You have two days and two nights to photograph a city you’ve never been to before. How will you make the most of this opportunity and come away with amazing photos?
You could just turn up without much advance thought and deliver a stunning set of images that fits the brief perfectly. Leaving things to chance is not always the best plan, though. You will be better prepared and more confident if you research and plan your trip in advance.
Whether you’re working for a client, an editor, or taking photos for your own portfolio, these tips will help you make the most of your trip. Here is a guide to photographing a city and the best it has to offer in 48 hours.
What’s unique about the city?
The first question you need to ask is what makes the city unique? Does it have stunning architecture? An incredible food scene? Unique modes of transport? Vibrant markets? Make sure you keep this in mind as you plan your trip.
What types and styles of images are you being asked to deliver?
What type of shots are you, your client, or your editor expecting? Find out what their expectations are in as much detail as possible. Is there a particular style or theme you need to shoot for? Will your images be used to accompany a story on a particular subject, for advertising, or as a standalone photo essay?
Think of the final use of your photos. Will you need to capture landscape or portrait orientation photos? Do you need to shoot images with negative space to allow for text to be overlaid?
Image style is an important consideration. Is your client looking for bright, colorful photos? Images showing well-known landmarks? Hidden gems? Photos with a shallow depth of field? Moody black and white images? Photos of people experiencing the city? It’s important to get agreement on this too.
Create a mood board
Visualizing your shots before you go can help the planning process. One way you can achieve this is by creating a mood board for the trip, showing the types and the style of photos you will aim to produce. The good news is, it’s easy to do with a tool such as Pinterest.
A mood board can also be handy if you don’t have a formal brief. If you create one for yourself or your client showing the type and style of images you propose to take, this can stimulate further discussion. It might be exactly what they’re after, or it could prompt them to get involved in the process and suggest changes.
Weather and climate
The next thing to research is the expected weather and climate at your destination. Bear in mind, some destinations, such as London and Melbourne, are notorious for variable conditions all year round. Getting a sense of what to expect will help with your daily planning and can guide your choices for clothing and equipment.
For example, if you’re heading to Asia during the wet season, you’ll need to think about taking clothing and camera gear that is water-resistant, whereas if you’re on a trip to somewhere hot and dry, such as Dubai or Death Valley, you may need to consider a hat and sunscreen.
Next, look at the sunrise and sunset times for the city when you will be there and plan your day accordingly. Make a note of them and think of the most important shots you need to capture at those times. These times will also indicate the number of daylight hours you have on location.
Online planning resources
Two resources that can help you are the Photographers Ephemeris and PhotoPills. These handy guides for photographers also give you information like how long the blue hour and golden hour last for, the direction of the sun at sunrise and sunset, and much more. This can be very helpful, though, remember, in built-up environments, you’ll never truly know how the light falls on your scene until you’re there.
Background city research
Researching your destination is one of the most important things to do before you leave. Learn as much as you can. Potential sources of information include travel magazines, travel blogs, official tourism websites, and YouTube videos. It’s also worthwhile downloading guidebooks from companies such as Lonely Planet, or if you’re on a tight budget, you could borrow them from a friend or your local library.
As you’re doing this research, make a note of previous coverage the destination has had in published articles or photo essays. If you plan to use the same or similar angle, aim to capture the destination in a unique or better way.
Pay close attention to the types of images used to illustrate and promote this city. What style are they? Do they fall into a particular genre? What kind of lenses do you think the photographer used? This is all useful information.
Then turn to more visual references. What kind of images show up for your destination using a Google image search? Is there a famous view of the city you’d like to capture? Next, search on Instagram. Look at images used by the official city or country accounts, popular hashtags for your destination and even geolocation image searches.
Take a look at recent Instagram posts, carefully reading the description. Was the image taken in the last few days? If it was, this might help you understand the weather or lighting conditions at your destination. If there is no context to when the image was taken, it could’ve been from last month or last year.
Another key place for researching your destination is stock photography sites. What images are the best sellers for the city? Keep these in mind when you’re shooting. As well as your main client, think of other markets where you could sell your images such as stock libraries.
Create your shot list
I love travel photography as it includes so many other genres. On a single assignment, you can include landscapes, cityscapes, street scenes, portraits, food shots, detail shots, architecture, and documentary-style images. Remember this as you create your shot list.
First, lock in the locations you need to be for sunrise and sunset and have a rough plan for the rest of the day. Plot these locations on a map and make sure you’re leaving yourself enough time to look around and photograph unexpected sights. Sometimes the best shots at a destination are not the things you expect to see, but things you didn’t expect to see.
Then list the next most important shots for you or your client. Make these a priority.
Try to capture well-known landmarks in a new or interesting way. This could be through the frame of a doorway or window, a reflection, or a completely different angle or viewpoint not used before.
Jot down a reminder to get a good variety of images at each location you visit – landscape orientation, portrait orientation, images with negative space, and images that crop well for Instagram. Also, think back to why this city is unique or exotic and make a note to get images of the food, people, clothing – anything that’s different.
Booking your hotel
Now you’ve created your shot list, look at the key locations on your map, and book a hotel nearby. It can be tempting to save money by staying at a hotel further away, but being close to your proposed photography locations is a huge advantage. Not only will it cut down on travel time, but you will also have the advantage of popping back to your room whenever you like throughout the day.
Quite often when I’m photographing a city, I head back to my hotel for a break. You can have a quick rest, grab a hot or cold drink, back up your images, and review the progress you’ve made ready for the next round of photos. You may even need time to warm up or cool down depending on the weather.
With your hotel search, always be on the lookout for historic or beautiful hotels that could provide additional photographic opportunities for you. Also, remember to choose a hotel where you feel like your gear will be safe when you’re not there.
Packing your kit
Versatility is the key when packing your kit. Fast zoom lenses are generally the travel photographer’s best friend. Also, look at the notes you made during your research. What type of lenses do you think the photographers used? Does your client expect any images with a very shallow depth of field? Do they want images taken with long telephoto lenses or ultra-wide angle lenses?
Plan your kit, taking into account these considerations along with the expected weather conditions. For a two-day trip, I would typically take the following:
- Two camera bodies that use the same batteries and lenses, at least one of which is weather resistant.
- Two zooms covering a wide focal range, at least one of which is weather resistant.
- One or two small fast prime lenses – these are very handy for low light conditions and shallow depth of field shots.
- As many reliable high-quality SD cards as you have. Make sure you format them before your trip.
- As many batteries as you have for your camera system.
- A small travel tripod and some neutral density filters.
You can see more about the travel kit I take in my article, The Best Fujifilm X-Series Kits for Travel Photography
Traveling to your destination
As your trip approaches, keep an eye on the weather and current events for the city you’re heading to. Will this present any issues or challenges? Is there other gear you may need to bring? As I write this, I am preparing for a few days in Hong Kong, where there are currently protests taking place. I don’t think these protests will affect my trip or what I plan to photograph, but it’s good to always good to stay up-to-date with what’s going on.
Before I arrive at my destination, I always sort out some way to use my iPhone when I get there. This can mean either having a SIM card for the country I’m visiting or setting up international roaming before I go.
On the way from the airport or train station to my hotel, I look for interesting things to photograph. I have my phone at the ready with maps loaded up tracking the journey I’m taking. If I see something interesting, I screenshot the map, so I have the exact location on my phone for future reference.
Once you’ve arrived
You’ve arrived at your hotel, dumped your bag and are now ready to hit the streets and tick off that shot list. Before you go, make sure you have everything you need and leave anything you won’t need at the hotel. Remember to go easy on the air conditioning or heating – extreme temperature changes can fog up your camera lenses.
Take a few minutes to double-check your camera (especially your ISO and image quality settings), make sure you have fully-charged batteries and formatted memory cards. Then synchronize the clocks on your cameras at local time.
Regardless of the time I arrive, I always try to hit the streets as soon as I can to get a feel for the place. In tropical locations, shooting conditions are not always ideal during the middle of the day when it’s very bright with the sun overhead. It’s still possible, however, to look for opportunities to keep shooting. On a recent trip to Indonesia, I found the most beautiful light in a semi-covered market place in Borobudur. I took some of my favorite shots of the trip at that market.
After the sun is well and truly below the horizon, you may think it’s time to head back to the hotel, but always see if there are opportunities to photograph food vendors or night markets. You’ll need either a fast prime or zoom lens in conjunction with using a higher ISO to capture handheld shots or a tripod for longer exposures.
When you’re finished shooting for the day, it’s time to head back to your hotel and backup your images.
For each trip, I create a new Lightroom catalog on my laptop. I then import the images into Lightroom, specifying that the images should be copied from my SD cards to an SSD hard drive plugged into my MacBook.
After the import, I copy these folders and the Lightroom catalog to a second SSD drive. I always keep these SSD hard drives in separate locations – one with me in my camera bag, and one in my luggage. As I review my shots in Lightroom, if there are any that I think are perfect for my needs or my client, I make another backup of those select images to DropBox. When I get home, I transfer the folders and Lightroom catalog from my laptop straight to my desktop computer.
I hope these tips will help you think about what you need to plan and research when you’re in a city for the first time on assignment.
Always remember, though, despite the amount of research and planning you do, things are often out of your hands. If you can’t get that iconic shot due to weather conditions, street closures, scaffolding or who knows what else, don’t beat yourself up too much about it. Instead, concentrate on other opportunities that you can capture while you’re there to make the most of your time.
Do you have any other tips you’d like to share on photographing a city in 48 hours? Share with us in the comments!