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The Photographers Ultimate Road Trip Guide

So you want to go on a photography road trip, you pick your favorite spots from Instagram to hit up. You’re all set right? Well, not exactly. There are some major factors you should be considering before planning out the trip.

As a landscape photographer I spend a huge portion of my photography traveling and because of that I want to capitalize on every moment possible while on the road. With so many places to go and so little time we want to be mindful and effective in our travels. Like most of you, I see something amazing place online or on social media and think I want to see that in person. That’s how I came across the Scripps Pier sun alignment. I thought that is my next trip, but before I started to book everything I had to know more information, a lot more.

So here is my list of the most important things to consider when planning a photography based road trip.

Research, Research, Research

If you don’t plan, then you plan to fail! A classic quote that holds true even today. When I first found out about the sun alignment at Scripps Pier, I had to do two important things first. Find out where it was and when it happened. When I research a spot, my go to site is Google Maps. You can create your own maps that can be referred to even on you mobile device. You don’t want to find yourself looking for your iconic spot only to learn you are actually miles away. In order to get the most accurate information start with city and government websites.

Now that we know where to go we now need to know when to be there. For example, the sun alignment event only happens two times per year and within those two times of the year the sun only aligns directly down the middle of the pier for only two days. To help determine what time I need to be on location, I use an app called Photos Pills to find out when sunset and sunrise occurs, and where the sun will set in correlation to my composition. This app is crucial for planning out any landscape photography.

Notable mentions for research. Check tide tables if you are going to be shooting along the coast. It is important to know if the beach you want to shoot at will be under high tide or open for low tide. Consistently checking weather apps and websites to get an accurate idea of the weather is also crucial. 

Plan Your Trip

The next step is to lay out the drive. Trust me when I say this is important. The worse thing you can do is to not plan out your next stop and miss out on the best light. I’ve been that guy in his car freaking out as I watch the sunset explode and I'm stuck on a highway.

Start with the locations you want to photograph, now that you know when the light is best for each plan your route for the maximum efficiency. Even if you have a day that is completely travel try to find a location near where you are stopping to take in the views at sunset.

Pro Tip: 

When looking for places to spend the night, camp grounds make for great stops. If you are thinking about #vanlife, truck stops are great for overnight stays. Please be sure to check with local laws, signage, and retailers to make sure you are following the rules.

Now that we have our route mapped we need to look at where to stop for food, fuel, traffic and rest. Often overlooked when planning, these factors can add loads of time in your travels. For days that you are not traveling use this time to explore and scout locations. 

Before you Embark

Now that you have everything planned out there are still a few things left to do. Some of these could save you heaps of trouble on the road.

  • Let friends and family in on your itinerary and route. 
  • See your Doctor for a quick health check.
  • Take you vehicle in for service and mechanical check.
  • Make sure all your documents are in order, from passport to insurance. 

Have a Back Up Plan

As much as I like to be prepared for everything and make sure I am on schedule, it is important to your experience and your craft to leave room to be creative or inspired. You will find there are times you will get a gut feeling about a location or the weather and it might take you away from photographing your plan A. 

Gear Talk

Gear will always come down to personal style and your goals, but there will always be the core things to pack with you.

1. Always take a spare body, even if it stays in the car for the entire trip, you will thank me later if something catastrophic happens to your main camera.

2. Take more glass. I almost always shoot very wide with landscapes, but there are those times that the location does not work ultra wide. Taking a long lens can save you from missing the composition you want. I generally have a range from 14mm to 600mm.

3. Get yourself a quality pack. If you plan on hiking this will be the best way to keep your back from getting destroyed and to keep your gear safe. Camera packs come in all shapes and sizes, find the one that fits the gear you want and fits your body well.

4. Three legs are better than two. You can do so much handheld, yes I agree. That being said you can do even more with a sturdy tripod. Even if you only use it a few times, it will be worth it. If you are looking to any astrophotography or long exposure photography you are going to need a tripod.

5. Bring a laptop. But more importantly, bring back up drives. I take a minimum of two external hard drives on any trip. Back up your shots daily!

Some non camera gear choices:

6. Headlamps are a life saver, not just for the hike but while shooting in the dark.

7. Rubber boots or waders come in handy. There is always that one shot that would look better from in the water.

8. Quality hiking shoes are a must. Trust me, your feet will thank you.

9. Get a local SIM card. This may be obvious to some, but you will need it to stay current with weather and if there is an emergency you will want that voice plan as well.

Final Thoughts

Now that you are prepped the only thing left to do is close your eyes and point to a spot on the map. I hope you took some tips away that will land you shooting the best photos on your next adventure! Remember it's not about the destination it's about the journey.

Did I miss anything? Comment below with what you think should be added to the list!

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Alex Armitage's picture

This might change your life! Well your photography trip life

David Wilder's picture

Gotta love google maps. It’s so helpful!

S M's picture

This is exactly what I do for each trip and it's been so helpful. Especially when you can download those maps and bring them up when you are in an area with limited service!

Sara Dahlman's picture

Thanks for the tips. Now to start planning. :)

David Wilder's picture

Thank you. Get out there!!

John Myers's picture

"If you don’t plan, then you plan to fail! A classic quote..."

Actually goes a little something like this:

"If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail"

David Wilder's picture


S M's picture

"5. Bring a laptop."

This is the only point I have a slight bit of issue with and it's mostly from the temptation to want to edit photos right away. Most cell phones have the ability to check weather station forecasts, Photopills, PTE and other very useful apps to make your trip run smoother, so unless during your trip it is 100% imperative that you blog everyday from the road, or you need to relay images in a quick turn time to someone else, I just think it's added weight that will slow you down from really enjoying that time on the road.

Sure there is going to be downtime inevitably. I went on a solo 2-week road trip to Oregon last summer and when the weather was awful, my day was shot. I _DID_ bring my laptop, but by the end of the road trip I couldn't wait to be free of it. Bring a book and a portable hard drive to backup your memory cards instead, and enjoy your time on the road free of disctractions. You never know when you will have that chance, in those areas again.

*End useless rant*

Thanks for the article! I usually like to make a Google Map first with all the pins set up on a map I can pull up from my Google Drive.

David Wilder's picture

Fair point. It can be a distraction. That being said so can the camera. I think with anything there is always the need to balance each side of the coin.

I suggest a laptop for two main reasons if you traveling for work, then it will be crucial to get images prepped and secondly to back up. On my last trip to Iceland I took over 1tb of images and footage, I used the back ups to make sure I didn’t loose anything. Another reason I did not mention in the article is the camera lcd can trick you some times, things may look tack sharp on there but because it’s so small it can trick you. I use a laptop to confirm everything looks proper with my shots. That way I don’t leave a location with nothing to use. That has happened to me in the early years.

But like I said you do have a point about keeping a balance.

S M's picture

That definitely makes sense. And recently when there was a sale going on with B&H I picked up a 12 inch iPad Pro to review photos on the road.

I think a good majority of people that do go on these road trips aren't working against deadlines with companies, but more so against their own deadlines to get content up on their social media feeds. I am/was guilty of this too and it ultimately led to my own social media overload that by the time I was done with my road trip I realized the people I met along my journey, the stories I was able to be fully apart of and engaged with, left the most impactful and life changing memories that a computer would have probably distracted me from. But yes, I agree, being able to see my work in the field before I decide to move on to the next place, ensuring that everything is exactly how it should be would have saved a couple of shots for me.

Again, excellent article and one people should definitely take note of. I can''t tell you how many times I have left with a friend of mine that is totally unprepared for life on the road.

D R's picture

I use google earth to help visualise the terrain and what I might be up against. To help with this in the settings change the 'elevation exaggeration' to 1.5 or higher. It literally exaggerates the terrain so you can see hills and valleys etc.
Also terrain view in google maps is very useful.

So many tools at our disposal, what a time to be alive :) Thanks for the article :)

David Wilder's picture

Google earth is a fantastic way to find hidden gems. Thank you for the comment!

EL PIC's picture

Be sure to take water and snack food. You won’t take many photos if you have to leave early for McDonalds ..