Four Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos

By Nomadic Matt | Published February 15th, 2011

This is a guest post by Bethany Salvon.

Everyone wants to take good travel photos but most people are frustrated when what they see doesn’t translate accurately onto film or pixels. Taking good photos takes time and practice. However, there are some quick tips that can be used to make your photos better right away. It doesn’t matter if you’re taking photos with your phone, a point and shoot or an expensive SLR, some basic photo tips are universal and will help create engaging images that you’ll love.

Composition

Sometimes the only difference between a mediocre photo or a great photo is composition. Luckily, this is a very easy issue to fix. Most people take a photo and they put the subject dead center. What you want to do is draw the viewer’s eye into the photo and create an image that is compelling to look at. To do this, try using the rule of thirds.
 

Strawberries at a Paris Market. Example of a boring, centered composition.


Same subject with the Rule of Thirds applied.
                           
Putting it into Practice: Take a blank sheet of paper and draw two lines down and two lines across. What you end up with is 3 columns vertically and 3 columns horizontally. The points where those lines cross are ideal places to put your subject. The next time you are looking through your viewfinder take a few seconds to remember the rule of thirds and adjust the subject appropriately. You will end up with a more visually engaging photo. The more you use this tip, the easier it will become.

Turn Around/Side Step The Obvious

What could be worse than a million photos of the same place, all carbon copies of one another? We’ve all seen the scenic overview sign – the one that says “Stop here and take the same photo as everyone else!” Or perhaps you’ve visited a “Must See” city landmark. In both instances there are usually hoards of tourist snapping photos of the same thing. By shifting your focus to the surroundings and away from everyone else, you’ll can pick up the less obvious but equally as beautiful things to photograph.


Across the street from the Moulin Rouge, Paris in HDR. After taking a picture of the Moulin Rouge, I turned around and saw hoards of tourists and the amazing light streaming through the dark clouds. It’s much more interesting than the straight shot of the Moulin Rouge and this photo never would have existed if I hadn’t turned around. 
 
Putting it into Practice: By all means, stop at the scenic overview. But step away from where everyone else is. Better yet – turn around. Find a different way to look at the famous scene. Sometimes the opposite of what you should be looking at is where you will find the real gem. Whenever I am at a popular spot I always go out of my way to walk to a different, overlooked area and I take most of my photos there. What will happen is that you will get an awesome, unique photo and you may discover an even better viewpoint than the one that was created for the masses.

Shoot in Black & White


Terminal Love – Street photos, Paris. The light in the Paris metro isn’t very inspiring. The colors in this photo are cluttering it up and the lady and the blue signs are also distracting.
 
Sometimes shooting in color can be overwhelming – a lot of times there are so many colors and patterns that you lose sight of what you really are trying to convey. Switching to black and white can make the photo pop because the eye has less to look at and can focus on a specific element in a photo. Shooting in black in white is by far the easiest and most immediate way to change the look of your photos.
 

Compare this to the above color photo. The lack of color draws your eye directly to the couple. Everyone seems distracted and worn out. The black and white also accentuates the desolate anonymity of a subway station giving the photo more impact.
 
Putting it into Practice: Switch your camera setting to Black & White. Spend a day shooting your travel photos this way and you’ll be amazed at how different your images will look. This tip also works well when you have a variety of lighting sources affecting one image (fluorescent, tungsten, etc). If you aren’t familiar with changing your white balance you could end up with a muddy looking photo – shooting in black & white will make that a non-issue. This is especially good when you have a grey, overcast day. Instead of wishing for more contrast and brilliant hues, switch to black and white and watch the magic happen.

Use your heart

Your camera has the power to show the living, breathing soul of your travel adventure. To really take unexpected photos start looking with your heart and then the eyes will follow. Photography is truly the only medium that can stop a moment, freeze it and allow people to relive it. Why not let that little point and shoot you keep in your pocket or the too heavy SLR you leave in your hotel room start doing its real job?
 

Boys on a Train – Sorrento, Italy. The boy’s sad expressions and overworked hands makes this is one of my favorites from Italy.

Putting it into Practice: It sounds a little abstract – shooting with your heart – huh? Well really it’s pretty easy. The key is to shoot ALL the time. A great way to get over that hurdle is to pretend you’ve been given a crazy opportunity with a huge travel magazine (think Budget Travel or National Geographic). Of course, there will be a lot of bad shots and that is OK. What you’re aiming for here is finding your voice through the camera. Just keep on shooting and over time you’ll find an underlying theme. Most people simply don’t shoot enough to discover their hidden photographic voice. The key is not to over-think it. Just shoot it. The rest will happen naturally.
 
These will tips help take better photographs on your next journey whether it’s to an exotic land or just your own backyard. The key is to think about your photographs. Spend a few moments setting up your shot and thinking differently. But no matter what you do, practice makes perfect and simply taking lots of photos will help improve your photography. The more you shoot, the better you will get and the more you’ll discover your skills.
 
Bethany Salvon is a professional photographer and travel junkie. She can be found at her travel site BeersandBeans.com, and her wedding photography site, Nariko’s Nest.

comments 37 Comments

Those are indeed great tips to turn mediocre images into better ones.
One of the best things I’ve learned is to look before you shoot. Lots of people walk around with their camera glued to their face, shooting everything that moves.
When you arrive at an interesting place, take some time to look around and absorb the invironment. Look at the light and the different angles and think about what could make a view even better. Then shoot.
Unless you see a three headed dog running by, take that camera and shoot as fast as you can!

White and black, as for me, is rarely good for the modern photos. It’s My opinion. It’s good for some emotions in modern photography -negative emotions like extreem depression etc.

I tryed to look at the same object from different points of view, but the photos… did not satisfy me. Maybe, we have not change only physical point of view but that in the head too… :0)

These are great advices that like Nicolas said, that can turn crappy pictures into great ones but important from my point of view is what camera you have .. :) and more important how to use it properly.

Thanks for commenting! It’s definitely important to know how to use your camera but having an expensive camera is not very important. In fact, you can make some pretty awesome photos with really old school cameras or even a pinhole camera. If you’ve got a camera of any kind the best thing is just to use it. :)

I also wrote something similar a while ago.

I think it’s important to step out of your comfort zone. Everybody can take a great picture of the Eiffel Tower, but sometimes you have to explore a little bit. The best pictures are often in the least expected places!

That’s a great tip! Stepping outside your comfort zone can result in some pretty awesome images.

I really appreciated the examples provided! So often “how-to” articles on photography don’t provide examples to illustrate the point, which I personally think defeats much of the purpose.

Seeing the difference in the subway photo (color to bw) was particularly helpful; I rarely use black and white, but there are some situations where a photo really does look better w/ it!

Hi Christy, I’m glad the before and after photos helped you. :)

Awesome photos – the Moulin Rouge one is pretty badass. Thanks for the tips Beers & Beans.

Glad you like the photo and the tips. Thanks for the fantastic compliment!

Simple, practical advice with great examples. Thanks for sharing this valuable information.

Thanks Sue – I’m glad it helped you. :)

I love black and white photos! They always have a certain quality that coloured photos can never compare to!

NomadicMatt

I haven’t figured out how to get black and white on my new camera (Maybe I should read the manual?) but once I do, I’m going to snap away. I too love black and white.

While I’m not sure what type of camera you have, I strongly suggest to shoot in .raw and edit them to B&W afterwards, adding a little bit of contrast here and there. That usually does the trick for great B&W shots.

I agree. It is better to convert pictures to B/W in post processing. In such case you can compare which version is better – color one or B/W.

NomadicMatt

I only have a point and click!

I agree! Black and White creates some type of emotional response that everyone can relate to. It strips away all the unnecessary and leaves only what you really need to see.

Alouise

These are some great photos and great tips. My pictures always look like a typical point-and-click- tourist photo. I think my problem is that I need to take a minute or two to think about how I want to set up the picture, instead of blindly snapping away.

NomadicMatt

Exactly! Once i started doing that, my pictures got a lot better!

Really enjoyed the post! Photography is my passion and like you said, you just have to take photos with your heart. Sometimes people make fun that I take the camera with me almost everywhere, even to the bathroom but you cannot improve if you do not shoot all the time.
And the strawberry pic makes me jump out and get some in the closest shop right now!

We are cut from the same cloth! I take my camera with me everywhere too because you just never know and I have taken a lot of photos in bathrooms – hahaha…

Great tips, I love the comparison between the color and black & white versions of the photo in the subway. You’re right, the black and white highlights different aspects, although I really like the tones of the version in color.
Easier said than done, though, it’s pretty hard to take great travel photos. On the other hand, it’s quite easy to slip into the run-of-the-mill shot. Your pics are outstanding!

Hi Angela, I agree there are tones in the color version that I really like too. Overall though I think the B&W just does a better job of showing the broken relationship in an anonymous metro station. Thanks for commenting, I’m glad you liked the photos.

Hi Brett, Thanks for adding your tips. Hopefully the ones I wrote about in this article will help people create compelling images that they and other people love. I also can’t wait to visit India – I’ve heard it’s fantastic for photographers. I have to disagree w/ you a bit on the HDR though – I think done right, it can be beautiful. Thanks for commenting. :)

A great post by one of our favourite people! The black and white photo completely transformed the scene. Dave (the photographer in our relationship) has been loving HDR lately too. He has been experimenting with it a lot and I love how it turns a photograph into a work of art. It is great to mix up photography and play around with different techniques. Great tips!

Hi Guys! Thanks for your fantastic compliment! I love the HDR too. I know some people don’t like it but it is a really cool way to create a more artistic image – plus it’s really fun. It’s almost as fun as seeing your film after it develops because when you put the images together you’re just not sure what you’ll get!

Great tips! All these things make such a huge difference in your travel photos! I find that slowing down and really think about my photos before I take them helps so much, as well as not to end up with thousands of mediocre travel photos, rather a few great ones!

Another tip I tend to use is to get in close. Sometimes when we travel it is easy to want to capture a whole scene, but sometimes the small details say it all. You can even use the macro setting on a small hand held camera to get in tight :)

That’s a great tip to add Sonya! I always love the details!

Some sound advice for improving travel photography from snaps to good images. Don’t agree with another comment that B&W does not have a a place in modern photography if that is what was meant, and is certainly not restricted to merely showing certain expressions such as depression!

However I must also disagree with the author regarding shooting in B&W, it is much better advice to shoot in colour and then convert to colour, so you don’t need to read that manual Matt!

There will be a much greater tonal range if shot in colour and then converted and also it is not possible to convert a mono image to a colour one if you so decide you want a vibrant version. ALWAYS shoot in colour mode, then convert a suitable image to B&W in your photo editor, trust me it makes much better sense!

Hi Iain, Thanks for commenting. Normally I would agree with you and tell you that shooting in color and switching to B&W is best but this post is for people looking for tips to help them take better photos. I’ve taught many people this way and honestly it is best for people to learn & study light in Black & White. It takes away the clutter in the photograph and lets them concentrate on composition and lighting.

It’s also really exciting for people who feel frustrated with their color results. I’ve seen faces light up when someone takes a photo in black and white and can’t believe they took the photo. They start to see things differently. They can use that excitement & knowledge when they switch back to color later on. It really makes a huge difference for people learning the ins & outs of photography.

Thanks for the tips, these are great! I only recently started actually “thinking” about the photos I take and the difference it has made is huge.

NomadicMatt

Once I started actually thinking about what I want to photograph, I too got a lot better.

Bethany,

The rule of thirds tip was utter brilliance. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know where to position yourself when taking photographs, this will be a great strategy that I will be able to employ the next time. Same for daring to take a less obvious picture like the one across from the Moulin Rouge. I guess the lesson is it’s not exactly brain surgery to get a great pic from landmarks like the MR.

A photograph is made all the more special when it simply reflects people living their everyday lives. Oftentimes, that’s when the most defining moments in time are captured. I love b & w pics too…funny, growing up, that was all we had and irony of ironies, it made no great impression upon me. Now that there are a few decades between now and then, I have a new-found respect for its stark simplicity.

Hi Renee,

I’m so glad it helped you. I promise the more you do it, the easier it will become. :)

i’m one of those that gets in close, too – i love seeing the details. great tips – thank you!

The details are always some of my favorites too! Thanks for commenting :)

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