How To Take Great Travel Photos

By Annual Adventure Photography, Travel Advice

You’ve gotten your DSLR, been to some amazing places, but you don’t feel quite like you’ve mastered how to take great travel photos. Your pictures don’t quite do the locations justice, and those sprawling, beautiful landscapes end up looking small and flat. Let me help you with that!

Take Great Travel Photos
Take Great Travel Photos like this one!

When people see my photographs, often I get one of two questions from them:

  • What kind of camera do you use?
  • Are you a professional photographer/What do you do for a living?

The camera equipment is a topic for a completely different post, and I’m not a professional photographer (although maybe I can pretend I’m one if this website takes off!). I do have a bit of a leg up, though, because my background is in lighting for film and television. Now I can’t exactly take a 48 foot trailer full of gear and a film crew with me on vacation, but I can share with you the techniques that allow you to take great travel photos no matter what equipment you’re using.

Work With What You’ve Got

I shoot with fairly nice equipment because it does make things easier for me and better lenses take better photos. I’m comfortable with investing a bit of money into my kit since I’m so passionate about photography, but I understand not everybody can. However, if all you have is a simple point and shoot or even an iPhone, you can still take great travel photos if you know how to use them.

RTFM

First, read your manual and figure out your way around your fancy piece of electronic (or analog even!) equipment. Learn about the exposure compensation modes, aperture priority, and different flash settings. Find every in and out of your camera so that you feel comfortable working with it and changing things quickly when you need to whip it out for that last minute shot.

Once you feel comfortable with it, you can use those settings with proper photo techniques.

Pick A Subject

This seems obvious, but there’s so much more to it than simply taking a picture of X. Figure out exactly what it is you are photographing and think about how to ensure that anyone who sees the photo understands what they’re looking at it. It’s too often that people see someone interesting in a large crowd and snap a photo of what they’re looking at, only to have their subject get lost in the sea of people when the photo makes its way to the viewer. Here are some ways you can isolate your subject:

Depth of Field

Even most inexpensive point and shoots have some control over aperture. If your subject is somewhat near you (i.e. not at the infinity focus marker on your camera/lens) then you can isolate them with a shallow aperture. Set your camera to aperture priority (Av on many of them) and pick a low number. The lower the number, the shallower the depth of field. On many cameras this will be around 2.8 or 4.0. This will isolate your subject as one of the few things in focus and draw the viewer’s eye to them. Be sure to pay attention if you are very close to your subject as you may be in danger of an in-focus nose and out-of-focus eyes!

Serengeti Lion Photo
Tan Lion against tan grass? No problem!

Lighting

I will go more in depth into lighting later in this post, but it is a great way to isolate your subject from everything else. See if you can position yourself (or the subject, if it’s not a candid shot) in a way that your subject is lit and everything around them is darker, or in a way that they’re set against a contrasting background. This can take the form of blonde hair against a dark background, contrasting colors, or an edge light (a thin rim of light around your subject) that separates  that Black Panther from the darkness of the jungle behind it.

Leopard Emerging from Shadows
Notice how the light sets this Leopard apart from the tree.

Size And Layers

Unless you have a very long lens, it often pays to get somewhat close to your subject. This will help you in the depth of field department, and allow you to put layers of depth into your frame that you don’t get with a distant subject. If you do have a longer lens, just be sure your subject isn’t a afterthought in the frame and that they take up enough space to draw the viewer’s eye to them. It often pays to have a foreground element that either frames the subject (shooting through a doorway, for example) or compliments the image. This way you get a nice, deep frame that has a clear subject and gives your eyes a feast, rather than a backdrop that feels staged or flat.

Huashan Chess Pavilion
Depth is your Friend.

Framing Your Shot

Now that you’re selected your subject, think about how you want to frame it. Think about the stage you’re setting and what you want to show off with your subject.

The All-Important Context

You’ve seen it a million times. You’ve spent the better part of a day hiking to the top of a steep cliff, risking life and limb but eventually standing there in awe of the view. You take out your camera, zoom out wide and get a shot of that amazing view.

“The picture just doesn’t do it justice.”

When you take a big, wide shot of the view from somewhere high, there often seems to be something missing. The picture feels flat and you don’t have that feeling of depth and vastness that you feel standing there in the moment. Luckily, there’s an easy fix:

Stick a person or object in the frame!

Canyonlands Park Viewpoint
A person overlooking a view can make a big difference.

If you have a person or other subject in the foreground of your wide landscape, suddenly the viewer gets the idea that this is what a person is seeing! It adds much needed depth to the photo and shows off just how vast this view is compared to where the person or object is situated.

This is context of the shot, how your subject relates to something else. It turns your travel photo from a pretty image to a story, and those are what make the most interesting travel photos of all! You didn’t just take a picture of this thing, you there there and you experienced it!

This goes for more than just wide landscapes. Think about the story being told in your photo and how you can improve it. Find a backdrop or foreground element. Taking a photo of a street vendor? Get the sprawling market or his humble stall behind him! Sure, not every photo needs several layers to tell a story, but there are so many photos that get taken that could improve from this advice, I would be remiss not to mention it.

Compose For Lighting

When I was on Safari in Tanzania, our guide often tried to position us so that the animals were front-lit directly by the sun. I kept telling him to put the sun behind the animals, and although our guide often thought I was crazy, it paid off. Lighting makes the difference between a snapshot and having you take great travel photos.

I generally try to shoot with the sun back lighting my subject if I can (but I don’t let this stop me from taking a cool photo when I see it). Simply adjust your exposure to be a little brighter than the camera thinks it should be (you don’t want to shoot silhouettes!) and look at that beautiful back lit photo.

Antarctica Pack Ice
Everything looks better backlit!

If back lighting doesn’t work in that situation or isn’t possible, try to find some contrast in the lighting. Look for a way to get some separate tones or an interesting wrap of light and shadow across your subject. Mountains tend to look great when lit from the side to accentuate their texture, and people look good either back lit or lit from the front with soft, diffused light.

The Early Bird Gets The Worm

Sunrises and sunset may seem like a cliche sometimes, but there’s plenty reason you’re always hearing advice to head out and start shooting early. Other than needing some extra coffee when you wake up, there are really only upsides to getting up before everyone. You avoid crowds, get beautiful early morning light, and you’ve got tons of daylight to work with, unlike those who sleep until noon!

huangshan sunrise crowd
Ok, you can’t ALWAYS avoid crowds at sunrise!

Your shots don’t all necessarily have to be right at sunrise or sunset, but it’s usually best to avoid the high overhead mid-day light as it’s flat and unflattering both to people and landscape features. There are also other fun times of day, like the time after sunset, often called “The Blue Hour” or, for those in the know, “Dusk” 😛

Get Your Sense Of Direction

Are you planning to shoot a specific object, like a cliffside castle or a beautiful mountainscape? Pay attention to which way it is facing and plan the time of your shot accordingly. Is your object on the eastern edge of the country right along the ocean? Plan to get your shot early in the morning, since the sun rises in the east! Here are some directional things to keep in mind, and remember you generally want a somewhat backlit image:

  • The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West, as you already know.
  • In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun is on the south end of the sky and vice versa.

If all else fails and you have more than one day in an area, check out that perfect photographic subject throughout the day and see what times it looks best, is least crowded, etc.

Common Pitfalls

Now that you have a good idea of what to do in order to take great travel photos, we should touch on a few common issues that you should NOT do when shooting abroad (or anywhere, really!).

Too Much Headroom

This is the number one composition issue I see from amateur photographers and, more frustratingly, most people I hand my camera to so that I can get a picture of myself. If you are taking a picture of a person (and ESPECIALLY a group of people) and their face is at your center of frame, you probably have too much headroom. This means there is a bunch of nothingness on the top half of the frame and your subjects are tiny. Teach yourself to avoid focusing on just your subject and look at the frame in the viewfinder (or screen) as a whole, then compose it in a more interesting way.

Too much headroom
I don’t know where to start…

Say Cheese!

While posed group shots are fun and I certainly take plenty of them, try and get some candid shots as well. Capturing a subject interacting with their environment when they don’t realize they’re being watched captures the essence of travel much more than a quick pose and smile. This also goes for people you meet along the way, not just yourself!

Bad Lighting On The Porch

Remember how I mentioned midday sun is unflattering? The biggest reason for this is that overhead light tends to create big, black holes where your subject’s eyes should be. It also tends to be awfully harsh and won’t do anyone any favors when it comes to looking good.

bad lighting example
Basking in that beautiful mid-day sunlight.

Go Take Great Travel Photos!

I’ve armed you with some good advice, now get out there and shoot! If my advice has helped you, I would love to hear your feedback and see what you’ve created!

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2 comments

    1. Thanks Richie! I started out with a Canon 5d mk ii and have since upgraded to the mk iv. my go to lenses are the 16-35, 24-70, and 70-200 2.8L series from Canon.

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