Monday, June 23, 2008

How to prepare for a photowalk

I've never been on a photowalk before. How do I prepare?

This great question was recently raised on the Photowalking Utah discussion forum. I figured I could do a quick Google search and point the questioner to a couple answers. Surprisingly, I didn't find any, so here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

First, unless you know how to take photos without a camera, you will need one. This can be anything you want to use. Bring something you're comfortable with or want to learn to use better. Photowalks are not intended to be gear competitions. I've seen everything from cell phone cameras to five figure DSLR rigs to medium format film cameras used. There is no disgrace in having a point and shoot and there's no superiority in bringing the most expensive thing on the market. The goal is to have fun and learn to use what you have better.

Most cameras these days have batteries. Make sure they're charged. A backup would be a good idea. And don't forget to top off the batteries in accessories too.

There aren't many things more frustrating than getting the blinking "CF full" message in your viewfinder. Make sure you have enough space in your memory cards. Carry extra; better more than you need than not enough. Of course if you shoot film, memory cards won't do you much good; just have enough film for the trip.

Photowalking is a compound word. You need to take photos and you need to walk. A good pair of shoes appropriate for the location allows you to focus on shooting. The wrong pair will be a distraction. Make sure you fall in the first category. Some walking/sport shoes in an urban setting are probably a good choice. On the other hand, in a rocky environment some hiking boots might be better. I really appreciated the organizers of a recent photowalk letting us know there were some marshy areas around where we were going so I could bring some footwear appropriate for that environment.

Dress appropriately for the weather and check the forecast just before you leave. If there's going to be a wide swing in temperatures, use multiple light layers to add or remove insulation as needed. If there's going to be precipitation, don't not go. Rather take protection and have fun with the reflections and moody environment. Things look completely different in the rain. You might want to have a change of clothes in the car though so you don't have to drive home soggy.

Take care of your body. Walking is exercise and staying hydrated is important. Particularly outdoors during summer, make sure you have some sort of liquid available. This may be having some cash to pop into a local market to buy it on the fly if you're in town or carrying a bottle of water or canteen if you're out in the rough. In any case, make sure you know your limits and the environment and plan accordingly.

Know where and when the photowalk starts. Everyone misses out if the group leaves without you. You lose the synergy generated by the group and the group misses your input. There are several web sites that give time and distance between two points. (Here's one and here's another.) You enter your address and the address of the photowalk's start and you get back directions with estimated average driving time; adjust for weather and local road conditions. And then leave 10 minutes early.

The items above are the most important things to consider. If you want to go light, that's about it. Now let's cover some optional items.

First, taking optional items will probably require something to carry them. Depending on your load, a backpack, camera bag or large pockets will be suffice.

A hard-drive based media viewer is a really useful tool. My work flow is to start with two empty CF cards and the viewer (also typically empty). When I fill a card, I swap CF cards in the camera. I then put the full one in the viewer and start the backup. I can then continue shooting. When the backup is finished, I clear that card and have it ready for when the second card is filled. Repeat as needed. When I'm done with the photowalk it all gets downloaded to the computer and cleared from the portable devices.

Depending on the location, sometimes a tripod is useful. I've been on some photowalks where I've used it quite a bit. I've been on others where I haven't used it at all. Others fall in between. Sometimes I've not used it and should have. It all depends on personal style and the types of shots you're taking. I tend to err on the side of over planning and typically take it.

Lastly, consider the location and plan for possible needed accessories. If you're going to someplace during the day with lots of reflections, for example a car show or a lake or a river, a circular polarizer filter will help you cut out some of those reflections. If you're going to be catching a sunrise or sunset, some people like a graduated neutral density filter. A standard neutral density filter can give you interesting effects by blurring movement in bright light. Even during daylight, I always carry a flash and radio remotes, with charged batteries. You never know when a fill light will be just what you want.

In closing, mentally plan your trip. Think about the location and environment and the types of shots you want to get. Consider a new technique you've been wanting to try but haven't and plan to use it. I know people with very extensive DSLR setups who have attended with simple point and shoot cameras to limit their equipment options and focus on composition. Other's have attended with a new piece of equipment specifically to experiment with them. Some who are comfortable in the automatic modes on their camera, use the expertise of others on the walk to get more comfortable with aperture priority or manual modes. Finally, plan enough to get out there and have fun, but not so much that you lose spontaneity.

If anyone has any other ideas, feel free to share them in the comments.
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