The internet is overflowing with travel photography tips; some of them more useful than others. Certainly there’s some good advice to be had from seasoned professionals, but for every Steve McCurry there are a thousand travel photography wannabes offering unhelpful or commonsense information gleaned from nothing more grueling than taking a short weekend break. Or, worse still, merely from watching other photographers on YouTube.
I’m no McCurry of course, but after doing this for some time now I nonetheless feel like I’ve learned a thing or two about travel photography. Below I offer some of my personal travel photography tips compiled after many years of long haul travel experience. Depending on your particular photographic interests, not all this advice will necessarily be relevant for you, but it’s definitely worked for me: adapt and refine as required.
What is Travel Photography?
Before we go any further though, it can be helpful to think about what we really mean when we talk about travel photography. What makes travel photography distinct from other types of photography?
Might we say that travel photography is an attempt to capture something of the “essence” of a place? To portray what makes it unique?
This definition seems good to me, but it doesn’t restrict a photographer to taking a specific technical or artistic approach when photographing a travel destination. In fact, travel photography can encompass almost any genre of photography imaginable. So the simple answer is that “travel photography” is defined more by the word “travel” than it is by a particular interpretation of the word “photography.”
Indeed, travel photography isn’t really a distinct style of photography at all, but more just about applying good general photographic skills and knowledge to a diverse range of situations. While on the road, obviously.
Simply put, then, being a good travel photographer means being a good all-round photographer. The phrase “jack of all trades” is rarely intended as a compliment, but this is exactly what’s required of a travel photographer. Only you’ll need to become master of them all. Landscapes, portraits, architecture, still life, street photography. You name it; sooner or later you’ll probably need to shoot it.
My first piece of advice, then, is to really make sure that you are on top of the technical and aesthetic sides of photography before setting out on your next trip. Shooting on the road can bring all kinds of non-technical challenges (change of climate, cultural and language differences, jet-lag etc.). If your technical skills have already become like second nature, you’ll be much better prepared to deal with any challenging situations that might present themselves.
5 Travel Photography Tips for Your Next Trip
But even if travel photography might not have any distinct rules or techniques of its own, clearly there are a few pro tricks that can help to make any travel photography trip more successful. Here are five of my favorite travel photography tips for getting the most out of your next overseas adventure.
1. Research and Plan Before You Go
Even the most spontaneous of documentary shooters can benefit from a little preparation and planning before their trip. Beyond checking Tripadvisor and reading guide books or travel forums, you might want to do a virtual tour of your destination on Google Street View. This way you likely can gain a better idea of what kind of conditions and terrain to expect. Checking out dedicated travel photography apps such as ReallyGoodPhotoSpots, Scoutt, and ShotHotspot can also be helpful for finding the best locations.
The above advice applies to street and documentary photographers as much as landscape enthusiasts. Indeed, even those who just like to wander around without a plan and see what they find will save some time by getting a feel for a region or city before hand. For example, if your primary interest is in photographing people, there’d be little point in boldly striding off towards no-man’s land. A little research will help suggest better starting points for exploration.
Those photographers with more specific shots in mind (sunrise over a particular mountain range, or a famous temple at the golden hour, for example) will likely want to go a step further: carefully checking weather forecasts and consulting sunpath apps. By using tools such as Sun Seeker or The Photographer’s Ephemeris you can be sure to arrive at your chosen location at just the right time to capture the image you want.
2. Travel Light
It’s obvious, but sometimes the obvious bears repeating: if you bring an excessive amount of gear with you, or if it weighs too much, you won’t use it. And clearly it doesn’t matter how amazing your camera is if it spends the whole trip locked in the hotel safe.
All that most photographers will need is a decent camera body and either a single fast zoom, or a couple of decent primes. A simple setup like this will have you covered for pretty much any scenario. Anything more will likely just weigh you down.
For more in-depth travel photography tips about what to bring on your next trip, check out my guide to putting together a minimal travel photography kit.
3. Ditch the Tripod
Controversial, I know. But for reasons just explained above, you might want to consider traveling without a tripod.
Obviously this wouldn’t be a great solution for someone who only shoots forest landscapes. At f/22. At night! Or who wants to photograph the Milkyway. But for those photographers who spend most of their time shooting more general travel photography, such as street shots and portraits, a tripod is likely to feel like a ball and chain after even just a few hours on the move.
If you don’t make a huge amount of use of tripods, but still can’t bear the idea of being without one altogether, maybe go for a tiny foldable model such as a Gorillapod, and get creative with using the environment as a tripod extension.
4. Be Prepared
One of the greatest challenges of travel photography is capturing a scene exactly how it appeared when you first saw it. Rather than how it looks by the time you’ve pulled your camera out; set the correct exposure; and pointed it at the locals – who then proceed to stop doing whatever it was you found interesting about the scene in the first place, and instead start grinning and waving at your camera (or, if you’re particularly unlucky, start scowling and waving their fists at you).
There’s no guaranteed solution to this, but by having your camera at the ready at all times, and frequently resetting exposure as the light changes, you can be more certain of capturing an award-winning image when it presents itself.
One of my favorite tricks when photographing people is simply never to look at them with the naked eye. Ignore them. Look at something behind them, or next to them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a trashcan or a tree stump: everyone knows that foreigners are crazy anyway. Stare at this decoy, fascinated by it, and they’ll probably look at it too. But they won’t move, because it won’t even have occurred to them that they are your true target.
Now put the camera to your eye, with the lens at a wide enough zoom setting to include your true subject in the shot. Set focus, readjust the zoom if necessary, and snap: gotcha! They probably still won’t have gotten wise to the trick.
5. Go it Alone
When it comes to travel photography, one may not be much company, but two is already a crowd. Sure, you’ll probably meet local people when traveling as a couple (romantic or otherwise), but you’re always going to be less threatening and more approachable when traveling on your own.
What’s certain is that it’s much less likely that local people will talk to a group of three or more travelers. And if locals don’t talk to you, you don’t get to hear about that incredible festival that only locals know of; or you won’t get invited to see a performance of traditional dance; or to help with the local olive harvest. All potentially amazing subjects for travel photography.
I hope you’ve found my travel photography tips useful. There are many more I could have included along with these, but they’ll have to wait for a future article. In the meantime, what would your top travel photography tips be if you had to narrow them down to just five? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!