I’m in the process of planning travel photography shoots in Eastern Europe, and while I can’t wait for a holiday, I also want to shoot some great travel images to upload to Getty and increase my stock portfolio.
One thing I wish I’d learned early in my photography career was how to plan a shoot. After all, how do you make the best of your available photography time while travelling? I used to rock up to a destination, see what was cool like any other tourist and take photos with little special planning.
But it would be a shame to get to a destination and realise the library you wanted to photograph was closed, the national park you wanted to sell prints of required a permit and you forgot your photo consent forms. (All three things have happened to me).
The biggest difference between an amateur and professional photographer is organisation. So I’ll share here exactly how I go about planning a photoshoot for any of my trips in Australia or overseas.
How to Plan a Successful Travel Photography Shoot
You need to start planning at least three months in advance. If I’m travelling overseas, I book flights and accommodation six months in advance, especially if it’s peak season. Permits and planning takes time, and it’s a lot more stressful to wing it or organise shoots closer to the date.
Research your travel photography locations
Pick a destination
First stop is to figure out where you’re going. This is the fun bit! What do you like to photograph? Cities? National parks? Where have you always wanted to go?
You could even plan a photography trip around less visited destinations – for example, I’m going to Serbia and Montenegro, and there aren’t as many photos of these destinations as a place like Paris, France. Being a photographer, I’m always looking at travel photos online, which have inspired many of my trips. It’s the reason I’m going to Montenegro – just google Montenegro National Park and you’ll see why.
Research the best season to go
Once you’ve decided your destination, find out when a good season to visit is. Places like South Korea and Japan have beautiful and distinct seasons. Cherry blossom viewing and fall leaves can make for some spectacular images. Regardless of when you go, I still believe you can take beautiful images anywhere, anytime!
On the same hand, make sure the place you want to go is open in that season. I wanted to go to the caves systems in central Vietnam, changed my plans so I could go there, and found out online after that they were closed during the wet season for safety. At least I didn’t find out when I got there!
Brainstorm popular locations and photo ideas
This step goes hand in hand with the next one of making bookings. Often I book flights and have a vague outline of an itinerary before I get to the nitty-gritty where I write a huge list in OneNote of potential destinations. Don’t worry too much about sorting this into any order, that’s the next step.
My system of finding potential photography sites and destinations:
- Search TripAdvisor and Google Trips for popular things to do in the country/area. Note down the top 10-20.
- Research the local cuisine. Find out the best places to get this food – the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide is good for this.
- Search for the best viewpoints in the city or destination. I’ve got some of my best landscape photos in Vietnam just because someone liked hiking up a hill for the views and mentioned it on TripAdvisor.
- Search through stock sites to see what they already have available. Are there only poor quality images of a famous landmark? If you can take a better photo, put that on your shot list. Are there landmarks or destinations with only a few photos? That’s a great gap in the market to tap into.
- Look at what modes of transport you’re using to get around. Are there iconic local modes of transport like Thailand’s tuk tuks, New York’s subway or Hanoi’s xe om? Can you take the train rather than a flight?
- Find out if there are any popular festivals near the time you’re planning to go, like India’s Holi festival.
- Familiarise yourself with local dress – are there people you could ask to photograph while you’re there?
These are examples of what I came up brainstorming for my Vietnam trip. While I didn’t get all the shots, I got a lot of these images:
- Lake and pagoda
- Traffic both close up and wide, include movement
- Flower market
- Temple of Literature
- Rice paper rolls
- Banh mi
- Drying/preparing food
- Street vendors
- Rice paddies
- Light streaming through mountains
- Local people/tribes
- Traditional dress
- Picking rice
- Conical hats
- Tourists trekking
- Star trails/stars at night over rice paddy
- Animals (monkeys, buffalo)
Finally, rank your destinations by where you want to go! Don’t go anywhere you’re not keen on – you have to have fun as well!
Book flights and accommodation
Now you’ve got a general idea of where you want to go, you can book the high-level stuff, like flights, transport and accommodation. Look for accommodation that has great views or a rooftop balcony – even hostels have rooftop bars! I often book through Booking.com in case I need to change or cancel plans.
Closer to the date, email the owner to let them know you’re a photographer and you’d love to take pictures from their place. Make sure they sign a property release form too.
Plan your shot list
Phew! Now you’re onto the exciting world of spreadsheets.
Taking your basic itinerary (how much time you have off, when and where you must fly in and out of), you can fill in the gaps. In four columns, list out the date, location, landmark and shot list like below. Be specific about what you want, describing the shots required.
Date and Time
Night views of the city
Group places in proximity so you can knock off a group of locations in a morning/afternoon. To get the best shots, you will need to get up early and stay up late, especially in summer.
Be realistic about your timing. It takes time to travel between tourist landmarks, plus you need to eat and rest your feet. Pick the top photo locations in an area and go from there.
Determine the best time of day to visit
Use apps to determine when the light will be best on a landmark. I’m planning to look at these locations in PhotoPills, to get the best angles of light and times of day. This is important if you’re doing any sunrise, sunset or astrophotography. You don’t want to get to your landmark to find it back-lit.
Research local laws
The next step is to research any local photography laws. Official disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and this doesn’t constitute legal advice.
I often take a look at Wikipedia’s photography reference articles for a basic overview. These aren’t conclusive and there are many countries not on the list, but it’s a helpful starting point:
If you fly a drone, you should carefully research the country specific laws as you wouldn’t want it confiscated at customs! As always, laws are constantly changing and you need to look into this yourself closer to your date of travel.
Figure out if any of the landmarks or locations you’ve identified require a photography permit. For example, the Sydney Opera House Foreshore is one of the most iconic harbours in the world, but you’ll also need a permit to photograph it commercially. Although permits can be a hassle, it’s good to cover your bases and sometimes you get free publicity as a result.
If you’re not sure you need a permit, but the landmark is a private location, send them a quick email explaining who you are, what you do and where they can see some of your work. I emphasise that my work is for travel and tourism purposes. A lot of places will waive permit fees to promote tourism. And sometimes, you just gotta suck it up and pay the fee.
Once you’ve got permission from the venue, if it’s a private location you’ll also need to get a property release form signed. Did anyone tell you when you became a photographer you’d need to be really, really good at paperwork? To simplify this, I use the Easy Release Form app and have a couple of paper forms as a backup.
While I haven’t organised talent in country myself, if you’d like to photograph local people and traditional dress, try to organise this in advance. It’s where my next step comes in handy…
Hire a fixer
Sometimes you can’t do it yourself, and you need to hire someone in the country to help with logistics, language and shoots. Because I’m often travelling by myself and working on low key shoots, I usually ask the hotel staff or tour guides to assist with recommendations (say if I need to make ongoing transport arrangements, get a form signed by hotel staff etc). However, a fixer can organise permits and talent, which would be especially useful if you don’t speak the language and you’re going remote.
Just before you go
So now you’re all organised, you’re getting excited for your trip and you’re packing to go. Before you go, make sure you:
- Print a hard copy of your itinerary, shot list and permits. You don’t want to be relying on wifi or wasting time and money on hotel printers.
- Make a list of the equipment you’ll need for the shoot. Consider any night, landscape or sunrise/sunset photography you’ll be doing, as you might need additional lenses and a tripod. My kit includes
- Nikon D750
- Nikon 24-70 f/2.8
- I used to take a Sigma 10-20 wide-angle lens before I moved to full frame
- Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod and/or Gorillapod if I’m going hiking
- 2x batteries
- Neutral density and graduated neutral density filters
- Circular polarizing filter
- Charging cords and cables
- Memory cards
- Camera bag
- Laptop/tablet (depending on how long I’m going for I won’t always take my laptop)
- Ask yourself if you need any special equipment besides camera gear? If you’ll be up before sunrise, you might need a flashlight and warm clothing. I use an app called Packpoint to create a packing list of everything I need and pack it systematically.
- Prepare your camera and drone batteries according to flight regulations, check your gear is working and clean your gear, especially your sensor and lenses.
- Print a business card so you can introduce yourself to people and promote your site and photography.
While you’re there
- If you’re shooting on a site which required permission, let the staff know you’re there before they ask you why you’re setting up a tripod in the middle of that cathedral…
- Keep your printed permits, contact details and emails on hand for any staff who might not know about your plans. It goes without saying but be friendly and professional!
- Keep US $1 bills or equivalent on hand to give to people as tips or when they sign a photo release form.
Be ready to wing it
With all this planning, sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes the weather is terrible. Sometimes your bus will break down. Sometimes you find something when you’re there that’s even more special than what you thought, like the time I slept on the floor of an already full guesthouse, so I could get to the Loy Krathong Festival at the last minute. Be flexible with your plans and as always, travel photography should be fun!