Venturing out into new territory with your camera creates the potential for entirely new experiences, subject matter, and compositions.
To make the most out of your photography trip, it’s important to be thoughtful and prepared.
Here, I’ve compiled a thorough list of tips for beginner travel photographers to consider before hitting the road.
With a methodical approach to travel photography, you can largely boost your chances to create stunning visuals.
Just think – you’ll return home with a collection of new images to add to your portfolio – images of brand new places and subjects. The possibilities couldn’t be more exciting!
1. Take As Much Gear As Necessary And As Little Gear As Possible
Choosing the camera gear to bring on your trip can be tricky.
It’s essential to pack light so that you can travel to locations with comfort and ease. But, you also don’t want to miss out on a shot because you didn’t pack the lens or gear that you need.
It’s important to note that there is no perfect set of gear for any one trip. Your packing choices will vary based on a variety of factors such as your creative style, type of photography, duration of your trip, and location.
In any case, a good rule of thumb to follow is to pack only what’s necessary for artistic freedom, but leave off the nice-to-haves that aren’t essential.
To guide you in the travel photography packing process, here’s an outline to follow:
There are several equipment possibilities that could work out well on your photography trip. You may be surprised to find that a smartphone camera is a viable option and offers the benefit of unmatched portability, though it will limit your photographic options.
Generally, you’ll want either a DSLR or mirrorless system camera, along with lenses to fit your needs.
Digital SLR Cameras
The most widely used camera type for digital photography, DSLR cameras were the unchallenged leader before mirrorless cameras came along.
There’s a greater range of DSLR cameras available today, which is an advantage over mirrorless cameras. DSLR cameras also provide an extended battery life, greater choice of lenses and accessories, and quicker focusing.
Mirrorless cameras create images that are equivalent in quality to DSLR cameras. But, mirrorless cameras are more compact and weigh less, making them a more portable option.
During the rise of mirrorless cameras, they were looked down on because of the limited lense capability.
But, this issue, among other problems with early mirrorless cameras, has since been resolved. There are more options of lenses to use with mirrorless cameras; enough to satisfy the serious photographer.
Mirrorless cameras stand apart from the rest in travel photography for their compact, convenient design. The quality of the image achieved by this type of camera is also highly desirable and allows for diversity in the style of shot you take.
When you’re packing lenses for a photography trip, try to bring just a few that can achieve multiple types of shots.
You can’t bring along your entire lens collection, given that packing space is a limited commodity. So try to make the best use of the space that you have.
I like to bring both a fast prime and walk around (zoom) lens on my travel photography trips.
I can usually achieve most of my desired compositions with these lenses. Sometimes, I may even only use my walk around lens throughout an entire trip. If you’re curious about lens specs, I generally bring a 14-2mm, 70-200mm, and 50mm prime lens.
A walk around lens and fast prime lens are my preferred choices when I travel. But, the lenses that you need will hinge on the type of photographs that you aim to take.
A tripod could be one of the heaviest tools in your arsenal, but one you don’t want to leave behind.
A tripod’s necessary to bring one along if you want to take images using slow shutter speeds. You’ll want to use slow shutter speed for photographing in limited light and at night.
Also, if you aim to engage in beach or waterfall photography while you’re traveling, the slow shutter speed will give the water a dreamy, ethereal effect.
Tripods are also helpful if you need to take self-portraits. This is a great idea when you need a human subject for a composition, but are out shooting alone. You can set a timer on your camera with it positioned on the tripod. Then position yourself in time for the shot to be taken.
A tripod is an essential tool for creative freedom in photography. Without a tripod, you risk producing images lacking quality or that are entirely unusable.
I recommended bringing an ND filter along on your trip, as it will widen your composition options.
An ND filter enables you to shoot with slow shutter speeds in bright environments successfully.
If you plan to photograph water or clouds in motion during the day, an ND filter is an invaluable tool. Shooting these types of compositions without an ND filter will likely result in an overexposed image.
2. Be Prepared
Bring Extra Batteries
Packing extra batteries is always a great idea. I pack three extra batteries at minimum, usually more.
When you’re traveling, you don’t always have control over when you can recharge, so it’s better to be overprepared with batteries. Without extra batteries, you may end up holed up in your hotel room charging batteries instead of shooting at peak lighting hours.
Or, if your battery runs out during a shoot, you could miss a crucial shot. Don’t run the risk of a shot being cut short from a drained battery –always travel with extra batteries.
Remember Your Charger
Electronics inevitably run out of charge while you’re traveling. So, double and triple-check that your charger is packed before you leave. I generally pack my charger before my more essential gear, like my camera and lenses.
On the road, outlets aren’t always readily available. So, a portable charger is an invaluable gadget when you travel.
Portable chargers today are small but mighty! I suggest a portable charger with approximately 10,000 mAh. Generally, you’ll get two complete charges out of this.
You may assume that portable chargers can only be used with USB ports. But, portable chargers that can be used with an outlet exist, too.
Typically, this type of portable charger costs more and takes up more space in a suitcase. But, it could be a good investment if your devices must be charged at an outlet.
Travel adapters are another tool that you can easily forget to pack in your suitcase. But, a travel adapter is just as important as your charger, given that it’s needed to use your charger in some places.
Travel adapters can cost more overseas, so purchase one before taking off. I like to use an adapter that can be adjusted for several different countries so that I only need one. Doing so saves space in my luggage.
When it comes to memory cards, I try to bring along double the amount that I expect to use.
Memory cards are compact and don’t take up much space, so it’s easy to pack several. You’ll always benefit from having more storage space.
You never know when a shoot will yield an especially large number of shots, and you should never have to delete work to make more room.
A hard drive enables you to back up your work so that it’s safe and accessible later on.
I suggest bringing one hard drive along on each trip. Hard drives usually have one TB storage; a sufficient amount of space for a trip’s worth of photographs.
With a hard drive, you can move photos off of a memory card, freeing up space to take more images.
You can also protect those images and save them for future use by creating copies. Just using a laptop to back up images is riskier due to the chance of a laptop breaking or getting stolen.
For extra protection, I suggest storing your hard drive in a different location from your camera and laptop. So, if one bag is lost, you still have a copy of all of your images.
Small Flashlight or Headlamp
Bring a small flashlight or headlamp with you in case you end up staying in a location until dark.
This will make it easier to navigate your way back once you finish shooting.
Plus, if you need artificial lighting at any point during a shoot, a flashlight is a convenient tool to have on hand.
With just a simple flashlight, you can light up your foreground to create more innovative effects in your composition.
So, bring along these small lighting tools in your travel photography bag – you never know when they could come in use.
3. Back-Up Your Images
Never take the risk of losing all of your work from a trip due to damaged, lost, or malfunctioning gear. You can easily back up your images with a few different methods.
First, you can back up your images during a shoot.
The majority of camera models have two built-in memory card ports, enabling you to save photos to two memory cards automatically. If one memory card gets lost or broken, you’ll have a backup.
You can also save your images to two different platforms so that you have two copies.
For example, say one copy on your laptop and another on a hard drive. If something happens to your laptop, the hard drive will keep your work safe.
If you can, try to place your backup in two different locations.
For instance, have your laptop in your camera bag and your hard drive in your suitcase. That way, if one bag is lost or stolen, you’re still covered.
You can use this method for your memory cards, too. Place one memory card in your pocket after shooting to protect your work if something happens to your camera bag.
Cloud services like iCloud or Dropbox can also be your saving grace in the case of a fluke accident. But, saving to a cloud can cost more than a hard drive if you have a high volume of images.
Backing up your images is all about using multiple locations to store your work. You never know when disaster will strike, so cover your bases and have several different storage options for your images.
4. Get to Know Your Camera Gear
Home is the best, most productive place to practice with your gear. Out on the road, you may feel more pressure or get flustered in a critical moment. Having practiced, you’ll be able to more effectively stay composed and make changes on the spot when needed.
To react quickly to a changing environment, you’ll need to be entirely in control of your equipment’s functionality. This means that you should have the operation of each button, switch, dial, and menu option down pat.
If you bought new equipment, bringing along an instruction manual is a viable choice.
If you need to pack light, load the instructions for your new gear onto your smartphone or laptop. That way, you’ll have easy access to the instructions if you suddenly need to use a new setting, button, etc. while you’re on the road.
Understanding your gear extends beyond just your camera. You must clearly understand how to use all your gear from your lenses to your tripod.
When you make it to that new, gorgeous location, the last thing that you’ll want to do is spend time fiddling with gear. The ideal photographic moment can pass you by while your making gear adjustments.
5. Master Your Camera’s Exposure Settings
The three basic components of exposure in photography are Aperture, Shutter speed, and ISO. Learning how to control these settings is the most important thing you can do if you wish to have creative freedom in your photography.
For example, you can use slow shutter speed to exhibit the passing of time. Or you can opt for quick shutter speed to freeze a subject in motion, creating a visual that we can’t see with our naked vision.
Under and overexposure are also interesting visual effects to consider. An overexposed image can be fascinating if done correctly. The excessive amount of light causes a photo to lose some detail, creating an interesting effect. The missing detail can stimulate the viewer’s imagination and interest, as they mentally construct the missing details.
On the other side of overexposed images are underexposed images. Underexposed images can provide a hauntingly beautiful and mysterious effect on images.
Experimenting with your exposure settings can lead to the most breathtaking photographs. But, you’ll only be able to use them successfully if you understand them. So, to make the most out of your photography trip, study the fundamentals of exposure before you take off.
6. Use RAW
I highly recommend RAW file format for travel photographers.
When you’re a photographer on the road, you’ll rarely get the chance to go back to a certain location to continue working on a composition.
Subtle changes in lighting and weather make it virtually impossible to create the same images of the same locations on a different day. So, you’ll need to put everything you’ve got into your photography the first time around.
The RAW format makes it possible to do this by recording the highest amount of visual data possible for each image. This will give you more options in post-processing, such as making subtle changes to exposure and white balance.
JPEG and TIFF files can still be effectively edited. But, the RAW file format will grant you significantly more options and, therefore, more artistic freedom.
There’s always a tradeoff, however, and RAW format takes up more storage space than JPEGs. Also, you’ll have to take a large amount of time to edit your image files after your trip (or earlier, ideally).
If you are unsure what type of file will best suit you, you can try to shoot in both RAW and JPEG.
In this shooting format, both a copy of RAW and JPEG images will be created and stored.
Keep in mind though that more memory space will be required for this process
Resource: RAW vs. JPEG: The Full Story
7. Don’t Be Shy
Asking permission to take someone’s picture can be a dreaded task for photographers, but it’s often a necessary one.
Personally, I struggle with shyness, but images of people from a distance using a large telephoto lens rarely work out for me.
Photos taken with zoom lenses often fall short in making a connection with the subject. The vulnerability of a human subject in the frame defines the strength of the connection between image and viewer. To address this issue, you must be bold and unafraid to talk to strangers.
If you’re traveling internationally, learn a few short, essential phrases in the local language. “May I please take a photo of you?” should be in your repertoire.
Knowing how to say this phrase in a foreign language will enable you to connect with locals and, hopefully, get some meaningful shots. It’s also a sign of respect to the person you’re asking.
Respect the person’s space if they decline being photographed, whether it be expressed verbally or with body language.
Also, always allow your subject time to get familiar with you (and you to get familiar with them). Make them feel comfortable and at ease – the result of this patient will be a more meaningful photograph.
If you’re traveling with a guide, take advantage of their expertise and ask for help in making connections. With this resource, you can often gain valuable insight into the people you’re photographing that you wouldn’t have otherwise.
If you are having a hard time approaching people, try attracting willing subjects by putting your camera display out for people to see. This can backfire and lead to too many willing subjects but may yield good results.
8. Practice Minimalism
Photography is different from other art forms in that a photographer must know how to take away instead of adding visual elements
Whereas a painter must add to a blank canvas, a photographer must edit and organize a composition until it has a focused message.
As a photographer, it’s vital that you are able to recognize and take away unnecessary objects within the frame. Doing so will eliminate elements that will distract your audience’s attention away from your main subject.
This is what minimalism means in photography. It is the practice of enhancing your overall composition by leaving only elements that add meaning to your image.
You, as the photographer, have complete power over what message is portrayed in each photo, so be clear on what you want to say.
Start the composition process with your main subject. Everything else that enters the frame should be curated based on their ability to highlight that subject.
Keep this in mind as you navigate through your viewfinder. If the message of the composition is unclear, recompose.
You may need to get closer to the main subject. Or, you may need to make adjustments to aperture and focal length to make the subject stand out.
Simplicity in a composition makes for clarity and meaning. Hone in on details that contribute to the effect of the entire image.
Learn to control any temptation to include everything within a scene, no matter how beautiful or inspiring.
Aim for conciseness in lines, shapes, and colors. You can more easily connect with your viewer when you have a focused message.
9. Vertical Format
We use vertical format far less than the horizontal format in photography.
This is unsurprising, given that our eyes naturally travel from side to side, rather than up and down.
Also, cameras are typically designed to be held in landscape orientation, rather than a vertical one. Cameras can be weighty and difficult to hold when shooting in vertical format.
However, despite the inconveniences, it’s worth it to switch to portrait orientation to see what it can contribute to your composition.
For instance, whereas landscape format brings focus to horizontal lines in your frame, portrait format can help emphasize vertical lines.
The vertical format can also work well when you need to cut visual elements out of your frame.
If certain elements on either side of your main subject are distracting, simply changing the camera to vertical orientation will often eliminate them.
You’ll still likely be inclined to use landscape format most of the time in photography, and that’s fine. But, remember to try out portrait format in every shoot – it may just create your best shot.
10. Reference Item
A reference item helps to provide visual information about the relative size between objects in your image.
Without a point of reference, viewers may struggle to determine the scale of elements within your frame. This can be disorienting and detract from the overall composition.
So, to create effective compositions, consider finding a way to provide a reference item.
You may choose to accentuate how large a landscape is by incorporating a small human figure in the frame. This provides a sense of proportion and works to create an underlying message.
Points of reference are simple to provide if you make a note of it. Consider using buildings, footprints, or even animals as reference items in your shot.
11. Learn About Composition Rules
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
That’s a quote from Pablo Picasso, and it rings true in photography. Even if you choose to break the rules, you must first know them to achieve success.
One key rule in photography is the rule of thirds.
To utilize the rule of thirds, use two sets of parallel lines to break up your image. One set should be vertical, the other horizontal. This creates nine equally-sized squares in the image. The squares divide the height and width of the image into equal thirds.
Once the grid is made, place your main subject at one of the intersections. This will keep you from placing the subject dead center in the image, making it more visually engaging.
You can use apply the rule of thirds in three ways: with your imagination, with your camera’s grid line tool, or in post-processing.
The rule of thirds is just one example of the many compositional principles to understand as a photographer.
Other examples include the rule of odds and the rule of space. Explore these rules prior to going on a photography trip so that you’re informed and capable of creating stunning images.
12. Learn About Compositional Techniques
Compositional techniques, like S-curves and leading lines, are equally as important as the rules discussed above. These techniques will help you create intriguing images to connect with your audience.
Leading lines are tool photographers use to draw the viewer to the key subject in an image.
Our eyes naturally follow these lines until they come together and disappear at the horizon. So, you can direct viewers’ eyes by positioning visual elements at the points where lines meet.
Both physical and indirect leading lines exist in photography. For example, a physical leading line could be a road or a river. An implied leading line could be a ray of light or a ripple in the surface of the water.
Similar to leading lines, photographers also use winding curves to direct viewers to an images’ focal point.
Besides the focal point, you can also use s-curves to emphasize other visual elements within your image. You can do this by placing the objects along the curve.
Because the curve encourages your viewers’ eyes to sweep back and forth across the image, any object placed along the curve will get desired attention.
S-curves can also help create the illusion of motion to bring your image to life. For example, an upward curve gives an impression of struggle, effort, or tension. A downward curve gives a sense of gathering speed and momentum.
Leading lines and S-curves alike can help you direct visual attention to certain places in your composition. These techniques give you more control over the viewers’ experience with your image.
13. Level Your Images
Leveling images is an exceedingly easy yet important task.
While you may be able to adjust off-level images during the editing process, it’s often not ideal.
When you adjust an off-level image in post-processing, you’ll need to crop the edges of the image. If key visual elements are near the border of the frame, this process is problematic and may negatively impact the final composition.
There are several tools you can use to ensure the level your image.
One is to use built-in camera tools. You may be able to superimpose a horizon to orient your image on an even plane.
Or, you may access your cameras grid lines to a similar effect. You can also use grid lines to help balance your composition overall, so I recommend that you make use of this tool whenever you can.
Most tripods are also built with included levels. If your tripod doesn’t have a built-in level, you can buy a mini-level separately that attaches to your cameras hot-plate.
14. Don’t Leave Your Foreground Empty
Aim to find an interesting foreground for each composition, as doing so can help enhance your photos in many ways.
You can use the foreground to influence the perception of depth in an image.
For example, including stones or plants in your foreground is a great way to convey a sense of depth.
Objects in your foreground will often appear larger relative to other elements within your frame. Since we perceive larger objects to be closer to us than smaller ones, this contrast in scale helps enhance the three-dimensionality in your image.
Adding foreground elements in your composition also enhance depth through overlap.
When an object overlaps with another object, our brains perceive it as depth clue and assume that one object must be closer. This is true even with two-dimensional images.
For example, you can include a plant in your foreground and frame it to partially cover your middle ground or background. This overlap will make your foreground plant appear closer to your viewer.
Including a human form as part of the foreground can also help you achieve depth. The same goes for paths, roads, and other physical lines that help to direct the viewer’s eye.
Other than enhancing depth, photographers also use foreground elements to guide the viewer’s eyes through their images.
Some of the most common ways photographers do this is by adding compositional elements such as leading lines and s-curves.
Both leading lines and s-curve are great tools for arresting the viewers’ attention to the important parts of your image.
15. Trust Your Gut
In image composition, you may sometimes have an inexplicable sense that something isn’t right. When this thought doesn’t quickly pass, I suggest you recompose.
Oftentimes, when taking images, you’ll innately know that something is off. Whether you call it instinct or a sixth sense, learn to trust this feeling.
Your gut is lined with millions of nerve cells pick up psychological stress signals whenever we feel something is out of place. And these signals commonly ends up being right on target.
Remember, photography is a complex art. There are numerous factors that contribute to whether an image will succeed or fail.
In a single shot, you must consider a variety of variables such as lighting, timing, composition, and exposure. Just a minor shift to one of these elements can change the resulting picture entirely.
There’s no formula for the perfect photo. With all these variables, a large part of your success as a photographer hinges on your ability to listen to your instincts.
Instincts can tell you when to snap a picture and when to wait for different lighting. They’ll guide you in selecting one main subject over another.
Gut feelings are subtle, but by approaching your craft with sensitivity and mindfulness, you can harness them for your benefit.
Thoughtful preparation and studying will go far in improving the quality of your trip and your images.
But, beyond that, allow yourself to break free of your regular approach. Branch out, try new things, and experiment. There is so much more to gain by being adventurous in photography than there is to lose.
So, take the tips listed above to heart and get ready for a spectacular photography trip. You may well end up with some of the best photos you’ve ever taken.