Towards the end of September, I’ll be heading off on a photography tour to China for a week of shooting in the idyllic and popular Xiapu region, (well, popular within China, but maybe a little unheard of in the rest of the world) which boasts some of the most impressive traditional lifestyle, minimalist landscape photography I have yet to find. As such, I thought it might be a good idea to share some of my thoughts, strategies and preparation ideas with regards to photography trips. After all, everyone does these things differently, and possibly by sharing some of my tips around, you can get some basic help with anything from logistics to location planning to what gear to take.
The first thing to note is that making a rigid plan, especially one revolving around specific images from specific locations, can be a bit limiting. It’s not uncommon, for example, for a photographer to plan an entire trip around a single photograph they saw online, but any location has far more to offer than just one image. Being too rigid and arriving in a place with a lot of expectations can be a barrier to creative photography. Not to mention the pressure and expectations you place upon yourself in trying to grab that one image, which is contingent on favourable conditions and has no guarantee of being fulfilled. I have found that it’s better to have a general plan and itinerary, but also to stay completely open to unforeseen opportunities. That way you can make the most out of the money and time invested. Personally, I like the surprises. My best photographs have never come directly from research but from being open to the unexpected; always keep this in mind!
The Basics of Preparation
You’d be surprised how much work can be done before heading off on a trip. The first step is finding inspiration, which doesn’t require anything specific. Catching sight of an alluring landscape or image online, on TV, or in a magazine is how most people start. From there, it’s up to you what approach to take. I prefer to delve deeper into exploring a location to ascertain everything I might need to know about what I’ll find and what I might be able to accomplish, although a lighter touch is common, and perhaps more popular. While I think there is nothing wrong with this approach, and it may get you some shots you want, more often than not the outcome is not satisfying for those opting to go beyond creating mere memorial pictures. Attempting to capture a more unique and original image, for me, is even more enthralling. For this approach though, it is imperative to try not to look too much at the work of others, but approach the whole thing as a personal artistic project.
Once you know generally where and what you want to see and photograph you need some more specific information. Photography guides are often an excellent place to start. The author typically provides much of the information a photographer needs about high potential sites for both iconic and more original photography. Hiking guides, maps, and online research can be helpful in finding places that might have potential too, but are less well known by photographers. By consulting a range of sources, I am able to come up with some ideas about how I want to spend my time. Also, they can provide possible backups if things on location aren’t panning out so well.
Today we are fortunate to have a myriad of apps and websites at our fingertips. Downloading and bookmarking on our phones for onsite references helps to make the most out of a trip. Just about everyone will be familiar with google earth; we’ve all found our own homes, and those of friends and family, but scratch a little deeper and there are hundreds of snapshots taken and tagged to locations all over the globe. Here you can find loads of inspiration to further your research.
After that, I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE). This desktop map-based app is free to use but for the phone app, you'll need to dig into your pockets. I find it easier to plan on the desktop; then it’s just a click to sync all the locations to your phone. You can use this for planning years in advance for the position of the sun and moon at any given minute of the year. To plan a shot, you need to identify both the camera and the subject on the map. You are able to adjust the map by panning around and zooming in and out to check precise locations while getting a sense of the overall shot setup. It will also show the way the shadows are cast across the land and at what times of the day certain aspects of the landscape will be illuminated or shaded. It can all be worked out without leaving the comfort of your home. I have recently come across a new app called Photo Pills. Although I am relatively new to the platform, on first impressions I am finding it to be a much more intuitive photography app than TPE and an all-around fantastic system. In particular, the ability to use it offline is a serious draw (some of the best landscapes I’ve ever seen are remote, for example, I didn't find too much internet in the middle of the Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia). Follow the links and have a look for yourselves.
For coastal locations, it’s all about the tides. The app stores have an overwhelming choice but I generally use My Tide Times, for uncomplicated and accurate info. I have found that shooting seascapes
with regards to what is and isn’t revealed by different tide heights needs more than one visit. Checking online and maybe asking questions of fellow photographers who have visited is probably best if they have images that have inspired you in the first place.
In-depth location information is also important. I save key GPS coordinates for specific spots I want to visit for scouting in Map Marker, or I use this a lot on the fly if I see something that might work in the future in more favourable weather conditions. That way, I can take a quick phone shot and tag it on the map with a brief description of what I was thinking at the time, for a more elaborate shot later.
Finally, accurate and up to date weather information (as we all know) is vital. Amazingly, the best and most accurate one I have found was recommended by a friend. It’s a Norwegian based app but I have found it to be more accurate in various places around the world than any of the local sites. It’s free and can be found here. https://www.yr.no/en.
Putting Theory into Practice in China.
Once I saw a few shots of Xiapu, I researched the place immediately and fell in love with it. In China itself, Xiapu ranks as one of the top 10 photography locations and holds the largest mudflat in the country. The incoming and outgoing tide constantly transforms the landscapes, creating the potential for incredible diversity in the images. In this upcoming trip I hope to be able to react to whatever I come up against, and at this time of year (autumn) it’s all about the vast stretches of seaweed drying racks. Huge lines of wooden bamboo sticks, stretching as far as the eye can see, form geometric patterns with the morning or evening reflections of colour on the water. I’m thinking more about abstract images rather than the grand vistas, so this time of year should provide some options. Xiapu has many interesting locations to shoot; the seascape, mudflats, and floating villages. This diversity is exactly what I look for in a photography trip, and it means that I’ll have lots of opportunities to play and experiment with some new ideas.
Look, it's going to be very, very busy I’m sure. This is one of the most populated countries in the world, and coming from the relatively uncrowded shores of Western Australia and compared to other locations I normally go for it will be a big personal challenge.
Wow, that was a bit of a long one, but overall, that’s what has attracted me to the area, and this is how I kind of approach things. If all goes well and I keep an open mind, then I look forward to sharing some new and interesting images with you all later in the year