Travel photography is one of the most popular genres of photography. It is accessible for professionals and amateurs alike. In our digital world today, the equipment can range from a camera phone to a massive professional kit. The essence of travel photography is documentation; documenting memories, historic landmarks, geographic wonders, fascinating people and cultures.
Let’s Go! Learn about Travel Photography…
1. Plan ahead
I admit my dependence on Google maps while traveleing. But, I still love old school maps also. Maps of the region you plan to visit are invaluable. Whether they are paper or digital, maps will guide your photography. Where are the mountains, rivers, parks? How far will you need to travel to reach these sites? Can you drive there, is there a hike involved, is there a park shuttle, do you need a high-clearance vehicle?
Take a look at weather, lunar and tidal charts. This might seem overkill at first glance. However, if you want snow in Bryce Canyon or the Milky Way over Arches NP or critters in the tidal pools of the Oregon Coast, you will want to plan the timing of your visit.
Expert Tip: Sky photographers love the Photo Pills app.
Internet and Social Media
Online photography and travel photography sites are a gold mine of photo ideas and tips. Many of the National Parks have maps, charts and guidance for photographers on their websites. They will help you discover when is the best light, least crowds, best time for wildlife etc.
Social Media such as Instagram and Pinterest are also likely sources for inspiration. Check out the accounts for the city, park, or landmark you are visiting. Learn from looking at the images of professional travel photographers. Follow sites like Nat Geo Travel and Travel and Leisure.
Expert Tip: I discourage you from emulating the “Influencers” who have given travelers a bad name. Instead of seeking that “Most Instagrammable” spot, search out the most unique take on a location (always staying safe, of course).
2. Practice Before You Go
There is nothing worse than missing that perfect shot on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. As we all know, “practice makes perfect”. In this case, I am talking hours of having your hands on your gear. You need to develop muscle memory for all the buttons and dials, setting up the tripod should be second nature, and you want to be able to find everything in your camera bag with your eyes closed.
Study the photo style
If you have done your research and planning, you should have some idea of what type of travel photos you might be taking. Practice them: Landscapes, Panoramas, Slow Shutter Waterfalls, Night Skies etc.
Practice with your Accessories
Learn and practice with your accessories; lenses, tripods, filters, flashes, batteries, SD cards, backups. In the dark and very sandy Antelope Canyon I wished I had practiced more.
Test out your pack; weight, organization, accessories quick to hand, weatherproof.
File Storage and Backup
Figure out the best method for you, for downloading and saving your travel photos while still traveling. Plan on limited wifi, loads of image files and a desire to share on social media in real time.
3. Study Composition
Beware the Clutter
Clear away the Clutter. If you are traveling in a crowded tourist area it may be hard to get a clear shot. But be aware of what is in the background of your picture before you take the image. Often it is just a matter of taking a step one direction or the other. Watch for street signs behind someone’s head, move the empty soda cans from the table, just clean up the surroundings.
It may seem obvious in this shot of the messy table, but the person and scenery are lost behind the dirty dishes.
Seriously what was I shooting. Terrible power lines, top of a car and the building appears to be leaning down the hill.
Change your Perspective
Stand on a rock or lay on the ground, be willing to get your jeans dirty for a unique perspective. Move away from the crowds taking the traditional shot and look for the unique view of a landmark.
Include the People
Put people in your shots. Why does everyone take travel photos of their loved one pushing the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
- Because it proves you were really there
- Because it plays with our sense of scale. The scope and scale of the landscape or landmark are defined better by including people.
- Because it is FUN and tells your personal story!
Expert Tip: Please do not “rearrange” nature for your composition.
Travel photography should always leave every place as you found it.
4. Hone your observation skills
These are skills that every traveler on this planet should hone regardless of whether they have a camera in their hands or not. Absorb the culture of the region. Stop and smell the roses.
Learn to See Light
Capturing light is the essence of photography. But light can be harsh and overwhelming. Practice noticing the play of shadows, the single shaft of a sunbeam through clouds, the brush of color from a sunrise or sunset. Watch for wildlife to step out of the shadows into light. Be aware of shadows on the faces of your subjects.
Find the Story
Watch for unique stories playing out in front of you. Many professional photographers will tell you that the great images tell a story. This is a concept I struggle with but do continue to practice every time I pick up my camera.
Wildlife Photographers will tell you that the secret to truly great shots is acute observation skills and patience. These experts often spend hours and days studying the behaviors of their targets. You can discover some predictable scenes if you put in the work of observing both wild animals and humans.
Follow your Curiosity
Absorb the world, large and small, around you. Hone your listening skills for birds in the forest, street performers on the corner, barking seals on the wharf, and follow the sounds to a great story.
5. Understand Lighting Basics
We mentioned observing the light on your subjects in the last tip. There are many more lighting concepts that will effect the quality of your images. These are important camera skills that should be studied and practiced.
Regional light and landmarks
Everyone wants the perfect sunset picture. Shooting right at the sun is really tricky. Sunsets and sunrises are wonderful but have the potential to be quite humdrum. Explore the region and find ways to include an iconic landmark in your sunset/sunrise. Learn about the Golden and Blue hours for truly special photography results.
Where is the light in your image coming from. Side light is ideal and front light directly on your subject can be a good choice. Avoid the light behind your subject. Back lighting is really tough to work with. If back lighting is unavoidable, then learn how to compensate with your camera exposure settings. Consider a fill flash if your subject is close. Do some research into HDR (high dynamic range). HDR is a process in which you take 3-7 shots at differing exposure settings and stack them in post-processing.
Explore unexpected Lighting situations
We have talked about finding the unique take on an iconic landmark. Try going out after dark. Astrophotography is a very popular genre these days. It has its own very specific skill set, but the results can make that learning curve well worth the effort.
Also, urban settings take on a whole new life after dark. Neon and trailing lights on a busy city street, or dark and gritty alleyways can tell dramatic travel stories.
Time lapse images of cityscapes, clouds, stars, just about anything in motion, are another form of long exposure and special lighting techniques.
6. Put a camera in everyone’s hand
Travel photography is all about documenting and telling stories. Why do you think the ubiquitous “Selfies” became so popular? We want to prove we were really there. Even more, I think it is important for the generations of my family to have a visual time capsule of me. But selfies are not always that great of a shot. Hand your camera to your traveling companion, or the “selfie shooters” next to you if you are traveling alone.
My husband and I travel together and shoot together. The difference of our images and the story or vision we tried to capture, never ceases to amaze me.
I am a strong proponent of introducing young people to photography. The world is a pretty spectacular place through the eyes of children. Give them a camera, teach them to observe their world, sit back and be amazed.
7. Embrace a variety of cameras in your travel photography
When I first started in travel photography, I often wanted to leave my heavy expensive DSLR behind. Many of my travels involved hiking and I was not used to the extra weight. Well, over time, I have grown accustomed to the weight and now I often carry two cameras. I find it easier to switch a camera between a distance shot or wide-angle, than change lenses.
I have also learned that there is value in a variety of camera styles. Once you are truly bit by the travel photography but, you will appreciate whatever device you have in your hand to capture every shot you see. There are some really fun alternatives to the traditional DSLR.
- SmartPhones are ubiquitous these days and can be overwhelming, but most of them have amazing camera features. It is affordable to make these phones water and shatterproof. They have reasonable image editing on the fly. Best of all, they fit in your pocket or purse.
- Action Cameras. GoPro was the front runner in this category but there are many choices now at a range of prices. These cameras are designed with extreme wide-angle capabilities, hands-free and easy videos. They usually have a variety of attachment accessories.
- Drones. I know that flying drones has become quite a controversial topic. It is too bad, that a few “fools” have spoiled this great style of photography. There is such a special perspective allowed from above. The key to drone travel photography is be smart. Practice flying A Lot, before going out. Remember that all National Parks prohibit drones. Each state has varying regulations in their state parks. Stay away from crowds, air traffic, rescue activities, and easily spooked critters.
- Tough Cameras. A few of the big camera brands have a point and shoot that is designed for the “extreme” sportsman. They are shock and waterproof to a certain depth. These are great for those youngster photogs.
- Waterproof Housings There are protective housings available for almost every camera on the market. They can be very pricey and cumbersome but they do allow unlimited underwater photography that is otherwise impossible.
8. Ham it up!
A year ago we traveled to Norway. We were hosted by a cousin who was an extraordinary tour guide and a hilariously imaginative photographer. She staged a number of shots that will be our favorite travel photos for years to come. After all, your travel photography should be telling a story, even a “hammy” story.
If you ever visit Bergen, Norway find Laila at Reistad Unlimited.
Selfies are fun and silly. Capture the spontaneity of traveling. We truly deserved these ice cream cones after our hike to Angel’s Landing in Zion NP.
Staged shots that communicate a sense of the culture or exaggerate the scene can illustrate your travel story.
Shots with strangers. As we start each travel day we make a promise to ourselves, to meet new people. They may be fellow travelers or locals but these encounters are why we travel. Find a way to catch a really fun picture with these new friends.
9. Post-processing Basics
In this age of digital photography we all need to have at least a working knowledge of post processing techniques. Every photo, and certainly travel photos can benefit from some cropping, exposure adjustments, and color boosting. Photoshop, is the “900 pound gorilla” in this category. It is all-encompassing and frankly overwhelming. I have developed a workflow that combines Lightroom and Photoshop.
Lightroom is another Adobe product and designed for a slightly different workflow than Photoshop. Lightroom is intended for bulk editing and organizing of photos. These components are very important when dealing with a large number of images typical for travel photography.
10. Share, Print, Post your travel photography
Do something with your travel photos ASAP. Don’t just load them into a folder on your PC and never look at them again. Worse yet, don’t leave them on your SD card. Save them. Print them. Post them. Share them. Let yourself off the hook, don’t wait expecting art gallery quality images. Tell the story of your trip with the fun travel photos that you have. Perfection will come.
Engage actively with other travel photographers. There is so much to be learned from a community of like-minded artists.
Bonus Tip: HAVE FUN!!
In 2016 I yearned to take my photography to the next level. With practice my pictures were improving but the more I learned, the more disappointed I became. The joys of my travel experiences were being obscured. I was literally “focused” on the wrong subject. The learning curve for photography was stealing the fun of travel. Was I a traveler or a photographer? Life is all about finding balance.
Today, in 2020 I have indeed seen my travel photography advance. I have also discovered my balance. That balance is about taming my perfectionism and nurturing my FUN. It is about practicing and playing. I have gone back through the tips on this list many times over the last 4 years and find.
I hope that this list will help you move forward with your own travel photography. Share your stories!