my camera, a 70-300mm lens and a tripod. But common sense took hold and I sat in the driver's seat shooting out the opened side window.
Call it dumb luck or skill, I don't care, I soon felt a rough rhythm to the lightning. This gave me an idea for how to capture the thunderbolts. Normally, I'd set my camera atop that heavy-ass tripod I mentioned before and use a long exposure to increase my chances of catching a flash of lightning. But I wasn't willing to step outside in the driving rain (and, for a while, hail) on open terrain in the middle of a thunderstorm. I've been known to take a risk or two in my lifetime but this wasn't going to be one of those times.
So, I braced myself against the seat and steering wheel, cracked the window enough to get my large lens hood through, and while breathing slowly, fired off a hundred or so exposures that I "timed" to my anticipation of the lightning striking the peak across the way.
Believe it or not, this resulted in a lovely photograph of a multiple lightning strike as you see, below. Only two frames didn't have any motion blur from handholding a 300mm lens using about an ⅛ to ½ second exposure. Luckily, one of the exposures resulted in the image you see here.
What I learned from this experience was this: Be adaptable, be safe, and be the one who gets the shot.
Oh, yes, and remember that when you're on the road, a weather app is one of your best friends.
6. Food on the Road
Sooner or later, ya gotta eat. On the road, eating food that provides fuel without making you bloated or worried about where the next gas station bathroom is, can be a problem, and an ongoing one at that.
For me, fruit, nuts (but not too many), the occasional "powerbar," and any type of food that is self-contained is the best fuel for the journey.
Candy bars, sodas, junk food of all sorts are just a waste of time, money, and energy. The high carbs will almost always have a rollercoaster effect on energy levels — and might even contribute to you nodding off behind the wheel. The fat will only slow you down.
A good quality string cheese with high-protein, low-sodium content is easy to digest and half-way nutritious. Plus, it combos well with a nice, juicy Granny Smith apple.
For more nutritious meals, I carry a Yeti cooler with a small steak or two that is frozen by the dry ice in the bottom of the cooler. I've even been known to carry salmon and have a lovely dinner while camping. And, yes, I do carry a gas camping stove and a skillet.
It's easy to become dehydrated on the road. That's why I carry plenty of water with me. Dehydration can be insidious, sneaking up on you quickly, but getting back to normal hydration can take some time. It's better to stay hydrated by keeping an open bottle of water in your drink cup.
7. Power, Computer, and Photo Needs
You may get the impression that this blogpost is about everything but photography. It does take a lot of preparation aside from what type of gear to bring. But one of the chief concerns you'll have on the road is maintaining a power supply to recharge your batteries and to run your electronic devices, including your computer and camera gear.
One of the handiest devices you can carry with you on the road is an inverter. An inverter is a device that converts the DC voltage from your 12 volt car battery to AC so you can use devices you'd normally plug into the wall socket at home. My FJ Cruiser has an in-built inverter rated at 400 watts, which is enough to run most small devices. But it's not enough to run my toaster, blow dryer, or electric tea kettle, so they get left at home.
Your vehicle may have an inverter built-in, as well. Be sure to check the specs before you pack any devices that require megawatts of power to run. Disappointment on the road is a bear.
I'm a big fan of rechargeables and use them exclusively. The amount of money I've saved over the years is incalculable. The fact is, though, you have to keep the charger plugged in so they're ready when you need them. Another reason to have a vehicle with an in-built inverter — so you can charge while you drive. I also have 3 or 4 chargers for my camera batteries, so no matter how much I shoot I always have fresh batteries to shoot some more.
If your power needs are more substantial, you might rent or purchase a small generator. They certainly will provide enough power for running all the gear you need. The downside is that they require fuel and space and have weight that has to be carried around and set up each time you use it. For me, it's a luxury that I prefer not to lug around. You may have different needs.
Your computer or tablet will need a source of power to run so you can do some organizing, writing, or photo editing on the road. The inverter in your vehicle or the standalone version mentioned above will do the job nicely. There are also standalone external batteries that provide power when the engine isn't running. I don't yet have one that will charge a laptop but I do have a 20,000 mAh battery that charges most all my devices through USB-to-micro or USB-to-Lightning cables. It takes awhile to charge because of its large capacity but it holds it for quite some time and can charge several devices, two at a time.
Aside from your computer, you'll need storage. My Buffalo Technologies 1TB hard drive is a fine little device that packs a pretty good storage punch. It's powered by the USB 3.0 connection to your laptop and is backward-compatible with USB 2.0. I was just looking online and see that Buffalo Tech now have a 2TB drive (shown above) that sells for under $100 at Walmart, what I would call a "no-brainer." Planning a 3-week photo safari in the spring, I can be sure that the combination of the two drives should have me more than covered.
You can pretty reliably connect to the Interwebs with a Wi-Fi hotspot. I made a strategic choice a couple years ago to go with a Wi-Fi only iPad. Mainly so I could easily connect all my devices to the Web through a single access point. My phone carrier is AT&T (shudder) and so is my Wi-Fi. With a 32GB limit per month on data, I'm pretty sure I can connect on an as-needed basis while on the road and not fear getting dinged for an extra $15/Gb if I exceed the limit.
8. Health Concerns
If you're of a "certain age," you probably travel with prescription meds. I do. Some states make it illegal to not use the original prescription bottle. (Personally, I find this incredibly stupid but what do I know?) The TSA is pretty persnickety, too, I understand, but this doesn't really concern international air travel, so. . . .
There is a service that packages up medications (both Rx and OTC) in little packets. Based on what I see on their website, it looks like they can even break up meds into several dosages per day. Check it out yourself and let us know about your experience with them. https://www.pillpack.com For road trips, this could be a lot more convenient than carrying all the original bottles with you. The packets are bar coded and I assume it's with the prescription and ID information.
Okay, this is not a very pleasant topic but it's going to come up, so let's discuss it. It may be one of the biggest topics with which you will concern yourself on the road.
First, let's talk about something all of us do — pee and poop. Yep, I said it. Get over it. Out on the road, you're probably not going to be using the loo any more than you do at home — it just seems like you are. Because you're on the road, you have to re-invent the wheel each time you gotta "go." Finding a place to relieve yourself is a time-consuming task. And you can't count on each new location having toilet paper, paper towels, or even water. (Yes, it does happen.)
Second, I may not have been a Boy Scout but I believe in preparation, too. The handiest thing in the universe to carry with you is a towel. (Thank you, Douglas Adams!) You can use a microfiber towel, a beach towel, a kitchen towel, or a standard bath towel. You'll find the size and absorbency that works for you after a few tries.
Next, I carry baby wipes wherever I travel. They're immeasurably convenient and useful, not just for your bum, but for small spills, wiping down your hands after eating something sticky, or just a little refreshing wipe across the brow to get rid of road dust.
I also carry hand sanitizer. Though, it's not something I normally use, you probably will have instances of coming in contact with something of questionable cleanliness. Better safe than sorry, I say.
Personal hygiene is a matter that we all take. . . well, personally. Being on the road and active during your photo safari, you're inevitably going to get dirty. And you're probably going to want a shower. That's not always possible, depending on your itinerary.
Weather permitting, you can attach a solar shower to your SUV or truck (if that's how you roll) and find someplace private enough to use it. Campgrounds are usually a good place, though they usually will have facilities. Where privacy is at a premium, a bathing suit should suffice to protect those with fragile sensibilities.
Sometimes, you may have to settle for a "marine bath." When water is scarce, an upturned helmet or shallow bucket can serve as a small reservoir so you can dip a washcloth in water and some liquid camping soap. Having this small measure of personal hygiene can make the difference between feeling "icky" and feeling ready to meet the day.
Of course there are always other alternatives.
Going on a road trip is one of the most popular and enjoyable ways to travel in the United States. It can be a lot of fun. But it's also a bit of work. If you prepare to a level that makes you confident and comfortable, chances are that your photo trip will produce some spectacular images as you wind your way across this beautiful country.
It's not necessary for most to plan every single second of a trip. If you are the type of person who can jump in the car and go wherever the front of the car leads you, then by all means, go for it. You certainly don't have to follow these exact steps to prep for your next road trip. But for most of us, however, some level of preparation takes the worry out of being on the road and let's us concentrate on why we're out there — to take beautiful photos.
Let me know if I missed anything or if you have your own prep suggestions to add. And have a great trip!
Lawrence Standifer Stevens is a photographer, artist, writer, audio producer and voice talent, and a nascent filmmaker. He is available for guided photo safaris or for assignments within or outside the U.S. Contact him at LSS (at) STUDIOLSS (dot) (com) or through the Contact Us page on LawrenceStevens.com. You can see some of the images from his most recent road trip on his Behance portfolio.