Tips To Become The Ultimate Traveling Photographer
We live in a digital age where we can showcase our work to possible clients all around the world, but what’s the point if we cannot shoot for clients outside of our home market once in awhile? Following Andrew Link’s post on creating a perfect travel light kit, here’s an article with tips on how to travel as a professional photographer effectively. As a commercial photographer and filmmaker, I travel over 100k miles a year on assignment and have learned valuable lessons. I hope this list of tips helps make your shoots which require flying to a location more seamless.
WHO PAYS FOR WHAT?: Many photographers have asked me about this subject. Do clients reimburse you for your travel expenses (bags, flights, hotels, food)? Well, yes and no. It honestly depends on the budget or type of client you’re dealing with. I’ve done band promo shoots for major labels and where they want me to fly across the country to do a shoot for X amount of dollars all-inclusive. I’ve also have magazines do the same thing and I have to fight to get additional travel budget. This obviously can really affect your profits. Make sure to ask your client politely early on if they will be covering travel expenses. In many occasions, if they like you and your work they will find a way to chip in extra for your fees. For example, clients often forget not only do I need a flight and hotel but also a rental car, gas and a per diem (I usually charge $50-100 a day depending on region). Let’s not forget baggage fees. My baggage fees alone cost about $300-600 depending on the airline. Be prepared to charge about $500-1000 MINIMUM for travel on a 1-2 day shoot if you take into consideration transport to and from the airport (taxis or airport parking), rental cars, gas, tolls, food, flight, hotel, bag fees, etc.
I want to add that some of you may not need as much gear as I do. Over the past 10 years I have built a kit that does everything I want it to. I know where everything is and how it performs. Not every market has all the lighting modifiers I need. I know baggage fees are expensive, but thankfully clients pay me because they want a certain style or look and are willing to pay a bit extra. Every shooter is different. Some of you can fit everything in a backpack, some of you may rent locally. My style of photography requires a lot of gear.
FLY IN A DAY EARLY: If you can help it, it’s very important to come into town a day early. Having an extra day means you are able to scout locations and meet with the client and your local crew. Sometimes my lighting equipment bags get lost or help up and coming in a day early gives me time to rent gear locally or wait for my bags to come in on a later flight. What if your flight is cancelled? You have a little bit of buffer to catch that next flight and still make the shoot on time (hopefully). Trust me, if the budget allows you should really come in that day before. I make it a personal policy to try and do that for every travel job.
WHAT TO PACK AND WHAT TO CARRY: An old college professor of mine gave the best advice. He said to never check your camera into luggage. First of all… theft. Secondly, if your luggage doesn’t show, you can always make do with SOMETHING as long as your have your camera and lenses with you. When overhead bin space is full in the plane (aka my Think Tank Airport Security bag won’t fit) you have a few options.
I will normally check my lights, which are in a Pelican 1650 case that I’ve travelled with issue-free for about 500k miles. I also check my light stands and softboxes. As I mentioned in earlier, if your lights and stands don’t show up, you can always make do or rent/borrow lights locally as long as you have your camera with you. Try and keep your bags under 50 lbs when possible. This will save you a lot of money. If you have a bag over 70lbs you will be paying serious cash.
Some airlines offer a bag discount to professional photographers and production companies if you show them your card or press badge. I believe American Airlines is still offering such discounts but US Air and United do not. Before you book, look at the baggage policy of a particular airline.
FREQUENT FLIER PROGRAMS: Frequent flier programs are not to be taken lightly. Earning miles and getting status in an airline will not only earn you free flights, but it can save you big bucks in the long run. For example, if you fly 25k miles a year with US Air or United, you become Silver Preferred status. This means you always get to be one of the first people to board, you get your first bag checked free, and they even upgrade you to first class when seats are available. If you do get upgraded to first class, your first 2 bags are free. You also get to go in the shorter first class/premium line at security. If you fly 50k miles a year, you can hit Gold status with US Air or United (similar programs and levels with most of the other airlines). That means my first 3 checked bags are free. This would literally save me over $10k a year! There isn’t a single airline that will fly everywhere, so focus on at least two airlines get to their “status” level (silver, gold, diamond, platinum, etc). Most airlines will give you a 15-20% mileage bonus on every flight you take when you reach status with their frequent flier program.
HOTELS: Much like frequent flier programs, most hotels chains frequent stay programs. You can earn free nights, discounts, free room upgrades, and extreme early check-ins and check-outs. I’m status member with the Marriott and they let me check in at 10am if there’s a room available and checkout at 2 or 3pm if I really need it. Not bad when you’re on no sleep and/or need a place to store your gear when you’re not on set.
Shop around. There’s a lot of great deals to be had on travel sites like orbitz.com and apps like “hotel tonight.” Don’t forget your AAA card. That can save you upwards of $100 a night!
HOW TO GET THE BEST RENTAL CAR RATES: Sign up for corporate accounts! For example, Enterprise offers discounted rates, free rentals, free upgrades, priority rental lines at the airport desk, and waives under 25 driver fees. Oh, and if you are over 18, but under 25, Enterprise is one of the easiest rental companies to deal with, but you will have to pay more unless you have a corporate account. The other rental car companies also offer similar programs.
Shop around as well. Despite my corporate accounts, I do hit up Orbitz.com to see if any rental company is having a crazy price drop special, which does happen more often than you’d think.
Think you might want to upgrade to a larger vehicle? Ask your rental person [in person] if they have any upgrade specials. They usually have some sort of luxury or SUV class that they are trying to unload because everyone is renting the cheaper smaller vehicles. Believe it or not, I have verbally negotiated a price for a full-size SUV when I decided to upgrade. Do not be afraid to say that you’re only willing to pay $10 or $15 more a day. They may say they can’t do that, but may be able to meet you half way.
I actually wrote a full blog post on rental car deals on my personal site. Check it out.
HOW DO YOU HIRE CREW & LOCATION SCOUT FROM THOUSANDS OF MILES AWAY WITHOUT A BUDGET FOR A SCOUT?: Social media is your friend. I’ve used twitter and my facebook photography page to reach out to people for location advice. You can also reach out to the chair-members of the local photography trade associations for advice and crew recommendations. It has never steered me wrong. Embrace forums and social media folks. It’s what I have used to find everything from locations, to studio spaces on a budget, to a chinese parade dragon in LA with 2 days notice.
Another great resource for crew and locations is the local film permit offices. For example, Miami has a great list of locations on their film office website. Not every film permit office has a great website but by all means call them and ask for advice. You may be surprised. One time I needed a bank vault location for a shoot and called the permit office in Washington DC. They actually made calls for us and found an old vault in the back of a fishing supply store that was more than happy to help. Google images and google maps are also great resources. I’ve used it to map out regions or try and get great perspectives of particular landmarks or buildings in a background.
BACKUP!: If you are shooting or saving to a laptop, always download the files to a separate hard drive that you keep in a separate place from your laptop (maybe your camera bag? you can also Fedex it to your home). This is in case tragedy strikes such as fire, destruction, theft, or loss. Not only have you lost your files and money but you’ve also got an unhappy client that could result in the loss of jobs in the future.
WHERE TO SHIP GEAR OR SUPPLIES WHEN ON THE ROAD: Concerned where to have a stylist ship clothing? Having Borrowlenses send you rental gear? Don’t trust your hotel. Ship it to an authorized Fedex or UPS location. Most “staffed” Fedex locations will sign for packages and hold them for you. Last week I was flying into Alabama for a job and needed a few extra GoPros. I had BorrowLenses ship the cameras and batteries to a Fedex location under my name. All I had to do was bring my ID and pick it up!
INSURANCE: One final note here. DO NOT TRAVEL WITHOUT PHOTOGRAPHY INSURANCE. Not only is it important to cover yourself in case something bad happens to you or your gear on the road (theft, damage, injury) but you cannot get a location permit, rent gear from most reputable production houses, or rent studios without insurance coverage. Most places will ask for a written proof of insurance or ask to be added as “additional insured” for a certain time period. This is fairly common and normal. If you’ve gotten to a point where you sometimes fly to jobs, you should be investing in insurance. It is not as expensive as you’d think. In the United States I am using Hill & Usher to provide my insurance.
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I’m sure I have missed a few great tips. I would love your input on traveling abroad. If you have anything to add please comment below! If it’s good I’ll add it to the list with credits!
You may also enjoy this previous post by Nicole Fallek regarding international travel: Tips For Travelling Abroad On A Budget By Photographer Nicole Fallek