Preparing For a Photo Trip: Ideas and Inspiration

“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Seneca

This month marks the beginning of a busy spring and summer where I’ll be taking several photo trips. My first stop is Istanbul for a month to work on my book of the city at dawn and to run a workshop at the end of April. Although I am dreading how much I will miss my kids (and my wife!), that sense of nervous excitement about setting off on one’s own for a long period of exploration is exciting.

I love finding beauty (in all of its forms) in the every-day. It’s quite poetic how interesting it is looking at people going about their lives, wherever you are.

Workers at The Trocedero © Anthony Epes 2015

I wanted to share how I get ready for a photo trip. I’ve got a lot to say so for this post I am concentrating on the preparation – both practical and mental prep – and then for the next post I’ll be looking at finding your subject when you are on the trip. But first…

Why traveling is good for your photography
“Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares, and the slavery of Home, man feels once more happy.” Sir Richard Francis Burton

Sometimes I like to think of the dawn rising all over the world but in vastly different places – dawn light filtering through the trees of the Amazon, and bathing the fisherman heading into the docks in Venice, as well as gently bringing the dark alley ways and ancient streets of Istanbul into the light. That this very same dawn that is gently cloaking my little South West London street in wintry sunlight could also be taking me to such vastly different places, makes me feel excited.

La Seine © Anthony Epes 2015

I feel that travel creates space in your mind away from the stresses of the day to day. And that space will always exist there. It will always be part of you. And that’s what creativity needs – mental space. You can’t create anything new or special when you are cluttering up your mind wondering when you are going to fit in the weekly trip to the supermarket or endlessly running through your presentation for a new client.

I always feel a little different when I return from one of my trips. I’ve added another little well of inspiration for my mind to draw upon. I’ve created another filter from which my mind will adjust and work and see things. It helps me lead a richer life every day, especially when I return home.

Get into the travel mindset
Going away on your own or with others to take photos is an exhilarating experience. But it’s not always straight forward, and negotiating different cultures, not speaking the language, finding yourself in weird situations can be intimidating.

So for me one of the biggest part of getting ready for a trip is the mental preparation. Getting into the mood, thinking about what I am going for, getting fully into the creative experience, learning about the local culture so I can relax into the experience when it finally arrives.

Be nervous…but not too nervous
Whenever I start working for a new client, or start a new book or project, I am insanely nervous. The nerves go after a while, and then come back when I hit a stumbling block or two, but then disappear. A bit like waves, that’s how my wife is encouraging me to see it. The adrenalin in this situation works for me. It keeps me alert and aware of my surroundings, and it helps keep me motivated. But if you get too nervous or overwhelmed, that’s a danger, so if this sounds like it could happen to you have your little mental tool kit at the ready. In mine there is meditation and reading complex sci-fi or history books – those chill me out in no time.

Canal St Martin © Anthony Epes 2015

Ditch your expectations
“Travel like Ghandi, with simple clothes, open eyes and an uncluttered mind.” Rick Steves

You’ve taken the time out of your busy life, you’ve spent money on the trip – you want to have an incredible experience and come back with unbelievable photos – right?

But expectations are often a pathway to hell. It reminds me of how whenever I am really excited for my kids to get home so we can have a lovely evening together, as soon as they get through the door all hell breaks loose. But when I am not thinking about it, when I have no expectations of them, it seems we are more likely to have a wonderful, relaxing evening together.

As long as you go through the process of preparing yourself, then whatever you come back with, it will be worth the experience. Any time you take time out for yourself to be creative is fuel and nourishment for the future – so abandon your expectations and just get on with doing what you love.

Surround yourself with inspiring things
I don’t really do anything else that’s creative. This blog-writing is the extent of my non-photo creativity (and even then the thoughts and ideas are mine, ie. the skeleton, but most of the words have been plucked out by my wife Diana) but if you do, do it! And seek out inspiration from other sources. Whatever the medium, the objective of art is all the same in my opinion – the examination of life. We are standing and watching and seeing so that others who don’t do this can see the world more clearly.

So go to art galleries, pick up a book by your favourite author – try to add more inspiring stuff to your brain than the brain sapping stuff (the news, your tax return… you know what depletes you and what fills you up).

Read (and watch documentaries)
Knowing what inspires you is really important for any creative practise. It means you can go to that well of inspiration on a regular basis. Some photographers get really inspired looking at other photos, and I do, but only up to a point. What gets me most inspired when I start a new city for my book series is my love of history, so for my work in Istanbul I’ve been reading Orphan Pamuk’s brilliant book ‘Istanbul’.  Here is an edited extract, which in itself explains much of the feeling of the city (‘For me it has always been a city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy.’ Pamuk writes.) I’ve also been reading the new edition of A History of the Arab Peoples as a way to get to know the region in a broader context.

When I spent several months in Paris my wife and I loved Parisians, in which author Graham Robb tells a series of ‘stories’ about impactful historical events of the city in a very fun and absorbing way. We really enjoyed Francesco’s Venice, a documentary series on the history of the city by Venetian architect and writer, Francesco da Mosto. You get the picture…

Sacre Coeur from Pigalle © Anthony Epes 2015

Find people to meet
I love being on my own, and am quite happy to wander for days and weeks on my own. But I know that the easiest way to get under the skin of a new place is to meet local people. So into every trip I do I build a few immediate ways I can get to know people.Airbnb is a great resource for places to stay with local people. In Rome my wife stayed at this awesome apartment which included the owners doing a free tour of the city at night. She got some insider tips on the city, great company and a lovely apartment. In the same trip my wife had dinner with an Australian woman she had met at a cafe in Soho who lived in Rome, they fell into conversation and six months later they were having a great meal at a very local restaurant in the city.

I also ask around in my friends’/work circle if anyone has any friends in the city I’m going to. I’ve found people are usually happy to share connections and everyone I’ve met through my circle has been wonderfully accommodating. People are usually proud of their home and love to show visitors around.

There are also photo clubs in most cities or perhaps you’re a member of an organisation with international links. But perhaps the easiest way to meet people is just to be there. If you missed it my last blog was on how to photograph strangers, which is often how I meet locals.

The Painters © Anthony Epes 2015

Know where the rough parts are
As I’ve said I am a fan of wandering, and I do feel more relaxed than most, I’d say, wandering the streets at weird hours. My wife is the opposite and takes precaution to strange levels. Probably somewhere between the two of us is the approach most normal people should take.

I’ve had a couple of altercations, and both were down to my lack of preparation. The first time I came to London was in 2000. I was wandering out at dawn and wandered straight into King Cross, which was a lot rougher then,  and I almost got stabbed by some crazy homeless guy on crack. I felt like a total naive lost tourist.

In Barbes, in Paris, I was in the local African market and started to photograph some people who were involved in some not very legal selling of bags and things. I immediately got several people surrounding me and shouting at me very aggressively.‘It’s illegal to photograph us! Stop it!’ So I did.

So wherever I go I do a little research and ask around – Anywhere I shouldn’t be going? Any time I shouldn’t be going? Anyone I shouldn’t try and photograph? Just to have that in your little bag of knowledge is reassuring and lets you wander with more confidence. Get yourself acquainted with the culture.  Learn the norms.

And lastly, a few quick practical tips:

  • Get to know your camera: even if you are going on a photo workshop or tour getting familiar with your kit allows you to hit the ground running. Ideally you want to use your time with your instructor learning things you can’t easily glean from your camera manual. (** I know lots of people hate reading camera manuals, and I get it. So just do what you can. Or just play around with your kit. Go out and shoot and see what you get stuck on and what you don’t**)
  • Pack light: take the bare essentials of what you need. Take what you need but be ruthless.
  • Portable hard drives are essential
  • Plus: a plastic bag for your camera in case it rains, a hat or visor for when you are walking/shooting against the sun (not for style), a torch if you are doing any very early or very late shooting, spare camera batteries. I am always with my tripod
  • Insure your kit! Vital.

Prepared to be surprised
All of the photos on this post are from my Paris at Dawn book. I am kinda in love with that book, partly because I think it’s some of my best work I’ve done recently, but also because I was blown away by Paris once I had thrown off my preconceptions about it being a pretty, dainty, uniform…a little bit of a boring city, which is what I had seen on my weekend trips there with my wife (I like a little bit of grit as many of you will know). Once I really explored the city, and really looked at the life in the city my whole perception changed. Humans have an amazing capacity to do weird, interesting and crazy stuff with their lives. Which leads into the next weeks blog post on finding your subject…

If you have any questions please feel free to email me, I love hearing from you.

And I’d love to hear how you prepare for a photo trip, do comment if you have any tips to share.

Happy photographing!