Travel Photographer Ralph Velasco Shares His Best Packing Tips for Photographers

Ralph Velasco Bio Pic High Res - San Juan Capistrano, California U.S.A. - Copyright 2008 Jenny McMasters
Ralph Velasco Bio Pic High Res – San Juan Capistrano, California U.S.A. – Copyright 2008 Jenny McMasters

My name is Ralph Velasco and I’m the Founder and CEO (Chief Experience Officer) of PhotoEnrichment Adventures where for over 10 years I’ve created, organized, administered and led more than 80 international tours, with a focus on photography, around the world (plus over 100 domestic tours in the U.S.). First and foremost, I’m a travel photographer, and I teach travel photography, but I also enjoy the business side of my job and have always been entrepreneurial.

I’m also Creator of Tour Organizer Training where through a free webinar and online course series called, Get Paid to Travel: How to Organize and Lead Your Own Tours, I teach everyday people, step-by-step, how to make a living from travel by creating their own special interest tours, whether around the world, or around the corner. The course is made up of seven Modules, which include 25+ video lessons (over 14 hours worth of content). Also, included are the actual spreadsheets, templates, emails, forms and other documents and resources I use to operate my business. These are items it took me years to produce and perfect, and they’re included in the price of the course. The actual spreadsheet I use to price my trips, and include in the course and have created a whole lesson around teaching students how to use it. It alone is worth the price of the course, but it’s a small part of the overall content I provide.

This past year I was asked by my friend Ugo Cei, an Italian travel photographer, to co-host a travel photography podcast he started called, The Traveling Image Makers. On the show, we interview some of the top travel photographers in the world and discuss their process for getting great images of their travels, and how our listeners can, too. Now we’re up over 100 episodes and counting.

I also hope to start a podcast for Tour Organizer Training, but that’s a ways down the road.

Additionally, I do quite a bit of public speaking about travel and photography, mostly at the Travel & Adventure Shows throughout the United States, but also at TBEX, the Travel Bloggers Exchange, where I’ve spoken in Jerusalem, Spain, Stockholm and Ireland. I’ve written a book called, Ralph Velasco On Travel Photography: 101 Tips for Developing Your Photographic Eye & More, as well as an eBook titled Essence of a Place: A Travel Photographer’s Guide to Using a Shot List for Capturing Any Destination.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

How and why did you become a nomad and travel photographer?

Since the age of 15, when I studied in Spain for a summer in high school, I’ve always been a traveler, and I’ve always enjoyed photography. The next summer, at 16, I was a volunteer in Peru, the following summer a volunteer in Venezuela, and the next summer, after my freshman year at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, I studied in Mexico City.

I’d always wanted to find a way to make a living from travel and photography, but back then, in the early to mid-1980s, it seemed that was about as likely as my becoming a rock star. This was, of course, before the Internet as we know it, before mobile phones that are computers in our pockets, before social media, and seemingly before the wheel, really.

With the dawn of digital photography in the early 2000s, I saw an opportunity to make a living from photography, but I kind of knew that it wasn’t going to be made, at least for me, in selling images, but rather in teaching people how to use their new digital cameras. My first digital camera was a 1 MP Kodak EasyShare camera, with 128 MB memory card, I remember it well.

I’ve always loved teaching and started plotting ways I could move in that direction. At the time I was operating my second restaurant in downtown Chicago, but things were tough as this was just after 9/11, and so in 2004, at the end of my initial 3 year lease, I had to decide whether I was going to sign another 5 year commitment, or sell the restaurant and move on. I literally took a yellow legal pad and on the left side wrote down the things I disliked about the restaurant business and my current situation at the time, and the list grew fast. Some of the points were that I had to have employees; the $5,000 rent came due the first of every month, whether business was good or bad; I had a lot of money tied up in the business, as well as in inventory; cash flow was tight; I came home smelling like a French fry every day; each day was the same, with no creativity whatsoever; and on and on.

Then on the right side I wrote the opposite of those things, namely I wanted to work for and only be responsible for myself (no employees); I wanted to work virtually, from wherever my laptop was (not have to pay rent); I wanted to start a business that sold a service, not an expensive product that required inventory and holding costs; I needed a better cash flow; and I wanted to shower before work, not after; and I wanted to be creative on a daily basis, too.

I came to the conclusion that at that time Chicago wasn’t the best place to start a photo tour company (I’d purchased the URL, and still own it) because the weather is pretty unpredictable, so I looked for a way to move back to Southern California, where I’d lived before. A friend of mine from college had a financial brokerage and suggested I get my securities license and go work for him. I found that industry interesting, plus I thought I could operate my fledgling tour company year round out there, so I made the move in 2005.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

How do you finance your nomadic life?

A large part of my living is made from the tours I organize and lead around the world, where I charge clients anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000 and more to participate in my trips (each trip is anywhere from 1 to 2 weeks long and is limited to 6 to 11 participants). With what I provide, they’re more than happy to pay it. I’m also starting to see real results from sales of my Get Paid to Travel online course, and so this is how I finance my location independence.

Currently, I’m on the road up to nine months per year, efficiently planning trips that are in the same region so that I can stay overseas before, during, between and after those trips. For instance, as I write this, having just led group trips to India and Cambodia, I arrived before my group in India, led that trip, then had a week in Phnom Penh before my Cambodia trip, led that trip, then stayed after my group left in Kep, Cambodia, for a few weeks. Currently, I’m in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, doing some scouting for a future trip, as well as attending to all the administrative work necessary to plan the next upcoming eight or so trips, plus getting a bit of time for myself to relax and recharge.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

How do you build a social life as a nomad?

Having a social life is quite a challenge when on the road like I am, as I’m sure many of your readers who are also location-independent and nomadic will attest. There are certainly groups on Facebook, and ones like Travel Massive, InterNations and others that can connect people in the same place all over the world. I have many long-lasting friendships that will never go away, whatever the distance, but it’s certainly hard to have any sort of relationship with someone who doesn’t travel much. Once in a while a friend will come meet me wherever I am, but that’s kind of rare. I love traveling, but moving around so much does make it difficult to cultivate long lasting relationships in new places, but I do have the benefit of going back to many of the places I travel to year after year, and so I see many of the friends I’ve made each time.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

Where do you live and work as a nomad?

Seventy-five percent of the time I’m on the road internationally, and so I live mostly at 35,000 feet and in really nice boutique hotels and Airbnbs around the world. The other day I received a notification from Airbnb saying that up until September of this year (2017), I’d stayed 63 nights in their properties in 9 different cities (Madrid, Porto, Vilnius, Bucharest, Cascais, Belem, and others) around the world, and in several of the same cities multiple times. The rest of the time it’s usually well-located boutique hotels either on my own or with my groups.

When I’m leading a tour, we have a fairly set schedule of activities that we stick to. I typically provide a half-day of scheduled activities and a half-day of free time, so people can go out and explore on their own and not feel like they have to be with the group 24/7, and this works out well. They also enjoy all breakfasts included, as well as one other meal per day, on average. This way they can go out and explore on their own, go high end, eat street food, skip a meal, do whatever they like.

When I’m on my own and working in between trips, I don’t usually have a set schedule at all, other than perhaps a meeting here or there, or a phone call to make, podcast to record, or webinar to present. But otherwise I like to be up early, say 6 am or so, get 3 or 4 hours worth of work done, then relax a bit, watch a movie, go for a walk, explore, whatever. Then when I feel like it I’ll probably get online again and work for a few more hours planning the details for upcoming trips, doing social media, working on images or video, marketing my trips, working on the Tour Organizer Training program or doing something else business related.

In my free time, I enjoy watching movies and some TV series on Netflix, reading eBooks on my iPad mini, surfing the web, listening to music, or hanging out with friends, having a beer.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

How do you bring your things with you?

I travel exclusively with a fairly large roller bag from REI (it’s probably been around the world with me the equivalent of 7 or 8 times now over the past 4-plus years that I’ve had it), and one carry on, which is the MindShift Gear FirstLight 20L camera bag by ThinkTank. These bags are big enough to bring what I need for a two-week to three-month trip. Any bigger and I’d probably just fill that space, and I always seem to be right at the airline limit of 23 kg with my checked bag. This works well for me, and I wish I could just carry on all the time, but I do like to have a pair of cuticle scissors and a Swiss Army knife, so those, of course, need to be in checked luggage. For shorter trips, like Cuba, I’ll forgo those items and simply carry on.

The most important items I travel with, other than the standard passport, money and credit cards, are my laptop (which I operate 100% of my business on); earphones (to drown out crying babies and other noise on airplanes and other public transportation, plus lose myself in music played on my iPhone); my iPad mini (for watching Netflix and reading eBooks, which I do a lot of).

As a travel photographer I, of course, have a camera, but I’m a real stickler for working with one body and one lens so as to be light and nimble when I’m shooting. Currently, I shoot with the Panasonic Lumix GX8 and a 14 – 140 mm lens. This is all I need.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

How do you organize things in your bags?

I used to be a competitive sailor and developed a discipline for packing and understanding the importance of knowing where everything is at all times, so I’m pretty good at putting items in the same place in my bags, this way I can, at least in theory, find things easily, but that isn’t always the case. I find myself reorganizing my main bag fairly often as things get jostled and moved around, or I get lazy and just throw things in over time.

Not sure I’d change much in the design of my bags, they’re pretty great as is. I do use smaller packing cubes to keep similar items, especially electronics, like cords, wires, adaptors, microphones and other accessories, in the same place. And since my very first round-the-world trip, in 1988, I’ve always been a keen user of Ziploc plastic bags, especially for liquids and such.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

How do your bags and gear hold up?

As I mentioned, I love the quality of my REI roller bag, it’s got a super sturdy retractable handle, great wheels, has high quality zippers, and just keep rolling along, pun intended. For carry on only situations, which unfortunately I can rarely do, I use the Eagle Creek Tarmac AWD 22 inch, which has worked well. But with an MSRP of around $349, it’s pretty pricey for as little as I use it.

Because I choose high quality products, I rarely have to get anything repaired or replaced, which makes my life that much easier.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

Any gear you wish you had brought with you from the beginning?

Before I went location-independent and started leading multiple trips per year, I religiously worked from a packing list, because in many of the places I go it would be virtually impossible to find electronic items or camera accessories I forgot or found I needed. Now that I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years full time, I’ve pretty much got it down, and truthfully, rarely even unpack, other than to wash clothes and maybe replace shoes or other items. My toiletry bag is always topped off and ready to go, the basics are in my bag set to go, and then I just need to add or subtract location-specific items, like winter clothes, hiking boots, etc.

That said, and this may be TMI (ha!), this past year I was setting out on a three-month trip to speak at a conference in Jerusalem, scout for future trips and work on my Tour Organizer Training program in Spain and Portugal, and lead tours to both Morocco and the Baltic States, and for the first time ever I forgot a very basic necessity…underwear. Not good. I did, of course, just purchase some in Jerusalem, but they weren’t my preferred brand, or style, and I knew I had 20+ pairs back at my mom’s house, where I stay for short breaks in between trips, so it just bugged me that I had to buy any at all when I already had so many. Underwear and socks are usually the things I count out and pack first for every trip, but somehow it slipped by me for that particular trip.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

What kind of photos do you prefer to shoot?

I consider myself a travel photographer, and a travel photographer has to be a jack of all photographic genres, master of some. I’m not just a landscape photographer, or portrait photographer, or food photographer, I need to include all those types of images (a.k.a. genres or categories) in my work if I’m to properly and completely tell the story of each place.

Actually, I created an iPhone app called, My Shot Lists for Travel, and it’s a list of 52 categories that one should be on the lookout for when traveling. It’s meant to provide a framework to be able to bring a back a variety of images that truly captures the essence of the place and gives the viewers of one’s photography a real feel for the destination. It’s free and available on iTunes and can be used on iOS devices. For those who don’t have iOS devices (Android, other), I’ve written a blog post called, Summary of All 52 Categories of a Shot for Non-iOS Users. It includes all the sample images, descriptions and location information found in the app, just not the functionality.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

What has been your best gear purchase below $100?

The iRig lavaliere mic that connects to my iPhone and takes the quality of the sound of my videos to a whole other level is one item. Gone is the wind and background noise I used to get when I tried to just work with the iPhone’s built-in microphone. There are also accessories that make it easy to do interviews with other people. It costs about $50 on Amazon and is really great.

And I also love my Anker PowerCore 10000 external battery for charging my iPhone and other devices when away from outlets. Plus, I always use and recommend a high quality power strip/surge protector with a minimum of 3 outlets (preferably 4 or 6, and with both Euro- and U.S.-style capability, plus it’s nice to have some USB outlets). This is a godsend for anyone who needs to quickly power up their smartphone, tablet, camera and other batteries, along with other devices.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

What is your best advice for new nomads?

At the risk of sounding self-serving, new nomads who are trying to figure out how they’re going to sustain this lifestyle may be interested in my Tour Organizer Training course. After 10-plus years organizing and leading over 100 domestic tours in the U.S., and 80-plus international tours around the world, I like to think I’ve got a lot of experience and knowledge to pass on to my students.

My step-by-step Get Paid to Travel course helps those looking to make a real living from travel to move beyond simply trading blog posts, social media exposure and photographs for free meals and hotel stays, which is fine, if one is just looking to stay even. The course helps people to be able to travel the world, to create a life for themselves where they can make a potentially substantial living organizing and leading tours, sharing their favorite places and experiences, with their clients and being with them at the best time of their lives (they’re on vacation, after all). I’ll be the first to admit that although I travel to the world to some pretty amazing places, this isn’t a full time vacation, it’s actual work, but to me it’s the best job ever and I simply couldn’t imagine doing anything else. And the only suit I own is a bathing suit, which is just fine with me.

I’m not sure I have any new advice for people who’ve been nomadic for years, they’re doing it, and that’s all the counts.

Photographer Ralph Velasco

What will the future bring?

I’m looking forward to continuing to create, organize, administer and lead great tours around the world, at times to the places I love and have been to over and over again, such as Cuba, where I’ve led 16 fully-licensed people-to-people programs over the last 8 years. But I’m also looking forward to continually adding new destinations to our trip portfolio over the years, such as India, which I added in 2017, and other destinations I’ve scouted, am scouting, or will scout, including Portugal, Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan, Japan and Greece, just to name a few on my long list.

Also, I can’t wait to help others who are interested to lead the life that I do, guiding them so as to avoid the many costly mistakes I made, and time I wasted, trying to figure all of this out on my own. No one taught me how to do this, I had no mentors, guides, instructors or teachers to show me what to do to set up my business, and I did it the hard way and figured it all out on my own. That said, my course is designed to get people up and running and leading tours in a short period of time, not to take the many years it took me to get profitable and to the point I am now.

Visit Ralph Velasco on his website and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter

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