Jennifer De Luca goes by the name Jet Set Brunette Photography for her travel photos. She is based out of Sydney, Australia. She is a “professional amateur” photographer who spends every spare dollar she has on photography equipment and gear “because it’s addictive!”
Here, she shares the story of her incredible journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
How did you get started with photography? Tell us a bit about yourself.
On a surf trip to Bali in March 2014, I was appointed the official surf photographer for our group of friends’ surf adventure. Until that point in time, I’d only ever used a compact point-and-shoot or my phone camera, so I did a crash course via YouTube videos on photography basics and accepted the challenge. The first day of shooting, I took a bunch of unusable photos and was completely stressed out. But as the holiday progressed, I got more and more into it, and then found myself looking forward to getting up at dawn and chasing the waves with the guys—them with surfboards and me with a DSLR. One of the guys on the trip has a large social media following, so I was excited when my photos were well-received. I have since had some of my photos used in a surf product catalogue. As I didn’t have any hobbies, I decided to take up photography and have loved every minute of it. I really like the challenge of always improving what I do and learning new skills. My only regret is that I didn’t get into it sooner in life.
What made you decide to do a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway?
For the last two years, I have been churning through my bucket list at a rapid rate, as I have an incurable form of cancer in the bone marrow called Multiple Myeloma. The only problem is the more I travel, the more places I add to my list—so my list is getting longer, not shorter, which I find funny. I chose the Trans-Siberian Railway as it seemed like such an amazing achievement to travel 9,288 kilometres across Russia by myself. I like challenges and doing things that are different; and this journey certainly ticks those boxes. It seemed like such an exotic and foreign location to a gal from little old down under Australia. I did some research online and watched Joanna Lumley make the Trans-Siberian Railway journey for her travel series. One ticket to Vladivostok, please! In my life I have done lots of travel, but this truly is one epic train journey that I will never forget. This was like a personal achievement more than a holiday. When I am having a bad day, I only have to look at my photos and I smile again.
What was your favorite part of your travels through Russia?
The highlight of my trip was definitely arriving in Moscow—WOW! There was something absolutely amazing and breathtaking about the city from the minute I left the train. I’m not sure whether it was just the idea that I was in Moscow or if indeed there was some magical force, but words can’t explain.
I spent seven days exploring the capital and toured it entirely on foot or with the help of the Metro. The destination highlights were Red Square, The Kremlin, The Armoury, Alexander Garden, Pushkin Museum, The Tomb of The Unknown Soldier, and Bunker 42 (climb 18 stories underground and tour a Cold War bunker). The food is out of this world; everything is hearty and has the deliciousness of tasting home-cooked. And it’s super cheap! I found the Russian people so friendly and eager to help me if I was lost or assist me in dragging my bag through the snow (Who takes a wheelie bag in snow anyhow? I think they thought it was rather funny).
The photo opportunities in and around Moscow are endless year-round. I made the decision to travel through Russia and Siberia in December, as I had never had a Northern Hemisphere white Christmas. Seeing snow falling, visiting elaborate cathedrals, sipping mulled wine at the Christmas Markets, and watching families ice skate in the Red Square all added to the magic and romance of Moscow.
What challenges did you face along the way?
Probably the biggest hurdle I faced was the language barrier, especially through Siberia. Once I arrived in Moscow and St Petersburg, this was less of an issue. I armed myself with a cheap data SIM card and just Googled my way through any language hiccups. Another challenge was the extreme weather and brutal cold, but that’s what they make warm clothes for. There was something pretty amazing about walking around in minus ten degrees taking photos, and then stumbling upon a cute cafe to warm up with coffee and fresh donuts.
What equipment did you use?
Whenever I travel, I have a very hard time leaving equipment behind and choosing what to take. I have this fear that I’m going to miss a good shot because I have the wrong lens. It hasn’t happened yet, but nevertheless. For this trip, I travelled with my Canon 7D mark ii and chose three lenses that I thought would make a versatile kit: Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens, Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM Lens, and Canon EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens. I was very happy with the lenses I travelled with; each came in handy and did a wonderful job capturing my journey. I carried a tripod with me but hardly used it, so I would say leave it at home or get a lightweight Monopod. A selection of filters is handy for shooting through the glass of the train window and for the brilliant white of shooting in the snow. And most importantly, travel with several camera batteries; the extreme cold depletes the life of them rapidly, and you don’t want to miss a moment.
What advice would you give to a photographer inspired by your travels?
Just do it! It is most amazing train journey you will ever encounter. Russia and Siberia have so many fantastic photo opportunities and are completely underrated as travel destinations. The beauty of this travel for photographers is it encompasses everything—from snowy steppes to frozen lakes to the cosmopolitan city vibe of Moscow and historical St Petersburg—so it’s really easy to get a variety of images. Having an incurable cancer has made me realise we are not always guaranteed to be here for a long time, so get out and enjoy what this wonderful world has to offer while you can. If you wait for the perfect time to book your next travel adventure, it may not come, so go plan something today.
Name one photographer on 500px whose work inspires you and why.
Just one, now that’s tough…. But I think my all-time 500px hero would have to be the amazing and extremely talented Chris Burkard. I love his wild, remote destinations and offbeat landscapes.
Did your photography skills/style evolve along your travels?
As a photographer newbie, I feel like my skills and style are constantly evolving. I am always reading books or watching video tutorials to learn a new technique that I can practice in the field. On my Trans-Siberian Railway journey, I had the opportunity to walk the streets of whatever town or city I was in and do some street photography, which is something I wouldn’t do at home. I really enjoyed capturing the day-to-day events and trying to turn something ordinary into an image. I have since joined a Street Photography Club back home in Sydney, and I am looking forward to learning more about this genre.
What did you learn on your trip that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?
As it was planned as a photography trip, it meant I was picking up my camera daily, and I would say with all certainty that my skills improved on a day-to-day basis just by taking photos so frequently. I also had to learn to take a photo in extreme weather conditions—snow, sleet, rain, blizzards. There were not many days that I didn’t shoot; I found ways around the weather by either getting creative or waiting for a freak second-or-two break in the conditions. I found lots of indoor situations to take photos—museums, galleries, cathedrals. I had never taken photos in museums or cathedrals, so this was something I was keen try; and thanks to some tutorial videos, I managed to get some great shots.
Give five travel/photography tips for photographers interested in exploring the Trans-Siberian Railway.
1. Pack a Small Prime Lens
In my case, I packed my Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens, and I ended up using this lens far more than I initially anticipated I would. It is the perfect size for exploring the train with and getting some creative shots. I used it throughout lots of my street photography in Moscow and St Petersburg, so it really was a great lens as part of my kit. Some of my favorite shots from the journey were taken with it.
2. Pack your own food for the train
I’m not going to lie, the train food is very “hit and miss.” Packing my own food turned out to be the way to go, and I saved lots of money by doing so. I would just go to the supermarket or deli prior to boarding the train and stock up on a selection of yummy hams, salami, cheeses, bread rolls, fruit, noodles, and other snacks. Every carriage has a Samovar (urn that supplies hot water) so you can make yourself quick noodles, tea, coffee, or instant soup, which is enjoyable on the long journey.
3. Spend a day or two at each stop and BREATHE
There are many stops along the Trans-Siberian Railway Route, and given the vast distance you need to cover, you can’t see every stop in depth. I would recommend choosing two or three stops along the way to get off the train for at least a day or two at each destination. My favorite of these stops was a city in Siberia called Irkutsk. I visited the famous world heritage site called Lake Baikal, which was just breathtaking. Spending a few days off the train is a chance to sample the food and drink of the region, stretch your legs, breathe some air, and relax, taking in the local culture.
4. Buy a 4-berth sleeper ticket
There are many types of train tickets that range from super cheap to super expensive; I went for a middle ground experience and was very happy with my choice. I chose the shared 4-berth sleeping berth ticket. As the train wasn’t full, it was mostly just myself and one other person in the cabin. The open sleeping carriage (which is the cheapest ticket) did not suit my requirements, given I was traveling with expensive equipment, which I wanted to stow safely, plus the fact that I wanted my own window so I could take candid photos as I pleased.
5. Look out the window
It sounds silly, but take the time to look out the window and take in the remote vastness that is this epic train journey. It was night-time when I chose to read or watch a movie on my laptop. I spent daylight hours looking through the window at the world passing by me. I also winged a few great shots just by having my camera ready to go beside me.
Be sure to check out Jet Set Brunette’s full gallery of her Trans-Siberian Railway journey!