Last Updated on January 26, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
Guest Post By Bella Falk
We’ve all seen the gorgeous travel photos. The famous landmark lit by the glow of a setting sun. The cheerful local in traditional dress going about their business. The beautiful African safari animal prowling across a mysterious landscape. And we’ve all got back from our holidays and felt frustrated that our photos bear absolutely zero resemblance to those of the professionals.
But before you try to solve this by rushing out and buying a big expensive camera, hold on a sec. Because there are a few simple tricks you can try first. While there’s no denying that high-quality camera gear can help, even with a smartphone you can still take great travel photos if you just follow some simple rules.
1/ Know before you go
Great travel photography starts with research. Do an internet search for images of your destination. Speak to your tour guide or guesthouse owner. Where are the interesting places and when is the best time to visit? Where are the best views and vantage points? Don’t just fixate on the landmarks and the stereotypical scenes that have been photographed thousands of times before. Think about the people and culture too. What are the details that sum up this destination for you?
2/ Commit to your photography
Top travel photographers make photography a priority. While you might get lucky and happen upon a serendipitous moment and capture an amazing shot, it’s unlikely. If you want the best travel photos, you need to be committed. Get up for sunrise when the light is best. Stay out later after everyone else has gone to the bar. Visit the landmark before the tour groups arrive. You won’t get great travel photos by having a lie-in, so stop procrastinating and get out there.
3/ Have your camera handy, and know what it does
You don’t need a big fancy camera to take great travel photos, but you do need a camera, and you need to have it with you. If you do stumble across that golden moment, you don’t want to miss it while you’re faffing around trying to get the camera out of the bag. In many ways, that’s why smartphones actually make the best cameras for travel photography: they’re light, easy to grab in the moment, and we always have them with us. If you do have a digital camera, make sure you know what all the settings do, and start practising with them before you even leave home. That way, when you see that iconic scene, you’ll be ready.
4/ Get off the beaten path
How many photos of the Eiffel Tower have you seen? It’s been photographed from every possible angle in every type of weather, so there’s no way you’ll ever be able to create something new. If you want photos that really capture a place and make your friends say ‘Wow!’, you’ll need to look for something different. So it’s time to get lost. Wander down side streets. Abandon your tour group for a bit. This way, you’re far more likely to stumble across something authentic that really captures the spirit of the place.
5/ Embrace what’s in front of you
One of the reasons we’re disappointed when we look at our holiday photos is because we want them to look like the professional shots – and they don’t. But the glossy photos from the brochures are often taken at the best time of day by someone who may have had exclusive access. Sometimes they might have waited days or weeks for the right light. When you only have a couple of hours, the place is full of other tourists and the sky is overcast, it’s no wonder you’re not going to get that postcard-perfect image. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still take great travel photos – you just need to go with the flow. So it’s raining? Look for locals with colourful umbrellas. The place is crowded? Take candid shots of other tourists. Think outside the box and you’re guaranteed to come back with much more interesting images.
6/ Understand the rule of thirds
One simple way to immediately improve your travel photography is to follow the rule of thirds. This is a rule in art that says that an image is more pleasing to the eye if the subject is not in the centre but off to one side, roughly 1/3 of the distance from the edge of the frame. Have a look at some of your favourite images and you’ll see what I mean. Now try it yourself. Instead of putting that building or person bang in the centre, reframe your shot so they are off to one side. Immediately the image looks better. I don’t know why it works but trust me, whether you’re photographing wildlife, people, architecture or landscapes, it just does.
7/ Look for interesting angles
If you’re on Instagram, you’ll know that that site is rammed to the gills with identical photos of the same places, and the same people in the same poses. But why would you want to take exactly the same images as everyone else? So rather than standing in the obvious spots, try wandering off to the side. Get down low or find an unusual vantage point. Try zooming in on a detail or finding something – or someone – interesting to frame in the foreground. That way your images will be different from everyone else’s, and in travel photography, finding a unique viewpoint is good!
8/ Include people in your photos – but ask permission
Travel photography is as much about people as it is about landmarks and locations. I love taking photos of local characters, and bustling markets are one of my favourite places to photograph. Including a person in your image can also bring a photo to life or add a sense of scale. That photo of the Eiffel Tower will be much more interesting with a cute couple or a crazy tourist in the shot to add colour. Stop waiting for people to walk out of your image, and start waiting for them to walk in.
But when taking photos of people, it’s really important to be culturally aware and sensitive. Some people strongly object to having their photo taken, so make sure you are respectful and ask their permission – simply smiling and pointing at your camera normally does the trick. Of course, you can’t ask everyone in a street scene, but if you are getting up close or singling anyone out, it’s important to get consent where possible.
9/ Think about what you include in the image
All too often we grab our cameras to take a shot, and later find it’s ruined because some tourist in a red jacket has wandered into the frame. Or we notice it looks like there’s a lamp post growing out of our subject’s head. When framing your image, always think about what else is in the shot. What is this photo about? If it’s a portrait, is the image just about their face, or do you want to show the person’s environment too? If it’s a landscape, are you interested in the whole thing or a smaller part of it? And always make sure you keep an eye on the background. While yes, it’s good to have people in your images, having a random straying into the back of shot doesn’t have quite the same effect.
10/ Be patient
Unless you get very lucky, that amazing travel photo is not going to magically appear the second you arrive in a place. To get that perfect alignment, when the scene and the light all come together, you often have to work at the shot, and you have to wait. I often take a dozen photos of the same scene, checking and refining each time. And I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for the sun to come out from behind a cloud, or a local to step into exactly the right position, or for a tourist to walk away. Sometimes it just doesn’t happen, and I’ve had to give up. But when it does, and you know you’ve got the shot you wanted, as a photographer there’s no greater feeling.
For more photography tips check our advanced photography techniques feature