Most people take a camera with them on their travels, whether it’s a phone, a compact or a full-blown DSLR. Travel photography is now easily accessible to the wide majority, even if just to relive a few memories or to make your Facebook contacts jealous.
Speaking from personal experience (and it may well just be me), reviewing the travel photography of my friends is one of the most tedious experiences imaginable. When your heavily suntanned chums get back and force you to flick through endless swathes of their blurry selfies, differentiated only by the backdrop & the ever-present grainy pictures of their meals. It’s quite difficult to feign interest for more than a few minutes. So how can you improve this annual torturous rite of passage for your loved ones when it’s your turn? Give some of the straightforward ideas listed in this guide a try. You might just get some better feedback when your friends inevitably get their chance to review your travelling exploits.
In this guide, I have attempted to collate some useful advice from experienced professionals that I have benefited from, as an enthusiastic amateur myself. It is most definitely not intended to be an exhaustive tutorial for getting superior photographs every time, just simply a starting point on the journey to getting better images.
Travel photography 101: First things first
The National Geographic photographer, Jim Richardson makes an excellent point when he says “A great saucepan doesn’t make a chef”. How is this relevant? frankly, it doesn’t matter what equipment you have if you don’t have the skill to use it.
The single most infuriating thing you can say to any photographer, amateur or professional, is “I really like that photo, you must have a great camera” ARRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHH!
It is perfectly possible to capture stunning photographs with your phone, take a look at the video below if you don’t believe me.
It’s also equally possible to get horrific images from a top-spec camera that you had to sell your kidney and re-mortgage your house for. Obviously there are caveats, however, this travel photography guide aims to disregard your equipment and instead focus on the ideas behind getting more interesting images.
Most people go on holiday to relax, not spend their time geeking out with their camera in tow – so I will try and keep this as relevant as possible without getting bogged down in advanced techniques and nerdy numbers.
Composition is key
Arranging things better in your viewfinder is the most straightforward thing to do to help improve a photograph. Sadly it’s not a guarantee, but it is a starting point. A technique used by the majority of photographers is that of the rule of thirds. In fact, it’s so prevalent most cameras have a grid function that makes use of it– even your iPhone has it on the stock camera app.
If you don’t have the option to display a grid, it’s simple enough to imagine your viewfinder divided into thirds. The aim of this technique is to position elements along the lines and key points of focus on, or close to, the intersections.
In the example above, the horizon is positioned on the lower third and the tree on the lower right vertical. The common mistake made in the generic landscape Facebook shot is everything is central. If you have an interesting sky, place the horizon on the lower third. If you’re more interested in the foreground, place the horizon on the upper third. Generally, avoid placing your subject slap bang in the middle of the frame, unless you are making a conscious decision for artistic reasons. Often this slight adjustment can be enough to make a boring shot more interesting.
Making use of lead lines is another way to create an interesting image. In the image to the right, the lines of flowers start right at the edge of the frame and draw your eye to the tree on the horizon. Again the horizon is placed off centre to give the foreground more emphasis. If you click on the image to see the full version you can really get a sense of how composition has been employed to create a great image.
These are only general rules of course and open to interpretation, but they are a useful step in creating better images, if you have them in mind next time you pull out your camera.
Pick your subject and know your limits:
Perhaps one of the first things to worry about when taking on travel photography, or in fact any kind of photography, is “Is it actually worth it”? If your subject is dull then it’s usually going to end up being a dull photograph. When it comes to travel in particular, find something that reflects the place you are visiting – rather than just something that could be anywhere, this should be a relatively straightforward exercise if you consider the whole picture rather than just the subject alone. For instance, If you wanted to shoot a seagull (in the photographic sense, just to be clear), try and include a background that makes it obvious to viewers where it is or wait until it does something interesting – not just sitting on a railing with a nondescript backdrop which could be anywhere with no context….ZZZzzzzZZZzzzz
commune with seagull by choi go un
Try and tell a story with your travel photography, look for things that are out of the ordinary or that sum up a location. Chances are if you are struck by a scene, there is a photo worth taking, just experiment with the best way to try and capture the essence of what interested you in the scene in the first place.
Play to your cameras strengths, while I mentioned earlier about the equipment not being the definitive factor in getting good pictures it does require that you understand the limitations of your camera. For instance, a camera phone will not allow you to get a good picture of something a long way away, either get closer or look for something else to photograph. The speck in your photo that you try and tell your friends is a parrot, is not going to impress anybody.
Look for patterns and textures
Patterns, textures and shapes can provide the basis of a great abstract photograph that can be simple to achieve with any camera, so long as you keep a lookout for them. For instance windows in a glass skyscraper, brickwork in an old building or even pebbles on a beach. It’s also quite a good way of forcing you to introduce a bit of variety into your travel photography album.
The best way to make use of this technique is to frame it well and focus on the design of the pattern or texture. Try not to allow any distracting elements into the image. This can be done by getting up close or having a big enough subject to fill your viewfinder. If done correctly, a seemingly dull subject can be brought to life.
Consider the bigger picture
I mentioned it a couple of times already, but thinking about the’ whole image’ is important. It’s probably one of the most important factors in transforming your image, from a snapshot into a good photograph. Try and avoid including unsightly, distracting things in your images if you can, it’s often difficult and may require you to move around or try different angles.
Speaking of angles
There is no law saying you must take every photo from an upright position at eye level, you can mix it up, get low down, shoot upwards or shoot down from an elevated position. That said if you are trying to take a straight photograph, take a straight photograph – unintentional wonky horizon lines just look plain bad.
Instagram has a lot to answer for
While software filters and scene modes can look great, don’t use them indiscriminately. A poor colour photograph is not turned into a masterpiece by making it sepia. Try and consider what a treatment will add to a photo, rather than what you can do to it to save it from the bin. Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should.
Lighting can make or break a photograph
The time of day & weather conditions can have a massive impact on how interesting your photos are. Light is the single most important thing to photographers, it is worthy of an entire article and numerous books (in fact there are many books on the subject), but I don’t have the time or knowledge to get to into it too deeply here. As a general rule though, early mornings and evenings are the golden moments where getting an attractive image is made easier. High noon with no clouds is probably the worst situation, invariably resulting in unattractive, washed-out images with harsh shadows. Most of the time it can’t be avoided, when stuck in this situation, avoid shooting into the sun, find some shade, go inside, wait for some clouds or put the camera away and get a tan.
Weather can contribute to stunning photos, moody skies, shafts of light and torrential downpours can all be used to great effect when transforming a samey scene into something fresh. If it looks like you are going to get caught out by the weather it could be the best time to get your camera out rather than running inside (standing in the middle of a field, holding an umbrella during a thunderstorm being the obvious exception).
Some final things to remember
- Rules are made to be broken, photography shouldn’t be a constrictive thing. Any of the advice in this article can be totally ignored and still result in great images, equally following the guidelines above does not guarantee a good photograph either.
- Use your internal filter – Think before you shoot and remember not many people want to see 100 different pictures of the same thing. When collating an album, pick your best, most varied photos, digital cameras let you ditch the chaff, its quality not quantity.
- Take spare memory cards with you and keep your batteries charged.
- Accidents can make great photographs, just because you didn’t intend for something to happen does not mean that it is not a successful image!
Most importantly of all things ever said, ever
If you take a rubbish photo, you know it’s a rubbish photo and it makes the person in it look rubbish, don’t post it up with tags all over it – the world, the internet and anyone you’ve ever met will thank you for it 😀
Last of all, here are a few of my own images, where I’ve tried to apply these techniques in my own travel photography. If you have any tips of your own or want to get involved why not join the discussion at the end of the article.
If you’re stuck for a destination to satisfy your wanderlust check out these travel guides from some of our team members for inspiration.