5 Ways to Improve Your Travel Photos

Some of us can remember sitting through travel photo slideshows as kids: carousel after carousel of Uncle Herb’s bad photographs from his Mexico vacation. Don’t turn into Uncle Herb. You’re an avid and knowledgeable traveler, so don’t let yourself become that dreaded relative.

The flip-flops you bought at the Chiang Mai night market will eventually break, the tee shirts you bought in Ibiza will fade, but your digital images and photographs, properly persevered, will stand the test of time. Slide projectors have gone the way of the dodo, but the principles of good travel photography remain the same.

Use the following five tips for taking photographs, and you’ll have travel images you’re proud to show off. And, unlike with Uncle Herb, your friends and relatives won’t cringe when you bring them out.

Five Tips for Improving Your Travel Photos

1. Plan ahead

If you have the luxury of time, try to plan your photographic excursions. The best times to shoot are in the morning and late afternoon. Between 11am and 2pm, the sun is at its zenith and the resulting light is very white. It washes out colors and results in lackluster images.

Early morning and late afternoon light both have a special, warm glow. Work with it. If you have limited time, take a look at a map and try to anticipate which locations will be photographed best at each time of day.

Early morning has another benefit: in large urban settings, there’s usually less haze during the early morning.

If you have a few days, do a little reconnaissance. Take a quick walk around the locations you want to capture. Look at the position of the sun, the shadows, and the layout of surrounding buildings. Make notes on your map and plan your return. A little planning will pay photographic dividends.

Plan to take the best photos possible. Don’t say, “I’ll fix it in Photoshop.” Your aim should be to get the best photo possible on the first try. Forget about your computer and photo editing.

2. Go high, go low

Look for an interesting perspective on the scene you’re trying to capture. Try to get above it, or below it. If possible, kneel down and take your photo closer to ground level. Are there stairs nearby, or a second-floor café or balcony? Use them. The majority of photographs are taken from standing height. Boring. There are more ways to see the world than from 5’8″.

3. Get close

That’s right, get as close as you can without putting yourself in danger: whether physical danger or the danger of looking like a deranged tourist. Yes, your dandy digital camera has great zoom capabilities, but nothing beats getting close to your subject. The details and color will be better.

Close up on a dragon sculpture in AsiaA dragon sculpture in Asia

4. Capture faces

No one wants to see photographs featuring the backs of heads. “Get the face” was a rule an old photo editor drilled into me. A face, combined with your location, both tells a story and adds humanity to an image. If shooting in an exotic market, take photos of the merchants, not the backs of other travelers’ heads as they browse.

5. Consider the foreground and background

The way you compose your image says a lot. What’s in the foreground? What’s in the background? Consider using selective focus techniques. Have a subject in the foreground with the background blurred, or the opposite. Both techniques will tell a different story.

Image with the foreground blurry and the background in focusImages with the foreground in or out of focus tell a different story

Many people are uncomfortable taking their camera out of “Auto” mode. Don’t be. Experiment. The great thing about digital cameras is the endless (and free) possibilities they provide. Experiment. Assess. Experiment again. This is best done before you set off on your travels. Knowing your equipment and its capabilities will also improve your travel photos.

Planning ahead is the key. Look at the scene and put some thought into your compositions before snapping away like a rabid shutterbug. Photography isn’t about cameras or expensive gear—it’s a way of seeing the world and relating that vision to others. Consider these five tips before looking through the viewfinder, and you’ll improve your travel photos.

Steve is an avid writer and photographer who spends his time teaching in China and photographing his experiences. You can find his blog and pictures at Asian Ramblings.

  1. Stevo

    Erica: Thanks!

    Wannabe: Thanks for stopping by. I take a look at your friend’s site. I’m always interested in great photos.

  2. Some solid tips there. I was into photography before I left for travelling, but in the last fifteen months I’ve learned more about photography than I ever did from books etc.

    The reason being, there are some amazing photographers travelling around and they simply love talking about it. It’s a great icebreaker, and you’ll learn loads. I really know my camera now, and the better you know your camera, the more creative you can become.

    Another top tip from me, bring your old 128mb cards away with you, even if they only hold half an image these days, they still make great storage devices for all your important documents. And remember, a good workman never blames his tools, no matter what camera you carry, do as Steve says and experiment.

  3. Theresa

    Great guest post, Steve. I suffered the lighting problem yesterday. We were out at some cool places, but God the lighting was awful. So damn intense. I plan to go back during the better hours you mentioned. I’d say that capturing faces is my biggest weakness, but I know it, and I’m working on it, so hopefully I’ll see improvement this trip. Thanks for the tips!

  4. I can definitely second getting close. Too many people photograph from way off! Better to get in as close as possible can capture details that may have never been captured before.

    Really like your idea for getting the face. I’ll have to try that more.

  5. Sean

    I think your advice is good! I feel like a tourist when I take pictures :(

    I have a FujiFilm F480 and I thought it was good with its 8.2MP capability, but after seeing the pictures my friend’s take (with their nicer Sony’s or Canon’s), I feel like I should dump mine for a better one. What cameras do you recommend? One friend has a Canon Digital SLR and it’s AMAZING (and so is his eye for photography).

  6. mina

    Great tips – I wanted to get an SLR for my upcoming around-the-world trip but decided it would be too cumbersome. I settled for a quality point and shoot and I think reading things like this will absolutely help. Thanks!

  7. I know man, what’s up with people and thinking only SLR can do a bang on job?
    It’s not about the camera, it;s about the photographer. You can have the most expensive camera but if you’re terrible at taking photos your pictures would be crappy.
    I only have the simple point and click camera $140 and it works brilliant!
    I take amazing photos (bragging) and people think I have an expensive camera.
    I have my reasons for not having SLR.
    Bulky and screams ‘I’m a tourist, you can rob me’ when I go to uncharted areas.

    • NomadicMatt

      It’s not the camera that takes good photos, but the person who can see the photo. I take great shots with my iphone!

  8. Ha! I really do have an uncle by the name of Uncle Herb. 😉

    Great tips and you made it interesting and technically-friendly. I especially appreciated this part:

    “Photography isn’t about cameras or expensive gear — it’s a way of seeing the world and relating that vision to others.”

    I’ve been watching Peter Lik and got intimidated about my lowly digital camera. Your article brings it back down to Earth.

    ~ Milli

    P.S. Really love that pic of the incense burning in the foreground with the praying buddha blurred in the background. And the contrast between the two foreground/background pix provides a great visual lesson.

Leave a Comment