A good picture from your travels is a souvenir you’ll want to keep forever.
Every destination is unique and when we travel we go to see foreign places, experience different cultures, meet new people, and make fresh stories to tell. Understanding how to better capture those essential qualities of travel in your photography will help take you back to that place and time and transport your viewer, giving them a glimpse of what it might be like to travel there too.
01. Show Up Early
Often catching the perfect moment is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, so it makes sense that making the most of your timing can give you an advantage. If you shoot at noon on a bright sunny day you’re going to be faced with harsh light. Noon sun brings with it bright highlights and strong shadows that can be difficult to work with. Combine this with the number of visitors that tend to arrive at attractions around midday and you have a few good motivators for making an earlier start.
By waking up early you’ll be able to take advantage of morning light. This period shortly after sunrise or before sunset is often called the ‘golden hour’, which is a term that refers to the way the light at these times of day is soft and warm, producing the perfect conditions to help you create amazing images.
Getting to a location when it opens will also give you the best chance of arriving before tourist buses, and getting to have the place to yourself. If you need any more evidence to back up this point, take it from Instagrammer Jack Morris of @doyoutravel who has made a career out of capturing the perfect travel shot. In a Q&A on his website he says “Most of the time we like to shoot around one hour after sunrise. Busy locations don’t tend to be as busy at this time of day.”
02. Consider Composition
Composition and perspective help to tell a story. When you are composing your travel image, keeping in mind some key elements will help you tell your viewer a story with more detail. A great way to do this is to consider including a combination of people, places and things.
Adding a human element to your photo of a place will immediately give your viewer someone to relate to, but if you also add objects it puts your image into context. To illustrate, the image below could have been just a photograph of a stunning vista, but by adding a person to the photo we get a sense of the scale of the place, and can imagine ourselves in her shoes. Finally, by including a backpack, we realize this place is remote, and we understand what the subject is doing there.
Start looking for it and you can see this technique used in a number of images.
03. Use Creative Focus
Taking control of your focus point is an excellent way to remove distracting elements in your photos and pick out your subject. Combine this with an understanding of depth of field, and you’ll be able to focus on different elements in an image to change the story you’re telling.
Using depth of field involves blurring to direct the viewer’s focus, much like how our vision works. The term depth of field refers to the zone within a photo that will appear in focus. Understanding depth of field will come with understanding your camera’s manual controls. However, if you are new to photography or not using a camera that offers full manual control, depth of field can also be simulated using a blur tool.
04. Understand Exposure
Have you ever taken what you thought was a great photo, only to later discover that your exposure was off? Either your image is too bright and you’ve lost detail, or it’s so dark you can’t make out anything in the shadow areas. Gaining an understanding of how your camera formulates exposure will help you to avoid this.
To understand how your camera looks at an image, the most important concept to understand is ‘middle gray’. This is a tone that is perceptually halfway between black and white, and it is what all cameras automatically expose for. Color is not a factor here, it is only the tone that matters. If you imagine middle gray as sitting in the middle of the tonal scale, anything brighter or darker will sit in relation to this point.
In an image where everything is the same level of light and dark, we could say the image is middle gray, and you could point your camera at any area in the scene and it would give you an accurate exposure. However, if you have strong areas of light or dark, this is where the camera can get confused. This is because no matter what your camera is looking at, it will still try to expose it at as middle gray.
If for example you point your camera at something your eye sees as black, and the camera reads this black as middle gray, this will confuse where all of the relative tones sit on the tonal scale, leading to over or underexposed areas.
The best way to avoid this is by helping your camera to expose for a correct middle gray, by making sure you always meter for a tone that sits between the darkest and brightest areas of your image. This is why it’s important to learn how to use your camera in manual mode.
05. Don’t Be Afraid To Crop
There are few times when a crooked horizon line is intentional. This is often difficult to get right in camera if you’re shooting without a tripod, so even professional photographers will rotate and crop their photos to ensure their composition looks its best. The rotate and crop tool can be used to straighten horizon lines, and is also a useful way to remove distracting elements in your image.
Most cameras these days capture images at such a large size that you will be able to crop and still use the image without a noticeable loss in quality. You’ll find a rotate and crop tool in almost any editing program you choose to use, so there’s no reason not to give it a try and see what a difference it can make.
06. Start Using Editing Tools
Post processing, or the process of editing your photos after you’ve captured them, makes a difference. While this might bring to mind images of heavily altered photographs, post processing doesn’t necessarily mean making significant artistic adjustments. Often edits will be made simply to bring the colors in an image closer to what the original scene looked like. No matter what camera you use, even simple adjustments to contrast and exposure will instantly change the look and feel of a photograph, and there are a huge variety of programs available that make these adjustments easy.
Look at other travel photographers. Most photographers spend a long time developing and perfecting their editing style. What qualities do you admire in their work? While we highly encourage you to develop your own unique vision, a great way to start is to find an image you like, and consider how you can incorporate those aspects into your own editing style.
07. Take This One Item With You
If you only have room in your bag for one accessory, we recommend making it a tripod. A small travel tripod is an incredibly versatile tool, and many are compact enough to fit into your carry-on luggage. The biggest advantage of using a tripod is that it will give you the ability to start capturing images with slower shutter speeds. This is particularly useful when capturing waterfalls, stars, or images in low-light situations.
By placing your camera on a tripod you’ll be able to eliminate camera shake, and if you have a camera that gives you full manual control, you’ll also be able to use a lower ISO to reduce sensor noise, and use smaller apertures to bring more of your image into focus. It will also allow you to use more advanced techniques like HDR, focus stacking, and creating panoramas. Plus, you can start taking self and group-portraits that are more flattering than your average selfie.
08. Learn How To Say Hello
They say photography is the new universal language, but it is still advisable to make an effort to understand the local language and culture of the country you are visiting. If you are planning to take images of local people, keep in mind that different countries have different beliefs and customs around taking pictures.
Learn how to say “Hello” in the local language, and greet the locals when taking their photo. In some countries it can be customary to offer money in exchange for a photo of a person, so going prepared and knowing what to expect can save you an awkward exchange. You may also want to consider taking your subject’s email address and sending them a copy of the final images.
09. Get Off the Beaten Path
What is it about a place that you want to capture? Think about the answer to that question, and then consider creative ways you could begin to do that. Are there different vantage points you could try, or different parts of a place you could explore?
Nothing beats a local recommendation so don’t be afraid to ask the staff where you’re staying, the person sitting next to you on the bus, or your taxi driver. You could also consider hiring a local guide. Alternatively, if the thought of talking to strangers makes you nervous, you could do your research by searching the images under a location tag on Instagram, or looking for tourism accounts that post highlights from their city and surrounding area. Just search for the name of the place you’re visiting, and Instagram will suggest the most popular results.
10. Never Stop Learning
The best photographers know that there’s always room to improve, and never stop pushing themselves. Look at the work of other travel photographers, past and present. How do they communicate their travel story and capture the culture, people, landscapes and stories of the places they visit?
Don’t be afraid to experiment and try new techniques. What story do you want to tell?