Top Apps for Travel

Smartphones have definitely made some aspects of travel much easier, and there are tons of great ones out there. This list is a few of some favorite apps for international travel.  These are all available on the iTunes Store for Apple devices, and most of them have an Android equivalent. These are all free, unless otherwise noted. It is important to note that many apps will only work with a data or wifi connection, so you want to sort that out before you leave home.  You can check with your cell phone carrier to see if they offer international plans, or you can purchase a sim card in your destination country.

  • Screen capture of Iphone
    Travel apps can make life on the road a little bit easier.

    Google Maps:  Where am I?  Google maps can help you figure out where you are and where you’re going.  It gives walking, driving and even includes public transportation routes for many major cities.  Does require a data connection.

  • MapsWithMe: Allows you to use maps even while offline.  Maps can be downloaded, bookmarked and shared with other. ($4.99)
  • GuideWithMe: Offers destination guides that can be viewed offline.
  • Google Translate: You do need to have access to a data or wifi network for this to work, but you can save recent translations. I’ve had conversations by typing in what I want to say and passing the phone back and forth.  Of course, it’s not always accurate, but the funny translations can add levity to a conversation.
  • White Noise:  It’s amazing how much a little white noise can help to drown out noise from roommates, hotel doors, traffic outside, etc… I like this app because you can set it turn off at a certain time.  I set it to fade out about 10 minutes before my alarm goes off, that way I wake up a little more gently. You can also set it to have a continuous clock readout, when you want to glance at time without have to handle the phone.  The Lite version is free.
  • FlightBoard:  Got a tight connection, and need to find out the gate for your connecting flight?  With this app, I’ve figured out my gate, even when the airline attendant doesn’t announce it.   I’ve also made friends on the tram, by helping fellow passengers find their gate info.
  • Airline Apps:  Whether it’s American, United, Delta or Southwest, by downloading the airline app, I can stay informed about my flight information.
  • GlobeConvert:  Need to convert miles to kilometers or pounds to kilograms, or Dollars to Yen?  There are several apps that will do this for you in an instant. I use GlobeConvert.
  • Yelp:  Has helped me find a restaurant, coffee shop or hotel on more than one occasion.
  • Skype:  Great for communicating with the folks back home.
  • Shazam: Uses your microphone to identify music you may here in a cafe, shop or on the street, and lets you save the tag so you can purchase the music later.
  • Camera+:  The best camera is the one that you have with you.  So why not make your smartphone camera better.  Camera+ has some great features that allow you to adjust exposure, and focus points.

Japan Specific Apps:

  • Hyperdia:  A must have for figuring out the Tokyo Metro system.  You can type in your location and destination, and it will tell you exactly which trains to take.  This is one case where the Android app is better than the iPhone app, but at least it’s available for both platforms.
  • FotopediaJapan: A photographic Journey through Japan.
  • Gurunavi: Japan Restaurant Guide.  Apps for both iPhone and Android.  Website is also a great resource.
  • Japan Goggles:  The idea behind it is great, you can point your camera phone at Japanese word in Kanji, and it will give you an English Translation.  However, reviews on it are mixed, so don’t count on it working for everything.  I hope it will keep me from inadvertently going into the Men’s room.

Sleep Button:   The convenience that our smart phones provide can prevent a lot of headaches, but don’t let them get in the way of actually experiencing the destination.  Use them as tools, not as crutches or constant companions.   Technology can be addicting, and it can be a barrier to REAL experiences and connections, so don’t be afraid to put the smartphone to sleep, and put it away!

Choosing a Camera: Part 2

This Blog post is Part 2 of a series with advice on buying a camera.

Choosing the Camera Brand:  For years, the answer has usually been “Nikon” or “Canon”.  I’ve always compared that choice to the Ford/Chevy or Mac/PC debate.   There are strong opinions  and valid reasons for choosing one over the other. For students who are majoring in Photography, I have always given the following bits of advice:

  • Go to a camera store, like Dury’s in Nashville.  Hold the cameras in your hands, see how the ergonomics of the camera feels for you.  You might find that one or other is easier to hold, or the controls seem more intuitive… Then purchase the camera from that store,  if you purchase online, then that store might not be there next year. You also more help with warranty support and a friendly face to ask for advice when considering future purchases.
  • Do you have a photography mentor? If you have a good friend, family member or professional mentor that you might call with questions, or swap equipment with, it will be easier if you shoot with the same system.
  • Consider future purchases:  One of the most daunting aspects of a new camera purchase is the idea of buying into a “system.” Each camera system has it’s one lens mount, so you can’t mount a Canon lens on a Nikon body…and vice versa.  So once a photographer has invested in one system and ones multiple lenses it is more difficult to switch camera brands.
  • Lenses and Accessories:  For years, most professional photographers have chosen either Nikon or Canon systems. These brands have strong brand loyalty, and offer a lot of flexibility because of the sheer number of lens and accessories that are available for the systems.   If you look at lens made by other manufactures like Tamron and Sigma, you’ll notice that the lenses are offered with either a Nikon mount or a Canon mount.  This is the primary reason why I tell students who are interested in pursuing photography at a professional or serious amateur level to purchase on of those two brands.   Sony has recently been making a push to enter into the professional market, and they actually make the sensors for Nikon cameras.  At the time I am writing this blog, the lenses available for their cameras are still limited, but there are adaptors that be used to convert most lenses with a Nikon or Canon mount to fit on the Sony Camera.
  • How much money do you have to spend?   When shopping for cameras, you will often find good deals on a kit that includes a body and lens (or two) and other accessories.   The lenses included in these package deals are often referred to as the “kit lens.”  This combo of body and lens are often packaged for new photographers who need a simple set up that provides flexibility for a variety of situations.   The downside to this setup is that these “kit lenses” are usually not the highest quality lenses offered by the manufacturers.  You can often find faster and sharper lenses by purchasing the body and lens separately.

Avoid loading up on gadgets and gizmos right away.  Wait until you’re are more knowledgeable about photographic terminology and your own personal needs.  If you are just getting started, it’s okay to start out with an entry level camera and kit lens.  All new digital SLR cameras are going to have the basic functions that you need to learn photographic fundamentals. You can upgrade your lenses later.

And most important: Cameras don’t take pictures, photographers make them.  It’s your vision and knowledge that operate the equipment.  The camera is only the tool, the photographer is the creative force behind the lens.   My Philosophy on Gear.

Boats returning to Abraao after a day at Lopes Mendes Beach, Ilha Grande, Brazil (Emily Naff)
Boats returning to Abraao after a day at Lopes Mendes Beach, Ilha Grande, Brazil.

Travel Preparations: It’s the Little Things

When spending extended time away from home, sometimes it is the little things that can make a difference in your comfort.  I often travel for 3-4 weeks at a time. These are a few things that I have learned make life on the road just a little easier.

  • Bandana- I won’t leave home without it.  I wear it as a head band, or tie it onto my day pack.  On the plane, I pull it down over my eyes when I want to sleep.  It’s like hanging a “do not disturb” sign.   After an overnight flight, I can then use it as a wash cloth.  Washing my face and brushing my teeth after an overnight flight, makes it much easier to face a new day in a new country.  It also serves as a napkin, or “table cloth” for a quick picnic.
  • Waterbottle– one that will fit in your daypack, so that you will take it with you everywhere.  It is so important to stay hydrated when traveling and little bottles of water are expensive.  If tap water is not safe, then I  go to a grocery store and buy the biggest bottles of water available and use those to refill my small bottle. Make sure it is empty before going through security.
  • Earplugs- great for sleeping on an airplane and in a noisy hotel.   A good nights sleep makes all travel much more pleasant.  Earplugs are especially helpful if sharing a room or sleeping with an open window.
  • White noise – I’m addicted to white noise because I sleep with an airfilter in my room at home.  It does wonders for drowning out the little exterior noises that wake you up, especially if you are in an unfamiliar environment.  I used to travel with a radio, alarm, white noise combo, but now I just have a white noise app on my iPhone that does the trick.  I guess you’ve figured out that I value my sleep.  It helps keep me healthy, both physically and mentally!
  • Flashlight– I keep a little one clipped to my camera bag.  I also love headlamps, because they free my hands.  They work great for reading in bed, if your hotel doesn’t have a small lamp by the bed, or if you’re sharing a room.  It’s also helpful for getting things out of your suitcase at night, without disturbing your roommates.
  • Multi-tool and/or Swiss Army Knife–  You never know when you’ll need to fix a piece of gear, or open a bottle of wine!  Just be sure to pack it in your checked luggage, so it doesn’t get confiscated by security.
  • Duct Tape- You can repair all sorts of things with duct tape: rips, tears, shoe soles… you name it, it’s been “fixed” with duct tape.   I wrap a few feet of it around a pen, and keep it in my camera bag.  If you need any more ideas for the possibilities for duct tape, check out this blog.
  • First-Aid Kit– stuff for blisters, indigestion, diarrhea, motion sickness, pain, cuts, bites, etc.  I don’t take an entire pharmacy, just enough of these item to prevent an inconvenient emergency trip to a drugstore.

Remember, pack light.  Carefully consider each item in your suitcase.  Is it necessary?  How much does it improve your quality of travel?  Can I buy it in country?  I’ve decided that for me, each of these items are worth the little bit of space they take up, even if it means I have to take one less book, or one less pair of shoes.

Preparations for Photographers

Two weeks until departure, and I’ve got tons of tasks popping up in my head that I need to do before I leave.  That’s why I’m a big believer in “to do lists.”   I can get the idea out of my head and onto paper.  And more importantly, eventually I will get the satisfaction of crossing it off my list.  Below are a few items that can be done this week, before the week before crazies set in.  This is the to do list that deals specifically with camera equipment and camera gear.

Shop for Gear:  There are a few extra things I that I want to get.  For example, I need a new remote for my camera, and a UV filter for the new lens that I got for my birthday.  This will just be a quick trip down to Dury’s, where I’m sure I’ll find something else that I “need.”

Prep my Gear:

  • Clear extra files off my laptop, to make sure I have plenty of storage space for the thousands of photos that I will take.
  • Prep my external hard drive.  I’ll clear it off completely, and reformat it.  I’ll reformat it as a “start up disk.”  This is helpful in case the hard drive on laptop hard drive crashes, I’d be able to boot up and run programs off of the external drive.
  • Clear and reformat all of my memory cards, maybe buy a few more.
  • Check out and clean the camera and lenses.
  • Clean out my camera bag.  Since my camera bag acts like a purse when I travel, I always find odds and ends from the previous trip when I clean it out.  Maybe I’ll find some Jamaican dollars, I’ll definitely find some Jamaican sand.
  • Set aside a clear  place to lay out all the gear.  Place the appropriate cords, cables and adapters with each piece of equipment.

My Philosophy on Gear

I am not a gear head!  I know my last two postings have been about equipment choices, but you might have noticed that I have been purposefully vague about the specifics of the gear that I shoot with.  If you were to ask me what camera to buy, I’ll be equally vague.   I’ll talk about gear in the general sense.  There are plenty of resources out there that give very detailed equipment reviews.   I’m more interested in the images that you can create with the gear you have.  While I do believe that professional photographers should have professional quality gear, it is not the camera that makes the image, but the vision behind the viewfinder that creates compelling images.

We’re approximately 2 weeks from departure to Brazil, so NOW is the time to purchase any gear that you want to bring on the trip.

The minimum requirements for my class are a Digital SLR with lens, tripod, laptop and external hard drive.   A few extra things I recommend are: external flash, extra battery, extra memory cards, and if at all possible, at least one fast, prime lens.  Then of course, there is the camera bag dilemma.

If you look in my office closet, you’ll see the equivalent of Imelda Marcos’ shoe closet.  I have more camera bags than the law should allow.  How I transport the gear matters on so many levels.  1st is comfort, 2nd is what can I carry, 3rd is how does it look.

For comfort, I prefer a sling bag or backpack.  I use a backpack for the big travel days when I really just need to transport the gear safely and easily, but don’t expect to be doing a lot of shooting.  I like one that will hold my laptop, but is small enough to fit under the airplane seat or in the small overhead compartments.  I’ve had to pull out my laptop and camera at the runway, when the airline forced me to gate check a large bag.

When walking around and shooting, I prefer a sling bag.  The sling bag style makes it easier to get to the gear quickly.  I prefer one with a waste strap to help distribute the weight.  The other things that are important are a place (on the outside of the bag) for a water bottle, and a pocket large enough to hold a small guidebook,  map and a small snack.  The bag I use has a hidden pocket for a emergency stash of cash, and a pocket that will hold an emergency poncho and a shower cap for unexpected rain.  No, I don’t wear the shower cap, I put it on my camera!  I also always keep a few blister band aids tucked away in the inside pocket.

How does it look?  Why does that matter? I’m no fashionista.  I dress down when shooting because I don’t want to call attention to myself, I want to fade into the background.  I also don’t want to call attention to my gear, so the less your camera bag looks like a camera bag, the better.  Don’t advertise the camera brand, thieves know which brands are the most expensive.  Switch out the strap that came with the camera that has the brand all over it.  You can also put a small piece of black tape on the camera to block out the make and model.

If you have some last minute shopping to do, here are a few places to start.

dpreview:  The go to source for learning about different camera models.  I especially like the feature that allows you to compare camera models side by side.  They keep up with the newest equipment, and are always releasing new reviews of gear.

B&H:  Source for all things photographic, things you don’t even know you want or need.  They also care equipment for video and audio.  I’ve always been happy with the service when I’ve purchased from them.

KEH: A very reputable source for buying used equipment.  They have a great rating system for letting the buyer know the condition of the equipment before purchasing.

DURY’S:  Dury’s is the local pro shop in Nashville.  I like to shop there because nothing beats being able to walk into a store, talk to knowledgeable sales people and really get a feel for the equipment.  I buy from them, because I want to support the local options to be sure they are always there!

Camera Choice- Compact Cameras

Compact/Point and Shoot cameras have come a long way in the digital era.  There are a wide range of point and shoot cameras on the market, so this means there is a wide range of quality that is available.  There are many very good compact cameras on the market, and many of them have functions that elevate them from being a simple “point and shoot” camera.  These compact cameras are easy to use and many have very useful features and functions.  Some of these features are easy to understand, and there are also often functions that can be taken advantage of by more experienced shooters.

Amsterdam: Sometimes you just want to go out for a drink, and then your beverage looks good enough to photograph. Glad I had my little camera with me, cheers!

“The best camera is the one that you have with you.”  The advantage of point and shoot cameras is clearly it’s small size and convenience.  I’m more likely to carry a camera with me all the time, if it is compact.  There are definitely times when I want to have the ability to take pictures, but don’t want to worry about keeping up with my SLR camera.  So, I usually pack both for a trip, and make sure those times that I don’t want to take the big camera, that I at least have my Point and Shoot.

There have also been times, when I have had both cameras with me, and I used the point and shoot for safety and security reasons, maybe I was in area where petty crime was a problem, and I didn’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention.  Or, I was in a situation where I wanted to be more discreet with my camera, and didn’t want to stand out in the crowd.

Siena, Italy Picture taken with my compact camera. This is a situation where I wanted to quickly take a picture while being discreet. I did not want the women to notice that I was taking their picture, as that might have changed their positions and or expressions.

Image quality can vary widely in the huge range of compact cameras that are available.  I finally broke down and bought a compact camera when they started making some models that shoot 12 megapixel RAW files.  I’m so glad I did, I love my little compact camera, because I can, and do, take it anywhere and everywhere.  There are a few other features to look for if shopping for a compact camera that goes beyond point and shoot.  The first would be exposure controls, preferably manual control.  I recommend having at least shutter and aperture priority shooting modes, and exposure compensation.  This gives you some control over motion and depth of field.  Sure, there might be times when you set it to auto and forget about it, but there are other times where you really need the control over those settings to get the picture you want.

The Netherlands: This picture was taken with my compact camera while riding a rental bike in the Waterlands area outside of Amsterdam. I did have my SLR camera with me, but it was tied down so securely to the back of my bike that I got tired of taking the time to unsecure and resecure it. So, I rode with my compact camera around my neck, which allowed me to easily stop, shoot a few frames, and then be on my way.

Camera Choice: SLR

The first decision to make when planning to travel is what type of camera to bring; a big SLR with the nice lens or small and convenient Point and Shoot?   or  both?

Digital SLR: is the choice of most professionals.  SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras allow for control over camera settings and provides flexibility of lens choice. This allows the photographer to decide on the depth of field (range of focus) and how to capture motion (stopped or blurred for creative effect.)  Another advantage of using an SLR camera is, as your needs for photographic lens grow or change, you can always add additional lenses to your camera bag.  Lens choice and lens quality is a very important factor in the sharpness and appearance of your images, and will warrant a blog post later.

Anyone who has ever carried an SLR camera around all day will tell you that the disadvantage of the SLR camera is the size, weight and bulk.  Also, the control that an SLR camera gives you comes with a steeper learning curve than point and shoot cameras.  The good news is that once you understand the fundamentals like exposure, focus and lens choice, you can utilize that knowledge with any camera.

My photography students are required to use a Digital SLR camera, but I also encourage them to bring along a point and shoot, if they have one.  The reasons for having both will be more clear after I discuss the pros and cons of the point and shoot in the next blog post. Both of these types are available for film and digital, but at this point, I’m going to assume that most people reading this blog are interested in digital photography (although a future post on film is definitely a possibility.)

The Netherlands: Ferry ride from Rotterdam to Dordrecht. 50mm prime lens in manual focus, allowed me to chose my point of sharpness on the raindrops and allow the bridge in the background to be slightly out of focus. f/9 @1/40 sec. 

Swan Bridge, Rotterdam
The Netherlands: Tram going over the Swan Bridge in Rotterdam at night. A tripod and slow shutter speed (1/8sec) allowed me to keep the bridge sharp and capture the blur of the fast moving tram. Wide angle lens allowed me to capture the whole scene.