That Time I Didn’t Plan A Photography Trip And It Turned Out How You’d Expect

Volkswagen, campervan, Vanagon, vanille,fine art, abstract art, modern art, fine art photography, fractal cityscape

Travel photography starts well before we travel, right? We research, anticipate, research some more, and plan every sunrise and sunset down to the last ray of light. If you’re really anal retentive… I mean, a planner like me, you’ll even have back-up plans for rainy days and/or fog. But what if you didn’t have to, what if you could just show up and wing it? Wouldn’t life be a lot easier, better, more exciting?! Turns out, that’s a big fat nope.

Now, before I delve into the details of my last trip I want to remind everyone that your mileage will vary. You might have the magic sauce that allows you to show up someplace you’ve never been before, whip out your camera, and make mind blowing images. If that is you, I’m thouroughly jealous. Turns out, that’s not me. In fact, it turns out that all the planning and research I do before a trip is quite important. Let me start from the beginning.

Santa Barbara, Butterfly Beach, shore, ocean, sunrise, palm trees, light trails, Leica, Leica m10-p, montecito
Finding the best places to photograph sunrise and sunset in Santa Barbara proved difficult becuase, well, there were so many of them.

Last year I traveled to Santa Monica, California for a street photography project at the end of Route 66. It was a really cool experience and the trip was relatively easy to plan… I spent all of my time down along the coastal walkway/bike path between the Santa Monica pier and Venice Beach. The toughest part of the planning was determining where I wanted to be and at what time for the best light. Fast forward to this year and I found myself in Santa Barbara and feeling a bit overwhelmed.

Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Street Photography, Fine art, Santa Monica Pier, Sunset
Santa Monica, CA

You see, Santa Barbara was much larger (at least that’s how it seemed to me) than Santa Monica. In fact, Santa Barbara is at least an inch or two larger than Santa Monica on Google Maps (insert wink face)… But really, Santa Barbara was so much more spread out. There were plenty of beaches and they all had amazing views at different times. I’d zip over to one side of the town for sunrise and it would turn out that a few other beaches got great sunrises as well and surfers would favor one area over another (I learned this from talking to surfers throughout the week and doing my research on the fly) which meant if I was in one place I was missing something someplace else. It was quite frustrating at times.

light trails, Santa Barbara, Leica, leica m10, leica m10-p, cityscape, urban landscape, California, west coast, sunset

Oh, and don’t ask Siri to help you out with tide schedules… I had to wade through knee deep water on the way back to the beach head on Hendry’s Beach (I think it was still Hendry’s, I had walked quite a ways). When I started my walk a father and son had commented about a fire that constantly burned down the beach so I thought I’d check it out. Now, I’m no dummy and I realized the tide was coming in so I checked with Siri… She’s a dummy. According to her, I had at least two hours to get there and back before I had to worry about sharks eating me. Within about 20 minutes I had to turn around and I was walking on sand and water depending on the sliver of shore that was left as high tide tried it’s best to suck me out to sea. Thanks Siri (I jest, it was/is my job to be familiar with tide charts anywhere I go and I dropped the ball by trying to wing it).

Santa Barbara, 1000 step beach, landscape photography, beach, leica, Leica M10-P, Leica, sunset, beach
My intention was to use a neutral density filter to slow the water down slightly and make the shot more usable but high tide was quickly coming in and I was taking waves to the face.

One of the most disappointing moments was when I missed the “Paddle Out” that was planned for a professional surfer who had passed away recently. I really wanted to document it. By the time I had heard about it I was 2 hours too late. I can’t even articulate how upset I was that I missed such a touching moment. That pretty much summed up my expierence on the trip up to that point… A day late and a dollar short (do people still say that?).

Ugh, as I type this my wife’s cat is wiping it’s eye boogers on my leg. Talk about adding insult to injury…

Another “adventure” I had was driving through the mountains to get to Santa Ynez Valley with my mom (I’ll often travel with my wife, son, and parents when I can). Turns out, the road we were on was eventually closed (we had turn around after driving 45 minutes on it) because it turned into a muddy trail. It was a car and a half wide and washed out in many parts, we had to drive through several inches of creek at points, and it was precariously close to the edge of a cliff throughout a large chunk of it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world though, I got to spend some great time with my mom and that was worth more than any photograph (she is up for any adventure and will often go with me where others won’t).

The moral of the story is simply that had I planned this trip, as I do all the others, it would have gone much smoother and been less frustrating. I still walked away with a handful of usable images but not nearly the number I normally do. In fact, none of the images were as good as I’d have liked.

The trip wasn’t a complete loss, I learned a lot… Some of it was “what not to do” but I also picked up a lot of good knowledge for the next time I’m photographing in Santa Barbara. I’ll tell you this, I’ll never do another photography trip without a solid plan again.

Key Things I Learned:

1.) I write a lot about how street photography informs my landscape photography and vice versa. To be honest though, my street photography has dominated my career lately and I’ve slacked on practicing landscape photography. The consequence was that I tried to apply the run and gun approach (trying to cover multiple areas in a short period of time) to landscape photography and failed miserably. Landscape photography is all about hurry up and wait. If you try to shoot from the hip you’ll create a snap shot. If you are deliberate about your approach and commit (this is really important) to your shot, you may walk away with something really special. If you don’t commit, simply showing up and walking away if all the stars aren’t aligned right away, you’ll miss everything.

Santa Barbara, Leica M10-P, Leica M, sunrise, beach, travel photography, California, west coast

2.) Lens filters are king. Again, I was shooting a mix of street photography and landscape photography but my landscape photography suffered because I was only half committed to it. I figured if a good street photography image surfaced I’d ditch my landscape desires and follow the interesting shots. Unfortunately, my desire to stay nimble cost me some really good shots. Take the shot above for instance, I was waiting for a surfer to walk by so I was only half committed to the sunrise shot… This meant I didn’t use a graduated neutral density filter on the sky so there is a blown out area right above the soft orange color in the left mid area of the frame. Wah-wah.

3.) This experience reinforced my belief that it makes more sense to focus on capturing a few really good images as opposed to trying to cover the most ground and get numerous okay images. This is probably one of the toughest lessons because it contradicts my natural curious nature where I always want to see what’s around the next corner. There is certainly a time and a place for the curiosity, but it’s got to be balanced with waiting for the right light/subject matter in areas where you know a great shot could come together.


Planning is key, Siri hates me, and commit to an image. It would be easy for me to blame weather or a lack of people for my street photography images… But at the end of the day, a good photographer can make due with whatever life throws at them. I’m thankful for the experience and look forward to the next, well planned, project.

Feel free to follow @PhotolisticLife on Instagram to keep up with my current projects and travels. Next up, Death Valley National Park!

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4 replies on “That Time I Didn’t Plan A Photography Trip And It Turned Out How You’d Expect”
  1. says: Lewsh

    In the days of film, I was at Yellowstone Nt. Pk, with a camera loaded with B&W and another with color slide and a third with color negative. Too much with too little time with really poor results. Learned my lesson. Even in a place where every shot is worth something, I was under/over exposing and handholding shots when they should have been on a tripod. Less is more.

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      I couldn’t agree more! There’s something to be said about working within the confines of only having one type of film or one lens focal length. When you’ve got all the options in the world it’s quite overwhelming at times. Reminds me of the old VHS days when you’d go to the rental place and there were hundreds of options and it took hours to pick a movie because there were just too many to choose from.

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