In the past, I would simply grab my camera with a collection of lenses and fly off to some random location. I thought that this was the easiest way to get a good assortment of photos with the least amount of stress. As you can imagine, this didn’t work out most of the time.
Over the past few years, I have refined my trip planning down to where I can get the photos that I want and also get to the right places at the right time. This is not a fool proof plan as you also have to deal with weather and transportation issues, but it does put you on the right path.
This is the first stage of the game. You have to have an idea of what you want to shoot and where you need to go. So start with the “what” and then move on to the “where” and this will allow you to build your shot list and schedule.
Typically, I search instagram and flickr for places to go. Don’t roll your eyes, this gives me an idea of what is the most popular places. Sometimes, this is all that a place has to offer. On the other hand, it is also a good idea to snag a few shots of these popular places for the portfolio.
Next, start doing basic searches for the location. Often blogs, tourism sites and travel articles will have places that maybe are a little off the beaten path or let you know what is going on during the time you are there. Again, just start making a list of the places that interest you.
It is here where you want to be thinking about the types of images you want to get. For my recent trip to Tokyo, I wanted to shoot the popular spots but also get some cityscapes that I missed the last time I was there. I wanted to get places that I know will be easily recognizable. I also wanted to put my own take on the much photographed city of Tokyo.
Now, choose the places that are of the most interest to you and the kind of shots you want. Think about what equipment you will need and the time of day that you need to shoot in order to get the shot. This is very important as some places fill up midday, others are best at sunrise. Figure out when you need to get there.
Go over the gear that you need to bring. I recommended Flickr earlier and that is because you can easily see the equipment and settings used just under the photo. This gives you an idea of what you may need and the type of equipment used. There is a lot of good infor there.
Now, you should have a decent shot list and an idea of what to bring. This is a HUGE step. It means that you know exactly what gear to bring for the shots that you want. It also means that you will not fall into the trap of lugging around a 70-200mm telephoto lens and never using it.
You also should have a better idea of where you need to be and at what times. The natural step now is to plan and build your schedule.
This is where I turn to my phone and an old notebook. I use both incase I want to jot down ideas along the way. Plus the notebook I have has pockets for stashing maps or tickets and whatnot.
I typically keep the same format as a day planner. I will start by using photopills to find the sunrise/sunset time and direction. Then figure out where I should be using google maps. Also factor in travel time as well. For Tokyo, google maps was amazing as I was able to figure everything out even when the subway started. It’s 5 am but that is from the first station, in case you were wondering.
Work your way through your shot list and fill out your days. This may seem like overkill but for me it is worth it. Sometimes you have barely enough time to get everything in. By having a realistic schedule, you can factor in where you need to go and where you can sacrifice to have a bit of time to enjoy your trip.
The main thing here is to be realistic. Tokyo and other large cities are huge and you can’t get across the city as fast as you think. Using tools like google maps will give you a rough idea but you also have to think about lines, traffic and the fact that you may not fully understand the subway token machine.
At this point you should have the right gear for the trip and a schedule of places to get to. This should allow you to get the shots that you want at the right times. It is just a matter of sticking to the schedule.
The other thing that you should consider is the weather. On this recent trip to Tokyo, I encountered some crappy weather and made the best of it. However, all of the planning in the world aside from delaying the trip (impossible for this trip) could not have changed the fact that it rains a lot in Tokyo in the summer.
However, I plugged away at my shot list and got to the places in and around the times that I wanted. It was tough and I put in some long days but I finally got the shots that I wanted and got to see and do some of the things that have been on my bucket list for a while.
The bottomline here is that you have to plan in order to succeed. I you sit down and hammer out the details, you will come back with more shots that you are happy with. This is not to say that you can’t just jump on a plane and go somewhere and still get good photos. It just means that if you are looking to really focus on your photography and have a short time to capture iconic shots, you’d better plan.
The other thing to not is that since I started planning like this, my stress level during the trip has decreased a lot. I have traveled to many places where my friends and I have been wandering the streets looking for hotels, getting ripped off by taxi drivers and ending up staying in a busted hostel for more money than a decent hotel.
With my last few trips, I have managed to save a bit of money or at the very least some stress simply by having everything worked out to the best that I can in advance. Do understand that this can’t account for lost luggage, rain, getting lost, or flight delays. That stuff just happens.