30 Things to do Before an International Photo Safari
Before you jet away on your next long-distance photography tour, check out this list of 30 really important things that you should do at a minimum of 30 days before your departure date.
In no particular order. But I would suggest tackling the top 4 items ASAP since they may require a little more time to complete. Since I am about to head out to the Masai Mara in Kenya, Africa for the great migration (whoo hoo!!), I will use this area as an example of the types of things to consider. (Check out photos from a prior migration trip here).
1. Start a shared folder online and a physical paper folder for all of your important travel documents.
There are many moving parts to planning your epic international journey. As you put the work into planning, it's a good idea to use a central place to store all of your important documents such as itineraries, locations, important contacts and many other items that we will cover in this list. By using a secure shared online folder, you and your loved ones back home will have quick access to all of this info. In the event that any of your paperwork is lost or stolen, you will have backup copies available to help you to get through a potentially disastrous situation. Services like Google Docs, OneDrive, Evernote and Dropbox will work great for this purpose.
Don't forget to actually give access to this online folder to at least one trusted loved one back home. If you give them access to make changes to the folder, this will allow them to add in any documents that you may have forgotten and you need copies of while abroad.
Also start a physical folder to store printed copies of documents so they are all handy when it's time to take off. Keep this folder in a secure location and try to actually remember where you put it! (I am famous for forgetting where I hide stuff) There are some pretty cool travel document/accessory organizers out there for this purpose. The ones with RFID blocking help to keep your identity safe from scammers with scanners.
Here are a few options:
2. Secure some travel insurance
This should really be done as soon as you shell out the first deposit on any part of your trip. Not only do you want trip cancellation insurance, you really should also opt for the emergency medical coverage. A good all-inclusive plan covers these losses along with others such as trip delay and lost or damaged luggage.
I used to always think that this was just an unnecessary expense that was being pushed on me. Then I realized the importance of it when a fellow guest on a safari in South Africa injured her leg and had to have surgery before traveling home. The insurance company paid for most of her expenses and those of her travel companion and their extended stay.
I recently signed up for an annual plan through Allianz that covers all trips that I take throughout the year. It may seem like a lot of money but the peace of mind is worth the cost. Check out their options here - https://www.allianztravelinsurance.com
Once you secure a policy, send a copy to your travel host and place a copy in your online shared folder.
2. Make sure your passport is in order
For Kenya, the expiration date must be less than 6 months after your scheduled date of return back to your home country and there must be at least 2 blank pages left. Check the official website of the country that you are visiting for their requirements. For info on how to obtain a new United States passport or renew one, visit https://www.usa.gov/passport. You will need to provide a passport photo. You can take one on your own but it's kind of a pain because there are strict guidelines on how the image should be captured and printed. It's easier just to do an online search for places near you that do them. In my area, the big chain drug stores like Walgreens and CVS provide this service. Some pack and ship FedEx and UPS stores also do it.
Scan a copy of the main mage of your passport and place it in your online folder. You will need this to help you to get back home if it gets lost or stolen. Place your passport in your physical travel folder.
3. Visit a local travel clinic.
A good travel doctor will do the research for you on the types of vaccinations that are required and/or suggested for the areas that you are traveling to. For Kenya (at the time of writing this), you are required to provide proof that you have been vaccinated for Yellow Fever and you must present a certificate to the customs officer. You can visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for up to date requirements, recommendations and health advisories - https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel.
You may also want to get a prescription for malaria prevention pills and a Z-pack in case you get sick and are in need of antibiotics. You can also talk to them about over the counter medications to consider such as imodium for traveler's diarrhea (This is no fun when you are stuck on a safari vehicle in the middle of lion country. Trust me on this one.) or a mild sleep aide to help you with insomnia due to jet-lag.
Scan a copy of your immunization records and any certificates you receive and place them in your shared online folder. Put a printed copy in your travel organizer.
For those in the local Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area, check out Doe Jacobs, RN, BSN • Arcadia Physicians Travel Clinic • https://www.travelshots.net/ • 602-875-5678.
4. Apply for a visitor's visa
Do a quick Google search for visa requirements in the country you are visiting. Be sure that you select the official government website. There are many shady people out there that would love to scam you into sending them application fees. For Kenya, the site to apply is - http://evisa.go.ke/evisa.html
Before you start the online application, read through their list of required supporting documents and have scanned copies available for upload (See... that online folder is already coming in handy!). If you don't do this, your session may time out while you are fiddling around trying to gather them up and you will lose all the data you already entered. Speaking from experience here. Ugh!
Some common items you may need are:
- A copy of your passport information page
- A copy of your flight itinerary
- Hotel booking confirmations or proof of where you are staying while in the country
- Name, address and phone of the places you will be staying
- A passport photo (But for Kenya, not the same photo that is actually used in your passport. Why, I don't know!)
- Info for an emergency contact
- A copy of your travel insurance policy
- A credit card to pay the application fee
Once you complete your online application it can take a few weeks to get an approval. I always have to remember to check online for the approval status because I don't seem to get email notifications of this. After the visa is issued, print a copy to hand to the customs officer upon arrival at your destination. Place it in your travel organizer and save a digital copy in your shared folder.
5. Register in the STEP Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
The STEP program is a free service that allows U.S. citizens to enroll their trip abroad with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. This will allow you to receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country, helping you make informed decisions about your travel plans. It will also help the U.S. Embassy and your loved ones back home to contact you in an emergency such as a natural disaster or civil unrest. Visit this site to register - https://step.state.gov/step/
6. Check the current regulations for what you can and cannot bring
The rules on what is allowed on an aircraft, whether as a carry-on or in checked baggage is ever-changing. Be prepared and check before you go. Here is a list of commonly questioned items and their current status from the TSA- https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/all
There are also great tips on packing and preparing on the FAA's website at https://www.faa.gov/travelers/prepare_fly/.
I recently heard on the news that there were issues with the batteries on 15" Macbooks overheating and catching fire. The FAA was not allowing them on aircrafts. Since I need mine on my trip for photo processing, I got a little nervous. After Googling thee issue, I found a link to check the serial number on Apple's website to see if my model was subject to recall. It wasn't. So I printed the results of the check out and put it in my travel organizer just in case some agent decides to give me crap about it at the airport. If you have a 15" Macbook, you may want to visit this link to make sure yours is not about to blow up - https://support.apple.com/15-inch-macbook-pro-battery-recall
7. Get a few power outlet adapters
Different countries use different types of plugs and voltages for their power outlets. You can find which types to expect here - https://www.worldstandards.eu/electricity/plug-voltage-by-country/. Get a couple of these if you're bringing multiple electronic devices so you can charge more than one thing at a time.
A multi-type international plug adapter is useful to be sure that you have the right kind. If you have a layover in a different country, you may be caught by surprise when you can't charge your devices. Here is a link to some plug adapter options on Amazon.
Europe runs on 220 volts while America uses 110 volts. Most modern electronics are dual-voltage and work for both. Check your appliances to see if they have a range of 110-220. If not, you may need to purchase a power converter.
8. Practice taking the types of shots you will be taking on your trip.
If you are heading off on safari, go spend some time at a local wildlife sanctuary taking images of animals in manual mode. Head to a park and track birds in flight while in AI servo mode. Learn how to use back-button focusing while photographing your dogs playing in the back yard. Capture some silhouettes of trees in your neighborhood as the sun sets. You don't need to try to capture award-winning images right now. Just focus on sharpening up your skills and building up muscle memory as your fingers work through the buttons and settings on your camera.
9. Set up custom functions on your camera.
Most semi-pro cameras these days have the option to set up a couple of custom settings. This allows you to quickly tun the dial to change your shutter speed, aperture and ISO to commonly used combinations for certain scenes. For example, I set up three different custom settings as follows:
C1 is set for action - Shutter speed - 2000, Aperture f4 (or the widest the lens I am using allows), ISO - Auto
C2 is set for video - Shutter speed - 1/60 (since I am shooting at 30 fps), Aperture f8, ISO - Auto
C3 is a mid-day average scene setting for handholding using a 70-200 lens - 1/400, f8, Auto ISO
10. Clean your camera sensor.
Don't wait until you get home from a trip and sit down to sort through thousands of images to realize that you have a dirty sensor and need to clone out dust spots from every.... single.... image. (Been there. Done that) Bring your camera in now for a quick cleaning.
11. Buy more memory
As cameras evolve with bigger and better sensors, our need for larger and faster memory cards grows. Just a few months ago, I was on safari trying to capture some 4k video and couldn't do it because the only cards I had left with free space on them were too old and slow to do the job. Memory is pretty cheap these days. Go pick up a few more SD cards.
You may also want to pick up a compact external hard drive. I like to make a copy of all of my raw photo files onto a separate drive upon import from the memory cards. This way I have 3 copies of the images and am confident that I won't lose any... 1 copy on the memory card, one on my laptop and one on the external drive. I keep all 3 of these items in different places when I travel back home in case one item is lost or stolen (Hard drive in checked bag, memory cards in my purse, laptop in my carryon bag)
12. Research weight restrictions
If you are taking any small private planes to get into remote areas, you are probably going to be restricted to a much lower baggage weight allowance than on your commercial flight. For example, the charter flight from Nairobi into the Mara Triangle Conservancy is limited to 27 kg per person, including all of your camera gear.
13. Test pack and weigh
It's a good idea to gather all of the items that you will be bringing a few days early and do a test run on your packing. Chances are good that you may need to pull out some of the "just in case" items because they don't fit or they throw your bag over weight. If you travel with an experienced tour company like Wild Eye, they provide all of the little necessities that add up in weight like shower soap, lotion, sunscreen, bug spray and more. Laundry service is also available at many destinations so you can re-wear clothes.
14. Notify your bank and credit card companies that you will be traveling.
Most banks and credit card companies have a way to easily set a travel notification on their website. If you forget to do this, you may get stuck somewhere without a form of payment because the bank rejected your transactions for potential fraud risk.
15. Let someone know where all the important stuff is.
In the unlikely event that a tragedy strikes during your travels, your loved ones back home will need access to important personal documents. Be sure to give one trusted person access to your online account login info, your estate documents and phone numbers for friends and family.
16. Download music and shows.
Even though your international flight may have access to the internet, you are going to be very limited on bandwidth. By downloading shows to binge on or some good tunes to listen to, the long journey will go by a lot faster. If you plan to watch movies provided by the airline, be sure to pack earbuds with the older style stereo jack so you can plug them into the screen on their AV system.
17. Pick up a good book
When I am home, I never take the time to sit down and read a book. I recently got into the habit of stopping at the airport sundry shop to pick up an actual physical book with real paper pages that you turn with your fingertips (i know... pretty old school!). This is the only time I allow myself to spend time getting lost in a intense thriller story. I actually look forward to flights now so I have an excuse to take this time out to escape into a fictional world.
18. Read your camera manual
If you're not into paperback dramas, this is a good time to read up on something more practical... your camera. When was the last time you actually read a camera manual? I can almost guarantee you that you could be doing a lot more with your equipment if you took the time to learn all of the functions that it is capable of.
19. Get small bills for tips
I am constantly stuck looking for a place to get change on trips because I forget to get small bills before I leave. Valets, drivers, bellhops, room attendants, wait staff, laundry service, etc, etc... It gets really expensive when all you have to hand out is large bills.
20. Get an international data plan
We have so many apps and social media accounts these days. They all take up a lot of data when we are sharing photos and video throughout our travels. International roaming data charges can really catch you off guard if you don't plan ahead. Most cellphone carriers have travel data plans that you can temporarily add to your account. You can also purchase local SIM cards upon arrival. I have never done this and have no clue how to advise you to do it. But I hear it's a pretty cheap option.
21. Turn off cellular data on apps that you won't be using
Many of the apps we use are running in the background even when we are not using them. This will use up your precious international data real quick. It also takes a toll on your battery charge. To avoid this, go to your settings and turn off cellular data access for all apps that you will not be actively using during your trip. You will need to go to a separate area to also turn off background updates. On IOS go to Settings, General, Background, App Refresh. On Android go to Settings, Data Usage, Mobile Data Usage, select an app then turn off Allow Background Data Usage.
22. Clear up space on your computer
If you will be bringing your laptop along to download photos and do a little editing during downtime, now is a good time to give it a good cleaning. You are going to need all of the space you can get on it to store the thousands of amazing photos that you are about to capture. Delete all of those old rejected images!
23. Back up your laptop
After your computer is all clean and clear, take this opportunity to also make sure that everything is backed up. Run your time machine, plug in the RAID drive or do whatever you normal backup system is. In the event that someone lifts your laptop at the airport, at least you will still have all of your data.
24. Turn off any background online backups on your laptop
If your backup system is one that runs in the background whenever you are online, such as Backblaze, or Icloud, I would suggest turning this off after you are sure that all of your current files are copied over. When you are using the public wifi during your travels, you will have very limited bandwidth. If you are sending large photo files up to the cloud, this process will really slow your computer down while you are trying to accomplish other things.
25. Turn off any auto backups on your phone
ICloud, OneDrive and Lightroom CC. are great services to keep your phone data safe. But they use up a lot of international roaming data, especially if you are taking raw photos and 4K video. Consider only having these programs run at night while you are on wifi and you are sleeping. Be sure to turn off the option to run backups over cellular data! On IOS search for ICloud in Settings and turn off the ICloud Drive. In Lightroom CC, turn Use Cellular Data Off in settings.
26. Enable Location Services and share your location with someone
Just in case some crazy sh*t goes down in the world while you are gone and your loved ones need to find you. Share your location with a loved one so they can attempt to locate you if needed using the Find my Friends app or another service that your carrier provides. On IOS, it's under Settings/Privacy/Location Services. Then go to the contact record of the person that you wish to share with and Click on Share My Location/Share Indefinitely.
27. Sync your camera dates and times
If you will be using multiple cameras, it's helpful to take a few minutes to sync up the dates and times as close as possible. If you download all of your images from your main camera, backup camera, smartphone, GoPro, etc, into one location on your computer, they will not all be in the correct chronological order if you don't do this. You will waste a lot of time flipping back and forth through images to find the same scene captured on a different device.
28. Get a sturdy travel pillow
Travel pillows aren't just for failed attempts at sleeping on a cramped and noisy plane. They also make for a great camera lens rest on a bumpy safari vehicle. My good travel buddy Jane taught me this trick. It helps to keep your camera in place and protected with some padding while you are bouncing all around.
29. Bring a small travel journal
Another helpful thing my friend Jane did for me was to give me a beautiful leather-bound travel journal. It's perfect for jotting down notes while out in the field. I can't tell you how many times I told myself "I'll remember what type of bird that was" or "I'll know the name of that little town we passed through" and then went on to completely forget it 10 minutes later. There is a lot to take in and absorb on an international trip. Take a moment to jot down the good stuff as it happens.
30. Enjoy the journey
I have to keep reminding myself of this over and over while I am traveling. It's so easy to let our minds get all wrapped up in the frustrations and mishaps that happen over a long journey. Big crowds, annoying travelers, bad service, late departures, stinky plane passengers...... The list can go on and on if you let it. When you find yourself starting to get annoyed with the little stuff, stop and take a breath. Appreciate the fact that you are fortunate enough to be taking the journey. Think about all of the wonderful things that you are experiencing that so many others will never have the opportunity to in their lifetime. Be present. Soak it all in. Process it. Remember it. Write it down. Practice gratitude. Enjoy the journey.
I wish you all the best on your epic adventure..
Join me for a life-changing trip to Kenya in Sept. 2020 to witness the great migration and help out the local community. Click here for details.