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For those of us with cameras, there are two types of trips:  trips where we take photos and photo trips.  There may not seem like a distinction, but I assure you there is.  While just about anyone with the shutterbug will take a camera and snap some shots during a trip, a photo trip is one that is specifically designed to accommodate photography.  A trip that is created for the primary (or sole) purpose of photographing is a photo trip.  Anything else is trip where you take photos.

I try to take two extended photo trips each year, though I’m not always able to do so.  This year, my first trip begins on Friday, May 4, when I fly from Chicago to Las Vegas en route to spending approximately 10 days at Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

Because it’s been very much on my mind lately, this entry of Thursday Tips will provide some suggestions relevant to photo trip planning.

Conduct Advance Research on Your Destination

Being in position to obtain the best shots—particularly in an unfamiliar locale—demands some background research on the location.  For most places, there’s a tremendous amount of material available for you, in the form of printed guide books, e-books, websites, blogs and online forums.

I’ve been to Zion and Bryce (not Valley of Fire) once before, but it was nearly 15 years ago and the purpose of my previous visit was hiking, not photography.  So, for this trip I ordered a book on photographing Utah from Amazon; purchased two inexpensive e-books, one on photographing Zion and Bryce Canyon, the other on photographing Valley of Fire; visited the U.S. National Park Service Website to learn about the shuttle bus system at Zion and the Nevada Parks Commission Website to gain some background information about Valley of Fire logistics; read blog entries on Zion and Bryce; and asked questions about all of these places on a variety of dedicated photography forums.  And that’s just for starters!

By consulting these myriad sources, you can learn an incredible amount—in advance—about prime shooting locations, best times, weather considerations, what gear to bring and utilize countless other handy bits that will allow you to hit the ground running and make the most of your time when you arrive at your destination.  There’s nothing worse than arriving at an unfamiliar spot and flying by the seat of your pants.  Photo opportunities will always be relatively limited, so it makes sense to give yourself as much of a chance to take advantage of them as possible.

Don’t Overschedule

There’s an inclination, when planning a trip to a distant place (you know the kind; the one you’re not sure you’ll ever be able to return to) to try to see everything.  Resist this urge to the extent possible.  (I know it can be difficult; I’m as guilty of this as anyone.)  If you put too much on your plate, you’ll inevitably end up giving short shrift to everything and you’ll miss out on the pleasure of really working specific spots that particularly appeal to you once you’re on the ground.  You’ll also lose the opportunity to return to especially enchanting spots.

My suggestion:  Take the time to prioritize—to the extent that you can—the places you most want to see and then put together a list of alternatives to draw from, without committing to them.  This will give you the opportunity to maximize the places of appeal as you experience them in real time.

Retain Some Flexibility

In line with the above, don’t pigeonhole yourself into going to certain places on certain days or times.  Give yourself the flexibility to adapt to the conditions.  For instance, a “must do” sunrise location will work best with scattered clouds.  Keep an eye on the forecast and if it’s going to be clear one morning, you might put that location off for another day.  Some locations work best under overcast conditions, while others do best when sunlit.  Give yourself the chance for the best opportunities by tailoring your spots for the conditions you face.  (If you’ve ever been on a photo workshop or tour, you already know this mantra.)

Leave the Non-Photo Family Members at Home

This is going to be a bit controversial, but…photography is a terrible spectator sport.  It is extremely difficult—and probably unreasonable—to bring non-photographers on a true photo trip and expect them to keep themselves amused all day, every day, while you’re out in the field.  There are some very rare people who will do this without complaint (my wife happens to be one of them, bless her), but you may still find yourself feeling guilty wondering what on earth they’re doing to keep from being bored to tears while you’re waiting for the sun to peek behind a cloud or the wind to stop blowing…and that may make you rush and…let’s just say it’s not a good scene.

Photo trips are best handled when they’re exclusively limited to photographers.  I almost always partake in my photo trips entirely alone these days.  That will be the case for my upcoming Utah/Nevada trip.

Be Comfortable with your Gear

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway:  don’t buy a new piece of gear the day before you leave.  A photo trip is not the time to be experimenting or learning the ropes with unfamiliar equipment.  Be entirely facile with your equipment well in advance of your trip so that you don’t spend time in the field, missing the opportunities that you’ve sacrificed time and money to obtain, by fiddling around with camera menus or lens settings.

Similarly, if you haven’t shot with your existing gear for awhile, be sure to get out into the field a time or two before you hit the road for your photo trip, just to refamiliarize yourself with in-field workflow.

Be Prepared for Changing Weather

Depending on where you’re going (and when), be prepared for changing climatic conditions.  For example, on this trip I’ll be at two places (Zion and Valley of Fire) that are expected to have daytime highs in the mid to upper 80s (F), but the third place (Bryce) is anticipated to have lows in the upper 30s or lower 40s.  I have to be prepared for both, because there are few worse things than being miserably hot or freezing cold.  When I was in West Virginia last fall, it was snowing when I arrived and for the first few days the high temperatures never got out of the 30s and I dealt with near constant light rain.  The back end of the week I was there, mid 70s and sunshine were the order of the day.  I had a similar experience when I was in New Mexico five years ago, dealing with 90 degree temperatures and snowfall on the same weeklong trip!

It’s almost impossible to concentrate on photography when you’re uncomfortable, so take that possibility out of the equation by being properly equipped.

Take Proper Care of Yourself

This is going to have to fall into the “do as I say, not as I do” category, but do yourself a big favor and don’t push yourself beyond your comfort limits.  I have a nasty history of really pushing the envelope on these photo trips, to the point where things can get out of hand.

For instance, when I was in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. for two weeks three years ago, I was dealing with17 hours of daylight per day.  I was awake a couple of hours before sunrise every day, to get myself in place for pre-dawn shooting, and out well past sunset night after night.  I was literally getting less than four hours of sleep per night.  I was in the field just about all day every day and I wasn’t eating properly or hydrating properly either.  I got some great pictures, but…  The upshot of it was that I was sleep deprived, lost 12 pounds (and I didn’t go into the trip needing to lose weight) and two days after I returned home I suffered through a brutal kidney stone episode (caused by the extended period of improper hydration).

I’ve continued to push myself pretty hard on trips since then, but never to that extent and I’m now very careful to properly hydrate.  Do yourself a favor and learn from my (bad) example; it’s not worth putting your health at risk for any shot.

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday.  To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog:  Lightscapes Nature Photography.