Travel Tips

My Top Travel Tips...

My Top Travel Tips (For All Types of Travellers)

I just started breaking ground on my next ebook on travel photography. It got me thinking about some things I’ve learned, not only about photography, but about travel in general over the last several years. I’d like to share a few of those tips with you; these are practical and apply to everyone. They’ll not only make your travel experience better, but also make you a more efficient image maker. You’ve spent a lot of time planning and a bit of money getting to your destination, this is how you get the most out it.

Spend More Time, Less Money.

It’s easier than ever to go on amazing trips on a budget using sites like Airbnb.com and Booking.com. Make sure you’re spending enough time at your destination to soak it all in. Don’t rush around from one site to the next trying to pack in a lot on a tight schedule. I like to book enough time to really get to know a place; greater understanding of your destination enhances your experience and increases your chances of getting meaningful and unique images (instead of forgettable snap shots).

The less money you spend on your day-to-day, the longer you can stay. Set a reasonable, yet lean, budget for your trip. Research the best local (and cheap) eateries like hell before you go. I (almost) always book Airbnbs with kitchens so that I can cook most of my meals instead of eating out two or three times a day. Shopping at grocery stores and markets like the locals will save you money, and give you a better understanding of what it’s like to live there. Make sure you’re centrally located too, so you don’t have to travel far and spend a lot money on transit. Paying a few bucks more per night in that downtown Airbnb might be cheaper than cabs, Ubers, and public transit from the big chain hotel on the edge of town.

Click here for my post on How to Afford to Travel.

Pack Less.

For the love of everything you hold holy take less crap with you! I carry one 35L backpack with everything I need, including camera gear, for up to two weeks on the road. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to the Canadian Rockies just 3 hours from my home or if I’m flying to Europe and visiting multiple countries, I only take one bag. I know what you’re thinking…“That’s easy for you! You’re a young dude willing to rough it for good pictures!” My wife only takes one 34L backpack and her purse as a personal item. That’s it. She always looks good! We never check anything when flying.

I find that minimalist packing relieves some of the stress of being in transit. Despite my love of visiting new places, I hate being in transit. With me, it’s the destination, not the journey. By packing one carry-on bag, I have less to keep up with and can get around airports and train stations more efficiently: no waiting for my checked luggage to be rechecked and risk missing a flight; no worrying that luggage will be lost or damaged (which happened to me in past before I knew better).

Click here to see my Travel Photographer’s Master Packing List.

Wear Good Shoes.

Sturdy, practical, and comfortable walking/hiking shoes are essential. Break them in before you go. Say you’re spending a week in Paris or Prague: those cobblestone streets are gonna tear your tootsies up if you’re not wearing the right footwear. Make sure to start walking in your main pair (especially if they’re new) several days to a couple weeks before your trip to make sure you break them in and to know in advance if they’re going to cause blisters. Blisters can ruin a trip.
Pro Tip: Pack a little coconut oil to rub in between your toes each day. It’ll help relieve friction and help prevent blisters.

I have a couple different foot issues I battle with about every time I travel. It’s frustrating. Being a photographer means I have to be mobile and need the ability to walk several miles a day. Gradually, I’m learning how to deal with these issues. You can save yourself a huge amount of woe and discomfort simply by picking the right shoes. I’d recommend a good hiking shoe brand; trail runners that are breathable are great for summer. Whatever you choose, make sure they’re not gonna hold you back. Accept function over fashion and save yourself some serious aches and pains.

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5 More Awesome Photo Locations in Banff

Photographers are getting ever more stingy with their “secret” spots lately. It’s for good reason. The impact of tourism (including us serious photographers) on the land has become a burdon for our natural areas and wildlife. It’s ironic that in an effort to spend time in, and gain greater appreciation for, the great outdoors we’ve actually been causing loads of damage. The instagram culture of “influencers” has spawned a new kind of 21st century gold rush. Instead of searching for valuable metals and gems, people now flock to National Parks for pictures and likes and attention. For serious nature photographers, the crowds of selfie-stick wielding tourists are annoying, but we are responsible for much of the damage too.

The locations I mention in this post are well-known and easy to get to from the Banff townsite. No secrets here. Like many, I reserve some special places for myself, but I believe in sharing locations that are less vulnerable and can handle the foot traffic. Make sure that if you visit these amazing places, you leave no trace of your presence, respect wildlife and give them space, and take nothing but pictures.

1. Castle Mountain

Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Castle Mountain towers over the Bow River Valley. If you’re driving along the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) near Banff you can’t miss it’s looming spires. It’s a great subject year-round. My favourite spots to photograph it from are along the rocky banks of the Bow River. A popular access point is Castle Junction, located at the intersection of Highway 1 and the Bow Valley Parkway just north of Banff. There’s a fence to block wildlife from getting onto the road. Visitors are allowed to open the gate and enter at the bridge over the Bow River at Castle Junction, but make sure you close it behind you after entering and exiting.

2. banff viewpoint

Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Want that epic postcard-ass shot of Banff townsite from above? Banff Viewpoint is an official “park and peek” along Mt. Norquay Road just north of Banff. It takes only 10 minutes to reach this spot from downtown. Just know that the road is steep and windy. It can be very slippery in winter. The view is one of the best in the Banff area (without having to hike half a day up a mountain). This point provides great views of the town, surrounding mountains, and Vermillion Lakes.

Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

3. two jack lake

Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack lake is a popular spot for landscape photographers. When I was there, I was the first to arrive at twilight. Soon there were several others sharing the same small stretch of lakeshore. It’s popular because it’s very close to downtown Banff and provides excellent (and relatively easy) compositional opportunities for photographers. There is an island of spruce trees that gives much needed visual interest when framing Mount Rundle on the horizon. On clear winter mornings, expect a bit of alpenglow on Mount Rundle’s peaks. In summer the mountain can glow from base to peak when the sun is very low. This is great spot at either sunrise or sunset.

4. bow valley parkway

Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

The Bow Valley Parkway runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway north of Banff heading in the direction of Lake Louise. I suggest taking it to Castle Junction. Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled; this is a great area to spot wildlife. There are several road-side pull-offs where you can watch wildlife like elk, moose, and deer graze. Occasional grizzly and wolf sightings are also reported along this route in spring and fall. Wildlife often use the road as their own highway for convenience, so make sure to drive the speed limit or less.

The Bow Valley Parkway also holds opportunities for landscape photographers. There are several spots along the route that provide great views of the surrounding mountain ranges as well as the railroad, which runs along the Bow River. In early autumn, birches and aspens can be photographed in full golden colour.

5. waterfowl lakes

Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

The Icefields Parkway is famous for awesome scenery. One of the most convenient stops is Waterfowl Lakes, which is a few large iridescent blue lakes surrounded by epic mountains. The pull-off is right by the road, no hiking in, which makes this a convenient stop for sunrise or sunset.

I photographed this scene on a whim. I was leaving Banff with my wife, and we happened to be passing Waterfowl Lakes around sunrise. For a few brief minutes a pink column of cloud lit up the otherwise monochrome sky. I pulled over, hopped out of the car, and took two quick shots by the lakeside before the light faded. Sometimes things just come together.

To read the original post, 5 Awesome Photo Locations in Banff, click here.

Tips for the Khutzeymateen

TIPS FOR PHOTOGRAPHING GRIZZLIES IN THE
 KHUTZEYMATEEN, BRITISH COLUMBIA

Khutzeymateen Provincial Park is one of British Columbia's premier, virtually untouched, wildlife preservation areas. Located near the B.C. - Alaska border just north of Prince Rupert, it occupies an area of 44,300 hectares at the northern most edge of what has become known as the Great Bear Rainforest. The park was established as a sanctuary for grizzlies in 1994 with the help of conservationists and none other than the Duke of Edinburgh. Accessible by float plane from Prince Rupert, only a couple hundred visitors are permitted to visit the sanctuary each year. Only two vessels are allowed to dock in the Inlet, the Ocean Light II and Sunchaser. Both take clients out into the estuaries to view bears in inflatable boats (called zodiacs). I chose the Sunchaser, captained By Dan Wakeman (and it wont be the only time). 

The Khutzeymateen Inlet is a stunningly beautiful area and a great example of conservation success. Canada would benefit greatly from more protected habitats like it. Despite the beauty and potential for awesome wildlife images, there are some things I learned on my May 2018 trip that I wish I knew beforehand. There are also some decisions I made (in gear choices, clothing, etc) in preparation for the trip that made photographing much more enjoyable and efficient. Here are my tips for photography in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary:

PACK RAIN GEAR ("WATER RESISTANT" IS NOT SUFFICIENT)

It rains a lot in British Columbia's northern coastal forests. During my Khutzeymateen experience, it rained every day and night. When you're living on a sailboat and going out to view bears in an uncovered zodiac, you're gonna get wet even when isn't raining. Probably the most important advice I can give for visiting a climate like this is to have warm, water-proof clothing - not "water-resistant" or "water-repellent." Those aren't sufficient and tend to soak through after a few hours in the rain (and it is very difficult to dry out your stuff on a sailboat). You want solid rubber and full coverage from head to toe. Imagine the stuff that lobster fisherman wear...that bright yellow rubber rain jacket and pants...that's what you want. Several outdoor clothing companies make rain gear of this caliber; I'd recommend something from Helly Hansen or similar, or you'll be stuck with the guide's bulky rain suits, which are difficult to shoot in. Make sure your boots are waterproof as well!

A large male grizzly swims in the estuary, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. No matter the weather, the bears are usually active in Spring and Summer. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 3200)

A large male grizzly swims in the estuary, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. No matter the weather, the bears are usually active in Spring and Summer. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f8, 1/1000 sec, ISO 3200)

PROTECT YOUR CAMERA GEAR FROM THE ELEMENTS

The best investment I made in preparation for the Khutzeymateen was the cheapest purchase made for the trip. I paid $7 for a pack of two plastic rain covers with drawstrings for my cameras. They worked perfectly. Even though my clothing was damp by the second day of shooting in the rain, my camera gear was completely dry! A couple other guys in the boat had much more expensive nylon rain covers, but I noticed them constantly adjusting them, and they didn't seem to cover their lenses completely. My cheap plastic covers protected my camera and 200-500mm lens from hood to viewfinder. I only got a couple droplets on the LCD at times. One of the other photographers actually had water and condensation get inside his lens and camera body while using one of the more expensive covers. I had no issues with moisture. I also packed several absorbent microfibre cleaning cloths, but rarely used them. 

A waterproof camera backpack, or a good rain cover, is also essential to store other gear or a backup camera in. The bottom of the inflatable boat will be very damp, so a rain cover is necessary. I used a detachable cover so that I could hang it out to drip dry between outings. 

A grizzly looks across the rainy inlet in the direction of the Sunchaser, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia. 

A grizzly looks across the rainy inlet in the direction of the Sunchaser, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, British Columbia. 

CHOOSE THE RIGHT CAMERA GEAR

You may be tempted to bring a 500mm f4 or 400mm f2.8 or some other gargantuan piece of glass to the Khutzeymateen. You don't need it. You'll be close enough to photograph bears with a 70-200mm for the most part. I used my Nikon 200-500mm VR 90% of the time. In fact, each of the four of us used lenses in that range. One guy had a Tamron 150-600, another used a Canon 100-400 IS, and both me and the other photographer were using the Nikon 200-500mm. We all got great images.

These lenses are not only light and easy to pack and hand-hold, they provide lots of versatility in focal length. This allows for creating a variety of compositions instead of being bound to just 400 or 500mm. The boat can't always shift around to give photographers a better view (the bears well-being and safety come first), so versatility is essential. You also can't use a tripod in the zodiac, and even use of a monopod makes shooting awkward (and is annoying for others in the boat). So, use of heavy prime telephotos is not recommended. Make sure your lens has vibration reduction (or equivalent). The zodiac is moving a bit even when the engine isn't running, which makes getting sharp shots a bit of a challenge. 

The guide is required to keep the boat a minimum distance from the bears. Some bears are more tolerant of human presence than others. This particular bear didn't mind us hanging out for a while at the minimum distance, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 4000)

The guide is required to keep the boat a minimum distance from the bears. Some bears are more tolerant of human presence than others. This particular bear didn't mind us hanging out for a while at the minimum distance, Khutzeymateen Inlet, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 4000)

CHOOSE THE "RIGHT" EXPOSURE SETTINGS

The biggest challenge in photographing wild grizzlies was getting sharp and well-exposed images. As earlier mentioned, the boat is constantly moving, but so are the bears. Proper hand-holding technique with longer lenses is crucial and vibration reduction helps as well, but a fast shutter-speed is also needed to freeze the bears. They're not moving fast, usually just lumbering around eating sedges. Combine their constant movement with the constant movement/vibration of the boat, and the fact that it'll probably be dark overcast, and you've got the perfect recipe for blurry images. The faster the shutter-speed, the sharper the image. Of course that comes at a cost. High ISOs (which degrade image quality especially with crop-sensor cameras) are needed to get shutter-speeds fast enough to freeze motion. 

I shot in Manual mode with auto-ISO turned on while using a full-frame DSLR (allowing ISO to fluctuate between 400 - 4000 depending on the shutter-speed and aperture I selected manually). Full-frame cameras do a much better job at producing clean (less-noisy) images at high ISOs compared to crop-sensor models. Most of my images from the Khutzeymateen were shot between ISO 1250 and ISO 3200. Many of my favorite shots were captured at ISO 2500. This allowed me to get shutter-speeds of at least 1/500th of a second. My ideal shutter-speed was 1/1000th or faster, but that was not always possible. To help achieve the fast shutter-speeds necessary and not boost my ISO even higher, I shot at relatively wide apertures in the f5.6 - f7.1 range (my Nikon 200-500 VR is f5.6 at its widest). 

A young grizzly rests on the banks of the Khutzeymateen Inlet at low tide, British Columbia. (Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f.6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 2500)

A young grizzly rests on the banks of the Khutzeymateen Inlet at low tide, British Columbia.
(Nikon D750, Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f.6.3, 1/800 sec, ISO 2500)

HAVE RESPECT FOR THE ENVIRONMENT, OTHER GUESTS, AND THE GUIDES

I am happy with my first experience in the Khutzeymateen, as well as with Sunchaser Grizzly Tours. The other three photographers on the trip, who I had never met previously, were great to shoot with. We cooperated with each other in the small zodiac to make sure we all had clear views of the bears. There were no big egos. We had a great time and came away with great images despite the tricky conditions. Captain Dan and his assistant made sure that we had a 5-star bear viewing experience while respecting the environment and coming away with a better understanding of grizzlies and their habitat. I'd recommend this trip to any nature photographer. Thanks for reading and safe travels.

For my full travel/nature photography packing list, click here.

Travel Photographer's Master Packing List

I like to travel light. Not "ultra-light" necessarily- I'm a photographer, so the gear required to do a job takes precedence over everything else I carry. That stuff adds a bit of weight. I do manage, however, to fit everything I need for most travel photography situations into a single 35 litre backpack (usually weighing less than 30 lbs). I don't check luggage. That means all the camera gear, clothing, and everything else has to fit into one backpack that fits in any overhead compartment. It's taken years to whittle things down and develop a system that provides me with everything I need and nothing extraneous. One pack means I don't have to waste extra funds paying to check bags and risk missing flights during layovers waiting for my luggage to be rechecked (never check your camera gear!).

Below is my "master packing list." Everything listed here fits into (or onto) a 35L Mammut Nirvana Pro backpack. This system works great for both city travel and nature photography. The following assumes I am traveling to a destination by plane with weight restrictions.

Pictured are a few of my travel photography essentials. The F-Stop Gear Medium Shallow ICU fits perfectly in my Mammut Nirvana Pro 35 backpack with just enough room left over for the necessary photo accessories and clothing for 1 - 2 weeks. The Cameron CF700 tripod with BH30 head is a new addition that I may review later. It straps securly to the outside of my backpack.

Pictured are a few of my travel photography essentials. The F-Stop Gear Medium Shallow ICU fits perfectly in my Mammut Nirvana Pro 35 backpack with just enough room left over for the necessary photo accessories and clothing for 1 - 2 weeks. The Cameron CF700 tripod with BH30 head is a new addition that I may review later. It straps securly to the outside of my backpack.

Storage System:

Clothing:

Miscellaneous Essentials:

  • Passports & wallet
  • Toiletries (I only take toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant)
  • Clif Bars (4 to 6)
  • Empty water bottle (filled with random things on this list to save space)
  • Headlamp
  • Travel-size first aid kit (with Ibuprofen and extra bandaids)
  • Small notebook and 2 pens
  • Parachute cord (20 feet)
  • Maps (good old fashioned printed on paper maps are best)
  • Phone, iPad Mini, ear phones, and chargers
  • Power adaptor (for international travel)

Camera Gear Option I: Typical for City Travel

Camera Gear Option II: Typical for Nature & Wildlife Trips

Why not use a traditional camera backpack? After my most recent Lowepro bag finally kicked the dust, I decided to look for better options for not only storing camera gear, but everything else I needed for travel as well. Camera bag manufacturers just don't make comfortable bags for hiking long distances either, so I started looking into alpine pack companies like Mammut who make rugged packs with a fully-opening back just like traditional camera packs. The Nirvana Pro 35 zips open on the back to fully reveal the main compartment's contents just like F-Stop or Lowepro packs.

Using the F-Stop ICU, I can have quick and easy access to my gear while the backpack lies flat on the ground. It works just like F-Stop Gear's system, but with a much cheaper backpack. For us Canadians, F-Stop bags are just too pricey once you factor in import fees and taxes. My Mammut bag, which is very well designed and comfortable, was only $120 CDN at my local outdoor gear shop (and about $150 for the F-Stop Medium ICU on Amazon). After several uses on international trips, wildlife excursions, and landscape shoots, I can confidently say this is the best/most versitile camera backpack I've ever had. 

Mammut Backpack with F-Stop Medium Shallow ICU:

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