Some people collect souvenirs when they travel, I prefer to collect beautiful images with my camera. Travel photography is like a time machine, freezing memories from a journey that you can look back on and enjoy for years.
Every travel destination has its own look, culture, history, people, feelings, landscapes, and stories. Learning how to capture these subjects through photos helps convey the spirit of a place to others, giving them a glimpse of what it might be like to venture there.
I never went to school for photography. And yet here I am now, making my living as a professional travel blogger & photographer who regularly licenses images to tourism boards, brands, and occasionally glossy magazines.
I’ve slowly learned the techniques of travel photography over years of reading books, watching online tutorials, and regular practice to improve my craft. You can learn this way too — if you put in the effort!
1) Wake Up Early, Stay Out Late
The early bird gets the worm. I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase. Well it’s also very true for travel photography. Light is the most important ingredient for great photography — and soft, warm, morning light creates amazing images.
Waking up early also means you’ll have to deal with fewer tourists and other photographers. Want an epic postcard shot of a famous landmark like the ruins of Chichen Itza or the Taj Mahal? Just get there early right when it opens and you’ll pretty much have the place to yourself!
Sunrise isn’t the only time to catch good light. Sunsets are also great. The hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset are nicknamed “golden hours” because of their soft, warm tones and eye-pleasing shadows. “Blue hour”, is the hour after sunset (or before sunrise) when the sky is still blue, but city lights are turned on.
In comparison, shooting photos at noon on a bright sunny day is probably the absolute worst time for travel photography! In fact sometimes I’ll just take a nap during the middle of the day so I have more energy for early morning and evening photography missions, when the light is best.
2) Pre-Trip Location Scouting
Read travel guidebooks about your destination. Scour the internet for articles and blog posts to help give you ideas for photos. Talk to friends who have been there. Reach out to other photographers. Become more knowledgeable about which images will capture the essence of a place.
Some of my favorite tools for travel photography research are Instagram and Google Image Search. I use them to learn where iconic locations are. Actual postcard racks are also a great tool for helping to create a “shot list”.
Once I know the names of potential photo locations, I’ll do more research. Which time of day has the best light? How difficult is it to reach certain vantage points? What time does an attraction open, and when will tourist traffic be low? What will the weather be like?
Wandering around with no plans has its place, but being well prepared with research beforehand saves time so you can fully commit to producing amazing travel photography once you’re there, and maximize your time.
3) Talk To People
Photographing local people in a foreign country is tough for many photographers. What if they don’t understand you? What if they say no? Will they get offended? It took me a couple years to get comfortable shooting portraits of locals, and even now I still get a bit nervous.
But I’ve learned the key is to talk to people first. Say hello. Ask for directions. Buy a souvenir. Compliment them on something. Chat for a few minutes BEFORE asking for a photo. It’s far less invasive this way.
Always ask permission for close-ups too. Spend 15 minutes learning how to say “can I make a photograph” or “can I take your portrait” in the local language before you arrive. People really appreciate the effort, and it’s a great way to make a new friend.
Some people will say no. Some will ask for money (I sometimes pay, but that’s up to you). It’s not the end of the world. Thank them for their time, smile, and move on to someone else and try again. Actually the more you get rejected, the easier it gets to ask!
4) Rule Of Thirds
One of the most basic and classic of photography tips, understanding the Rule of Thirds will help you create more balanced compositions. Imagine breaking an image down into thirds horizontally and vertically, so it’s split into different sections.
The goal is to place important parts of the photo into those sections, and help frame the overall image in a way that’s pleasing to the eye.
For example, placing a person along the left grid line rather than directly in the center. Or keeping your horizon on the bottom third, rather than splitting the image in half. Remember to keep that horizon straight too!
Composing using the Rule of Thirds is easily done by turning on your camera’s “grid” feature, which displays a rule of thirds grid directly on your LCD screen specifically for this purpose.
Now, before you compose a travel photo, you should be asking yourself: What are the key points of interest in this shot? Where should I intentionally place them on the grid? Paying attention to these details will improve the look of your images.
4) Use A Tripod
I think more people should be using lightweight travel tripods. A tripod allows you to set your camera position and keep it there. With the camera fixed, you can then take your time arranging the perfect composition.
You can also adjust exposure settings, focus points, and really spend time paying attention to the image you want to create. Or use advanced techniques like HDR, focus stacking, and panoramas.
Tripods give you the ability to shoot much slower shutter speeds (waterfalls, low-light, stars, etc) without worrying about hand-held camera shake. You can keep your ISO low (for less sensor noise) and use smaller apertures, so more of the image is in focus.
You’ll have greater creative control over your camera’s manual settings when using a tripod. This doesn’t mean you have to lug a tripod around with you absolutely everywhere. I don’t.
But for tack sharp landscapes, low-light photography, self-portraits, flowing water shots, and sunsets/sunrises, a travel tripod makes a huge difference.
5) Experiment With Composition
You can almost always come up with a better photo composition after some experimentation. Sure, take that first shot standing up straight. But then try laying on the ground for a low angle. Maybe climb up something nearby and shoot from a higher angle.
Along with different angles, try shooting from different distances too. Start with a wide shot, then a mid-range version, and finally, get up-close and personal. Never be satisfied with your first idea for an image!
Try to include powerful foreground, midground, and background elements too. If your subject is a mountain range — find a flower, river, animal, or interesting rock to include in the foreground. This gives images a 3-dimensional feel and helps convey scale, drawing a viewer’s eye into the rest of the photo.
Focal compression is another great compositional tactic in travel photography. Compression is when a photographer uses a zoom lens to trick the eye into thinking objects are closer than they really are.
6) Make Photography A Priority
Attempting to take quick snapshots as you rush from one location to another will leave you with the same boring photos everyone else has. Make sure you plan “photography time” into your travel schedule. Good travel photography requires a solid time commitment on your part.
If you’re traveling with friends who aren’t into photography, it can be difficult to find the time necessary to create amazing images. You need to break off on your own for a few hours to make photography your priority. I often prefer to travel alone or with other dedicated photographers for this reason.
Good luck trying to explain to a non-photographer that you’d like to wait around for an extra 30 minutes until the clouds look better. It doesn’t go over well. For organized tours, try waking up early to wander alone for a few hours, getting photos before the tour starts.
Even better, splurge on a rental car for a travel photography road trip. This allows you to control when and where you stop for photos. There’s nothing worse than being stuck on a bus while passing an epic photo opportunity, powerless to stop and capture it!
7) Shoot In Manual Mode
You’d think that modern cameras are smart enough to take incredible pictures on their own, in AUTO mode. Well that’s just not the case. While they do a pretty good job, if you want truly stunning images, you need to learn how to manually control your camera’s settings yourself.
If you’re new to photography, you may not realize all the camera settings that need to be adjusted. These include ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. If you want the best images possible, you need to know the relationship between them, and how to adjust these settings on your own.
To do this, switch your camera’s dial into Manual Mode. This camera mode gives you much more control of the look of your images in different situations. By manually adjusting aperture you’ll have more control over the depth of field in your image.
By manually controlling shutter speed, you’ll be able to capture motion in more creative ways. By manually controlling ISO, you’ll be able to reduce the noise of your images and deal with tricky lighting situations. Here’s a good free online tutorial about Manual Mode.
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