I only had six days available, so we visited the Pacific shoreline near Imperial Beach after I arrived on Sunday afternoon, Balboa Park on the Monday, Anza-Boreggo at dawn on Tuesday, Joshua Tree National Park on Wednesday, day off Thursday, and Cabrillo National Monument and the tidal pools on Friday.
My goal was to get some very unique shots of the desert, and since our travels took us to three types of desert (Sonora, Colorado and Mojave deserts), I had the opportunity to hit a wide range of images.
Things I learned:
1. Dress for the desert. Even in March, even in a "dry" heat, you need serious hydration for a day on your feet. Sunscreen and a very light, very floppy sun hat are key.
2. Spend time in advance of the trip doing your reconnaissance of where you want to shoot. As I said to one park ranger, I flew 5000 kilometers to be there, and had one sunset in Joshua Tree National Park to get the images I wanted. You can't be improvising when time is so short. We checked on-line resources, so as to have exact spots in mind for our shots, then made sure we were in position about 30 minutes ahead of sunrise and sunset. We checked out potential sites during the heat of the day when it was too bright and too hot to be rock hopping, and made sure that our spots provided opportunities for sunset shots facing west to the horizon, as well as structure such as mountain or hills opposite (east) that would provide opportunities of sun-drenched geography as the sun set. Once that sun starts to set, your opportunities change by the second.
3. Bring polarizing filters. The sun is incredibly bright from about 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the spring. We were in place to photograph key geographical sites at sunrise, then went for breakfast, then back to the desert to hike and shoot until lunch, keeping out of the sun until about 3:00 p.m.
4. Bring your lens hoods. One for every lens. If you don't usually use a lens hood--and you should--you really need to bring them for desert daytime shots. The flare you'll get in some shots will kill your photos without lens hoods. I like to take the occasional timed exposure using my Singh Ray Infra Red filter. Its a 77 mm filter and its so opaque, it requires a 2-3 minute exposure even in broad daylight. Any shot that long without a lens hood will be toast. Even shot exposures of the ocean will be affected if you don't use your hood.
5. Tripod. I brought my traveling rig, a Gitzo 1542T with a Really Right Stuff BH-30 ball-head. Its not got the height I'd like, but its light and rigid and provides an excellent platform for dawn and dusk shots. Its light enough to backpack all day in the heat. You really don't want to travel great distances only to come home with blurry shots. Use the tripod.
6. Backpack. You need a means to tote all your camera, lens, tripod and other bits here, there and everywhere. I used my Thinktank Streetwalker (yeah....nice name....) knapsack; its not as rugged as an F-stop Mountain Series, but it does extremely well in both urban and back-country settings. Its well-made and well-designed, with straps that remain comfortable and fits as carry-on (critical!) luggage so that my camera and lenses are always with me when flying, This is a very solid, very comfortable pack. My only gripes are that the base doesn't have a waterproof membrane like a Hypalon material, and there's no designated spot for a water bladder. Small points. The bag is highly recommended as it is very well-designed and made.
7. Plan ahead. I looked at sites we would be visiting online, and spent a lot of time before traveling determining what kind of pictures I would like to take. The desert sunrise pictures meant bringing specific filters (Singh Ray Sunset filter, Singh Ray A13 filter, split neutral density filters, Singh Ray Blu 'n Gold filter, Singh Ray Color Intensifier), as well as my tripod, shutter release cable, lots of memory cards....you get the idea. Look at pictures of where you are planning to visit, determine in advance what unique or original shots you want to take, and plan to bring the necessary equipment. Planning is key, because once you're there and that sun is rising, you don't have time to improvise.
So that's it. I took about 1500 images in 6 days. I trimmed a great deal of fat once I got home and started putting all my workflow through Light Room 4, but better to take the shot and see how it looks once you get home. I don't travel at this time with a laptop and all the accoutrements, so I wait until I get home to process my shots. My memory cards stay on my person at all times when traveling (get a Domke Photog Vest!!! Its like wearing an extra suitcase!).