Preparing to Travel

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Ceiling and chandelier, Jama Masjid, Delhi

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I adapted this post from an article I recently wrote for the Canberra Photographic Society. It draws on my travel experiences over the last few years and includes some monochrome versions of my images from India.  The main focus is travel with photography in mind.

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Ceiling, Humayan’s Tomb

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Of course what I’m talking about is what I have found useful for myself. Others will no doubt have different experiences, opinions and preferences.

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Children on the street in Vrindavan

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What to read beforehand

Since this was a pre-organised tour we didn’t have to arrange our own accommodation or transport inside India. For my first time in India this was a great advantage.  I purchased a couple of guide books and took them with me, however I found them largely a waste of time because we didn’t need to worry about the logistics of travel and the information they provided I found generally too superficial.  Sometime previously I had read a History of India and that’s what I should have taken with me. It would have helped me understand the significance of places we visited and enabled me to ask intelligent questions of our guides.  I also purchased a book Culture Shock! India that proved a very useful introduction to the perils and opportunities of travel in India.

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From the bus, near Vrindavan

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If you’re organising your own accommodation, Trip Advisor is a good place to start (the link comes up at Deo Bagh by way of example). You can learn quite a lot by reading the traveller reviews.  Also, there is always a map you can click on and you can explore in that to find other places nearby with optimal locations. Always check the web sites of places you might be interested in.

I tend to use SkyScanner for booking flights though it’s not the only choice. If you use the wrong search engine you can end up paying much more. Make sure you book the correct dates and leave enough time between flights and make sure your flight times match the logistics of travel inside the countries you visit.  In some cases you may want to arrive in a country a day or two early in case a delayed flight can make you miss a critical connection.  You may prefer to use a travel agent which may be safer but will probably cost you more.

It’s also wise to have reserve funds because problems are always possible.

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Photographing and being photographed, near Vrindavan

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It’s important to find out what the weather is likely to be so you can consider in advance how the weather might affect your photographic opportunities, or even what activities you undertake, and so you can know what clothes to bring. There are lots of online sites that show weather in a location for the next ten days or so and most guide books will give you an indication of what weather conditions will be like by month or by season. For both Japan and Iceland I found detailed time series data online for various locations, which was very useful. However, in these days of global warming, there is always the chance that you will encounter atypical weather conditions.

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Making sugar, near Vrindavan

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Visas and Vaccinations

Visas and vaccinations are essential for a place like India and you need to ensure you do them well in advance since you have to surrender your passport for some weeks.

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Early morning in Vrindavan

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Clothing

You obviously need suitable clothing and the trick is to take what you’re going to need, especially to keep you warm and dry, without discovering you have lots of stuff you haven’t used. A pair of good hiking boots is likely to be essential and I always bring a second pair of footwear just in case.

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Open-air food markets, Vrindavan

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Camera Gear

There’s a huge variety in what you might take as camera equipment and much of this is personal choice.  Roger Clark has a useful article: Does gear matter in photography? .

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Taj Mahal from nearby mosque

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For the most minimal system, you might go for a single camera such as a Sony RX100, a Fujifilm X100s or a mirrorless or DSLR camera with just one zoom. In that case how you carry it and carry-on weights are not major issues. Alternatively, a camera like this might be a secondary camera, especially for walking around in cities.  A Nikon 1 AW might also be an option as the only genuinely waterproof camera system.

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Motorcycle repair shop, Agra

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However, most people will probably carry a mirrorless or DSLR system, having negotiated trade-offs for weight, image quality, low light capability and autofocus speed. Whatever you take, you should have a backup camera because you can never eliminate the possibility of camera loss or failure.

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Laxminarayan Temple from Orchha Fort, Orchha

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If it’s going to be wet or a desert (potential for wind-borne sand), you might consider a rain cover for your camera. If I am travelling with a full-frame Nikon system I take ThinkTank Hydrophobias, which are admittedly expensive. There are now a few options for smaller cameras such as those from Kata or Manfrotto and the cheapest option is probably the Op Tech Rainsleeve.

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Street scene in front of Laxminarayan Temple, Orchha

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Checked Luggage

Organisation of luggage is always a task and when I travel overseas I use a spreadsheet to list and check off items to make sure I take everything I need. In my partner Jools’ case for our trip to India, her strategy included taking as little as possible so she could bring as much as possible back. Allowable limits can vary by airline so finding the best option may require a bit of research.

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View from Hotel Fatehgarh, Udaipur

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Carry-on Luggage

If you have a full DSLR camera system, carry-on limits can be a challenge. You don’t want to have your camera gear go in the hold because it’s more vulnerable and not insured. Usually they don’t check weights (though they can) and may be more concerned about size, especially small regional airlines that may have small lockers. If necessary, you can put a camera round your neck and take out items to put in your pockets.  On my North Atlantic trip last year, I flew British Airways where possible because they don’t have carry-on weight limits; you just have to be able to lift your bag into the overhead locker.

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City Palace, Udaipur

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You may need a dedicated carrying unit for your camera gear. I took a Lowe-Pro Inverse belt pack with me to India (for a Fujifilm system) but many choose a photographic backpack (and I have a couple of these that I may use with a full-frame Nikon system). Among the better choices, if not cheap, are the Gura Gear packs such as the Gura Gear Bataflae (various sizes). Be wary of Tamrac packs, though. They look good and I got one and immediately returned it because it put strain on my back even with a light load. Thom Hogan reported the same thing in one of his reviews.

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Common Langur reflecting the bus in his eyes, near Ranakpur

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Until recently, you may have had a problem if you wanted to go bushwalking (or tramping or hiking) for many days, or even on a long day trip walking many kilometres in variable weather conditions.  This is because there were no suitable packs available to let you carry food, clothing and other equipment, as well as your photographic gear. In the last year or two, modular packs for this purpose have become available.

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View from fort, Sardargarh

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My next trip includes walks of many hours in the south-west US canyonlands. For that I have purchased a MindShift Rotation 180 Pro.  This is a modular pack that includes a beltpack that you can swivel out without removing the backpack, or that you can wear separately.  It has a variety of ways of carrying a tripod and seems to have a very comfortable harness system.  There is also a variety of options for carrying clothes, food and other items.

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Travellers hanging out of moving train, between Sardargarh and Phulad

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Another modular option is the Gura Gear Uinta, which allows you to access your camera gear from the front or the back of the pack. It has a feature where you slip out of the shoulder straps, rotate the whole pack around your waist on its base, and take out cameras and lenses from the back without removing the pack. The Mindshift pack can do this too (at least for the top part of the pack), but in either case this doesn’t sound very practical with a very heavy pack.

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Hermit/ holy man, Sardargarh

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A third option is the Aarn Featherlite Freedom, or similar Aarn models that distribute the weight on the front as well as the back and have photographic modules that hang off the shoulder straps on the front. It must be very ergonomic and as a New Zealand pack would be waterproof but is probably more suitable for a small compact system.

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Dancing in the desert, Manvar Desert Camp

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Planning a Shoot

When you’re looking at the locations you want to photograph, the Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a very useful utility. It can tell you when the sun or moon rises and sets, directions and even shadows cast by mountains. You need an internet connection to use it.

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Near Manvar Desrt Camp (infrared)

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Some of my trips I have also preplanned on a car GPS (including accommodation and photo stops). For my North Atlantic trip I would ask the car GPS “OK, where do I want to go next?” and it would set me on my way. The only problem was sometimes working out why I had wanted to go there. I also found it useful for off-road sites such as brochs (though an all-terrain one would be better for more extensive use) and I found it useful on foot in Kyoto where street signs are in Japanese.  A smart phone can also offer you useful maps but won’t extend to route planning.

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In a laneway, Jaisalmer

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Backing up your images

I guess another form of trip preparation is working out how to select and process your images when you come back and what your forms of output will be. To end up with images to process, you need to either take lots of cards or a laptop and external drives. You should always have two backups of your images and ideally store them in separate places while travelling, just in case.

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Young woman and child, from the horse and cart, Jodhpur

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To my mind taking the images is largely intuitive. You make your choices, you understand your equipment, you find the right light and you let the photographs take themselves. You can get into things like rule of thirds for composition but for me the important thing is simply to see the final result as you are making the exposure. It’s important to shoot RAW because otherwise you are only storing a fraction of the colours and tones that the camera can see.  You can always improve images in post-processing even if your objective is “realism”.

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Seller of scarves at entrance to Jodhpur Fort

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Feel free to comment on how your experiences and attitudes may differ, or if you think I have left anything out.

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21 comments on “Preparing to Travel

  1. Rajiv says:

    You seem to have had a fun trip!

    Like

  2. Rajiv says:

    I post all my monochrome on a separate blog

    Like

  3. Lynne Ayers says:

    So many interesting images here, Murray, and well suited to the bw

    Like

  4. Kamila Pala says:

    Nice post with great shots!

    Like

  5. Vicki says:

    Wonderful series of images.
    Thanks for sharing all those tips too.

    Like

  6. […] Preparing to travel (General post but with monochrome images from India trip) […]

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  7. […] Preparing to travel (23 mono images in India) […]

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  8. Excellent set. I have not read all the prose, but the quality and consistency of the photographs speaks clearly: not only are you a master in monochrome, you also have amazing people skills.

    Great, great street photography!

    Like

  9. Murray Foote says:

    Thanks very much, Alessandro. That’s praise indeed coming from you.

    Your street photography is very wonderful as well and it’s interesting how different our styles are. Usually our methods of social interaction are different as well.

    Your images to me feel as though they were shot on film whether they were or not and it may be your publishing background but some of the seem to me as though they would belong in a fine arts magazine from the 50s or 60s. I think some of your images are also more conceptual than mine usually are.

    In my case I think I have two quite different influences in street photography. One is the only photographer who is a conscious influence on me for any kind of photography and that is Henri Cartier Bresson, specifically for street photography. The other is my experience in large format film landscape photography which I think gives me a very formal sense of composition that I find for street photography is available for me instantly. I hadn’t tried street photography until my trip to New York three years ago though I’d thought about it and it remains something of surprise to me that I seem to have something of an aptitude for it.

    Like

  10. […] Preparing to Travel […]

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  11. donpnz says:

    Love these Monochromes of India, a superb set. Also got a lot from the reading the travel tips ~ excellent ! Hoping to travel a lot more …someday. Thanks

    Like

    • Murray Foote says:

      Thanks very much, Don. Well, the NZ dollar’s pretty strong these days. I’ll have to come back to Godzone some time and walk some of the tracks in the South Island again (I’m originally from Auckland).

      Your gravatar shows a surfboard and specifies the east coast – Tauranga, perhaps?

      Like

  12. Reblogged this on canberraphotographicsociety and commented:
    A version of this post appeared in Capital Image a few issues ago. This is the original version from my blog – Murray Foote

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