Through the Gadling Lens: How to pack like a photographer for your trip

I mentioned last week that I was getting ready for a trip to England — and I was a bit panicky about the fact that I hadn’t finished packing. The truth is, whenever I pack for an international trip, I pack with two “me”‘s in mind: Me The Tourist (who, at all costs, needs adequate underwear and hair products) and Me The Photographer (whose head would explode if she forgot her camera charger or, God forbid, her camera). So since I’ve already written about what I pack on any trip abroad, today, I’d thought I’d talk about how I prepare from a photographer’s standpoint.
My husband is English, so this trip is a bit different than if I were leaving for a country I’d never visited — I actually met my husband while I was living in England, and have returned to visit his family many times. Still, I generally follow the same procedure for my trips back to Ol’ Blighty as I do when I visit any other country. It goes something like this:

1. Research the location. On this particular trip, we’ll be spending 6 days in Gloucester, 6 days in Cornwall, and 2 days in London. Now, if I didn’t know better (and without doing a bit of research), I could blithely fly into England expecting to just take shots of Big Ben and the Tower of London, but obviously, there’s so much more to England that that; furthermore, each region has its own sights and cultural differences. In fact, if I just Google each location or pick up a guide book or two, I’d find that each of these locations are known for at least the following:

Gloucester: a port town on the Severn Estuary, famous for the Gloucester Cathedral (where certain scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed). It is surrounded by the Cotswalds and the Forest of Dean. Also, my father-in-law is an avid archer, so maybe I’ll get the opportunity to view a competition? And because of my photoblog, I’ve made the acquaintance of another photographer and photoblogger who lives in Bath, about 1 hour’s drive away. She’s offered to take me around on a day trip for a shoot. I’ve actually never been to Bath, but I do know that it’s on the River Avon, near hot springs from which the Romans built a temple and baths (hence the name, I suppose). According to Wikipedia, Bath was “the leading centre of fashionable life in England in the 1800’s,” with some stunning architecture in support. I’m really looking forward to this trip.

Cornwall: the most southwesterly region of England, and where my husband calls home. It has beautiful wild countryside, with amazing cliffs into the ocean, quaint villages (“As I was going to St. Ives…”) and those “moors” that English authors always seem to put in their books.

London: Seriously, can you say enough about what London is known for? In addition to Big Ben and the Tower of London, there are open-air markets, amazing architecture, Westminster Cathedral, black cabs, high-end shopping, the theatre district, the financial district, Hyde Park, the Thames, the punk scene … seriously, the list goes on ad infinitem.

Also, obviously, there are the stereotypical things that England is known for: cups of tea, scones and clotted cream, pubs, pints, double decker buses, The Tube, and so on. The point is, you really can’t over-research a trip destination: Google it, buy guide books, search for bloggers who live there, whatever. Information is power.

Finally, a quick look at shows that the forecast calls for 50 degree temperatures, rain and fog in all places. Lovely.

2. Get an idea of what you’re going to want to shoot. Note that this is a bit different than “get an idea of what you want to see.” The point is to start thinking about the various locations from a photographer’s eye. For example, of course you could just walk up to a pub and capture an image of it (and frankly, I do recommend doing that when in England, some of the pubs are just beautiful). But the truth is that the pub isn’t what makes pubs cool, so much as the pub culture. It’s the whole atmosphere of the pub that makes it great: the laughter and banter among the regulars, the darkness inside (for some reason, all pubs are dark inside, regardless of the time of day), the low overhead beams requiring you to duck as you walk in, the sloshing of the foamy beers over the pint glasses, the flirting of the bartenders with the patrons, and so on. A photograph of you in front of a pub will record the fact that you were there — think of images that will record what you experienced. If this concept is new to you, feel free to jot down some ideas prior to your trip: “When in London, I want to get a shot that shows how focused the guards are at Buckingham Palace.” “When in Bath, I want a shot that shows the detail of the architecture of Bath Abbey.” You won’t need to your notes with you and tick off the items as you grab the shots; but a quick glance before you head out for your day trip might help you remember what it is that you want to capture to remember once you return home.

3. Pack your photography equipment accordingly. Given all the information above (sprinkled with a bit of previous experience), here’s what I packed:

  • My Nikon D300 camera body. Obviously, I was going to bring a camera body, but I have two. In this case, I brought my better one, but I don’t always. If I’m traveling to a place where it is generally unsafe, or if I’m traveling somewhere where it could get dirty (like a beach vacation, for example), I take my older camera — it still takes great shots, and I won’t be (as) devastated if something happens to it.
  • My 24-85mm Nikkor zoom lens. This is sort of my standard, dependable capture-pretty-much-everything lens. I will likely use this lens more than any other lens I bring. It will take nice clear shots of architecture, details of architecture (I’m thinking about Bath, here), and a pretty decent portrait in a pinch.
  • My 70-200mm Nikkor zoom lens. I really struggled with whether or not I wanted to bring this one: on one hand, it’s so damned unwieldy. On the other, it takes such beautiful shots. In the end, I decided to take it, because one of the things I love about England are the amazing faces, and this allows me to take tight shots without people knowing I’m taking their photograph. Also, as I mentioned above, I was hoping that my father-in-law would show off his bow-and-arrow for me, and this way I can frame a nice tight image without worrying that I’m going to be in the way of an errant shot. This will be a great lens if we go to an open-air market in London, or to Hyde Park — in London, no one will bat an eye at the large lens, and I’ll be able to get some great shots.
  • My 100mm Nikon telephoto lens. This lens is actually manual, so it can be a bit tricky to use; but oh how I love the results — it takes some of the most amazing portraits. Since it’s not very big, I went ahead and stuck it in the bag — I’m thinking of doing family portraits for Christmas presents this year, so while I won’t take it out on daytrips, I’m hoping to do a few sittings while I’m there.
  • My 2GB memory card. This baby holds 2,100 hundred shots. Because I shoot so much, this actually wouldn’t be enough for a two-week trip, but it’s certainly more than enough for a day’s shoot, and I download my photographs every evening anyway. Which brings me to…
  • My MacBook. I know, I know — my sister laughs at me that I take my laptop everywhere, even on vacation, but the truth is that I love nothing more than winding down each night with a glass of wine and processing my photos. It ends a day perfectly for me.
  • My Nikon Coolpix. I never go anywhere without my point-and-shoot — it’s sort of a throw-it-in-my-daypack-and-forget-about-it camera. Also, it has a wider angle than any of the other lenses I’m taking with me, so when we get to the top of those Cornish cliffs and I want a true panoramic view, this camera will definitely come in handy. And of course, it’s great for those “party-pic”-type snapshots that are always so great on holidays.
  • Chargers and power cords for everything above.

For those of you who have point-and-shoots: obviously, your packing list will be much smaller than the above. In your case, I would definitely pack (a) an extra memory card (or a really, really large one) if you don’t want to take your laptop and download every day, (b) your charger, and (c) your manual, so you make sure you know exactly how to play with your aperture, ISO and shutter speed settings, in order to maximize the kinds of shots you want to get. Trust me, once you get the hang of it, you’ll be surprised to find that some of your shots rival those that can be taken with an SLR camera.

On your next trip, I challenge you to try to put a little forethought into your trip from a photographic standpoint. Also, I’ve been getting some great questions over the last few weeks — if you have any questions, or would like me to cover something specifically, feel free to send them to me at At some point, I’ll feature some questions and answers here on the site. And of course, in coming posts, I’ll share some of the shots I’ve captured on this trip.

In the meantime, keep clicking those cameras!

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.