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How to Prepare For Your First Overseas Photography Assignment

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Read Time: 19 min

Working on a photo or video assignment away from home can be an exciting experience. However, working in an unfamiliar place is also a lot of pressure and can be, if you're not properly prepared, incredibly stressful. In this tutorial you'll learn the key points to consider before you head off on an assignment away so that you can stay safe, make great work, and have fun.

Part 1. Before the Trip

Nail That Brief

It’s really important that before you set off anywhere you know exactly what it is you’re doing and what you must come away with. This means establishing a clear brief with your client, ideally through a face to face meeting so that you can thrash out any and all ideas. If face to face is impossible, or you’re meeting your clients once you travel, then try to have a Skype chat first to establish your brief. The specific nature of  your assignment will depend upon the job and what type of client you have, but the main thing is that all parties involved are on the same page.

It’s good to manage expectations here too. Assignments can be exciting for everyone involved, so it’s important for you to keep things realistic and within your timeframe and budget. Beware mission creep: ‘While you’re there could you also just….’ puts pressure on you and, ultimately, disappoints the client if you don’t achieve everything they want.

Once you’ve had your meeting, it’s sensible to put everything that was discussed and agreed in writing, even if it’s just bullet points. That way if the client is unhappy with what you deliver or moves the goal posts but you’ve achieved everything set out in the brief you’ve got something you can refer back to.

A brief is a good starting place for you, too. It can be the beginning of your ‘to do’ list for your trip: always refer back to your brief and ask yourself, ‘am I fulfilling this?’

Image: Photodune

Be a Stickler for Paperwork

These days we tend to keep a lot of information stored in a phone, tablet or laptop but I’d always recommend a hard copy—just in case! And vice versa, if you prefer a print then think about snapping a quick picture of your documentation on your phone so you have a backup.

Keep your schedule, travel timetables and any other paperwork in one organised place (like a folder or ziplock bag) so you can lay your hands on anything easily. Everything in one place does of course mean it’s all lost if you should misplace it, so that’s why it’s really important to make sure you have a backup.

Take names and telephone numbers of all local and emergency contacts in case plans change or anything happens.

Legal Requirements

Some countries will need you to have certain things in order when you go there. This could be as complex as a visa or as simple as a piece of photo identification, so do your research on where you’re headed and make sure you have the required paperwork. Remember, most countries have more restrictive requirements for people traveling to work than they do for vacationers. Make sure you've got everything in order or you could be subject to extra fees (or worse, be turned away) at the border.

If you’re driving, you should read up on the laws carefully before you go. When you’re hiring a car, generally everything you need is covered in the rental agreement. Take your own car, however, and you need to be more prepared. For example, for me to travel to France from the UK I need to have a GB sticker clearly positioned on my car, headlight reflectors (as we drive on the other side of the road), two unopened breathalysers, a warning triangle and so on. The rules change again if you then head to Spain, or Switzerland or South Africa. Research carefully and make a checklist of things to take—it could save you a fine!

Image: Photodune

Get Extra Insurance Coverage

Are you entitled to free or discounted healthcare in the country you visit? If so, make sure you have anything required to receive that (like the EHIC card if you live in the UK) and your insurance documents too. The EHIC means you receive treatment on the same basis as the resident of that country. Without it, we’d be paying vast medical bills and heavily relying on insurance, so if you’re entitled to it make sure you have it.

Insuring yourself and your kit is really important when you’re travelling, but the two won’t necessarily go together. Most standard travel insurances only cover items up to a certain amount (around £200) which doesn’t come close to covering the cost of our professional kit. Covering your kit separately with travel insurance is expensive, so consider alternatives:

  • Business insurance: Hopefully you’ll be insured anyway if you’re working as a photographer/film maker and your policy will often cover you and kit for travel abroad as long as it’s under a certain amount of days. If it’s over, or not covered as standard, it usually doesn’t cost much more to add it on, and the peace of mind is worth it.
  • Home insurance: your home insurance policy will often cover named items when out of the home. Double check to make sure this is also applicable if you’re out of the country. Named items aren’t cheap. It’s £50 per item over £1000 on our insurance, but if you consider how much your cameras/lenses are worth then it can be money well spent.
  • Car insurance: much like home insurance you can cover your equipment, just as long as you don’t do anything silly like leave the car unlocked or any valuables on show.

It’s also very wise to make sure your insurance covers liability, just in case you cause accident or injury to someone or their property. If you’re shooting in a stately home and you swipe their obscure yet original (and horribly expensive) oil painting off the wall with your tripod’s legs, better to be covered by your insurance for the repair than to foot the bill.

Part 2. Getting There and Getting Ready

Plan Your Route

Image: Photodune

So your brief is sorted and you know where you need to be and when. Now you can start working out the best use of your time. Google Maps is a great starting point for this. You can put pins into all the places you need to be so that you can get an overview of the geography and see how long it takes to get to each destination from your last.

You can also use Street View to get an idea of exactly what the place you’re heading to will look like. There’s also a relatively new feature that lets you see when a particular attraction is at its busiest, so you can avoid or hit those times as appropriate.

Don't count on having a network connection on your mobile phone to check the map as you go. As a backup, download all the maps in advance for the places you're heading using an app like OsmAnd (Android). These apps let you download highly detailed maps for offline use. While they don't have all of the functionality of Google Maps, they can be a real life saver if you're in a spot without coverage.

Even if you’re using a digital map, or a GPS sat-nav, it’s still wise to have a physical map of where you’ll be in case the worst happens and technology fails you. It also means if your route needs to change or you alter your itinerary you can make decisions quickly and easily.

If you’re driving and using a sat-nav, try to make a list of postcodes/zip codes to make life easier for yourself, but include the full addresses too. That way, if you’re lost in the middle of a postcode and need to ask for help, you have the street name handy.

If using public transport, make a list of departure places and times and alternatives in case that service has been cancelled. Download a timetable in advance online or pick up a schedule as soon as you get to your location.

Make a Schedule With Plenty of Breathing Room

Once you know the best route to achieve your goals and you know the time you have to complete it you can start to make an actual schedule. Remember to be realistic: account for traffic jams, cancelled trains, getting lost, and always allow yourself some extra time. You won’t have all the time in the world but you need to make sure you have enough leeway so as not to panic if something goes wrong and you need to make adjustments.

A handy time-saver is to image-search the places you’ll be photographing/filming and then place those image on the relevant part of your schedule. When you’re in a strange place, it can be hard to know if you’re in the right area and a visual aid can help you place where you are much faster. It can also potentially help you know where you need to be to get ‘the’ shot.

If you’ll be travelling with others or meeting up with them at your destination, ask for a copy of their schedule too. Last year my partner and I were filming a coach load of people as they toured the Somme battlefields of France and Belgium so it was integral for us to know where they’d be and when so we could get their ahead of them and make a start.

Image: Photodune

What to Bring

How much kit you take depends on what you actually need and how you’ll travel. If you’re travelling by car then you have more room for manoeuvre. If you’re travelling by plane then you’re going to want to limit yourself to what you can fit in your carry-on luggage.

Personally, I would never put my kit (other than tripods/accessories) into hold luggage, it gets way too bounced around down there and is more easily lost. The bag you put your kit into needs to adhere to the airline’s guidelines but still also offer protection and enough space. Ideally, it’ll also have a waterproof cover so that you can stay dry while you’re out and about. Bear in mind that there are certain things you can’t take through security at an airport, and spare batteries may be one of those, so don’t get caught out and be forced to leave anything behind.

The best way to decide what kit to bring is to refer back to your schedule. Decide (and make a checklist for this) on every bit of kit you’ll need for each task you have to achieve while away. After this, include any backup camera bodies you’ll need and then accessories like batteries (and spares), memory cards (and spares), and filters and so on.

Power is important too. Are you taking chargers with you? You really should. Even with spare batteries, things can go wrong. On a trip to Skye last year I accidentally turned my camera on as I put it away. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a problem, it would auto-shut off, but my bag shifted and pressed down on the shutter button, causing the camera to take pictures until the battery drained completely.

When it comes to lenses, zooms are a better ‘cover all’ than primes if space is a factor. If you do have the space, primes are generally sharper and more reliable, having less moving parts.

Think About Hiring Help

You might not normally use helpers on jobs at home, but it's worth considering hiring someone local on your trip. Even if it's just for the day of your shoot, having a person on your team with local knowledge can be invaluable. You can plan from afar only so much. A good assistant, fixer, or second-camera person who lives and works where you're going will know things that you just can't, from where road work is happening to the best spots to get a sandwich.

If you do decide to use local facilities or crew while away, then third party sites such as Blink are great resources. You search for the role you need and the city you’ll be in and it’ll provide a list of potential contacts that fit the bill. You can even use the app to create briefs and to keep in contact for the duration.

If you prefer a more traditional method, then make sure to check references and reviews of services before you travel. Chances are, you won’t get another shot at this, so you need to make sure anyone you hire is reliable and appropriately skilled.

Image: Photodune

Part 3. On the Job

Be Prepared

We’ve talked about practicalities such as having a map of the area with you, making duplicates of emergency contacts and so on, but there’s something just as important which can be overlooked: stay fed and hydrated.

If you’re travelling by car, great, there’s no excuse! Stock up on bottled water and snacks for times when you’re on the go. If you’re using public transport and you’re limited for space, have a bottle of water with you that you can top up from cafes, water fountains and bathrooms.

Give Yourself Downtime

This is something you should really plan at your scheduling stage: adequate downtime. It doesn’t do you any good and it certainly won’t benefit your client if you’re tired and apt to make mistakes. It’s potentially dangerous too! People fall asleep at the wheel of cars often when they’re tired; be sure to have a break every couple of hours of driving: get out of the car, stretch your legs, get a cup of tea or coffee.

Don’t Rush: Do the Job You Came For

This ties in with downtime, but it’s important to work properly.

Being away on an assignment can sometimes be a tricky one, particularly if it’s not something we do that often. Doing what you’ve been briefed and paid to do is your priority, so don’t confuse the assignment with a holiday. If everyone else knocks off early but you haven’t got everything you need, you keep working. You should enjoy yourself while on your assignment, hopefully you will, but make your checklist your priority. If everything is checked off and done for the day then you can relax and enjoy your evening.

Perform to the best of your ability and don't rush or do things sloppily. Again, this is where your schedule comes in, so hopefully you’ll have allowed for extra time, but things do happen that we can’t account for. If things do change on the ground just remember it’s better to do a few things well than everything poorly!

If something doesn’t go to plan or you think you could do better, make a note of it and consider revisiting it at the end of the trip if there’s time. Spending too long trying to get something right will impact the rest of your schedule. If you’re filming ‘run and gun’ style then it’s usually wise to come back another time to get some pick-up and establishing shots rather than trying to do everything at once. If you’re following ‘action’ then you’ll generally have a very specific time frame in which to get the shot, and maybe only one go at it, so that’s your priority.

Not rushing includes how you treat your kit. It can be tempting, if you’re in a hurry, to shove everything in the back of the car and get going. Resist. Deconstruct as you usually would and make sure everything is in its proper place. The last job of the day is to clean and organize your gear, put everything on charge, and backup your day’s work. Don't skip it.

Back Up Your Work As Soon As You Can

I’ve mentioned repeatedly how important spares are and the same goes for your pictures or footage. If you have spare memory cards, then you can use those to create backups as you shoot, but there’s no substitute for having a couple of HDDs with you too.

Backup at the end of every day and keep the drives in different places where possible. If you’re using a laptop to manage the transfer, leave a copy on there too. The more the better. Finally, if you have internet access, leave a copy on the cloud or in your Dropbox, somewhere you can access your files if all your hard copies go the distance.

Work the Free Wi-Fi

Many places now let you make use of their free wi-fi, though it’s usually polite to buy a drink or something rather than just scrounge. Cheeky tip, though: you can generally pick it up from outside, so if you’re feeling particularly skint then it’s an option!

Free wi-fi is great because using phones/pads/laptops on the internet in another country can often cost a fortune. Use the net to keep yourself up to date with the weather forecast, if shooting is weather critical, use it to update your route map if things change or even just to keep your social media business pages up to date.

Be Safe, Be Responsible

There’s been so much in the news lately about photographers damaging property or themselves in the pursuit of the perfect photograph. In Cyprus, a photographer burned down an historic monument while spinning wire wool, in Florida, two tourists broke a statue after climbing on it to get a selfie. You get the idea.

Whilst most of us are fairly sensible, it can still be tempting for us to try and get into the cool looking abandoned building, for example. Trespassing anywhere is unwise, but trespassing in another country can be even more dangerous. If there are warning signs, would you understand them? The floor may be unsafe or there may be dangerous chemicals or asbestos on site. It’s not worth the risk.

There are places that you should avoid photographing, like military installations, even from public land. It can get you unwanted attention and you may find it difficult to explain your intentions due to language barriers. Sometimes something can be perfectly legal but completely go against local customs or traditions. In some parts of the Middle East, for example, Muslim women can’t be photographed. Find out what’s acceptable and try to stick within those bounds where possible. If in doubt, it’s always better to ask first.

There are no guarantees in life, but we can take every possible precaution to be as safe as we can. If there has been political unrest or there is a greater than usual risk of threat to your safety in a country, your government will usually issue travel advice. Check your chosen destination and make a decision based on their recommendation.

Smaller, but equally important, measures you can take are things like not leaving any valuables on show in your car. If you must keep kit on the back seat, cover it with a blanket so it’s not obvious what it is. If you’re walking around with expensive kit it may be wise to invest in a bag that doesn’t look like a camera bag.

Travel Assignment Checklist

Photographing or filming away from home, particularly in another country, is a fantastic experience. Not only is it great for your CV but it works wonders for personal development too. Here’s a recap of our key points:

  1. Nail the assignment brief before you go: manage expectations right from the outset.
  2. Planning, planning and more planning! Work out your route and make a schedule.
  3. Make sure you have all necessary paperwork and anything legally required to visit your destination.
  4. Be sure to have insurance for yourself and your kit, remember to include liability insurance. Check house and car policies to see what’s already covered.
  5. Take essential kit and backup gear but don’t overload yourself. Think carefully and work out what you actually need.
  6. Make a file backup plan: first across memory cards, then separate disk drives and finally, make use of cloud storage.
  7. If you’re thinking of hiring staff, use third party sites which allow you to search by destination and skills.
  8. When you’re away, be sure to have a physical map of the area just in case you’re out of signal or your tech lets you down.
  9. Schedule downtime. You’re there to do a job and that takes priority but you need your rest days too.
  10. Carry water and snacks with you.
  11. Take your time and do good work. Don’t get sloppy just because things are fast-paced. Pack up kit as you usually would and if you need to, visit somewhere twice rather than rushing it all the first time.
  12. Make use of free wi-fi to check in with the world where possible and ahead of things like traffic and the weather.
  13. Be safe, check government travel warnings before you go and don’t do anything illegal (such as trespassing).
  14. Be respectful of local cultures. Do some research before you go to find out what is and isn’t acceptable.
  15. Be discrete. Don’t leave valuables on show, including about your person where possible. Get an incognito bag.

Bon Voyage!

Travel may or may not be for you, but once you get into the rhythm of working away from home it gets easier. A lot of the process will become second nature to you, but don’t become complacent or you’re likely to make mistakes. Even for the seasoned professional working elsewhere, it’s sensible to make copies of your paperwork and important documents, just in case.

The most important things are to make good work and to enjoy yourself doing it. Yes, you’re there to work but there’s no reason you can’t have a blast. The experience of working in a new place is a privilege not everyone has, so although we can all moan about our jobs from time to time, it’s important to remember that we’re really lucky, too; go out and make the most of it.

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