SEVEN RULES OF TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY
I am a hobbyist photographer. While that generally means I don’t do this for a living, if you were to ask most people who know me they will tell you I am fanatical about it. And the one thing I love most is traveling to great locations to shoot pictures. When you do this, however, you come to realize there are basically seven fundamental rules that you will constantly need to deal with. Now let’s be clear, these are not guidelines; they’re not suggestions; and while there may be, from time to time, a slight room for negotiations, you ignore them at your peril. In fact the first rule, the most basic rule, is not negotiable at all.
It is, in travel photography nothing, I mean nothing, ever goes as planned.
I was on winter break from my regular job as a college professor, and was heading out on a short two day photo trip to the Bay Area. I was planning on leaving early, but something came up and I didn’t get out until the afternoon. By the time I arrived at my hotel in San Francisco I only had about two hours to get to my first location. It was a sunset shot at Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands, but travel time in the city can run an hour to an hour and a half. So I didn’t unpack; I just grabbed my camera gear and rushed out the door.
The Marin Headlands are just north of the Golden Gate, and to get to Rodeo Beach you take the first exit just past the bridge. As I approached the exit rule number one hit with full force, and in terms of the planned shot that night it was terminal.
The first inkling of a problem was the slow down in traffic going over the bridge. Eventually, pedestrians on the sidewalk were walking faster than I was driving; a couple walking a dog even waved at me as they passed by. I finally got to the exit. Now if I could just make the turn to Rodeo Beach I could still salvage the shot. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed.
Standing at the exit was the apparent cause of the slowdown. A police officer was blocking it and waving cars on. What was going on? I was perplexed, and given that the cop was pretty busy dealing with the traffic I wasn’t going to be able to ask him any questions. At that moment, however, I looked out my passenger window and saw another police officer walking along the sidewalk, and - of course - about to pass me by. I rolled down my window.
“Is there an accident?” I asked.
“No, crowds have been heading to the beach all day and its full. Now we’re only letting people out, not in.” The officer replied.
It was at this point that rule two came into play. Specifically, when you are in a bad situation, remain calm, and then immediately take action to try and fix it. I had easily managed the calm part, and now right next to me was a potential avenue to remedy the situation. I called to the officer again. This time I pulled out my photography equipment so he could see it. I explained that I was from out of town and was hoping to get a sunset shot at Rodeo Beach. I then went into overdrive - “It was going to be an amazing shot! It might even make it into some magazine and be seen around the world. If I could only get through . . .” In the middle of that sentence the officer’s arm stretched out in my direction with the palm forward; the international sign to stop talking.
It would be nice to say that after listening to my story the officer took pity on me, let me take the exit and I ended up getting the most beautiful sunset shot in history. Not a chance. Instead he just gave me the “look.” You know the one, it expresses the world weary attitude of all police officers and can best be translated as follows: “Okay idiot, go ahead , tell me why the rules shouldn’t apply to you.” The bottom line: I wasn’t going to make it to Rodeo Beach that day.
Well, when rule number two doesn’t work immediately switched to rule number three: Always have a Plan B.
Back on the San Francisco side of the bridge is Fort Point. The fort has an amazing amount charm, and had always been on my bucket list to shoot. It was built during the Civil War to defend against hostile war ships, and lining the road leading up to it is a post and chain fence. The chain was made of four inch thick single chains, and in the salt air over the decades it has caused them to rust and crack.
A shot began to form in my head. Suppose I could get the fort and the Golden Gate in the background at night and have the old decrepit chain running across the scene in the foreground. It might be a pretty good image.
Fifteen minutes later I was at the Fort scouting out a good location. I found what I thought would work, set up my equipment and began shooting.
It pays to have alternative plans.
After I was done I headed back to the hotel; it had been a long day and I was tired. As I was unloading my equipment, however, I remembered that across the street was one of the coolest piers in San Francisco, Pier 7. It’s a steel and concrete structure in a modern design. If you walk out to its end and look back there is the most amazing scene of the pier stretching back to the San Francisco skyline.
Rule number four: If you’re tired, but realize there is a shot right near by, go get the shot! I grabbed my gear and headed out.
The next morning I was up early and heading on a road trip about two hours out of San Francisco, near Point Reyes. The place was an old ship to shore radio station built in the 1930s called Marshall Station. It has a long driveway lined with beautiful cypress trees, which drape down around the road and form a canopy. At dawn the sun cuts across the driveway and creates a sort of glow that filters through the trees and on to the road. I wanted that shot.
After I left the city I was soon off the freeway and driving through the darkened forests in Marin County. There were no cars, and I happened to pass a large lake and a full moon was reflecting off the water. It was beautiful. I almost stopped to take a shot, but I was on a mission.
I arrived at the location about a half an hour before sunrise, and drove down the long driveway. As I got near the end, however, my heart sank. There were six cameras on tripods all set up. What was worse, the cameras were all in the prime location for “my shot.” The odd thing, however, was when I got out of my car I realized there were only two guys there. It was not clear, and I never actually figured out, why they needed six cameras. Who knows, maybe they thought if one camera was good, three each must be amazing.
When trying to get a shot with a bunch of other photographers (well, in this case, a bunch of other cameras) you need to tread lightly. I asked, nicely, whether they would be willing to let
me place my “one little camera” (its really not so little) between a couple of their’s. An unadulterated “No” was their response. After a moment of silence one of them went on to give me the fifth rule of travel photography: He who arrives first gets to pick his spot. While I believed then, and still believe it today, that rule only applies to one camera, since I was by myself I was at a distinct disadvantage. In other words, I didn’t press the point.
As it turned out all six of their cameras were setup, right next to each other, and at about five to six feet off the ground - a strange layout in what was already an odd situation. After a little bit of thought, and without asking, I walked in front of their cameras and set up my tripod for a shot at three feet. One of them complained, but I then pulled out rule number six: If I’m not in your shot you can’t complain. My camera wasn’t; he shut up.
A few moments later the sun broke over the horizon and we started shooting. And as I suspected the scene was amazing, and my low angle turned out to be the best. As I left, I came to a simple conclusion - those two guys were idiots.
The last shot of the trip was set for that night. I was going to take it from the top of Yerba Buena Island out in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. It was going to be the big shot of the trip, and something I had been visualizing for days: The Bay Bridge stretching out across the water to San Francisco; the skyline of the city gleaming in the distance; and on top of it all there would be a dusk red sky. However, given rule number one, something had to go wrong. Actually, everything went wrong! Well, almost everything.
To get to Yerba Buena Island you take I-80 out of San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge. The Island sits in the middle of the bay, and the freeway cuts through its center before moving onto Oakland. It’s owned by the Coast Guard and functions as a base. For years they were reasonably open to giving access to photographers. Within the last year this had changed. They had fenced off the access to beaches where photographers had regularly gone and, unfortunately for my purposes, fenced and gated off the top of the island where I was going to take my “brilliant” shot. Further, to make their policy crystal clear signs had been posted regularly on the fences and gates reading “TRESPASSING WAS PROHIBITED AND WOULD BE PROSECUTED.”
Of course, I knew none of this until I arrived a half an hour before I was going to start shooting.
After getting over the initial shock and cursing for about a minute, I started to try and figure out what I was going to do (rule two). The fact was, the sun was going down fast and I needed to make a quick decision. Should I scrap the shot, and perhaps head to some alternative location (rule three)? However, the only other options would pale in comparison to this shot.
Before I gave up I decided to do a quick drive around and see what areas might be available for shooting. A public road runs around the Island and goes directly over the top of the entrance to the I-80 tunnel on the San Francisco side before it makes its way around the island. I headed down the road.
When I reached a point just over the tunnel I looked up the side of the hill; it was actually more like a cliff. To my surprise there was no fence until you reached what looked like a ledge some forty feet up. Did that mean the area was not restricted, or did they simply think no one would be dumb enough to climb it? While it seemed steep, I thought it was manageable.
The decision was made; I would see if I could make this work.
The only public parking available was about a mile away on Treasure Island right next door. I parked my car and started walking. The road, which was the only access on and off both Yerba Buena and Treasure Island, was busy that time of day, and there were no side walks. On one side was a steep cliff going up and on the other a steep cliff going down. Also, I hadn’t realized I would be walking on a road like this when it was starting to get dark, and I was wearing dark clothing. As a result, I spent a little bit of time playing dodge-car, and listening to horns from irate drivers.
After about fifteen minutes I came to the “cliff” I wanted to climb. I looked up at it, it seemed a lot steeper then it did when I had driven by a few minutes earlier. I started to climb.
I suppose, it would have been interesting to have seen the view of me from the driver’s perspective on I-80. Specifically, they would have seen a guy climbing up the side of a fenced off military installation. That person was wearing dark clothing and carrying a large backpack. Also, in one hand he had a large metal object that was about the size of a rifle (it was a tripod). This thought actually did dawn on me as I was making my way up, and a corresponding concern for the wisdom of my decision began to sink in.
After what felt like ten minutes, but probably more like five, I reached the ledge. It turned out to be both a perfect place to shoot, and right up against one of those fences with the big no
trespassing sign. I looked at the sign for a minute, and then turned around and looked at the scene I wanted to shoot. There was no contest; I setup my tripod and my camera.
The way a shot works is you spend about ten to fifteen minutes dialing in your equipment, and assuming everything is right (i.e., the composition, the light, etc. . .) you’ll spend another fifteen to thirty minutes shooting. I blew through the first fifteen minutes and everything was ready to go, but then rule one hit and something happened.
I heard a noise and looked behind me. Beyond the fence was a road, and a vehicle had just pulled up. There was a light on its top and a sign on the side that read “SECURITY.” The door opened and a guy in his late thirties stepped out. He was in a security uniform, and there was a gun in a holster at his side. He started walking in my direction.
"How you doing,” The security guard said.
I kept calm. Well, I think I looked calm anyway, which is good enough for rule two.
"Pretty good," I responded. “This is a great place to shoot the city.”
He pulled out a flashlight and shined it in my face, and then at the equipment I had set up. He then turned it off and seemed to look out at the scene I was about to shoot. He said, “Yes it is. I suppose, however, you saw the sign.” Pointing over to the No Trespassing sign on the fence three feet away.
Given its size and its proximity, denying I had seen it would have been ridiculous. I decided to go for a bit of logic.
"I did," I said. Then in my best lawyer voice (I don’t think I mentioned this, I’m a professor of business law), I responded, “I'm actually on the side of the fence that is not part of the ‘no
He contemplated me for a moment, and then a slight smile formed on his face. He said, “We like to keep this area clear as well. It's difficult to patrol. You’ll need to pack up your stuff and
Even though I was in the poorer bargaining position I decided to try a bit of negotiation, which is allowed under the rules, but not recommended.
“Look” I said, “I’m from out of town and I came here for a couple of days to get this shot. Also, I just dialed it in, and as you can see the sky behind the city is perfect. If you just let me shoot for ten minutes I’ll be done and be out of here.” At that moment we were staring at each other, but then his view veered to something behind me.
“Is that a Nikon or a Cannon camera?” He asked.
“A Nikon.” I responded, surprised by the question.
There was silence for a moment, and then a slight smile broke again on his face. “Nice, I use Nikon too,” he said. He paused again, and then spoke, “I have to make a run to the other side of the island, and then come back to this side. It will take about twenty minutes. Be gone by then." With that, he turned and left.
I stared in silence at the guy as he walked away. After a moment it dawned on me. I had been saved by rule number seven: Photographers should always stick together. This is especially true if you use the same brand of camera.
I finished shooting and got the hell out of there.
It had been a great couple of days.