Photography Travel Safety Tips
How to Travel Safely As a Photographer
Traveling as a photographer, with your photography equipment in evidence presents its own sets of challenges when it comes to your personal safety and comfort. Carrying such equipment singles you out as someone who is not necessarily from the area, potentially making you a target for tourist fraud or theft. And not knowing the etiquette or rules of taking photographs in some places can lead you into dangerous situations or brushes with the law. Even not taking the right equipment can spoil an otherwise great travel experience.
Traveling as a photographer requires some forethought and planning, as well as knowing the possible pitfalls. In this article, you'll learn how to keep safe, well-organized, and knowledgeable as you travel with your camera.
Get insurance coverage for your photography equipment.Check whether or not your travel insurance covers your photography equipment. If not, seek additional insurance. It's never possible to know whether or not your equipment is safe – it might be stolen, lost, or broken at any part of your journey. Knowing that you're properly covered in the event of any of these things happening will ease the pain of losing your equipment a little. More importantly, knowing you've got insurance can also stop you from reacting in a foolhardy fashion and trying to defend your equipment if you're mugged.
- Type up a list of every photography item you're taking with you. Keep a copy in your email draft folder or in cloud storage, a printed copy with someone trusted back home and several printed copies on you in different places, such as your handbag and suitcase. These lists will help you to identify stolen or lost property quickly.
Have everything in order with your papers.Carrying a camera can sometimes raise a suspicion that you're a photo journalist or someone trying to document suspicious activities, and that can cause paranoid guards or police to be wary of you.
- Make sure that your passport is up-to-date with at least 6 months on it before expiry.
- Get all necessary visas prior to travel.
- Have all of your vaccinations before leaving, and be sure to include proofs in your papers.
Take the right photography gear with you.In some countries, you might not be able to just "pick up" things you forgot to bring, or there may be issues of compatibility or affordability involved. On the other hand, you don't want to overload yourself with non-essential gear. Plan in advance to be sure that you have each piece of that you know you'll actually need, as well as any suitable spares but no more. Some suggestions to consider include:
- Carry all suitable plug-ins and converters for the destinations you're headed for. If you're going to be in multiple countries, check online what you might need.
- Carry a small, portable and durable external hard drive. Some countries may not allow you to carry your computer with you and you will want a place to store your photographs safely. (Try to find out this information in advance.)
- Take the right type of camera for the type of trip you're taking. If you'll be snorkeling or diving, use a camera able to withstand being in water; same for wet jungle expeditions. If you're going somewhere very hot or cold, take the climatic conditions into account when deciding on the camera type. Remember that batteries won't work well, if at all, in many extreme weather temperatures, so you might need work-arounds.
- Be sure to pack your photography equipment correctly to avoid damage. This isn't only for during transportation but also when you're carrying it. Use straps if provided, especially if you scare easily or get excited; it can be easy to drop a camera in a moment of excitement at getting "just the right shot"!
- Invest in a travel tripod if you don't want to carry a larger one. These are very compact and can improve the quality of your shots considerably more than having nothing to lean on.
Travel safe.Traveling with photography equipment can set you apart as someone worth robbing, begging from, or bothering. The following safety ideas are aimed at reducing the chances of this happening:
- Avoid carrying your equipment in well-known, labeled photography bags. Thieves grow to know the sign of these very quickly and can target you easily. Instead, try to ease your camera into an ordinary , even if still encased in its proper bag. Modern plastic cameras with modest-sized lenses can take somewhat rough use and don't always need a special bag; keep a clear filter over the lens to avoid scratching it. For more stuff a diaper bag (for women) or a gym-type bag (for men) could be helpful; don't use a bag that could inadvertently be thrown away. This is more of a problem where there are lots of people and in countries, cities, or areas with low trust issues. A cooler is a very strong, inconspicuous hard case (some padding inside is appropriate) and protects its contents against impact and external heat for several hours, such as might be present each day in a car trunk. A latch would help prevent inadvertent dumping of contents.
- Travel with someone or as a group. When there is someone else with you, they can keep an eye out for you while you're busy lost in taking photos. They can also act as a deterrent to thieves or muggers when it's obvious that you're part of a pair or group.
- Stay alert. Even though part of the fun of photography is to lose yourself in seeing the beauty or the unusual around you, a traveling photographer needs to be alert on two levels – the first level is about staying alert for your safety, the second level being looking for the ideal shot. Only after you're reassured that you're safe should you take your photos.
- If you want to scout a place before taking photos, consider leaving the photography equipment back at the hotel safe while you do your check. That way, you can ponder and muse without having to be quite so alert to the possibility of your equipment being targeted.
- Look the part. Always act like you know what you're doing and where you're headed, even if you don't. Being confident is a huge part of being left alone by people looking for easy prey.
- If you have any suspicion at all that you're being followed, immediately seek help. Stop in a shop, latch onto a group of people, go into a restaurant, etc. Do whatever it takes to put the person off. Once you are located somewhere safer, call the police or friends to come and help you. Don't even think about taking out your photography gear!
- Don't risk your life and limbs. Is that crazy shot really worth dangling over the edge of the cliff or clambering out on a tightrope wire? Be a sound judge of your physical limitations and don't push them. Remember, you're holding equipment that you don't want to drop, and if something does go wrong, the momentary confusion between saving yourself or your equipment could be enough to lose both of you. Just don't risk it.
Learn and respect the local laws and social customs.Knowledge of local laws and customs can ensure that you don't put your foot in it.
- Some cultures detest or fear being photographed because they fear that the camera "steals their soul" (sympathetic magic or native cultural belief).Respect their beliefs even if you find it foreign or backward to your way of thinking. Other people are suffering from "tourist burnout"; they're frankly sick of people taking their photos every which way and find it invasive or even offensive. Always cease photographing any person who objects – that's plain good manners. Read up on every culture you'll encounter and want to photograph; that way you'll be able to avoid distressing anybody.
- Avoid treating individual people as if they're part of the backdrop or landscape. If you feel uncomfortable or arrogant in taking photos, listen to your feelings.Ask people if you can take a photograph of them individually or at work, play, etc. Consider how you would feel if somebody took photos of you without asking for permission as you're trying to run your market stall, or get on with your daily business. Not everybody appreciates the limelight but some people will be incredibly honored and you might even strike up a fruitful conversation, so it's always worth asking first, as a bit of considerate socializing can oil the wheels, so to speak. Another method for asking for permission suggested by Darren Rowse is to gesture to the camera, smile, and mime taking their photos with a quizzical look.You'll usually get an answer to this in affirmative because you bothered, but if it's a no, respect that.
- Be especially considerate when photographing children as the close-up subjects of your photo. It'd probably freak you out if someone drove up and took photos of your kids playing on the front lawn. Keep this in mind when taking shots of kids at play in their homes, and remember that for some cultures, the fear of soul-stealing is greater in relation to children, who are viewed as more fragile.You don't want angry parents tearing after you; seek to establish a relationship first before taking photographic liberties.
- Sometimes it pays to pay. Not everyone agrees with this but think about it: You've got the money, they've got the smile. Is this a case of standing on your principles, or of throwing a bit of your easy-earned cash to people living hard? Think it through carefully. Not doing so might lead to conflict if there's a general understanding in place that tourists cough up for photos. If you don't like making a payment, carry small gifts from your home country to appease people with, as suggested by Darren Rowse.
- Know the politics of a country before photographing anything that can be construed as politically sensitive. If you're in France and the students revolt, you're probably fine to take photos but if you're in a repressive country and you try the same, you might find yourself being rounded up by suspicious police. Use your common sense at all times.
- Always obey signs that ask you not to take photographs. They mean it. Religious establishments want you to respect their faith; law enforcement and government agencies want you to respect their government's idea of privacy and secrecy, from airports to nuclear facilities; commercial entities worry about their copyrights, trademarks, and confidentiality being breached; and places that have animals worry about the animals being disturbed, scared, or harmed by photography. There is usually a genuine reason behind these requests and there will usually be an equally swift response to you seeking to break their requests or laws. When you break an actual law, you risk having your camera equipment being removed from you and perhaps even being arrested. See "Tips" for examples of the types of places and occasions to be careful about when photographing.
Learn the basics of the language where you're traveling.Knowing some basic words goes a long way to being a polite photographer and will increase your chances of people agreeing to being photographed, or letting their home or artworks, etc., be photographed.
- Carry a phrasebook with you at all times. One that fits in your camera bag is a good idea.
- Try to learn the basic words for the area of photography that interests you most. For example, if you love photographing craft created by native peoples, learn the words for the craft items, such as baskets, clay pots, woven blankets, etc. If you love nature, learn the words for native trees and animals, etc.
- Always learn please, thank you, "you're welcome", "please help me", and "you're beautiful".
Do regular photo back-ups.Do your best to try to offload your photo collection as you travel, so that if something does go wrong, you don't lose the entire collection. Some ideas include:
- Mail home memory cards regularly. Try to use registered mail for this and pad really well. Send it to a family member or friend rather than your lonely mailbox back home.
- Download your photos onto a computer or other storage system if you're carrying such.
- Upload photos to cloud storage. This can be paid or free, although paid storage at this stage will likely be greater than free. If you really can't afford to maintain one paid account, open different accounts with different cloud storage sites to cover your needs. You'll need to have good records of where you've left them though, along with passwords and any decoy email accounts you've set up for this purpose. Keep in mind that photo exchange online can chew up your broadband allowance in some places and you may be asked to pay more.
Check travel advisories from your own country before venturing into countries in strife or with domestic problems.Wandering into strife-torn countries with a camera can be asking for trouble, especially if you're mistaken for a journalist.
||This video demonstrates the use of a bag that doesn't look like a camera bag, as well as offering advice about wearing a vest and paring down to the photography basics for travel.|
- Always keep emergency numbers on you. These should include your embassy or consulate, your hotel, the local law enforcement agencies, your family, and your airline. If you have friends or friends of friends in a country, also have their phone numbers, just in case.
- If a country has vice (morality) police, be extra vigilant about what you photograph. And be very careful if you're a woman; while you might feel safe and respected at home, unfortunately, not all countries carry the same level of respect and care for women, especially where authorities consider that you are flouting expected standards for women. Know the culture, know the rules, and know the general limitations. Being open-minded about a culture does not mean being blinded to its security or authoritarian/totalitarian aspects.
- Using your camera to keep tabs on receipts can be a useful way of ensuring that you have a back-up in case receipts are lost while traveling.
- If you're an American citizen, prior to your departure, register with the nearest embassy or consulate through the State Department ( travel registration website). Other countries might have the same registration system in place; ask your local foreign affairs department for advice.
- The following list suggests some places or occasions that, where the country is not known to you, you would do best to either not photograph, or to ask for permission to do so first: Airports, military bases, nuclear power facilities, goals, and demonstrations (manifestations). Naturally, this list is very country-dependent and you might be traveling somewhere that doesn't care one bit; if so, you've made a great choice but if not, be careful.
- If you're an American citizen, be sure to check the US Department of State () website for travel advisories. For other countries, check your local foreign affairs department or consulate websites for information relevant to your citizenship and travel advisories from your country's perspective.
- On arrival back home, do your legality and cultural checks again before uploading photos online. That delightful photo of a building could have you breaching a trademark. There are some very good sites online that will help you with the legal issues, although the more restrictive commercial legal issues tend to belong to developed countries rather than developing countries.
- If you intend to make a commercial profit from photographing individuals, artwork, or specific sites that are trademarked, get your lawyer's advice. For individuals, it is important to try to get their written permission or even filmed agreement, rather than assuming you've got the go ahead.
Things You'll Need
Suitable carrying bags
Photography equipment, pared down to the essentials
Visas, passport, etc.
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