You've Been Taking Travel Photos All Wrong!
Cathy Bennett Kopf is the editor of The Open Suitcase.
I fully intend to take dancing lessons before the first of my kids gets married. It’s one of my self-improvement goals. I have others, including “learn how to host an excellent dinner party” and “master intermediate plumbing” – I consider myself an advanced beginner, having repaired many running toilets.
Also on my list was the goal to improve my photography skills but it soared to number one with a bullet when I booked a bucket list trip to South Africa. Taking photos with my iPhone and compact camera would be fine, but I want better than fine for this trip. So I went looking for a professional photographer who would be willing to share some tips and techniques.
I didn’t have to hunt too long or too hard. One of my college chums happens to be dating a very talented photographer who was kind enough to agree to mentor me, like Mr. Miyagi and the Karate Kid.
Avery Meyers started taking photo lessons in high school; she was initially drawn to the subject because of the teacher (“He was hot!”), but soon realized her lust was really a passion. She studied in a landscape workshop under Ansel Adams and Jerry Uelsmann in Carmel, California, before heading to The Rhode Island School of Design, where she received a BFA in photography. Bicoastal by choice, Avery splits her time between Los Angeles and New York, where she is currently working on a black and white study of the city.
In the Bag
For our photo play date, Avery and I met at the Central Park Zoo for some simulated safari shots. I spewed the first of many questions immediately after passing through the entrance turnstile, “Do I need a camera bag?” Avery shook her head and pulled her camera out of a plain canvas tote. She explained that a DSLR body is fairly rugged and doesn’t require a special bag. Besides, when traveling, a camera bag screams “Steal me!” to thieves. Lenses do require a bit of TLC and Avery suggested neoprene bags for transport.
I may have this tattooed on my chest: don’t leave home without a spare, charged battery. I can visualize the moment when I press the shutter button to capture a photo of a sleeping lion and can’t because my little battery icon will have turned from green to red to off. Avery also recommends keeping extra memory cards in a clip-on case. She downloads her photos as soon as practical and then reformats the cards. Reformatting is a menu item on most cameras. Why? Because the cards become degraded over time and it’s possible for images to get trapped. I asked if I needed a lens hood. Nice, but not necessary, according to Avery. If you notice glare in your shot, she suggests using your hand to shield the front of the lens.
Patience is a Virtue
I shoot quickly and carelessly and hope I can crop a decent image once I get home. Avery suggested I’d get better results by doing the exact opposite. She explained how she gives some thought to her subject and then moves herself and the camera to eliminate distracting elements from her shots. And then she waits. This is particularly important when taking pictures of moving things like kids or animals.
So I gave it a try. In my first shot of the world’s cutest red panda, using my ants-in-the-pants shooting technique, the animal’s adorability was diminished by a stick in the center of the frame. I moved around the exhibit, focused my camera, and channeled Mr. Miyagi – “Wax on. Wax off.”
After a few minutes of waiting, my red panda started eating a stick, increasing his cuteness exponentially.
Rise and Shine
Not a morning person by nature (think vampire), Avery forces herself to get up and out before dawn to photograph special locations when traveling. For example, on a trip to Ireland, she really wanted to shoot the Giant’s Causeway, thousands of solidified lava columns along the coast. It’s a wildly popular tourist destination and by arriving at dawn, she was able to take pictures that weren’t filled with buses and tourists.
Speaking of tourists, patience comes in handy with them too. You’ll often be confronted with a fence or glass to shoot through when you’re traveling. Getting as close as possible and focusing (switching to manual lets you really hone in on your subject) helps to make the obstruction nearly invisible. So wait your turn, let the crowd dissipate, and then get as close up as possible.
The Artist’s Eye
With some practice, it becomes fairly easy to take a technically good snapshot. What I hope to cultivate is the art of capturing a place in a photograph, like Avery. As we were leaving, we were excited to get home and look at our shots. She was particularly eager to view her many penguin pics (Avery REALLY loved the penguins) but also to see how the city skyline looked in her sea lion shots. The skyline? Duh. I’d completely forgotten that we were in a zoo in the middle of Manhattan.
In my sea lion closeup, the animal could have been in any zoo or aquarium in the world. In Avery’s photo of the same sea lion with a bit of skyline behind it, she gives you, to quote John McPhee, a sense of where you are. And that is the difference between an amateur and a pro.
Who Should You Tip? And How Much?
Tipping really shouldn't be so hard. The service was good, you leave a token of your appreciation, and everyone is happy. Not so fast. This is one of the most difficult aspects of travel to navigate, since you have to take into consideration everything from how employees are paid to cultural traditions that could have you embarrassing yourself and your waiter just by leaving that 15 percent (apps like GlobeTipping—which gives advice for tipping in restaurants, hotels, and more in 200 countries—can help you along). We consulted experts and avid travelers for their thoughts on the scenarios that trip up travelers most and got their advice on how to avoid awkward situations. CRUISE STAFF In the old days, cruise lines provided an envelope and suggestions for how much to tip the crew members with whom you had direct contact during a sailing. Now it's the norm for major cruise lines to automatically add the tips to your bill (which could take you by surprise), especially in the U.S. and the Caribbean. "In the last 10 years or so there's been a trend toward automating [tips] where the cruise line said 'we'll take care of that for you if you just mark this off on the bill,'" says Spud Hilton, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's travel section and Bad Latitude blog. While some cruise lines make it possible to adjust the included tips if you wish, on others those included tips have become mandatory and cannot be adjusted. In this case, says Hilton, "the tipping is no longer about you and the person giving you good service—it's about service in general on the ship." And that service, he says, can even extend to things the cruise lines shouldn't expect passenger tips to cover—including employee education. Always check with your cruise line to find out if tips are included (and whether or not they can be adjusted) before setting sail. WAIT STAFF We've got tipping in the U.S. down when it comes to restaurants—leave 15 to 20 percent unless there's some outstanding circumstance. It's not so cut-and-dried abroad. A general rule for tipping in European restaurants is to leave a couple of euros if you're happy with the service, rounding a 47 euro bill up to 50 euros, for example. But in Denmark and New Zealand, no tip is expected at all. And be on the lookout for service charges that are included in the bill. In Norway, a 10 percent service charge is typically included (though you should leave 10 percent if it is not). But be aware that in some places, that service charge doesn't always cover the full tip. In Aruba, for instance, 15 percent is automatically added to the bill (this is distributed to everyone, including the kitchen staff). If you were happy with the service, leave an additional 5 to 10 percent and give it directly to your waiter. When in doubt, ask the hotel staff what the local customs are for tipping at restaurants. It's confusing when Europeans travel here as well. A couple years ago, the bar at a trendy New York restaurant started automatically adding 20 percent tips to bar tabs, since waiters were sick of being stiffed by European visitors who may not have been aware of customs on our shores. BELL MAN The tipping conundrum gets all the more confusing when you arrive at a big hotel with a flotilla of staff members on hand to assist you. One person grabs your bag from the car, another wheels it to reception, and yet another delivers the luggage to your room. You could get dizzy tossing around dollar bills. It's better to give one handout when you've reached your room. "The person who usually takes your bag from the car to check-in doesn't really expect to be tipped," says Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur who spends 85 percent of his time traveling, "They usually rotate their shifts (with the other porters delivering bags to rooms). The person who brings the bag to my room is the one I tip." STAFF IN CHINA AND JAPAN Believe it or not, tipping is considered rude in China and Japan, and is just not done. That goes for cab drivers, restaurant wait staff, and workers in hotels. But there is a big exception to this rule that could take even the savviest traveler by surprise. Keep reading to find out! SHUTTLE VAN DRIVERS Those courtesy shuttles you take from the airport to the car rental parking lot and from your hotel into town shouldn't be viewed as a completely free ride. Whether there's a jar for tips or not, you should hand off a dollar or two to the driver as you're getting dropped off. "If I have really heavy bags, I usually give the driver a few bucks," says John DiScala of Johnny Jet. HOTEL HOUSEKEEPING "Housekeeping is probably the most controversial—and misunderstood—tipping subject in hotels," says Charlyn Keating Chisholm, editor of About.com's hotels and resorts site, who has written several blogs on the topic. "Many people don't, but you should definitely be tipping the maid at your hotel," adds DiScala. "And if you tip every day instead of at the end of your stay you'll get the best service." A couple of dollars per day is acceptable. And when there's no official envelope for tipping, it's best to leave the money under the pillow instead of on a dresser, DiScala advises—in the latter case, maids may think the cash is not for them, and leave it behind after they clean. Even better, he says, find your housekeeper in the hallway and pass her a few dollars while thanking her for work well done. One caveat for this is if you are staying at a small inn or B&B. It's usually the owners themselves taking care of the tidying up, so forgoing the housekeeping tip is perfectly acceptable. CONCIERGE You don't need to tip a hotel concierge for sketching the route to the best local sushi joint on your map or arranging an airport shuttle. But if a real effort has been made to get you tickets to a sold-out show or a table at an impossible-to-book restaurant, the concierge deserves a special thank-you for his or her efforts. Tip somewhere between $5 and $20, depending on what you've requested, says DiScala. Slide the cash to the concierge in person or have it delivered to them inside one of the hotel's envelopes with a brief message expressing your gratitude. TOUR GUIDES Tips for guides are rarely included in tour prices, and are expected whether you were shown around the Roman Colosseum for an hour or the Great Barrier Reef for an entire day. "Generally speaking, $3 to $4 per day (in local currency) is acceptable for guides of shorter tours and $7 to $10 per day for full-day tour guides," says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance. When in doubt, ask the tour operator what is considered an acceptable tip—the question comes up so often that many agencies even post the information on their websites, he says. When we say this is standard worldwide we mean it—yes, even traditionally non-tipping countries like China and Japan (see, we told you there was an exception). But making a big show of passing over a few yuan or yen is still frowned upon. "Ideally, you would not give the tip directly after someone has done a favor for you," says Greg Rodgers, who runs several Asia travel blogs, including one on About.com. "That is like paying for the service. Instead, giving the tip at a later, unexpected time would be better." Most tours in China will include transport back to your hotel or the airport, so wait until the final goodbyes, not right at the conclusion of the tour. According to Rodgers, just taking cash out of your pocket is the worst way to tip in Japan. Put the money in an envelope and seal it before passing it to your guide. Have you experienced a tipping scenario that confused you that wasn't covered here? Tell us below.
Is Europe Safe for Travelers?
In the wake of the July 14 terrorist attack in Nice, France, many are asking themselves: Is Europe safe for travelers? The answer is yes, with the logical caveat that the better informed you are, the more observant you are, and the more prepared you are, the safer your trip anywhere in the world will be. Am I biased in favor of travel? You bet I am: There’s simply no better way to understand the world, to bridge the differences among cultures, and to embrace our personal stake in this little blue planet of ours. The State Department reminds travelers to adopt the following practices when visiting Europe: • Exercise vigilance when in public places or using mass transportation. • Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid crowded places. • Exercise particular caution during religious holidays and at large festivals or events. • Follow the instructions of local authorities, especially in an emergency. • Monitor media and local information sources and factor updated information into personal travel plans and activities. • Be prepared for additional security screening and unexpected disruptions. • Stay in touch with your family members and ensure they know how to reach you in the event of an emergency. • Register in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive security messages and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
Top Tips for a Romantic Getaway
We had a blast on our Twitter Chat devoted to romantic travel tips! Thanks to our sponsor, Visit Colorado Springs (@VisitCOS) and an array of participants, we enjoyed a lively exchange and learned a ton. Here, just a taste of the great romantic travel advice dispensed in today’s chat. I answered questions for @BudgetTravel, and BT staffers Jamie Beckman and Rosalie Tinelli chimed in from NYC as well. For a chance to win a trip to Colorado Springs, enter here! Q: What is your favorite romantic travel destination? My wife and I are outdoorsy and cherish our time in the Rockies, especially discovering a lake or waterfall we’ve never seen before. (@BudgetTravel) We can’t help but love Colorado Springs and the view from the top of Pikes Peak Summit! (@VisitCOS) Anywhere outside of the city – preferably when it’s chilly. Like a cabin in the mountains! (@MatadorNetwork) Q: What is your favorite type of romantic getaway (beach, nature, foodie, charming city?) Hard for @BudgetTravel to pick one! A lake house in the mountains is sublime, but so is a foodie/art/theater getaway. (@BudgetTravel) Finding new places to eat with your [heart emoji] is one of the best parts of traveling. (@ContikiUSA) Beach! Relaxing next to each other in the warm sun while reading, dozing & quietly appreciating downtime together is a treat. (@JamieBeckman) Q: Got tips for couples traveling together for the first time? Discuss expectations: Exploring, relaxing, shopping, eating? Sure you like each other, but you won’t agree on everything. (@BudgetTravel) Patience and communication are key. (@ViatorTravel) It’s ok to split off and do other separate activities. (@MatadorNetwork) Prepare to learn a LOT about each other & have a ton of fun. (@ContikiUSA) Compromise. Go with her for a formal tea and she’ll be happy to go to the Tigers game. (@TheOpenSuitcase) Pack your patience and don’t hold grudges. There are bound to be some missteps, so don’t let a silly tiff ruin your vacation. (@JamieBeckman) Q: What is your secret for saving money without skimping on romance? Spend on priorities: If new restaurants are your thing, budget for them and cut back on, say, hotel swank. (@BudgetTravel) Leverage the shoulder seasons for romantic getaways. Don’t get trapped in Valentine’s day, or other holiday prices. (@MatadorNetwork) Try an off-season beach with miles of sand for just the two of you. (@TheOpenSuitcase) Small towns + inexpensive lodging + no tourists = Romance! (@LittleRoadsEuro) I try to travel more off-season and bring things like wine or lunch for the road with us – intimate without spending. (@RosalieTinelli) Q: What is a good outdoor adventure activity for couples to try for the first time? Canoeing! You gotta work together, tell each other what feels good, find the right rhythm and chemistry. (@BudgetTravel) A nice float or battling the rapids – rafting is a thrill on the Arkansas River. (@VisitCOS) I loved surfing lessons with my husband in Tahiti. Neither of us was a natural but it brought joy & laughs watching each other try! (@JamieBeckman) Q: Where is the best spot in the world to kiss? Golden hour in the Rockies, Fiesole overlooking Florence, or sometimes even a busy NYC street – you know when it happens. (@BudgetTravel) The Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, with its "Kissing Camels." (@VisitCOS) Devil’s Falls! (@TheBuriedLife) Mermaid style, under the sea! (@ContikiUSA) Wherever you and your partner happen to be. (@ViatorTravel) How about the cliffs at Loop Head, Ireland? (@LittleRoadsEuro) A glacier in Iceland! Once we figured out how to work around the snowmobile helmets! (@TheOpenSuitcase) Under the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It’s magical. Just hold onto your wallet to avoid pickpockets eyeing distracted lovebirds. ;) (@JamieBeckman)
Why You Should Renew Your Passport STAT
Twenty million, nine hundred thousand. That’s how many passport applications will be received next year, according to Niles Cole, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs. And 17.4 million passport applications are expected this year, which is nothing to sneeze at, especially when compared to the 16.1 million passport applications the State Department received in 2008. Hence, their advice to get started on the renewal process since they will be plenty busy very soon. “We encourage passport applicants to apply for or renew U.S. passports well ahead of planned travel, as we anticipate longer than average wait times for passport processing over the coming months,” Cole says. So what’s driving the uptick? There’s the REAL ID act, which makes it mandatory to use a passport for domestic flights for 25 U.S. states and territories, and also the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which requires a passport to travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. For the latter, many people signed up in 2006 or 2007, so those are about to expire now. “Nearly 10 years after implementation of WHTI and the associated surge of passport applications, the Bureau of Consular Affairs is preparing for an anticipated surge as those applicants renew their passports,” Cole says. March is actually the busiest time of year for passport renewal, when so many are preparing for spring trips, so send yours in STAT. Cole advises, “Generally, we recommend individuals renew in in the winter, when the number of passport applications received is at the lowest.” He said they are currently processing passport applications in 6 weeks. “While that is up from four weeks last year, that is still within our service standards. Applicants should check travel.state.gov for the most up-to-date guidance on processing times.” Though there is an option to expedite the process for an additional fee, Cole believes there shouldn’t be a reason if you plan ahead. He says, “Regardless of when you choose to renew, planning in advance can save time and money.”