Pole to Pole and Around the World

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Airports, TSA, lines, cancellations, more lines, weather…today’s travel presents more hurdles to leap before we arrive at our destination. In the past couple of years, I’ve had the great fortune of avoiding almost all these hassles, having been invited as the “National Geographic Expert” aboard their “Around the World by Private Jet” Expeditions. (It’s a tough job, someone has to do it.)


These 21-day long trips stop in 10 iconic locations, includin, Easter Island, Cambodia, and the Serengeti to Morocco. As a lecturer, I’m also required to produce a multimedia presentation that is shown on the last leg home.

Light and Sufficient

I’m a real believer in traveling light—sufficient and smart—but light. I’ve revisited my travel-photography equipment list for this blog as it’s been honed over the years during many assignments for the National Geographic.

I’m a sponsored Olympus pro, one of their “Olympus Visionaries.” I really like their approach of “smaller is better.” Their 4/3rd’s system reduces the size of the equipment, which allows me to carry aboard all the camera equipment I’ll need for an assignment. I really don’t like checking equipment underneath the plane, so my carry-on includes cameras and computer, so that I can get my shoot done if my baggage doesn’t make my final destination. (Here’s a link to the TSA website where they sanction going through security with a bag of cameras in addition to the already-approved two bags. This does NOT address your airline’s regulations; they may not allow it. But it’s worth checking into.)

On to the bag! My rolling carry-on is the Lightware Multi-Format MF 2012 and MM 2012 MultiMate Cart. I carry two Olympus E5 bodies, one with the HLD-4 grip, providing a vertical-orientation shutter release and a two-battery capacity. I’ll also pack an Olympus EP-2, the micro four thirds camera. I love the design of it, as it replicates the form factor designed by Oskar Barnack with the original 35mm Leica...small, inconspicuous—and it carries the full-size 4/3rd’s sensor of the full-size Olympus.

Lenses include a 7-14mm, a 12-60mm and a 50-200mm. I also carry the Zuiko 14-35mm F/2 for low-light opportunities. With these few lenses I can photograph 90 percent of my assignments. If wildlife or sports are involved, I pack the 90-250mm F/2.8.

Machu Picchu

First stop was Machu Picchu, in Peru. We flew into Lima, changed planes to Cusco, then a train through Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. Going through Cusco exposes the traveler to a couple of nights at an elevation of 11.200’, which can cause sleepless nights and headaches. If you go, be at the gates to Machu Picchu as early as possible, as it gets crowded quickly, and also stay until late in the day, to provide two very different looks.  

Using a Singh- Ray Galen Rowell Graduated Neutral-Density filter helped to “bridge” the exposure range of sky and foreground.

Apply a Template

I’ve always felt that photographers present a better record of their travels if they apply a “template” to their coverage, those components being: sense of place, introduction to their characters, details, moments and closing images. Similar to what writers do, travel photographers present a narrative to their audience, instead of a disparate group of photos. Twenty-five to fifty photos can effectively transport the photographer’s audience to that place, letting them know what it looks, feels and tastes like. When you do this, you’ve grabbed the audience by the eyeballs, and pulled them into your world. We’ve all sat through a relative’s slide show of 200+ images, where by the third image we know it will be a brutal evening. Compare that to a presentation of a tightly honed group of photos that speak in a narrative, transporting the viewer to that place.

Moai Heads on Easter Island

From Peru to Easter Island, we had the opportunity to “light paint” the Moai Heads. These cultural wonders were amazing to see on a late-night visit to the figures. With a moonless night and an amazing background of the Milky Way, I used a Gitzo GIGT2541 with the Acratech GP-s ballhead. The exposure on this image was 2 minutes at 2400 ISO, because a longer exposure would have created a “star trail” instead of defining the stars in the Milky Way. Use a standard tungsten bulb flashlight. Don’t overpower the scene with light, and move the light over the surface of your photo subject evenly so there are not any “hot-spots.”

We used the technique of “light painting” with the Moai Heads. A 2-
minute exposure @2400 ISO allows the stars in the Milky Way to look like stars,
instead of streaks, which a longer exposure would have produced. A simple
flashlight was used, moving the lightbeam over the faces during the exposure.

Festival on Easter Island

We happened to be on Easter Island during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival, an annual event held in the summer. Working close with a 7-14mm lens, I was able to photograph the intensity of the dancers.

Up close and personal! During the Tapati Festival, I moved within the circle of dancers, using a 7-14mm Olympus lens to “put” the viewer in the scene.

Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef was another stop, and as space was limited for equipment, I took an Olympus Tough camera for my underwater images of our dive on the Reef. 

Using another person for scale allows the viewer to grasp the size of the scene. Because I was limited on how much gear I wanted to carry, I used an Olympus 770SW waterproof camera for this image.

Taj Mahal

Cambodia and Angkor Wat was our next stop, and then from there to China, then India. In Agra, we took a pre-dawn excursion to a spot on the Yamuna River with the Taj Mahal as a backdrop. 

Early morning on the Yamuna River, this camel driver brought his animal to drink. I think the addition of the water ripples around his feet gives a nice moment to this photo.

The Serengeti

How often can you fly from Agra, India to the Serengeti, in a little over 4 hours? We did, and the Serengeti was one of those places that exceeded expectations. Zebra, wildebeest, lion, cheetah, elephant, the list goes on and on, as do the photo ops. This is prime super-telephoto land, so I used the 90-250mm Zuiko for the majority of my photos. Most were shot from a safari vehicle with a Manfrotto monopod.

Chomping his way through an Acacia bush, this giraffe was oblivious to
our presence…partly because it was shot with an Olympus 90-250mm (180-500
equivalent in 35mm) with a 2x, creating effectively a 1000mm lens.

The Egyptian

Egypt and Morocco were our final stops on this incredible journey, and the realization of what we’d seen over the previous 21 days was settling in. It’s a “greatest hits” tour of the world, and a trip I won’t soon forget.

A classic overview of the pyramids, we stopped here for 10 minutes...I saw this gentleman, asked him over, then waited a few minutes for the traffic to clear on the background road, so the image would be “timeless.”

Continue Learning

Honing one’s photographic “chops” is an ongoing process, and workshops are an incredible and very efficient method of improving one’s skills before embarking on a journey. National Geographic Traveler is offering multiple one-day seminars across the US in 2011, a great way to prepare for your own experiences!

Jay Dickman will be teaching three upcoming National Geographic Traveler photo seminars: January 23rd in Seattle, February 19th in Atlanta and April 17th in San Diego. For more information take a look at our seminars.

*This is an original piece written and photographed by Jay Dickman, a National Geographic photographer.