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Guidebooks are Good
Well yes, they are heavy too, and can be a nuisance to lug around, but the information packed between those pages is often essential for a Travel Photographer, and should always be included in your luggage. Of course, guidebooks vary, and have different styles that suit different people. As a Photographer, you will find great interest in those guidebooks that are mainly photo-based, such as the excellent Dorling Kindersley series. These books are packed with photos of the area you will be travelling to, and can provide much information about the kind of photographs that you can expect to take, as well as being a learning experience on photo style and great photo examples in themselves.
For a source of on-the-road travel information, the three big companies to look out for are Lonely Planet , Footprint Books , and Rough Guide . These three companies provide regularly updated information, and lots of it. Select the one that suits you best, and don't leave home without it. A good guidebook will help with all aspects of your journey: pre-planning, how to get there, where to stay and where to eat, what to see when you get there, plus a variety of useful information that you might need on the road: telephone numbers, office addresses, opening times, and much more.
With the internet bursting with information these days, some good and some bad, the guidebook companies realise that they can no longer keep their customers happy with occasional updates. A quick search on the internet will soon show you when their information is becoming tired and out of date, so the trend is to update many of the more popular guidebooks each year. A good book store will tell you when the latest issue is due out, and hopefully this will coincide with your trip. If not, don't worry: any guidebook will still be very useful for a few years to come, even if some of the information in it, especially hotel and restaurant data, is not quite up to date. Don't assume that every guidebook has all of its information checked each and every year: as a previous guidebook researcher myself for one of the big companies mentioned above, I can divulge that despite best efforts, there's only so many hotels that a researcher can look at, and so many restaurants that he can try in the time available, so he tends to concentrate on checking the main attractions, making sure that the opening times and visitor information is always correct. Hotel telephone numbers can and do change with surprising frequency: if your guidebook is wrong, a search on the internet may location the latest details. If you do find incorrect information in your guidebook, find somewhere you don't like, or somewhere that you do, note it down and let them know. If you send sufficient corrections, they may reward you with a discount code for the next edition, or even a completely free guidebook. It pays to be helpful!
Returning to the topic of weight: yes, those guidebook can be to heavy to carry around every day, along with all those heavy camera bodies and lenses. Luckily, these days there is a useful alternative. Lonely Planet sell their books in electronic form as well as the more traditional paper version. You can purchase and download them online, them read them at your leisure on your own laptop. Buy only the chapters that you need, too, to save money. The main reason that I recommend these electronic PDF (Portable Document Format) versions though, is that you can print out just the information that you need for day to day use, and save a significant amount of weight! I find it very useful to print out a copy of the map for the city that I am photographing, and can make notes and comments on the reverse as I wander about.
Footprint Books are also up to date with the latest technology, and have an App has available that brings Footprint travel content direct to your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. Their website tells me "...Packed with travel essentials and information on all the top sights as well as places to eat and sleep, Footprint's guides are the ideal travel companion. With contact details, opening times and prices, as well as an insight to all the must see places, it's like having your own private tour guide". I don't have an iPhone myself, so can't comment on the quality of service that this system provides, though it certainly does sound exciting, and a very useful addition to anyone with suitable equipment.
Wherever and however you get your information before the trip starts, make sure you do get it. Ask any Travel Photographer for tips, and they will soon tell you the importance of research before the trip starts. These days, there is a lot of information out there, in a variety of types. As we are photographers, lets start with images. Its very useful to look at online images before you go, to get an idea of the kind of shots taken in the past, and the kind of shots you can expect to take yourself when you get there. If they are geo-referenced, as is increasingly the norm these days, you can check the locations of each shot on any of the big mapping sites, or even simulate the location on Google Earth .
Check out the major Photo Agencies to see the type of photographs they stock for the locations you are going to, and just as important, look for the shots they don't have: maybe you can fill in the gaps in their collection. If you are already with a photo agency, they will often have shot lists for needed pictures in the areas that you will visit, so make sure that you contact them in advance for this information. Check out the types of photographs taken in the past for other locations within the country you are going to, for an idea of the styles that have proved popular. Videos are also available on line, and YouTube has the largest collection. You might find a guided tour to some of the locations you hope to visit: get an idea of the time of day it was taken at, and this will help you get an idea of what the site will present to you.
A big source of information for the Travel Photographer are the many bulletin boards where travellers congregate. Some, like Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree travel forum cover most areas of the world, whilst others, like my favorite IndiaMike cover just one country, but cover it in great depth. The online travel forum is immediate and can generate surprisingly detailed results. Ask a question about a small town somewhere, and you will often find someone who is already there that knows the answer, or can get it for you. All communities rely on cooperation from all of the members, so make sure that you join in as well, sharing up-to-date information that you collect when you are travelling.
Look out for individual Blogs and Travellers trip reports too. Some sites specialise in these type of accounts, and much information is there for the trouble of searching it out. Lets not forget libraries as well, which have a large range of travel books in the lending and in the reference library sections. It can be fascinating to read these more extensive travel guides and spot potentially interesting photograph sites that haven't been mentioned in the more concise online postings. In India, the older books written during the time of the 'Raj' will talk about sites that are rarely visited these days, and thus have fallen from the guidebook contents list, yet still provide some fascinating photo opportunities for the more adventurous Travel Photographer. One of my favourites: Murray's India Handbook, hasn't been published for many years but is still an essential in my travel library every time I visit the sub-continent.
Lets not forget the national tourist agencies. These are funded by the governments of their countries, and there job is to get as many visitors to their country as possible. They often have few visitors, and thus are glad when anyone asks for their help. They will have a wide range of free maps and leaflets available, just for the asking. Most people just get these as they don't know what else to ask for, but if you have a more specific enquiry they may well be able to provide surprisingly detailed information from their many sources and contacts within the country. They speak the language too, of course, so do try them when you need an out-of-the-ordinary question answered. They may also be able to supply lists of dates and locations for the major festivals in their country. Festivals can often be a source of the most vibrant and colorful photo opportunities, though by their very nature they can be very popular too, so a fair amount of forward planning and booking will be required if you intend to be present.
I have mentioned above how useful it can be to keep a printout of a city map in your pocket, rather than the whole guidebook. I have also mentioned about notifying the guidebook publishers when you find information in their books that is either missing or incorrect. I will thus end this article on information and research by stressing the importance of keeping notes as you take photographs. The back of a map printout is an ideal place to do this - they can afterwards be filed for future reference. Alternatively you could use a small notebook, or one of those minature digital voice recorders so popular with businessmen. The notes you take will prove invaluable later on to help you identify puzzling photos, or to sort out names and spelling details when you are cataloging them in preparation for agency submission. Despite what you think you will remember at the time of taking the photographs, its all too easy to forget details some months later, when you finally get around to sorting out the best ones. Always note down location details, including name of building, street, and city. Spellings of difficult words. Ideas for the future photo caption and keywords - all can help you in the future.
A final guidebook tip - I would recommend that you join the mailing lists of each of the big guidebook companies. Besides the useful information and news you will receive, you will find that they all give out occasional discounts, usually at or before holiday times, when they will suddenly drop the prices of their paper and digital guidebooks by up to 50%. If you have a trip in the planning stage, or just want to keep your guidebook collection up to date, its a great time to stock up. If you aren't on the mailing list, you won't know when this is happening !
Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...
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