This article is part of the series: Ultimate Guide for Amazing Travel Photography
Once you arrive at your destination, having the right gear or expensive cameras alone won’t be enough. How you plan your day, choose your lighting, and decide your perspectives are what will do the magic.
1. Start Early and Wake Up for Sunrise
Waking up for sunrise has numerous perks.
The soft and beautiful light in the early morning is ideal for great pictures. This type of light only happens twice a day-sunrise and sunset- so don’t waste it by sleeping in.
In addition to wonderful lighting, waking up early enables you to avoid large crowds. Want an amazing shot of the famous Bamboo forest in Kyoto or The dark hedges in Ireland? Be there right when it opens and you’ll be guaranteed to have the place to yourself!
It’s also great to start early so you can be best prepared for another great lighting opportunity–sunset.
2. Scout Your Location
It’s important that you familiarize yourself with the location. Most of the time you’ll be photographing things that other travel photographers have covered before. Scouting your location gives you a chance to look for unique subjects and angles for your composition.
The middle of the day is the best time to do this. During this time, the lighting is harsh and not ideal for photography.
If you’re planning on photographing local markets, observe what times have the most interesting activity. Think about this alongside the quality of light.
3. Pay Attention to Lighting
Study how the sunlight visually affects your subjects throughout the day. This will be especially helpful if you intend to shoot the same location for several days.
What is the tone of that light, warm? Cool? Diffused? Hard?
Each of these aspects of light affects your subjects differently. So decide if you want to use the sun to add some warmth in your image or avoid it to portray a more distant, isolated mood. Simple sunlight through a window can dramatically alter the mood and visual story of a composition.
For example, I’ve always enjoyed to stroll around and take photos in the streets of Cinque Terre at nighttime better than daytime. I find the street lights to be very romantic as if made to set the perfect scene for a love story.
Also, the angle of light plays a key role in storytelling. It’s good to experiment with your position relative to the subject. Move around to identify the right angle of light that best enhance your compositions.
Know the kind of light you want for your story. Sometimes you may need to wait a while to get it just right. The right tone and direction of light should dramatically improve your scene and ultimately your images.
Take note on which light will best tell your story; use this information to decide the timing of your visits for the following days.
4. Create a List of What to Shoot
There’s no definite limit to the number of shots you’ll take once you get to your location. However, it’s important that you have a reference list to ensure you don’t leave anything out.
On your list, be sure to include the open and closing times of the places you’re planning on visiting. Places such as parks have controlled entry, and it can be terrible to find yourself at the gate unable to enter.
A shot list can also make your day run smoother by showing you when and where to go next.
5. Challenge your Perspective
When it’s finally time to take your photos, be sure to look for unusual perspectives.
This may mean climbing up a tree, lying on the ground, or sneaking onto a rooftop; do what it takes to make the shot unique and truly yours.
If you plan to photograph iconic subjects, try to get a different angle beyond that which is obvious. Try doing a 360-degree coverage of the icon. Looking at your subjects from multiple perspectives is a great way to come up with original ideas.
Another thing you can try is taking a photo of only a small part of the famous icon. Photographing only a section of a well-known subject can make an image appear more intriguing. Having the viewer visually complete a photograph gives them a chance to be a part of the visual story.
Also, consider using an icon as a background for some other subject. The subject could be anything from people, wildlife, or other structures around it.
Once you’ve taken your shots of the iconic subject, it helps to revisit them at different times of the day. Seeing your subject at different lighting conditions can ensure that you’ve exhausted the best possible angles there are to capture.
6. Be Prolific
Try to be as prolific as possible. Taking plenty of images gives you more to choose from when you’re done with your shooting expedition. It increases your chances of getting that one-in-a-million photo.
7. Revisit your subject(s)
In photography, you’ll often have to try several times before you to get a good picture of your subject. Whatever you’re photographing, once is almost never enough.
Perfect conditions almost never happen the first time you go out to shoot. Therefore, it’s a good idea to go back to a location several times. This could mean later the same day, the following day, a week or even a season later. This almost always yields better pictures.
It’s also not uncommon to miss certain angles that make a good composition the first time around. Returning to the location once or twice gives you a chance to find a different perspective that you might have missed the first time.
8. Get off the Beaten Path
Good photography requires the ability to look at common scenes from uncommon perspectives. This may be difficult to achieve if you’re not willing to take the less trodden path.
Once you reach a location, look for new ways to interpret what’s in front of you. Be willing to veer off those beaten routes and wander the back alleys. Get on rooftops, climb hills.
For example, on a previous trip to Arizona, we found the composition on the right image by randomly pulling over on our way to our sunset destination. We liked it so much that we ended up staying there for sunset.
The more you let yourself wander the more likely you are to get images that no one else has. While at this expedition, ensure you have your hotel’s business card should you get lost in the adventure.
Also, always make a point to check with locals just to be sure you’re not headed to a dangerous area.
9. Bring Your Camera at All Times
When you shoot at the moment, your photo will feel more organic and relatable. This is what you achieve by always carrying your camera with you.
Be ready for anything that may come up and shoot at the moment. Beautiful moments happen when you least expect them. It will make a ton of difference if you plan for your luck as a travel photographer.
10. Trust Your Gut
When composing your images there are times you’ll feel something is off. If this lingering feeling becomes strong, chances are that you need to alter your composition. This is because your senses are able to read these things and tell you what’s right and what’s not.
Key among these senses is what we frequently refer to as the sixth sense, or simply the gut feeling. Our gut is lined with millions of nerve cells that heavily influence our emotions. These neurons pick up psychological stress signals and relay messages to our brain whenever we feel something is out of place.
More often than not, you’ll find the gut feeling to be right. When you ignore your gut, you will have a lingering feeling of uncertainty regarding the course of action that you’re taking.
Remember that photography is complicated. How well you do depends on many variables. Whenever you take a photo, you have to think about different factors such as composition, light, and camera settings. A slight change in any of these elements could alter your message completely. What’s the best way to photograph ephemeral moments? There is no formula for this. It is mostly just the doing of your gut instinct.
By paying attention to your gut, you can instinctively know when to capture a moment and when to keep your camera in its bag.
These gut signals are typically subtle by nature. But by remaining mindful and responding to what they are telling you, you are likely to improve at what you do.
11. Capture Movement
Movement can benefit your shots by injecting life into them. Flying birds, raindrops, speeding cars; all these things can be great sources of motion, making your photos dynamic and lively.
One way to capture movement is to freeze it. If you’re shooting a mountain and an eagle happens to fly across the scene, for example, you may want to capture it with full crisp detail. In this case, increase your shutter speed to perfectly freeze the moment.
The other way to capture movement is by recording it at different points in time. This entails leaving the shutter open longer. This allows the camera to capture the subject’s movement at different points across the frame. The resultant image will have a soft smear similar to that found in paintings.
You may want to try this out if, for instance, you’re shooting a vibrant market in India. To capture its rich colors and textures with painterly-like effects, reduce your shutter speeds to capture the subject(s) motion.
12. Be Conscious of Your Frame
What goes into your frame does more than you probably realize. Generally, you want your images to tell stories about the world the way you see them. How you frame images significantly determines the messages they convey.
Remember that your story is told by what you choose to include or exclude within your frame. Check that everything within the frame is what you intend to have there. Pay attention to your background; make sure not to include distractive elements that only serve to spoil an otherwise good image.
In the image on the right, for example, I intentionally shot at a low vantage point to partially obscure the dunes in the background. My intention for this framing was to generate curiosity and interest from my viewers. This framing also allowed me to emphasize the textures in my foreground.
The way you position your subject alters the way your visual story is told. Your subject’s placement in your composition determines its significance in your visual story.
If you’re new to photography, there are certain guidelines you can follow to assist you in composing good images. A few examples are the rule of thirds, the rule of space, the rule of odds to name a few. Most of these are intended to guide you on the proper use of your frame.
13. Don’t use Manual mode
I know, everyone has probably told you to use manual but sometimes this can just slow you down. This is especially true when you are just starting out. Aperture and Shutter Priority can increase your efficiency when taking photos. They allow you to retain control over one setting and allow your camera to do the rest. When you are scrambling to find the perfect setting you are increasing the chances of unnecessarily missing your shot. To avoid this use aperture and shutter priority.
It is a common belief that by using priority modes you lose your ability to override your camera’s settings. That is, you will not be able to purposely underexpose or overexpose your images. However, this is not necessarily true. Your camera has a feature you can use in situations like this called exposure compensation. Exposure compensation is usually provided as a small button with a +/- icon.
Aperture Priority (A, or AV)
Aperture priority is often abbreviated as A or Av on different cameras. In this mode, the camera lets you choose your preferred aperture setting, and sets the appropriate shutter speed automatically, to achieve proper exposure. In this mode, you retain control over the ISO setting.
Aperture priority mode is best for situations where you want full control of depth of field such as landscape photography. You can isolate your subject and create a shallow depth of field using a large aperture (small F-stop ). Or you can focus on your entire image and create a deep depth of field using a small aperture (large F-stop).
Shutter priority (S, TV).
Shutter priority is often abbreviated as S or TV on different cameras. In this setting, the camera lets you choose your preferred shutter speed, and automatically sets the appropriate aperture for proper exposure. Similar to aperture priority, you retain control over your cameras ISO in this setting.
Shutter Priority is best used for situations where you want full control of the motion in your image. Shutter priority is often used in wildlife and sports photography.
When it comes to travel photography, color is just as important as light itself. The right use of color and contrast will help create aesthetically pleasing compositions that draw the viewers eyes toward the subject.
Certain color combinations are more visually pleasing than others. Your knowledge of the color wheel can come in handy here. Implementing color harmonies such as complimentary, analogous, or triadic can help you capture different moods in your photos. When deciding on the composition of your photographs, be selective of what color combinations you want present.
15. Pay Attention to Layers and Patterns
Layers create natural interest within your images and draw the viewers eye. Using layers in your composition will make your image more dynamic and appealing.
As an example, in the image on the left, I used the continuous flow of layered grass to guide the viewer’s eye through the frame.
Patterns can add rhythm and interest to your image. Patterns are not always straight forward, depending on how you compose an image you can create layers yourself. In particular, if your composition includes a texture that repeats itself, compose your image to create an area of visual interest.
When composing an image, keep an eye out for elements that will create noticeable patterns and layers. Identify these elements and utilize them in your scene to create engaging images.
16.Utilize Depth and Space
Photos are two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional world. To properly create depth you must effectively use the spatial elements (foreground, middle ground, and background) when composing your image.
One of the ways to create the illusion of depth in an image is by using vanishing points. A good example is when you photograph a subject standing at the center of a bridge. The two lines on either side of the bridge will appear to converge and vanish into the horizon. When viewing the image, these vanishing lines have the effect of making you think the bridge goes on farther than your eyes can see.
Another example is a subject standing in front of a corner of a large building. The walls on either side will slowly diminish into the horizon. These diminishing walls give the building a greater sense of depth.
By utilizing these illusions in your images, you create depth and influence how your viewers visually perceive the image. The more vanishing points a composition has, the more it will emphasize depth.
Use perspective to let the viewer’s eye travel deep into your image. Try to find positions that best draw your subjects’ three-dimensionality, and depth should come out naturally.
17. Be Observant of What Is Around You
Remain observant of your surroundings. Doing so could help you notice things you wouldn’t normally notice. Sometimes its the most unassuming locations that produce great images.
When taking a photo you are not simply capturing an image but telling a story. Before you can tell a story about your subject(s) you first need to learn about them. For example, if you are shooting a cityscape, it’s best to learn about the city, it’s culture, and it’s history first. In this way, you can tell more compelling stories about your subject(s).
Stay observant. It will improve your photography, travel experience, and safety.
18. Have Patience
Take your time with each photo and give your composition the attention it deserves. Give each scene careful thought and consideration.
Utilize patience when dealing with crowds, especially in iconic places such as Cinque Terre or Machu Picchu. It will usually take some time as the crowd moves along to get the shot you want. However, patience, in this case, can be the difference between getting the perfect shot and missing it.
Amazing photos usually don’t happen immediately, they are usually a byproduct of patience and careful timing.
19. Adopt a Traveler’s Mindset and Interact
You’re a visitor in the place you travel. Your camera may be the most important thing to you, but to most people, it is not.
Respect for the people and their culture is key to a successful travel experience. When photographing your subject(s), whether a person or a place, try to remain as unobtrusive as possible.
Make an effort to build relationships with the locals for the time you are with them. You don’t have to master the local tongue, but knowing how to say hello in the local language will go a long way.
Try out the local cuisine, learn a few moves in the traditional dance, and listen to stories about the local culture with an open mind. Travel photography is not just about your camera, it’s about the people, the experience, and the moments.
Allowing yourself to interact in such authentic ways will enhance your understanding of your subject and enrich your story.
20. Put the Camera Down and Experience the Moment
A lot of travel photographers find themselves so absorbed in capturing moments that they forget to enjoy them. As much as you’re a photographer, the fact remains that you’re traveling. You need to balance between capturing the moment and being in the moment.
You don’t want to be the photographer who focuses just on getting the shots, forgetting to experience the adventure.
When you’re out on your next adventure, make sure to put down the camera, allow yourself to soak it all in. It is astonishing to be able to travel and experience the world in its various dimensions–do not take it for granted.
Going on an excursion focused primarily on experiencing a place and not photography helps you to learn a lot about the place. Doing so can help you take travel pictures that speak more accurately to the place and to your experience.
It helps to put away everything and let yourself experience moments as they unfold. This will nourish you and help you grow as a person, not just as a photographer.
21. Back Up Your Images
Losing all your photos can ruin an entire trip. Although, it doesn’t happen very often memory cards and laptops can malfunction, get damaged, or lost altogether.
Properly backing up your photos prevents you from permanently losing your files. You can do this in a variety of ways.
First, you can back up your image while you shoot. Most cameras are built with two memory card ports. This means you can save the photos you take onto two memory cards simultaneously. In the event that you lose or break one memory card, you will have an extra copy.
The second thing you can do is make sure you have at least two copies of your files saved on different sources. If you store your files on your laptop, store an additional copy on a hard drive. This will ensure you have an additional copy if your laptop is lost. You can also use cloud services such as Dropbox or iCloud if you want to stay away from any hardware. Keep in mind, if you have a lot of images these can be more expensive than simply buying a hard drive.
The final step is what is known as location backup. This requires you to keep your files in different physical locations. That is if you keep your laptop in your camera bag you should keep your hard drive in your luggage to ensure they are not both lost or stolen at the same time. This also goes for your memory cards. After shooting you can remove one card and keep it in a case in your pocket. That way if you drop or lose your camera you’ll still have a copy of all your images.
The key to backing up your images is having multiple copies of your files in various locations.
22. Share Those Compelling Stories
Upload your photos and share them online. Whether it’s posting it on social media or simply sending it in an email to friends and family, people will likely to appreciate you sharing your images and stories to them.
Alternatively, you may consider creating a photography website to serve as your portfolio. You can make your photography portfolio website stand out by including verbal commentary to accompany your images, and/or running a blog for it.
23. Keep a Written Record
There are many reasons why documentation is important. One is that you may want to sell the photographs you’ve taken or had them published. When you do, you may need to supplement your images with a background story. You won’t always remember the details of every trip or photo that you take so it’s prudent to write them down.
Two, later on in life, you could find yourself wanting to narrate about your exploits during your career as a travel photographer. It would be unfortunate to find yourself unable to remember your experiences then. It is much easier to recall these details while they are fresh. Thus, it is important to put down those records sooner rather than later.
Lastly, while you travel, you learn a lot about yourself and the world around you. You should try to communicate these, not only through images but also through words.
So, keep a notebook, journal or smartphone voice memo app with you at all times. Whichever you choose, use it to maintain records of your experiences with photography as you travel.
24. Spend Some Time Post-Processing
It’s very rare that those epic photos you see online and in magazines are made in cameras. Editing software can do wonders to your photographs. To be able to enhance what your camera can do you’ll want to spend some time learning post-processing.
Know how to use the software to enhance color and contrast, sharpen pictures, reduce sensor noise, and boost shadows, without spoiling the integrity of the image.
For those who are contemplating being full-time travel photographers, I couldn’t emphasize enough how wonderful this decision can be.
Just one thing though: understand that it’s not every day that you will be finding new subjects to photograph. In the majority of the cases, you will find yourself photographing things that have been photographed before. That notwithstanding, as long as you keep your perspectives unique and your stories authentic, you should be able to create amazing photographs.
Use this guide to help you get off on the right foot on your creative journey as a travel photographer.
Read the rest of the series: