9 tips for taking great travel photos

Ask a hundred different people what they plan on doing during retirement and the answer you’ll likely hear most is “travel.”  There is just something compelling about getting out and seeing the world.  Especially when your itinerary is no longer limited by the standard two-week vacation.

One of the joys of visiting a far off place is being able to bring back great photos that you can share with others and use to remember your adventures. Unfortunately, most people come home with a camera full of forgettable snapshots.  That was certainly true of me.

In fact, I was so frustrated with the quality of my photos after returning from a trip to Paris a few years ago that I asked my friend Nick (a professional photographer) for help. Below are his key photography tips as well as a few more that I’ve learned along the way.

1.  Buy the right equipment

Nick’s first suggestion was “Get a quality digital SLR with two good lenses: a wide and a zoom.”  I must admit, this was tough for me to do.  I like to travel light and am partial to a camera that can fit in my back pocket.  I also don’t want to look like the stereotypical tourist, laden down with camera equipment and walking around with my nose buried in a map.  But I wanted to take better pictures, so I went out and bought a Canon T2i with an 18-55mm wide lens and a 55-250mm zoom lens.  It is a great camera and what I sacrificed in portability I more than made up for with better pictures.  A point-and-shoot just doesn’t have the quality and versatility of a good SLR.  Go buy yourself a better camera.

2.  Use the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a compositional technique used to create more interesting pictures.  Imagine that the picture you want to take is divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically.  Important elements of whatever photograph you’re taking should fall somewhere on those lines.

Let me show you what I mean.  Here’s a picture I took of a bird when I was walking on the beach in Florida.  If you divide the picture into thirds by drawing two vertical lines, Mr. Bird is right on top of the left side line.  It makes the photograph more interesting than if I had just centered him and snapped the shutter.  Resist the temptation to center everything.

3.  Look for interesting angles

In addition to the rule of thirds, another way to make your photos more interesting is to take the picture from an unusual angle or vantage point.  Instead of standing at eye level, dead center in front of something, try to capture it from a unique perspective.  For example, get down on your belly, hold the camera above your head, or move so you’re facing your subject from the side.

Case in point is the photo of Mount Rushmore below (courtesy of Nick).  Most photos of Rushmore are taken while standing on the visitor’s platform.  They usually have a few strangers caught in the frame, and have T.J. and Teddy dead center.  How is Nick’s photo different?  He found an interesting angle by climbing the hill opposite Rushmore.  Throw in his use of the rule of thirds, the fog blanketing the valley, and the beam of sun illuminating the faces of the Presidents, and you have a really cool shot.

4.  Shoot tight

Another common faux-pas is trying to get everything in the shot.  People love to zoom out.  Ask someone to take a picture of you and they will likely zoom out (or walk backwards) until your entire body, head to toe, is in the frame.  Ask them to take a picture of you next to a mountain and the goal will be to squeeze both you and Everest into the frame.  This usually makes the subjects of your photos look small and far away.

To avoid this problem, shoot tight (aka zoom in).  Pick out an element that looks interesting and zoom in on it so you can see all of the colors and details that made it interesting to you in the first place.  Here are two examples.  The first is a picture of a trout that Nick took while on a canoe trip with his family.  The second is a picture I took of part of a lamppost outside the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  Neither of these pictures would have been very interesting if they were just wide shots with all the surrounding scenery.

 

5.  Shoot wide

OK, I know I just told you to shoot tight, but sometimes you need to zoom out to tell the story.  If you’re standing next to the Eiffel Tower, you don’t want the photo to be a close-up of your face.  To know when to zoom in and when to zoom out, ask yourself: “What am I trying to capture with this shot?  What story am I trying to tell?”  If the answer has something to do with that enormous thing in the background, then zoom out.  Here are a few examples.  The first is courtesy of my friend Andy Stoll while he was snowboarding in New Zealand.  Andy spent four years on a round-the-world journey and captured tons of great pictures like this one (read more at http://noboundaries.org/).  The second shot is Nick canoeing up in the boundary waters.  In both shots the background is a big part of the story.

6.  Take pictures at dawn or dusk.

It’s amazing how much the right lighting can affect a picture.  If it is a bright day and the sun is directly overhead, your photos can look washed out and overexposed.  The best light of the day is often the first hour of daylight and the last.  That is when it is softer and the angle of the sun makes for some interesting shadows.  So resist the temptation to sleep in when you’re traveling. Some of your best photos will come in the small hours of the morning or the early hours of the evening.  Below is an example of the latter.  I’m standing on the ice flow looking out over the Cook Inlet in Alaska as the sun sets.  Notice it’s not a bad use of the rule of thirds either.

7.  Know when to get out of the picture

Of course you’ll want to remember your travels by having a certain number of “posed” pictures.  The ones with you in the beach chair holding up the Pina Colada or your spouse in front of Buckingham Palace.  But resist the urge to be in every shot.  Again, one goal of taking pictures is to try to tell the story of the place you’re visiting.  Staying out of the photo often makes it more authentic (aka better, more interesting, etc.).  Below is a picture (courtesy of Nick) of the harbor in a little fishing village in Ireland.  Getting in the picture would have changed the entire dynamic.  Also notice that by shooting tight he really brought out the colors and details of the boats.

8.  Get involved

One way to tell the story of a place and still be in the picture (without looking out of place), is to make yourself part of the story.  Don’t be afraid to meet some locals and participate in their traditions, activities, events, or festivals.  You’ll not only walk away with some amazing memories, but you’ll likely get some great photos too.  Below are a few examples courtesy of Andy.  The first is him at Holi, the second largest Hindu Festival in India.  As he describes it: “The streets are filled with revelers running around with water balloons, squirt guns full of colored water and bags of colored powders. You exclaim ‘Happy Holi’ as mobs of people splash and rub colors on any and all passers by, as a sign of the change of season.”

The second shot is after Andy had worked his way onto the set of a movie in Jodhpur, India.  Again, I’ll let Andy describe it: “Playing a 19th Century British Soldier (huh?) in the soon-to-be-released Bollywood film Veer, starring Bollywood badboy Salman Khan. It’s an epic, period film about the uprising of a band of rebels against the ruling Maharaja who is aligned with the British crown (think Braveheart, but with more song-and-dance numbers).”  Both shots are great examples of moving from spectator to participant.

9.  Learn how to shoot with a tripod.

There are plenty of really interesting photo opportunities after dark (especially in cities), but to capture them you often need to shoot with a tripod.  That’s because you need to leave the shutter open long enough to allow in enough light to properly expose the picture.  If you try this without a tripod, the shake from your hands will cause the picture to turn out blurry.

The technique is pretty easy, though, as long as you know some of the basic settings on your camera.  Just put your camera on the tripod, switch to manual mode (usually denoted by an “M” on the mode wheel), and then slow down the shutter speed.  My camera allows for up to a 30 second exposure at which point you can switch to “bulb” mode and leave it open for as long as you want.

I’ll put a few examples below.  The first is the Raven Glacier Lodge in Alaska where my wife and I were married fourteen years ago.  I took this picture when we stayed at the lodge with family this past Christmas.  The second shot is one I took of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Nick took the third shot on a winter camping trip with his family.  All three photos were taken using a tripod in order to get the proper exposure.

So there are some basic tips for taking great travel photos.  Keep them in mind next time you travel and you’ll come home with photos that are a little more “National Geographic” and a little less “forgettable snapshot.”

6 Responses to “9 tips for taking great travel photos”

  1. Phil July 1, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    Dude, great tips!

    • Joe Hearn July 1, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

      Thanks Phil!

  2. Andy Stoll July 3, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    Thanks for including me Joe! Great tips in there!

    • Joe Hearn July 4, 2011 at 1:40 am #

      Thanks again Andy! Your pictures added a ton to the post. Made me want to grab my passport and head out the door. 🙂

  3. Meredith July 3, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

    Great post! Super informative. I feel compelled to snatch it and reblog!

    • Joe Hearn July 4, 2011 at 1:40 am #

      Thanks Meredith! Glad you liked it!

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