Thursday, June 6, 2013

Some Tips for Planning Your Photography Trip

Sydney Opera House at Night
Sydney Opera House at night
The Eiffel Tower at Blue Hour
The Eiffel Tower at Blue Hour
I love to travel. Travel photography is one of my favorite things; exploring, and photographing,  places that you have never been to before, meeting new people, experiencing new customs. When I am preparing to go on a trip, especially to places I have never been to before, I do very extensive research on where I am going. Some have even called me OCD when it comes to planning a trip. For a successful trip, however, it is very important to do the research to get the most out of your time and the best shots that you can manage. Here are some tips I use when planning for a trip:

Scour the Internet. You want to look for photos from the location you want to go. Now obviously, you don’t want to take the exact same photo as someone else has already taken, but in many cases you can get a good indication of what time of day/year the photos were taken so you know when to be there to get those shots. A lot of times photo sharing websites, such as Flickr, will have metadata that includes the time and date the photo was taken or, at the very least, keywords indicating sunrise or sunset. You can then confirm this information with many different applications; The Photographer’s Ephemeris, Google Earth, Mr. Sun. You can confirm exact times for sunrise and sunset and where the sun will be every minute in-between.

Plan out each day’s itinerary. I’m a sun chaser, meaning where I will be for sunrise and sunset will more than likely dictate the rest of the day. My wife often jokes that all of our trips revolve around the sun. And she’s 100% right. I plan out a reasonable driving distance between where I will be for sunrise and where I will be from sunset. Once I have those two items set, in my itinerary, I then plan for everything in-between, and sometimes afterward. I look for locations along the way, sometimes off the beaten path. If it seems interesting, and I can fit it into my itinerary, I will try to include it. The time around high-noon can be the hardest to determine. While good shots can still be had during this time, sometimes they cannot. You may want to consider using this time for rest, recreation, shopping or just used to drive to the next location, if they are a good distance apart. In order to calculate times, you need to know how long it takes to drive to a location, how long of a hike you will need to do once you get there.

Good Morning, Canyonlands
"Good Morning, Canyonlands"
Most of this information you can find on the Internet. I use Google Maps and Google Earth for figuring out driving times. For hiking, there are usually plenty of guides, trail maps and information, on the Internet. You need to account for all of this time and know when to leave a location so you can get to the next one on-time, especially when it comes to sunrise and sunset.

Sunset at Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Sunset at Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Be sure to also allow some slack-time in your itinerary for stop-offs along the way, a few obligatory self-portraits, and also to talk to locals about the area. You may be surprised the things you will see along the trip that you didn’t even know about. Sometimes people at a visitor center, chamber of commerce or even a local bar can give you insights that you did not previously know about another location. Don’t forget to also add time for bio-breaks, checking into hotels, and of course eating.

Might as well jump!
"Might as well jump!"
Go ahead and jump!
"Go ahead and jump!"
Also print maps or have the locations programmed into your GPS. You definitely need to know where you’re going, especially if you haven’t been there before.

The Tower Bridge through "a sneaky-good frame"
The Tower Bridge through"a sneaky-good frame"
 There are some situations where an itinerary has been prepared for you. For instance, when traveling abroad, we use typically Globus ( On escorted tours you are limited to the confines of their itinerary most times, but that is not always a bad thing as they have some very talented people, who have researched extensively, planning those itineraries. I still do research on each location in the itinerary and see what freedom I have to do things on my own. The first day in London, for instance, we had total freedom to do whatever we liked. I connected with my friend, Tim Callister, who lives there and we devised an itinerary for the day.

Teardrop Arch, in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Teardrop Arch
There are other times where you are at a location where it is required to have a personal guide. Again, you are limited to their itinerary, but they are professionals and you are typically in good hands. A great example of this was when we hired Ray from Tom Phillips’ Kéyah Hózhóní Monument Valley Tours ( It was the only way that we were able to see certain locations in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park as they are restricted to public access.

Expect the unexpected. For better or for worse unexpected things can and will happen during your trip. A cloudy, foggy, rainy or snowy day can really do a number to your trip. So can a flight delay, road closure or accident. Even staying at a location too long can mess up the rest of your itinerary. You have to put contingencies and consolations into your itinerary. I try to keep my expectations low just for these reasons. There’s no more disappointing feeling than having a plan and not being able to execute it. You need to have backups in place. You need to identify the things on your itinerary that are most important to you and those that you could potentially do without, if circumstances arise. A good example; while doing research for Capitol Reef National Park, I read that the road to Lower Cathedral Valley was very primitive and, during wet conditions, could be impassible to even the best off-road vehicle. As this is a place I wanted to be for both sunrise and sunset, I needed to have alternatives in place in the event the road was impassible. I had a separate section of my itinerary in place just for that reason. When we arrived at Capitol Reef, I learned the road was indeed impassible, but having planned ahead, I already knew what my consolation would be. If I had not done my research and arrived there ready to travel down that road I know for sure I would’ve been disappointed and perhaps even pissed. Instead, we were able to salvage our time and use it towards another spot. 

Can you see the road? Neither could we...

Here is a sample day’s itinerary that I made before our most recent trip to the American Southwest:
Day 2 - Mar 8th (Friday) - Bryce Canyon NP to Capitol Reef NP
6:00 a.m. Drive to Inspiration point for Sunrise (6:49 a.m.) - 5 minutes (2.5 mi) drive
7:00 a.m. Drive to Bryce Point - 5 minutes (2 mi) drive
7:15 a.m. Drive to Escalante - 1 hour and 10 minutes drive
8:25 a.m. Breakfast in Escalante (Subway)
9:00 a.m. Drive to Torrey, UT - 1 hour 21 min drive
10:30 a.m. Pick up Lunch in Torrey (Subway) - extra sandwich for dinner
10:45 a.m. Drive to Fruita Barn - 15 minute (11.0 mi) drive
11:30 a.m. Drive to Capitol Reef - (20.3 mi) drive - with stop-offs along the way
2:00 p.m. Check in at Hotel - (1 night) Roadway Inn, Caneville
!***---- If road conditions permit ----***!
3:00 p.m. Drive to Lower Cathedral Valley, Temple of the Sun and Moon - 1 hour drive
Sunset (6:26 p.m.)
7:30 p.m. Return to Hotel - 1 hour drive
!***---- If road conditions do NOT permit ----***!
3:00 p.m. Drive to Scenic Drive
5:00 p.m. Drive to Sunset Point for Sunset (6:26 p.m.)
Return to Hotel - 1 hour drive
Now there are a few things about this itinerary to mention. I didn’t explicitly plan bathroom breaks, as much as my wife jokes that I do, but I did leave extra padding between locations for them. I also left extra padding in areas where I wanted to stay longer, especially before and after sunrise and sunset. When you are actually on your trip, as I mentioned before, unexpected things do arise and you have to make decisions on the trip. Which leads me to my next point: 

Be ready to completely alter your itinerary while on your trip. The itinerary above is a perfect example; Bryce Canyon became completely snowed-out. We ended up leaving before sunrise (or lack thereof). We also decided to stop and photograph the Hundred Handprints Native American panel, just north of Escalante. We then drove over the most ridiculously snowy pass on Scenic Byway 12 and when we got to Capitol Reef we learned we couldn’t drive to Lower Cathedral Valley. So instead we received some insight from the Ranger, at Visitor Center, to do the Scenic Drive and hike the Golden Throne Trail to The Tanks. It wasn’t as photographic of a spot as the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon would be, but It was something we could do as a consolation. Since it was overcast the whole day, we also did not get the last light of the sun on Castle Rock or Sunset Point so we called it an early night.

Fruita Barn on an overcast day
Fruita Barn on an overcast day
There are other times where something so amazing happens that it can’t be overlooked and it changes your plans for at least part of the day. This leads me to my next point: 

Serendipity is a photographer’s best friend. Sometimes it almost seems as if the clouds part and the sun shines just for you, both physically and metaphorically speaking. When things come together that make for an even better photograph, than what you had planned for in your itinerary, of course you’re going to photograph that instead. Case in point; while staying in Sausalito, I had the morning all planned out. Sunrise at a certain location, golden hour photos, etc. Being the Bay Area a lot of times it will get really foggy. Upon waking up and seeing the fog, my entire morning changed. I wanted more than anything to get the top of the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from out of the fog. No sunrise was going to top something like that so we ended up driving into the hills by the bay to see if I could get that shot, a gamble that certainly paid off.

Emergence - the Golden Gate Bridge above the fog
Sometimes Serendipity can be caused by you changing your plans in the first place. We were burned out after the first day in Yosemite National Park, with our very heavy itinerary. Instead of planning to be where we wanted to for sunrise the next morning, we decided to sleep in. Had we followed our itinerary as normal, I would’ve missed the sun coming up over the mountains, at the Tunnel View, and giving the most awesome sunburst. The light in the valley was absolutely gorgeous! The Tunnel View is not normally known for exceptional shots in the morning, it’s much more of a late afternoon and sunset spot.

Good Morning, Yosemite
"Good Morning, Yosemite"
One more example; after several days of overcast skies, rain and snow, we arrived in Moab, UT. The sun was finally beginning to shine through but the clouds were still so dramatic and were lifting out of the canyons. I decided to go to Dead Horse Point State Park for sunset. Dead Horse Point is a site that is usually known for spectacular sunrises but not really for sunsets. Because of the clouds, the light was absolutely gorgeous and the spot worked out much better than my originally planned location, for sunset.

Sunset at Dead Horse Point
Sunset at Dead Horse Point
In summary, when planning a trip it is important to do research and plan your itinerary, but be prepared to change your plans as needed. The itinerary will serve as a basis – a basic outline. How you fill in the rest, or edit it, is up to you.

Time Flies By - Big Ben and the motion trails of a double-decker bus
"Time Flies By"
A few more helpful tips for travel; some of these are common knowledge but I believe they bear repeating:
  • Bring only the photography equipment you plan to use. That stuff can get pretty heavy, going through the airport. If you don’t think you need it, it may be best to not bring it.
  • Bring all of the most important items to you as carry-on. If your luggage gets damaged, lost, or sent to Winchestertonfieldville, Iowa, by accident, you’ll take comfort in the fact you can still take a photo.
  • Before you go on that hike make sure you’re only bringing the subset of your photography equipment that you’ll need. Again, carrying all that stuff on a hike that you don’t need creates unnecessary wear on your body. Also bring plenty of water with you.
  • Charge your batteries every night, before you go to sleep.
  • If you have another device (or two) to unload your photos to, also do so every night.
  • If you’re driving from one location to another, always make sure you have a camera ready and both a telephoto and a wide-angle lens handy. You never know what wildlife or grand scene you may encounter.
  • Most importantly, have fun!
At the Watering Hole - Mustangs
"At the Watering Hole"
Open Range - cattle with mountains in the background
"Open Range"
Pronghorn Dash - Antelope galloping
"Pronghorn Dash"
Snowy Tractor
"Snowy Tractor"
You can find these photos, and many more, on my website and on Facebook.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Imperial Forces posing in front of Chicago skyline

Well, not so long ago and in the Chicagoland area... This is the story of how I met the coolest, and most photogenic group of people ever, the Star Wars costumers from The 501st Legion and The Rebel Legion. Just so you know right now, this is going to be a very lengthy and photo heavy post.

The story begins last June. I was dropping off a print to a gallery, for an exhibit, in Joliet, IL. I had just came straight from a portrait shoot beforehand so I still had all of my camera equipment in the car (this becomes very important). I don't always bring my cameras with me wherever I go, I probably should. If I was just going to drop off the print, I probably wouldn't have. I walked into the building and pass by several stormtroopers. I literally did a double-take, "did I really just see what I saw, in Joliet?"

Stormtrooper standing guard in front of the Joliet Public Library
Standing Guard

I go back out the exit to follow them, they walked across the street, towards the Joliet Public Library. The street was lined with all sorts of Star Wars characters and tents selling memorabilia. What had I just stumbled onto? It was the 3rd Annual Star Wars Day celebration at the Joliet Public Library. The event promotes reading by holding Star Wars-themed activities, costume competitions, artists and vendors around the library.

Darth Vader with lightsaber
"If you only knew the power of the Dark Side."

I couldn't believe my eyes! I am a super-huge Star Wars geek and I suddenly felt like a kid again! I almost forgot I still had to drop off the print to the gallery, so I went and did so with haste. I ran back to my car and fed the meter as much change as I had on me, honestly I wasn't even counting I just plugged it all in. I geared up with both my cameras and the lenses I would need and went to go photograph all of the awesomeness. It was so amazing! There were so many of my favorite characters from the Star Wars saga; Jango Fett, Darth Vader, troopers of every kind, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and a myriad of others. I must have had a grin from ear to ear. But I wasn't the only one. You could see everyone around just light up with excitement and smiles go wide across their faces, children and adults alike. That's how powerful the Star Wars Universe is and that's how much it affects the people that get to see these characters in person. I wanted to actually be a kid again too; to be thrown in the Imperial detention block, to fire Nerf guns at stormtroopers, to play inside of the trash compactor, how cool is that?!

Jango Fett - the best bounty hunter in the galaxy
Jango Fett - the best bounty hunter in the galaxy

When I finally got home, I could do nothing but load the photos into Lightroom and start editing them immediately. I put a bunch of the best shots on my Facebook page and shared it with the Joliet Public Library. In minutes I had the actors showing up, commenting on the pictures and tagging the other members, many of which I am now friends with.
Han Solo brandishing a blaster pistol
Captain Solo

When I heard that there would be a large group of them in attendance for the Bartlett, IL Fourth of July parade, I immediately asked them if I could walk along with them to take photos. I walked the entire parade with them and even ate barbecue with them afterward. They're such a fun bunch of people to hang out with. I not only got great photos, but I also had a blast doing it! Watching the children light up when troopers or Boba Fett or Luke Skywalker came to give them high-fives or pose for a photo with them was priceless.

The 501st Legion at the Bartlett Parade

Children posing for a photo with an Imperial Shadow Scout
Children posing for a photo with an Imperial Shadow Scout

Bounty Hunter, Boba Fett
"Boba Fett? Boba Fett? Where?"

The next event to come was Adler After Dark's: Geek Chic event, at the Adler Planetarium. This time it was just Imperial costumers from the 501st Midwest Garrison and the Great Lakes Garrison. The planetarium was filled with troopers, Darth Vader and bounty hunters. I was running around all of the Planetarium trying to catch them in different places. You can't find better backdrops for Star Wars characters than inside of the Planetarium! We even had a bit of fun with some group shots, including in front of the Chicago skyline and acting out a parody in the board room that they used for a changing room.

The men and women of the Imperial Forces
The men and women of the Imperial Forces
The (Sith) Apprentice - "You have failed me for the last time. You're fired!"
The (Sith) Apprentice - "You have failed me for the last time. You're fired!"

Group of stormtroopers with blasters
"There they are! Blast them!"
Stormtroopers looking inside a lunar lander
"Are the droids we're looking for in there?"
Darth Vader with troopers at attention
Can't you just hear the Imperial March theme song playing right now?

 My photography club, the Sandwich Photographic Society, has an Annual Studio Night every year where we invite models to pose in front of studio backdrops as a chance to get some instruction on shooting in that environment. I asked one of my good friends from the 501st Midwest Garrison if he would be interested in being a model and if he could invite some of the other members as well. Before you knew it we had a full roster of models. We actually had to change it from Studio Night to Studio Day and rent out a larger space to accommodate all of the actors and backdrops that we would need. We ended up having 11 actors show up, but not just Star Wars Characters; there was Iron Man, Loki, the Predator, Jessica from True Blood, video game characters and other Sci-fi and fantasy characters. Several of them brought more than one costume with. There was even a life sized, remote-controlled R2-D2!!! He chirped, he beeped, he turned in circles, he even played Gangnam Style, which they all danced to! It was our own personal Comic-Con. It was a win for both of our groups though: we got great photos and learned more about studio lighting techniques and they got studio-quality photos of themselves for their portfolio and personal use.

Jango Fett with blasters drawn

Darth Vader about to slice through Obi-wan Kenobi
"You can't win, Vader. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."
Darth Vader, stepping on Obi-wan's empty cloak
"Where'd he go?"

Life-sized R2-D2
"R2-D2, where are you?"
Stormtrooper with helmet off
The man behind the mask

Princess Leia as Jabba's Slave
Yeah, this totally happened...
It's a girl under that helmet!
"The Empire needs you."

I've even expanded to photographing other costumers. My friend and I drove 4 hours to take production photos for a fan film, called Project: Prometheus. It was an unlikely alliance, between Iron Man and Batman, in a Marvel/DC crossover.

Iron Man and Batman team up, in Project: Prometheus
Project: Prometheus
The Dark Knight, with wings spread
"I'm Batman!"
Iron Man, against a blue sky with clouds
"I am Iron Man..."

I love photographing costumers, I champ at the bit every chance I get to photograph them. And I will be photographing them again soon. At the end of this month, at C2-E2, I will meet up with my friends from the 501st again, maybe I'll even make some new friends.

You can see all of my photography work on my Facebook Page

Here are the photos that didn't make it into the copy above. I didn't have the heart to cut a single one of them. Enjoy:




Loki, grabbing a Snickers after being smashed by the Hulk
Not going anywhere for a while? Grab a Snickers!