Once you have selected your location for your Big Trip, the fun really begins. I know that I thoroughly enjoy the prep and planning of each and every trip. Something about the process of planning elevates a simple idea to something of incredible potential. The trip moves beyond a chance to take some photographs and captures a life of its own.
The Trip becomes opportunities to document a spectacular event, an intricate bit of natural history, a rare species, or a vanishing landscape. It’s a chance to discover a new world and share it with family, friends, and potentially a much larger audience. The Trip is a time to create a work of art whether through photography, writing, or a combination of the two. It is a chance to do something that feels bigger than you.
That’s at least how I feel as I prepare for a trip. It is an opportunity of a lifetime and something unavailable to someone on a short weekend trip.
So how do we get there and what is different than a weekend visit? For me, there are three main advantages total immersion, local familiarity, and removal of distractions.
Photography isn’t like riding a bike. If you put the camera down and pick it up months or years later, it doesn’t come back totally naturally. Beyond the technical retraining, which can be quick or can take forever, there is the act of seeing. As photographers, we are always refining how we view the world. I don’t want to say that we see the world in small rectangular windows, but unconsciously, we are always looking to place elements of a scene into a framed composition. It’s an unconscious effort, but this practice helps us to refine the way we see and create photographs.
When I am able to totally dedicate myself to photographing a specific subject for weeks on end, I am able to constantly rethink and reconsider how to approach making images. If it’s an animal, I become familiar with the creature’s behavior and can better anticipate its actions. If it’s a landscape, I learn to anticipate light and how it moves across the landscape. I learn what a scene looks like in the morning, midday, evening, under clouds, under sun, and numerous other conditions. Depending on the length and timing of the trip, I may even be able to experience a change of seasons.
Total immersion allows a photographer to go beyond cursory, superficial photographs, and allows us to witness and capture fleeting moments. So much of photography is a matter of not only being at the right place at the right time, but being ready for the moment to happen. The more time spent in the field increases our chances and allows us to anticipate where and when that incredible image can be made.
Total immersion begins to blend into my second point. Extended trips are the closest way you are going to be able to get to being a local. I’ve written about it on numerous occasions, being local and having local knowledge is incredibly advantageous in photography. Extended trips are your only chance of developing that experience and knowledge yourself.
Local familiarity is a function of two major aspects. First, the more time in the field, the more familiar you are with the region. That is obvious, however, the value of my second point can be easy to miss. The longer you are in an area, the easier it is to become a part of the community of other photographers, researchers, and naturalists that can share with you their knowledge.
I have seen it in almost every place I have ever visited. Local guides take tourists to one spot and give them a set lecture. If these clients express a particular interest or it can be established that they aren’t mere tourists then locals will provide additional information or take them to another location. However, these typically aren’t the places where the guide and his neighbor might go on their own time. Call me cynical if you wish, but I don’t feel like this is done in malice. It’s just insulation between local culture and outsiders.
One way to get beyond this insulation is to become part of the community through and extended trip. In Costa Rica, much of the work we did was on private land that was accessible only through our local contacts and the fact that one of my collaborators had committed to a five year PhD program, and this was going to be his primary field site. His dedication of time and interest in being part of the community opened doors typically closed to most American tourists even in an open tourist community like Monteverde.
Removal of Distractions
I know it is cliché to say that we are inundated with way too much media today. It’s true though. I don’t have to tell you how easy it is to get distracted by a new website, Twitter, Facebook, etc, etc. As a photographer, I am not only trying to create new photographs but create a following on this blog through social media and produce quality content for each and every post. Add to that the need to handle article and magazine submissions, fulfill print orders, contact potential new clients, and much more, many nature photographers struggle to find the time to photograph!
Extended trips can offer a relief from all of that and a chance to truly work creatively. When I am on a project, email gets checked every couple of days, the blog gets updated occasionally, and the rest of life gets put on hold. After all, when you are sleeping in the top of a tree in the middle of a forest, it’s a bit difficult to check email or worry about twittering (especially when you don’t have an iPhone or other fancy smartphone). If I’m backpacking, I’m not carrying a laptop and only editing photos when I return to my car and a hotel or coffee shop.
Extended trips really are a great excuse to get away from everything. Put up an Out of the Office message on your email saying you won’t have Internet access, shut down your computer, load up your camera bag, and get into the field. Turn off the cell phone, ignore Twitter, post one last message on Facebook, write some blog posts in advance scheduled to post automatically, and go!
One of the best things you can do to improve your photography and further stimulate your passion is to totally immerse yourself in a long term project. Plan a Trip. It might just give you the opportunity to create the photograph of a lifetime.