This travel photography post will not be about adjusting ISO or creating the perfect time lapse. There are other, better, more experienced photographers who can give you advice about that. Elia Locardi, Ken Kaminesky, and Daniel Nahabedian are great travel photographers to start with, and they offer tutorials on their sites.
I wouldn’t call myself a professional photographer yet; I am an amateur enthusiast who makes part of my income through photography. However, I’ve been taking plenty of photos for the past couple of years on the road and in the strangest of circumstances, enough to give you some advice I wish someone had given me before starting out. It doesn’t matter if you want to become a professional, or just take better vacation shots – there are a few basic things you need to keep in mind.
Because sometimes it’s not about a backpack full of the right gear, but rather about knowing how to schedule your day right.
Every photographer looks back at their earlier photos and wants to kick themselves for not knowing more about composition, lighting, and camera tricks that could have made those early photos way better. With travel photography, that feeling is even more infuriating, as you can’t be sure if and when you will get the chance to shoot in the same locations again.
However, follow the below advice, and you will really improve your (possibly) only shot at getting fantastic photos in the country you’re visiting!
Don’t Overschedule Your Day
I like to call this the “give yourself a break” principle, which should really be applied almost everywhere. A lot of us (my overly optimistic and workaholic self first) tend to think that we’re more akin to robots than human beings. Go get those perfect sunrise shots from the hill, walk back down to the city and take street shots, grab a really quick lunch (don’t forget to photograph it), walk to the other side of town to the museum, take some time lapses elsewhere, get a great sunset shot, go walk around and get the city at night!
STOP. If you follow this program, I guarantee your end-of-day photos will absolutely suck. Or at the very least, they won’t represent even 50% of your potential talent and effort. I know this, because this is exactly what happens to my photos every time I forget my own advice.
We’re humans, and we get tired. And when our brain is tired, our legs are tired, and all we can think about is the air conditioner humming soothingly above our comfortable hotel bed, we’re going to start missing shots. We’re not going to want to explore down that scenic looking alley, or take the time to perfectly line up a shot and find a better angle.
So be realistic when planning your day, and give yourself some time to stop, take a break, sit at a cafe, and take in the atmosphere around you. Otherwise you will exhaust yourself and your travel photography will suffer.
Brush Up on the Right Travel Photography For Your Destination
I learned to do cool urban long-exposure night shots in London. I spent 8 hours walking around the city taking photos of city landmarks with the iconic double decker buses streaking by them, and it was one of the best travel photography experiences of my life.
You know where I was a few months before London? Tokyo. You know how freaking great it would have been to experiment and use this technique there as well? Amazing. Did I do it back then? No. I kick myself over it every time I look at the London shots.
If you’re going to a fast-moving urban setting, read up on and experiment with long exposure night shots, great street photography, or super quick time lapses. If you’re visiting the middle of nowhere, and will be privy to some of the darkest and starriest skies in the world, practice some astrophotography before going. Visiting a unique tribe in Namibia? Practice your people skills and portrait shooting to get better, more intimate photos.
Obviously, it would be great to be well-versed in any and all forms of travel photography, but brush up especially on the forms you think you will be using on your trip, and rent or get the necessary equipment to help you achieve your travel photography goals.
Patience is the Best Asset
This seems so obvious, but is easier said than done. Be patient and do NOT get lazy. The light might get a thousand times better in half an hour. Wait it out. That person smoking on the corner who is throwing off your composition will move soon. Don’t miss a great shot and settle for an OK one because you didn’t want to wait a little while longer. And if you start to get restless, just remember how annoyed you will be with yourself a month from now when you’re going through your photos and feel unhappy with half of them.
Always Get a Different Angle
Play with your angles, because shooting from eye/chest height will probably lead to a photo a million other people have taken. If you perch up somewhere or shoot from the ground up, it can result in an incredibly different photo. This also applies to getting an epic sunset or landscape shot. Changing your position some tens of feet up, to the right, or to the left can result in a dramatically different composition – don’t underestimate it.
Get Over Yourself and Get Candid People Shots
A lot of photographers who want to capture people have trouble getting up the courage to photograph them. Asking is always an option, but often when the subject realizes they’re being photographed, their entire expression changes, ruining what was interesting about the photo in the first place. Learn how to read a situation, because you don’t want to antagonize an unwitting subject, and apologize and delete the photo immediately if someone has a serious problem with a photograph they were in.
However, start experimenting with taking photos of people in the street or people you meet along the way, because local people are a big part of any place’s story. If you want to make sure you’re ethically alright, tell your subject after you photographed them that you would like to use their photos, and ask if that’s OK with them. Also, offer to send them the finished photo – it’s good manners!
Put Down the Camera
This might seem antithetical to good travel photography, but hear me out. When you’re constantly walking around looking at your surroundings through a viewfinder, or mentally breaking down your environment into “rule of thirds” grids, you end up losing some of the magic you’re supposed to capture. Every once in a while, when your photo-taking starts to feel a bit mechanical and you’ve lost touch with your surroundings, put down the camera and take it all in. Breathe in deep, notice the surrounding smells, feel the sun or wind, and generally walk around a little without thinking about the camera hanging around your neck. It will help you get your rhythm back, and inject each destination’s special magic back into your photos.
Take the Extra Time to Focus
This is advice to be taken in two ways: first of all, ALWAYS pay incredibly close attention to your focus. You may think you have a well-focused shot, but when you blow it up on your desktop in full RAW glory, you see that tiny hint of a blur that will drive you absolutely crazy. And it’s too late to do anything about it. Zoom all the way in before taking the shot to make sure you’re focused on even the littlest details.
But besides that, also take the time to focus mentally. Photographs taken while you were distracted, preoccupied, or not giving it your all, show, and not in a good way. Take the time to really see EVERYTHING in the frame, and consider all the aspects of the shot. Otherwise you’ll be surprised by small objects that block and ruin the shot, or realizing you could have left more/less empty space, included more/less in the composition, etc, etc.
Don’t Just Take One Photo and Move On
This is how you end up missing a lot – you see a cool scene, take just one, or a few very similar photos, and move on to something else. Don’t! Play around with the scene. Zoom in, zoom out, get close-ups, get epic wide angles, do everything you can think of. You need more than one photo to tell a story, and you might be miss a beautiful aspect of a scene by focusing on just the shot that looks good at first.
Don’t Just Take The ‘Expected’ Shot
There was an interesting travel photography essay a while back, in which a photographer went to popular tourist destinations and took photos in the other direction, aka away from the landmark and towards the tourists. It always stuck with me because it was a cool, different kind of take on popular attractions I had seen a thousand times before.
There are classic shots of the Tower of Pisa, of Yosemite National Park, of the Eiffel Tower, of the New York skyline, that have been taken and retaken multiple times. Get that shot if you want, by all means, but also think up at least 2 or 3 interesting new ways to photograph popular attractions.
Insert Yourself Into a Few Photos
I hate being in photographs. I grew up with a dad and best friend who were both obsessed with getting the perfect group photo on our travels, and I was deeply annoyed by the repeated attempts, frozen smiles, and cries of “Wait! Again! Again!” echoing through my childhood journeys. My travel photography included cities, landscapes, streets, other people, food – pretty much everything but myself.
I have been working on inserting myself into photos more because of my blog, but it’s been a slow process. However, I now regret not having at least a few photos of myself at the amazing places I’ve visited, and gazing out at the beautiful vistas I’ve seen. I know it can be hard, especially as a solo traveler, to feature yourself in your photos, but there are ways around it.
For specific solo travel photography purposes, I will refer you to two articles by bloggers who helped me up my game: Scott of Intrepid Escape, a Selfie Pro, and Glo from The Blog Abroad, who has mastered the art of the timer and getting great travel photos of yourself.
Ready To Go Yet?
Ingrain these habits into your travel photography routine. and incorporate these tips into your next travel photography journey, and I guarantee you will be much happier with the shots you get, as well as with the time you spend on the road. What are you waiting for?
What habits have you found that help or hinder your travel photography? What would you do different on your next trip? Comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts!