Best travel photography tips or beginners
Looking for tips to improve your travel photography?
I’ve spent much of the last couple of years on the road, partnering with brands and tourism boards and selling my travel photos. I got to this level without spending a dime on courses or other formal instruction. Here’s how you can too!
Even if you don’t plan to sell your photos or become a travel blogger/photographer, it’s still a great skill to have at your fingertips. Photos allow us to capture special moments from our travel adventures, including landscapes and landmarks, people and culture, and emotions— helping us remember how these experiences made us feel, even years down the line.
This travel quote sums it up perfectly:
“We take photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone.” – Katie Thumes
Each travel destination has its own unique qualities. Photos can help us capture them. All it takes is focus, patience, some free online instruction (like this guide), and lots of trial and error.
Whether you want to get into photography as a travel career or a hobby, here are my 21 best travel photography tips for beginners to help you take better photos on your next trip.
General travel photography tips for beginners
1. Composition is everything
If you want your travel photos to stand out, try playing around with the composition. Be sure to take photos at different heights, angles, and distances away from a subject.
Instead of just taking a photo while standing upright, try crouching or standing on top of something to get a better angle. Move left or right to see how the composition changes. It’s all about experimenting to see what looks best. Eventually, this will become second nature and you’ll know what to do in any situation.
Think about what your subject is and how you want it to appear. If your subject is a mountain, for example, you may want to take a wide angle shot or show another object in the foreground, like a rock or flower. This adds a feeling of depth to your landscape photography.
For landscape photos, I often use focal compression, a very easy and straightforward technique in photography. All you have to do is zoom in with your lens in order to make the background (i.e. mountains) appear larger than it actually is. Note: zooming in while you’re taking the shot is very different than just cropping the photo when you’re editing later on. I used this technique when visiting Valley of Fire.
2. Rule of Thirds
Want to take the perfect travel photo? Rule of thirds is key. This is a classic photography tip that will help enhance your travel photos and balance the composition. Here’s what you gotta do:
- Break down your image into thirds, vertically and horizontally, so you have 9 parts. (An LCD display on your camera can show you this).
- Place your subject or point of interest along one of the four intersecting lines. This allows your image to be more “balanced” and “natural” for the viewer. Studies prove that this frame is more aesthetically pleasing to the human eye.
- If you’re taking a portrait photo, the eyes of your subject are usually the most natural intersecting point.
- It’s perfectly fine (and encouraged) to break this rule sometimes, but you should have a reason to do so (i.e. you don’t want to cut out a beautiful part of the photo).
In addition to focusing on rule of thirds when you’re taking a photo, it’s also important to keep this in mind when you’re editing later on. Here are a couple examples of rule of thirds in my photos.
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3. Human subjects add an important element to photos
Though I prefer to capture landscapes, I’m becoming more and more receptive to taking photos of me and other people.
People enjoy living vicariously through human subjects in photos, as if they are being brought along on the journey. That’s why Murad Osmann’s “Follow Me To” photos made him a viral sensation.
In addition, taking a candid shot of a person is great way to add a feeling of authenticity to your travel photos.
Not only do human subjects create a sense of reality for the viewer, they also tell a story. My friend Gianluca Fazio, an Italian influencer, once told me that he takes a lot of photos “with him” rather than “of him.” This mindset really resonates with me, and I think perfectly reinforces the power and perspective that people bring to photos.
4. Create a feeling of depth to your photo
It’s always a good idea to create a sense of depth in your photos. Simply put, you want to make the image more three dimensional so the viewers feel like they are there. This is one of the best travel photography techniques out there.
There are many different ways to add depth to an image, but for the purposes of travel photography, let’s focus on landscape photography:
I recommend using a wide angle lens to capture a panoramic view, such as mountains and valleys. Then, you’ll want to use a small aperture (i.e. f/16) to keep the whole image (both the foreground and the background) sharp. Finally, to add depth to the image, add a person or object in the foreground, which gives the viewer an idea how far away the distant view is. Below is an example.
5. Get to know your camera
You don’t need a fancy camera to be good at travel photography.
Sure, having a basic digital camera can limit your full potential, but having an expensive camera won’t automatically make your photos look amazing. You can look at my Instagram feed as proof. I didn’t start using my current camera, the Canon 5D Mark IV, until July 2019. I think my photos looked fine before then with a cheaper camera and an iPhone 7 (I still got plenty of gigs before then).
The best thing you can do in travel photography is get comfortable with the composition and lighting of photos, and you’ll be 90% of the way there. Simultaneously, you should be learning your camera’s capabilities. The settings and functionalities can vary immensely between smartphones, point-and-shoot cameras, and DSLRs, so be sure to read the manual to understand what your camera can do.
As you progress in your travel photography, you may want to upgrade to a sophisticated DSLR camera or mirrorless camera. Mirrorless cameras are typically lighter, more compact, and faster for video. However, they usually come with access to fewer lenses/accessories. DSLRs, on the other hand, offer a selection of lenses, generally better viewfinders and battery life.
6. Get to know your lenses – an important travel photography tip for beginners
Based on your camera’s capabilities, you’ll want to have the right lenses to best capture the places you visit. For example, photo content you’ll gather on a trip to the Grand Canyon will be much different than that of a small village like Rothenburg ob der Tauber or street photography in NYC.
Having said that, beginners in travel photography don’t need to have more than just a standard zoom lens. This basic lens is very close to what the human eye sees, anyway. However, as your travel photography skills develop, consider getting other lenses, including:
- Wide angle lens: used for capturing large subjects from a close distance (i.e. the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona)
- Telephoto lens: used for capturing subjects that are far away, including wildlife and mountains in the distance.
- Prime lens: used mainly for portraits and food photos.
One last thing here: don’t ever feel like you have to buy a new camera or lens to take great photos. I’ve had good luck with used and refurbished ones that you can buy for a fraction of the price. Don’t worry about having all the bells and whistles either. Instead, save your cash for cool experiences the destinations you visit. Production never beats story.
7. Slow down the shutter speed to blur movement
Playing around with the shutter speed will allow you to photograph some very interesting effects. It’s one of the most important travel photography techniques out there, and here’s why.
A slow shutter speed is helpful for nighttime photography. In addition to capturing reflections, it’s also used for blurring movements, such as passing cars, raging waterfalls, and crowds of people walking. For example, if you’re taking photos of a city road at night with low light, a slow shutter speed will allow you to capture “light trails,” showing the headlights of vehicles passing by.
Another good opportunity to slow your shutter speed is at the beach. Below is a photo I took at Nubble Lighthouse in Maine, where I used a slow shutter speeder to make the water look smooth and serene. To make this effect even better, consider getting an ND Filter.
8. Shoot your photos in manual mode – one of the most crucial travel photography tips for beginners
If you want to take the best travel photos, you should get comfortable shooting in manual mode, or at the very least, aperture priority mode. Even if you have a fancy expensive camera, you’ll find that auto mode isn’t perfect and you’re best off mastering ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. There are plenty of “how to” videos on YouTube that will give you a solid understanding of these elements.
As a beginner, this is generally what you need to know:
- Adjusting ISO helps you account for different lighting situations.
- Changing the shutter speed allows you to capture motion in different ways.
- Adjusting aperture gives you control over the depth of field of your photos.
Below is the “Exposure Triangle,” which highlights the photography basics of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO:
When you own a camera, you want to have full control over the settings so you can account for different situations, lighting conditions, etc. Learn how to use white balance and other camera settings to your advantage. Sure, courses can help you learn this stuff, but I think there are enough free resources out there that will get you to a proficient level. Knowing how to shoot in manual mode is one of the most important travel photography techniques.
9. Avoid camera shake
This travel photography tip may seem obvious, but even seasoned photographers can sometimes take blurry photos when they aren’t careful. Here’s how to avoid camera shake:
- Use two hands; one around the body of the camera and the other around the lens.
- Hold your camera close to your body for additional support.
- Make sure your shutter speed is appropriate relative to the focal length of your lens. Generally, you should not shoot at a shutter speed that is slower than your focal length. Here’s a formula that you should follow: 1 / Focal Length (in mm) = Minimum Shutter Speed (in seconds). So if you’re using a 50mm lens, your shutter speed should be no lower than 1/50th of a second.
- Use a tripod when you are shooting long exposure (i.e. night photography in the city).
Travel photography tips to know before your trip
10. Research what you want to see (and when you want to see it)
One of the most important yet underrated tips in travel photography is planning ahead. I’m all for wandering around without a plan, but in the world of photography, it really pays to be prepared.
Before getting to your destination, figure out what you want to see and when you want to see it. Reach out to friends and even photographers who have been there. Look up the weather. Research what time things open, how long it will take to get from point A-B, and how much time you should spend in each location. I always use Google My Maps to plot out where I want to visit and how to structure my day. Here’s a simple map I put together for my day trips from Bologna, Italy last fall:
Once you create a rough guide of the points of interest you’ll want to visit, you can then visualize the compositions you’ll want to capture. The goal of your travel photography is to fit your style and niche to best tell your story.
11. Travel as light as possible (do it!)
Traveling light is a best practice for many reasons.
First and foremost, it helps you meet airline baggage allowances (which is a struggle even without camera equipment). In terms of travel photography, packing light gives you extra mobility, allowing you to cover lots of ground and reach vantage points without expending all your energy.
I’ve been in many situations where I haven’t given myself enough time to get from point A-Z, and I’ve had to run (sometimes even up hills and mountains) to make it to a viewpoint in time for sunrise/sunset.
Even just a matter of minutes can make a huge difference in your photos. So to help you prepare for these scenarios, just pack the essentials and don’t go crazy bringing camera equipment that you don’t need. For instance, some bulkier items like tripods don’t need to be brought wherever you go. I mainly use mine during sunrises and sunsets, low-light photography, and self-portraits. Click here to see what’s in my bag.
Travel photography tips to know during your trip
12. Wake up early and stay out late
This is the key to taking good travel photos.
During Golden Hour, the one-hour period after sunrise and before sunset, you’ll be able to capture the warmest tones of the day. I prefer taking all my photos during this timeframe, and rarely shoot during mid-day due to the harsh shadows.
Blue Hour is also a great time for travel photography, which occurs the hour after sunset and before sunrise. I recommend getting a tripod if you want to properly capture things like city lights, which are switched on after dark. Without a tripod, these low-light conditions will make your images look blurry.
I prefer sunrises over sunsets because there are less people around. As they say, the early bird catches the worm!
13. Always bring your camera with you
Unless you’re going out for a night on the town (where alcohol may or may not be involved), you should have a camera on you at all times.
During my journey as a travel photographer, I’ve found that the best photo opportunities often occur unexpectedly and without warning. From rare animal sightings to cool street performances, anything can happen while you’re traveling, so it pays to be prepared. Luck is always a part of the equation, so take advantage when unique stuff happens.
Wildlife photography, in particular, is something that you should be prepared to capture in an instant. Always remember to have your camera charged and ready to go when these special opportunities present themselves.
14. Don’t be afraid to get lost
I love getting lost when I’m traveling.
Sure, having a game plan is important, but don’t be afraid to venture off the beaten path every once in a while, too. Doing so often leads to fun and unexpected stories that you can share at parties later on. Haha!
Seeking out the lesser known hidden gems is also a great way to stand out from the crowd. Every visitor of Paris has seen the Eiffel Tower, but probably not the Rue Cler Street Market, for example.
Before “getting lost,” remember to write down the name of your hotel/hostel, and carry enough money to pay for an Uber or taxi as well. Chat with the concierge, receptionist, and even locals to avoid any dangerous areas in your destination.
Getting lost is truly an adventure. So go out and explore the unknown!
15. Be patient
I’m not a super patient person, so this is a hard one. But it truly makes a world of difference in travel photography.
In some instances, I’ve spent over an hour waiting to get the perfect shot. Patience is the key to success in building your own business, and in this case, becoming a professional travel photographer.
Before snapping a photo, be aware of your surroundings and try to anticipate things that could affect it in a positive or negative way. Ask yourself these questions:
What’s going on in the background?
Will the view or lighting improve if I wait here for a little bit?
For example, perhaps you see clouds approaching that will add a special element to your photo. Or there’s something obstructing the view (like a person or vehicle) that will likely move in a few minutes. Based on my experience, it almost always pays to wait. Sometimes, nothing will change, but at least you tried. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!
16. Focus on the little details
Even after you decide on a photo spot and have your camera and tripod ready to go, always seek out opportunities for improvement. The little details matter, and can add interesting accents to your photo.
Keep your eyes peeled and check your surroundings to make sure you aren’t missing anything. Perhaps there are some colorful flowers or decorations that should be included in your frame. Don’t miss out on the little things, as sometimes they can become the big things.
17. Protect your photography equipment
This kind of goes without saying, but I still think it’s worth mentioning as one of the best travel photography tips.
Whenever you’re traveling, you should always lock up your travel photography gear when you’re not shooting. At hostels, I always bring a pad lock so I can store my camera gear in a locker. Similarly, hotels almost always have a safe in the room for storing valuables. Whatever you do, never leave your gear out in the open, even if you’re just planning to leave the room for a short period.
Additionally, if you’re exploring a poverty-stricken destination or a “sketchy” area, try not to flash your expensive belongings, including camera equipment. In these situations, leave your camera equipment in your bag until you’re ready to use it.
You should also take precautions when you’re flying. I never check my camera equipment on planes, as I’ve heard horror stories of expensive equipment getting stolen. Instead, I bring my camera bag as a carry-on and keep it under my feet at all times.
18. Backup your travel photos on a regular basis – an often overlooked travel photography tip
In the world of travel photography, this tip is incredibly important. All travel photos on your memory card should be regularly backed up and stored in a safe place.
How awful would it be if you took thousands of photos on a trip and then all of the sudden, your hard drive crashed or someone stole your camera? These types of things do happen, so you should always remember to backup your travel photos.
Depending on how many photos you have, you should consider storing them both physically in hard drives and online using cloud services like One Drive, Drop Box, etc. I perform backups of my photos pretty much every night while I’m traveling. Better safe than sorry!
19. Fill and use the frame
As you’re taking photos, pay attention to the open spaces in the foreground and any natural frames that you can use. Check to see if there are any trees, gates, or other ways to “enclose” the subject of the photo. This will make your images more interesting, and allow them to stand out from the rest.
Travel photography tips to know after your trip
20. Post processing makes a big difference in your travel photos
Every professional photographer makes adjustments to their photos using software like Lightroom, Snapseed, or Photoshop. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that these resources are a part of a travel photographer’s toolkit as well.
When I first started getting into travel photography, I used Snapseed. Today, I use Adobe Lightroom. I think Lightroom is the best photo editing software out there and it’s worth the $10/month investment.
In addition to cropping images, here are some things that I typically do to enhance my travel photos:
- Lighten shadows
- Decrease highlights
- Adjust color saturation and tones
- Improve exposure levels and contrast
- Sharpen the image
I don’t recommend going crazy with edits, as they can make your photos look fake. But making some simple adjustments can go a long way to improve your travel photos.
21. Practice makes perfect – the most underrated travel photography tip
After you’ve gone through all your photos from your big trip, take some time to reflect on what you did great at, and identify opportunities for enhancement.
Perhaps while you were cropping the images, you found that the frames that you captured weren’t big enough. Maybe you could have zoomed out (or in) more. Photography is a skill that requires a lot of practice, trial and error, and continuous learning. Don’t underestimate it!
You’d think that after visiting dozens of countries, I wouldn’t make any mistakes in my photos. But I do, pretty much all the time. However, just like with anything else in life, one must invest a lot of time and energy to be good at something. Lots of practice makes a world of difference. The mistakes I tend to make these days are often minor (most non-photographers wouldn’t even notice them). But nevertheless, I am striving for perfection, which though impossible to attain, makes a photographer’s journey an exciting one.
Travel photography tips in 2021
I hope you found this post on travel photography tips to be useful and helpful! Whether you’re a beginner photographer or a veteran looking to turn this passion into a travel job, I hope this article had some interesting nuggets of info to get your travel photography game in shape.
Even if starting a travel blog or becoming a travel creator isn’t your dream, it’s still worthwhile to understand the basics of travel photography.
During your next vacation, be sure to apply these techniques and take lots of travel photos. They make great souvenirs!
Happy travels! -Jon
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