Intermediate

Destination Europe: Do a Little Research, Then Go Light on the Gear

Glossary

Because you're here, at this site, on this page, we're going to take for granted that photos aren't a travel afterthought; that they are, in fact, an integral part of your trip. You'll be taking street shots, images of food and architecture, pictures of events, landscapes and landmarks. If you're going to be in London, you'll be framing up Big Ben; in Rome, the Coliseum; in Paris...well, you know.

We talked recently with travel photographer Blaine Harrington, who's been just about everywhere, photographed just about everything and come back with the proof. Blaine shoots on assignment and for stock, and his purpose is pictures that entice or convince folks to travel to specific destinations. He's extending an invitation, while you'll likely be more interested in personal connections to moments, memories and discoveries. And because of that difference, the first thing he mentioned was that a detailed plan of action, which is so important for him, isn't something he'd suggest to a photo enthusiast.

"I'd tell everyone to do some research to see what's been done in the places they're going to visit," he says, "just to know what to expect to see and get some ideas for photos." But don't overplan things. While a pro has a checklist of subjects, you have the advantage of photographing what you like and what catches your eye.

A Matter of Timing

An important aspect of travel for Blaine is the time he chooses to do it. "When I'm thinking Europe, I'm thinking fall first, spring second," he says. "Good light, good weather, not as crowded as summer."

He also takes into consideration special events. "I often want to be in Europe when there are major events to photograph: the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, or the Tour de France or Oktoberfest or other pre-Lenten festivals in Germany, or carnivals in Venice, Italy, Spain or Switzerland." Of course, he's thinking photography first—it's his job, after all—but if you have some flexibility in timing your trip, you might like it to coincide with an event or two that will guarantee colorful, exciting, even unusual pictures.

There are also personal interests. Europe is strong in cultural traditions, in music and in sports like soccer and motor racing. If any of these appeal to you, check out the chance for photo opportunities when you're making your travel plans.

Gear Down

When Blaine travels, he's on the job, and he carries all the equipment he thinks he might need to do that job. Currently that's two Nikon DSLRs—a D810 and a backup D700—and at least four NIKKORs: an AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, an AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II, an AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED and an AF Fisheye-NIKKOR 16mm f/2.8D. He also carries two SB-900 Speedlights and a sturdy tripod. (Okay, he will often leave the tripod in his hotel, but you get the idea.)

He's tried to lighten the load over the years, but, he says, "that's not worked out too well. The lens I left at home was always the one I ended up needing. I will leave some gear in the hotel from time to time, but everything I've mentioned to you gets on the plane with me in carry-on luggage—except the tripod, which is in a checked bag."

Unless you're really super-serious about your photography, we're not recommending you follow Blaine's lead. He doesn't either. "There are two lenses I can't do without: the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm, and I'd recommend them as ideal and necessary for travel photography."

If you're looking for a one-camera, one-lens combo for your carry-on, there are three wide-to-telephoto NIKKORs Blaine considers good "walking-around" glass: the AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR, the AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 28-70mm f/2.8D IF-ED and the AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR.

Blaine favors focal lengths at the wide and tele end, and that preference is part of the job: extreme views please clients and result in sales. "Those views are esthetically pleasing and certainly eye-catching." Which brings up an important point about lenses: knowing what you like to see, and being aware of your style and preferred viewpoints, is important in lens selection. Simply, your lens should give you the views you most appreciate and enjoy.

You can probably safely leave the tripod at home. In most cases, sunrise, twilight and indoor images can be captured by pushing your Nikon DSLR's ISO setting to get a faster shutter speed. "You can rely on today's cameras' low-light capability," he says in a no-doubt-about-it tone. (But if slow exposures to capture light trails at night along the Champs-Élysées are something you'd like to try, you can make your sturdy tripod somehow fit in your checked baggage.)

Blaine also suggests you rely on the on-demand grid lines that are featured in most Nikon DSLRs. They can help you keep your horizon and other lines lined up, and they'll guide you in using the rule of thirds for better compositions. Check your camera's manual to find out how to turn them on.

A final point about gear: if you've just bought a new camera or lens, do a shakedown shoot at home before heading overseas. It's best to know ahead of time what your gear will do, and how to make it do what you want it to.    

Full disclosure requires that we say that we've seen very successful results from photographers who first read their instruction manuals on the plane. Your call.

People in Focus

Often the best shots of people are those taken when they're not aware you're there. We're not talking about paparazzi-type images; rather, we mean the kind of photos you'll take at a sidewalk café or in a town square or on a quiet side street. Blaine calls these images "life-goes-by photos," and they tell key parts of a travel story.  

When Blaine sees something close by that's interesting, or when he wants people in the scene for atmosphere, or even wants to replicate an activity or set up a scene, he'll approach and make contact. "Most people—and I've found this from my photo tours—are not very good at things like that," he says. "They don't want to bother people, don't want to be rejected or are not technically ready." He succeeds at it naturally—he's friendly and enthusiastic, interested in people and has done his research.

And he's one hundred percent technically ready. "It's incredibly important—you have to be able to shoot quickly and with confidence. There can be no fumbling with settings, no lens changes. Work all that out ahead of time, so you have to make only minor adjustments, maybe to the focal length of the zoom."

People doing what they do naturally offer prime opportunities for pictures. "When you see shopkeepers, artisans, craftsmen, people at a market, or when you see people repairing, fixing, installing—don't get in their way, but document it. Tell the story of how a result came to be. If you smile and acknowledge their skill, you'll probably get cooperation, and it's even better if they're working on or near a landmark. Go wide-angle for an establishing shot, then zoom in for revealing details."

While you're doing all this, you should be aware of how people are reacting to you, or if they're not. "You'll know if you can keep shooting and for how long," Blaine says. "I've found that people generally react well to me because it's obvious that I'm interested and excited by what I'm doing, and they're happy to help out."

He has noticed, though, that in these days of smartphones and social media, people everywhere are becoming wary of being photographed. "I guess they think they're gonna wind up on Facebook and YouTube." There's no cure for that, but you can spend some time, show some interest, try to develop a rapport with people to let them know you're not there for a single snapshot to post to Instagram. For Blaine that's become part of the job.

Weather or Not

Some days will be better than others for photography, and if Blaine runs into bad weather, he'll use the time to scout around and get a look at what he wants to shoot when conditions improve. He's essentially imagining what the place will look like in the light of early morning or late afternoon.

You may not have the luxury of time to do that, so he suggests that you always have your camera with you, even in bad weather. "You never know when bad weather will be good for photography, or when, for an instant, the sun might break through and you'll get a moment of great light."


The Backup Phase

Your photos are important, we know that, so we have to strongly suggest you make some provision for backing them up as you travel.

Yes, they're stored on the memory cards, but things can, and sometimes do happen.

In Blaine's case, he can't afford lost images—again, the job.

His D810 (currently the workhorse camera) has two card slots; one holds an eight-gig CF card, the other a 16- or 32-gig SD card, and he's got them set so the second card takes the overflow from the first as he shoots throughout the day. At the end of that day, and every other day, he saves the image files to two one-terabyte external hard drives, then erases the cards. He carries a laptop to view images and transfer them to the hard drives. He also has a Jobo

Giga One Ultra 120GB, a standalone data storage device for transfer of the images from cards to hard drives in case something happens to the laptop.

You may not feel the need for Blaine's level of backup, but consider that there is a need for some level of safety. After all, if your photos weren't important to you, would you have read this far?

Good traveling!

Travel Tip Sheet:

  • Wise Choice: Minimum gear, chosen for versatility.

  • Wiser Choice: Daily image backup to a drive or storage device.

  • Carry the lens that provides the views you most appreciate.

  • Be prepared for people photography by being technically ready.

  • Special events equal special pictures, so do a little research, even a little planning.

An extensive collection of Blaine's photographs from locations near and far is featured at his website, blaineharrington.com.

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