10 Tips for Better Travel Photography

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To travel and to photograph are for many the ultimate fulfilment of desires and dreams – and in those two activities combined everything seems to come together in a higher unity. Travelling may entail far away places or just exploring one’s own place in ways not tried out before. No matter what; travelling is a way of opening our senses and minds to the new and unknown – and it’s a way of living in the very moment, the now, like we never seem to be able to in our regular lives. That is what is so compelling about travelling: the feeling of adventure and the feeling of being alive. And as contradictory as it may sound, the intensity of the now is something we want to record and capture in order to be able to teleport back again to those moments when regular life once again has engulfed our feeling of independence and vibrancy.

Once travel photography was a way of showing the world how it looks like in corners most people wouldn’t know anything about. Today travel photography is more about connectivity and capturing the variety of human spirit in the many forms and shapes it takes, in full awareness that all people, no matter where, share the same emotions, dreams and aspirations. When we travel and photograph our travels, we feel connected to the world. Or as Stephanie Dandan, photographer and travel writer, writes in her post Photographing Our Travels: Tips from Infinite Satori on The Daily Post: «When we travel, we’re reminded that everything is connected by a beautifully intricate, invisible thread. We are filled with wanderlust – exploring a foreign country or city, an exotic island, or mountains in the mist. Wherever we are, we indulge in the novelty of each moment. Each place has its own charm, energy, and ambience that will leave its trace in your soul. A travel photographer’s job is to capture this while it’s still there, available to all of your senses.»

I have been fortunate enough to have both photography and travel be part of my living. I know how alive and connected I feel to the human spirit when I am on the road. I also know how difficult it can be to capture those novel moments Stephanie Dandan talks about. Unfortunately, there are no quick steps to make better travel photographs. We are only as good photographers as we are when we do not travel. Of course the excitement of the new in itself will be an inspiration for our photography, but it may just as much be an impediment to getting those spectacular images we dream of capturing. If we are not able to see past the extraordinary and compassionately connect to the universal human experience, our images will not engage, neither ourselves nor any viewers.

Below I have listed a few points of which to be aware. They are not magic bullet points, but may help to focus on the essential when you are out travelling with a camera in your hand. As with everything creatively, the more you photograph, the better your photos will become. If you only take photos during those two weeks of holidays, it’s really not realistic to expect photos that will emulate those of National Geographic or Condé Naste Traveller. The ten points below, though, will most certainly improve the result (and as in my post 10 Indispensible Travel Accessories I have added a bonus point – just for the measure). However, just remember I do not promise you a rose garden. There are no magic bullet points here. They simply do not exist.

Travel to photograph – or photograph to travel. An essential understand of what comes first – travel or photography – makes it easier to set your photographic aspirations right. Are you travelling with your family, photography will most likely be a way of recording your family’s experience – not a goal in itself. You will have to compromise and accept that some pictures you just won’t get. In addition I recommend to bring as little equipment as possible, possibly only a point-and-shoot camera. Instead of trying to capture The Eiffel Tower or Taj Mahal in ways no one has seen before, maybe try to make a photo essay about your family’s travel with them and about them. On the other hand, if you are on assignment for a travel magazine, you bring the big load of equipment and make sure that no photo opportunity will be lost. The two ways of travelling and photographing don’t combine. Trust me; I know.

Search for the essence of the place. Immerse yourself. I think the worst thing any travel photographer can do is just to ram out of the hotel and run around like a crazy horse on speed to capture as much and as many photos as possible. It might be a way of going after quantity instead of quality – but maybe not even that. In the end, you might find yourself with less pictures than if you had taken your time to search for the essence of the place – and then I am not even talking about the quality of the photographs. Instead sit down, do some research beforehand, maybe walk around the place the first day or so without shooting, and try to get the feeling of what the essence of the place is. Like I wrote in my post Railing through the Streets of Lisbon, the Remodelados, the trams became the identity of Lisbon for me and I ran around for days mostly photographing them. Or in Cuba it could be sensuality and rhythms. Or in Seattle it could be coffee. Or in Paris it could be love and romance. The point is really to constrain yourself as a photographer. Suddenly you will se that world will open up instead. And then; when you have gotten a feeling for the place, immerse yourself in it. Completely. Let yourself go and be open to anything that can happen. If you get invited home by someone on the street; go for it. It will be a severe experience as well as a great photo opportunity. Guaranteed.

Bring less equipment. This is one thing I stress again and again. Less is more. Rather than not having your equipment with you all the time, because it’s too heavy and cumbersome, go for a point-and-shoot camera you will always be able to carry around. Even when I am on an assignment, some days I only hang a Fuji X-10 around my neck. That’s it. And as I wrote in the before mentioned 10 Indispensible Travel Accessories-post, I always carry a little camera on my hip. So when I go out with friends in the evening I still have a camera if something unexpectedly happens. If that doesn’t sound attractive to you, remember you will most likely always bring you cell phone. Use the built in camera then. The point is really; instead of bringing a lot of equipment, it’s more important to bring something you will actually use. One recommended accessories for those die-hard photographers: A polarizing filter is always great to intensify blue sky and emerald green waters – and bringing down reflections.

Have your camera out. Be prepared. No matter what equipment you end up taking along, have it ready. All the time. Literally, this means taking off the lens cap and hang the camera on your neck or around your shoulder. When something happens on the street, you want to be ready. If you have to dig the camera out of the camera bag, take off the lens cap, and what not; the situation is most likely gone. Being prepared also means knowing how to use the camera. Put it on program or automatic even if you have sworn to use it manually. Again, if something suddenly happens, you just point the camera and push the trigger. Manual settings you can save for those landscape pictures where you have the whole day to fiddle with dials and buttons.

Shoot a lot. Take your time. When you find something you want to photograph; stay with the situation. Wait for its culmination. Photograph, photograph, photograph. Don’t «save the film»; you are shooting digitally and have as good as unlimited capturing capacity. Two or three frames are not enough. Keep going; don’t be content before you have 50 – to give you an arbitrary – and low – number. Be patience and take your time in any given photo situation. This is one of the things I cannot stress enough in my workshops. The best photos come when you immerse yourself into the situation and stay with it. And if people already have let you take one photo of them, they won’t mind if you hang around a hour more and keep photographing them.

Ask – or not ask people. More than anything travel photography means photographing people we meet on the road. If you don’t think or do so, it’s about time to change that perspective. Travel photos without people quickly get boring. We – as viewers – relate to people. We don’t care much about a rock – even if it’s Ayers Rock captured in a way that never has occurred before – not after the 101st photo of it. Make sure you capture people when you travel. Approach them on the street or in their homes and you will be surprised how easy going most people are – and not only that, but will feel honoured when you ask for a photo. Make it a habit to ask beforehand, though. And respect when people don’t want to have their photos taken. This much said; I also know there are situations you don’t want to ask in advance, because asking will destroy the moment. Candid photography is fine and is a natural part of travel photography, but don’t stick a camera in the face of someone without having the courtesy of asking beforehand.

Look for beauty in details. Just as much as people belong in a travel story, so does the small details. To phrase Stephanie Dandan one more time: «Notice subtle beauty: hair blowing in the wind, children playing and laughing, leaves falling around a person, the golden light peeking through the silhouettes of passersby. The magic of travel photography lies in the dance of the environment. Capture small details found in the rhythm of each place.» In a photo essay from your travels, those small details will create space and connectivity as well as adding a surprising element to the story.

Use the light. This is probably a point that shouldn’t go in here, since it relates to all photography and not only travel photography. Nevertheless maybe more than in any other kinds, light is essential for travel photography. There is no right or wrong light; it all depends on the situation, but some lights are more forgiving and easier to handle. The most beautiful light you will always find just after sunrise and before sunset when the sun is low on the horizon and modulating and pushing those warm rays sideways along the face of the Earth. Make sure you are in a place you want to photograph during these hours – and preferably extend the shoot into the blue hour, the time after the sun has set and till the sky has turned pitch black.

Shoot wide angle and create space. If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough. It’s the visionary statement of the renowned photographer Robert Capa. Instead of zooming in on people or details or whatever you try to capture when travelling; use the apostles’ horses. Put on a wide angle and get close. For those who know me, this comes as no surprise. I really do recommend using more a wide angle than a telephoto lens. By using a wide angle lens you open up the space around the subject and create a stronger relationship to the subject. For more on this; look up my post Wide Angle for People.

Backup. When you have done you once in a lifetime travel, nothing is more tragic than losing all your pictures. Make sure it doesn’t happen. Back up all you photos every day. Bring an external hard disk, use a USB stick or download all your photos on the Cloud, but make sure you have at least two copies of every photo. Don’t wait till you get back home. Remember Murphy’s Law.

I hope I have not been too lecturing in my recommendation for travel photography. This is really the essence in ten bullet points of how I approach my own travel photography. Just as with light; there is not right or wrong. We all have to find our own way. However, maybe some of these suggestions may facilitate some improvements for you while photographing on the road. As before mentioned, though, this is not magic, more than anything is it important that you bring your own curiosity and authenticity into the process.

I promised you a bonus point in the beginning:
Be respectful and smile. This may go without saying, but I do know that many people find it hard for instance to approach people on the street to ask for a photo. A smile can do wonders. Moreover, if you treat people with respect as well; there is no telling how far an incidental encounter can go. You may just have found a friend for lifetime. Respect also goes to sending photos to people you promise to do so. Don’t just say you will send them images you have taken, but make sure you really do so.

How do you approach your travel photography – and do you have some indispensible tips you want to share?


104 thoughts on “10 Tips for Better Travel Photography

  1. As a full time traveler, who loves photography, I can appreciate those points. I always carry at least my cell phone which happens to take amazing photos. I always try to find the different angle that will bring people into where I am.

  2. Good advice . . . except for the people thing. I studiously try and get shots without people.

    Then again, I’m not looking to connect to people.

    The travel thing with me is all about the photography, the processing of the photos, and the accompanying narrative. (very few people in my alaska photos, and even then, they were not a part of the narrative).

    Now, I understand the appeal of people photography, I just don’t have it.

    Interesting advice about the point and shoot . . . I carry one only for movies. I have begun to use the phone more (for very specific shots), but I do carry a crapload of equipment with me, so I guess that advice is also lost.

    Still aside the people and equipment advice; nice article.

    1. Thanks for your honest comment. My way of shooting when I travel of course is a reflection of how I see travel photography. I am fully aware that my perspective isn’t the only way – or the right way. As I write at the end of the post; we all have to find our own ways, and you surely have done so. That is always the best way.

  3. Thanks for the article. What type of external drive would you recommend that could be used without a computer. I don’t take a laptop when I travel and I am looking for a way to duplicate my files while traveling.

    1. The easiest for you would be to use a hard disk with a built in card reader. I can’t really recommend any specific models since I haven’t use any of them. But go to a photo store or Amazon and you will find a variety of these devices.

  4. Excellent post! I completely agree with your all of your advice, but especially to immerse yourself, bring less equipment, show respect and SLOW DOWN. I’ve found that taking the time to thoughtfully and deliberately compose and frame your subject almost always produces a better set of images rather than simply “shooting” in rapid succession (of course, there are always exceptions – as in the case of unexpected action shots). One other piece of advice that may seem obvious to most, but is a “light bulb moment” to many beginners is to occasionally remember to try turning the camera so the frame is vertical rather than the usual horizontal orientation.

  5. Wonderful post, Otto. Thanks so much. I really enjoy your appreciation of the people of a place as being critical to “travel photography” as well as your sincere respect for those you photograph.
    I’ve commented before that I share your attachment to the wide-angle lens! I think for me, it is that it’s the only lens I had for so long, I learned to maximize its potential. I love to have context in a photo, which you can really add with the wide angle. For instance, is the child on a tire swing in a rural setting, a suburban setting, a public/city playground, or a junkyard. Each setting tells an entirely different story than a close-up with a telephoto can deliver.
    Thanks again for a wonderfully helpful post.

    1. Thank you for the wonderful feedback, Mary. What you say about the wide angle lens is why it’s such a versatile photographic tool. And yes, it may take some time to learn its potential, but it’s really worth it.

  6. PS The “blue hour” – what I call twilight – is like nothing else. It’s not easy to capture but if you get it right, it’s as if you are shooting in another realm. Pure magic.

  7. You described the feeling of being at the new place exactly. To me, things that I would not feel worth taking pictures of become interesting objects when I am in the new place. Of course, they are not exactly the same but they are not out of ordinary that you do not know about or have seem similar objects at your home place before.

    These are excellent tips!!! I admit some of them are hard for me – asked people is hard 🙂 Thank you for sharing these.

    1. Photographing people is – or has been – hard for everybody, I believe. But the more you do it, overcome your natural inhibition, the easier it becomes. Thanks for the lovely words.

  8. what an interesting post! I cannot agree more on travel with less equipment (that´s one of the many reasons why I love compact cameras) and also on travel to photograph- or photograph to travel (I see myself saying to my husband “wait wait wait…”).
    I have the feeling that when I go for a trip I have my eyes wide opened, and the world opens back… I try to do the same on my everyday life, but it´s not always as easy as when I am away from my routine…

  9. I really need to slow down! That’s a big problem I have. I get very excited about what I see, feel like all my senses have engaged, and then, although I definitely know it’s impossible, have a “wish” that I could capture it ALL by photo. And of course the results are hundreds of photos I don’t want to save. I think being ready, slowing down, and using a wide angle lens are three that really resonate with me as goals for future travel photography. I really appreciate this post, Otto.

  10. Excellent post, Otto. I especially agree with searching for the essence of the place. This is exactly why I avoid guided tours. To truly soak up an environment worth documenting, you have to interact with space, people, and local culture.

  11. Fantastic post, thank you. Could not agree more. Jay Maisel was a mentor to me when I lived in NYC, and as he used to tell me, it’s tough to take a great photo when you don’t have your camera with you 🙂 Most important tip of all – even if obvious. I try to travel lighter and always have something with me now. And your last tip about smiling is incredibly important. I have also seen firsthand, repeatedly, how much of a difference that makes – and often results in better photos and a lovely, even if temporary, connection with someone

    1. My last tip may seem unnecessary, but as you point out it may be the most important point – besides having a camera with you. Unfortunately I have seen too many times how some people show utterly disrespect for people they photograph. It’s really sad. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Deb.

  12. Great post, thanks! I like to capture people in my images when I’m out and about, but as part of the overall ambience of the scene, keeping them anonymous – as generic ‘people’ rather then as specifically recognisable individuals – so I try not to have faces in shot, or have people too close. Maybe once I become more confident I’ll feel more comfortable in asking people if I can take their picture, but that’s a bit too far outside of my comfort zone for now! 🙂

  13. Love the tips, thanks. Your point on approaching people for a photos made me think about a recent trip to Lisbon when I shot a decorative railing which was reflected on the pavement – very arty it looked too! An old lady walking towards me then asked me for money, thinking I had taken her photo, which I hadn’t. Note to self….make sure the coast is clear of people if you really don’t want them in your shot!

    1. Unfortunately there will always be people that try to make money out of your photography. Sometimes it’s OK to give money for a portrait, but not like the way you describe here. Don’t let it deter you from taking those photos, though. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Mary.

  14. This is definitely something more people should keep in mind: Instead of bringing a lot of equipment, it’s more important to bring something you will actually use!

    1. It’s very simple isn’t it? If you don’t bring a camera, you won’t be able to take photo – even if you have the most expensive camera. Thanks for the comment, Angelina.

  15. This is a great post Otto!
    I have faced the dilemma of travel to shoot or shoot to travel many times. My friends probably think I’m antisocial for so enjoying traveling solo.

    Thank you for giving permission to use Auto & Program! I usually do keep my camera on Program just for those quick draw moments. And I also usually have a long lens on unless I’m in a city. Traveling the back roads, you never know when Bambi will pop up in front of you.

    My iPhone has replaced my really nice Canon point and shoot. The iPhone takes great images, especially in low light situations. It’s a little challenging to learn how to get the most out of the little device, but I’ve seen fabulous images taken with iPhones.

    Thanks for great tips.

    1. I totally agree with you when it comes to cell phone cameras: They take incredible photos. But it takes a little practice – as you say – to get the most out of them. Thanks for sharing your experience, Linda.

  16. I also know well that first bullet point. It was a painful revelation years ago.

    I identify strongly with that second point. That “just shoot it” mentality, and it can be even worse if you’re shooting digitally instead of analogue. Digital shooters who have shot analogue should push ourselves to shoot as though we’re still shooting film. Force ourselves to put far more effort into making every shot count or simply don’t even attempt a shot the second we realize that it’s just not worth it. This may seem contradictory to the fifth bullet point but I find that it works improve my mental focus, creativity and vision with digital equipment.

    Point seven; details! Details! Details! It’s my background as an illustrator that drives me to look for details in my photography. It is imperative. It really does make the difference.

    Another excellent post.

    1. Thank you for sharing you experiences and thoughts, Allan. Very much appreciated. I agree with you in that the transition from analogue to digital capturing took awareness away. As such, though, I don’t see any contradiction between this and point five. We can both be conscious and stay with the subject for a long time.

  17. These are some great tips – very useful to any traveller. I do agree about the family travel/photography travel point. Someone recently commented that my photos are getting better but actually my kids are just getting older. 🙂 Amazing the difference between a picture you grabbed in one second on your phone and a picture you grabbed in thirty seconds on your phone!

  18. Again, I ‘ve learned a lot from your post. Thank you.

    >> The two ways of travelling and photographing don’t combine.
    So true. I found that out soon after I arrived at LA for my college class reunion. There was so much for us to catch up; so little time for photographing.

    >> … but don’t stick a camera in the face of someone without having the courtesy of asking beforehand.
    Does this apply to street photography too?
    Also, would you tell the person that you have taken a picture of him if you didn’t ask beforehand?

    Actually, I think asking for permission beforehand may be easier than taking a photo without asking, because being rejected is better than being yelled at.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences about travel photography. As for sticking a camera in the face of someone; it doesn’t really matter what kind of photography one is doing. It the case of the photo accompanying this post, yes, I did sort of ask permission. I lifted my camera to indicate that I wanted to photograph the two guys in Bolivia – and they consented.

  19. Un articolo molto molto interessante e con consigli molto utili.
    Grazie Otto, è stato un vero piacere leggerti e fare tesoro dei tuoi consigli.
    Un abbraccio, Pat

  20. Good advice. I have compromised on a Sony NEX-5N which has a slightly bulky 18-55 mm lens but is far superior to a typical point and shoot. Instead of feeling like a nerd with it hanging around my neck I have bought an expensive Canadian-made travel vest with a convenient big inner pocket and wear that very often when visiting people. Still a nerd. Now a “safari nerd” who, from time to time, loses stuff in his vest, which is, albeit marginally, “better.”

    1. Wests have always be a great accessory for many photographers, but so far I have never tried one. I guess it may look too much “photographer” for me. Thanks for sharing your experience, Bob.

  21. Thank you, Otto. Great advice. My travel photography, to me, is not as good as my everyday photography where I’m photographing the new in a place I know (because every day brings something new on the same old paths I walk). After reading your post, I think that’s because I don’t have time to engage with a new place when I’m traveling.

    1. I think in order to make images that make an impact, it’s important to immerse into the process and engage with whatever you photograph. You seem to do very much so when you do your everyday photography.

  22. If I may be so bold as to add a little something to your great list – don’t just see the place you’re visiting through your camera lens. Put it away sometimes and just enjoy being in the place. At first I would try and capture every interesting scene…and then I realized that besides rarely being able to do the scene justice I was also missing the essence of the place by just seeing it through the lens! Thanks for the list.

    1. It’s a very good suggestion. It’s often so tempting to see everything in terms of photography and through the lens of a camera and by so doing missing the experience itself. Sometimes you feel like if there is no photo to be taken, then it’s all wasted. That’s when it’s really time to put away the camera – and live for real.

  23. Sound advice, Otto. One of my favorite things is to limit myself to one lens for days at a time; it forces me to see and capture in new ways, especially if it’s a lens I don’t often use. Lately, I’ve been taking closeups with a wide angle, so I look forward to reading your article on this. Great post!

    1. I think that is a good exercise. By limiting yourself to one less, you force yourself – as you point out – to expand within the limitations you have set for yourself. Nothing encourage creativity more than constrains. Thanks for the input, Lynn.

  24. Otto, you made some excellent points here with great insight. I especially liked “Travel photos without people quickly get boring. We – as viewers – relate to people.” I really need to get over myself and get comfortable with the process of taking images of people.


    1. I hope I didn’t sound to arrogant when advising in this manner. I do see more in the realm of photography than people. But of course for me it really comes don to photographing people. I think you should give it a try, too. It’s such a great experience. Thanks for you feedback, Dani.

      1. Not arrogant at all, Otto. I’ve heard it before but sometimes you need to literally be ‘slapped upside the head’ with advice for it to penetrate. I need to concentrate and get comfortable with it.

  25. As usual there is always some small or large point or more that you’ve make to add to my thought processes during the creative process. On the other hand, I am one of those instinctual voyeurs. While a destination can be planned, the stilling of a moment for me is often spontaneous. I can plan for the subject matter and be inspired by the most mundane of objects or situations. One of the issues with traveling (as you said) is to immerse yourself. That’s a real bonus. It helps you to really see the layers of where you are.

    1. Despite all I say about research and planing, my shooting process is more than anything instinctual as well. My best pictures are those that are not planned. So maybe I am contradicting myself… Thanks for sharing your experience, Sally.

  26. This stopped me in my tracks, because I’ve also found it to be so true: ” ● Shoot a lot. Take your time. When you find something you want to photograph; stay with the situation. Wait for its culmination. Photograph, photograph, photograph. Don’t «save the film»; you are shooting digitally and have as good as unlimited capturing capacity. Two or three frames are not enough. Keep going; don’t be content before you have 50 – to give you an arbitrary – and low – number. Be patience and take your time in any given photo situation. This is one of the things I cannot stress enough in my workshops. The best photos come when you immerse yourself into the situation and stay with it. ”

    Yes – It’s like a fine violin ‘waking up’ – It seems the more time you take, the better the chance of getting that one great photocapture (I shoot wildlife and pets).

    Great blog!

  27. This is a wonderful blog entry ! I have to admit that I’m scared of thaking picture of people. Maybe I should give it a go, and go beyond taking pictures of rocks and flowers 🙂

  28. Great advice…and especially like the one of “immerse yourself” because I think once you do that, the smiles, respect and creating that great ambiance of photography comes together without much effort. Well done… Also, bring less equipment is great advice and one I need to pay more attention too!

  29. Some really helpful tips, Otto. You are so right about using a wide lens for people. With a zoom lens one often tends to stand at a distance from the subject. A wide or a prime lens in a way forces you to go close to your subject, interact and establish a ‘connect’. The resultant images are often much more engaging.

  30. Otto, since i started following your blog, i became a fan of your writing. Definayely, you advice are thoughtful and i agree with it completely. I do have very little experience (compared to you), but still i do feel same way. Only, i use nikon D800 and nikon 24-70 f2.8 lens for my travel which is way too heavy to carry all the time. i have no budget to get a lighter camera. but i feel that light gear is very important.

    1. I wouldn’t worry too much about equipment. What you have is great, and even if it might feel heavy at times, it’s not the worst that could happen. Just keep shooting, that’s my philosophy. Thanks for the lovely words, Sudarshan.

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