13 Tips for Better Travel Photography – This week, I’m setting out for the South Pacific on a trip of a lifetime and even though it will be a vacation as opposed to a more adventure and photography-based trip, I’ve really tried to prepare myself the best I can to come home with some unreal shots. It got me thinking about what important lessons I’ve also learned through the years of essentially trial-and-error travel photography.
1. Do Your Research, Scout, & Have a Strategy
In my opinion, the number one step towards better travel photography is to do some research and planning to come up with some sort of strategy. Most amazing travel photos that you see don’t usually happen by accident – there’s at least some planning that goes into each one. Usually I’ll start out perusing images online of the places I’m going and see what potential shots have already been done in the area and what subjects I might want to shoot. This won’t help me get original content, but it’s inspirational and at least gives me ideas. (Plus, I’m not going to visit a place and not take that iconic shot!) I’ll then dive deeper and research those specific intriguing locations more in depth before I bring Google Earth in to get a general idea of the area as well as use PhotoPills or the Photographers Ephermeris to plan sunrise/sunset times and directions. Once I’m finally on the ground somewhere, I’ll try and scout (i.e. walk/drive around) during the mid-day light for locations I might want to go back to during the golden hours since good light is the main ingredient for great photography. All of this at least gives me a general strategy of what I’m getting into so I’m not scrambling at the last minute or disappointed that missed something after I get home.
2. Be Skeptical of the Local’s Advice
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of advice to talk to locals to get location ideas – I totally disagree with that and think that unless you are speaking with a local photographer, a local’s advice should be taken with a grain of salt because most won’t have knowledge of the art of photography. For instance:
- I’ve been sent to locations that are “the best for sunset” only to get there and find out it was a bland location that you can technically watch the sun in the act of setting. Seeing the sun set doesn’t necessarily make a good image.
- I’ve trekked to “beautiful waterfalls” only to find a trickle of a stream dribbling down a rock face.
- I had a tuk-tuk leave me behind when I didn’t return immediately after the exact sunset time because my driver assumed I had found another ride when I was actually still shooting the good post-sunset light.
- And I’ve been sent to vantage points and overlooks were in fact beautiful views, but were obstructed in someway that hindered any perspective to create a good image.
I’m not saying “don’t listen to the locals at all,” but make sure to combine their advice with some of your own research or you could be left very disappointed, feeling like you wasted a golden hour shoot on a time-constrained trip.
3. Slow Down & Be Patient
I am very guilty of trying to pack way too much into a trip and then move way too fast once I’m on the ground. Not only was it not relaxing in the least bit, but it was a hindrance for better travel photography. I learned to try to now spend multiple days in awesome places and to even keep those plans relatively flexible so I can spend more or less time depending on what I find. I had originally planned to spend two to three days in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but once I got there, I realized there was no chance I could see and shoot everything I wanted in that time frame. I ended up spending a full week exploring the temples and that still wasn’t enough…
I also now try to make sure I arrive at my planned locations fairly early to scout it out a bit and then once I think I found my shot, I just chill, usually with a cold beer or a flask of Bourbon. I then just wait for the shot… Good photography takes time.
4. Don’t Get Lazy
I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate getting out of bed in the morning, but the problem is that as far as I’m aware, the sun only rises in the morning, which can provide the best light of the day. When traveling, and even when I’m on “vacation,” I try to continuously remind myself that I might never get back to that place and I need to make the most of it while I’m there. Plus, if I’m traveling right, I can usually nap later.
5. Make Photography a Priority
Snapshots may help capture your trip, but they rarely make great travel photography images. Make sure you specifically plan photography time into your travels and commit to that, even if that means breaking off on your own from others in your group. When I first traveled with a group of friends, that was a hard mindset to get into and I found myself at more happy hours than golden hours. Nowadays, I almost prefer breaking off for a bit. “See ya at the pool later…”
6. Go With the Flow
Conditions can be unpredictable, the weather might suck, trails could be closed, tour operators can be bad… you can never plan for everything. Be open and take it easy. I got stranded in Ha Tien, Vietnam for a night and it turned into a highlight of my trip, but then when I finally got to my destination of Phu Quoc the next day, it turned into the lowlight of my trip. Looking back, as pissed as I was at the time, getting stranded was a good thing.
7. Travel Light, but Travel Right
Traveling light isn’t crucial to better travel photography, but it definitely can help. It’s very easy to get carried away when packing your photography gear – You’re excited and inspired so you want to pack everything with the intention of using it all. Back in 2013, I dragged multiple camera bodies and lenses to Southeast Asia, in addition to a GoPro Hero 2 and pretty much every accessory for the GoPro that I had at my disposal… I barely touched any of it. There’s always a difficult balance between making sure you have all the gear you need, but that you’re not carrying additional gear for no reason.
These days I’m guilty of still traveling pretty heavily, but I now also have a use for everything I bring. Generally, the non-negotiable items for me to pack are a camera body, two lenses, tons of memory cards, and a lightweight tripod all in a slingpack.
8. Always Have Your Camera
“The best camera is the one you have with you.” As much planning as you do, there’s always a luck element that comes into play for travel photography and since you never know what may present itself, make sure you’re ready to capture it.
9. Learn Your Gear In-And-Out
With that gear that you will be lugging around, make sure you know how to use it thoroughly. You don’t want to have to learn how to operate something while on the road and even worse, miss out on a great image because you were fumbling around or used the wrong settings. Do your homework at home.
10. Go With Clean Gear, Especially a Clean Sensor
I have come home from some trips with so many dust spots on my images from a dirty sensor that I’ve probably doubled or even tripled my editing time removing those blemishes. And I wish that was an exaggeration. Before departing on a big trip do what you can to make sure your gear and camera, including the sensor, are clean. If that means paying a shop to clean it for you, in my mind it’s money very well spent.
11. Back Up Images As You Go
Make sure you’re backing up your images during your trip when you have some spare time. See my process for backing up on the road – It just goes a long way for my piece-of-mind.
12. Get High
When possible, usually in the large cities, I will specifically book a high-rise hotel to try and get a high vantage point and shoot some cityscapes. A rooftop pool and/or bar will usually seal that deal.
13. Put the Camera Down
Not every single moment needs to be captured and you don’t want to return from a trip with thousands of images only to realize you didn’t actually experience the place. Make sure to put the camera down and soak it in. For me, my general rule of thumb has become shoot sunrise or sunset, but lounge poolside with cocktails during the mid-day light.
I’m not sure how ground-breaking any of that might be to you, but I hope my lessons learned gave you some tips for better travel photography!