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Travelling With a Camera

My Travel Kit

I used to travel with a tripod and a large camera bag. The bag could store my EOS 650, three lenses, my Olympus OM-G with its 28-80 zoom (as a backup camera), a micro cassette recorder, a set of warming filters in two different sizes, and a partridge in a pear tree. On a solo trip I felt like I was married to it. The bag was constantly with me, and it filled the empty chair when I ate dinner alone. The micro cassette recorder let me log each picture I took, with description and complete technical details. Transcribing the recordings gave me something to do between dinner and bedtime.

Increasingly tyrannical airline restrictions on carry-on baggage forced me to reconsider my travel companions. 400-speed negative film made the tripod mostly unnecessary. Joining the tripod on the shelf at home is the 50mm f/1.8 that I originally got with the EOS 650. I keep it around for those few times when I know I’ll need it for available light.

While the micro cassette machine and logs were somewhat helpful for keeping track of where I had taken pictures, I found I had no use for all the technical information. It was easier to forgo the recorder and just keep a concise record of where I had been and what rolls of film I had exposed that day.

I bought a small Tamrac “Explorer 2” (now obsolete) bag in 2000, for my trip to Provence. About the size of a handbag (I sometimes call it my “man purse”), it can be carried with a shoulder strap, with a handle on the top of the bag, or with a belt that goes around the waist. It held my Elan II (with the 28-105 lens attached), the 22-55 lens, and either the Minolta Freedom Zoom Explorer or the 70-210 zoom. There’s also room for spare batteries, lens tissue, and a circular polarizer (all my lenses took 58mm filters). I ditched the warming filters because I can easily adjust the color balance of any image after I’ve scanned it.

The “man purse” works just as well for digital (and fits nicely under an airplane seat as a “personal item”). I currently use two lenses, a Canon 28-135IS and a Tokina 12-24. The Digital Rebel XT fits in the top of the bag with one lens attached and pointing down into the center compartment. The other compartments hold the other lens and the SmartDisk FlashTrax hard drive (which I stopped using when the price of memory cards dropped enough to let me buy sufficient storage for an entire trip). Unfortunately, the center compartment isn’t wide enough for an attached lens hood, so I have to remove it and store it with the other lens. The front pocket has plenty of room for a spare battery pack, an extra memory card, lens cleaning supplies, and two polarizers. There isn’t room for the chargers for the camera battery and the Flashtrax, so those indispensable items go in my carry-on bag.

More recently, I added a Canon Powershot S100 to my travel kit. (It’s an earlier version of the current S120.) This is a “prosumer” camera that fits in a shirt pocket but provides most of an SLR’s power, including a sharp zoom lens equivalent to 24-120mm, full exposure control, and raw files. It doesn’t replace my Rebel XT, but it expands the range of photographic opportunities and possibilities.

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Avoiding Frustration Over Film and X-Rays

The x-ray scanners for carry-on bags generally won’t harm film. But never put film in a checked bag, since damaging film seems to be the only thing those million-dollar baggage scanning machines can do reliably! A carry-on bag scanner actually subjects film to less radiation than it gets from natural cosmic rays during a flight. But since repeated “safe” x-ray scans (and flights) can cause cumulative damage, it’s best to avoid any unnecessary risk.

Two nearly identical Federal regulations at 49 CFR 1544.211(e)(4) (for domestic airlines) and 49 CFR 1546.209(e)(4) (for foreign airlines using non-TSA screeners) give passengers at American airports the right to a hand inspection of their film. (You might have to search for them if the links have changed.) They also require the placement of a sign near the x-ray machine informing passengers of that right. Amazingly, these regulations remain in force even with “Enhanced Security.” But screeners sometimes ignore or deny them. That might be entirely justified when a crowd of passengers are waiting at a checkpoint. But sometimes, even if there’s no queue and you arrive early, they just don’t feel like being inconvenienced with extra work.

Some photographers carry a copy of the regulation to show recalcitrant screeners. But I think that’s the wrong approach. Screeners have the power to bar you from your flight, declare your any of your belongings “contraband,” select you for “secondary screening,” fine you, or even have you arrested or detained. In practice, that means the rules (and your rights) are exactly what your particular screener decides they are at that particular moment, irrespective of what any official laws or regulations might say. Arguing about the regulations, or insisting that the screeners on your last three flights hand-inspected your film, is usually futile.

The TSA likes to insist that its screeners are highly-trained professionals who know and correctly enforce the rules in all situations, while always treating passengers with respect. In practice, TSA leadership have shown no interest in holding screeners accountable for knowing the rules, implementing the rules consistently and correctly, or for treating passengers with respect.

Some screeners are indeed knowledgeable, courteous professionals who respect passengers and even put themselves out to offer help when it’s needed. But others take advantage of their license to arbitrarily impose or “interpret” whatever rules they want, even when that’s contrary to the TSA’s published “guidelines,” and respond to any questions with “Do you want to fly today?” The TSA has earned a reputation for frustrating inconsistency, so you can never know whether you’ll be dealing with a well-informed dedicated professional or a Keystone Kop who tries to mask ineptitude with arrogance.

What might work is, first, to arrive extra early. Then ask the screener very politely if he or she wouldn’t mind possibly doing you a favor by hand-inspecting your film. Emphasize that you’ve got plenty of time and are willing to wait until it’s most convenient for him or her. Asking nicely for a favor (in full recognition of and deference to the screener’s absolute and unchallenged authority) rather than asserting a “right” may increase the likelihood that he or she may deign to grant your request. If the screener says no, resign yourself to having lost your one chance. Apologize profusely for having bothered the screener, smile graciously, and immediately surrender your film to the x-ray. The film will almost certainly survive unscathed, and you’ll have avoided unnecessary trouble.

Again, you’ll have the easiest time if you cheerfully submit your film for x-ray scanning and don’t give it another thought. If you’re going to a foreign country, that will be your only option on your return flight; most other countries don’t allow hand inspection. But if you can’t avoid worrying about the very small risk of x-ray damage (especially if your itinerary involves multiple flights), you can easily avoid the risk. Buy film at your destination, and have it processed there. X-rays can’t harm processed film. You might have to do some research and make some phone calls to find a place to buy your preferred film (or an alternative you can live with) and a lab to have it processed. Or else regard airport “security” as justification to finally switch to a digital camera. X-rays can’t damage memory cards or computers.

Whatever you do, keep a careful eye on your camera bag during the screening process. Distraction is inevitable while you’re taking off and putting on your shoes, and when the screeners inspect your clear plastic bag of toiletries, pat you down, or (inconsistently) inflict the latest intrusive hassle they’ve added in reaction to yesterday’s failure. The TSA’s definition of “security” apparently extends only to the devastating but extremely rare threat of terrorism. When it comes to the far more common threat of theft— by airport employees, other passengers, or even the TSA screeners themselves— you’re on your own.

Some professional photographers avoid airport worries entirely by shipping all their equipment to and from their destinations with an air freight carrier. They often have no other choice, since strictly-enforced limits on carry-on baggage mean that valuable equipment would otherwise go in unlocked checked bags. Even if you don’t have a lot of costly equipment, the peace of mind might make this option worth the significant cost.

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In Praise of the “Staycation”

This was originally a response to a July 2008 post in Arthur Frommer’s blog, which I recommend reading first. That post seems to have “aged out” of Frommer’s blog archives, but a syndicated version is in the archives of the San Francisco Chronicle. If that disappears, you can read a slightly condensed version in Frommer’s book, Ask Arthur Frommer: And Travel Better, Cheaper, Smarter, through Google Books. Arthur Frommer achieved fame and fortune with Europe on $5 a Day, a guidebook that convinced millions of Americans that they could afford to visit Europe. His blog normally offers cogent commentary and sensible suggestions for travelers interested in value for money.

Until recently, a hometown vacation was unfairly relegated to people who could afford nothing “better.” Or it was piously prescribed as a penance for those who must “give up travel” to get out of debt, save for a down payment on a house, or otherwise learn a painful lesson about financial responsibility. But in 2008, the deteriorating value of the dollar made international travel too expensive for many Americans who had regularly enjoyed it. At the same time, the costs of both airfare and driving skyrocketed with the price of oil, making any long-distance trip unaffordable for many. So vacationing close to home officially became a “trend.” It even got a trendy (and execrable) new name, the staycation. It unfortunately remains trendy as the fallout from the Great Recession and its “jobless recovery” continue to affect millions of people.

As with anything trendy, a lot of ink and bytes have been devoted to expounding on the “staycation.” Commentators range from respected travel writers like Arthur Frommer, who needlessly denigrate it, to bloggers who take it to ridiculous lengths or give it a well-deserved (and not always family-friendly) satirical skewering. And retailers have eagerly— or perhaps desperately— tried to cash in on the “trend.” It’s likely that both the trendiness and, one can only hope, the ditzy name will fade away. Regrettably, Merriam-Webster has given “staycation” the cachet of inclusion in their dictionaries.

But the concept of enjoying a low-cost, low-hassle vacation that doesn’t require flying or traveling long distances is a very sound and sensible one in this Brave New World of metastable oil supplies, global warming, and airport pat-downs. Shorn of both its former stigma and its current faddishness, the “staycation” deserves an honorable place among vacation choices for all budgets.

The main problem with the word “staycation” is that it’s so fuzzy and imprecise. It can refer to at least three distinct things: A vacation spent entirely at home; a vacation spent in your home town or a nearby major city, possibly “commuting” daily from home; or a vacation in a nearby place you can get to in a few hours without flying.

Home is Where the Heart (and the Vacation) Is

The most restrictive kind of “staycation” is the vacation at home. Vacationers might leave their dwelling only for necessities, or perhaps for trips to nearby restaurants or movies. Families could spend quality time around the pool (if they have one), camping out in the back yard (if they have one), or perhaps watching videos. Couples might enjoy some romantic time together, and singles can catch up on reading or deferred projects.

“Cocooning” (to use an older trendy synonym) can provide the cheapest vacation. It also avoids the hassles increasingly associated with travel. For those reasons, it has its fans. Some people in high-pressure jobs who lack the time or inclination to plan a “real vacation” welcome it, or at least accept it, as a necessary respite to prevent burnout. Others, who find travel more stressful than enjoyable, may actually prefer to spend their meager vacation time relaxing at home.

Because it lacks the most important aspects of a vacation— in particular, getting away from home— many people find a vacation at home less than satisfactory. But it does have its place. After several years of trips to Hawaii and Death Valley during the Christmas-New Year week, I decided that travel during The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year is best left to the hordes who clog the airports and roads, paying premium prices to either join or escape their families. So I now look forward to ending the year at home, reading books and watching video movies I haven’t had time for. “Stay home for the holidays” is what I unhesitatingly recommend for anyone who has this time off from work.

If you do plan a vacation at home, check with local officials about any nearby scheduled construction work. I once took a week off from work, intending to spend some relaxing time at home. But I was unaware that a sewer renovation on my street would begin that week, until the jackhammers started tearing up the pavement under my bedroom window at 7 AM on Monday morning. When I called City Hall (from a payphone around the corner), they told me I wasn’t the first to call about it. The contractor had apparently neglected to send required advance notices to area residents. So my week off ended up entirely different from anything I had intended.

A Real Vacation In Your Home Town

A “staycation” most often means a vacation spent exploring your home town or a nearby major city. That’s what Arthur Frommer disparages as a “shameful second-rate substitute for travel.” While he’s entitled to his opinion (and makes some valid points), to me that characterization sounds needlessly ignorant and arrogant. An international trip charged to a credit card at 30% APR and paid off over decades can be “boring, enervating, [and] vapid.” Conversely, an inexpensive local vacation can be an exciting, fulfilling experience that creates memories to cherish for a lifetime. Despite what airlines and tour operators desperately want us to believe, the enjoyment of a great vacation does not necessarily correlate with distance and expense!

The key to a great hometown vacation is very simple, and can be a lot of fun: Prepare and plan— and eagerly anticipate!— a local adventure just as you’d plan an exotic foreign trip. Buy some guidebooks, or check them out from the library. Read Web sites intended for visitors. Identify some interesting places and attractions. Then develop a detailed itinerary based on what you’ve found. You’ll probably end up with a list of places you’ve never visited, possibly including famous tourist attractions. Think of those clichéd stories of native New Yorkers who have never visited the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. And you could compile an equally long list of places you had never heard of before.

Knowledge is power. In this case, it’s the power to transform a “staycation” from merely “moping around the towns in which we live” into a genuinely exciting vacation. Even if you’re normally a play-it-by-ear traveler who delights in arriving somewhere with a blank slate and going wherever whim, caprice, and serendipity may lead, you must spend some time researching and planning your hometown vacation. The research and planning will help you view a familiar place through excited and well-informed eyes. You’ll then be primed to enjoy discovering fascinating new things in what you might have otherwise dismissed as mundane and uninteresting. And that’s what can elevate a “staycation” into something special!

For that matter, research and preparation can help you get the most enjoyment from wherever you visit. A 2009 study suggested that people derive more happiness from planning and anticipating a vacation than from the trip itself. So in addition to enhancing the enjoyment and appreciation of a “staycation,” the time you spend planning it could make it as satisfying and beneficial as a trip to a far-off destination. If the study is right, the ease of planning and looking forward to short trips means that “staycations” can provide year-round happiness. (That said, I’ll admit to being rather skeptical about that study.)

Also consider taking a sightseeing bus tour, and then go back to those places you found most interesting. Visit the local zoo, museum, or theatre you’ve overlooked. Go to a farmer’s market. Perhaps spend a little time wandering around the park you pass every morning on the way to work. In other words, do just what you’d do on any other vacation.

Still, the town in which you live is an unavoidable consideration. If you’re in or near a place that attracts vacationers from around the world, planning an interesting “staycation” will be mostly a matter of winnowing an impossibly lengthy list of choices down to what you can reasonably do in the allotted time. You can save the rest of the list for future “staycations.”

If your home town or region isn’t known for its vacation appeal, finding interesting things to see and do will require some effort and creativity. But remember, that’s fun! Although you can almost always find something interesting wherever you are, if you look for it, I’m not denying that there surely are places where any possible “staycation” will indeed be “boring, enervating, [and] vapid.” I’ll suggest some ways around that problem later.

A Pause for Full Disclosure

I live in Southern California, a very popular travel destination with opportunities for exploration limited only by one’s tolerance for horrendous traffic. That perspective of course colors everything I have to say here. I suspect I’d have a very different opinion if I lived in Nebraska or Kansas, places where, judging solely by the paucity of coverage in travel books, an interesting “staycation” would seem to require “some effort and creativity.”

Writing this Web site also enriches my “staycations.” I know that people around the world dream of visiting Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Disneyland, and other places in Southern California. The possibility that some of them may find my pictures and writing interesting and informative adds a very special dimension to my local exploration.

I also find that “staycations” can offer me a wonderful creative challenge. A trip to a far-off exotic destination includes its own excitement and inspiration. Taking interesting pictures can be like shooting fish in a barrel. But visiting a nearby and possibly familiar place invites me to create that excitement and inspiration, so I can approach it with fresh vision. I’ve even made an ongoing project of finding interesting artistic images within walking distance of where I live. Looking and thinking matters more than traveling a long distance, if you open your eyes to what’s around you. When I succeed at finding artistically interesting images close to home— which unfortunately happens less often than I’d like— it’s very deeply satisfying. But as with any “staycation,” activities like that are supplements to, rather than substitutes for, actual travel.

Cheap Isn’t Always the Best Value

If money is of paramount concern, you can enjoy a low-cost vacation of well-researched day trips from home. You’ll also avoid the hassles of packing and unpacking, and end each day in your own bed dreaming of the next day’s discoveries.

But unless financial or other circumstances allow no other choice, a vacation made of day trips from home is false economy. The familiar environment, the daily “commute,” and the continual (and mostly unavoidable) distractions of quotidian chores and routines will all significantly diminish the “vacation” experience.

If you do build a vacation around day trips from home, doing your research and developing a day-by-day itinerary is particularly important. Being at home can create powerful inertia: Instead of getting out to the park, the zoo, or the museum, you succumb to an irresistible temptation to sleep late, and end up spending your day catching up on chores or watching television. That’s not a problem if you indeed wanted a “vacation at home”; but inertia can lead to disappointment if it isn’t what you planned. A detailed itinerary you’ve spent time putting together and looking forward to can help you avoid inertia. Of course, it’s perfectly fine to build some down time into the itinerary.

You could also enhance a home-based vacation with some of the same preparations you might make for trips away from home: Tell people at work that you’re on vacation and can’t be reached, ask the post office to hold your mail, and unplug the phone and the computer. Still, beginning and ending your day at home almost unavoidably means something less than a true vacation.

Expanding Circles

If budget constraints don’t require commuting from home, a “staycation” can be an opportunity to stay at a nearby hotel, and to try some local restaurants. Even if it’s close to home, staying in a hotel might let you spend your time at the places you want to visit rather than in a car or bus. You’re also getting away from home, which many consider an essential aspect of a vacation. You might also use some of what you’ve saved on airfare and car rental (plus all those “ancillary revenue” fees) to buy better accommodations, meals, or shopping.

Staying in a hotel— or in a motel, vacation rental, campground, or anywhere other than at home— opens up the most expansive definition of “staycation.” That means a trip not necessarily in your home town, but within maybe two or three hours from home by car, train, or bus. That’s too far to commute from home, so the trip provides a true “travel” experience. But it’s close enough not to require either flying or using up a lot of vacation time just getting there and back. This definition can accommodate a variety of regional trips. For example, from Los Angeles it could include San Diego and Santa Barbara, great destinations that also happen to be the only places to which pathetic Amtrak offers usable (if not particularly convenient) train service.

Though purists would balk at calling this sort of trip a “staycation”— and yes, there are “staycation” purists— it’s clearly within the more inclusive definition some writers use. Families, couples, and even single people were enjoying “staycations” in cities, parks, resorts, and campgrounds close to home long before Satan spawned the originator of that pernicious portmanteau. This might even be the most popular type of vacation for Americans. It’s the most practical choice for the long weekends (or even short weekends) that are too often the only option for vacation-challenged American workers.

Plan to linger longer, and possibly take advantage of mid-week hotel rates that can be much lower than on weekends. Anticipate and enhance it with research, and you’ve got yourself a vacation that, by any standard, is the Real Thing.

Expert Advice, To Heed and To Ignore

Once you’ve decided on any form of “staycation,” do yourself a favor. Ignore the “experts” who claim to have a Definitive Standard of What a Vacation Must Be. Their “Definitive Standard” is almost always based on promoting a specific agenda. They want you to be miserable if you don’t buy what they’re selling!

I have no quarrel with Arthur Frommer about the merits of international travel. I’m appropriately grateful to have enjoyed the “extraordinary privilege” of doing some of that, back when cheap oil and a strong dollar made it easily accessible. But that era seems to be over. The pervasive and persistent fallout from the Great Recession has made any kind of long-distance vacation inconceivable for too many Americans. A “staycation” allows even people enduring economic hardship to enjoy a break without breaking their finances.

Increasing numbers of people who aren’t suffering economically are so disgusted with the ordeal air travel has become that they refuse to subject themselves to it. Unfortunately, that choice could mean spending quite a bit of time in a car, train, or bus. If you don’t have the time or patience for that, a “staycation” offers a way to enjoy a vacation without the stress, discomfort, and dubious “security” hassles that go with flying.

That said, if the Legendary Chicken Fairy offered to give us whatever vacation we wanted, I doubt very many of us would choose a “staycation.” (Possible exceptions are people who travel for a living; or those who recently moved to a new city and might relish a chance to explore it before the novelty wears off.) Mr. Frommer does make the valid point that someone who has experienced international travel could well scorn a “staycation” as a “second-rate substitute,” since it can’t provide the experience of a different culture. There’s unfortunately no way around that reality, especially if you choose to focus on it.

And let’s face it, when you forgo that trip you want in favor of a more practical or affordable “staycation,” some disappointment or resentment is almost inevitable. But the simple, inexpensive, and fun strategy of preparing for your “staycation” exactly as you’d research and anticipate a foreign trip will help you mitigate both difficulties, even if it can’t completely eliminate them.

Another mitigation strategy is to plan your “staycation” around sharing a local experience with your family and/or friends. That’s often what makes any vacation special and memorable, regardless of where you go. This is obviously impractical if you vacation solo. But if you usually end up going alone because you can’t find a compatible companion who has the time, money, and/or interest, consider inviting a friend to join you on some day trips to interesting places in your home town. You might actually have an easier time finding a compatible companion for a low-key, low-cost, local adventure than for a trip that involves a substantial commitment of time and money.

Alternatively, a solo “staycation” can become a self-improvement project. For example, dining alone is the bête noire of many solo travelers, even for some who delight in everything else about going alone. Slay that beast (or least muzzle it) by treating yourself to dinners at some local restaurants during your “staycation.” And if you have always wanted to take a solo trip but are hesitant to do it, a day trip to an interesting nearby place you’ve read about is an easy and inexpensive way to start overcoming your apprehension.

The one worthwhile thing about the “staycation” as a trendy fad is that you can feel good about telling your friends and co-workers about the local places you’ve discovered. They’re likely to be doing the same thing! But “country-collectors,” and others whose main motivation for travel is bragging about exotic destinations to envious associates, deserve no salty tears if economic concerns reduce them to taking “staycations” that provide no bragging rights.

Avoid the Fake-Cation

The other advice to ignore comes from advocates of what can only be called a fake-cation. Can’t afford that Caribbean cruise? String up a hammock in the backyard, play some reggae on the boom box, drink some rum, smoke some ganja (if you’re in Colorado or Washington)— and you’re in Jamaica, mon! Is a romantic anniversary trip to Paris beyond your budget? Cook some French toast, rent some French movies, sip some wine— et voilà! And then there’s the virtual vacation conducted entirely on the Internet, which I fear may one day surpass the “staycation” as an inane trend. If you genuinely enjoy playing “let’s pretend,” I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil your fun. But that kind of fake-cation— including the infamous “family camping trip” in a backyard tent— can become “boring, enervating, [and] vapid” very quickly.

On the other hand, if you enjoy cooking you might have a great “staycation” devoted to the cuisine of a foreign destination you’ve always wanted to visit. That isn’t a fake-cation, since you’re enjoying the very real activities of cooking, eating, and (hopefully) sharing food. You can resume the daily grind of counting calories when the vacation is over.

Also, if you live in a big city with interesting ethnic enclaves, you might be able to overcome at least some of Mr. Frommer’s objections about the lack of opportunities to experience a different culture. An authentic transplanted slice of Tokyo, Taipei, or Tegucigalpa may be just a bus ride away! But otherwise, trying to make your home or your home town into something it’s not only invites disappointment. You’ll have a better time if you enjoy your local destination strictly on its own terms, without false pretenses. Once again, the key is to research and plan your local trip just as if it were on another continent.

Finally— and most importantly— I’m not recommending that anyone should take only “staycations,” on some lofty principle. I’m merely suggesting that the “staycation” should be valued rather than denigrated, as a useful travel option that can sometimes be just the right vacation choice. And of course, enjoying inexpensive “staycations” can help you save up for that international trip you really want to take.

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