Hard at work near Long Hai on the southern coast of Vietnam.
I know that many other travel photographers would disagree with me, but I'm convinced that a great deal of success in this genera comes down to... luck. I've spent a week or so at one or other location without getting the photograph I want, only to have a tourist who's been there half an hour show me a killer shot on his cameras LCD screen. On the other hand one photograph does not make the kind of story or portfolio that most clients demand. Success is born of consistently taking good photographs. While that wonderful serendipitous moment can never be removed from the equation, some careful preparation can go a long way. Morton's first rule of travel photography is the '3T' rule... and the 'T' stands for time.
The first 'T' is for the time of year. I know that many people, be they enthusiastic amateur photographers or professionals, live lives constrained by a wide variety of commitments. There's work, there's family and of course there's the simple issue of finance. Global travel is cheaper today that it has ever been, but once you add up flights, hotels, restaurants and local travel etc. it still adds up to more than pocket change for most of us. All these things, and quite a few others, make it almost impossible for someone to just pack their bags and travel whenever the itch need scratching. This, however is exactly why the time of year you visit your destination region or country is so important. To take time away from work and family and spend that hard earned cash on a trip to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) only to arrive in the middle of the summer monsoon would be a disaster.
When you first start to plan your trip, do an online search to check out the weather conditions. This doesn't just mean is it summer or winter, but more importantly things like precipitation, hours of sunlight and cloud cover. These are the things that really matter when you're standing there with a camera in your hands. One of the best travel photographers I know was once sent by a client to Ha Long bay to photograph a cruise ship among the islands... in the middle of the winter rains! An addendum to this first point has to do with regional travel. Here in Vietnam, for example when the weather is best in the South it's terrible in the North and vice versa. If you see online advertising for a photo tour of Vietnam that offers you the whole country in ten days, don't bother reading the fine print as it'll be a waste of time. If you're planing to travel within a region pay attention to local weather conditions also.
The second 'T' is for time of day. This one is just as important, but often more difficult to plan for. Obviously the best times for photography are usually early morning and late afternoon. On more than a few occasions I've risen long before dawn and spent an hour or two hiking through the dark to an iconic location only to find that there's a mountain to the East which blocks out all direct sunlight until eight or nine in the morning. Another common mistake is to plan to photograph some special location or building only to discover when you're there that the angle you want to shoot from is facing the rising or setting sun and you have nothing but a silhouette.
To overcome these and other similar problems local knowledge is always most helpful. There are, however, other options. The easiest is probably to do an image search on somewhere like Flickr or 500px and when you find an image that looks like the one you have in mind, simply send an in-media message asking the photographer what time of day they took the photograph... and what time of year, to avoid the trap of the first 'T'. I'm sure you'll get a few helpful responses. Some locations have their own specific time demands that need to be considered, especially buildings. The ancient and visually stunning Jade Emperor pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, for example is only worth visiting between about 11h00 and 13h00 depending on the time of year. Why? Because it's only at this time of the day the the sun is almost directly above and can enter the building through holes in the roof and lighten the windowless worship halls and their incredible altars.
Interior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Chua Ngoc Hoang) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The final 'T' is for time on location. To find, compose and take a good photograph, more often than not, requires time. You need time to explore the location, to find interesting subject material, experiment with composition and then to set up and take a great photograph. Add to this that sometimes the clouds are wrong or that you have to wait for other people to take their own snapshots and move off you will rarely have as much time as you would like at a particular place. Also working against you is the fact that you probably want to fit as much into your trip as possible. By giving one location time you are automatically denying yourself time at another. It's not easy.
It's best to admit that you probably can't shoot everything you would like to. Having said this, however, with the aid of something like Google Maps you can probably manage a lot more than most visitors. Start by prioritizing the subjects you most want to photograph and then identify the other places you'd like to photograph nearby. Plan a route that you can accomplish in a single walk or excursion. Remember that the estimated travel times provided by Google Maps are never ever going to be accurate. Always give yourself more time to move from location to location. Planing your travels this way might sound too regimented and more like hard work than pleasure, but it is the one way to ensure that you maximize the limited time you have available and come home with the best photographs you could have taken. Kugara zvakanaka!