10 Easy Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos

Hands up if the following sounds familiar. You explore an exotic land and fall in love with a new country. Cultures, landscapes, experiences; it’s all so vibrant and evocative. Then you get home and your photos are drab and lifeless.

Where did it all go wrong? Why are the greens so flat and the faces so predictable? Why have dreams of royalties from travel magazines disappeared? How can you take better travel photos?

Jefferson Taylor has interviewed two world renowned travel photographers: Andrea O’Hearne from the USA and Frank Schefler from Switzerland. Their work has appeared in countless magazines around the world and they’ve offered some easy tips for taking better travel photos.

Note that this isn’t a guide stuffed with technical advice and how to use a camera. It’s specific to travel and travel photography.

6 Tips for Creating Vibrant Travel Photos

1. Don’t Be Obtrusive and Ignorant

Men drinking tea in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Men drinking tea in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Few people like a camera being flashed in their face. Most people mumble a protestation when a friend asks them to pose. While some enjoy the limelight, most will cower, embarrassed. And that’s when a friend is pointing the camera. Imagine if it was a foreigner eagerly photographing you without asking permission. Cameras can be scary, especially the modern telescopic sized brand. Brandishing the camera with abandon, forcing it into the face of a petrified local, or accidentally swinging the lens into a child’s head, is never going to create memorable vacation photos.

Tip number one for taking better travel photos is to stop being another ignorant and obtrusive foreigner. It helps to bring a shorter lens. It definitely helps to ask permission. And it’s also important to know when to put the camera away. In blinding midday sun, shooting from a moving bus window, the results will be unusable. So keep the camera in the bag.

Elephants in Botswana.

Elephants in Botswana.

2. Stop Taking Endless Landscapes

A focal point on the Namibian sand dunes.

A focal point on the Namibian sand dunes.

Okay, so the landscape looks cool. But does it really deserve a full 8GB memory card? Do you really need 300 panoramic shots of a forest? Travel photos become indelibly more interesting when they begin to portray a more complete picture of a destination. People, culture, food, wildlife, villages, drinks, buses; there’s far more to capture than the landscape. When taking a landscape, try find a focal point that adds something different. Something that really says where you are.

The photo shows much more than a standard panoramic of Malawi.

The photo shows much more than a standard panoramic of Malawi.

3. Stop Taking Selfies

The chef with his food is more evocative than yourself posing with the food.

The chef with his food is more evocative than yourself posing with the food.

What do you want: a vibrant photo album that reflects a destination or a thousand selfies to put on facebook? Nobody is interested in your selfies. Don’t think that people at home give a shit. They look at your uploads and snigger. Ten thousands miles from home and the best thing you can photograph is your own face. Good travel photography is about the destinations. It’s not about you. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t occasionally join the shot, just remember that (just for once) there’s something more interesting to photograph. For example, rather than you posing with the local food, how about the endearing local chef posing with the food? Twenty years from now, when you’re a little less vein, you’ll rather not have a vacation album of selfies.

A selfie that shows a bit more.

A selfie that shows a bit more.

4. Always Have Your Camera Ready

It sounds simple. Always have the camera ready. But most people will take their camera on organized excursions and leave it in the bag when traveling on a bus. They will have the camera primed for safari yet leave it at home when sitting in a local restaurant. There’s always opportunity, and having your camera ready is the only way to take advantage of it. That doesn’t mean having the camera round your neck 24 hours a day – see tip 1. It means always having it to hand when you travel.

On a long bus journey, you never know where you might get off. So keep the camera to hand.

On a long bus journey, you never know where you might get off. So keep the camera to hand.

5. Don’t be Obsessed with Perfection

You’re not in the studio. You’re not doing a shoot for Calvin Klein. You’re on vacation. Frame the shot, analyze the lighting, adjust the shutter speed, isolate the subject, focus, relax the subject, but something isn’t right. Oh wait. Now adjust the ISO, zoom, focus again, and wait…it all sounds a little serious doesn’t it? Vacations are about having fun, not agonizing over the perfect shot. These are your travel photos. So don’t pretend you’re on assignment from National Geographic. Have fun with the camera and the photos will reflect a relaxed mood. Stress over the technical details and you’ll never be satisfied.

Technically it's not a brilliant photo. But photographing these Afghani children didn't provide the time to fret about technical details. Just point and shoot.

Technically it’s not a brilliant photo. But photographing these Afghani children didn’t provide the time to fret about technical details. Just point and shoot.

6. Photograph in the Good Light

Early morning and late afternoon light will be far more forgiving to your photos. It’s not that much of an extra commitment to get up an hour earlier and photograph the Taj Mahal at dawn, or head to the village market before the sun starts bleaching all the colors. Photographing in the best light is the oldest piece of advice there is, yet probably the least followed.

Istanbul at dusk.

Istanbul at dusk.

Some Easy Tips for Photographing People While Traveling

7. Utilize Established Relationships

You’re interacting with locals all the time; a guide, the person next to you on the bus, the guesthouse owner, a market trader selling you an apple, someone you ask for directions, a stranger that casts a welcoming smile.

Established interaction presents greater opportunities to ask permission to take a photo (and yes you should be asking permission to take somebody’s photo). Furthermore, the people that say YES will want to look good on your photos (rather than sneer in annoyance). For example, in a busy market of colorful traders, you will have far greater success with people you have bought things from. Being sneaky will piss people off. But it’s not difficult to spend 30cents on some bananas and then ask permission. Create and utilize these relationships and you’ll gain memorable subjects.

A guide's father poses in Pakistan.

A guide’s father poses in Pakistan.

8. Pay to Get Permission for Photos

You don’t always need to ask every time you want to take a photo. There are far easier ways. While it can be begrudging to pay to take photos, a couple of dollars is small change when you’ve got a $1000 camera. And it can make all the difference. Visit the village chief and make a small offering. Use a local guide to translate and charm your subjects. Pay a local to ensure you’re in the front row for a traditional ceremony. The small payment also provides peace of mind and allows you to really explore with the camera. For example, see Andrea’s two examples from an animal market in Kashgar, China.



9. Give Your Camera to the Locals

Outside Europeans, North Americans, and snap crazy Chinese and Japanese posing with two fingers in the peace sign, the camera remains a novelty item. Most people in the world will never own one. Give a camera to a local and a delighted new photographer will keep pressing the shutter. They’ll encourage other locals to get into the shot. It’s no longer an outsider taking photos. It’s an insider getting whole communities to pose for photos. Help this budding photographer by subtly moving their hands to enhance composition. See the following two photos taken by a Tanzanian child.



10. Use a Polaroid Printer

The problem with the relationship between travel photographer and subject, is that the subject rarely gets to see the end result. This makes the subject is naturally timid. For a little over $40 you can pick up a Polaroid printer that plugs directly into any camera. Primarily, doing a quick little print is a way of saying thank you; having a portrait hanging on the wall is a luxury in many countries.

But the Polaroid also benefits you as a photographer. Hang around long enough and more people will want to have portraits hanging on the wall. And it’s much easier to be artistic with photos when the subject is virtually begging to have their photo taken. The following examples are of Islamic women in Iran and Pakistan. Photographing women in Islamic countries is virtually impossible, yet these women spent two hours preparing for Frank’s camera.