Photographs can be so powerful that they can trigger memories and emotions from your travel adventures. Whether it’s cycling along the winding roads in the south of France, savouring gelato in Venice, or experiencing a weekend road trip, taking photographs is an effective and enjoyable way of imprinting these treasured experiences into your memory.
In an age dedicated to capturing and sharing every waking moment across social media, we are able to push our editing creativity wider and deeper. Although this is true, I still believe that a quality image isn’t made with the tap of an Instagram filter. An image is created when the photographer follows a few basic guidelines (and then feel free apply the filters).
I’ve spent over a decade making lots of photography mistakes, particularly in composing and editing the photos. In the early days I was often disappointed at the photographs I’d taken. I actually recommend making lots of mistakes on your photographic journey. This is a great way to understand why a photograph doesn’t pop or conjure up the thoughts, feelings, and smells that you remember when you were immersed in your travel experience.
I’ve jotted down 19 tips that I have learned from others and in some cases discovered on my own. These tips are just as relevant in the mossy green and glacial landscape of Iceland as they are along the sun-soaked Amalfi Coast in Italy. I’m still working on my craft. There’s always room to improve.
1. You can’t capture everything!
When I first started travelling, I would strive to capture every little detail of every little experience. The temptation can be very real to document the trip in its entirety. It’s more important to put the camera down and notice what is happening around. If you are present, then you can trust that the story of y0ur travels will be told well.
2. Fully charged
Make sure your batteries are fresh (if your camera uses Alkaline batteries) and fully charged (if your camera uses rechargeable Li-ion ones). Don’t find yourself in a situation where you’re counting on your camera, you press the shutter and all you hear the sound of silence.
3. Don’t forget your memory
Bring extra media cards. You don’t want to have to make decisions about which photos or videos to delete to free up space for new ones in the middle of your holiday.
4. Do your homework
Before you hit the road, dedicate time to research and planning. Not only will this position yourself in the right place at the right time but you will also save precious time and you’ll have more opportunities to photograph subjects in the best light.
Don’t underestimate the importance of speaking with the locals. They will be able to help you find interesting off the beaten path sites.
5. Get creative and have fun
Some of my best photos were taken when I felt prepared and as a result I felt free to simply enjoy the environment and have fun. The value of having fun stimulates creativity and I think you’ll find that you’re capturing unique angles and perspectives that you might not otherwise see.
To record your travel experience, along with those special moments, don’t forget to take some candid photos. You can capture genuine expressions and moments when your subject isn’t aware that the camera is pointed at them.
6. Stabilize your camera
Stabilize the camera whenever possible and if your camera has VR (Vibration Reduction), turn it on. VR is an image stabilization technology that minimizes blur caused by camera shake. Using a VR lens can result in sharp images in low light and under windy conditions.
7. Get close
Filling the frame with your entire subject by zooming in is an effective strategy. I like this approach, especially in street markets. Not only can I blur out all the tourists but I can get detailed photos of souvenirs, ripe fruit or vegetables. Don’t assume that out of focus areas in your scene aren’t important. They actually help reinforce the subject that is in focus. But you must always make sure that the right part of the scene is in focus.
8. Shoot your food
Don’t misunderstand this tip. I’m not particularly interested in capturing every meal but I am intrigued by food shots with a well thought out composition. Try using the macro mode or zooming in on the dish. This is a fun way of cherishing the mouth-watering experiences and remembering the delicacies from your trip.
9. Shoot variety
Take a variety of photos: wide landscape and street scenes that illustrate the context of the location as well as photos that focus on one subject. This will help you convey a more complete story of your adventure and experiences.
10. Pass the camera around
Don’t forget to let your family and friends take photos with you in them. You’ll likely be more focussed on taking photos of your surroundings but you’ll appreciate having photos with you in them after you return home.
11. Rule of thirds
One of the key rules of photography is that your subject shouldn’t be bang in the centre of your frame. When you look through your viewfinder or at the LCD screen, imagine a tic-tac-toe grid over the scene. If you don’t see the grid, go into your camera’s settings to turn it on. The rule of thirds is applied by aligning a subject with the grid and their intersection points, placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the image to flow from section to section. This makes for a more stimulating shot. Following the rule of thirds will generally result in more pleasant and captivating images.
12. Into the frame
When photographing animals it’s often best to have them looking into the frame. This adds more drama and there is definitely something about the animal’s eyes that creates a focal point.
13. Respect your subjects
One of my general rules of composing a photo is to get close to your subject. That’s why I love my Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8 G ED wide angle lens for street and architectural photography. It allows me record the details by getting really close to buildings and other sites, while still capturing the entire subject. There is only one exception to this rule. I take the opposite approach when photographing people. It’s important to do some research when travelling to other countries about cultural traditions that are different from yours. For example, in some countries, it’s offensive to take photos of women, children, sacred sites and certain cultural ceremonies. Remember, as a traveller, you’re a guest. When you have a genuine curiosity and respect for the people you are living and travelling among, you will make natural and mutually respectful photos. These are the photos you will be proud of and will have a story of your exchange with a fellow human.
14. Don’t replicate the same photo everyone else has — find your own angle
Every famous landmark has that one iconic image. The problem with photographing famous landmarks is just that – they’re famous. Although you may never have visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids or the Sydney Opera house, you’ve probably seen so many photos of them that you feel like you have.
As photographers this presents us with a unique challenge – finding a creative viewpoint that shows off the landmark in a way what people are not familiar with or perhaps have never seen before. Don’t try to capture the “postcard” shot. Think more about capturing tiny details and even a wide angle perspective from close to the ground or above the subject. Don’t be influenced by what you’ve seen before. Be you, and create your own iconic images.
15. Keep your f-stop low
In general, the higher your f-stop, the less interesting the photo. There are many exceptions though, such as panoramic views and groups of people. I prefer to make the subject shart and background blurry. To make the background blurry – called bokeh – you need to adjust your f-stop. Bokeh comes from the Japanese word boke (ボケ), which means “blur” or “haze”, or boke-aji, the “blur quality.” Bokeh is pronounced BOH-Kə or BOH-kay. To achieve bokeh in an image, you need to use a fast lens. Using a lens with at least an f/2.8 aperture, and faster apertures of f/2, f/1.8 or f/1.4 are ideal.This will help you capture the tiny details leaving extraneous information out of the frame and draw the eye in.
16. Follow the light
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman
Be purposeful about capturing your photographs in the best lighting conditions. Even if it means waking up extra early you will be happy when you review your photographs back home. In general, the worst time of the day to take photographs is in the middle of the day when the sun is high in the sky. The soft morning lighting and the late afternoon and evening are generally good. These times are called “golden hour”. If you absolutely must shoot in the middle of the day, move to a position that ensure that the sun isn’t shining directly on your subject or casting a shadow on it. You can also make the sun work for you. Get creative by putting the sun behind your subject (like a person or a tree) and use it to create beams of light and lens flare.
17. Be open to your surroundings.
Don’t get too focussed on the sites that you read about it guidebooks. Although I’m a big fan of them (especially Rick Steves’ Europe series) don’t forget about taking photos of the little discreet things that you can discover between these major sites. By doing this, you will capture the real heart and soul of a place. Keep your eyes and mind open to things that you’ve never been told to shoot. You’re photos will be exponentially better.
18. Be patient
If you can train your brain that you won’t likely get an amazing photo right away, then you will have a better travel experience. In Iceland, the early morning fog at Kirkjufell Mountain in Iceland. I wandered the area, sat in my car and then explored the area further before the fog cleared.
Don’t fall into the trap of scheduling too much in one day. I use Google Maps to help me determine how long it will take to walk between locations and then account for shooting time at each site. By not cramming in too many locations in one day, you will feel more relaxed and creative at each place.
19. Keep it simple and have fun
When I think about my personal rules for travel photography, it really just comes down to being present, being respectful, looking for perspectives and committing to photographing just a few locations really well. Once you ditch the idea of trying to see everything, you will feel less stressed and immersed in the location.
Being open to trying different things and being alert to your surroundings are key to making quality images. Some of my best work hasn’t involved taking hours of setting up the shot but rather serendipitous or spontaneous. Find your own voice and have fun.