20 Tips for Better Travel Photographs: Expensive Camera Not Required

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“What a fantastic photograph, you must have a great camera”.

This is without doubt the most annoying thing you can say to a photographer, even an enthusiastic amateur like myself (closely followed by “you must have photo-shopped that”).

It’s the same as complimenting a chef with “you must have a top range oven”, assuming an artist only uses expensive paint or asking a writer what type of laptop they own.

“The camera takes the photo, but the photographer creates it”

Don’t get me wrong: all things equal, a professional DSLR will produce a higher quality image than a point and shoot digital camera.  But does that mean you can only take a great photograph with an expensive camera?

Of course not: it is just as possible to take a bad photo with a high quality camera, as it is to take a great photo with a simpler model.

And this is great news for travellers who can’t afford a higher quality camera, don’t know how to use one or don’t have the space to pack a large DLSR body, multiple lenses, filters and a tripod.

You don’t need an expensive camera to return from your travel adventure with a collection of great photographs.  You just need to know how to create a photograph with the camera you have.

 

KNOW YOUR EQUIPMENT

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CREATIVE COMPOSITION

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EFFECTIVE LIGHT

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INTERESTING SUBJECT

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A GREAT TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPH

20 Tips for Better Travel Photographs

The following tips can be applied to all types of cameras.

TIP: #1 Know your equipment

A travel adventure or holiday is a great excuse to buy a new camera.  Whether you have bought a point and shoot compact, a high end DSLR or something in between, you now have the tool to capture great travel photographs.

But you increase your chances of returning with these great images if you take the camera out of the box before you leave home.

Learn how to use it, practice on your kids, your dog or your street and confirm it meets your expectations before you hop on the plane.  If you want creative control over your images, make sure your camera has the functionality to let you do this.  If your technical skills are limited, learn how to return to the auto settings if things move around in transit.

panasonic-lumix-dmc-zs8-14-1-megapixel-compact-camera  Kellie Netherwood-

(the camera on the left was in my pocket for 15 months on a career break and round the world trip, and helped me collect great memories and travel photographs I still look at fondly today.  I now carry the equipment on the right (and more) and whilst it gives me greater creative control over my work and helps me produce higher quality images, it can be a logistical nightmare on long trips.  But my photos are not just improving because I have a better camera – they are improving because I’m learning how to take photographs, and there is a big difference!)

CREATIVE COMPOSITION

How often have you found yourself looking out at spectacular landscape, unable to capture it’s beauty in a photograph?  How many times have you felt frustrated at being unable to translate the sensory delights of a local market into an image?  How many architectural scenes have mesmerised you in person but bored you through your camera.

A great view or a great scene does not always equal a great photograph.  Until you look at it differently and creatively…

TIP #2:  Learn the “Rule of Thirds”

The basic principle of the Rule of Thirds is to imagine breaking your image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have nine parts.  Points of interest should be placed on one of the four intersections whilst the horizon should be positioned along one of the horizontal lines.  This comes from the theory that the human eye naturally gravitates to these intersection points.

rule_of_thirds_photography_kellie_netherwood

TIP #3:  Break the “Rule of Thirds”

Once you’ve learned the Rule of Thirds, break it!  Learning the basic rules of composition provides a valuable framework but experimenting beyond these rules can produce effective and powerful results.  Try placing a single subject in the centre of the frame or lower your horizon to draw attention to a vibrant sky.

break_rule_of_thirds_kellie_netherwood

TIP #4: Look for Lead-in Lines

A lead-in line is an effective way of drawing the viewer’s eye through a photograph, often towards the key subject of the scene.  It might be an obvious road, bridge or river, a more discreet path of pebbles or leaves or part of a building or structure.  It may lead your eye across the frame, to the centre or even out of the frame completely.

London_at_night_kellie_netherwood

(the use of the bridge as a lead-in line is an effective way of drawing your eye along the bridge to the main subject of the photograph, St Paul’s Cathedral)

TIP #5: Fill the frame and look for texture

Sometimes trying to capture everything in the scene in front of you can be overwhelming and noisy.  Simplify it by filling the frame with a single subject, looking out for interesting textures.

elephant_south_africa_kellie_netherwood

TIP #6:  Add an interesting foreground

This is particularly useful for capturing scenic landscapes on your travels.  Focusing on an object in the foreground adds another dimension to the landscape behind it and is often the difference between a good landscape photograph and a great one.

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(Adding the steps and rocks to the foreground add another dimension to a scene that would otherwise be “just another pretty landscape”)

TIP #7:  Keep it simple

When facing overwhelming landscapes, busy streets or noisy markets, keep it simple by focusing on a single object.  Look for a tree standing on its own, a customer standing away from the busy market stall, a single object on the sand at the beach or a street sign, character or object that tells the story of the street you are on.

fleurieu_peninsula_kellie_netherwood

TIP #8:  Try different aspect ratios

The aspect ratio of a photograph is the proportion of the height and width dimensions (4×6, 5×7, 3×1, 1×1 etc).  Applying different aspect ratios is a great way of removing unwanted distractions, emphasising particular elements of your composition or providing a different interpretation of a scene.  Most cameras allow you to change the aspect ratio via the menu settings.  I prefer to keep mine at 4×6 and adjust later in Lightroom (mainly because I usually forget to change it back in camera) but remember to frame your shot with this in mind so you don’t end up cropping out important elements.

Monacobreen in Liefdefjord

(I wanted to capture the colours and light of this iceberg without the distraction of the many other icebergs in the scene in front of me.  So I used a 3×1 aspect ratio that allowed me to exclude unwanted objects below and to the sides of the main subject)

 

EFFECTIVE LIGHT

Effective use of light is usually the difference between a bad photograph and a good photograph, and a good photograph and a great photograph.

The results of engaging a local character for a portrait shot will be less effective if there are shadows across his face.  A spectacular landscape scene captured in bad light will appear dull, flat and uninspiring as a photograph. Wildlife highlighted by natural light is a more intoxicating image than one flattened by shadows.

TIP #9:  Learn the basic light rules…and know when to break them

The basic rule of photography is to shoot with the sun behind you and in most cases this will provide the best light for your shot.  But rules are meant to be broken, so try creating silhouettes by shooting towards the sun (especially at sunset) and get creative with side lighting.

elephant_south_africa_kellie_netherwood elephant_south_africa_kellie_netherwood-2

(these two photographs have a similar composition, but the light hitting the elephant’s back helps the second photo stand out)

TIP #10: Maximise the Blue and Golden Hours

When shooting outdoors, photographers tend to avoid the harsh direct light of the midday sun.  Instead, they gravitate towards the Blue Hour (the 20-30 minutes immediately before sunrise and after sunset) and the Golden Hour (the hour or two after the sun has risen and before the sun sets).

In other words, buy an alarm clock, delay your sun-downer drinks and plan your travel itinerary to maximise outdoor activities during these hours.

London_eye_sunset_kellie_netherwood

(this was taken fifteen minutes after the sun had set behind me)

TIP #11: Get creative with the light

However, it is not always possible for travellers to maximise the best photography light of the day.  Some locations are only accessible in the middle of the day, you may be on an organised tour with an itinerary that is out of your control, or the weather may not be on your side in a place you are only visiting for a short amount of time.

But whilst you may not have control over the light, you do have control over how you use it.  So don’t despair – just get creative.

Before taking a shot, assess the light around you.  Can you avoid shadows by shooting from another direction?  Is there unnatural light (a streetlamp or torch) you can use on your subject?  Does filling your frame with an interesting door or window tell the story of the location better than a wide street view full of shadows?

Shwegadon_paya_yangon_myanmar_kellie_netherwood

(the candles in this shot are used to light the face of the local woman lighting them)

TIP #12: Don’t fear the rain

Instead of leaving the camera in the hotel on a rainy day, look through it differently.  Raindrops transform everyday objects into appealing photography subjects.  Stormy clouds add moody atmosphere to landscapes.  And breaks in the rain often create beautiful light you can take advantage of.

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INTERESTING SUBJECT

You may be using your camera correctly, shooting in optimal light and have a creative composition.  But unless you have an interesting subject in the frame, you are going to return home disappointed with your travel photographs.

“Interesting” is a subjective term.  Generally speaking, when it comes to travel photography, an interesting subject is one that tells a story, evokes an emotion or illustrates something the audience is unlikely to have seen before.  It could be an element of the wildlife, landscape and architecture, the behaviour of the people who call the place home or a unique aspect of the local culture.

So how do you both find an interesting subject and photograph it effectively?

TIP #13:  Create a sense of place

A great travel photograph is one that captures the essence of a location.  It is a photograph that conveys a mood and atmosphere that has the viewer feeling like they were there.  It is a photograph that tells a story.

A sense of place can be achieved by combining elements of the landscape with the wildlife or people who call it home.  You can focus on scenes that portray the behaviour or emotions of the locals.  Or you can select subjects that make the location or the culture unique.

buddhist_monk_blessing_cambodia_kellie_netherwood

TIP #14:  Create a sense of scale

Towering buildings and city skylines, sweeping landscape scenes, heavily populated herds or flocks of wildlife:  these all make interesting subjects.  But it is often difficult to translate the overwhelming nature of these objects to a photograph.

Adding a point of reference helps create the sense of scale that helps convey the impressiveness of the scene to viewers of the photograph.  People or vehicles in cityscapes, objects in the distance or foreground in landscapes and shooting wildlife in a wide angled frame are all effective sense of scale techniques.

Pleneau Bay, Antarctica Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

(the size of the zodiac boat in the first photo compared to the iceberg it is sailing past creates an effective sense of scale.  Shooting a wide angled scene in the second photograph and including elements of the landscape emphasises the size of the penguin colony)

Tip #15: Recreate the postcard shot

A postcard is a great “I was here” record and as such they usually contain images of popular local attractions.  They can also provide some inspiration when you arrive at a new location and are struggle to identify photography subjects.  Recreating the ‘postcard’ with your own camera is a great way to get the creative juices flowing…

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Tip #16: Create your own postcard shot

…and once those creative juices are flowing, create your own version of a postcard.  Look for different interpretations of a well-photographed subject.

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TIP #17:  Engage (and respect) your subjects

The most interesting photos of people are often those depicting a natural pose or activity.  To avoid a ‘posed’ shot it is often tempting to photograph someone without his or her knowledge.  But there is a fine line between capturing a natural image and disrespecting a subject who may not be comfortable being in it, particularly in cultures with strong beliefs against being photographed.

Take the time to engage your subject or at the very least, ask their permission before sticking a camera in their face.  Interacting with the locals is one of the highlights of travelling and establishing a rapport with them is often rewarded with some great photographic opportunities.

Of course the opposite applies to photographing wildlife.  NEVER manipulate the behaviour of birds or animals in their natural environment just to get the shot you want.

buddhist_monks_cambodia_kellie_netherwood

(Having met and conversed with these monks earlier in the day, they did not mind me taking photographs of them as they worked, which allowed me to capture a relaxed and natural shot of them)

TIP #18:  Buy an alarm clock

Before I discovered photography, the only time I was up for sunrise was when I was still partying from the night before.  But now when I travel, it’s my favourite time of day.  Not only does it provide some of the best light for taking photographs, it often presents a travel location in its most authentic form: wildlife is more active, landscapes more pure, markets alive with activity and best of all, the other tourists are still asleep!

lions_sunrise_south_africa_kellie_netherwood

(lions sleep for 20 hours a day, so starting a game drive as the sun is rising is a great opportunity to photograph them being more active)

TIP #19:  Research the location

Before you leave home, research your location for both logistical planning and inspiration.

Are there any attractions that forbid photography?  Why not visit these in the middle of the day, when the light is harsh.  What are the best locations for sunrise and sunset?  What are the local market days, are there any festivals on whilst you are there and do the locals have cultural objections to photography?

Search for photographs of the location you are going – not to ‘copy’ but for inspiration.  What are the photography subjects that draw your attention?  Is there a ‘postcard’ shot you want to capture?  Is there a photograph that inspires you to try something different?

Unless you are planning a lengthy stay, researching your location helps maximise the time you have there, provides some inspiration and best of all…helps the excitement build!

TIP #20: Put the camera down

The best way to find inspiration for a travel photograph is to put the camera down and experience the location you are in.  Talk to the locals, explore the landscape, observe the wildlife and look around you.  Great travel photographs are those that portray a personal experience.

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

Comments

  1. Kelly, thanks for such a great how to guide with some wonderful photos to illustrate your point. I’m very much a point and shoot kinda girl, but I’m slowly learning how to take better photos the more I use my camera. The thing I find is to take lots of photos then editing heavily to capture the perfect one – I’ve ended up with some wonderful images that way!

    • I’m glad you found this helpful Jo. One of the great benefits of digital photography is the ability to take lots of photos and it’s also a good measure that your photography is improving – because you will find yourself taking less to get that perfect shot. Happy travels and happy shooting 🙂

  2. Great tips in here Kellie!
    I have to admit that I still have to get to know my (little and very basic) camera better.
    I find it hard to just stop and try out different settings, to really test drive it.

    • Thanks Sofie! Different settings give us more creative control, but most of these tips still apply to the ‘auto’ mode and focus on creating a photograph out of the scene in front of you. Getting more creative control can only help your photos improve, but you can still take a great shot with a “little very basic” camera! Happy travels 🙂

  3. Great tips Kellie. I have just gone to a micro 4/3 camera and am really focusing on getting better shots. Your photos are very inspiring.

  4. Fabulous tips—bookmarked for the future!

  5. Great post!

  6. Kellie, these are truly amazing tips! Thanks for sharing. I love your photography and seeing your photos on Google+ makes my day every morning. I will follow your tips and hope I can improve my photography skills soon.

  7. THANK YOU! I am the worst with a camera. I really hope that some of these help me improve.

  8. Sumant Thacker says:

    Very nice, easy n practical tips. Have bookmarked.
    Couldn’t have got them at a better time.
    I’m going on a trip to a hill station tomorrow. These tips shall come in handy.
    Thank you 🙂

  9. Awesome post! I always use the golden ratio in my photography work and I agree that a good photography doesn’t blame their tools! It is art afterall… 🙂

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