In late summer this year I took a trip to Southern Utah with several writers of Improve Photography, a few IP+ members, and Jim Harmer. I don't have any photographer friends where I live so being able to spend a few days shooting with strangers (a few of whom became friends) was an excellent vacation. Not only was I able to meet and chat with people who shared the same hobby as me, but I got several amazing shots I was able to add to my portfolio. This was a night and day difference from the exact same trip I took by myself 1 year prior and came away with no photos I loved and only 1 photo I thought was OK. In this article I'll talk how you can plan a multi-day photography trip so you not only have a great time but also have something to show for it.
Planning for Photography
The first step to any trip, whether it be to Disneyland or Thanksgiving at Grandma's house is the planning. In my 2016 trip (the failure), I didn't plan hardly at all. I just figured, “It's Zion National Park! I'm going to have more things to photograph than I know what to do with!” While there are many beautiful places to visit, you'll still need to know where to go, what time the sun rises and sets, where the Milky Way is going to be, and tons of other things.
Step 1: Find things to photograph
You'll need things to take pictures of if you are planning on going on a photography trip. The biggest mistake you can make is exactly what I did a year ago, thinking that nature will unfold before me and I'll have so much to photograph. In order to get a good idea what is in store for you at your chosen destination, there are lots of resources you can use.
- rGPS: Really Good Photo Spots
- Google Earth
- National/State Park Websites
Really Good Photo Spots is an app produced by Improve Photography. Jim put over a year's worth of effort into it and crowdsourced photo locations from the community. We used this app several times to find, as the name suggests, really good photo spots while on our trip. It is currently iOS only so if you are like me and have an Android phone, just buddy up with someone who has an iPhone and freeload off them.
Google Earth is a fun resource that helps you visualize a 3 dimensional landscape. This can be really useful for scouting out the best location for photographing a popular spot. It is also helpful if you are looking for obscure things to shoot like a run down/abandoned barn in the middle of nowhere.
500px is a photo showcase website by photographers, for photographers. It has some (most?) of the world's best photographers and detailed descriptions of where a photograph was taken. You can search using keywords like “utah” or “zion national park” and it will pull up hundreds of beautiful photos. When you see something you like, you can read the description and even check an embedded Google Map to see if the photographer has pinned the location where they took the photo (many of them do this).
National/State Park websites also have a collection of photographs of each of their famous landmarks, scenery, and vistas. Some of the photos are little outdated and underprocessed by today's standards but it will give you a good idea of what exists for your to photograph.
Instagram, like 500px, is searchable using hashtags (keywords). Use this service in the same way to find great photos people have taken at the same places you plan on visiting. Another great use for Instagram is to check up to date conditions for things like snow accumulation or leaf colors. Before you drive 5 hours to a place only to be disappointed that the leaves haven't changed (or have already changed and fallen), much of the time Instagram will have a few photos posted within the last few hours or days. You can get a good idea of how things look and plan accordingly.
One more way to find out some great spots to take pictures is to reach out to photographers you follow and ask them where they took an amazing photo you really like. You can start a conversation about where they went, what it was like, and what impressed them about the photo enough to post it on Facebook/Instagram/500px/website. This option might work better with some lesser known photographers because I imagine the heavy hitters are busy with workshops and photography adventures. However, it never hurts to reach out to anyone you admire and ask them questions.
Step 2: Find out how far apart they are
This step is pretty darn important and often overlooked. We started an email chain about the trip and everyone pitched in ideas about where they wanted to shoot. Lots of ideas were thrown around like Zion, Horseshoe Bend, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, etc. All great spots to take pictures. However, it will take hours to travel between some of these places. They may look close on the map, but can be very far apart. You'll want to plan out your trip to maximize drive time and possibly start at one location and move on to the next instead of backtracking several times. Of course, if you are really hoping to nail a great sunset photo of a specific spot, you'll have to go back every night until you get it. Remember that it always takes longer to get somewhere than what Google says. If it says 45 minutes, plan on taking an hour or longer.
Travel distance and time is especially important for large national parks or those with restricted access. You can't drive through Zion Canyon and have to take the shuttle which runs every 15 minutes or so. Yellowstone has a 2 way road that runs through it but because of the sheer volume of RVs, 5th wheels, and motorcycle groups that travel through Yellowstone it can take FOREVER to get from point A to point b. Similarly, Grand Teton National Park has a 2 way highway that can get clogged up and some of their camping areas are over an hour away from the more scenic view points. Arches and Bryce have limited parking at most of their scenic spots. Plan accordingly.
Additionally, you'll need to check road conditions and construction that could slow you down. There is a seldom visited double arch in literally the middle of nowhere called Grosvenor Arch. What I thought was going to be a short dirt road taking me there was a heavily grated dirt road where my average speed was 15 mph. It took me over an hour to get to the arch. In order to get to another waterfall in the middle of nowhere, we traveled for an hour on one of the worst backcountry roads I've ever been on. Michael, an IP+ member from California who joined us, rented a Jeep for the trip and almost lost his deposit.
Consider if you have to hike to a location as well. Many spots are not going to be just a short walk from a parking lot. Horseshoe Bend, for example, is a short 15 minute hike from the parking lot but Angel's Landing is a grueling 4 hour hike over treacherous conditions and impassible in certain weather. Much of the time you'll have to deal with crowds as well so give yourself plenty of time to arrive early and secure the best spot for your composition.
Step 3: Plan sunrise, sunset, and nighttime shots
Think of how you want to photograph these different locations. What time of day do you need to be there? Is it facing east or west? Is it a good candidate for some astrophotography.
You will want to fill up your day with several options for sunrise, sunset, and nighttime shots. This way you can stay flexible on travel times, crowds, and weather. Pack each day with photography. Be prepared to lose some sleep, but that's OK. You'll feel much better about the trip when you have 5 amazing photos to edit when you get home instead of 1 because you didn't feel like dragging yourself out of bed for that sunrise shot.
On the trip I took last year I didn't plan for sunrise or sunset shots. I was left at the whim of the Earth's rotation and ended up in some very boring spots during very boring parts of the day. As I was leaving Zion one evening, the most incredible sunset I'd seen during my entire trip happened. I was so mad that I didn't plan any sunset locations to photograph because I wasted that epic sunset.
Planning for Lodging
This can be a logistical nightmare if you aren't careful. There are pretty much 3 options for this:
- Stay at someone's house (friend or AirBnB) or hotel
- Sleep in the car
For the trip I took last year, I stayed at a friend's house in St. George. While this was great, having a bed and a hot shower every day, I was an hour away from Zion and had to include that in my travel plans. I missed a couple sunrises because I didn't plan for enough travel time, or for the loooooooooong lines to get into the park (there was some sort of seasonal event going on in St George that drew in lots of people).
This time around, I chose to sleep in my car. The rear seats fold down flat and I can fit a camping pad back there. It was convenient to just pull into a spot and spend the night and not worry about having to find a hotel or be there at a certain time for check-in. When I was exhausted after photographing stars at Grosvenor Arch, I just pulled the blanket over my head and fell asleep in the back of my car. If I had a hotel, I would have needed to drive another hour on a bad dirt road and another hour to get to the nearest hotel.
While this is the cheapest and most convenient option, sleeping in the back of the car is not all it's cracked up to be. I didn't have access to a shower and felt pretty gross after 2 days of driving in the car. This can be remedied by finding truck stops that have shower facilities and buying some shower time. Be sure to bring your shower shoes, though.
Most camping places will have hot showers and reasonable overnight rates, but just like the hotel situation, you have to go there. Then you have to pitch a tent and unroll a sleeping bag. For the trips where you will be spending the majority of time within a small radius (like Zion or Yosemite), camping would be a perfectly fine option because you aren't expecting to be at a new location every night.
There is no right answer for lodging. Do what your budget and comfort level allows. I'm not Jeff Bezos rich, so I can't afford to sleep in hotels every night. I needed this trip to be as cheap as possible, which is the main reason I slept in my car. However, spending one night in a hotel or at a friend's place during a multi-day trip would be a welcome experience. One of the writers for Improve Photography lives in the area and he graciously invited me to sleep on his couch and let me take a shower. It was wonderful and I'm grateful to be a part of such a great community of photographers.
Planning for Food
Beef jerky and Mountain Dew for 4 days, right? Food is very important and often a skipped step in planning. Fresh food doesn't travel well and you'll get tired of PB&J sandwiches after a couple days. For my trip, I packed a wide variety of road trip snacks, a small cooler with some ziplock bags of ice and things like cheese sticks, yogurts, and milk, and 2 gallons of water in 1 gallon jugs. I refilled the ziplock bags with ice from gas station soda fountains when they melted (use the freezer bags for a good, water tight seal).
Food is important on multiple levels. The right food will keep you energized and in a good mood. The wrong food will cause you to feel sluggish, gross, and cranky. The last thing you want to be is cranky when you are hanging out with strangers. Comfort food is also important because it makes a vacation that much more special. If you like to enjoy a cup of coffee in the mornings, make sure you either have the stuff to make it or you will be near a place to buy it. We pulled into a coffee shop one morning after shooting The Watchman in Zion and a couple of the guys got their morning coffee. I like to have an ice cold Mtn Dew Kickstart (the ones with the coconut water) in the morning so I made sure to grab one each morning at a gas station.
Sometimes on trips like these, packing, cooking, and cleaning up isn't really feasible. I ate at a couple diners during this trip for a good meal at an inexpensive price. Thankfully, there are not shortages of Ihops, Denny's, of Black Bear Diners around. Pro tip: if you are in the Utah/Idaho/Wyoming/Nevada area, be sure to check out Maverick gas stations for very high quality, freshly prepared food options. Maverick made the marketing decision to be a one-stop-shop for all things road trip related and have full-blown kitchens in most of their stores. Their food is very good at a very reasonable price. Give the M.O.A.B. breakfast burrito (Mother Of All Burritos) a shot and you'll be full all day long.
Planning for Miscellaneous Stuff
One more thing we need to cover is everything else. Where do you charge your batteries, what do you do in your off hours when shooting conditions are bad, what to do during bad weather, etc.
If you aren't hoteling, most restaurants will have outlets you can use to charge things like cameras, laptops, and drones. You can also buy an inverter for your car that plugs into your 12v DC outlet and converts it to 110v AC so you can plug stuff into it. Restaurants and fast food places are also great for relaxing. Michael took out his laptop and backed up his photos while we hung out at a Burger King and charged batteries.
When the sun is high in the sky and the light isn't great for shooting landscapes, you can scope out new places for compositions when the light is better. You can also get some shut eye if you were up late last night shooting stars or woke up early to get an epic sunrise. I found a movie theater in St George and went to see a movie in the afternoon when I had nothing else going on. Additionally, you can photograph something that doesn't require beautiful light. Macro shots are usually pretty great any time of the day. You can go on a hike looking for something small but special. Shots like these will round out the portfolio from your trip and help viewers feel like they were there.
If the weather takes a turn for the worst, check the local forecast to see how long a storm is supposed to last. Plan on being at an amazing vista after the storm breaks for some of the most amazing and dramatic clouds you've ever seen.
If planned well, the photo trip you take will pay off in spades. What better way to enjoy a few days than with your camera and the beautiful landscapes around you? When you properly plan a photo trip, instead of hoping things comes together, you'll have a much more enjoyable trip and something to show for your efforts. Let us know if you have any additional advice to give your fellow photographers in the comments below!