Pudong in Shanghai, China. Long exposure taken by resting the camera on a railing between dinner with colleagues and drinks.

4+1 Photography Tips for the Business Traveler

Imagine this scene. You’ve been walking through the forest/city for days, mentally preparing yourself for the moment your subject/scene will appear before you. You know your camera, you’ve studied the weather, the lighting, the time, you can even see with your mind’s eye that one image that you want to capture. Finally, the time and place is right. Your subject is there, the light is right, the camera is purring in your hands. You look through the viewfinder, you feel the rush, the connection between you and that small part of the world you see in front of you. Click. The perfect photo. The trip was worth it.

A view of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. A little known fact is that, according to my dodgy guide (who even introduced me to the last nephew of the last emperor, not a scam, promise) entry to the City was not forbidden, it was just that males entering the city had to be castrated to do so - which justifies the name. An even lesser-known fact is that I hiked up the hill in Jingshan Park behind the Forbidden city to take this photo wile every hung-over from a late dinner with collaborators in a business suit.
A view of the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. A little known fact is that, according to my dodgy guide (who even introduced me to the last nephew of the last emperor, not a scam, promise) entry to the City was not forbidden, it was just that males entering the city had to be castrated to do so – which justifies the name. An even lesser-known fact is that I hiked up the hill in Jingshan Park behind the Forbidden city to take this photo while very hung-over from a late dinner with collaborators – in a business suit.

The above scenario is what dedicated photography trips are all about. You choose the place, the time and think about the images you want to come away with. Most importantly, you have set aside a good amount of time to allow you to concentrate on getting that perfect image. That means time to explore the scene, time to try different viewpoints and techniques, time to make sure that as many of the key elements of your image come together before that crucial final capture. This is the stuff photographers’ dreams are made of and the reason why people pay considerable sums of money to embark on these highly organised and professional led trips.

A view along the river Rhine in Strasbourg, France. Camera on a portable mini tripod, photo taken while eating a decidedly mediocre lunch with a work colleague.
A view along the river Rhine in Strasbourg, France. Camera on a portable mini tripod, photo taken while eating a decidedly mediocre lunch with a work colleague.

What if you don’t have the time and/or money to do that though? What if you do have the opportunity to travel, say since work sends you to different places around the country/world, but not the dedicated time to allow you to take photos? Is it time to give up, take some quick snapshots through the taxi, buy a souvenir at the airport on your way out and call it quits? Not to fear fellow business traveller, photography beyond casual snapshots and selfies is still possible, provided you’ve done a bit of homework and are dedicated enough to make it happen. Let’s see how you can have your cake and eat it.

A view from the top of St Peter's Cathedral in Munich, Germany. One of the good things about work travel is that lunch time can usually be your time and is also a time where popular spots are free of tourists. In this case I didn't have to cue up to climb to the top of the bell tower, which meant that I was up, photographing and down within 40 minutes.
A view from the top of St Peter’s Cathedral in Munich, Germany. One of the good things about work travel is that lunch time can usually be your time and is also a time where popular spots are free of tourists. In this case I didn’t have to cue up to climb to the top of the bell tower, which meant that I was up, photographing and down within 40 minutes.

Before You Leave: the 4 “knows”

As with a dedicated photography trip, some preparation is essential. The basic principles of travel photography still apply here: know your gear, know your destination, know your schedule and know what images you’re after. The two first principles are the ones most photographers will have in mind, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less important. Missing out on either one of them will not prevent you from taking great photos at your destination but they’ll make your life difficult. The last two though are absolutely crucial if you want to have a chance of capturing something more than the standard casual snapshot of whatever monument is in the city centre near the hotel.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China. Taken handheld while *ahem* creatively managing conference attendance - what's a 45' semi-jog to get some photos? I know I said you should skip popular monuments but take that with a pinch of salt!
The Forbidden City in Beijing, China. Taken handheld while *ahem* creatively managing conference attendance – what’s a 45′ semi-jog to get some photos? I will say later on in the article that you should skip popular monuments but take that with a pinch of salt, some places you just can’t miss out on!

Warning: There Be Dragons!

A word of warning though: in different ways to a dedicated photography trip but similarly key to getting great images out is dedication. Business travelling is aimed at achieving results for your day job, from attending meetings to repairing machinery and everything in between. Adding photography to the mix inevitably means that taking photos is lower in your list of priorities, but it can still be a priority. This requires dedication and determination, so keep that in mind before carrying your equipment half way around the world, only to leave it in the hotel room.

At the same time, don’t go overboard! Someone is paying you to travel to achieve something for them, this must remain your top priority. This article is not to advise you on how to substitute work travel for photography travel, but rather on how to get a good chunk of photos taken under conditions where normally photography doesn’t really fit in.

Let’s go!

4. Know Your Gear (and What to Pack)

Travel photographers in general benefit from light gear but your smartphone need not be your only camera of choice – though great images can still be taken with one. Keep in mind that having a dedicated camera backpack with 2 main bodies, 6 lenses and a spare set of glass plates with a bellows medium format camera is simply not going to happen on a business trip! Some people will choose a compact camera, some will travel non stop with their main large DSLR (my poor back, I really needed you to carry the equivalent of a sack of bricks for 3 weeks across China while doing 10 hours of science visits a per day!) and that’s fine. Just be critical about what you carry and don’t over-pack. In my case I carry my trusty Canon EOS 7D with the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens and the only thing I miss out is wide-angle shots (and how I miss them).

A cart by the side of the road in Beijing, China. Photo taken from a taxi taking me back to the hotel after a work event and required no tripods, no heavy lenses and could have been take with a compact camera. Details in unfamiliar sceneries make for refreshing photography, give it a try!
A cart by the side of the road in Beijing, China. Photo taken from a taxi taking me back to the hotel after a work event and required no tripods, no heavy lenses and could have been taken with a compact camera. Details in unfamiliar scenery make for refreshing photography, give it a try!

My advice would be a single camera body plus a decent zoom lens, or if you absolutely must then leave the zoom at home and get a couple of primes. Crucially though, you need to know what framing and coverage you want to work with and what images you’re after. If your strong point is landscape photography and are looking for some sweeping vistas of mountains you might be OK leaving your massive telephoto lens at home to save weight, but that wide prime lens might be worth the extra weight. If you’re keen on wildlife, a long-reach zoom might be preferable over the standard zoom that you keep lugging around but use twice a year. You will probably have to make do without a full-sized tripod (heavy, awkward) or monopod (business meeting with a walking stick?) but a mini tripod can fit into any backpack. Finally, never underestimate your compact camera or smartphone, great photos are still possible!

Photo captured using an iPhone 4S in Beijing, China. Main camera was too heavy to quickly remove from backpack, frame and take the shot, so the trusty smartphone got the job done.
Photo captured using an iPhone 4S in Beijing, China. Main camera was too heavy to quickly remove from backpack, frame and take the shot, so the trusty smartphone got the job done.

Also important is knowing your gear. A new camera is an exciting new tool (or toy!) to have, but if this is your first time in a new place and you’ll only have 15. between train changes to get a few images, figuring out how the %$^# to change the auto ISO  settings will result in missed images that you may not get a chance to retake for a very long time. If ever there was a time for tried-and-tested gear, business travelling is it. If you are planning for new gear, try to get it in your hands a couple of weeks before you travel and make sure you spend some time using it.

3. Know Your Destination: What is this Place?

Dedicated photography trips have the great advantage of relying on expert photographers and local guides that make sure you see the most interesting places at the right times. Travelling for work means that there’s no such expertise at hand. Even if you are lucky enough to have a local colleague or guide available, the chances of them knowing great spots for photography and the right time to get to them are virtually zero. It’s up to you to learn a bit about your destination and what places of photographic (not necessarily tourist) places you can get to.

Streets of Toledo. While visiting Madrid in Spain I was told by a friend that I absolutely had to go see Toledo. I had only a day between a conference ending and my flight back to Australia so I wasn't sure I had the time to do it, but as it turns out there's a high speed train linking the two cities which only takes 30'. Ended up spending most of the day there, absolutely worth it despite the sizzling heat!
Streets of Toledo. While visiting Madrid in Spain I was told by a friend that I absolutely had to go see Toledo. I had only a day between a conference ending and my flight back to Australia so I wasn’t sure I had the time to do it, but as it turns out there’s a high speed train linking the two cities which only takes 30′. Ended up spending most of the day there, absolutely worth it despite the sizzling heat!

Tip: the most touristy places will usually be the easiest ones to get to and take photos of, but they are not always the best. Browsing through the web you’ll find many guides on cities and countries that inform tourists on what to do and see but, crucially, not of what to photograph. Some places that you must visit are not necessarily places you’ll want to photograph – prime examples are squares, statues and monuments. By all means visit them but, as a photographer, you’ll benefit more from searching for places of photographic interest in your area of travelling, usually through photography sites and blogs. Don’t be afraid to ask on websites, especially if you can find local photographers.

2. Know Your Schedule: Don’t Dawdle Alice, We’re Very LateIndeed!

This is where it gets tricky. There’s 24 hours in a day, your work commitments will easily such 10-12 of them, you may be jet lagged and you need to eat, sleep, rest. Casual snapping through a bus window is starting to sound like a really good idea, is it not? Absolutely not! Planning your schedule is absolutely crucial to getting something (photographically speaking) out of your work trip, so make sure you thinking plan carefully – more so than a photography-only trip.

In my last work trip I had to commute on the subway across Munich in Germany. I noticed that each station had an angled mirror at the end of each platform that reflected the platform onto the train window. 7 stops worth of trying timing and settings led to this image - there's always time for photography!
In my last work trip I had to commute on the subway across Munich in Germany. I noticed that each station had an angled mirror at the end of each platform that reflected the platform onto the train window. 7 stops worth of trying timing and settings led to this image – there’s always time for photography!

Example: work activities will usually be 8:30am to 6-7pm and there’s not much you can do about that. Luckily this leaves some of the best times for photography available to you: early morning and evening, where the light is soft and the people are either not out on the streets or out en-masse. Dedication is key to get yourself out of bed earlier to ensure you get an hour of photography before breakfast, but it can really pay off. Same for delaying dinner or grabbing a quick bite to eat out and about rather than sticking to restaurant hours. You’ll be on location, with your gear ready to go, isn’t that worth an early rise in the morning?

Opportunity awakes at every step. In this case I woke up earlier than usual in my hotel room in Santander, Spain. Install of rolling over and going back to sleep I pulled back the curtains and was greeted by sunrise. This photo was very nearly lost forever due to a laptop failure, so see extra section on backing up.
Opportunity awakes at every step. In this case I woke up earlier than usual in my hotel room in Santander, Spain. Install of rolling over and going back to sleep I pulled back the curtains and was greeted by sunrise. This photo was very nearly lost forever due to a laptop failure, so see extra section on backing up.

A couple of years ago I spent 5 days in Shanghai, China, visiting 4 different universities, giving talks while catching up on work and socializing with new and existing colleagues. As this was the first time I was in Shanghai I made sure that my camera came along everywhere and ended up with some nighttime photos of the modern Shanghai commercial district by steering my colleagues to go towards the river for dinner, resulting in the photo at the beginning of the article. Everyone had nice food and I took some nice photos, what’s not to like?

After a full day's work at a research institute in Shanghai, China, I returned to my hotel room determined to eat something and go to sleep early. One look out my window at Shanghai's skyline was enough to change my mind!
After a full day’s work at a research institute in Shanghai, China, I returned to my hotel room determined to eat something and go to sleep early. One look out my window at Shanghai’s skyline was enough to change my mind!

1. Know Your Images: Take Photos, not Snapshots

This follows on from the previous categories and applies for any sort of photography venture. You’ll get much better results if you have some idea of what images you’re aiming to get from your trip, during the time you’re there and with the gear you’ll have available. If you’re targeting sweeping mountainous panoramas, aligned to perfection and at multiple exposures for HDR processing and all you’ve got is a 50mm lens, no tripod and are in the centre of Sydney, reason says you’ll come back empty-handed.

Sydney Harbour. Not the usual view as everyone's usually too busy looking at the Harbour Bridge behind them, this shot required nothing more but a railing to balance the camera on and a bit of patience.
Sydney Harbour. Not the usual view as everyone’s usually too busy looking at the Harbour Bridge behind them, this shot required nothing more but a railing to balance the camera on and a bit of patience. Taken after a very long day of work-related networking and touring.

Having said that, business travelling is precisely the type of outside-your-comfort-zone experience that a photographer might need every now and again. You’re in unfamiliar surroundings, you’ll take photos when and where you can, you’ll be on a tighter schedule and the things you usually target might simply not be there. Go out there and explore, take a risk, try something you never tried before even if it’s not your thing.

I really wanted to practice my long exposure time photography in a recent work trip to Germany. A 10-stop ND filter and a mini tripod were easy enough to carry in my backpack and an unexpected free day in Heidelberg provided a great setting for photography. What you can't see is me getting absolutely drenched in the pouring rain as I didn't take a rain jacket with me on my work trip.
I really wanted to practice my long exposure time photography in a recent work trip to Germany. A 10-stop ND filter and a mini tripod were easy enough to carry in my backpack and an unexpected free day in Heidelberg provided a great setting for photography. What you can’t see is me getting absolutely drenched in the pouring rain as I didn’t take a rain jacket with me on my work trip.

Maybe you’re feeling a bit bolder because you’re not familiar with the people, maybe you have no choice but to take wide-angle shots of an airport while waiting for the next connection. Business travelling does force you into that uncomfortable zone where in spite of your planning and knowledge you find yourself in uncharted and unfamiliar territories. You can browse the internet and window-shop when you’re home.

Side Note: Digital Images Need Some TLC Every Now and Again

A quick note on backing up and processing: You will be tired, you will want to go to sleep, you’ll have an early rise the next morning. Make time to back your photos up when back at the hotel as things can (and do) go wrong when travelling. Lost luggage, equipment theft, computer failures, Murphy’s law serves as a warning to copy and back up photos on a daily (or nightly) basis. Have your computer and camera work that out while you’re brushing your teeth or going over tomorrow’s schedule, but make sure it gets done. Last year in Spain a computer hard drive failure meant I lost 2 days of photos – the two days I might add that were non-work related and I was spending most of my time taking photos. Back up. Every night.

The lighthouse in Santander, Spain. I made a promise to myself that I would always practice my long exposure daytime photography when travelling. The second to last day of the conference I hired bicycles with my colleagues to go out in the afternoon and have a look at the lighthouse, a joy for photographers. I went back to the hotel that evening, copied my photos from the camera to the laptop and erased the card (rookie mistake: never travel with less than 2 cards regardless of their size). Two days later my laptop died while still in Spain and recovery utilities on a colleague's laptop could recover this single image from that day. A single image!
The lighthouse in Santander, Spain. I made a promise to myself that I would always practice my long exposure daytime photography when travelling. The second to last day of the conference I hired bicycles with my colleagues to go out in the afternoon and have a look at the lighthouse, a joy for photographers. I went back to the hotel that evening, copied my photos from the camera to the laptop and erased the card (rookie mistake: never travel with less than 2 cards regardless of their size). Two days later my laptop died while still in Spain and recovery utilities on a colleague’s laptop could recover this single image from that day. A single image!

In the same spirit, while processing your images might be better done when you’re back home, there is something so satisfactory about being able to actually see the photo you had in mind take form on your screen. If you can carry a laptop/tablet through your trip, have a go at processing at least one or two images every night or so. You’ll catch the mood of the day much better than you would two weeks later in another country/state and you’ll get a great buzz from knowing you’ve got a keeper!

Ready to Go? Bring on the Business Trips!

Just imagine the scene: You’ve been stuck walking through the airport/city for hours. You’ve got your camera, you’re looking for an image that you’ll want to capture. Finally, the time is right. Your subject is there, the light is right, the camera is ready in your hands. You look through the viewfinder, you feel the rush, the connection between you and that small part of the world you see in front of you. Click. The perfect photo.

The trip was worth it.


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