Travel Photography Tips to improve your travel photography. We have spent over five years taking pictures from all over the world. This experience has given us some great tips to share with beginner photographers.
While vacationing, many people like to collect souvenirs — magnets, snow globes, shot glasses — but for us? We prefer to collect memories on camera. Photography is its own time machine, freezing a moment in an image. Travel photography captures those instances of fun, beauty, and of deep significance, with a simple click. These images are the windows through which our future selves can look into the past for inspiration and enjoyment.
Every destination you arrive at carries with it its own style, its own flavor created from a helping of culture, with equal parts history, a dash of its people, a drizzle of bubbling emotion, caked together with stories, with the landscape as its icing. Learning to capture the essence of a place through the lens helps to convey its spirit to others, providing a curiosity laced with inspiration to exploring the area for themselves.
We are not institutionally trained photographers. We never went to school for this art. Yet here we are, living as professional travel bloggers and photographers, whose pictures are licensed for branding, tourism boards, and from time to time, those beautiful, glossy magazines.
Our techniques have been progressively learned through personal study via books, online tutorials, and most importantly, practice, practice, practice. If we can do it, you can do it too, if you’re willing to put in the effort!
Here is a list of our favorite travel photography tips for beginners to improve their images during their future adventures.
1. Wake Up Early, Stay Out Late
There is a common adage about an early bird and a worm. I’m sure it doesn’t work out well for the worm, but the bird is laughing. This adage is true for the travel photographer too (though no worms have to be sacrificed). Light is a crucial component to photography, and thus, the morning light can provide soft, warm lighting for stunning images.
An early rise in the morning can also mean that you are out before everyone else is. This means fewer tourists and other photographers to grapple for space. If you want those breathtaking still images — the kind that makes postcards worth the $3 people spend on them — like those of the ruins of Chichen Itza or Taj Mahal, then being sure to arrive right at the opening time will get you closer to having the place to yourself.
While early sunlight can provide good lighting, so can sunsets (like the shot above at a beach). The hour preceding sunrise and preceding a sunset is called “the golden hour” for a reason. They create warm tones that are soft, which also accent objects with pleasing shadows. In contrast to the golden hours, the “blue hour” is the hour that follows a sunset, and likewise, the hour before the sun rises. The sky takes on the blue leading to or from the night, and city lights provide new, different lighting.
While these hours offer creative lighting for artistic pursuit, the sun at high noon does not. In fact, this is probably one of the worst times to take photos for travel photography. This time might be better spent napping, eating, or doing other mundane activities that don’t warrant a camera. Taking a nap during this time means we have more energy for the evening and early morning photography missions so that we can take advantage of the optimal lighting.
2. Pre-Trip Location Scouting
Before you head out for your trip, be sure to do some research ahead of time. Read some travel books about the location, or look for articles and blog posts online. Get in touch with other photographers who have been there, find out their experience and thoughts. Check out sites like LocationScout and see what others found, you may be able to do it better.
This means that instead of wandering around trying to find the best place to take pictures, you can instead know exactly where they are and B-line for them to ensure you get the heart and essence of a destination.
Our favorite tools for travel photography research include social media like Instagram, and of course using the Google Image search. In using these, we can find out where the iconic locations are of a town or area, and once we’re there, we can even confirm them or do further research by checking out any local postcard rack.
Once we have a list of names of locations, we continue to research. We look at the best time of day for lighting, or how difficult a location might be to access. We look at when attractions are open and their peak times as well as their low times. And of course, as any good holiday-maker should do, we check the weather forecast.
Sure it can be fun wandering around and seeing where adventure or our feet take us, but if we are out for the true travel photography experience, and we want to be sure to get the best shots, then planning ahead is essential. It saves time and energy and makes sure we don’t miss anything we might later regret, resulting in a sublime travel album at the end of our trip.
3. Talk to People Before Taking Their Picture
When we think about capturing the essence of a place, taking photographs of people also comes to mind. However, it’s important to be respectful. Many photographers find photographing local people in foreign countries difficult. There are many barriers to address: what if they don’t understand you or what you’re doing? What if they don’t want their photo taken? What if they get offended?
We too were confronted with these types of concerns, and it took us a few years before we were able to get over these worries and begin taking portraits of locals. Even now, we feel a little apprehensive.
However, the key thing to do is try to talk to people first thing. By simply saying “Hello” or breaking the ice by asking directions or purchasing something they might be selling, they’re more likely to be comfortable with you taking their photo. Again, the key here is to be respectful. Create a conversation through compliments and asking questions about the area or their recommendations. Do this before you ask for a photo. It’s polite and less invasive in doing this.
Likewise, close-up photos can be considered invasive, and thus it is essential that you ask permission beforehand. During your preparation research, spend some time learning how to ask, “Can I take a photograph?” or “Can I take your portrait?” in the local language. Even if you don’t get the words or pronunciation just right, locals will always appreciate the effort of your attempt. And you never know what kind of friendship might result in the gesture, either.
Of course, not everyone will be compliant. Some people might decline, or ask for money. We’ve been known to pay from time to time, but that is entirely up to you. This kind of response is not the end of the world. It results in an experience for you if nothing else, of chatting and getting to know those who live in the area as opposed to just sticking to your comfort zone. Be sure to thank them for their time and smile. You can always find someone else and try again. The more you do this, you’ll find the more comfortable you get with the process. Somehow, rejection seems to make it easier—thickens the skin, perhaps.
4. Rule of Thirds in Photography
Understanding the Rule of Thirds can help you in any photography setting. By imagining that the image has been broken into thirds horizontally and vertically, and considering how the image fills this space, you can create a more balanced photograph.
When you “break” an image into thirds in these ways, you create different sections. The idea is that you try to put the important aspects of the image in these sections to create a pleasing framing of said image.
For example, if you were to put the image within the left grid line rather than centering the image within the entire shot, this would be using the Rule of Thirds. Likewise, if you were to keep the horizon line in the bottom third of the shot, rather than using it to split the shot evenly from top and bottom, then you would be using the Rule of Thirds (Pro tip: when you’re taking horizon shots, be sure to keep that horizon line straight!)
Most, if not all, cameras have a grid feature to help with composing shots using the Rule of Thirds. This will display three, equally-spaced vertical lines, and three, equally spaced horizontal lines, thus creating a grid on your LCD screen. This makes for a great tool of getting the hang of the Rule of Thirds.
When you raise the camera for a photograph, one of the important questions you should be asking yourself is what the key points of interest are in the shot. Once you have this figured out, then you need to decide on where these points of interest should be within the grid. Taking these things into consideration will drastically improve the quality of your shots.
5. Pack a Lightweight Travel Tripod
A travel tripod is extremely handy for travel photography, and it’s something we highly recommend that everyone should have. A tripod can help your camera’s positioning and keeping it steady.
By fixing the camera, you can then take your time to adjust your camera for the perfect composition lighting, exposure, focus, etc. There are some advanced techniques that a tripod can make easier, such as the use of HDR, focus stacking, and smooth panoramas.
Some shots require a slower shutter speed, such as when taking pictures of waterfalls, for example, or low-weight starts. A tripod can ensure that you don’t have to worry about the camera shaking during the shot. It means that you can ensure less sensor noise by keeping your ISO low and that you can create a more focused image by using smaller apertures. Furthermore, using a tripod allows you to have more creative control over the manual settings of your camera.
However, while all these are great benefits, it doesn’t mean you specifically have to use a tripod and haul it everywhere you go. Again, planning ahead and knowing what types of shots you’d like to take and where can help you plan for when to have your tripod with you.
But when you’re considering landscape shots, low-light photographs, flowing water shorts, sunrises, sunsets, and self-portraits, a tripod is a must.
This is our favorite tripod that is fully functional but extremely lightweight and easy to carry.
6. Experiment with Composition
Growing up, we, along with other animals, learn best through play. And taking outstanding photographs is no difference. But experimenting (playing) with different settings and compositions on your camera, you can find out what shots work best for you. This isn’t just the camera, but you as well. Try taking a picture standing up straight and compare it to taking one laying on the ground for a low angle. What does a shot look like from tree branches or any other higher place for a high angle?
After experimenting with angles, consider different distances. How does the wide shot look? Mid-range? How about the in-your-face up-close shots?
Consider the foreground, the mid-ground, and the background elements and how they influence your shot. If, for example, your focus is the mountain range, then look at what compliments the subject, such as a flower, a river, animal, or rock. Use these in the foreground. This provides depth to the image and will help to supply the scale of the mountains.
Another trick that a travel photographer might attempt for an interesting composition is focal compression. Compression means that a photographer has used the zoom lens to create the impression of the closeness of the objects.
While your first pic might look spectacular, you never know what other angles and stances might yield. Keep clicking!
7. Make Travel Photography a Priority
If you just want vacation photos to show you’ve been there and done that, then quick snapshots will suffice. You’ll go home with a collection of generic pictures matching anyone else’s. However, if you are after capital T, capital P Travel Photography, then you need to put dedication and focus into each shot. To do this, you need to carve out time specifically for photography in your itinerary. Quality photos require quality time taking them.
This can be tricky if you’re traveling with friends who just aren’t into photography. In which case, find a way to break away from the group for some one-on-one, you and camera time. Make this a priority. We often travel alone for this exact reason, so as not to have conflicts of attention between our camera and those we’re traveling with.
Have you ever tried to tell your non-photographer friend who just wants to get back to the bar for a drink that you want to hang on for an extra half an hour to see if the clouds look any better? Go on, give it a go, we can wait. How did that go? Not so well, surely. While friends might be more difficult to sooth, when you’re in a situation with organized tours, you can always get up a little bit earlier to have some camera time for a few hours before the tour gets going.
If you really want to have the freedom you need to photographically explore an area, bite the bullet and splash out on a rental car. You are then in control of the when and the where and time it takes for your photos. It can be downright painful being stuck on a bus, passing what the Romantics would have called the Sublime, and not being able to get the shot to bring that wonder and awe home with you.
8. Don’t Underestimate the Human Element
For those humans who just can’t or don’t travel, they like to live vicariously through photos, especially those photos with human subjects. This allows the audience to pretend the person in the photo is them, thus engaging them more fully in the photo, which then applies more emotion to the photo.
How is this accomplished? Simply make the subject anonymous in the way you position them. By not showing the subject’s face, viewers can feel like they are that faceless person, and that they are the ones experiencing the location.
On a more practical level, the human element in a photo provides a sense of the scale of things. Returning to the mountain example, you can give a better idea of how big those mountains actually are by placing your subject in the distance. Great examples of this are people against the trees in the Red Wood forests. It’s the reason why pictures featuring “tiny” people do well — they show how small we are in comparison to the grandeur of nature.
Likewise, humans revolve around the story. By adding the human element to a photo, you’re providing a story. It generates more power to the picture with people in them, thus altering the storyline depending on the type of human element you impose.
9. Patience is Everything
Many photographers describe photography as explaining how they see the world. And that’s really it, it’s about seeing that which is in front of you. But it’s more to it than just using your eyes, but portraying the filters that your heart and mind bring to a scene or image. This is no easy feat. Time and attention are essential to this process and require dedication. Take a moment to slow down, notice and be aware of your surroundings before you hit the shutter.
Turn photography into a mindful act. See the details, pay attention and notice them. Consider the formation of the clouds and how they complement or detract from your shot, and consider what they might do in another 15 minutes. Take your time to sit at a photogenic street corner and wait for the perfect subject to pass by. But keep waiting. You might get a better shot still. If you don’t have the patience to see what comes along, you might miss out on some beautiful photogenic prospects.
While we were in Norway photographing the Northern lights, we spent the entire night camping in the cold because we knew we had the perfect location. All we needed then was for the perfect moment in which the magical Aurora Borealis would appear. Even when it did, we waited a few more hours to ensure we captured the most vivid possible colors.
Quality photography is a mindful art and takes time. Ask yourself if you’re willing to wait for that perfect time to press the shutter. That is what the professionals do. If you want to be in the big leagues, that’s what it takes. The more patience you have, the more quality your photos will expose.
10. Protect Against Theft
Alright, so this doesn’t have to do with how to take a good photo, but it needs to be addressed anyway. In case you didn’t notice when you bought your camera, they generally are pretty expensive. That makes them a nice haul for anyone looking to make a quick buck from traveling tourists. We have heard some heartbreaking stories of photographers whose cameras were the subject of theft. We have so far been lucky enough that we’ve never had our equipment stolen, but part of that luck is just prevention.
The first thing you need to make sure you do while you’re traveling is to purchase camera insurance. While this doesn’t specifically stop your camera from being snatched, it does help to minimize the loss if it does happen. You can look into what your homeowners or renters insurance covers — your camera might just be included — but if those aren’t an option, then such organization as the Professional Photographers of America can supply camera insurance.
While you aren’t shooting, it’s imperative that you keep your equipment secure. Consider a hotel safe or a locker at your hostel. While you’re traveling, don’t count your gear as checked luggage during a flight. Make it your carry-on item. Likewise, be smart where you take your camera out. Try to avoid doing so in sketchy or run-down areas, and keep it in an unremarkable bag so as not spark intrigue.
Finally, when you get yourself some new equipment, be sure to register it with the manufacturer, keep a copy of the serial number safe, and save any related receipts. These will help during the process of an insurance claim (which we hope you won’t ever need) and can speed up the process. Be sure to include your name and the serial number on image EXIF data. That way, if your camera is stolen, you can use a site like StolenCameraFinder.com to track it down.
11. Shoot Travel Photos in Manual Mode
While technology is making cameras smarter, AUTO mode just doesn’t quite cut the mustard when it comes to taking quality photos. Much like driving a manual car vs. an automatic, you have more control and freedom using the manual mode while taking photographs. AUTO mode can do a decent job, but when it comes to creating quality, stunning photos, you want to have full control over your shot.
For those who are new to photography, adjusting all the settings might not only sound like a foreign concept but might equally sound overwhelming. Some of the settings that need to be adjusted include the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. Take the time to understand the relationship between these three things, and the effect they have when they’ve been adjusted manually.
You can do this by switching your camera’s dial to Manual Mode. This will give you ample control over your shots, and how to alter them to meet the immediate situation, from lighting to depth, to softness.
Manually controlling your shutter speed affords you the ability to capture motion creatively. The ISO control helps you to reduce the noise of your images and address lighting.
12. Always Bring a Camera
We have moved more into video and while a camera phone can take reasonably good videos we prefer to use the 4K videos from our Osmo Pocket. Probably the best $300 we ever spent on a camera.
Like a boy scout, you should always be prepared. Though not with survival techniques (though those are helpful too), but with your camera. “The best camera is the one you have with you,” goes the photographer’s adage. While you can be practiced, researched, and ready for those amazing photos, luck also plays a huge role in the timing of a photograph. Have you ever tried to take pictures on a whale-watching trip? Those whales can be pretty elusive to the camera.
What separates the pros from the amateur photographers is that the pros plan for luck and are always at the ready for when a serendipitous opportunity arises.
We are not deities, and thus, we can never know when to be where at just the right photographic time, especially while traveling. You never know when suddenly the clear sky clouds over to reveal swaths of pinks and fuchsias across the horizon, or when a rare animal might make an appearance, or even if a flash mob breaks out of the mold.
We kept our cameras at the ready while we were on a hike in Myanmar. Our Pocket Osmo camera was always within quick and easy reach. This allowed us to get phenomenal shots. Instead of being committed to a photo, it would only remain with us in memory only had our cameras been stowed away.
Keep your camera ready, your battery charged, and your artistic eye alert to an opportunity at all times.
13. Get Lost on Purpose
Cool, so you’ve managed to get all the planned shorts and made sure you got to all the right sites to get your own version of a location. Now what? Well, you get lost of course. No, I don’t mean beat it, but rather, you explore, and explore so heartily that you get yourself lost. On purpose.
Getting those unique images involves going where other people don’t go. The best way to do this is with a good pair of shoes and on foot. Be sure you get the number of a local taxi service before you leave your hotel, bring some water, pick a direction and meander.
With your camera leading the way, wander into the unknown. Be safe about it, talking with and checking in with locals to make sure you aren’t going into dangerous territory, but do make sure you lose your bearings and get lost. Explore alleys, snickets, trails, and see if you can find where the sidewalk ends.
Trust the locals. They know where the good places are, where the tourists don’t go. Touristy places are generally where the locals avoid. If you want to get the true essence of a place, find out where the locals go and explore it.
14. Back-Up Your Photos
We cannot stress this enough. Back up your work. Back up your work. BACK UP YOUR WORK! This is right up there with making sure you have your camera insured. A whole vacation’s worth of photography is lost if you don’t manage to upload your photos in more than one location. Use both physical and cloud services. Your laptop can get stolen while traveling, like ours, did in Panama, but if you use services online then your photos at least, are safe.
When we back up our photos, we use both an external hard drive of our RAW cameral files and an online service for select images. Finally, we have another service that we use online for our edited photos. If we have an important project, we’ll even go for further security, mailing a smaller hard drive with images back to the US if the internet is too spotty or slow to provide the assurance we need.
15. Get Better at Post Processing
Somewhere, somehow, the myth arose and spread that to edit one’s photos is to cheat. We’re putting a stop to that one right here, right now. All professional photographers edit their photos. We use software such as GIMP, Photoshop, or Lightroom. How much a photographer edits photos is up to the photography’s artistic vision. Nevertheless, they all do it.
Post-processing an image is part of photography. This is the modern equivalent to darkroom adjustments for photographs on film. The art of processing your images after you’ve taken them is of more importance than, say, the type of camera you used to take the image.
Take some time to play around the software. Learn what it means to improve the contrast, reduce highlights, boost shadows, minimize sensor noise, sharpen image elements, adjust exposure levels, or soften the color tones. You can, of course, go overboard, but that’s the beauty of learning through play — finding the balance.
If you want to invest money into photography, we recommend spending it on tutorial videos addressing post-processing photographs over the latest camera equipment. This knowledge can be what makes your travel photography sparkle.
16. Don’t Obsess Over Camera Equipment
I know, I know, you’re itching to know what camera equipment we use for our travel photography. Here you go, in all its glory. But know, if you went out and bought all of this, not only would your pocket be pretty drained, we can promise you that it won’t improve the quality of your pictures.
It isn’t the camera or the gear you have that makes the photographer. Likewise, a painter isn’t made by their paintbrush, nor is a writer made by the brand of pen they use. Rather, it’s experience, knowledge, practice, and understanding that creates the artist, that creates the photographer.
If you listen to the marketing teams of cameras (who, by the way, are far better at marketing than paintbrush manufacturers), they’ll convince you that you don’t have a chance at becoming a photographer unless you drop $3,000 on their camera. But, we can let you in on a secret: those marketing companies are lying to you.
Professionals have and use the expensive equipment because of the range of images it affords them. For example, a type of camera might allow for low light star photography as well as fast-action wildlife photography. Or a photographer might want to sell fine-art prints and thus have an expensive camera.
However, instead of focusing on the expensive stuff, invest in the time it takes to develop the awareness, style, and technique that goes behind capturing images. Invest in courses or books that explain your current camera settings. This is far more worth your buck, and more affordable too.
17. Never Stop Learning
As technology advances and more people enter into the world of photography, more styles and techniques are being learned and discovered. Like any art, it is always evolving. Likewise, you should evolve too. Never stop learning. Keep enrolling in online photography tutorials, invest in workshops. Find time regularly to go out and practice. These are the things that keep you sharp and will help you perfect your technique. While Instagram filters might be fun, they are not how you become a photographer. Neither is obtaining the latest, most up to date equipment.
Despite the fact that we’ve been earning money through our photography for the past five years, we are always finding new things to learn. Thus, we regularly put money down on online courses and photography books to hone our craft. If you’re serious about photography, then you should be doing this too.
If you feel you know all there is to know about landscapes, then challenge yourself to a different subject matter, like portraits of strangers. Try capturing animals by stalking them to test your wildlife photography. Play with long exposure shots of the Milky Way. Can you do it? Wherever your weak spot is, try it, exercise it, and strengthen it.
Any art is an ongoing learning process.
The more time you take to learn new techniques and skills from other genres of photography, the better a travel photographer you’ll become. The best investment you can make to any practice is time.