How do you plan for, prepare, purchase and pack for a trip that has an emphasis on photographing? How do professionals do this? How do I do it?
For the sake of brevity we'll assume you have a destination and motivation. There are other kinds of photo trips, of course, like the one I am on while I am writing this in San Diego. This one has been, shall we say, speculative. But here I will speak to the issue of what you bring, what you leave behind, how you decide, how you pack, what you pack in, how you transport what you bring and how you come back with great pictures.
For this blog I will assume you're flying to your destination.
For the inexperienced the single biggest mistake people make is that they bring gear they won't use. Too many cameras, cameras of different formats, too many lenses, too many of everything. Pack light! I've said this before but it is worth repeating: pros do not go on extended shooting trips with new gear or unknown components. The last thing you need to do is learn something on site.
It used to be dogma that you would bring an extra camera body. I don't anymore. Got a lot of lenses? Don't bring them all, in fact don't bring anything that duplicates focal lengths. Try to cover from wide to long and perhaps one fixed focal length that is fast for low light. To bring a tripod is a big decision but one I don't have to make. I always do. Mine is short enough that I pack it in my check-in suitcase, which rolls. I use a carbon fiber tripod to save weight.
Clothing? Light, packable, minimal and replaceable, chosen for the environment you'll be working in. Unless you're going into the wild it is very often easiest to buy some things as you need them. I had a friend with questionable hygiene who simply bought new underwear as he needed when he traveled, throwing away the old.
Now that so many of us are digital the next big question is do you bring your laptop or not? I bring it, with a backup external hard drive. I download shot RAW files every night, load them into the Aperture library, copy the RAWS onto the external hard drive, reformat the card and then go through them in Aperture, tweak them if I want, realize what I have and have not done with the day's shooting towards doing better tomorrow.
Of course, you've remembered to bring all the chargers and cables, a cable release, any needed filters, right? And power converters if you are traveling outside the US.
I was thinking about this as I was preparing for the trip I am on now. I have done this preparing for and packing so many times over my career that it is a ritual. Things go in the suitcase, backpack and rolling case now almost automatically. Rituals can be very helpful as you can go into an automatic mode that gets it all done. I once watched Fred Sommer cook us hamburgers for lunch in Prescott, AZ. Talk about a ritual-this was a virtuoso performance that elevated the making of a hamburger to high art.
What is the best suitcase? Depends. I use a rolling semi hard case that is large but light made by Burton. It is perfect for my needs.
One final plug and that is don't neglect your own backyard, the USA, in your travel plans. This is one big and diverse country, incredibly rich in environment, culture and people. Believe me, you have not seen it all. Domestic travel is cheaper, easier and faster to get you to your destination. Not as exotic as someplace on the other side of the world it is true and yes, I like the big trip to far away too, but right here is very fine also.
How do you make pictures that work for you beyond just being a pretty record of where you've been? Depends on your ambitions. Want to make pictures that when framed and on your living room wall speak to your trip and how colorful it was there or how friendly the locals were to you and your group? Want to get that great picture of the penguin that is very much like what's-his-name who shoots for National Geographic made on his last trip to Antarctica? Fine, but not me. I want to make pictures that I can fit into my oeurve, into the body of work that is what I've made over my career. I work in series so I try to make series pictures when traveling. Do I take random pictures as a reaction to my surroundings when I travel? Yes. Do I use them often? Rarely. See: Utah 2010
What do you want? What are your aspirations with your work? What's your target objective? Who do you want to show your travel pictures to and what do you hope they will do with them? Sunday NY Times Magazine? The Met? Aperture Magazine? A one person at MOMA? I don't know that you need to be able to answer this but it would be good to wrestle with it.
In conclusion: Making pictures from travels taken are about the most difficult things to pull off I can think of. As I write this now I am packing for home, leaving San Diego where I've been living and shooting for three weeks.
As far as prep goes, think it through carefully. Don't bring what you don't need. Pack as light as you can.