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Travel photography. What should you take?

When you are going travelling, and let's say it's for just a holiday and not a photography assignment, what gear should you take? Should you pack your fancy lenses, best camera and all the gear, just the bare essentials like your favourite lens or perhaps just a point and shoot cause you don't want to risk losing or damaging your expensive equipment? The choices are seemingly endless, so what's the answer? Recently I went through this same dilemma and below is what I came up with.

I travelled to Egypt back in 2009 and took a video camera and a DSLR because I didn't want to "miss anything" and I wanted to "keep a memory" of everything. Well what I found I was doing was actually living through the lense. What I mean by that was I was so caught up in taking the right photo and capturing as much good video as I could, I was spending all my time looking at a screen instead of the amazing sights and enjoying it first hand. To me this seems like a waste, even though I love photography, as I wasn't living in the moment. Looking at a screen the whole time meant I might as well have just watched someone else's holiday video and slideshow. Not the point of a holiday really.

These past two weeks I've been on holiday in San Francisco and I looked at all my gear and was trying to decide what to take with me when I remembered the Egypt trip and I decided I wanted to actually experience the trip this time and the photos were secondary. Given that I would have my mobile with me on the trip (as we all do nowadays right?) I thought I'd take a chance and just use the camera on my iPhone 5. I can hear some of you gasping at the thought of using a lowly camera phone but the old adage of "the best camera is the one you have with you" was one that I wanted to test.

We had the most amazing weather while we were there and there were definitely times I had wished I had my 'good camera' there with me but overall I didn't miss it. I didn't miss lugging it around all over the place with me to get one or two shots I couldn't get with my iPhone. I didn't miss worrying about any of my gear getting lost, stolen or broken - yes I have insurance but it's still a real pain is the ass dealing with insurance companies, whether you get your stuff replaced or not.

So, what did I actually think of the camera on the phone? Keeping in mind that the iPhone 5 is now old-tech and the cameras on the new iPhone 6, Galaxy etc are much better again, I was really happy with the images. It was light, compact, always by my side and ready to capture the image I wanted.

Here is one of my favourite images from Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island

This was taken through the window of the Sallyport, looking up towards some of the ruins.

Why is this one of my favourites? Well, there are thousands of photos of Alcatraz online already - both holiday snaps and professional plus everything in between - and I've never seen this before. I'm not saying it's not out there but it is rare, at least. The mood of the image, the haze in the background, the dark tones, to me it all adds to the feeling of confinement and the broken spirits of inmates haunted by the Rock.

Having a photo that is a bit different to everyone else's is something I look for but there are times when you have to get that quintessential photo of something that everyone has, like the one below, which is on the floor of Alcatraz looking up at the skylights. Part of the reason everyone gets this is it is like a ray of hope, shining down on the cells and it has been seen in the movies, in particular Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood. That and it's the only angle you can get as a tourist as you are confined to the ground floor - still well worth it if you are in San Francisco, I would totally do it again. But I digress. Here's the image

Alcatraz cellblock

Looking up at the sky from the floor of Alcatraz.

The solitary confinement cells on Alcatraz were on D- Block and they were a place no one wanted to go as once they closed the doors there was no light. No wonder they called it the hole.

You can actually now go into the cells and again a lot of people have had their photo taken while they posed in the cell but I wanted something different and in particular something that meant something to me, so this was what I took.

Alcatraz D Block

D-Block solitary confinement cell, looking at the floor.

To me, this image is the view the prisoners would have had when they rested their head on the bars, wating to get out. There is light here because the doors are locked open but I imagine that this light would have meant a lot to anyone in here as it was the rare time that the outer door was opened and they could actually see the outside world again, however briefly.

San Francisco has some major landmarks but the most tagged isn't the prison but is instead Golden Gate Bridge. Even more people visit the bridge and you have limited space in which to take a photo so what do you do when everyone else is out with their phones taking the same photos as everyone else? Well you take some the same (I mean, you have to have 'that' photo of the orange uprights don't you) but I also looked for some that were a different angle or look so that they meant something to me - notice a pattern here? Also, note I'm not complaining that I only had my phone with me and not all my gear?

Walking along the bridge was a great experience and I got to enjoy all the sights and the journey, rather than worrying about my camera settings. Here are a couple of my photos from the Golden Gate Bridge walk.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

From the top - 1)The walkway 2) Close up of the upright 3)The more common upright shot

I also went with black and white for these images as it allowed for a more contrasted image, which I felt it needed. There are some absolutely amazing professional photos of the bridge, some covered with fog, others on clear days etc but I still haven't found many like mine.

I did leave some of my photos from the trip in colour, such as the photo below of Pier 39, which is where the sea lions have moved in and taken over. Did you know the locals originally tried to move the sea lions on by blasting heavy metal at them through loud speakers for 24 hours? Totally didn't work. The rumour is they just loved Black Sabbath.

Pier 39, San Francisco

Pier 39 at sunset

Notice in this shot that the sun is actually below the horizon and yet the image still looks good (well in my opinion it does), sure, there is some small artifacting in the image due to the low light but it is still rich and has a lot of detail in the shadows. So how did I do this with an old phone, Was it all photoshopped? Well, kind of. Let me explain.

I set my phone to take HDR images (stands for High Dynamic Range) which is a fancy way of saying it captures more information than a standard photo. This raw HDR image will often look more washed out but this is only because it has tried to capture as much of the highlight and the shadows as it can so you need to tweak it to get the most out of it. I did the editing of these images on my iPhone, just using the photos app that comes with the phone, to bring out the colour or contrast in each image. I'll do another blog on this separately as this is more about the gear for travel photos. I'll link it here when it's done.

So, if you've kept reading this far you're probably thinking this guy has gone way off track and what the heck is he trying to tell me about travel photos and what gear I should take. Well, I've kind of talked about it the whole way through and I've been trying to Mr Miyagi you (obscure Karate Kid reference for those that are wondering) by saying the old "camera you have with you" does ring true. Sure I could have taken better quality photos of the trip with my DSLR but they were only ever going to be posted on my Facebook page as an experiment for this blog - you can check out the other images there as well if you want - and not printed out or for sale so having the extra file size and detail wasn't as important. Again, this was a holiday, not a photography assignment.

Here is the business end of the blog. You need to decide what the purpose of the photos you are going to take. If it's endless selfies, anything that fits on a selfie stick will do really. If you want to bore your friends with endless slideshows or social media posts again, anything digital will be nice and easy. If you want something that could be printed out and put on the wall then a point and shoot or camera phone or DSLR will do. Let's face reality here, most travel photos end up on a hard drive and rarely get looked at again. If you're lucky there are one or two awesome ones that you may print out but be honest with yourself, will you actually do that or just store them all and not look at them again? If that's the case spend your time enjoying the trip, you can revisit your memories at any time without having to look at a photo.

Once you have decided what they are for then think about what you really need to take - if you need all your best lenses then take them. If you (as I did) just want to take your phone then do that because at the end of the day, no matter what gear you have with you a good photo is a good photo and a standard holiday snap will still be a holiday snap regardless of whether you have the most expensive gear on the planet or not.

Well done, you made it to the end. Thanks for lending me your eyes, I appreciate you spending your time reading it. If you enjoyed this post please feel free to share it around.



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