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How I Plan Trips and What Goes Into PhotoTourismDC

March 13, 2012

I’ve spent nearly all of my adult life in college (i.e., I was broke). Two years ago, I started my first “real” job and started earning some money but have only used two vacation days.  Now that I have the combination of means (money) and opportunity (vacation days), I’ve started to think about travelling.  Through this process I realized that I don’t know how “normal” people plan vacations.  I thought it would be helpful for me to write out my planning process and get some feedback. This post may also offer advice (or at least some ideas) to people who are in the same, confused position.  Finally, this will, hopefully, give you some insight into how I go about writing articles for this blog.

Where to Go & What’s Worth Seeing

There’s a scene in the movie Moneyball where Jonah Hill’s character is explaining his philosophy of baseball to Brad Pitt.  He tells him that the goal of running a baseball team shouldn’t be to buy players; it should be to buy wins and to get wins you need to buy runs.  I have a similar philosophy when it comes to vacations; it’s not about purchasing plane tickets or hotel rooms, it’s about buying memories and photographic opportunities.  So when determining where to go, I want to know that there are enough places and times to photograph to make the trip worth the time and expense I’m putting into it.

First, I have to have a general idea of where I want to go.  Inspiration for that can come from pretty much anywhere.  I recently watched the documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and was inspired to visit some (and eventually all) of America’s 58 National Parks. In particular, I was fascinated by Glacier National Park.  Next, I start “gathering ideas.”  My first stop is usually Flickr but you can use whatever photo site you’d like.  I find Google Image search often gives too many irrelevant results.  On Flickr, I’ll type in search terms like “Glacier National Park” (using the quotes is helpful) and sort by “interestingness.” I go through the screens of pictures and add them to collections or pin them to Pinterest (Warning: there’s still some discussion of whether this constitutes copyright infringement).  You will occasionally see the same photographers with great, high-ranked pictures; these people often have their own websites that are also worth visiting.  For Glacier National Park you’ll see names such as QT Luong, Tom Lussier, Varina Patel, and Trey Ratcliff.  Once I have gathered a number of ideas, I use the title and caption or geolocation information on Flickr to plot them on a Google Map.  This is helpful for seeing how dispersed they are.  You don’t want to spend most of your vacation driving from place to place.  For pictures in remote areas, I often draw in the trails using trail maps or other sources of information.  I also try to find videos and embed them into my maps as well.  Videos can tell a story that you just can’t get with a photo.

Once I’ve plotted everything on the map, I start searching for hotels and nearby towns with airports.  The maps are helpful in this process because I can calculate distance and drive times.  At Glacier, most of the non-resort hotels are 45-60 minutes from the photos I want to take.  That makes for a lot of driving early in the morning and late at night.  So I opted for one of the hotels inside the park.  Once I’ve found travel and lodging accommodations I plot those on the map as well. Click on the pins or trails on the maps below to see photos and videos.

Now that I have the map built it is quite versatile.  I can embed it on a website, I can send friends and other travelers links to it, or I can export the information to a .kml file and people can upload it to their accounts or into Google Earth.  Having the information ported over to Google Earth is helpful because you can see your photos plotted in 3-D and get a better sense of what the conditions will be like.  This is especially dramatic in a highly three-dimensional place like Glacier National Park.  You can also allow others write-access to the map so it can be built collaboratively with your fellow travelers. It’s also helpful for built-up areas like Washington, DC where Google Earth displays buildings.

-Useful Tools-

There are tools available that can save you the trouble of constructing your own maps.  They aren’t quite as powerful as Google Maps; you can’t draw trails, calculate distances, add videos, or export to any other format, but they can save you hours of photo searching and tedious HTML coding. 

Flickr Map – I’ve already mentioned Flickr but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the mapping feature. You can zoom into an area and look at photos. Any photos that are publically available and geotagged will appear on the map.  The tighter you zoom in the more specific photos you’re going to get.  There are a lot of photos on Flickr though; some great, some good, and a lot of bad.  For popular locations you are going to have to sort through a lot to find some inspiration.

Stuck on Earth – The Stuck on Earth app from Trey Ratcliff offers a slick interface to connect with geolocated pictures from Flickr. While there are some not so great photos on the site most are great.  One other great innovation of the app is the use of curated lists of amazing images.  So you can select your location and find great ideas without having to drop pins and type in HTML code.


Nature Valley Trail View – This site offers Google Streetview-like maps of hiking trails. Only three National Parks are represented so far (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Great Smoky) but this has a lot of potential. I am excited to see what else they add.

Google Maps – Google Maps has a service called Panoramio where people can drop their pictures onto a map and they become publically available.  Like Flickr Maps, I have found it frustrating to find inspiring pictures, but sometimes that’s not what you’re looking for, you might just want ideas. For that purpose, Google Maps is sufficient.

When to Go

Regular readers of Phototourism DC know that I am not a person photographer.  With several exceptions (e.g., giving an object a sense of scale), I’d rather my landscapes, cityscapes, and seascapes be person-free.  So I’m always interested in finding times of the day and times of the year when traffic is low.  Time of day is easy; earlier is almost always better. Time of year is dependent on a place and what draws people there.  People generally go at certain times because the weather is ideal or because there’s a specific, time-constrained attraction (e.g., the cherry blossoms in DC).  I try to balance these tradeoffs when deciding when to go.

The Internet makes it easy to find information about the best time to go.  For National Park Service Parks, in particular, there is a site that provides statistics about monthly visitor levels.  I have used this a lot to plan my trips to various National Parks.  The graph below shows average number of visits per month to Glacier National Park. From the graph you can see that there is a spike in traffic between June and August.  I originally planned on going in May because you can see the relatively small number of visitors, but found out in the planning process that many of the hiking trails and roads don’t open until late June because of lingering snow.  So that, and the fact that most businesses are only open during the summer, explains the uptick in traffic.  Rather than travel during the peak months of June-August, I’ve decided to plan my trip for September, at the very end of the tourism season, when trails are (hopefully) still open and many would-be travelers have packed it in for the season.

-Useful Tools-

Once I’ve decided on a set of days I want to go, I can start to see what exactly getting to a place “early” means by using The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) and Google Earth Desktop.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris – TPE allows you to drop a pin on a Google map and see not only the sunrise/sunset and moonrise/moonset times but also the direction the sun and moon will rise and set.  This gives you some idea of what the lighting situation will be, especially when you have objects such as mountains that are likely to create long shadows and greater dynamic range you’ll have to think about when photographing.  TPE also, importantly, gives you the beginning and ending of twilight times; when the first hint of light will first appear on the Eastern horizon or when the last hint of light will disappear from the Western horizon.  This is important if you’re interested in capturing stars.  I spend so much time in the city, away from stars, that this is one of my primary goals.  Having these times allows you to backwards plan and figure out when you have to leave to arrive at your destination  before sunrise or sunset.

Google Earth – Google Earth is also extremely helpful because it saves you from having to use your spacial reasoning skills to guess at what the light will look like on a landscape.  You can choose a spot on the map and use the Sunlight tool to dial in a particular time of the day and year.  The program will show you, in a very basic way, what areas will be cast in shadow and what areas will be receiving light at a given time.  The picture below shows sunrise on September 10th, 2012 at a point along the Iceberg Lake Trail.

What to Bring

Now that I know when and where I’m going, where I’m going to stay, and how I’m going to get there, I have to figure out what photographic gear to pack.  I have a certain baseline level of equipment that I would bring anywhere (i.e., camera (obviously), an 18-200mm lens, and a camera strap).  Anything beyond that is going to add weight, hassle, and possibly expense, so knowing if it’s necessary is important.  For this, I once again go to Flickr.  I look back through those photos I pinned, collected, or otherwise saved and look through the EXIF (click link for an example) information:

  • If there are photos I like that require a focal length wider than 18mm, I pack my 11-16mm lens.
  • If there are wildlife photos that require a focal length greater than 200mm, I pack my 70-300mm lens.
  • If there are photos with shutter speeds less than 1/30 s, I pack my tripod and cable release.
  • If there are waterfalls I pack my neutral density filter.
  • I then pack a bag large enough to carry all of this.

The Connection to PhotoTourism DC

If you read my posts, this format probably looks familiar to you.  Rather than having you do each of these things, which admittedly is a little extreme and burdensome, I try to shoulder some of the load.  I create maps and (in order to save me the stress of worrying about copyright) I show you my own pictures.  I show you graphs of visitor levels and suggest ideal times to visit in order to avoid crowds but still get great photos. I offer advice about what equipment to bring to get the most out of your trip.

One of my original motivations for starting this site was to inspire people to write similar blog posts for where they live.  I would love it if information that suits the way I plan my vacations were readily available on the Internet.  If anyone wants to pick up the mantle of PhotoTourismNYC, or PhotoTourismLA, or PhotoTourismGNP please, please do.

Though they have nothing to do with this blog, Stuck on Earth and Shutterguides both came out after I started writing this.  If they had been around 8 months ago, this site may have never existed.

What Do You Think?

Tell me your thoughts using the comments below.  If you’d rather send a private comment you can use the Contact Form.  I would love to hear what strategies and tools you use to plan your vacations, whether you think I’m a nutcase or whether I’m on to something, and what other information I should add to my blog posts to make them especially useful.

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