Planning for a big trip abroad

Set goals, both photographic and personal

This is the start of a series of articles about travel photography, which will appear here over the next two weeks. To be more precise, this series is about taking pictures during your big trip.

It may be the trip of a lifetime, or it might just be the trip of the year. But it’s a trip that likely involves extensive travel to a foreign country where you may not speak the language.

A successful photo trip depends on more than your photo skills. So I’m going to give you tips on planning the trip, deciding what gear to take, how to interact with the locals, where to go when you get there, and lots more. I’m going to be covering a lot of ground. But if you stick with me for just a few days, you’ll find the photos from your next trip will make it worthwhile.

One last thing. Because my travels of the last few years have been to Mexico and South America, I’m using them as examples.

Step one: setting a photo goal for your trip

Nothing gets my juices going more than deciding to take a nice trip. Sometimes I get so excited I almost forget that taking a trip can require a lot of preparation. Before you start preparing in earnest, ask yourself this: Why am I taking this trip? What do I want to get out of it? In other words, determine the goal of your trip. In fact, write it down and keep it near you as you plan your trip.


Setting photo goals forms the foundation for your whole trip. I scheduled my trip to see the annual 12-mile procession of statues to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

It’s not just about taking pictures (believe it or not)

Like me, you probably want to stand up and shout: “My goal is to take a trip that gives me amazing photos!” I’m with you on that. But is it realistic? Sure--if you are traveling alone or with a photo buddy. However, having lived a certain number of years with another person may not have earned me wisdom but it (or should I say she?) has tenderized me enough to achieve a certain reality about relationships and sharing experiences (in other words, believe it or not, some people may not want to spend a whole trip watching you take pictures).

So, determine how important photography is to your trip (or your relationship) and from that decision will flow most of the other decisions. If the primary goal doesn’t focus on photography, that’s okay because you will still get some great pictures. But do write out your goal and keep it in mind as you plan the trip. And don’t hesitate to make two or three goals. Travel typically offers you new opportunities to expand your photographic skills. So while the primary goal may be to get great photos (or have a great time), other goals could include creating a photo story, improving environmental portrait skills, or finding creative viewpoints/approaches for oft-photographed landmarks.


The U.S. State Department website provides a wealth of travel information, including safety and medical updates.

Join a tour group, or go solo?

Next decide whether to join up with a tour or to handle the travel arrangements yourself. By handling all travel arrangements, a tour reduces stress but it also reduces your photo freedom by keeping you to a tight schedule and predetermined destinations. I’m all about flexibility so I take on all the travel arrangements just so I can decide where to go and alter my plans should I unexpectedly strike a vein of photo gold. Don’t make either decision lightly. And if you choose a tour, carefully sift through your options to choose the one that best fits your needs. Of course, there is an interim option here. You could work with a local travel agent. Spell out your needs and let them make the arrangements.

Before you settle on a destination, check on its safety. The U.S. state department website reports on current travel safety for most countries. Their reports fall somewhere between your worried mother and the label on your bottle of anti-depressants. The state department website also provides other useful information on countries:

Keep a photo journal

One final note: Whatever your goal, I would like to suggest a possible addendum to it. Take enough pictures during your travels to create a photo journal that you can print in the form of a photo book. These books have become neat and convenient ways of preserving your memories. Unlike the required attendance imposed by laptop and television slide shows, people love to flip through these books.

Place yours on the coffee table and visitors will pick it up and read it all. If you cotton to this idea, you may need to take a few more pictures that cover the many facets of your trip, such as showing accommodations, modes of transportation, friends met—as well as those fantastic photos you made along the way. Then again, you could decide to just show your best shots and to forego the travelogue approach.

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