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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Anatomy of a travel photography assignment part 1

I hope everybody had a great weekend and last Friday's post whet your appetite for what's coming up this week. As promised I'm going to spend the next five days going through in detail what's involved in a professional travel photography assignment. I'll talk about the equipment I took, the hurdles I jumped through, the logistics of organising everything and show some pictures along the way.

For this assignment I chose a trip I took to Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia. I chose this one for a a couple of reasons. It was reasonably short at only 4 1/2 days (which is often typical of these kinds of assignments) and I wanted to show you how much work you need to cram into a tiny space.

The second reason is that it was for one of my all time favourite editors, Janet McGarry of Backpacker Essentials magazine. Janet gave me my first big break when she published not one, but two of my first ever travel article packages. One on trekking in Nepal and the other on Travel Photography. Doesn't seem like nearly 10 years ago does it Janet?

Originally Janet gave me a call in January to see if I wanted to go up there in April. However a giant cyclone came through in February and wiped out half the national park and a week before I was due to head out the accommodation still hadn't been rebuilt! So it got put off until June. Always be prepared to change plans at the drop of a hat.

The magazine had given me a list of tours they definitely wanted me to go on and cover. So I had a rough itinerary of stuff I definitely need to photograph in my four days in the park. It involved a tour (or two) on every day and had meout and about from roughly half past six in the morning till five in the afternoon.

As is often the case with magazine assignments you really need to plan your photography down to the last minute. With all these tours planned I knew I needed to work out what I could photograph before and after the tours. I needed to find out what there was to see in the park that I didn't go to on tour and whether they faced east or west (to determine whether it was a sunrise or sunset shot). So started the research on the web and in various books from the library.

When you get an assignment you always want to look at ways you can go above and beyond what is asked of you. Sure I could have just gone on the tours and photographed that and would have come back with a nice story. But by working a little harder you can make sure you get images that, while not necessarily requested directly, will make a stand-out article, as opposed to something run of the mill.

One of the best ways of finding what there is to photograph is to look at other photographs of the area. Picture books are great because you can bet that the photographer has timed their arrival for the perfect time of day. When you arrive on location head to the local postcard racks. They might be cliched but they can show you the must-photograph sites.

The research took a few days and I roughed out an itinerary which I completely needed to change within the first few hours! But at least I had it. :)

In terms of equipment I took my standard travel kit (minus lighting). I took a Canon EOS 20D, a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f3.4-4.5, a Canon 28-70mm f2.8 L series zoom, a Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L Series zoom, a Canon 400mm f5.6 L series zoom, a couple of Canon extenders - 1.4x and 2x, a macro extender, a complete set of polarising filters (one for each lens), a Cokin filter set containing a couple of ND filters and a couple of half ND filters. I also threw in a 580EX flash, a flash extender cord, cable release and my trusty Manfrotto tripod. And this all fit into my Lowepro Mini Trekker backpack. Oh and a bunch of model releases in the front pocket! You'll see why in a couple of days.

For storage of the digital files I took an 80GB portable hard drive (pd70x) and, unusually for me, a laptop to back stuff up. I don't usually carry a laptop because I find them too bulky and annoying but because I knew I'd be coming back to a hotel every night, and had a hire car, I took one with me. Add to that various rechargers, cords and cables and my paraphernalia was complete.

So equipment and itinerary taken care of I then had to organise permissions. Getting the right permits is often the biggest, most time consuming part of the job. Most states in Australia require professional photographers to obtain a permit for any photography in National Parks. Kakadu is no different and I had to submit various forms, including a letter from my assigning editor, outlining where I intended to go and what I intended to photograph. Once all that was submitted I then had to attend a one hour national parks briefing once I had arrived on-site.

I also knew I would be visiting an aboriginal community in Arnhem Land so I contacted them in advance to make sure I would have permission to photograph there. Often indigenous peoples like to know when their pictures are intended to be published, and how they are to be portrayed. When you visit as a tourist you don't need to think about stuff like permits but when you do this for a living it becomes a major part of the job.

So, as you can see, a lot of the work happens before you even leave. I had worked out what time I would have to get out on my own and photograph. I had a map in my head of the layout of the park so I knew how to get where I needed to. I had my equipment all sorted, and the permissions all OK. The magazine had already organised my plane, hire car and accommodation for me so all I needed to do was hand over my boarding pass, kiss the wife and kids goodbye and head off...

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