Traveling for work is like viewing an impressionist painting : From a distance it looks beautiful, but up close it can look like a complete mess.
The good news is that proper preparation can make business travel less messy and chaotic for a photographer. I'd like to cover some steps you can take to make your out-of-town photography ventures more successful.
I love to travel, including my opportunities to travel professionally. As with leisure travel, there are checklists to make and precautions to take. These steps become necessary to protect our gear, career, and sanity.
My first overseas shoot began as everything I had hoped it would be. I had been in Germany translating for a video crew based out of Chicago, as well as shooting and helping out with general tasks. The conference provided me with videography experience plus a bit of time for exploration and adventure (for a work trip, anyway). Photographers seem to have more flexibility than the rest of the working public who are constantly rushing from one meeting to the next, so make use of that time if you have the opportunity.
The rest of my crew had an extended stay planned, but I had to return home for a part-time teaching gig. I was dropped off at the Cologne airport, wherefrom I was supposed to fly nonstop back to Chicago. I approached the check-in counter, and heard something no flier wants to hear: "I'm sorry, but you're not on this flight."
Neither I nor the organizer who’d hired me knew a critical condition of airline travel: When you miss a connecting flight, the airline typically boots you off the returning or following flight. You’re provided no notification, no warning that your ticket has effectively been canceled. This seems to amount to the airline’s payback for your having changed plans. Their obscure policy is now your problem.
After an unplanned 14-hour layover at Atatürk airport in Istanbul, I was finally on my long return flight to Chicago. My travel naiveté created a horrible situation, but it taught me a valuable lesson.
1. Start Prospecting Your Crew Early On
Senior Fstoppers writer Nicole York writes:
Start making connections before you need to travel. It's a lot easier to build a team if you're active in the area beforehand. I always scope out the local scene online in advance so I can make a few connections and build trust before I travel.
This step is imperative if you plan on outsourcing a team for your out-of-town shoot. Especially in the case of second shooters, make sure you've checked your new connections' references and work. Have a phone or video chat with them before confirming their role. This way you know whether they're timely and professional. Your photo or video crew is representing you and your brand, so make sure you're picking the best talent available.
Fstoppers writer Shavonne Wong adds:
I send out hundreds of cold emails and follow-ups two months before to talented makeup artists/stylists I want to work with. I send in bulk knowing most won't reply but following up at least twice helps up the chances considerably. I will also contact the local photographers for recommendations on people to work with, best agencies, locations etc.
Make sure that any subcontracted photographers who are shooting under you are keeping all receipts for reimbursable costs incurred on the trip. Also, you and your client should have written agreement on what shall be (or shall not be) reimbursable. In other words, don't forget to hash your expenses out! I've made this oversight before, and the result became a bit uncomfortable.
2. Compare Renting Gear Versus Bringing Your Own
Many shooters use websites like LensRentals.com or BorrowLenses.com and schedule everything they need to arrive at the time of (or before) the shoot. Renting is sometimes the cheaper, simpler option, but that depends on several variables. If you're considering renting, it's worth identifying the FedEx or UPS office closest to where you're staying and shooting. Compare your pickup and drop-off rentals to the costs — and risks — of bringing your own gear. Many hotels and convention centers have their own convenient UPS and FedEx locations, though some charge convenience fees. If those fees aren’t too steep, they can be well worth the convenience and time saved, especially for higher-budget corporate events.
In some cases, you might prefer to use your own gear. The comfort of your trusted cameras with all the internal settings you're accustomed to can be a major plus. If completely rented gear isn't for you, consider flying with just your most crucial equipment and rent the rest.
3. Gate Checking
“Gate checking” is triggered by a plane’s overhead storage space being entirely filled. You are then forced to hand over carry-on items, which are checked with the rest of the plane's cargo. This procedure is especially common with smaller planes. Do everything you can to avoid gate checking. Your equipment is far too valuable to be tossed around as baggage.
Some airlines offer priority boarding for a reasonable price, allowing you to board earlier before the plane's overhead storage fills up. Manny of Manny Pandya Photography says:
My airline credit card gives me free "priority boarding." I board in group #4 of 9 groups, right behind the high-miler people. The card also gives me free first checked luggage.
Manny also notes that before having his airline credit card, he would often pay for priority boarding — up to $60 per round trip for a single checked bag.
4. Gear Safety
I have one basic rule for protecting my gear, one I've been concerned to see some photographers break: Never leave a camera bag out of sight while shooting. Thieves in high-crime locations are experts and will try to outsmart you, so research their tricks and stay ahead of them. I've even heard of a thief replacing a camera inside a bag with a light brick, providing ample time to sneak away before the photographer even notices the missing camera.
It's best to keep a low profile when on foot, especially in crowded, touristy locations. Traveling, try to keep logos hidden. I've seen cautious photographers patch up logos on bags or use non-photo bags to stay under the radar of thieves. During road trips, keep your gear out of sight from onlookers at all times. This applies to short stops, too, like stopping for gas. Anything valuable should be in your trunk and / or fully covered. Don't let any of your camera bags show through your car windows, especially if logos are visible.
Bonus tip: If you bring any gear aboard a train or plane, keeping it across the aisle a few rows ahead of you will allow you to keep a good eye on it.
5. Media Rate
Some airlines offer flat rates on checked luggage for traveling photographers, especially those belonging to specific membership societies or types of media companies. This Fstoppers article by Dylan Patrick lays out each airline's policies on checked bags, airline discounts, and more. Make sure you're using shockproof, weatherproof baggage like Pelican brand cases for any checked equipment.
Traveling for a shoot is a challenging but important part of a photography business. Large-scale shoots require lots of planning — from choosing the right media assistance to making crucial decisions about transporting and protecting camera equipment. But if you plan wisely, you should find traveling to photo or video projects enjoyable and profitable.