Besides your camera, your phone is probably the most important tool for a successful photography trip. So if your laptop was stolen, could you get by with your smartphone? Would it be handicapped without a cellular connection?
For digital nomads working and shooting on the go, losing a device or just an Internet connection can lead to some difficult pickles. Luckily there are great offline-friendly apps that use cloud backups so your device, and not your sanity, is the only thing that croaks.
Of course, make sure you have a solid 3-2-1 backup plan and reliable equipment before you hit the road. Redundant backups and the right equipment will help prevent crises, or at least minimize their impact.
Here are 10 apps to enhance your next photography trip and provide peace of mind, and most of them are free.
1. Google Maps
Navigating with a solid data connection may be a given in the urban sprawls, but overseas is another story. Your cellular provider may charge an exorbitant rate for international roaming (I’m looking at you, AT&T). Even if you pick up a local SIM card, it’s no help to you in the Alps or Yosemite.
I can’t count how many times in Scotland I would load up a route on hotel Wi-Fi, get halfway to my next destination, and discover the preloaded route vanished. So when Google Maps added support for offline maps, my biggest travel pain point disappeared.
There’s one catch: offline directions don’t work with route options like “no highways,” so if you’re trying to avoid the well-traveled road effect, you will still need to queue up the route when you have a connection.
My Canon 5D Mark III doesn’t have onboard geotagging. Sure, I could use Canon’s bulky GP-E2 module, but that’s almost as insane as packing a dedicated shutter release (you are using Magic Lantern’s bulb timer, right?)
Luckily, you already have a GPS-equipped device: your phone. The GeotagPhotos app does a phenomenal job continuously tracking my location for weeks at a time with impressively little battery drain. I’m still using the original version which is an eyesore, but version 2 looks great.
Unlike a dedicated GPS camera module, GeotagPhotos tracks the entire trip, not just when you snap a photo. This is great metadata for journaling and backtracking previous routes.
GeotagPhotos exports GPX files to Dropbox, which load flawlessly into Lightroom. So long as your camera’s clock was correct, you can tag all your trip’s photos in a few clicks.
I’m definitely not a pro user, but PhotoPills is a fantastic companion app for landscape photography. When scouting a location, the augmented reality (AR) mode helps me determine if the lighting at twilight will be worth shooting.
You can use PhotoPills to plan complex astrophotography shots, but the AR mode and offline-friendly list of twilight times alone justify the cost.
I’ve have run into one minor hurdle. The AR mode relies on your phone’s compass, so if your fingerless gloves have magnets in them like my Vallerret photography gloves, you’ll have to take them off first.
Your IT friends have probably sung the praises of a password manager like 1Password, but did you know it’s a fantastic way to securely back up your passport, IDs, and credit cards?
I sync my encrypted password vault over Dropbox. Anywhere I can access the Internet, I can securely access my passwords and travel documents. If I lose my passport, I can pull up a photocopy on my phone without an Internet connection. If my phone also disappears, I can access the vault on Dropbox with any Internet-connected device.
Oh, and of course it’s great for storing your passwords.
5. Google Translate
Learning a new language before a trip is fun. Being unable to read road signs or ATM instructions is not.
Google acquired the incredible Word Lens app and integrated it directly into Google Translate. Just point your phone’s camera at some text, and it will translate the text in realtime without an Internet connection.
The rest of Google Translate is essential as well. I keep offline versions of German, Italian, and Spanish downloaded so I can manage a mildly intelligible dialogue even when there is no cellular connection.
“Have I booked a B&B for the day after tomorrow?” For a 1 to 2 week trip, you can book all accommodations ahead of time, but as a digital nomad your next destination may be TBD, and digging through starred emails diluted by cancellations is frustrating.
TripIt is my one stop for cataloguing travel reservations: flights, car rentals, accommodations, and tickets. Just forward a confirmation email, and the reservation is automatically imported to the TripIt website and app for offline access. No need to panic when you lose cellular and can’t find the address for your next B&B.
My one complaint is that the site feels clunky for managing longer trips. Updating or rebooking accommodations takes too many clicks, so I would love a better single-page app experience on the website. Copy-pasting reservation details like an address or phone number from the app is also bit unintuitive.
7. White Noise
Sometimes you end up on “that floor” at a hotel: the window faces a noisy street, the AC loudly switches on, or a football team checks in at midnight.
The White Noise Ambience app turns my phone into a noisemaker. I grew up falling asleep to the sound of a fan, but the app has a variety of background noises like purring cats and trickling brooks. The app is an eyesore, but I don’t usually look at the screen in my sleep.
Just make sure your phone is plugged in, or it will drain your battery before morning.
8. Google Voice
International calls are expensive. When I was in an car accident overseas, I had to place several lengthy calls to insurance companies and nearby car rental agencies.
I would have easily racked up $100 in cellular charges, but luckily I had a solid Wi-Fi connection, so I made those calls with Google Voice via the Hangouts app. I purchased $10 worth of Google Voice minutes and only spent $5 for 40 minutes of call time from my B&B (which coincidentally had no cell connection). Depending on the carrier, that would have been a $20–$200 bill.
The rates are hard to beat: the most expensive call was 15 cents per minute, but the rest were 2 cents. And my frequent calls to my insurance company in the U.S. were free.
I back up scans, photos, reservations, and other paperwork in Dropbox. For especially important travel documents, you can make them “available offline” on your phone.
Dropbox is also a great place to throw road sign and travel guides, though I usually import those directly into iBooks for faster viewing.
10. Scanner Pro
Paperwork has a way of hunting travelers down. If you’re reporting your expenses for a business trip, managing freelance paperwork, or just trying to find a place for an old rental agreement, Scanner Pro is an easy way to digitize documents with scanner-like precision.
When you’re done, you can upload the scans directly to Dropbox for a quick backup.
What’s Your Favorite Travel App?
Digital nomads place non-trivial constraints on software, and photographers more so as they travel to off-the-grid locations.
The recurring theme in these apps is their fabulous offline experience and automatic online backups. When you’re stranded without an Internet connection, your data will still be accessible. Worse, if your laptop or phone is snatched, your information will be safely backed up in the cloud for easy access.
Did I miss your favorite travel app? Let me know in the comments, especially if it’s offline and cloud friendly.
Lead image by Oleg Magni via Pexels.