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The Costs of a Traveling Photographer
You know that awkward re-entry when you get back from vacation, and you take a look at your ‘regular life’ to-do list and think “Um…. I’m supposed to get ALL of this done? Like, today?”
It’s as though you’ve forgotten how to be productive or something.
No? That’s just me?
Okay. Well, I’m still in the throes of holiday vacation re-entry (I know, I get no sympathy for this).
So while we don’t usually cover camera-related things here at Psychology for Photographers, as I coax myself back into the swing of things this week, I wanted to pose a question to you:
How do you travel with your camera?
There is no right answer to this question….some people want all of their lenses and two bodies, some people manage with only their iPhone. Some people have quadruplicate backups for personal vacation photos, some people just keep their memory cards close.
It’s impossible to judge what someone else does, because everyone wants something different from their photos, and their experience taking them.
But however you manage your gear and your photos, being a photographer on vacation is hard. Because you don’t exactly know what to do.
For Most Normal People, vacation is when you take out your camera.
For Photographers (who don’t really qualify as Most Normal People here), vacation is sometimes when you most desperately need to put the camera away.
To see the world with both eyes. Not one squinched shut and one looking through the viewfinder. To observe the rising of the sun with the subtle weight of a warm mug in one hand, and with the other hand available for a loved one to squeeze. Not doing mental math and testing six different exposures to memorialize the glowing orange.
I’m ashamed to say that I have a memory of being on a white sandy beach under a silver dollar moon with a lovely, tepid breeze at my back. But instead of simply spending the time holding my husband’s hand and talking about our future, or walking along letting the waves cross our feet, I recall fashioning a tripod out of an abandoned lounge chair trying to photograph that moon, mentally cursing the Florida humidity for fogging up my lens, and scolding myself for bringing the wrong camera.
Of course there’s a “balance” to be struck (ugh, I kinda hate that word), of course you can do things like spend fifteen minutes photographing for every two hours you spend relaxing, or identify before vacation which days you’ll carry your camera and which days you won’t.
This isn’t about that.
This is simply acknowledging the problem that no “balance” or “compromise” can fully resolve, which is to say that on some level, whenever you see something beautiful, your fingers will itch for a shutter button.
Whether it’s your allotted 15 minutes or your specified camera day or not.
I’m married to someone with a doctorate in music, and while he loves listening to music, he can’t just “turn off” his years of training. He can’t un-hear the out-of-tune voices or instruments, he can’t not analyze the structure and chords and tempo, he can’t not think of the historical contexts of the pieces or not have some reaction to the musical choices being made.
And like that, when I see a sun rising over a lake, I can’t help but think man, if I put my 16-35mm at f/22, that would make the most beautiful 14-pointed sun star. I can’t un-see the shadows of the decorative bridge railing, the glint off the water between cobblestones, the peachy glow on someone’s skin an hour before sunset. I can’t erase from memory all the times that I or others were so glad we had a picture of that one thing, and the cautionary note above my head to document what I see.
As much as we photographers can remind and harangue and call each other out over being present and putting the camera away, it’s not entirely about that.
Our minds stay with us whether our cameras do or not.
And that can be hard on our families, who don’t necessarily want to be herded for one more picture, or want to cut their dinner short so you can make it to catch the sunset over the river at the right time. Yes, even if they’ll all appreciate having the photos later. It can still be hard on them, and on us, and we need to acknowledge that. (My friend Beryl Ayn Young wrote a great post on learning to accept this here.)
It’s also hard on you that even if you sit through a long dinner and just breathe in the sunset from where you are, later you’ll kinda wish you had taken the dang picture.
It’s hard that our hobby, our passion, our profession means that we aren’t always fully present during moments you most want to remember.
Someone has to make that uncomfortable trade-off, and usually it’s us. (Are you ever jealous of the people who get to just be present and then just enjoy other people’s pictures on Facebook afterward? I am. They get the best of all worlds. I just want my own pictures more.)
There’s nothing “to be done” here. I just want to give voice to the experience.
To acknowledge that the sweeping brush stroke of “relaxation” and the brush stroke of “wanting to take pictures” create a big X and we somehow sit at the center, wanting to have all of it at once, but chasing any single end can move us away from the others.
But we choose to be here, you and I. No choice but to relish it.
As kind of a random postscript, I wanted to tell you about two things I was glad I had in my camera bag on this trip.
Just in case you need to know.
1) For U.S. Citizens: Form 4457, the “Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad”
You know how 99.9% of the time, customs people do little more than look at you sternly before waving you on?
My theory is that Form 4457 was invented to help you that .1% of the time when you get someone whose boss just yelled at them and they’re feeling particularly curmudgeonly.
Basically, the government wants its taxes. They don’t want you to avoid taxes, tariffs, or duties by going abroad and buying your camera gear there, then sneaking it back into the United States.
And having a US receipt for your gear might not be enough to prove you bought that lens in the US, because receipts don’t contain serial numbers.
Form 4457 formally registers your camera gear, with serial number, as being yours. It helps prevent customs officials from demanding that you pay duties on your own camera gear when you re-enter the USA.
Yes, I have traveled in and out of the USA without Form 4457 before and never had any problems, but this time I was taking enough gear and was going to be gone long enough that I didn’t want to chance meeting some by-the-book official who was having a bad day.
I have heard tell of photographers having to pay taxes on their camera gear (or hunters on the rifles they took abroad), and whether or not those are just rumors, I think it’s better not to leave such things to chance.
You can download Form 4457 right here from the Customs and Border Protection website, or you can go to one of their offices and get one of their forms. You fill out the top part, put the name and serial number of your gear in the large white space, and sign the bottom. Then you have to take it to a CPB office and have them sign and stamp it. There is a list of CPB offices here – call first and make sure you get info to go to the right place.
I recommend filling out a separate 4457 for each camera body, lens, and other serial-numbered gear.
Yes, you can list all of your gear on the same form, but if you don’t take every single piece when you leave the country, they could say that you must have sold a piece abroad and want taxes on the “sale.” (Are you rolling your eyes yet?)
The forms are good for as long as they are legible, and you don’t want to have to go back repeatedly to have them sign more than one form. I filled out separate forms for my bodies, lenses, iPad, hard drives, and a few other items. (Note: You can also have a 4457 for things like expensive watches, laptops, etc.) Now when I leave the country I can just bring the forms for the gear I’m actually bringing.
Honestly, I doubt I’ll ever need to show Form 4457 to anyone. But to me, that’s not a reason not to have a fistful of them.
Foreign countries can have strange and ever-changing laws, and having a formal U.S. registration could be helpful down the road. Plus, Uncle Sam can be insanely arbitrary. I’d rather be safe than sorry.
2) NEXTODI Photo Storage.
I’m absolutely in love with these little beauties:
The NEXTO digital storage drives (affiliate link to Amazon) are magical little photo-backups.
You just pop in your memory card (they take SD and CF), turn it on, press a button, and it backs up everything on the card.
Then at the end of your trip, you can just plug it into your computer and you have all your pictures in one place. It organizes them in folders by the date you uploaded them.
I brought two of these (500GB each) on my most recent trip, so that I’d have two physical backups to each memory card. I kept one in my carry-on and one in my husband’s carry-on, and kept the actual memory cards on me.
They’re relatively small, lightweight, come with a nice case and all the needed cords. Plus, the battery lasts and lasts. I charged it once, backed up photos nearly daily for 17 days, and they still showed full or almost-full battery at the end of the trip. YES.
These would be great for security on any photoshoot, not just a long trip.
Backups seemed quick – for a nearly-full 16GB SanDisk CF card, the “Copy and Verify” option only took about 15 mins total, and there’s also a “Fast Copy” option. On most days, my cards weren’t completely full though, so the backup only took about 5-7 minutes. I could pop in the card and be backed up by the time I was done brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed.
I forsee them going pretty much everywhere with me.