Learn Center: Travel and Packing Tips for the Busy Season

About David H. Wells

Web: www.davidhwells.com
Blog: www.thewellspoint.com
Twitter: @thewellspoint

Portrait: David H. Wells

Olympus Visionary David H. Wells is a freelance photographer, based in Providence, Rhode Island. Using Olympus cameras, his specialty is in-depth photo-essays for publications and exhibitions. His work also emphasizes intercultural communications and the use of light and shadow to enhance visual narratives. An Olympus Visionary since April 2011, he is currently affiliated with Aurora Photos of Portland, Maine.

David’s work has been published as portfolios in American Photographer, Camera and Darkroom, Camera Arts, Communication Arts Photography Annual, Graphis: The Human Condition, Photo District News, Photo Magazine (France), Photographers International (Taiwan) Zoom (Italy). His work has won awards from Pictures of the Year, the Sunday Magazine Editors Association Competition, American Photographer, Society of Newspaper Design and SocialDocumentary.net.

As a photographer, my work is heavily influenced by the seasons. Spring, summer, autumn and winter are the obvious seasons that affect what and how I photograph. In my professional photography work, there are also seasons of sorts. I have busy seasons with a lot of travel and quiet seasons when I can be at home catching up and preparing for the next busy season. When summer ends and my annual busy season (September to May) looms, I think about how I should pack for that time and write down some tips:

1)   Pack your gear like you pack your clothes:

Someone smarter than I once said, “When preparing to travel, lay out all of your clothes and all of your money. Then take half of the clothes and twice of the money." I have always interpreted that quote to mean that the few clothes you need are important and the rest of the clothes are what most people carry “just in case.” Substitute “camera gear” for “clothes” and you will see how I pack. I have core gear that I use every day when I am photographing, so that comes every time. Anything else that comes along really has to be warranted. Saying, “I might use it,” is the surest way to bring along too much stuff, most of which will not be used. Also, having extra money on location is often very important to hire a driver, buy someone a meal or take a more comfortable bus in order to be ready for the next day’s shoot.

2)   Divide and conquer:

Divide the gear you really need into two piles. One pile is the stuff you must have and that goes in your carry-on bag. The gear that you have to back up the primary gear often can be placed in your checked baggage. The best examples of this are the battery chargers and the various cords that I carry with me. In almost all cases, I have two of each. I cannot risk having no charged batteries, so I carry two chargers with me wherever I go. Having said that, since no charger has ever failed me (yet), I gamble by putting my backup charger(s) in my checked bags. By dividing the gear, I conquer the problem of overly heavy (and unwieldy) carry-on bags.

3)   Systemize your gear on your belt, in your bag or on your person:

When I am out photographing, every piece of gear I use has a place on my person. When I am done using that same piece of gear it goes back to the same place. The point of this is so I can find that piece of gear in a hurry the next time I need it. My flash cards are organized in the card wallet a certain way and I never deviate from that system. Sometimes, when I am in a hurry to change a card and I am tempted to just stuff the card (with pictures) into the wrong place, like a shirt pocket, I actually mumble to myself, “Stick with the system. The system is good. The system has worked well all of these years.” By the time I am done mumbling, the old card is securely stored where it should be, so I know it has images on it and the new card is ready to go in the camera.

4)   Learn from other travelers:

As photographers, we have an almost hard-wired tendency to look at the gear other photographers use. I am as guilty as anyone in this account. The difference is that I rarely look at cameras. I look at bags, clips, ties and all of the other tools and accessories photographers use to carry, organize and protect their gear. Many of the “toys” that I see are created by photographers/entrepreneurs and then widely marketed and disseminated. As interesting as those are, I am as captivated by the technologies that individual photographers create to solve their various problems. The best of those individual solutions often become the best of the mass-market products, years later.

5)   The best tripod is the tripod you have with you:

I have blogged and podcasted extensively about how I use a tabletop tripod to hold my camera steady during longer exposures. The art of using the table-top tripod is finding a wall, post, counter, mail-box or phone booth to press the tripod against in order to have it stable for the long exposure. A conventional tripod certainly works better, especially in an open area without walls, etc., to rest the tripod on. Having said that, a conventional tripod is so big and unwieldy that no one actually carries one around all the time. The table-top tripod threads into the bottom of most cameras and can be partly folded away so it is not in the way. That way, it is always with you; and to steal a line from Chase Jarvis, the best tripod is the tripod you have with you.

6)   Carry more than one camera:

Carrying more than one camera can vastly improve your photographic practice. Often the best way to switch lenses, change to a new empty flash card or get to a camera with a higher (or lower) ISO setting in a hurry, is to switch the actual camera you use. These days you can usually switch between a camera set for making stills and a camera set for making video more rapidly by changing the actual camera than changing the settings on the same camera. The second camera also serves as a backup in case the first fails. I actually had two cameras fail in one day in Guatemala and had to finish out the shoot with the third (old) camera that I had. But I had a third with me and so I pulled it off. Most people who use more than one camera at a time use an older, less expensive model for the second or backup body.

7)   Maximize shooting time in order to minimize post production time:

What I enjoy the most is actually being out photographing. What I enjoy least is sitting in front of the computer. So, I work hard to maximize the former and minimize the latter. The key to that, for me, is to do as much as possible to get my pictures just right in the camera so I do not have to do any work after the fact on the computer. I shoot RAW files in order to get the very best image quality, which is key for publication work, the core of my business. The key to a good RAW file, and the resulting final image, is proper exposure. So I work very hard to get my exposure just right, for the RAW file. That often means that the JPG I view on the back of the camera looks over exposed, but that is normal. I also photograph the same situation many, many different ways. Ideally, horizontally and vertically, from the left and right, from above and below, with a wide angle and a telephoto, zoomed in close and backed off wide, as well as with many different points of focus. That means that I will not have to spend valuable time on the computer, cropping the image. Rather, I can look over the whole set of images and pick out the one or two that say exactly what I want to say. A few extra minutes of photographing on location can save me hours of time on the computer.

8)   Utilize the day efficiently: Wells Point

Though much of my photography involves spontaneous discoveries that I make (and photograph) while I am out working, the way my typical day of photographing plays out is not even remotely spontaneous. I work hard to be very efficient in using my time by building my days around what I call the “Wells Points.” The “Wells Point” is that time in the morning (or the evening) when the sun is at a 45 degree angle. At that moment, the shadow cast by an object is the same size as the object. For example, a parking meter that is four-feet high will cast a shadow that is four-feet long. If the shadow is longer than the object casting the shadow then that is the “good” light. If the shadow is shorter, that is the “bad” light. In between the morning and afternoon, “Wells Points” is the bad mid-day light, which is when I do my utmost to avoid photographing. It is a good time for portraits in the open shade, phone calls, emails, appointments, napping or having a coffee. Assuming I am working in a sunny place, I photograph from sunrise (or maybe before) through the morning “Wells Point.” In the afternoon, I photograph from the afternoon “Wells Point” until twilight and even into the night if I am working in a place with a lot of activity after dark.

9)   Perform after-action reviews:

In the military, they perform after-action reviews, which include:

“… a structured review or de-brief process for analyzing what happened, why it happened, and how it can be done better, by the participants and those responsible for the project or event. After-action reviews in the formal sense were originally developed by the U.S. Army….Their use has extended to business as a knowledge management tool and a way to build a culture of accountability.” Read more at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/After_action_review

The idea is to sit down and analyze exactly what you did while you were photographing, what worked, what did not and why. If you are doing such an after-action review, you are not trying to find fault with your working strategy as a photographer. What you are trying to do is figure out what works and what does not. A few of these reviews, if carefully done, are the quickest way to lighten your camera bag because paying attention to how you work is the quickest way to figure out which gear you need (and which you rarely use, if ever).


I photograph across the globe for a myriad of clients, so I travel a lot. The more efficient I am with my packing, planning and organizing, the less time I spend doing all of the “other” stuff and the more time I spend photographing.

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