Planning the Perfect Photo Vacation

by Bret Edge | June 1, 2010

© Bret EdgeI’m a serial planner. In the weeks leading up to a trip I obsess over maps and guidebooks, and I spend inordinate amounts of time on Google searching for photos and information about my chosen destination. Some call it a sickness. I call it, well…a sickness. But if anything good may come of this disease, it’s that I know how to plan a photography trip. And now, I’m sharing my hard won knowledge with you so that your next trip will be the best one ever.

1) Identify a Location

This is the easiest and occasionally, the hardest part. It’s easy because the earth is literally littered with amazing locations to visit and photograph. But, narrowing down your options to only one can be daunting. I find that it helps to consider the season. Summer means wildflowers in the mountains and warm weather on the coast. Fall brings colorful foliage that starts in the mountains in September and ends in the desert in November. Maybe you’re looking to escape winter’s grip? Head to Florida or the Sonoran Desert. Every location is associated with an optimal season for photography. It also helps to factor in the length of time available for your trip. If you’re looking for a quick weekend getaway you’ll probably look closer to home than if you’ve got two weeks to fill.

Colter Bay, Grand Teton National Park © Bret Edge

Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park

2) Research the Location

Congratulations! You’ve decided where to go. Now what? I often wonder how I planned trips in the dark, pre-internet days. Now I just hop online and make lodging reservations, learn about local restaurants, buy airline tickets, identify prime locations for photography and more. It’s all in the internet. Let’s say you’re headed to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. I might Google “Grand Teton photography” for some location ideas. You’ll find thousands of photos of the most popular locations like Schwabacher Landing and Snake River Overlook. You’ll also find photos of lesser known locations like Colter Bay. You may even find information about where and when to photograph wildlife babies in the spring. Once you discover a few locations Google them by name to learn where they are, whether they’re best at sunrise or sunset, how difficult they are to access and everything else you’ll need to know. Something we all need to know is when and where the sun will rise and set. Fortunately, it’s easy to find out for free at the U.S. Naval Observatory website. Online photography forums like NatureScapes are full of people with valuable local information who are willing to share it freely. Join a forum and don’t be shy. Ask questions about a location and you’re virtually guaranteed several answers from reliable sources.

As a guidebook and map junkie, part of the research I do on any location involves buying a topo map and a guidebook to the area. The topo map is great for identifying sunrise and sunset opportunities. My favorite maps are the National Geographic Trails Illustrated series. They’re on waterproof, plasticized paper that doesn’t tear and won’t fall apart when wet. Not every location has a guidebook written for photographers but most popular locations, especially national parks, will have a hiking guidebook to the area. These will help you plan hikes to scenic locations that are within your ability level.

If you’d rather not devote hours to researching your destination, you might consider hiring a photography guide to get you to the right spots at the right time. Guiding fees vary, but I’ve seen them as low as $200/day and as high as $2,500/day. If you decide to hire a guide be sure to let them know what your interests and physical abilities are and ask questions about what your guide fee covers, i.e. transportation, park entry fees, image critiques, field instruction, etc. Some popular spots, like Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley, may even require that you be accompanied by a local guide.

3) Getting Around

So far we know where we’re going and what to photograph when we get there. The next step is to determine what type of transportation you’ll need to get around the area. Some areas popular with photographers, like White Pocket in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, are very remote and only accessible by four wheel drive. Others offer paved roads and mostly roadside viewpoints. Find out what government agency manages the area and call them to find out what kind of vehicle you’ll need. Some national parks, like the Grand Canyon and Zion, run shuttle buses during peak season. If an area you want to photograph is served only by shuttle you’d be wise to get a copy of the shuttle schedule to ensure that you can arrive on-location before the sweet light arrives.

4) What to Pack

Obviously, nature photographers spend a lot of time outside. It’s important to bring the right clothing and gear to keep you comfortable and safe while you’re photographing. It’s also helpful to know whether it will be worth the effort to lug that enormous 600mm f/4 lens all the way across the country. Since you’re calling the rangers to inquire about transportation you may as well ask them what kind of weather to expect while you’re there. Most people don’t associate July and August in Moab with needing a jacket but that’s when the monsoons roll through, and a waterproof jacket should be in your suitcase. A little more research reveals that migrating birds populate Moab in March and April, and if you haven’t done your research, you’ll really be wishing you had that long lens you “didn’t need” back home.

Some things I bring on every trip are extra camera batteries and memory cards, a sensor cleaning kit, battery charger and, when available, an extra camera body I learned this lesson the hard way as I once spent 7 days at Mount Rainier during prime wildflower season while my only camera was being serviced by Canon thanks to a complete system failure. Yes, it was torture.

Mount Rainier © Bret Edge

Mount Rainier

5) On the Ground

Woo hoo! Vacation has finally arrived and you’re on the ground at your destination. After you’ve set up camp or checked into the hotel, head over to the visitor center (if there is one). Postcards are a cheap and valuable resource that you’ll find at all visitor centers and most convenience stores in tourist towns. I’m not suggesting that you should mindlessly photograph the same scene. Rather, they’re a great way to see what others have photographed and get additional location ideas. Visitor centers are also a great place to find guides that aren’t sold outside of the local businesses.

Take a car tour through the area with your topo map and compass close at hand. See something that looks promising? Pull over and explore the area on foot. Use your map and compass to determine where the sun will rise or set in relation to your potential subject. Talk to the rangers. Nobody knows the area better than those who are sworn to protect it. Don’t be afraid to ask where to find a bear or moose, a perfect field of wildflowers or their favorite place to fuel up when the sun goes down. Most rangers will offer suggestions openly.

Use the middle of the day to scout additional locations. Get out of your car and hike to an alpine lake, a waterfall or the edge of a deep canyon. I’m often pleasantly surprised at what I find by getting off the beaten path. Summer in Yellowstone and Yosemite can be miserable as you find yourself stuck in traffic jams or waiting in a ridiculous line for awful snack bar food. Walk a mile down virtually any trail and you’ll leave 99% of the crowds behind. You may also find a stunning view of Half Dome that you’ve never seen photographed before!

Use these tips to plan your next photographic adventure and you’ll be surprised at how much more productive you are on-location. As you gain experience planning trips you’ll soon discover just how easy it is to take a last minute weekend trip to some glorious location with your camera in hand. Happy travels!

Grand Canyon © Bret Edge

The Grand Canyon

About the Author

Bret Edge is a nature and adventure photographer in Moab, Utah. His interest in photography evolved as an extension of his life long passion for the outdoors. He is an avid hiker, backpacker, mountain biker and canyoneer. A visit in 1999 to an exhibit featuring photographs by Ansel Adams, Jack Dykinga and David Muench stoked Bret's creative fire such that he immediately purchased his first SLR camera, a Canon Rebel. In the years since, he has traveled extensively throughout the American West creating a diverse portfolio of dynamic images.

Bret's work has appeared in magazines, calendars, travel guides and advertising campaigns. His clients include Backpacker magazine, Popular Photography, the Utah Office of Tourism, Charles Schwab & Co. and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

While Bret enjoys seeing his work in print, he receives the most satisfaction by helping others realize their potential as photographers. He accomplishes this by leading several group workshops each year and guiding photographers on private photo excursions. For information about his workshops and guided excursions, visit To view a collection of Bret's images, visit

Bret lives in Moab with his wife, Melissa, their son Jackson, and two All-Terrain Pugs named Bierstadt and Petunia.

Post a Comment

Logged in as Anonymous