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5 Critical Tips for Travel Photographers

December 01, 2012 //  Travel Stories Back to posts

I’ve read too many lists online of “traveling photographer tips” that don’t actually appear to be written by actual photographers. Some things work in the real world, others simply do not. Here’s some collected tips shaped from 7 years of travel experience on the road. I don’t think you’ll find most of these anywhere else:

Travel Tip 1) Make your camera look like a heap of trash

My first tip for traveling photographers is to protect your gear from theft. There are thieves in every part of the world, not just developing countries. They know how much your pretty camera can fetch for on a black market, and they will risk a lot to steal your gear. When traveling, I make it a point to make my camera look crappy and old. I cover it with duct tape, carry it in a normal, dirty backpack, and make sure all recognizable logos such as “Canon” or “Phase One” are hidden. A nice looking camera case is also a red flag. I prefer typical “consumer” travel packs or using older weathered bags that have seen better days. 


When I travel with ugly photography equipment, attention is diverted away from my stuff. A potential theif may determine that stealing my camera is not worth the risk of being caught. After all, they can’t sell an old hunk of junk for the price of a “new camera.” Let the thief go after the next unlucky traveler.


Other than theives, there are other people looking to give you a hard time for your nice looking camera- I’m talking about airport customs officers in foreign countries. In fact, I have a lot more problems with these often uninformed, egomanical workers than theives. This is even more true for developing countries who are not used to living around this kind of expensive looking photography gear.


I’ve been to many countries where the customs officer at the airport takes one look at my photography gear and gets very suspicious, even if I have a legal work permit for a shoot or letter from whom I’m working for. Is this guy working in the country illegally? Is this guy a spy or photojournalist with bad intentions? Is this guy going to sell the equipment here for profit? A trashy looking camera in a old dirty bag doesn’t look valuable, so it’s easier to get it by with less hastle.


Thinking of customs officers sends a shiver down my spine, which brings me to my next tip for travel photographers…


Travel Tip 2) Don’t Put “Photographer” On Customs Forms

Disclaimer: When traveling for jobs, I always have the right working permits and carnets in order and I write “photographer” as my occupation on customs forms. I don’t mess around with this because it could jepardize the shoot and a large production. Getting a carnet (a temporary passport for your equpiment) is easier than you think, this website is a great resource. However, for personal trips creating my own photo series without a client other than myself, I don’t bother. I often won’t say I’m a photographer on my customs forms.


Okay, I may be suggesting you break the law here, however, I don’t feel bad in doing so. In my experience, customs officers waste their time singling out professional photographers above many actual potential threats to their counties. They are often uninformed, and uneducated about what we do. Unfortunately, they lump every photographer into one category- “EVIL-DOER”. If you are respectful and educated about your subjects and doing good in the world with your work… great, follow my advice. If you are not, then my advice is not for you.


Instead of “photographer”, I often write something more specific like “advertising retoucher” or “graphic artist.” That way, the conversations at customs can be more focused on what happens after the photographs are taken. If they do inspect your gear, then finding a bunch of cameras isn’t so surprising for them. The worst scenario would be for you to say you are a vegetable salesman, then the customs officer finds a bunch of cameras in your bags. What’s a vegetable salesman doing with all this stuff, huh? Hmm, suspicous… You need a story that can flow together with what you are traveling with, should your bags be inspected. 


When things are more fair for us photographers in immigration lines, I will tell the truth. Until then, I will bend the truth.


Travel tip 3) Keep at least two hard drives safe 

When I travel for photography, I know that the most valuable things I have are not my cameras or equipment. The most valuable thing I carry are the images I am creating. Gear can be replaced, (get it insured worldwide), but the photographs can not.

I have a very simple formula. I travel with a laptop, and dump my images to two different hard drives. Each drive is an exact replica of the other. I then always keep those two hard drives in different places. For example, one is in my pocket at all times and the other is left at the Indian guesthouse. Or, perhaps one drive is in a piece of checked baggage being chucked in the bottom of the plane, and the other is safe with me in a carry-on bag. With this system, it is very hard for both drives to go missing.


On more rugged trips or journeys into dangerous areas, I can take as many as 4 drives with me. That way, I can mail one home half way through the trip, and another at the end of the trip before I fly, while still carrying two hard drives home with me. Call me paranoid, but I do not take any risks about losing images.



I strongly recommend the external Lacie Rugged Hard Disk, (pictured above).

FTP or “drag and drop” online image storage systems like Dropbox are also great in some places, but often times there is no way I can upload the large amount of images I am creating. Many places I travel to often have slow internet connections, or no internet at all. 


If you have time to make image selections while on the road, you could always upload only your favorites to Dropbox, and take a risk on losing the rest. However, I still prefer carrying the physical drives containing every one of my photographs.



Travel Tip 4) Stay in touch with the people you photograph

For all the countries and places I’ve traveled to in the world, I could have actually gone to triple the amount of locations. But to me, that’s not as important as maintaining an in-depth relationship with the select places I choose to visit, and re-visit again and again. You can have more “authentic” cultural experiences as people warm to you and share their knowledge and lifestyle with you, and also create much better photographs when people trust you. 


An example is Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. I’ve met several photographers who had a frustrating experience in the area with the tribes. “They are spoiled! All they want is money!” One man said. “I can’t get any good shots, they all stop what they are doing and bother me for photos when I’m trying to get intimate candid moments!” Said another.


I ask them- “Well, how long did you stay?” “Which village exactly did you go to? The first one off the road that has been spoiled by mass amounts of uninformed tourists?” And most importantly- “Do the people care about your photography?”


Okay, so what if someone you didn’t know walked in your back yard, took photographs of you and your children, and then exchanged money for the interaction. Over time and countless repetition of this, you’d probably act the same way, right? 

If you don’t genuinely care about your subjects and respect them, it’s very difficult for them to care about you and your stupid camera. Do things that show you care. Stay in touch when you leave (exchange mailing addresses or e-mail), send copies of the photographs you created together back, and revisit the area if possible.


In the future, if/when the Hamer tribe of Ethiopia gets the internet and Google themselves, I want them to find my images. I want them to find photographs from someone who knew their names, who respected their culture, and told their story to the outside world as best as he could understand.


I don’t want to be another looky-looker, like in the photo above.


Travel Tip 5) Hire Locals

I can’t stress enough how important it is for photographer’s to hire locals when traveling.


I realize that not everyone has months to spend when traveling getting to know people, so I always suggest involving the locals as much as you can in your work. Hire a local guide and fixer from the same area or culture as you are photographing. (I wrote an entire blog post about finding a local guide here, which falls under this principal.) If you require a crew or a little extra help, hire locals as workers and involve them in your productions. You might even want to hire the people you plan on photographing, so they can always be with you and understand your work. When your team is local, it is easier for the rest of the people you come across to develop a sense of trust and respect for your photography.

Other Random Do-dads & Gadgets I Find Useful When Traveling


Wifi Signal Boosting Antenna: I use this little gadget in places with dodgy wifi, such as a hotel or guesthouse. After plugging this antenna into my laptop, I can often get a much stronger signal, or I can punk someone else’s better signal far away. “Hey- I’m not stealing your wifi… Your wifi signal is trespassing into my room.”


Hyperjuice 100Wh Battery: Flights and long car rides are where I get a lot of my work done, but my Macbook Air battery only lasts a couple hours… Plugging your laptop into one of these external batteries can extend its life up to 26 hours.


220 Voltage Converter with Fuse: Most standard travel converters don’t have a fuse, and simply just re-route the power from a foreign plug. For those of us North Americans using electronics with 110V plugs, this can be dangerous. If you plug a North American electronic rated at 110V into a foreign outlet rated at 220/240V, there’s a good chance you’ll blow it up. This little box converts the power.


Credit Card Sock: While this is extremely dorky, I find this is the perfect size to hide compact flash cards, money, or my passport.

Enjoy your own trips, and remember: you don’t have to travel across the globe to experience new things. Your own backyard is the farthest place away to someone else on the other side of the world.

JL

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ADD A COMMENT (82)

Trent Light // December 01, 2012 15:01

Thanks for the great tips Joey. love your work and u r such an inspiration to me. :)

Rene // December 01, 2012 15:22

Very informative, thanks. I did see you wrote thieves/thief wrong though :-)

Charles // December 01, 2012 19:15

Thanks for the tips,!

Elena Hernandez // December 01, 2012 20:30

Thank you Joey...i did not know the issues faced by traveling to foreign soil but totally understand it now....making my camera look old and worn out will be an easy fix and the suggestions about older camera bags is great too...again thanks!

Sarah Smith // December 01, 2012 20:49

Thank you so much for this post - I can't even begin to tell you how invaluable this information is as someone who is planning to do some photography work for charities assisting in developing countries. I truly appreciate your time taking out the "fluff" and giving a real honest account of how to prepare for a photographic journey. Thank you!

Brian Hirschy // December 01, 2012 20:55

Man - great tips.

#2 and #4 resound the most with me having run a high end culturally-sensitive photo tourism company in Tibet for the last 5 years. We always tell people to put the camera down and engage with people even if you don't speak the languages... it's always those human interactions that are what people walk away remembering well above the images they got.

It's so important. People. People. People...

#5 has been so important for us as well... support local economies. We have worked exclusively with locals for our tours and it's made a world of difference.

Thanks for writing this,
B

David // December 01, 2012 21:21

Thx for the 'common sense' suggestions.

Adrienne // December 01, 2012 22:51

Thank you for this informative post and the links to the suggested equipment that you use. I love those hard drives.

Heather // December 01, 2012 23:09

Excellent and thoughtful tips. I admire the way you approach your work. Thank you!

Erwin Sikkens // December 01, 2012 23:10

Totally agree with 'Trent Light'. (copy, paste).

Karl Johnston // December 01, 2012 23:23

Excellent tips Joey, I'm glad I subscribed to your newsletter. Every time it's gold

In the News: 2012-12-01 | Klaus' Korner // December 02, 2012 00:19

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Rick // December 02, 2012 03:12

Lots of good tips. I'd like to suggest though that people don't get so paranoid about losing their gear that they miss shots or don't enjoy their travels. I've spent a lot of time in Europe, Africa, Bangladesh, and the states with zero problems while carrying professional gear in the open. With no facts to back it up, my guess is simply being vigilant is the most important thing to keeping your gear. Of course, I do insure against theft just in case.

Simon Thomas // December 02, 2012 03:14

Great tips Joey! Have you looked into the IOSAFE portable hard drives? They are the Ultimate travel hard drives ;)

Jeff // December 02, 2012 03:43

I'd cover up the "EOS-1" too just in case anyone knows what that is. ! Black electrical tape is good so that it doesn't look like you're trying too hard to cover up the name.

Stan Malinowski // December 02, 2012 04:12

Joey,

Having traveled the world during my nearly 40 year career as a photographer, I regret to say that I was only familiar with one of your five tips —that is, pack equipment in trashy looking bags and cases. I would also run a couple bands of tape of different colors around the bags so I could spot the bags easier both if someone lifted them* and at baggage pickup at airports. (*I also ran cable locks around my bags and cases to hold them together so that a thief might have a hundred pounds of unwieldy luggage if he were trying to steal just a single bag.)

I've dealt with customs in various countries but was never as savvy as you!

By the way, returning to the USA, and if I were bringing back Cuban cigars (NOT that I ever had), this is what I might have done: Carry a shoulder bag to hold all sorts of stuff—candy, magazines, whatever you wanted to keep handy on the plane. Put the box of cigars in the bag, leave the bag unzipped with a Herald Tribune sticking out the top. Find the oldest, toughest, most experienced-looking customs agent and move with your cart of luggage into his line. Be sure to wear your bag on the shoulder closest to the agent. Now, the agent may go through a couple of your bags and ask for a carnet or insurance certificate for some of your equipment—but I'm betting that your shoulder bag and cigars will pass right through customs with no problem. (I mean—that might be a possibility!)

What I admire most about you Joey, is the care and respect you show to the people whom you photograph! (The photo that you posted of the lookey-lookers is one of the most frightening/discouraging photos that I've seen.)

Regards,

Stan

Tihomir Lazarov // December 02, 2012 04:47

Hey Joey,

How do you clean the glue that's left from the duct tape on your camera body? Doesn't it feel sticky after that?

Jenna Julianne // December 02, 2012 07:31

FANTASTIC!!!! THANKS SO MUCH!!!! YEAH!!!

Trevor Dayley // December 02, 2012 14:28

All great tips! Awesome job on this blog post. I just shared a summary of it on Fstoppers with links back to the article here on your blog. Keep up the amazing work.

katherine hershey robertson // December 02, 2012 19:23

thank you Joey, for the great tips, things i would never have thought of!
you are so kind to share, and how sad is the photo of all the photographers shooting the village, without getting to know them!

Joey L's 5 Critical Tips for Travel Photographers // December 03, 2012 04:19

[...] L posted a very helpful and thorough article on his 5 Critical Tips for Travel Photographers. These are great tips to know whether you’re travelling domestically or [...]

Zachary Long // December 03, 2012 05:05

Thanks for the tips and practical advice! Came at a perfect time, trip is in 4 weeks! I think I'll pick up that signal booster and credit card sock for sure :)

Zach Sutton Photography // December 03, 2012 07:14

All great tips, Joey.

My camera has had Gaffers Tape all over it for a while now.

Jet // December 03, 2012 11:35

Great read! Thank you, Joey

Late // December 03, 2012 14:21

Great to read your info bites Joey. I've used the same duck tape trick as well, seems to work. Tihomir yep the the duck tape does come off and leave a bit of stickiness around, but all you need to do is ducktape it up again. Of course if you intend to sell your camera it does leave some mark and is rather hard to remove from the softer rubbery bits.

monday inspiration: joey l and five critical tips for travel photographers ‹ r25 productions // December 03, 2012 21:26

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Fotografo de boda // December 04, 2012 03:02

Great post and great stuff. Certainly are whole of them nice and valuable tips for travelling on assignment. Thanks for sharing!

steve stamberger // December 04, 2012 17:15

as always, simple and right to the point with a touch of genuine honesty...just bought a pentax k 30 and i'm off and running..thanks

Anthony Houle // December 05, 2012 08:13

Great post, always a good read. Thanks Joey

Lech // December 10, 2012 22:31

Joey,
Great tips. Certainly #1 is one we have to remember carefully. There's nothing like attracting attention to the "pristine" nature we all like to keep our gear in. We want it to be clean and nice. But that attracts but thieves as well as may detract from the photography experience. For this reason I have a more beat up camera that I take out - although I love the tape job - I need to do that! It's a good lesson in non-attachment as we more towards creating memorable images, not camera envy and other distractions.
Keep cranking buddy.
Lech

Wends of Journeys and Travels // December 11, 2012 13:19

thanks for these Joey. I am sorry for myself getting robbed of my camera, right inside my house while I sleep. I now contemplate to get another one (canon) and surely will follow your tips.

This post is very useful.

ade taruli marpaung // December 20, 2012 20:31

masura bagata!
sura' sabeu!
thanks for the great tips joey!

Michael Zukerman // January 09, 2013 15:06

22 years schlepping around the world from Japan to El Salvador, Brazil, Argentina and on and on for me. So many of these tips I knew but I want to comment on something that cannot be overlooked and that is Joey's willingness to give a damn about the rest of us. He's at the top of his game and easily has enough to do and deal with than to offer guidance to others. It says more about Joey the person than about photography and if you read about the respect he shows and how he treats the people he photographs you will know that Joey "the human being," is his top priority and I don't doubt for a second that has a lot to do with his success. We can all learn a great deal about people, as well as top notch commercial photography from a guy who obviously has his priorities in the right order. Tip of the hat to you Joey. You are wise far beyond your years.

Nas // January 10, 2013 04:48

This was by far one of the most interesting reads when it comes to travel photography. Thank you for sharing!

World Travel tips // January 15, 2013 13:05

Really very nice info with photography.

Sophia Forero // January 23, 2013 20:30

EXCELLENT tips. And your photos are amazing. You are an inspiration, man.

Matthew J Aschliman // February 12, 2013 11:04

Fantastic advice Joey. Being proactive and realize the total opposites of this world and people and using it to your advantage is the only way to go!!

Allison Mayer // March 06, 2013 21:55

Great tips Joey. I really hope to be able to put these in to practice very soon! Although I'm going to hire a local to teach me how to balance things on my head.... I'm always running out of hands :)

Anii // March 07, 2013 20:58

Thanks for the tips Joey and which is the best camera and lens for professional travel photography?

James // March 16, 2013 16:21

Incredible photos. Good work!

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Odette Herbert // May 24, 2013 14:45

great input thanks - go well!

Kavya // May 27, 2013 15:00

Hey buddy, love'd your work in Ethiopia specially few portraits and 1 particular pic i.e of a group of women near their huts just took me away, its so inspiration... And just love you for your work.... Long live your art.... Really i enjoyed going through your gallery....

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Davide about Travel Photography // July 02, 2013 14:57

I will definitely try the tip of the duct tape for my camera. The same strategy is used by people travelling by bicycle to make look their bikes like crap!

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Ernst // August 07, 2013 15:19

Very good post, useful and made me smile

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finden Sie auf dieser Website // November 28, 2013 05:50

Excellent post! We will be linking to this great content on our site.

Keep up the great writing.

Hans Kirk // December 11, 2013 01:36

I especially liked your first recommendation - my camera is always in pristine condition, but I will use some duct tape in the future to make it look less appealing to thieves. Thanks for the tips and cheers from Germany!

Ray // February 15, 2014 20:09

Another tip: Travel Light. Leave the dslr at home, leave all the gadgets at home, learn to make use of smaller tools that are readily available today.

W Brian Duncan // March 11, 2014 21:55

I don't generally rough up my camera gear, but I definitely carry a non-descriptive bag...one that looks more like a big man-purse than an expensive camera bag. I try and keep it out of sight unless I am using it...which poses a problem because it's much easier to take photos regularly when your camera is in your hands!

should you take a dslr with you on your holiday vacation round the world trip | Eaty Drinky Wandering // April 26, 2014 08:19

[…] be scared of making your camera look a bit more worn than it really is as per Joey Lawrence’s excellent advice.  A beaten up looking piece of kit is not going to be half as appealing to a robber as the good […]

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fotograf ślubny Kielce // June 25, 2014 12:59

Fantastic post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic?
I'd be very thankful if you could elaborate a little
bit further. Thank you!

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Mary // October 02, 2014 06:31

Could you please advise how you figure your equipment costs/needs into a work for hire situation? Do you expect a company to supply equipment you might need that you don't currently own? (like an extra camera body?, a particular specialty lens?) Thanks

Mark // October 25, 2014 17:26

Good read. I think tip number 4 is most important. Engaging in your subjects is vital to capture images that will stand the test of time but more importantly to capture original and unique work. Something that reflects your experience like no one else can. You and your relationship with your subject.

What to Think About When You Think About Canvas Prints and Travel Photography | BlogBlog // December 12, 2014 08:39

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Adam @ GettingStamped // December 20, 2014 14:51

All good tips, but especially #3, I have probably too many hard drives but it helps me sleep at night. If I loose some gear I will be mad, but if I lost pictures I would be devastated.

12 Tips on Taking Perfect Pictures Traveling in South East Asia - Global Shooter // January 06, 2015 17:44

[…] My first tip for traveling photographers is to protect your gear from theft. There are thieves in every part of the world, not just developing countries. They know how much your pretty camera can fetch for on a black market, and they will risk a lot to steal your gear. When traveling, I make it a point to make my camera look crappy and old. I cover it with duct tape, carry it in a normal, dirty backpack, and make sure all recognizable logos such as “Canon” or “Phase One” are hidden. A nice looking camera case is also a red flag. I prefer typical “consumer” travel packs or using older weathered bags that have seen better days. - 5 Critical Tips for Travel Photographers […]

worldwide travel blog // January 07, 2015 08:27

Thanks for every other fantastic article. The place else may just anyone get that type of information in such a perfect means of writing?
I've a presentation subsequent week, and I am on the search for such info.

dawn // January 08, 2015 02:41

thanks for the information- I was wondering if you could help me get started as a travel photographer- I am not sure how to go about it

Sai charan // May 13, 2015 01:49

Great tips..thank you soo much..

Shirak // October 26, 2015 03:05

These are great tips! I am traveling to Peru next month and want to bring my strobe light kit (2 PCB Einstein 640's) for some personal portrait stuff and I'm trying to find out if I'm going to have a problem bringing them into the country? Any advice (from anyone)?

Love love love your site and I've learned so much! Thanks!!

Antonio Busqueta // January 13, 2016 21:05

I really liked the tips you gave in this post, I think they´ll come in handy and will save the day in the future. But what I liked the most was the way you respect people and their lifes, you´re not just a guy looking for the photo with no respect for the subject, That kind of humanity is necessary for the world to be a better place, and I´m sure it feels great when you get to know all that peaple in a more intimate way. Congratulations!

Gustavo Åhlén // January 08, 2017 13:42

Hi Joey, thanks for sharing these tips with us. Sincerely, the best tips I've ever read before. These tips are like the Joeys' Commandments.
Have a great new year 2017. The best wishes for you!

Welcome to https://www.facebook.com/gustavoahlen

Yours sincerely,
Gustavo

Alec Rogerson // April 03, 2018 09:55

I’m curious as to what cold weather gear you use? What brand is the leather jacket you wear all the time? What kind of hiking shoes go well with crampons?

Celine // April 29, 2019 08:57

Thanks for the great info! I'm going on a safari trip (https://africatravelco.com/trip-and-safaris/cape-town-dar-es-salaam-36-day-tour/) and I don't want to lose my camera!

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