Touring Strategies

By ralph

I've seen a lot of pictures that missed out on optimal lighting or suffered from a poor angle or composition, where the explanation was 'I just didn't have the time'. While I'm not the worlds most high mileage tourist I've traveled with a professional photographers viewpoint and that has led to an approach to allocating time and travel that differs from the average tourist.

First of all, on overseas trips you might want to avoid tightly packed schedules like those, “If it's Tuesday you're in Belgium” tours, where you spend most of your time on a bus. Before you sign on, check your proposed tour schedule carefully to see if it attempts to cover too many places in too little time. You should have at least an overnight stop at minor points and several nights at the more important ones. Watch out for those quickie stops at a place that might really deserve more time. Once on a projected trip to Mexico I noticed that Chichen Itza was a midday stop between Cancun and Merida. I arranged, in advance, to simply step off the tour at that stop, and get back on the next one the very next day. Check with your travel agent - you can often do this at the same low tour rates.

When I got to Chichen Itza my change proved crucial. The tour group poured out of the bus under a cloudy, midday sky, spent over a half hour trying to fit through a narrow tunnel in the big pyramid, saw the rest of the site for maybe ten minutes, squeezed back in the bus and left. I stayed. I explored the very extensive area all afternoon, got some good macro shots and also a mysterious silhouette of “The Observatory” against a pastel, sunset sky. The next morning was brilliant with puffy clouds and the early light seemed to hit everything just right. Film smoked through the camera. There was even time to jump in the pool before the next tour bus arrived.

Extra days at major locations can always be put to good use. On that same trip I gave myself a week in Mexico City figuring it was worth the time. Well it probably was but persistent smog killed most of the overall city views. Ah but you don't have to plan everything in advance. Right in the hotel lobby I got local tours to Taxco and Teotihuacan. Taxco was a few hours away and once again I opted to leave the tour, stay there overnight and catch the tour to return the next day. Again the tour had maybe an hour and a half at the destination, a good look at the historic spots that actually produced some pictures, but after they left I was able to explore through the afternoon and later, get pictures of the whole city in twilight from the deck of the De La Borda Hotel. The next morning gave plenty of time and beautiful light for more good pix.

'Fly and drive' is a popular way to get to a destination and then have the flexibility and lack of pressure of setting your own pace. Lots of travelers do this in the USA but fmd it a bit intimidating in foreign countries. So here's an idea - why not do both. When I planned a trip to Spain I felt it was too big an unknown to just jump out of the plane and into a car, so I split the three-week trip in half. In the first part I took a tour of lots of major points. When I finished I repeated with a rental car getting to some major points not previously covered and actually going back to some others to spend more time. For instance the tour group spent about an hour inside the immense Mestiza in Cordoba, but when I returned I spent nearly a whole day there.

Most tour packages offer a guided tour of a city when you first arrive. I find it useful to get this quick overview so I can “hit the ground running” when I finally have free time (another good reason to have extra days).

Tour operators certainly have no soul when it comes to appreciating good light. How often do they leave you helplessly staring at golden light or a gorgeous sunset from inside a bus - or schedule dinner at much the same t
im
e. Here again, an extra day in the location might be the only way to place yourself in the right place at the right time. While you're at it, don't leave after sunset, some of the best travel pictures you'll ever get will be night shots. If you have to miss dinner to get that end-of-day picture look at the bright side - now you have an excuse to hang out at the tapas bar.

On the domestic road trips you have a much better chance to plan your moves with the quality of light in mind. I've adopted a pattern of making short moves during the middle of the day rather than long cross-country grinds. You arrive in mid afternoons when motels and hotels are plentiful, have time for a late lunch and then you can explore the area in optimum light. This puts you in position to get the best out of the moment when the sun goes down. Early next morning there's more good light on the other side of your subject and if you think you've “got it in the can” before noon you can again use the dull midday to move to the next location.

You can do pretty much the same thing if you fly and drive to a domestic location but I find that all driving or first flying makes quite a difference in the equipment I bring. On foreign trips and domestic fly and drive trips you certainly want to travel as light as possible. For these I bring only my lightest tripod (a Bogen 3001 which is small enough to fit in a weekender suitcase) and try to eliminate redundancy in lenses. For instance If a zoom has a decent macro range I’ll just add some close-up lenses rather than bringing the macro lens, and eliminate single focal length lenses that are covered by a zoom. On the other hand I fmd both a 35mm and 28mm PC lens (perspective control) useful for streets, buildings and architecture and the smallest, fast, near normal lens (like a 45mm f2.0) useful for low light and interiors. If possible, bring a spare camera body, in fact once a third camera was a lifesaver when two of them conked out.

When driving all the way I use a different approach to equipment - bring it all. That way I can get those great large format shots of western scenes, bring a heavier tripod and the really long tele lens. Of course you want to keep all your goodies well hidden, like in the trunk of the car. In most cities it's not even a good idea to be seen taking equipment out of the trunk and then leaving it (better to anticipate your next equipment choice and have it in your lap before you park).

Your last, or perhaps first, strategy concerns bringing money. Obviously you need at least a small amount of cold cash. Back that up with some traveler's checks, but be prepared for some disappointing exchange rates at hotels and restaurants in foreign countries. When abroad watch for the occasional American Express office where you can convert to blocks of cash at really excellent rates. You can get cash advances from your Visa card but the fees may be high. In many foreign countries you can now fmd ATM type money machines from which you can access your checking account and get the very best exchange rates. The fee should be lower than the charge card cash advance but you better check with your bank and/or the tour company. to be sure this is available where you're going.

Bon Voyage and - oh yes - bring film.