Follow these tried and tested tips to improve your images when travelling
Travel photography is fun. Although it can be anything you want – from urban street shots and portraits to ancient monuments, landscapes and wildlife on a safari – the best travel photography comes from the act of being constantly curious when you’re somewhere new.
However, there are a ton of ways to improve your travel photography, from being prepared for what you’ll encounter to introducing context, interest and scale to your compositions.
Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Be prepared and be patient
Where are you going? What time of day will you be in your key shooting locations? What will the weather be like – and is it wise to visit in the off-season?
"The best travel photography is researched beforehand..."
The best travel photography is researched beforehand – at least on a basic level – and performed slowly. Capturing unique and arresting images takes time and patience. That can begin before you leave home by scanning the likes of Instagram and checking articles in travel magazines to see what kinds of photos people are taking. You might also discover a new gem overlooked by most photographers. This absolutely doesn’t mean you should copy them (see below), but it will give you a feel for your location.
Now hit Google Maps and check out distances. Is that national park you saw on Instagram actually an 8-hour drive from where you’re staying? You might want to know that in advance. Ditto the four-hour walk out to an overlook or a hiking permit that you must apply for a month before visiting.
If you’re off on a photography trip then resist the temptation to invest in a new camera and concentrate on knowing how to manipulate your existing camera to the maximum. Get to know the menus, the manual settings, and practice quickly changing aperture, ISO and shutter speed by touch alone. When you’re in your dream location you may only get one chance to take your dream shot.
2 Keep away from cliches
If you want a postcard shot, buy a postcard. It’s a weird effect of social media, but people keep visiting the same destinations to take the same bucket-list photos.
"If you want a postcard shot, buy a postcard... people keep visiting the same destinations to take the same bucket-list photos."
That panoramic of Machu Picchu, that dawn photo of Angkor Wat and that straight-on shot of the Taj Mahal with obligatory reflection. All done, re-done and overdone. There are endless angles you could take on these and other famous tourist sites to help reveal something new and interesting. Be more creative and find your own unique angle, not just because your travel photography will improve, but because you’ll enjoy your trip so much more. Better still, visit ‘second rung’ attractions, such as the smaller but equally beautiful Black Taj Mahal directly opposite the white version, or one of Angkor Wat’s smaller temples.
As well as well-trodden shots at specific locations where you have to wait for your turn to capture a view there are a host of over-used poses that should be avoided. Do we ever again need to see someone using their hands to make a heart-shape around a setting Sun? Or a yoga pose in front of … anything? Or even an image of the Milky Way where the photographer has leapt into shot with a flashlight to seemingly illuminate the night sky? Seen it. Move on.
3 Avoid the crowds
There’s nothing more depressing for a travel photographer than arriving at your dream location just as a cruise ship docks and a bunch of tour buses appear.
"There’s nothing more depressing for a travel photographer than arriving at your dream location just as a cruise ship docks and a bunch of tour buses appear."
There’s no reason why your photos can’t reflect these places’ busy-ness, but if you want something unique then you’re going to have to be creative by getting up early and staying out late. Even if it’s busy it’s possible to get the shot you want just by choosing angles that don’t feature people (often by shooting upwards and shooting close-ups) as well as simply being patient until tour groups move along. However, if you want unique-looking empty panoramics and scene-setters – or those that feature commuters and locals rather than tourists – then be in position as early as possible in the day. It can also help to get to your destination late in the afternoon when most of the crowds have left, which may also get you stark shadows and a sunset.
There’s another reason to get up early and stay out late for travel photography – light. The blue hour happens just before sunrise and just after sunset when you’ll get soft natural light and cool colour temperatures. The golden hour is the first and last light of the day, when the Sun is low and casting long shadows. Both periods of the day are more obvious in a clear sky.
4 Add context and scale
While you don’t want to clutter your compositions, you can add valuable context if you include a subject – preferably human – in your scene.
"While you don’t want to clutter your compositions, you can add valuable context if you include a subject – preferably human – in your scene."
For example, a beautifully framed image of a temple is improved by an interesting and/or colourful person walking in front of it. It adds a human touch and a lot of context. A surfer on a beach in front of an ocean, a commuter hurrying to work across a grand railway station or a kayaker on a bend in the river are a few examples of where a human can make a travel photo more interesting to look at.
As well as adding life and purpose to your image, people can add scale. Though a waterfall may seem huge to you when you’re in front of it, to the viewer it’s just some water and rock. If you wait for someone to stand close to the waterfall – preferably dressed in bright colours so they stand out – you can immediately add scale. The same goes for grand buildings and structures. It’s also a great way to get your friends or family into your travel photography without having to resort to selfies and posed shots.
A lot of travel photographers don’t include people in their shots because they either don’t want to interact with strangers or they don’t want a posed portrait. If you’re shooting some street photography you probably don’t need to ask permission, but if you’re going for a close-up you probably should – that’s basic politeness. Learning how to say “can I please take your photo” in the local lingo is a great idea, but be prepared to be refused permission … or asked for a small fee. Besides, who said posed shots aren’t interesting?
5 Get inspired
There are so many locations for travel photography, of course, but some trips will better suit you than others.
"There are so many locations for travel photography, of course, but some trips will better suit you than others."
For example, if you’re primarily interested in landscapes then you’re likely to want to hang around national parks and wilderness areas. Consider a driving tour of Iceland, Patagonia or the Scottish Highlands, where you’ll likely need a bunch of heavy lenses, a tripod and some hiking boots to get the most out of these wild locations. Or perhaps you’ve come to love wildlife photography on your travels, in which case you should consider a dedicated African safari in Kenya, Namibia or Zambia. If street photography is your favourite, start planning trips to busy, colourful cities like London, Hong Kong or Tokyo.
Be careful when planning trips not to think of general group tours as ideal for travel photography. While any group tour you go on will involve everyone taking thousands of selfies and smartphone images, they’re not ideal for ‘proper’ travel photography. Why not? Time. You’ll inevitably find yourself in a beautiful location waiting for a rainbow/clouds to clear/the light to change while your bus driver is hooting his horn at you. The alternatives include saving up for a dedicated photography tour with a professional photographer (expensive!) or a well-researched self-drive trip where your time is completely your own.