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7 Simple Tips to Improve Your Travel Photography

What is Travel Photography?

7 tips to improve your travel photography take travel photos like this colorful hot air balloon at sunrise over Florence's skyline

Whether you’re using your phone or the latest and greatest professional-grade photography gear, travel photography is for everyone. But what exactly is travel photography? The most literal take is: any photo you take while traveling. This can be anything from a day trip near your home or months traversing the globe.

The exciting thing about travel photography is the variety. It includes landscape photography, architectural photography, portraiture, street, food …. the possibilities are almost endless. Many photographers – whether professionals or enthusiastic hobbyists – will discover a preferred niche. But regardless of where your preferences lie, these tips will help you improve your travel photography no matter the subject or location.

Why These 7 Travel Photography Tips?

Some of these tips may surprise you a bit. Many people think photography is about the latest gadget or photography hack. There are many fun photography tools and fascinating hacks, too. Choosing to start with an effective mindset and solid understanding of essentials creates a solid foundation of skills to build upon. In the long run, this will save time, money, and frustration.

These photography tips apply no matter what equipment you’re using or where you’re going. They’re also useful no matter what style of travel photography you’ll be shooting. If you’re already well versed on a topic, click a topic to skip ahead.

Learn Photography Fundamentals

learning to improve your travel photography means capturing challenging images like this one at dusk of starlings over the colosseum in Rome, Italy
Tricky conditions meant I needed to know my gear & my technique well, since a program setting would not have reliably captured this shot.

With cameras able to do much of the heavy lifting for us nowadays, it’s tempting to leave it at that. From various phone camera apps to hyper-specific program dials on “real” cameras, you can often set it and forget it. For many people capturing their travels, this works out well enough.

But in order to confidently and successfully bring your vision and what the camera captures together, you’ll need to learn the fundamentals of photography. Primarily this means learning how an image is made and how to control it. It will also make photography more enjoyable – you won’t be stressing because you can’t figure out what to do and the light is fading or the moment is quickly passing.

One of the most fundamental aspects of photography to understand is the exposure triangle. If you learn nothing else, learn this and the 3 elements it’s composed of. The exposure triangle is comprised of ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed.

Once you learn these concepts, you can approach nearly any scene and know what you need to adjust in order to correctly expose the image in the way best suited to the scene.

Don’t Spend Too Much Too Soon

One of the most common mistakes amongst new photographers is running out and buying the most expensive equipment they can afford. When a new lens, body, or gadget comes out so does their credit card. This is commonly referred to G.A.S. – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. The name is funny but often the consequences are less so.

What often happens is that new photographers soon discover they aren’t using all that expensive camera gear very much, that they don’t actually have the tools they need, or they’ve become overwhelmed. Sticking to the basics, renting or borrowing different pieces of photography equipment, and self-imposing a waiting period for purchases will help prevent G.A.S.

No amount of expensive gear will make up for lack of photography knowledge. It may buy some time, but eventually the proverbial piper must be paid. Additionally, unless you’re loaded, that money can be spent instead on travel, hiring knowledgeable guides, or taking courses to further improve your photography skills.

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Practice Composition

You may have heard of the rule of thirds in photography. This is a good starting place: once you learn to “see” with the rule of thirds in mind, shift to include the Golden Ratio. It is a bit more nuanced, used in many types of visual art like painting, film, and drawing. This is my preferred composition guide and is usually instinctive by now.

example of golden ratio and rule of thirds compositional guidelines

The 3 images on the left show variations on composition lines using the Golden Ratio. On the far right is the traditional Rule of Thirds method.

The rule of thirds breaks up the image by drawing 3 horizontal and 3 vertical lines. This divides the image into 9 equal parts, creating balance and interest in the image. With both Rule of Thirds and Golden Ratio, I utilize them as a guideline rather than a strict rule. There are appropriate times to “break” the rule, which can also be effective.

Practice using this in your photography before and during travel. In the examples below you can see how using this method draws attention to the intended subject and creates pleasant visual tension. Over time, you will learn to “see” through the viewfinder and automatically compose your photos with this in mind.

It is worth investing in at least one or two books about artistic composition. Of course there are YouTube videos and websites, but I am admittedly old school. The foundations of artistic composition lend well to the slower method of book study versus digital.

Research Your Destination

While this has nothing to directly with photography skills on the surface, it’s an important step for travel photography planning. Don’t rely on Instagram or TikTok for travel planning in general. Too often a traveler discovers a location is inaccessible to the public, closed during certain times, or worse – doesn’t actually exist the way its been represented.

krka national park waterfalls in croatia

If you saw this photo of Krka Falls in Croatia, you might think you could swim there. Photos and videos of swimmers in the falls are still shared, but swimming has not been permitted since 2021.

If you have a specific attraction in mind, dig in a bit before you even leave on your trip. If you’re summering in Croatia, you might want to look up the reality of something like Plitvice Lakes during the summer season. In addition to making sure you can achieve the picture you have in mind, you can also find unique ways to capture a popular scene. Remember, if it’s all over social media you will definitely not be the only person there.

Some questions to ask:

  • Is the view accessible publicly, during the time I’m going, within my physical abilities?
  • Are there alternate viewpoints, allowing me to capture a famous scene in a new or unique way?
  • What will it look like when I go? Is the sun at a special angle during a certain time of year, when are the flowers in bloom, does the waterfall dry up? Will there be crowds?
  • How long will it take to get there? Do I need a guide, special equipment, or a permit?

One of my favorite tools for planning travel photography is good old satellite or street view of Google maps. It’s amazing how much of the world is covered by street view, allowing you to spot possible barriers or access issues in advance.

Less is More

This applies in terms of gear AND the photograph. This is why destination research is important. It will help you determine what gear you MUST have. Do you need a tripod? Is it even allowed (many tourist sites do not allow tripods or monopods) – and how does that change what you may need? If you’re going to be photographing interior spaces, you probably don’t need an ultra long zoom lens. Rather, a wide angle or moderate zoom will be ideal.

Not only does carrying too much gear get exhausting, it can increase the risk of losing something or attracting unwanted attention. Taking just the essential travel photography accessories in your camera bag allows you to focus on the photography, not worrying about drawing attention or getting exhausted from carrying too much stuff.

When approaching composition in travel photography (actually, photography in general), try to exclude any unnecessary elements. An image is a communication. Look at this! If there are unnecessary or distracting elements in the composition, you won’t communicate as effectively.

Slow down – rather than try to take a million photos of every single things, take some time to observe. Don’t feel obligated to recreate what others have photographed. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it won’t do much to improve your travel photography.

Do What Others Won’t

Major disclaimer – absolutely under no circumstances should you trespass, harass, or put yourself in a dangerous situation for “the shot”. Don’t climb over barriers, go off trail, or ignore signs of danger. It’s not worth it. Sadly, every year people die or are seriously injured trying to take a photo. It can also lead to damaging the area and ultimately to closure if enough people do it. You may also end up with fines or even detained by local authorities.

In saying “do what others won’t”, I mean things like getting up at 3AM to reach a location, waiting patiently for light to change, revisiting a location, or trying new techniques to grow your photography skills. It’s rare that the stars align for the perfect shot. Sometimes the weather isn’t cooperating or an unexpected event throws a wrench in your travel photography plans.

I revisited this location numerous times to capture various skies and lighting situations.

Be flexible, be prepared. And be patient. Slowing down your travels will allow you to revisit locations and scenes at different times or under different conditions. Keeping the mentality of quality over quantity will go a long way towards improving your travel photography.

Think Like a Storyteller

As mentioned previously, a photo is a form of communication. Particularly in travel photography, thinking like a storyteller has several benefits. Perhaps you’re not sure what story you want to tell. Here are some ways you could utilize thinking like a storyteller to improve your travel photography.

learn to travel independently with confidence; friends and lovers watch a dramatic sunset over Rome, Italy from Janiculum Hill

A personal favorite of mine: three couples, three stories, one dramatic sky in Rome, Italy. Definitely a picture worth 1,000 words in my humble (and biased) book!

A word on photographing strangers: remember that you are a guest and the people there are exactly that – people. They are not props or tools for you to use in your travel photography. Find out what the local cultural/social attitudes are about street photography. Avoid photographing children, people in sensitive or emotional states, in private moments, or if they are actively avoiding being photographed. Generally public events or gatherings create a general understanding that those present (especially performers) will be photographed. If you want to take someone’s portrait, take time to engage genuinely. And if they say no, respect that without pressuring them or (the worst) ignoring them.

  • Culture: If you want to share the culture of a place, capture images of local people, architecture, food, history that are specific to that place.
  • Sense of Place: This can apply to a natural landscape or populated area. You’ll capture a mix of landscape, details, broader street scenes.
  • Event: If you’ve arrived to photography a specific event, capture as much around it as possible. Individual participants in a festival, behind-the-scenes, spectators reacting, and floats, displays or fireworks
  • Documentary: Are you trying to share a particular side of a place? Whether a social issue, trend, or your own story & experience.

Taking the approach of a storyteller will elevate your travel photography. There’s nothing wrong with snapshots of famous places or monuments. Take the classic shot but explore further before putting your camera away. Some of my best photos were taken when taking a deeper look at a place – a less popular hiking area, getting away from the most famous sights of a city.

A great way to practice storytelling in your travel photography is to do it at home. Pick a neighborhood, a theme, or an event. For example, a Christmas market would provide lots opportunities to capture details (food, crafts, decorations). people (keep the above in mind at home too!), and the setting (using a wider angle lens).

Improve Your Travel Photography

You may have noticed a bit of a theme by now: patience, practice, and building a solid foundation using the essentials of photography. The beauty of travel photography is in the unpredictable nature of it. It can also be what resonates with you – more landscape, or architecture, or street style photography. Practice these tips as often as possible to improve your travel photography skills and develop your own style.

Drop a comment below with any questions or requests for upcoming travel photography posts!

4 Comments

  1. Terri

    Ella your tips are so helpful. Sometimes we need to be reminded to revisit a place at different times of day instead of shooting 10 photos of an image at one time. Less is more. I loved your examples.

    • Ella

      Aww, thank you so much! I love seeing how a place changes in different lighting conditions. Oddly sometimes sunrise/sunset isn’t the best, especially depending on time of year. Thanks for reading!

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