The Enthusiast's Guide to Travel Photography from Rocky Nook on Photofocus.
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Rocky Nook

The Enthusiast’s Guide to Travel: Prepare your mind, body & soul part 1

While day-to-day minutiae at home can lead to stress, anxiety, and a loss of mental balance, slipping into a new routine on the road can be just as taxing. With constantly shifting variables, it’s easy to wear yourself out on a journey, no matter how much you plan ahead. I’ve found that focusing on wellness—physically, mentally, and spiritually—before and during a trip not only improves my experience on the road but also deepens and intensifies the quality of images I create. Generally, I identify more as a cynic than a yogi, so I realize this all sounds very kumbaya — Eat Pray Love, but the same way you carb up the night before a marathon, you should Zen up in the days before a potentially life-altering journey.

Mind

Feeling tense or nervous about a particular planned activity, tricky shoot, or just the whole trip in general? Studies have shown that planning for a trip leads to a boost in happiness, so now is the time to psych yourself up for the incredible potential that awaits you. Before you leave on a trip, revisit the research that helped you select your itinerary. Review the photographs of past visitors that wowed you, or read about the epic locations you’ll soon see with your own eyes. Talk yourself through the images you hope to make and remind yourself that you’re absolutely capable of photographic success, and you will feel artistically inspired when the time comes.

ISO 100
Badlands National Park, South Dakota 1/250 sec. f/5.6 ISO 100 85mm

The “what-ifs”

Right before a journey, my primary issue is worrying about the what-ifs. What if I drop my camera in the ocean? What if an airline demands that I check my carry-on bag? What if I need something and I don’t have it? Give yourself valuable peace of mind by ensuring you’re prepared to handle any issues you’re worried about. Pack one or two weeks in advance so you can be certain you have everything you need and can make adjustments with plenty of time to spare. Purchase trip insurance to help cut your losses in the wake of unfortunate travel snafus. Buy the bear spray you’ve been fixating on and pack the antidiarrheals. Better to have it and not need it, than need it and die by mauling in soiled pants. Do everything you can to embark on your journey knowing you’ve considered the worst things that could happen and prepared for them. Do your best to minimize potential points of friction on the road.

Avoid “hanger”

For me, the biggest threat to my sanity and patience is hunger. I can rise above exhaustion, illness, or irritation, but a growl in my belly is a roar in my mind. When I travel, I eat three meals a day. I carry snacks; I horde carbs. On a trip to Spain, our local guides referred to me as a “little Spanish grandmother” because of the seemingly inexhaustible collection of crackers, breadsticks, and granola bars in my bag. “Hanger” is real. Prepare accordingly.

Body

Photographers, for the most part, aren’t the type to travel via hop-on-hop-off guided bus tour. Only a small percentage of the legendary photographic sights in the world can be accessed from a roadside overlook. If you’re traveling and you intend to get the very best shots, you have to be willing to put in some physical work. For those of us who prefer never to see the inside of a gym (as my husband says, “I don’t lift weights, they’re heavy”), travel puts demands on our bodies that we may not have to face at home. Leading up to America by Rail, knowing that I would travel with a fifty-plus-pound backpack, I worked on endurance by riding my bike several miles each day with gear on my back. In the weeks leading up to your trip, take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park farther away so you have to walk more. Carry your camera around so it won’t feel quite so heavy in the field. Little things that you may not expect can add up to serious exhaustion while you travel, so build up your stamina any way you can.

Alpine Ridge Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado ISO 100; 1/1600 sec.; f/4.0; 17mm
Alpine Ridge Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado 1/1600 sec. f/4.0 ISO 100 17mm

A few years ago on a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park, I discovered that I am not quite as buff as I had previously believed. Traditionally I have fantastic stamina for hiking, but under the high-altitude conditions of the alpine tundra, a summit hike was legitimately kicking my butt. Though it was summer, the temperature at 11,000 feet was bitingly cold and stung my lungs as I huffed and puffed, trying desperately to make my way to the peak. My heart was pounding and my head was spinning, but I managed to make it to the top—with several substantial breaks. It was wonderful once I got up there, but torture along the way.

Alpine Ridge Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado ISO 100; 1/1250 sec.; f/4.0; 17mm
Alpine Ridge Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
ISO 100; 1/1250 sec.; f/4.0; 17mm

Don’t make the mistake I made. If your travels will take you to higher altitudes, prepare specifically for those conditions. If you are going to heights where altitude sickness is a likelihood, work with an outfitter to get prepared. It’s not enough to be in good shape for your regular life at home, you need to be in good shape for the journey’s specific conditions.

Over years of international travel, I’ve learned that not all physical challenges are based on athleticism. When it comes to jet lag, the struggle is real. After all your planning and preparation, to arrive in an exotic locale and immediately need to sleep is infuriating. You want to hit the ground running, ready to explore and experience. There are lots of different ways to combat jet lag, but these are the techniques that have been the most successful for me:

  • Acclimate to your destination time zone while still at home.
  • Hydrate like crazy—especially on the flight.
  • Sleep on the plane even if it requires a sleep aid.
  • If you can’t sleep during appropriate sleep hours, rest with your eyes closed.
  • Minimize screen time.
  • Don’t think about what time it is at home.
  • Go outdoors right away to help your body get on schedule with the sun.
  • Avoid caffeine toward the end of the day.
  • Upon arrival, immediately seek out a photographic subject that motivates and excites you more than the concept of sleep.

I was exhausted but the photo opportunities gave me new energy. Above all else, know your limits. Pushing yourself is one thing, but overdoing it is another. Though you might feel tempted to stay out shooting for 18 hours to maximize your travel investment, the technical and artistic quality of your images will certainly suffer. Keep in mind that exhaustion is cumulative, and force yourself to rest, eat well, hydrate, and sleep. Your camera is not more important than your health!

A peacock poses in Cecilio Rodriguez Garden, Madrid, Spain. ISO 100; 1/80 sec.; 50mm
A peacock poses in Cecilio Rodriguez Garden, Madrid, Spain 1/80 sec.f/8.0 ISO 100 50mm

The photo of the peacock was taken within an hour of my arrival in Spain. I was exhausted but the photo opportunities gave me new energy.

Travel photography is hard work. This series of excerpts from “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Travel Photography” by Jordana Wright is published by Rocky Nook.

See all of the great photographic skills books from Rocky Nook.

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