Updated: Feb 9
I’ve had the opportunity to travel with non-profits to the Middle East and Central America to capture images and film for digital storytelling and marketing. My experience and enthusiasm were on polar opposite ends of the spectrum. My heart was in the right place, but I did so many things ‘wrong.’ Imagine putting Lucille Ball on an airplane with a backpack or two of camera equipment, drop her into a foreign country, and watch as she navigates everyday life for a few weeks. That was me. You don’t know what you don’t know, right?
If I were to write a blog to my younger self, these are the FIVE things I’d tell me…
ONE: Pack light and only what you need.
On my first trip, I packed every lens I had, two camera bodies, my laptop, external drive, tripod (I travel with a tripod because I also capture film with my DSLR). I wanted to be prepared for any and every possible scenario so I packed everything. It was a delight to get through security and customs with all that equipment.
When I travel now, I pack one camera body, and two to three lenses (in order of must have are 35mm, 24-70mm, and then 85mm if I have room), my laptop, a lightweight small external hard drive, and an aluminum tripod (I find set up and tear down faster and less cumbersome with flip locks on my tripod). My 35mm and 85mm lenses handle low light beautifully with f/1.4 as I try to avoid using flash. As a photographer, it’s hard enough to blend in. Having your flash fire repeatedly or being noisy fiddling with a tripod will only draw more attention to what you’re doing–and what you’re doing is capturing authentic moments. I fell in love with the Lume Cube Panel Mini as a wedding photographer and find it less invasive than my flash if I need to add lighting. And, it’s a must have with shooting film and an inexpensive addition to your gear.
Pro Tip: I pack my lenses, hard drive, laptop, chargers, and lume cube in my Nordace Sienna backpack as my personal item and wear my DSLR in a neoprene camera case on board. Your backpack should include at least one anti-theft pocket, a laptop compartment, and a USB charging port. If anything happens to my checked or carry-on bags, I have everything I need with me. (Don’t forget to verify if you need to pack a travel plug adapter kit to charge your devices).
TWO: Plan, Plan, Plan
As a wedding photographer, I have a solid bird’s eye view of each wedding day because I’ve built a timeline, introduced myself to vendors, and built a relationship with my couple before their wedding day. And, as a teacher, I know you can never overplan. Traveling with and for a non-profit is no different. Before stepping on the plane, understand the itinerary and the mission of the trip. Do you have contracted hours? Do you have a daily shot list, total creative freedom, or a combination? Will you edit a few images or clips for social media while you’re in-country? How will the images and/or clips be used? Have they previously hired a photographer and what did they like or not like about that experience?
Before you step on the plane, immerse yourself in the mission of the non-profit you are partnering with. What’s their vision and mission statement? What are their short-term and long-term goals? Where and how are they trying to build an audience?
If you don’t understand their story, it’s a harder story to tell, even with the thrill of being in another country. For example, I shoot high school sports because my kids play high school sports. I can’t anticipate what is happening on the football field because I don’t understand the game past the basics. I do ok, but my images would definitely be more than ok if I understood the game. Understand ‘the game.’
Spend time immersing yourself in the culture of the country. I would have been less shocked or surprised by my surroundings had I spent time really learning about the city and people I would be spending time with. The culture and customs will be different, and maybe even drastically different. When I traveled to the Middle East, nothing was the same. I spent the first week on sensory overload. The smell, the weather, the food, the language, the dress, the toilets, the music–everything was different.
As a woman, I needed to behave differently so I didn’t offend the very people I wanted to capture on film. Going outside with wet hair after my shower here is a daily thing, but there, wet hair in public is unacceptable. Here, I hug everyone I can; there, if a man reaches out his hand first, you can shake it, otherwise physical contact is not acceptable between a man and a woman. Be aware and respectful of the differences in customs. What is comfortable and normal for you here, could be unacceptable and offensive there.
FOUR: Candids vs Posed
I find a shot list super helpful on wedding day and for large family sessions, events, and branding sessions. The relational part of me gets distracted when I’m enjoying the people I’m with on wedding days or sessions. Having a pre-determined (and agreed upon) shot list not only helps your non-profit get the shots they need to tell their story, but it helps keep you organized and ready for your day. Candids will come easily to you so be sure you know what posed shots your non-profit needs, if any. For example, head shots near famous landmarks would provide context to overseas projects or outside the building for which fundraising is needed.
When you’re in the planning stages with your non-profit, determine what social media platforms they rely on for digital storytelling and marketing. The social media landscape is ever changing so be prepared to shoot for image and video dimensions and styles that provide continuity with their brand for all their connected socials.
I tend to shoot tight because I’m a lover of details. I NEED to remind myself on my shot list to shoot wide. Shooting wide gives the opportunity to crop in, add text, and provide more of a context for the setting. I make sure to shoot both portrait and landscape to ensure plenty of content to cover post, carousel, and reel creations for social media and also for web and print.
I’m famous for overshooting. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence in a new environment. Maybe it’s excitement. Maybe it’s something else. I try to reign in the overshooting side of myself on wedding days to help in post-processing and culling images, but here, I don’t limit myself. I may never get the opportunity to return and the non-profit may not have the funding to hire another photographer for several years.
My recommendation is to shoot, shoot, shoot. Shoot tight. Shoot wide. Shoot portrait. Shoot landscape. Shoot basic shots first and anticipate the authentic moments. Shoot the posed first and give yourself plenty of time to get creative with your composition. Shoot with your iPhone. Shoot time lapses and slow motion. Just keep shooting.
Until next time,
Focus on what matters...