Travel Photography Tips
10 ways to improve your travel photography
- Research the trip
- Dawn and Dusk
- Off the beaten path
- Different angles of common subjects
- Travel and camera insurance
- Keep maps and trip notes
- Understand weather and conditions
- Street portraits
- Tell the story
- Experiments with techniques
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” – T.S. Eliot
Do you travel to cities and countries to take photos that you can sell and make a living from? Or are you someone who goes on holiday but likes to do photography while you travel?
One is a fantastic job, and the other is a fantastic hobby. The digital camera revolution has blurred the lines between the two, but you still need to decide where you are in relation to the two points. The approach you need to do travel photography on a full-time basis is not the same as a hobby. The preparation and commitment are different, and so, your mindset might need to change.
1. Research the trip
I know it’s stating the obvious, but your research needs to happen before you go. And this doesn’t mean researching your flight or hotels which are necessities anyway. Look through as many guides and online tourist websites to make your list of “must-have-photographs”. Have a look at the Google Images functionality to see if there are variations of photos taken at different times of the day. Your goal is to have an idea of when the best time is to shoot those iconic images. If you are a travel photographer (or want to become one) these are your bread-and-butter images of your trip. You can then fill in the rest of story with other images taken around these main ones.
Research special cultural or religious events unique to that country. Festivals are also a way to capture the locals and to show the different customs for each country.
2. Dawn and Dusk
Look for areas or sites of interest that will be front or backlit during the golden hour periods of the day. The golden hour is a term to describe the warm light that you usually see just after sunrise and just before sunset. It is between one to two hours of pure magic. Street scenes are tougher at these times (unless you’re shooting silhouettes) because the contrasts and shadows will play havoc with your metering. Tall buildings could shade many iconic places from the warm low light, so look at the direction and time of day.
Allow yourself the time to visit a place more than once if you can (and at different times).
Get an App like Focalware and learn what it does. It’s a compass but also calculates the sun and moon position based on your location on the planet. Focalware has saved me many wasted trips. It also gives you the time of sunrise and sunset at your location, which is crucial.
3. Off the beaten path
Ask around before you leave (thousands of travel blogs exist online), or you can chat with hotel staff or your Airbnb hosts when you get there. You want to be where the locals go because they avoid the large throngs of tourists. Chat to the locals in shops and restaurants – you might even get a dinner invite if you build up a good relationship over a few visits. Part of travel photography is capturing locals as they go about their daily lives. There are only so many tourists packed beaches that you can (or want to) photograph.
4. Different Angles of Common Subjects
Try getting down to a lower angle or framing an iconic image with other buildings. Iconic buildings, piazza’s or cathedrals will all be well photographed already, so play around with new angles. Spend time in each location to allow your creativity to work up a new perspective.
That new perspective starts with seeing something in a new light or angle. Seeing these new photos has to happen before you even press the shutter release. Not every new perspective you try will work. As soon as you see the image on the back of your camera, or on your laptop, you’ll know if you have got something good or not.
Backup your images each evening, but also, check what you’ve captured. Sitting on your bed with a glass of wine, looking through the successes of the day, will let you know if you got the shots. If you don’t like any of them, get back out and shoot them again.
5. Travel and camera insurance
I know this is not a glamorous subject, but make sure that you have good insurance. If you’re serious about your photography, get separate cover for your camera equipment too. Camera insurance policies also offer third party and public liability insurance when you sign up. Take it if you’re serious about it as a career. If someone falls over your bag while you’re taking a photo, you’ll need cover if they decide to take legal action.
6. Keep maps and trip notes.
Have different levels of detailed maps of the areas that you’re travelling to because you may not have roaming or Google maps wherever you’re going.
I take photos of street names, park boards or street information boards of the areas that I go into or am working in. When I’m editing, the photo of the street name then precedes the monument or tourist attraction that I have photographed. This helps for keywording too if you’re running an editing suite like Adobe Lightroom.
If you’re photographing the Eiffel tower, you’ll know where it was taken. What about the man sweeping a pavement just off one of the streets near the Eiffel Tower? A month later, it’ll take you time to find out that street name again on a map. Get into the habit of looking for markers to photograph that help with your editing and blogging.
Hotels and B&B’s often have free maps of the local area. Take one or two, and scribble notes on them if you must.
7. Understand weather and conditions
Cold weather – If you’re out and about in very cold weather (5 degrees or below), condensation is your enemy. It usually occurs when you go from the cold outdoors and step into a nice warm room with a big fire. You might feel great (unless you wear spectacles) but the cold lenses and even the internal glass of the camera will fog up. This can take days to clear up naturally. I keep a black refuse bag rolled up inside my camera bag. Simply place your camera bag inside this and then go inside. The bag will keep the warm air from getting to your kit (after a few minutes you’ll see condensation on the outside of the plastic bag). It usually takes about one to two hours for your cameras to warm up again. If you’re popping into a place for a coffee, it’s okay to leave your camera in the bag for a while. Don’t be tempted to take your camera out to look at your images though.
Sandy and dusty environment – When travelling to India, Africa or other hot and dusty places, I always have a small paintbrush in my bag. Use the ones for painting walls, not canvases, as they are bigger with tougher bristles. I use these to brush off the camera and lens before swapping lenses or changing cards. I’ve dropped lenses and cameras before, and they survive a lot, but getting dust into working parts can cause a lot of damage over time. This also helps with dust which will inevitably find their way to the sensor.
Salt water and sea spray – Dangerous for your camera and can cause real havoc. Not at the time of taking the images because most modern cameras are well-sealed. Over time the salt can get in and cause rust to the moving parts. When you get back to your hotel, get a cloth dampened with tap water and wipe down the external surfaces.
8. Street Portraits
Chat to the locals and see if they’d agree to let you photograph them. Start off with eye contact or a smile. Chat with them for a little while and tell them what you are doing and why you want to take their photo. You need to build some trust so engage and be interested in what they have to say. Some will agree, some will say no, but never pay for photos. It sets a bad precedent and hinders all the other photographers following you. Simply thank the locals and walk away.
Occasionally you can get portraits without the people even seeing you. While this might cross over into the Street Photography genre, they make great travel photos too. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of people staring at the camera. I ask them if I can photograph them working. It seems more natural.
Be aware of what you are photographing especially things like children at schools, military installations, airports etc. They’re fraught with dilemmas in various countries and not worth the effort nowadays.
9. Tell the story.
Wide cityscapes are also part of the scene and tell as much of the story as close-ups or abstracts do. They frame your trip for the sequence of images that you might take in that area.
Plan your day as if you were going to show a photographic story of that day to a group of people who’ve never travelled abroad. You want a whole mix of photographic styles and genres to convey the “day in the life”.
Travel = Place + People + Lifestyle
10. Experiment with techniques
Have fun with wide angles, getting down low to the ground, tight crops, panning, blurring or zoom bursts. All great techniques to show your view of your travels and it will help to keep things fresh. Decide before you leave if you want to try light trails and other night time work because you will need to pack a tripod for this. I always travel with one because there are light carbon-fibre ones out there that can be packed into your suitcase.
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