Thursday, December 26, 2013

How to Take Better Travel Photographs

Do you have to have a top of the line DSLR camera in order to take great photos? It helps, but it definitely isn't necessary to spend a fortune on brand new camera equipment. If you are in the market for a new camera, but you are on a budget, I recommend buying a camera body and lens used off of eBay. I was surprised to learn that even if a lens has a significant crack, there will not be any noticeable difference in the photo. A pretty versatile lens for traveling is the 18-55mm, though I love shooting with a 50mm lens. Unless you are a pro, plan to take only one or two lenses with you because they can become cumbersome and heavy. Not to mention, everything you bring with you traveling could end up lost, broken, or stolen.

It's important to know your camera before your trip. Before my trip to South America, I took a photography class at The Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, CT. I highly recommend taking a class if you are looking to improve your technical skills. I met a few people along the way who planned to figure out how to use their DSLR while traveling, and found themselves relying on the automatic mode, which won't give you as much control as manual. If you can't afford a class, at least read up on shutter speed, ISO, aperture and exposure - and how they interrelate. It will make it easier for you to concentrate on the creative rather than technical side of photography. Here's a quick online tutorial that I love: Understanding Your DSLR

The Golden Hour
The best time to snap photos is when the lighting is softer and warmer in hue. This happens right around sunset. Sunrise is also a great time to take photos because the light is cooler and more diffuse. It can be hard to take photos in the middle of the day when the sun is harsher and you are dealing with shadows.

Get Closer
As Robert Capa famously said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." This is why I love shooting with a 50mm lens. Your feet make a great zoom. Zooming in with a telephoto lens can be a great strategy for landscapes, but when it comes to people, it's best just to stand a bit closer than you would normally think. This improves the quality and clarity of the photo. When you are closer, the photo can focus in on details that would otherwise be missed.

Get Farther Away
A go to travel picture for me is always the rooftop view of a city. When taking this type of photo, try to think about what the sun is doing. Is it nearing sunset? Am I shooting into direct sunlight and creating a strange sun flare? No matter what, the key to this type of photo is to be far enough away to capture the most interesting features of the city.

Know Where the Sun Is
Photos of people are almost always most flattering when the sun is shining on the subject's face. The same is true when photographing buildings. If you want to catch the glistening of light on the ocean, take the photo when the sun is low enough to reflect off the waves. Here is a trick for taking a great photo when the sun is behind your subject: Use your flash!

Take the Road Less Traveled
Walking through the main square will give you the same picture everyone else has. Avoiding obvious routes and taking the back roads might lead you to some more interesting subjects or perspectives. 

Watch the Edges and Corners
Be mindful that your photo might come out more interesting if you capture not only your intended subject, but also something interesting in the background.

Remember to Photograph the People You are Traveling With
It can be easy to get caught up in photographing landscapes and buildings, but it is important to capture the people you are traveling with as well. Include them in photos of scenery so that you remember not only where you went, but who went with you. It doesn't always have to be the traditional front-facing photograph, either. Spice it up with some nontraditional candids.

Create a Story with Sequential Photos
Taking a bunch of photos in a row can help capture the "bigger picture."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Why Take a Mid-Life Gap Year?

Many people take a gap year between college and their first job. I took mine after 5 years. Here's why I took a mid-life gap year.

What have I done with my gap year? 

I visited 3 countries, traveled the East Coast by sleeper train, visited 6 states (FL, CT, MA, CA, HI, NJ, NY), started a travel blog, volunteered at an after school program in Peru, worked at a hostel bar and restaurant in Cusco, rode horses in Ecuador, started selling earrings at a local salon, made new friends and connections across the globe, took cooking classes, photography classes, yoga classes, Spanish classes, and became conversationally fluent in Spanish.

It might seem like my super productive gap year wasn't really a break at all, but for me it was. The flexible schedule allowed me to explore my interests and to build stronger connections with those around me. I saw the time off as a chance to regroup and to make sure that I was on the track I wanted to be on.

Why did I take a gap year?

I worked constantly throughout college. I worked long hours not only in class, but in numerous work-study jobs to begin paying off huge college loans. I had a lot of opportunities to develop professionally, but fewer opportunities to explore my interests and develop personally. After college, I went to work (3 jobs simultaneously including one full-time position, a part-time sales job, and a small consulting and advertising company that I started) and had very little spare time. This cycle of working multiple jobs and having very little work-life balance continued for years until I stumbled into the opportunity to travel abroad to volunteer and learn Spanish.

How did it go?

For the first couple of days, I found the blank schedule to be daunting and was unsure of how to spend my time. I watched an entire season of Orange is the New Black in less than a couple of days. But I soon realized that this is not how I wanted to spend my time. I  took the same approach to my schedule as I always had. Fill it up with the things that interest me and the people I value. Soon, I found myself enrolled in numerous classes and planning various trips.

Time off isn't for everyone. I think it's great for people who are productive and find it easy to stay busy without a 8-6 work schedule. I don't think the gap year always has to be a year long, either. For me, 6 months was plenty of time. You also have to be ready to take on the costs and risks. I was lucky to have saved enough to take off 6 months of work and still be able to afford health insurance and to have a cushion if I am not hired for a full-time position immediately after the 6 months. But I think with planning, foresight, determination, and effort, these costs and risks can be mitigated and a gap period can be an incredibly valuable experience. Do I recommend it? Absolutely.

What would you do with a gap year?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Amtrak's East Coast Car Train Adventure

My brother AJ decided to move from Florida back to Massachusetts, so I flew out to Florida to keep him company on the trip.

I had really great luck booking a last minute one-way ticket from Connecticut to Florida. I assume that since most people travel for the holidays between December 20 and January 3,  tickets early in December are really inexpensive. People don't want to fly multiple times in one month.

AJ picked me up at the airport, and since he already moved out of his house we headed to the Clarion hotel in Kissimmee, which is right outside of Orlando. The hotel was less than 2 miles from Disneyworld, and yet, it only cost us $50 a night to stay in a two bed suite with kitchenette and a free buffet breakfast. My favorite area of the hotel was the enormous free form pool. I spent the majority of my time in the pool, as the area surrounding the hotel was strip mall hell. It's amazing how many Carrabba's restaurants one city needs.

We spent about 24 hours in Kissimmee, then drove an hour to Stanford, where we caught the auto train. The entire process of boarding the train was a breeze. We dropped off the car in front of the station just before 2 P.M., then walked over to the check-in desk to get our tickets. At the check-in, we asked about gluten free meal options, and the attendant was so helpful that she called over the chef to talk to us directly.

We waited a few minutes at the station and then boarded the train at 2:30. When we saw our accommodations in the sleeper car, we were a bit surprised. The car was in daytime mode, so there were two seats facing each other. While it was comfortable, the room was tight. Feeling a little claustrophobic, we headed to the lounge car, where there was a free wine tasting and snacks. The lounge car was terrific and it was great talking to the staff about their experiences on the train. Apparently Shaq's dad is a frequent customer!

The time was flying by, and at 7:00 P.M., we headed from the lounge into the dining car, where we took our seats across from some very opinionated travelers. I spent the dinner in a heated debate about educational inequality. You can imagine which side of the discussion I was on. I am surprised the Teach For America water bottle I was carrying didn't give me away.

While the discussion was heated, the dinner was enjoyable. AJ had steak tips, and I ate roasted chicken. I made sure to tell the staff that the 14th is AJ's birthday, so they brought out a bowl of jello and ice cream and the entire dining car sang happy birthday at an embarrassing volume while I video taped.

After all of this excitement, I headed back to our sleeper car. The staff had already transitioned the car from day to night, and this time, I found two bunk beds made up with pillows and blankets. The sleep on the train was very comfortable. I woke up a few times, mainly because AJ was unknowingly dropping things (a bag of M&M's, a glow stick, and his wallet) onto my head from the top bunk, but overall had a great night's rest. 

In the morning, we woke up to beautiful views of the sunrise and to continental breakfast that was being served in the dining car. We also found out that we would be arriving an hour ahead of schedule. The morning went by in a flash, and we were already off the train and in Lorton, Virginia by 8:15 A.M. From there, we drove the remaining miles back home.

I still think flying is my favorite mode of transportation when it comes to long distances, but this is a great option for being able to transport your car.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Why Get Travel Insurance

I have traveled abroad a number of times, but this past trip to South America was the first time that I purchased an insurance policy. While there are a lot of great options out there, I went with the company that Lonely Planet suggested - World Nomads. More information about the company can be found at

The decision to invest in insurance was made primarily because I was concerned about having a health issue abroad. Little did I know that what I would be using it for would be to cover the cost of a new phone after my iPhone 5 was stolen in Cusco. 

After my phone was stolen, I worried that the insurance would only cover the initial price of the phone ($200) and wouldn't cover the cost of a new phone without contract (more than $400). I also worried that I never saved my receipt and wouldn't be able to provide proof of purchase. Neither of these concerns turned out to be actual problems.

World nomads allows you 90 days after the termination date of your policy to write a claim, so once I got back to the States, I immediately went to the Apple store and asked if they could reprint my receipt. Within minutes, that issue was resolved. Plus, I was able to purchase a new iPhone while I waited. Next, I photographed my police report from Cusco, and both the old receipt and the new one right from my phone and uploaded them to my claims page on World Nomad. It was a very simple and straightforward process. I waited a couple of days and found out that they would be sending a check for the cost of the new phone ($400) to my house, and that I should receive it within 30 days. I waited 5, and the check was already in the mail!

I couldn't be more grateful that I purchased an insurance plan. I would recommend one for any long-term trip abroad. I don't think it's necessary for traveling in the US or while traveling for short trips, but it definitely came in handy for me! I do recommend keeping photos of your receipts for big ticket items in dropbox or in the cloud. They would have been handy to have had while I was traveling. I also want to caution that their policy does not cover any cash that is stolen. That's just something you'll have to be extra careful about.

You never know!