Essential Travel Photography Tips for Your Next Adventure
Every place on Earth has its own personality. The culture, the colors, the history, the people, the sounds, the smells… endless stories to tell. Us humans, curious animals by nature, cannot help the feeling of wanting to explore every single one of these tales. And so we travel, and we take small pieces of each journey home with us and call them ‘souvenirs.’ And we tell these tales to others, encouraging them to go find their own adventure.
Some humans don’t travel alone, but with a camera. And they don’t take souvenirs, but pictures. And they don’t tell tales, but share them on their photography websites. If you’re one of these unique humans and you’re looking to improve the way you tell the stories you see around the world, all you need to do is read these 20 travel photography tips:
Find your purpose
Research the destination
Build a plan
Learn the craft
Find the perfect location
Choose the right gear
Find your voice
Talk to locals
Wake up early
Make it a priority
Invest in a tripod
Shoot in the correct mode
Play with the human element
Experiment with composition
Mind your backups
Dedicate time to post-processing
01. Find your purpose
The first step to any successful adventure is to figure out its objective. One of the best ways to do so is to answer the infamous Five Ws: 'Who,' 'What,' 'When,' 'Where,' and 'Why.' These simple questions will help you put together a general picture of your trip, and make the whole experience much easier.
As a travel photographer, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to achieve from the very start. Knowing your goals early on is key to successfully planning your trip and coming back with the content you aimed for. Everything from your means of traveling to the gear you choose to take with you depends entirely on the story you want to tell and how you want to tell it.
For example, if your goal is to document the street life of your destination you’ll need to take a lightweight, small, and fast kit that allows you to go unnoticed. On the other hand, if you are looking to make money as a travel photographer you’ll probably need a wider set of equipment that allows you to adapt to the requirements of each scene.
02. Research the destination
Spending some time reading about the location you’re visiting will help you visualize some must-have shots before you even leave your house. Furthermore, it will allow you to understand what to expect and how to behave. This is especially crucial if you’re traveling somewhere with a significantly different culture, or even laws. Did you know that in some countries it is illegal to photograph people without their consent, even if they’re in a public place?
In addition to reading as many travel guides and articles as you can get your hands on, you should also look for creative inspiration. Explore your destination from the eyes of other travelers who have already been there to see the places you cannot miss. Browsing travel-focused photography Instagram accounts will also help you get a general idea of the types of imagery and compositions most commonly seen in travel photography.
03. Build a plan
There is a popular saying that claims that “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” This quote, which may or may not have been said by Benjamin Franklin, is one of the most important travel photography tips you’ll ever read.
In order to capture all the images you want to get from your trip, you’ll need to carefully plan how you’ll get to each of these places. This includes putting together a plan B, C, and D with alternatives in case you come across difficulties that are out of your control, such as bad weather, lost luggage, or a government shutdown.
Above all, your travel plan should be realistic. Chances are you won’t have time to visit every cross in your map, especially if the content you’re looking for is not completely under your control. If, say, you are considering making a travel video, you’ll need to take into account not only the time you’ll need to shoot the footage in each location, but also how long the right moment will take to come.
Needless to say, you should be open to change your plan at any time if the situation demands so.
04. Learn the craft
By the time you set foot out of your house, you should know your gear like the palm of your hand. This includes not only your camera settings, but also how to successfully carry out any technique you might need on your adventure. There simply won’t be time to read camera instruction manuals or tutorials on the road.
Taking a couple online photography classes is a great way to improve skills and master new techniques at your own rhythm, without the limitations of attending scheduled, formal courses. Moreover, many of these classes focus on a specific set of skills rather than operating as a full educational path. Because of this, you’ll be able to simply pick and choose the exact type of information you need from a vast range of topics.
05. Find the perfect location
Once you have put together a plan for your trip, you’ll most likely be able to identify a handful of key locations. These can be places where you plan to shoot a significant amount of content. Or they can simply be located in a useful spot that facilitates the journey to and from different sites on your list.
Ideally, you should set camp in one of these locations as it will allow you to save a lot of time and hassle - which will translate into more, or better, images. While this might be something you always keep in mind for any of your outings, here’s a trick that makes it a crucial travel photography tip: value scenery over money.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to spend twice your budget to get a pretty balcony, but rather that you should be willing to spend a bit more on your accommodation if the view is worth it. There are several photography apps you can use to decide if a place is truly worth it, based both on pictures shared by other people as well as factors such as whether or not you can see the sunrise from your room.
06. Choose the right gear
You haven’t experienced FOMO until you need to pack your equipment for a trip. It seems like there’s always a little voice speaking over your shoulder reminding you of the (often unlikely) remarkable shots you could miss if you leave certain lenses or camera accessories behind. If these kind of thoughts cloud your mind, consider this: is this possibility worth carrying a couple extra pounds on your back for the entirety of your trip?
The last thing you want as a travel photographer is for your equipment to slow you down. The goal is to reduce your amount of gear until you’re left with only the truly essential items, keeping it as light as possible. Luckily, by the time you need to face this dilemma you’ll already have a detailed plan of the images you want to get and how you’ll get them. This will allow you to determine which pieces of gear you actually need, rather than living off “what ifs.”
07. Pack wisely
This might come as a surprise, but there’s more to becoming a professional photographer than knowing how to take nice pictures. Yes, you’ll need to be technically skilled, but you’ll also need to be able to fully commit to your images. In many cases this will mean shooting while the rest of the world stays at home, such as right after a storm or through the night.
In addition to doing your research on the type of photography equipment you’ll need to capture the images you have in mind, extend this mindset to the clothes you’ll require to comfortably and safely do so. After all, your f/1.4 lens will do little for your astrophotography dreams if you need to leave within minutes in order to avoid hypothermia.
Much like with your gear, stick to facts rather than what ifs. You most likely won’t need a raincoat in the Atacama Desert or a t-shirt in Antarctica.
08. Take notes
One of the most valuable, and often overlooked, travel photography tips is to dedicate a few minutes each night to write down a couple lines about each day’s experiences. It’s a very common mistake to believe images can do all the talking for us, but no matter how many words they’re worth, they’ll always need a couple of actual written words to reach their full potential.
These daily notes can be used in three main ways, one of which is an absolute must. First off, they serve as a reminder of your adventure and the remarkable situations you experienced, which you can then use to write a blog for your photography website. The second option is to share these snippets as captions on social media, which will add a personal touch and value to your posts. Last, but most definitely not least, these notes will help you write accurate alt text for your images, a key component to strengthening your web presence and getting yourself found online.
09. Find your voice
Chances are you’re not the first travel photographer to visit your destination, no matter how remote it is. In recent years, the explosion in popularity of outdoor photographers have swamped the Web with imagery from originally unspoiled locations.. Take for example Ko Phi Phi Le, a small island in Thailand which went from untouched paradise to having to close certain locations to protect its ecosystem from massified tourism.
In order to be a successful travel photographer, you’ll need to capture images that show your destination in a whole new light. To do so, find your photography style and stay away from cliché compositions on overly shared locations. Make an effort to observe each place like you’ve never seen them before, and don’t let social media limit your creativity.
10. Talk to locals
One of the most important travel photography tips has little to do with taking pictures: speak to as many people as possible. We all know talking to strangers can be tough, especially if you don’t speak the same language. However, overcoming this fear can have a huge impact on the images you capture and their photography storytelling value.
For once, locals can lead you to those very few locations that still haven’t been discovered by the general tourist. In case you’re lucky enough to be trusted with this information, help them protect the secret by not telling anyone else how to get there and avoid geotagging the photos you shoot. If you’re into portrait photography, try to have a little conversation with the people you want to photograph before you put the camera in front of your face. This will help you ensure they feel comfortable with having their picture taken, and avoid making anyone upset.
So before you set out on your journey, learn a handful of phrases in the local language. Anything from “hello” and “goodbye” to “may I take your photo?” and “thanks for your time.” It doesn’t take much to be a good guest in a foreign land.
11. Wake up early
You’re probably familiar with the phrase “the early bird gets the worm,” right? In a travel photography context, you’re the bird and empty locations are the worm. Waking up early while on a holiday might sound like the last thing you want to do, but it’s absolutely worth it. Since the majority of people tend to take their sweet time in the morning, getting the most of the hotel’s breakfast buffet and savoring the first coffee of the day, you’ll have an advantage by being the first one out and about.
In addition to allowing you to beat the crowds, waking up early will enable you to capture your destination bathed in the beautiful morning light. If you’re feeling especially brave, get up before the sun does and take full advantage of the photography golden hour while the world sleeps. Because of its much more convenient timing, sunsets are likely to draw a much larger crowd.
12. Make it a priority
The first rule of travel photography is you make travel photography your priority. Unless you’re traveling on your own or as part of an assignment, chances are you’re sharing this journey with friends and family who are not as into photography as you are. If that’s the case, try to separate business and pleasure as much as possible. That is, distribute your time wisely between photography and companions.
Trying to take travel photos while rushing from one touristy spot to another is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Not only will you end up discarding most of the shots, you’ll also be stressed and won’t enjoy the trip at all. Plus, your travel buddies will probably get mad at you for making them wait for the right light or rush to get the perfect composition.
Establishing some boundaries before the journey starts will make it much more pleasurable for everyone involved. Stick to a handful of locations you truly want to shoot, and find a way to introduce them in everyone’s schedule. It’s much easier to go back to see the spots you didn’t get to photograph than it is to fix a bad travel experience.
13. Invest in a tripod
You don’t always need a tripod, but you should always have one around. Taking a tripod on your adventures will broaden each scenery's possibilities and help bring your creative photography ideas to life. One of the biggest benefits of this accessory is that is forces you to slow down.
Putting your camera down as you look for the perfect composition will inherently lead you to spend more time setting the perfect values and focus. Additionally, you’ll be able to shoot at slower speeds, capture panoramic photos, and use advanced techniques such as HDR and stacking.
Thanks to the neverending technological advancements, nowadays carrying a tripod around the world doesn’t require spending a few months in the gym beforehand. There is a wide selection of small, lightweight travel tripods for all budgets and needs to choose from. All you need to do is pick the one that better suits yours.
14. Shoot in the correct mode
Ideally, you should always shoot RAW images in manual mode to have full control over the outcome of every image. In reality, this is not always plausible. You’ll need to assess every situation and choose the camera settings that will allow you to get a better image. The belief that shooting in semi-automatic modes makes you less of a professional is no more than a photography myth.
One of the most clear examples of a situation in which you might prefer not to shoot in manual mode is wildlife photography. Let’s say you’ve traveled to Tanzania and are trying to photograph lions in the Serengeti National Park. It’s a cloudy day, and light is changing every other second. Rather than risking over or underexposing the shot, or missing the perfect moment all together, you might simply want to use your camera’s shutter priority mode and focus on getting a sharp shot of the action while the system deals with the aperture values.
15. Remember the human element
Sometimes we seem to think that certain types of photography are better off without including people in the shots. This is especially true in landscapes, where more often than not humans are seen as a nuisance rather than a valuable element. But contrary to popular belief, adding people to your travel landscapes can significantly increase the value of your work.
Travel photography is not just about documenting a place, but also sharing an experience. Those seeing your work on their phone screens or their local gallery want to feel as if they, too, were there. That’s why “wanderlust” is one of the most popular photography hashtags across all social media platforms. Including people in your travel photos will give viewers someone they can identify with, as well as add a sense of depth and wonder to your compositions.
16. Experiment with composition
One scene can be photographed in a nearly endless number of ways, each of them transmitting a unique message. In order to shoot images that tell the story you want them to tell, you’ll need to master the art of composition.
Start by getting familiar with the primary photography composition rules, a set of guidelines meant to help you arrange the elements in your photos to guide the viewer’s attention across the image. Afterwards, break the rules to capture your own interpretation of every instant.
17. Be patient
Photography careers are built on equal parts of hard work and patience: waiting for the perfect light, the decisive moment, the final breakthrough. Travel photography brings to the table an explosive combination that might pose the ultimate test for your patience: nearly absolute lack of control and limited time.
There are so many matters beyond your control that could threaten your travel photography adventure. Some of them you might not even be able to predict on your “plan F”. If that’s the case, do not despair and remember the words of one of the wisest philosophers of our time: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”
There’s always a story to tell, even if it’s not the one you had in mind at first. If things go wrong, take a step back, breath, and find a new book to open.
18. Mind your backups
More than a travel photography tip, this is a general photography tip: always have backups. Carry at least one extra battery in case the first one runs out or malfunctions. Take twice the amount of memory cards you think you’ll need. And, of course, make sure to have security copies of your photos.
Ideally, you should dedicate a bit of time each day to downloading all your images onto a laptop or external harddrive, then empty your memory cards for the next day. To be on the safe side, you should also save them online. If something were to happen to your equipment, at least your images would be safe.
Moreover, if you want to make your future self happy, start to organize your photo library on the road. Even deleting blurry shots can make a huge difference in your work process once it’s time to select the final images.
19. Get lost
On purpose. After several apartment changes, I’ve found that the best way to discover a new neighborhood is to walk without a clear path and let myself get lost in it. This is just as true when traveling somewhere you’ve never been before, only much more exciting. By taking the road less traveled, you’ll be able to see what the travel guides don’t tell you, and put your photography skills to test in uncharted territories.
Needless to say, getting lost is not always an option. Staying safe should always be your priority, and you might find that in some cases there is a reason why people don’t take the road less traveled. When in doubt, ask locals for advice, and always respect the signs.
20. Dedicate time to post-processing
Your travel photography adventure does not end when you pack your bag, but rather once all your work is edited and ready to be shared on your professional photographer website. You should dedicate as much attention and energy to the post-processing of the images as you did to the planning and execution of the trip.
Post-processing is where your work truly comes to life, as you edit each image to bring them as close as possible to the colors, light, and atmosphere you experienced first hand. Whether you’re using a paid or a free photo editing software, you should dedicate time to learn how to use each setting and tool in order to get the best results possible.
By Judit Ruiz Ricart
Editor of the Wix Photography Blog