How to Shoot Killer Travel Photographs

Confession time: I have taken some bad travel photographs. Imagine the transgressions of pulling wonderful people into my post-adventure show-and-tell, with such comments as, “The picture doesn’t do it justice” and “You just have to see it, I guess.”

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If you have to use those expressions, then a picture isn’t speaking one thousand words, it’s saying, like ten.

John Steinbeck said that journeys are like people””no two are alike. Why then, do people’s travel photos always look the same – mostly staid and expressionless? Can we rise above flat lighting and snapshot composition? I think we can.

Man Traveling, Disoriented
Traveling / Man traveling through many time zones is confused which one he is in. There’s good metaphoric quality in this image. © eyeliam

Creating a shot is less about replication of reality and more about creation.

What you see isn’t always what they get when the shutter trips. Here’s the key: a camera and a printer cannot replicate all the colors of nature. Your eye is still the best camera in terms of light sensitivity. If you can accept this, then creating a shot becomes less about replication of reality and more about creation. Let’s discuss some basic aesthetic choices to consider during your next sojourn.

Let There Be Light

Light is the foundation for photography. Sometimes a little goes a long way, while other times too much light can bleach out an entire scene. There are three types of important light you’ll encounter most often:

  • Hard””direct sunlight and blinding light (probably cause retinal burn; you should be wearing SPF for sure)
  • Natural and soft””diffused and indirect light so soft it almost whispers (the light you look good naked in)
  • Artificial””bulbs, bulbs, bulbs (thank you, Edison)

Any one of these is acceptable to use, but each has its own aesthetic. Assuming you are not schlepping around a professional lighting kit on a backpacking adventure, we can focus on the importance of natural light. Find the hours in the day when the light is most dramatic.

Try to avoid shooting between ten o’clock in the morning to three in the afternoon. Generally, these times of day offer flat lighting, which washes out everything from skin tones to the blue sky. Shooting outside the “no photographing zone” time slot offers you a better chance of finding light that emotes. The photograph will rise to a level beyond a simple documentation of a building or street and instead the moody tonal ranges of the day cast themselves onto the subject.

Depending on the light conditions, carrying a little portable tripod to avoid camera shake in low light situations is always a good choice. For example to manipulate the shutter for a long-exposure, the tripod is a must for focus and clarity in results.

Playing with Light

Experimenting with light becomes addictive, because the results are so varied. You can work with many artificial sources to gain numerous effects. It really is a process of trial and error.

However, if you just have a digital SLR, start looking around for reflective surfaces. Windows, buttons, chrome bumpers, basically, anything shiny or transparent can give you varied aesthetic effects in your photography. This might hover you in the artsy category.

Linear Perspective at Belorussky Station, Moscow
Experimenting with Light and Perspective / Belorussky Station, Moscow© max_trudolubov

If digital photography isn’t providing you with enough experimentation, think about film. Film? Film! Join the subculture of the toy plastic camera (e.g., Holga, Lomography, or discontinued Polaroid) enthusiasts. These inexpensive cameras give you smeared color, vignette light, and many other unpredictable outcomes. They are built for mistakes. Check out your local Craigslist wall for the camera “junk” people are looking to get rid of. Their clunker might be your photographic dream realized.

Composing the Shot

Consider the following shot:

Torino: Vista dal Palazzo Reale
Good composition; excellent use of repeated pattern (the people + buildings) and the doorway offers a nice frame to the larger interior of space / Torino: Vista dal Palazzo Reale © Gaspa

and contrast with:

Torino: Piazza Castello e Ditone
Drab buildings and gray afternoon make for a snoozy, forgettable photograph. / Torino: Piazza Castello e Ditone © Gaspa

Own all four corners of your photograph. Leave no corner unseen. This is what conscientious framing does to a person: it makes you aware of everything inside the viewfinder before taking the photograph. What are you including or not including? This is one small but important question when sizing up your next shot.

The center is not always the best or only place for action in a shot. Actually, it’s often not that interesting to have your subject set dead center. Try putting the subject off center, like to the bottom right or bottom left corner.

Photographing People

Don’t we all recognize a forced grin? It does no photograph justice. Either mean it or don’t do it.

When taking photographs of people, get closer. Step step step forward. That’s right, move your feet rather than relying on that telephoto lens to close your distance. Or worse yet, standing back so far you can’t even make out their face in the photograph. Ignore socially acceptable comfort zones and move in like a covert operation.

Don’t force someone to smile, either. I know this goes against everything your mom or aunt mentioned at holiday gatherings and birthday parties. Don’t we all recognize a forced grin? It does no photograph justice. Either mean it or don’t do it.

Masarwa Man, Botswana
This man’s face and framing tells the story. His mouth also creates a near duplicate shape as the collar of his shirt. Excellent portrait. / Masarwa Man, Botswana © jonrawlinson

Capture the face as it is. The life in his eyes will offer a glimpse into this man’s interior world. Your camera is your clay. Mold his face into being. Your composition might cut off a portion of the head or shave off a cheek or chin. Consider it okay to not have the head in full view. People will balk, because it’s “new” to them. In time, they’ll get used to it.

Seeing Symmetrically

Find the specific details that make a large landscape or building interesting. Consider the parts and pieces to it. Look for symmetrical lines or tangential lines to see how they mirror each other or match up. Become an architect in your own world of seeing. Use the lens and frame to shave, cut, slice, and dice the subject, with numerous shots until you see one you like. Isolate objects to give them a life of their own.

Dancing with Yourself

Bend your knees a little this way and a little that way. Okay, not to a crazy degree, but the point is don’t stand with your legs straight. Your legs are like a tripod (yes!), so move your body to see how the subject looks from various angles. Place the camera down on the ground above your head and so on. Tilt the camera to notice how size, shapes, and light affect your subject.

Listen, bad photographs happen to good people. Don’t assume every shot you take is worth keeping (or showing!). Remember the tools of light and composition. You are in control over how you use them. Edit your photographs before you offer the slideshow to your tribe. Select images that show the character and emotion of the subject.

Think of shots that they might not have seen before. Surprise yourself and you’ll pleasantly surprise them, leaving them wanting more of your photography and adventure stories. Keep shooting …

  1. Nice pics, really cool and well taken pics. The way and angle you have choose that was really nice. Thanks for teaching me photography. But travel photography should be different because there may be less time to catch the snap.

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