As an assignment photographer for National Geographic Traveler for the last 10 years, I’ve learned that being prepared prior to leaving is the most important thing.
Research, Research, and More Research
The Internet has become my essential tool. I use a Google image search to help identify good locations for making iconic images. I also use it to find locales for an insider’s perspective. Locating a good paper map is also critical, particularly if you are heading to a place where satellite connectivity might be an issue. I also look at as many guidebooks as possible. In Portland, I’m lucky to have Powell’s Bookstore, where I can find just about anything in print I might need. Prior to any trip, you can find me in the travel section, picking out the best guidebooks and maps to bring with me. I love pocket-sized language books, because sometimes they are much faster and less frustrating than an app on a smartphone.
Researching the language and customs of a place can yield very interesting photographic opportunities. When I was given an assignment in Beaujolais, France, my French was rusty, so I hired a private tutor to help me brush up. When I arrived in the small town of Mâcon, it took me no time to buy a SIM chip, get some Euros from the ATM, pick up a few snacks, and then hit the road to start scouting the locations that I was to cover—without wasting time because of a language barrier.
Horses in a meadow, Beaujolais, France
Finding the Culture
Celebrations, religious ceremonies, festivals, and the like are all generally easy for photographers to access, and make a great addition to any travel experience. Being aware of upcoming specific events, prior to leaving, is essential for a solid travel story.
When I traveled to Switzerland for National Geographic Traveler last September, I learned that there was a possibility the cows would be descending from the hills for their winter pasture. The farmers bring their cows straight through the villages and decorate the animals with flowers and ribbons for the occasion. Sometimes the towns through which the cows travel have an entire day’s worth of festivities to celebrate along with the local farmers. I spent hours online trying to find where and when I might be able to photograph this event. Through the process of researching, I met a number of people who turned out to be wonderful resources in the country. Because my trip was limited to certain dates, there was only one possibility to photograph the cow descent, in Gstaad, and I made it just in time.
Decked-out cows on parade in Gstaad, Switzerland
Before I departed for my Beaujolais story, I had read about the Fêtes des Conscrits that would be taking place in some of the villages in the area. I found one that was in a beautiful hilltop town, so I scouted it the day I arrived in France. This turned out to be a lifesaver, as the date listed online was incorrect, and had I not gone ahead of time, I would have missed this amazing experience.
Strolling along a quiet street in Mâcon during the Fêtes des Conscrits
There are several apps that are helpful for travel photographers, and available for Android and iPhones. The following are the ones I use the most:
Easy Release This app not only allows me to get a signed model release that I can email to the subject, I can also add other info to the .pdf, and it helps me remember names and email addresses so that after the shoot, I can send photos back to the people who were kind enough to let me photograph them.
Sun Seeker This app is fabulous for scouting locations, as it has a 3D sun tracker that allows you to follow the path of the sun, based on your GPS coordinates. It also has a large database, so if you don’t have connectivity, it still works.
Sunrise & Set As the name suggests, this simple app contains all of the sunrise and sunset details based on your GPS location or a pre-determined list of cities. It also has civil twilight and the beginning of civil twilight, so that you know when the “blue hour” will be.
Language Apps I always try to study the language as best I can prior to leaving for a country where I don’t speak the language. There are several apps that can translate based on a voice, but those generally require an Internet connection. However, it’s nice to have some dictionaries available in your pocket to help you break through language barriers.
Packing Your Kit
The Google Image search will likely yield not only the great places to shoot, but will also give you some idea about what kind of lenses and other equipment needed for a particular location. I’m currently packing for a job where I’ll need some remote capabilities, so I’ve purchased a few new things and have been testing them prior to leaving. One of the set-in-stone rules of the road is to never, ever bring a camera or any other gear that you have not thoroughly tested prior to departure.
I’m anticipating some remote shooting situations where I’ll be unable to use a drone, so I purchased the following pieces of equipment:
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 III: This little gem has remote capabilities via Wi-Fi, a 1" sensor, a super-sharp Zeiss lens in an equivalent 24-70mm, and a viewfinder that is essential in bright light, despite the fact that the screen is pretty visible in bright light.
I also purchased a CamRanger, which is a little bit trickier to operate. This allows me to control the camera remotely using a closed Wi-Fi connection and looking through the lens via my iPhone. Adding the CamRanger tripod head to pan and tilt remotely gives me even greater control.
What Kind of Bag?
Flying in the US, it’s easy to determine what can and cannot go with you on the plane. International travel is much trickier. It is not a good idea to check your cameras. I suggest that you carry everything onboard the aircraft, even if it means wearing the equipment. I always have a photo vest in my carry-on in case of weight issues. I’ve found the best wheelie is the Think Tank International V 2.0 Rolling Camera Bag. It fits in the overhead bins of some of the smaller commuter jets and can accommodate my entire camera kit.
For walking and hiking, I use the Think Tank waist belt with a holster that carries my Canon 5D Mark III with a 70-200mm f/2.8 , plus I carry another camera with a 24-105mm on my shoulder. I have the Hubba Hubba Hiney pack where I store my wallet, biz cards, iPhone, small notebook, close-up lens and wide-angle lenses, pens, gum, ND/Polarizing filters, three-way level, cable release, and anything else I can fit into this small pouch. With this system I can be hands-free, yet have an entire bag of equipment on me so I’m ready for anything, and look like it. This setup came in handy when I was on assignment in Glacier National Park. There was a group of Amish women and girls who were on the edge of Lake McDonald. The coloration of the landscape was extraordinary, as it appeared to match the clothing the women were wearing. As I walked toward them, I started making photos using the 70-200mm lens. When I got close enough, I switched to my other camera that was fitted with a 24-105mm lens so I could shoot wide. These adorable girls were skipping stones and after I managed to shoot a few frames they ran off and everyone disappeared. This picture ended up running as a double page spread in the story. There is no way I would have been able to catch this moment without having my gear completely prepared and ready.
Two Amish girls looking for flat stones to skip on the shore of Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
Go behind the scenes on a story that award-winning photographer Susan Seubert shot for
National Geographic Traveler about Barbados. Learn how to approach an assignment: research before leaving,
develop story angles, and make connections. In this presentation, Seubert also discusses
elements of how to build better pictures, including composition, looking for light, and other subjects.
Award-winning travel and editorial photographer Susan Seubert has photographed more than 25 feature stories for National Geographic Traveler since joining the magazine as a contributor in 2004. Her work has been recognized with an Alfred Eisenstadt Award and most recently was awarded Gold by the North American Travel Journalists Association for her story about preserving architecture in the old city of Bangkok for NGT. She also lectures regularly at such institutions as Harvard University and the Portland Art Museum. Based in Portland, Oregon and Maui, Hawaii, Susan travels throughout the world shooting a variety of subjects and specializes in capturing a sense of place through her wide ranging imagery. Born and raised in Indiana, she earned her Bachelor's Degree in Fine Arts from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and hasn't set down her camera since. You can see more of Susan's work at http://www.sseubert.com and http://www.seubertfineart.com.
Hi Susan, I'm looking at taking my photography to the next level and am reading about Model Releases. With your photo of the two girls by the lake, did you get a Model Release? You said they ran away :) I'm wondering if their likenesses are considered not identifiable/recognisable enough to warrant a Model Release? Or how you went about getting one if the subject runs off?! Thanks.
Hi Megan! That's a very good question. I try very hard to get model releases signed, particularly for children. However, these two girls are not recognizable and since this is editorial, meaning journalism, I am not required by law to get permission in writing. I hope this answers your question.
I have the Think Tank Photo Airport International V 2.0 also. Only once was I told I couldn't bring it on a plane. I had brought it on the same basic plane earlier and I told the woman that. She said it wouldn't fit; I told her it fit right under the seat; she said check it; I said no it was camera equipment; she said check it; I said if anything was broken I would sue her personally; I said let me put it in the pilot closet; she said it wouldn't fit; I dropped it right in and closed the door; end of discussion.
There's also a WEIGHT limit for carry on luggages... unless maybe you travel first class (?):
–North & South American Carriers–
AeroMexico – Size 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Air Canada – Size: 21.5″x15.5″x9″ (46 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
AirTran – Size: 55-linear inches of any reasonable dimensions – Weight: none
Alaska – Size: 24″x17″x10″ (51 linear inches) – Weight: none
Allegiant Air – Size 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: none
American – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 40lbs
Continental – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 40lbs
Delta – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 40lbs
Hawaiian – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 25lbs
JetBlue – Size: 26″x18″x12″ (for Airbus) & 24″x16″x10″ (for Embraer)
LAN – Size: 22×14 x10 (46 linear inches) — Weight: 18lbs
Mexicana – Size: 20″ x15″x9″ (44 linear inches) – Weight: 51lbs
Porter – Size: 22″x16″x10″ (48 linear inches) – Weight: 20lbs
Southwest – 24″ x16″x10″ (50 linear inches) – Weight: none
TACA – Size: 22×14×9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
TAM – Size: 21.65″x15.75″x7.85″ (45.25 linear inches) — Weight: 11lbs
United – Size 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: none
US Airways – Size 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 40lbs
Virgin America – Size:24″x16″x10″ (50 linear inches) – Weight: 16lbs
WestJet – Size: 21.5″x15.5″x9″ (46 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Aer Lingus – Size: 22″x18″x10″ (50 linear inches) – Weight: 13lbs
Air France – Size: 21.5×13.5″x10″ (46 linear inches) – Weight: 26lbs
Alitalia – Size: 18″x14″x10″ (42 linear inches) – Weight: 11lbs
British Midland/BMI – Size: 22″x18″x10″ (50 linear inches) – Weight: none
British Airways – Size: 22″x16″x8″ (46 linear inches) – Weight 26lbs
EasyJet – Size: 22″x16″x8″ (46 linear inches) – Weight: none
Finnair – Size: 22″x18″x10″ (50 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Iberia – Size: 18″x14″x10″ (42 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
KLM – Size: 21.5×13.5″x10″ (46 linear inches) – Weight 26lbs
Lufthansa – Size: 22″x16″x8″ (46 linear inches) – Weight: 18lbs
OpenSkies – Size: 18″x12″x10″ (40 linear inches) – Weight: 51lbs
Ryanair – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
SAS – Size: 22″x18″x9″ (49 linear inches) – Weight: 17.5lbs
SWISS – Size: 22″x16″x8″ (46 linear inches) – Weight: 18lbs
Virgin Atlantic – Size: 22×14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 13lbs
Air India – Size: 22″x16″x8″ (46 linear inches) – Weight: 18lbs
El Al – Size: 22″x18″x10″ (50 linear inches) – Weight: 17lbs
Emirates – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Etihad – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Gulf Air- Size: 17″x15″12″ (44 linear inches) – Weight 19.75lbs
IndoGo – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 18lbs
Jet Airways – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Kenya Airways – Size: 20″ x15″x9″ (44 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Kingfisher – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Middle East Airlines/MEA – Size: 22″x18″x10″ (50 linear inches) – Weight: 17.5lbs
Qatar – Size: 19.68″x14.56″x9.84″ (44.08 linear inches) – Weight: 33lbs
Royal Jordanian – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
South African Airways – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 18lbs
SpiceJet – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Air New Zealand – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Air Tahiti Nui – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
All Nippon/ANA – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Asiana – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Cathay Pacific – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
China Airlines – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Eva Air – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Hainan Airlines – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Japan Airlines/JAL – Size: 22″x16″x10″ (48 linear inches) – Weight 22lbs
JetStar – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 22lbs
Korean Air – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 25lbs
Malaysia Airlines – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 11lbs
Philippine Airlines – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Qantas – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Singapore/SIA – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Thai – Size: 22″x15″x8″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
V Australia – Size: 22″x14″x9″ (45 linear inches) – Weight: 15lbs
Virgin Blue – 19″x13″x9″ (41 linear inches) – Weight 15lbs
Thank you for this very thorough list! Yes, there are weight limits for both carry on luggage and checked luggage.
You are brave to assert yourself! Well done! I've encountered several situations where I've explained why I have a heavy bag and for the most part the airlines do their best to accomodate my extra weight. However, there's never a guarantee, so be prepared and carry a camera vest so you can wear your cameras as a last resort.
Thank you for your comment!