Category Archives: Travel

How to Fly with Camera Gear

We, that is, Steven and the Mrs. recently had to attend a funeral on the East Coast. Steven lives on the Left Coast.  If you’re wondering what this post has to do with photography, he will admit that this article is part rant against Delta Airlines and part tips on transporting photography (or other) gear and assorted other tips. I’ve flown all over with my gear both in the US and internationally and picked up a few tips which I offer to you. I would be interested to hear any tips you have as well! If you want to skip the rant and go straight to the tips, just scroll down for the title: “Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

Fare Tip: Bereavement fares may be available, but those fares are very likely to be a bad deal. Qualifying for a fare requires many hoops to jump through. You may find, as we did, that you can get a much better price by using PriceLine or similar service. Warning, however: you may also discover that you will be treated like a pariah. Our 3 flights went from San Jose, to LAX to Raleigh-Durham. In each flight we were relegated to the non-reclining back row seats.  This means no-resting, and extreme first hand familiarity with the poo bin. Indeed, even the new aircraft we flew on from LAX to ATL actually had direct visual access INTO the bathroom. Arom-rama and people standing around twitching does not really heighten the flying experience in any way.

Book early enough to NOT have to be in or near the back row (hard to do, of course if your travel is of an emergency nature).

But wait, it’s worse!  When we booked we were only able to claim seats on the last leg of our 3-hop circuit. The other two legs were “gate holds”.  When we checked in at the airport desk rather than actually giving us boarding passes for any flights, we were given a “placebo pass” for the first leg and told to claim our boarding passes at the gate. The gate was CHANGED however. It wasn’t actually gate 7, but gate 5.  At gate 5, apparently there was some additional difficulty. The printer was not printing.  No problem, we were told… just stop at any attended counter when we disembark.  Mind you that we only had a 40 minute layover, the plane was late arriving and since we were at the back of the plane we lost still more time while the hordes ahead of us disembarked. We had what seemed to be fractional seconds to exit the plane get boarding passes AND get to the departure gate in another terminal.  The first attended Delta counter employee said “Sorry, we’re really busy with this flight right now, could you please go to another counter?” What did we learn from this?

Insist on getting all of your boarding passes at the beginning. Don’t believe it when they tell you you can get them later – you may not have enough time or cooperation.

We ran to the gate listed on the flight display only to find that the plane we were to take the next 4+ hour ride on was already boarding.  We found ourselves relegated again to the “bathroom seats”. By now we were quite hungry, but without time to even buy a snack in LAX. We were relying on the food (at extra charge) to be served on the long leg of our flight. BUT (you knew there’d be a BUT), they RAN OUT OF FOOD about 12 rows ahead of us.  One bag of peanuts and pretzels were our only sustenance.  On a subsequent leg, beverage service was suspended due to turbulence.  The back half of the plane was unserved – not the airline’s fault, of course, but it is a cautionary tale about being prepared.

Tip: Pack something to eat *and* drink. Something substantial because you can’t trust the airlines (Delta, at least) to have any food for you. Bonus tip, make sure that your food is in your “personal item” since you may not be able to fetch it if there is turbulence, or you have to store your bag far away (see below). Ditto for any medication you might need.

The Delta in flight entertainment screens worked great except for the intermittent pop-up 32 second advertisements that were SO LOUD you literally had to yank off your head phones or risk deafness. Oh, and the Delta attendants were also hawking American Express cards seat to seat. On the way back, I was amused to learn that the entertainment system runs Linux, and crashes!  So a tip here is do not use the Delta entertainment system unless you really want additional aggravation. Besides, they are going to charge you $5 to play Sudoku – you can get the iPhone app for free. Another thing to consider: in my experience about half of the jacks for headphones are marginally to completely non-functional.  You’re better off bringing your own entertainment on board.

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Delta Inflight Entertainment Crash

Tips on Traveling with Camera Gear

As you are probably aware, Delta and many other airlines charge an additional fee if you check baggage. The additional charge has many side effects, including making it take longer to check-in. And of course it also means people are taking MORE on board the airplane to avoid those fees.  The geniuses at Delta (and Virgin) have confounded the problem with their policies. If you lug a huge-ish bag all the way to the gate, they will gate check your bag for FREE. Smart people have concluded that schlepping a large bag to the gate will likely result in not being bilked out of another $50!  The bag fiasco also means that the airline will try really hard to convince you to gate check your bag otherwise there won’t be enough overhead space!

My fully packed f-Stop Tilopa photo bag WITH tripod easily fits in every overhead bin I’ve faced. I usually separate the tripod and put it crosswise in the narrow section at the back of overhead bin. You can also attach the tripod to either side of the bag, but depending on your tripod, it might be too long to fit.

FStop Tilopa Pack

FStop Tilopa Pack

On most aircraft, the Tilopa fits long-way in – meaning the bottom of the pack is at the back of the bin rather than sideways. In fact, it’s almost a perfect fit that way. The Tilopa might look bigger than many carry ons, but it’s not! My Tilopa even fit sideways in the 50 passenger commuter aircraft. One additional benefit to carry ons: domestic airlines do not usually weigh your carry on. You might get away (as I did*) with stuffing 45 pounds of gear in there! And don’t worry, the posted weight capacity of those overhead bins is around 160 pounds… so even if three of you packed the crap out of your bags and stuffed them in the same overhead bin, the bin is engineered to take it.  It also means if you could appear to effortlessly shuffle a 100 pound bag around the airline would be none-the-wiser and you’d not have to pay an overweight baggage fee! If the airline wants to shake you down for every nickel and $20 bill they can, you might as well do some creative baggage management of your own. Besides, do you really trust baggage handling to not break or “lose” your thousands of dollars investment in camera gear?

I’ve never had a problem traveling with my tripod. Screeners seem to understand what a tripod is both when traveling domestically and internationally. Once when leaving Israel I was warned that I might not be able to take the tripod on board but there was no problem going through security. Every once in a while I am asked to remove my camera and lenses from the pack, but most of the time the pack – chock full of bodies, lenses, batteries and miscellany goes through screening without a hitch.

Those overhead bins aren’t ONLY for passengers. On our Delta flight we found toilet paper, and leaking bathroom deodorizer refills together with the usual oxygen and blankets in the overhead bin above us. To find space for your pack, you’ll want to get on the plane as SOON AS YOU CAN. That usually means you want to be IN LINE well before your zone or row are called even if they politely insist that you wait in your lounge seat. But being the first in your group may not be enough. The only available overhead space might be many rows in front of or behind you.  I now understand why the guy in row 33 put his junk over my row 17 seat: he was not lazy he had to adapt because the airline had co-opted what would have been his overhead space.  If you’re traveling on Southwest, it is probably well worth the $10 fee per flight to get “automated checkin”. That may get you in the A list for boarding.  If you find yourself in the “B” or “C” section on Southwest, you might want to get the $40 business boarding “upgrade” for at least one in your party.

Those overhead bins apparently are seldom ever cleaned. I used a thick white paper towel to wipe out the leaking bathroom deodorizer and the paper towel came out as black as my camera bag!  Don’t throw a sport jacket up there unless it’s in something to keep it from getting icky – or maybe you don’t mind smelling like a lavatory 🙂

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

Oia at Night (Οία τη νύχτα)

*I often carry about 45 pounds (17 kg) of gear in my pack. Only the Greek airline Aegean asked to weigh my carry-on bag – and their weight limit was 7 kg despite the 90 kg capacity of the overhead bins.  They allowed me a waiver since the flight wasn’t full.  Despite their check of my carry on bag Aegean is one of the best airlines I’ve ever traveled on. Delta could learn a few lessons from them!

How to Not Lose (Much) Sleep

Save the Wonder II [C_070237]

If you want to catch the good stuff… like a meteor shower, or the Milky Way rising in Spring you have to be up in the wee hours. After midnight up to perhaps sunrise.  There are some tricks to pulling this off without collapsing – or worse, falling asleep at the wheel.  One problem with doing night photography is that motels and hotels aren’t particularly suited to the night photographer who would prefer to get to bed after breakfast and sleep until dinner – you often end up paying for two days worth of room that you only use for 8 hours!

So here are some ways you can “Store up Sleep” to support your night habit.

The No Stay Method

  • Get plenty of sleep in the afternoon.
  • Drive from home to the event.
  • Do the shooting
  • Get Breakfast
  • Nap on a cot, pad or bench
  • Drive back home, stopping to rest or nap as needed.

Obviously you can try to get to the shooting location sooner, but for most people it’s not safe to not get proper rest especially if you’re driving.  For example, if I know I want to shoot a milky way rise – I work backward from my arrival time.  Let’s say I need to be on site at 3:00 am and it is a 5 hour drive. That means I will want to hit the road at 10:00 pm. It might sound scary to drive from 10 pm to 3 am, but if you’re properly rested you may find the lack of traffic refreshing and the travel time that much quicker – I do this all the time!  To pull this off, see my “Body Clock Reprogramming” method.

Stay and Play method

  • Arrive in the early afternoon.
  • Check in to an area hotel, motel or campsite.
  • Get lunch.
  • Retire EARLY for sleep.
  • Get up EARLY (depends how far away you are from the location) Perhaps a 2:30 AM or earlier.
  • Do the shooting.
  • Get Breakfast
  • Get back to the hotel in time for at least an hour or two (or ask for late checkout)
  • Check out and go home… or stay another night.

Body Clock Reprogramming

A lot of people claim that they can’t sleep during the day. Hogwash, I say.  If I know I’m going to do a long weekend of night shooting, I can push my body clock around a little – in spite of my day job. For example, if I know I’ll be shooting mostly in the pre-dawn hours, starting on Wednesday, I’ll go to bed an hour earlier and get up one or two hours earlier. If you don’t get out of bed until 9:00 am… you’ll have to start reprogramming on MONDAY.  Do this each day before the trip – go to bed an hour or two earlier and get up an hour or two earlier the following morning.  If you normally arise at 6:30 (like I do), after two days you will find you’re easily awake at 2:30 AM – perfect!  And a day later you won’t have much trouble getting up at midnight and plowing through perfectly perky until well after breakfast.   Just remember to avoid caffeine and stimulants!  By the way, altering your body clock like this is a great way to get ready for an upcoming trip to another time zone.

If you can’t push your body clock that far, then plan to sleep or nap at your shooting location. I usually bring a fully reclining chair, a comfortable pillow and TWO sleeping bags – one very warm one, one that is only meant to take the chill off. I can then either sleep out-of-doors, or if necessary in my car.  This works well if I’m running a timelapse or star trail – the intervalometer does all the work. In fact, while I was taking the shots for this timelapse/startrail:

The Cove [C_071837-940br]

I was a dozen feet from my camera in my car out of the wind checking the progress every once in a while on my CamRanger. I didn’t have to leave the car except to change batteries or memory cards!  I didn’t have to use the CamRanger, of course, an intervalometer is just fine. There is an advantage to using a Canon for unattended operation, however. That red “exposing light” on the back of the camera can be seen from a long way off. I can easily and quickly take a look and know that the camera is doing its thing. With the Nikon, you have to watch carefully for the “green flash” as it writes to the memory card – if you have 6 minute exposures, you may have to wait a LONG time.  The CamRanger makes it a bit easier because I can also check the images, and the camera battery status, and memory card status remotely.

Leave The Gear

Oh, and there is one more way: set your camera up, leave, and come back for it. I usually aim to return BEFORE dawn because few humans bother to be out before the sun is up. My gear has been left alone in the wild quite often.  Of course I’ve already triple checked and prepared for the weather conditions and I place my camera where it’s not easily located – except by me. It’s a good idea to triple check all your settings. More than once I’ve left and upon return found I forgot a setting. For a belt and suspenders approach, I also keep track of the camera’s exact location with a GPS or by “dropping a pin” on my iPhone. Of course the downside here is you may need a huge memory card, a super strong battery, and you can’t have too much separation anxiety about leaving your gear. It won’t do you any good if you leave and DON’T get any sleep because you fear for the safety of your gear.  Trust me, your gear is braver than you are!

Sometimes when we run workshops, we take turns guarding the gear for one another, so you can also agree to leave a guard soldier behind if you shoot with buddies.  Just be sure to be kind to your guard – they will likely be grumpy.

Where to Go for Dark Skies?

No matter where you live on earth you have a chance to witness the incredible experience of watching bits of space debris streak through our atmosphere and create cosmic fireworks. In an older column I described How to Photograph Meteors – it is a daunting and luck laden process. Here I want to give some useful hints about WHERE to go to get the best view. These same hints may also help you find a location to view the Milky Way.

What I am not planning to tell you is where *I* would go because many of you are reading from all over the world and it would be little help to you for me to mention Yosemite, or Windy Hill Open Space Preserve.  Instead, what I want to do is to give you the insight to figure out where the best place is for YOU.  Here are the parameters to weigh:

  1. Goals
  2. Weather
  3. Accessibility
  4. Distance
  5. Darkness

Goals

It might seem strange, but I pick different locations depending on what it is I want. If I just want to watch meteors then I will pick a place that may compromise the other factors.  Assuming my goal is to photograph meteors, I have a second important decision: Do I want meteors, or do I want meteors in the context of a landscape?  For me the answer is almost always in the context of a landscape for the reasons I illuminated in this article.  In my opinion a shot of a meteor might be interesting, but a shot of a meteor over a lovely mountain, lake or landmark is WAY more interesting. For example compare the two photos below. The first shot is an Iridium flare (not a meteor, though it looks like one). The second is definitely a meteor. Which one is the most interesting? Yeah, the second one!

Meteor or Iridium Flare? [5_028205-dk] Star Man and Perseus [C_059960-1]

The next part of the goal is to figure out WHICH direction the landmark needs to be.  For example the Geminid Meteor shower is one of the few showers where the “radiant point” is visible all night long. But that also means that it may be best to shoot East after sunset, or West before sunrise and around midnight you’ll want to point south when the constellation will be high in the sky.  Of course meteors appear anywhere in the sky, but I like to keep a part of the radiant in my shots.

Once I’ve figured out which direction I’d like to face, only then can I start including and excluding locations. Of course an ideal place would allow me to face ANY direction, but the truth is not many ideal places are left in the world.

Weather

Now that I know which direction I’d like to face, I have to decide how much I am worried about bad weather.  Out here on the US West Coast a drive of 4 hours will get me to a mountain – the Sierras, 5 to 7 hours can take me to a desert area where it will generally be clear – but often windy, and a shorter drive will get me to a coastal area that may be fog plagued in some seasons.  In short, I would like to be as certain as I can about the weather conditions and thus will always have a plan B.  I have previously discussed the tools I use to track and plan for the weather.

Accessibility

While I would love to pass the time at a High Sierra location watching a meteor shower (awesome!), it might be really impractical or impossible for me to get there with my equipment in the dead of winter – even if the weather itself is not the problem. Road closures, park closures, etc. may interfere.  If I want to take friends or clients I need to restrict the amount of schlepping and walking required.  Some areas, like state, county and local parks which might be ideal are usually CLOSED, locked and gated at night.  National Parks and BLM designated land are generally open at night so rank high on my favorite places list.

Not only should my desired location be easy to get to by car but I would prefer a short walk to a safe location, and preferably in an area that has little or no car travel at night to ruin my night vision or my night shots.  Sometimes little intangibles like the direction and slope of any nearby roads makes a big difference. If a location is the top of the hill but a road points directly at it means I probably want to be on the other side of that hill to prevent the intrusion of headlights.  The arch shot above is an example of that hazard – a bend in the road causes cars to sweep their headlights across the landscape at that location.

It’s also unwise to attempt to use private land without permission. Being an unwelcome guest could result in embarrassment, hassle or hazard!

Distance

I have already touched upon this, but by distance I really mean time, effort and cost to reach the location. Since meteor showers occur annually, I am less inclined to make a huge effort if the circumstances do not look like they will be ideal.  On the other hand, I had no problem driving 1,000 miles roundtrip to put myself in the path of the Transit of Venus – an event that will not happen again in my lifetime (or yours).

Darkness

The one commodity that we are perhaps in the least supply of is darkness. So many cities, so much light pollution. But I do not need TOTAL darkness. If I have decided the best view is to the south, I just need to make sure no major cities lie south of my location. If my intended view is east, then I want mountains or distance to insulate me from the glow of light pollution to my east.  Unfortunately darkness is also a function of weather.  Humidity, clouds, water vapor and air particulates can turn a generally dark location into an awful mess through the effect of human-made light sources. A place that is clear and dark during most of the winter might be horrible in the balmy summer.

Prior experience is often the best indicator of where deepest darkness is found. Sometimes the easiest way to find a dark place is to simply look at a map – making note of the terrain and where the cities are in relation to your desired direction of view.  There is a dark sky locator that may help as well.  And you can do your part by joining the International Dark Sky Association and being an advocate for responsible lighting ordinances. I am a member.

Putting it All Together

You’ve probably already figured out that finding a combination of an interesting foreground that is easily accessible but a not too distant place with reliable weather is no small feat.  Some people think that if you go where astronomers like to go you’ll get all the right stuff. But that’s not true. Astronomers do care about almost all of these things, but the one thing that matters little to an astronomer is the landscape.  Astronomers are looking at the sky so a featureless high plateau is just fine. Oh, and if you want to light paint your foreground, you will really tick off astronomers!

So now you may have also surmised why I do not freely share my hard found locations. BUT if you join me on a workshop or webinar you will find out!

 

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful – or Not

Published: May 18, 2012
Updated: May 3, 2016

One of the necessary tools a night (or landscape) photographer must have in their tool bag is a decent weather forecasting tool.  Though I’ve been known to ignore the forecast for some events, like an Annular Solar Eclipse, I definitely am more inclined to go where the weather is clearer (Nevada) than where it will be cloudy (Crescent City, CA).

A forecast like this despite how detailed it seems to be is all but useless to me:

Weather.com forecast

Weather.com forecast

This is the hourly forecast. The “daily forecast” is less helpful. How partly is partly cloudy? And how mostly is mostly cloudly? Other sites sometimes just say “sunny” during the day and give no idea what night will be like.  Compare the above with the Weather.gov forecast from NOAA.

NOAA to the Rescue (no Ark)

Fortunately the US National Weather Service provides a nicely detailed “click point” forecast with charts of the hour-by-hour conditions.

Weather.gov oh yeah.

Weather.gov oh yeah.

There is quite a lot to take in here but it’s all good stuff.  The “partly cloudy” at 7PM  shows as 72% cloudy (Sky Cover) on weather.gov. Not only are the forecasts different, but I get more useful numbers.  It looks like the wind will be very gusty during parts of the day. But the humidity won’t be so severe that dew will form.  If it weren’t for the mostly cloudy skies, night photography might work out ok.

Where do you find this great tool. Start here:  http://weather.gov

Once you get to the forecast, look for a small graphic on the right under “Additional Resources”.  But that, my friend, is where the good stuff is. Before you rush off on the hourly thing, though, take a look at the little map window.

Weather.gov forecast area highlighed in green.

Weather.gov forecast area highlighed in green.

You can get a forecast for any specific area by clicking on the map!  So, for example clicking on the summit of Mission Peak (just off the screen to the north) may give you a significantly different forecast – one that is adjusted for the difference caused by altitude.

Do remember that these are “forecasts” not actualities, so be prepared for whatever may happen.

Wunderground Classic

I used to use Weather Underground. Then they changed it so that the good stuff was only in “Classic”. But really, no need to use it at all any more.

May the wind not be at your back or in your face, may the road not be muddied by rain and may the clouds gather only when you really want them i.e. at sunrise and sunset.