Let’s get right to good stuff.
The following tips are easily implemented techniques that can make nearly any photograph better. Keep in mind that many of these tips will not only make you a better photographer, but a better traveler as well.
That’s because travel and photography go hand in hand. My passion for pictures drives me to seek out beauty that I’d never see without my camera. Training your eye to see the beauty around you is one of the best ways to more fully enjoy wherever you are in the world.
The above photograph from Iceland is a great example. Without my camera, I’d have squinted into the blinding sunlight to see the horse, and I’d have moved on. But because I care about good pictures, I saw the beautiful light and was able to capture a memory that will last a lifetime.
#1 Take a Picture of Something
Easy as it sounds, it’s actually the single most important thing you can do to take better travel pictures. Clearly identifying your subject is the foundation upon which you can build interest and give your viewers the desire to look further.
When a photo isn’t quite what you’d hoped for and you can’t figure out why, the problem is usually a lack of a clearly defined subject. Identify your subject and take a picture of it!
You should know your subject before you press the shutter. If you can’t identify a clear subject, chances are you’ve just stumbled upon an interesting travel experience that won’t look good as a two dimensional photograph. It happens all the time!
Some subjects are abstract. The subject in the photo above, captured in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is loneliness. Even with the abstract subject, the person serves as a clear focal point of the image that invites the viewer to look further.
#2 Find Beautiful Light
This suggestion is often followed with the feel-good disclaimer that beautiful light can be found at any time of the day. Unfortunately, this is nearly always untrue. If you want a more beautiful picture of something, capture it when the sun is low on the horizon and light is at its most dramatic.
Light is at its best from one hour before to one hour after sunrise/sunset. This leaves about 4 hours per day for shooting in dramatic light. The exact timing varies depending on where you are in the world. During summer and at all times of the year near the equator, your window of good light is decreased. Winter at high latitudes is the best time for prolonged periods of good light – the sun remains low on the horizon throughout the day.
I always look up the sunrise and sunset times when I get to a new place. I’ll then plan my museum tours and cafe visits such that I’m available to take photos while the light is good.
#3 The Rule of Thirds
This one should really be called “don’t put your subject in the center of the frame.” It’s not a hard and fast rule as you can see in the picture below – the Taj and gateway aren’t exactly centered on the intersecting lines, but they’re pretty close.
Subjects in the center of the frame make for static, boring photos. By placing your subject off center at approximately the 1/3rd or 2/3rds point, you’ll add a dynamic element that invites viewers to look further into the photo.
If you do place your subject in the center…
Do it deliberately and be bold about it! Placing your subject in the center cancels the invitation to look around and says unapologetically, “look here, this is all you need to see.”
When done right, center placement makes for a very strong image as seen in the photo above from Xitang, China. You should use center placement when you already have a powerful subject that you want to emphasize. Use this technique sparingly: many travel scenes look better with off-center placement according to the rule of thirds because those photos tend to be more inviting.
#4 Find an Interesting Angle
New and amateur photographers love to shoot at eye level because that’s where we see things. One of the easiest ways to show your viewers something different is to shoot at a unique angle. Finding a different angle adds immediate interest to nearly any photo.
Try holding your camera high above your head to shoot pictures of crowds and markets, or placing your camera on the ground and shooting up as demonstrated in the picture from India above, and from Amsterdam below.
#5 Find a High Vantage Point
There are plenty of destinations with lookout points (particularly in Europe). Seek them out – high vantage points almost always create opportunities for interesting photos.
If you’re in a new place and unsure if there are any high vantage points around, run a Google Image search or look on Flickr. Chances are good that someone’s been there before. Note that this is never done with the intention of copying someone else’s work, but rather to see if there are any high vantage points around.
These pictures were captured in Istanbul, a fantastic location for high vantage point photography.
#6 Look for Details
When you’re new to a place it’s only natural to want to take it all in. Fight the urge to take grand, sweeping photos of everything. Instead, force yourself to see the finer points – the details that exist within the excitement.
Details are usually thought of as being small, as seen in this flower shot from Brussels, Belgium. But details can be grandiose too, as seen in the capture below from Mumbai, India.
#7 Use Depth of Field
Depth of Field is shallowness of focus. You can use a shallow depth of field by selecting a low f-stop number (large aperture) on your camera.
Using a shallow depth of field adds intimacy to your photography, drawing your viewers in and helping them feel as if they are there.
Using a shallow depth of field helps to isolate the details on this post as seen in this shot above from Madrid, Spain.
A shallow depth of field is also preferred for portrait photography, as seen in the image above from Bangkok, Thailand.
#8 Look Around You
Here’s where travel and photography really intersect. Looking around helps you see more of your destination, and it helps you take better, more unique pictures. Look up, down, behind you, everywhere.
I’d have missed this bridge in Russia had I not looked above me, and I’d have missed this sunrise scene in Sri Lanka had I not glanced behind me one more time as I walked off the beach.
#9 Use Lines, Vanishing Points, and Shadows
Lines, vanishing points, and shadows are always present but difficult to see unless we make the conscious effort to look. They make a big difference in photography though, so it’s important to take note before you take your picture.
The Blur Your Eyes Method
The easiest way to see lines, vanishing points, and shadows is to blur your eyes. You’ll see shapes rather than defined objects, and you’ll have an easier time seeing the lines and shadows within a scene.
The Visual Guide to Travel Photography
This post is a short excerpt from my upcoming book and video series, The Visual Guide to Travel Photography. When I started traveling, I remember looking over my photos upon return from a big trip to the Netherlands. I realized that my pictures did not reflect the amazing experiences I had when I was there. I resolved to do better, and in the following 7 years my photography has improved greatly, finally getting to the point that I can reliably take the pictures I want to take.
I know a lot of travelers who would love to take better pictures, but there’s so much information out there that it’s hard to know where to start. I believe picture taking today has been made overly complicated as a way to sell magazines, books, and photo equipment. I don’t think it’s necessary to spend years of trial and error to get it right (as I did). Taking good pictures can be made easy, and that’s what my upcoming book is about: simplifying photography so travelers everywhere come home with the memories they deserve.
I’d love some feedback. Did you find this post useful? Is this something you might be interested in? Leave a comment below to let me know, or send me an email directly. Thanks.