5 Ways to Improve Your Travel Photos

By Nomadic Matt | Published September 2nd, 2008

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 – don’t let yourself become that dreaded relative.  

The flip-flops you bought at the Chiang Mai night market will eventually break, the T-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 principals of good travel photography remain the same.

Use the following 5 tips for taking photographs, and you will have travel images you are 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 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., 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, too: In large urban settings, there is 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 photographs 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 are 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, 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: 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.

Get CloseGet Close

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.

Images with the foreground in or out of focus tell a different storyImages 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 what it is capable of 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 5 tips before looking through the viewfinder, and you will 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.

comments 16 Comments

Great photo tips Steve. I especially like what you write about forgetting about Photoshop and editing when taking photos.

Matt, thanks for a great guest blogger.

And Steve, great tips. A friend of a friend has a fly-fishing blog site with some additional photo tips (there is a Part I and Part II). This guy’s blog pictures are generally beautiful.

http://troutunderground.com/2008/03/12/the-five-zen-photography-tips-you-might-not-have-heard-before/

My only tip would be to recommend the free PhotoFiltre software, available online. Great for cropping, re-sizing, adjusting color, contrast, etc.

Matt – what are YOUR tips: your pictures are fantastic.

Stevo

Erica: Thanks!

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

Ant

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.

Great post – I’ve been working to include more photos on foxnomad. I’m not as comfortable taking pictures with the standard digital, but never bring my Nikon N70 anywhere.

I do agree though that you can get some great pictures by playing with the settings and course…but planning and actually taking more pictures!

NomadicMatt

I’m glad everyone liked it. There will be more stuff on taking pictures coming down the pipeline!

Taking pictures is one of the most fun traveling activities, and I’m always looking to improve my skills. These tips are great, Steve!

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!

mvc

thanks for the tips..

He’s already on our google reader and love seeing his pictures.

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.

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).

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!

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!

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.

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