Ever wonder how some photographers seem to be in just the right place to create those perfect photos? What is their secret? Are they just lucky? In most cases, these photographers are not lucky, they are prepared. The secret is that they are willing to commit enough time to planning photography trips to increase the odds of capturing great photos.
Below are 10 tips for planning photography trips that have helped me and hopefully will help you come home with great photos.
Before I list the 10 tips for planning photography trips, let me share with you my personal experience traveling the country full time for photography. My first year on the road, (second time around) I spent my first year overwhelmed with the RV. In fact, although my destinations were photography spots, my planning efforts centered on finding campsites, searching road grades, monitoring weather and other rv trailering considerations. I completely failed to plan my photo shoots and ended up with very few good images.
I learned my lesson and started planning my photo shoots.
10 Tips for Planning Photography Trips
1. Identify Potential Photography Destinations
- I maintain a spreadsheet that contains every place I want to photograph. On this spreadsheet, each location or subject has the following information for sorting:
- Geographic Location- includes region, state and city if possible.
- Subject- For example if landscape destination a subject could either be listed as coastal or mountains.
- Best time of year to visit
- New image or redo of existing image-
- Rank Image Need Priority- If working on a portfolio or book project, images may be given top priority.
- Next I evaluate my photo want list based on:
- photo project needs- books, notecards, calendar, other product needs
- portfolio expansion- for example I may want to increase my portfolio of barn images.
- Sort my existing list of photo subjects on my photo spreadsheet and research new subjects if needed for list. for example if I decide I want to photograph trees and do not have enough trees on my existing spreadsheet, I will research additional tree locations.
Now I have my updated first draft of a yearly shot list of images.
- Next I will sort the list first by what I have ranked as my highest image needs and decide where I will travel.
- Once I settle on a specific destination, I will then go back and resort the spreadsheet based on my photo destination to identify other potential subjects to photograph along my route.
2. Website Research
I begin to research my photo wants on the sites listed below. Using Tucson as an example, let’s look at how I research the San Xavier Mission for when and how to photograph it.
- Pinterest – search boards for San Xavier Mission and surrounding areas
- Instagram– search images by topic and location.
- 500px –500 px search of San Xavier Mission
- Google Images- San Xavier Mission Image
- Google search of photographers in the Tucson area. I will review websites for photo ideas and contact photographers I like for advice.
- Fine Art America– same search criteria
- Google Earth – I save this till last.
3. Best Seasons to Photograph Subjects
Next I do some preliminary research on the best times to visit a subject. In this phase I will consider how my desired images would be impacted by factors such as wildflower blooms, snow, fall color, etc.
For non-seasonal subjects such as architecture, I may note factors such as a monsoon season for interesting skies. Since my example is a Mission in Tucson, snow is not likely and wildflowers and fall color are not factors but interesting skies are important. This is also a great time to add any astrophotography factors to the subject such as the Milky Way.
4. Route Planning
- Next I take out a physical map that encompasses all the places on my list and begin to visualize various routes. For instance, if I only plan to photograph in Arizona, I would not look at any maps but Arizona. By the way, my favorite maps for travel and camping are Benchmark Maps.
- Now I begin to develop a preliminary trip route with Google My Maps. Again, let’s stay with the Tucson area.
- Factor in Road Grades. My next step will include checking my route for grades and clearance restrictions using my favorite app: Allstays.
- I use two of Allstays products, one is the Allstays Pro for a Mac and the other is the Allstay IOS app for phones and Ipads. On the right is a screen capture of these two products. I could write an entire post on how much I love Allstays! And no, I am not affiliated in any way with the company.
- Detours-As I chart out my entire year, some subjects immediately stand out as being out of the way stops.
- Decisions must be made regarding adding any detour to my route.
- Detours add time and costs away from other photo opportunities so I note the additional time and costs by the subject.
5. Using Apps for Sun and Moon Positions.
Now its time to check sun and moon angles to determine when a specific subject will be in the best light. The research below was done using Photographer’s Ephemeris I should note that I have now replaced TPE with Photopills.
Let’s take a look at the lighting on the San Xavier Mission in Tucson on both January 31, 2019 and February 28, 2019.
The red pin is the Mission, the yellow line is the sunrise angle and the orange line is the sunset angle.
January 31, 2019
February 28, 2019
Based on my image research in step 2 above, I know I want to photograph the Mission from the front and both sides. Clearly the sun angle would be better in January than February since the Mission faces south. It is now decision time and I conclude that I would rather defer photographing the Mission till a time when I can photograph it in December or early January for the best possible light. By the time I could make the trip for 2019, the lighting would be OK but not perfect. Update: See my December 2020 visit to San Xavier Mission: Christmas Day at San Xavier Mission.
To see my entire list of app I use for trip planning be sure to check out: Great Apps for Landscape and Travel Photography Planning
6. Factor in Special Equipment and Knowledge Needs
One of the subjects on my list for 2019 was Astrophotography and especially of the Southwest. Admittedly, at the time of this post, I did not possess the equipment and knowledge needed to create great Astrophotography images. So I began to set time aside on my calendar to acquire the needed knowledge and skills. In fact, I purchased the following highly recommended ebook from this blog link below. Blog and Ebook Link on Night Photography .
Here again is another benefit of proper trip planning. I know ahead of time what equipment I need to order and what knowledge I need to acquire before arriving at a destination and winging it. Update- Due to weather and other factors I did not have the time to spend in the southwest to work on astrophotography. But I am now prepared for a future trip.
Make reservations early in popular areas! Yes, this is another benefit of developing a photography wish list and trip route early in the year. I firmly believe it is important to stay as close as possible to a specific photo location. In 2017, I came upon a bison kill by the side of the road in Lamar Valley that was being visited by wolves and grizzly bears. Although I was not staying terribly far away in actual mileage, the trip through Yellowstone took 3-3 1/2 hours one-way due to road conditions and traffic. I made three trips and each time delays caused me to just “missed it”. If I had stayed in Lamar Valley or Gardiner, I could have photographed the kill in early morning with grizzly bears by the road and also later in the evening with more bears and wolves.
Sites I use to find campgrounds:
8. Other Useful Apps for Photo Trip Planning
- Google Earth and Google Maps
- Night Sky Finder
- Weather and Radar
These are just a few of the my many tools I may use both in preplanning a trip and also while photographing a subject.
The best photo trip route plans are meaningless without the money to fund the trips. My travel budget must take me to as many photo destinations as possible every year. By including an estimated cost by each subject, I am able to visually what each destination will cost be and make informed decisions about a visit. Heck, I may even be able to save some money for new camera gear or attend a “Astrophotography workshop.
10. Time Management, Internet and Health
The last step in the planning process involves a final review of my photo list and travel plans. Now I consider other time commitments and my current health status as I evaluate the subjects on the list. For instance, my photography business and blog currently require a minimum of 30 hours a week to maintain. Are my travel plans realistic in light of this? Do I need to remove some destinations? What business endeavors could I delay to travel more? These are decisions I struggle with constantly.
I also consider the physical requirements involved in photographing a specific subject on my list. For instance, I would love to photograph Arizona’s Wave but could not undertake the 8 mile round trip hike in the summer months nor at any time this year due to a knee injury. Therefore the Wave is moved to future years.
Oh, I must not forget the need for internet access and this goes without saying for all my locations since I work from the road.
Update the Route Quarterly
My Photo Travel Plans, despite careful planning, change frequently due to unforeseen events. The great thing about having a list prepared is that I can usually find another nearby subject with easy since the research has already been done.
That’s my planning process and I hope you find it useful. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you plan your photography travels each year so please comment below. Regardless if you travel for photography once or twice a year or for extended periods of time, I hope these tips help you arrive well prepared to take great photos.
See you next Friday at another Road Trip Friday destination.