How to Improve Your Travel Photography (Infographic)

 

 Introduction

Regardless of what kind of camera you use, you can take stunning travel photography to remember your trip and share with your friends. Travel photography has been my favorite hobby since 2007, when I bought my first DSLR (a NikonD40). In the last year, I’ve upgraded my equipment, but some of my favorite shots are still ones from my iPhone. For those who’ve never taken a photography course or feel like they only know how to point-shoot-post, here are tips you can apply immediately without needing to upgrade equipment or learn about camera settings.

I cover composition, perspective, depth, lighting, street photography, and editing. Towards the end, there is an infographic of quick photography edits you can refer to on your travels.

Kylemore Abbey from my Irish Road Trip in May
Kylemore Abbey from my Irish Road Trip in May

Compose Your Shot

A great photo starts with great composition. I think most amateur photographers have a pretty good feel for when a composition works, but may not know why or how to fix composition that’s not working. Before you press the shutter or tap the camera icon, take a moment to set up your shot using these tips:

Know Your Subject

Decide what the subject of your photo is going to be and make sure that is in focus. When your viewer looks at your photo, they should be able to pick out what the subject is right away. If you have a hard time knowing what to make the subject or how to make sure this is simple for your viewer, check out this article from PictureCorrect.com.

In this staircase photo, I put the staircase in the very center and then used lighting in editing to make the staircase pop.

The staircase is the subject of this photo. When I shot it, I lined the stairs up to be in the middle of the photo, and then I used an editing app to apply a a slight vignette to darken the side walls to emphasize the subject.
The staircase is the subject of this photo. When I shot it, I lined the stairs up to be in the middle of the photo, and then I used an editing app to apply a a slight vignette to darken the side walls for emphasis.

In the picture below, the lamb is the subject of the photograph. The way the lamb is looking right at the viewer, with its mother eating and looking away, highlights that this photograph is about the lamb’s experience and not about the sheep as a family.

A baby and mama in Connemara in County Galway
Lunchtime in Connemara

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is the classic tool for photo composition. You picture a number sign or hashtag over your photograph, or more realistically you use the grid on your camera when you compose your shot. You can use the lines in a few different ways, but the two easiest are to line up vertical or horizontal lines in your photographs with the lines of the hash mark or place your subject at the intersections of the hash marks. This creates balanced, dynamic photos.

Here’s an example from my trip to Brazil last year. For this photo, Sugar Loaf is the subject and is located at the intersection of the hash marks.

The top of Sugar Loaf lines up with the right-third line and the top lays right the top-right intersection of the cross-hatch.
The center of Sugar Loaf lines up with the right hatch line and the top of the mountain hits the top-right intersection of the cross-hatch.

 

View of Sugar Loaf and Rio de Janeiro, composed using the Rule of Thirds
View of Sugar Loaf and Rio de Janeiro, composed using the Rule of Thirds

I use a different composition below. In this photo, the cathedral is lined up in the center of the photo, with the vertical lines of the hash mark lined up with the architectural details in the top part of the building and the horizontal lines hitting natural horizontal architectural details.

The vertical lines of the hash mark line up with the edges of the middle architectural details of the cathedral.
The vertical lines of the hash mark line up with the edges of the middle architectural details of the cathedral and the horizontals line up with horizontal architectural details.

 

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, composed using the Rule of Thirds
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, composed using the Rule of Thirds

For more information on how to use the Rule of Thirds (and when to break it), check out Cambridge in Colour.

Scale

Photographs are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space. This can make the size of stand-alone objects hard to decifer. Photographers will use a common-sized person or object to give your brain a way to quickly calculate the size of the environment around it. (For example, in the Sugar Loaf shot, you can figure out the relative grandness of Sugar Loaf because your brain instinctually knows the height of the buildings on its slopes). This can be done artificially by putting models or yourself in the shot, or it can be done using people or objects already there.

For this shot of Connemara in Ireland, the car helps you understand how big the hills are and how wide the fields are:

The size of the car lets your brain determine the vastness of the fields and hills. Taken on my road trip through western Ireland in May (Nikon D810)
The size of the car lets your brain determine the vastness of the fields and hills. Taken on my road trip through western Ireland in May

I used scale differently in this photo of an English train station. Here, the size of the man helps you understand how far away the train is. It also ties the elements together into a story of a mysterious stranger waiting for a train on a foggy, dark night.

Creating scale: since you naturally know the size of the man in the distance, your brain can determine how far away and how large the train must be.
Creating scale: since you naturally know the size of the man in the distance, your brain can determine how far away the train. Without him, the scene would flatten out and the train would appear much closer.

For more ideas on how to create size and scale in a photo, check out this article by iPhone Photography School.

Look for a New Take

When you travel, you can easily get in a rut of having photos that look exactly like everyone else’s. This is especially true from photography taken while on group tours or at famous attractions with strong image brands. To break out of the rut, try these three techniques.

Turn Around

This is true most of the time, but it’s especially true when you’re on a guided tour: we tend to photograph what’s in front of us. We rarely take in a 360 degree view of our surroundings before deciding what to capture. However, some of the easiest ways to find a unique point of view is simply to turn around.

I’ve written before about my time at Stonehenge, and how taking a pic there was one of the photography highlights of my life thus far. But look at this awesome shot I got when I turned around:

Stonehenge Sheep - found simply by turning around while visiting Stonehenge
Stonehenge Sheep – found simply by turning around while visiting Stonehenge

Had I not taken a second to see if I could get something slightly different from the other 800K visitors Stonehenge gets every year, I would have missed this humorous view.

Another good example is this picture of Nissi beach. I would guess most beach pics I’ve taken are from me standing on the beach. For this one, why it works and stands out from my other beach photography is because I took my iPhone out into the water and snapped the beach from the vantage point of a swimmer:

Nissi Beach
Nissi Beach

Change Your Perspective

Let me know if this sounds familiar: you’re walking down a street, you see something you want to photograph, you decide on your composition, you configure your settings (depending on camera), and you take the picture. I do this all the time. What I forget to do sometimes, though, is see if the place that I’m standing is the actual best place to photograph from.

Changing perspective is about movement. You look around the environment, you study your subject, and you try out different perspectives by going high and getting above your subject or getting low so you’re below or even with your subject. Even if you are standing, you move your camera up or down to get something you can’t see at eye-level.

Take this picture of a small church in Cyprus:

A small church in Nicosia
A small church in Nicosia

While the eye level shot shows how cute and quaint the small church is, the shot of its minaret taken from below shows off a different side. The shot above is basically a duplicate of the one in the Nicosia brochure. So even thought it’s my own, and I think it’s well done, it’s not exactly unique. However, the shot of just the minaret is not one I saw in any guidebook or postcard rack.

 

A minaret of a church-turned-mosque-turned church again in Cyprus
A minaret of a church-turned-mosque-turned church again in Nicosia

In travel photography, changing perspective can be especially helpful. A lot of times beautiful buildings are difficult to photograph from eye level because they are either too large to capture in the frame with the space available to you to move around in, or their real beauty is easier to capture from higher up. When I get to a new place, I always look for ways to get up high and photograph shooting down to get my favorite places.

This church is difficult to get at the street level. The side with the bell tower is blocked by a parking lot, and the other side has some unsightly construction. But from a tower, I can get the full church, bell tower and all:

Trypiotis Church
Trypiotis Church

There are many ways to change your perspective in your photography. Here are some more ideas if you’re interested in exploring further.

Textures

Travel photography is about conveying the experience of being somewhere that the viewer may not have been. When you’re in an environment, you’re taking it in with all your senses. With photography, you can capture the look, smell, taste, and sounds of a place through choosing subjects that are commonly found in street art: people, crowds, food and food vendors, architecture, and street scenes. But how do you capture what a place feels like when you touch it? You capture textures.

Here, the ridges in the pottery and the edges of the shattered pieces convey texture to the viewer. You know eactly how it would feel to hold it, without having to touch it yourself:

On a trip to Italy, one of the members of our tour is a working archaeologist in real life. He found these two twelfth century shards of pottery and fit them back together. The viewer can imagine its them holding the pottery and even what it would feel like in their hands.
On a trip to Italy, one of the members of our tour is a working archaeologist in real life. He found these two twelfth century shards of pottery and fit them back together. The viewer can imagine its them holding the pottery and even what it would feel like in their hands.

Texture photos can also add details of an experience when part of a photo essay or collage. The photo of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral above is a good one on its own, but if you pair it with this detail of the doors, the viewer understand even more about how it would feel to see the cathedral in person, walk up, and step inside. The viewer knows what it would feel like to run their finger along the carved wood or to pick up the heavy door handle, just by looking at the photograph.

The doors of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The doors of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Ron Bigelow covers rules and techniques of texture photography here.

Create Depth 

I’m not referring to depth of field, rather the general idea that the viewer will experience your two-dimensional photo as a three-dimensional place. There are many ways to create depth in a photograph, but these three are great because they have a huge payoff when done well.

Leading Lines

Leading lines guide your viewer’s eye through the photograph, so they experience your image as a space to explore and not a flat surface. They can add emphasis to your subject by indicating to your viewer what you believe is important in the photograph, almost like a big sign that says “look here!” In this museum shot, the leading lines of the pavement and the parallel rows of trees show off the museum. They emphasize how powerful the architecture of the building is and how magnificent it is standing alone surrounded by nature.

Using leading lines to emphasize the power of the subject building. Here is the National History Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria
Using leading lines to emphasize the power of the subject building. Here is the National History Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria

Leading lines don’t always point to a subject. Sometimes they guide a viewer’s eye through a photo, and their destination isn’t as important as the journey. Here, the three tables are lined up and act as a long line from the front of the room to the back. The viewer goes from the front table, through the room to the back table, and up to the hanging portrait. The subject is actually the front table, which is in focus. After the viewer sees the table and takes it in, it then acts as a starting point for them to experience the room.

A cafe in the Belediye Pazari
A café in the Belediye Pazari in North Nicosia

EnlightApp has more on leading lines and how to create them.

Layers

A photograph has a foreground, a middle ground, and a background. Layering is when you compose your shot so there is something interesting to look at in each of these places. You can add many layers to a photograph, and each one should offer some interesting while also pushing your viewer’s eye onto the next one.

The photograph of the Oracle at Delphi uses seven layers to convey the depth of the scene:

  1. The foreground has bricks from a crumbling wall and the sidewalk next to the temple.
  2. The middle ground has the main subject of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi
  3. The background has layers of trees, the mountain, the valley below, the tops of the far off mountain, and the clouds
This photograph of the Oracle at Delphi has eight layers
This photograph of the Oracle at Delphi has eight layers

In a layered photo, the main subject can be located in any of the three areas of the photograph. In the picture above, the subject is the temple in the middle ground. But in the photo below, the subject is the castle in the background. There are five layers. The fence, pathway, and lawn create depth so your eye travels across each. The viewer feels the pull of the castle and how far away it is. Behind the castle, the clouds peek out from the roof.

Using the spikes of the fence in the foreground to create layers at Windsor Castle
Using the spikes of the fence in the foreground to create layers at Windsor Castle

If you’re looking for information on how to add layers to a photograph, check out this guide how to use layers and here’s one that’s specific to street photography.

Natural Frames

Natural frames add depth by giving interesting detail to your foreground (or sometimes middle ground) while adding emphasis to your subject. A natural frame can be made of any object that wraps fully or partly around your subject in the shot.

In this shot of street art in Athens, I chose to keep the fence links in the shot instead of zooming in past them. They frame the main piece of graffiti that I wanted to highlight, and the added depth helps tell the story of how down the artist had to get to be able to paint there.

The fence links in the foreground frame the street art in the background.
The fence links in the foreground frame the street art in the background.

In the photo above, the fence is almost abstract because it is so out of focus. The natural frame can be abstract or it can be a concrete object in the composition. Here, a curved tree stands in the middle ground, angled so that it frames the golden Orthodox icon hanging on the door. Cyprus is a country with beautiful doors, but this photograph stands out because the tree adds depth (many door photos can feel flat). It keeps its integrity in the photo as a tree though, not merely a frame.

Here the tree wraps around the golden icon.
Here the tree wraps around the golden icon.

Lightstalking has more on why and how to add natural frames to your photographs.

Work with Natural Light

Even though I know there are still reasons to use a flash, I haven’t used one in years. My Nikon is so good in low light that I can’t see a situation where I’d want the flash. And the flash on my iPhone is so discoloring that I don’t turn it on, opting instead to add light in editing. Studio photography often uses flashes, but travel and street photographers don’t use it nearly as often. Instead, we opt for the beauty of working around with, (and sometimes against) natural light.

Shoot when the Sun is Low

You can take a photograph at any time of day, but early in the morning and late in the evening when the sun is low is a special time for photographers. The first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset are called magic hour for a reason (though their technical length varies a bit based on where your are and season).

During these periods, the light is indirect and hazy. There is actually more light than at brighter periods of the day, because it’s evenly distributed by the angle it travels through the atmosphere. The color of the light is golden and red.

This was the view from my apartment in Cyprus in September. While it was pretty at all times of day, shooting it just before sunset brought out more colors, and the purples and reds of the sky echo the purples on the school and the reds of the church.

Even though the sun isn't in the photo, the natural light created at sunset makes the scene of the Orthodox church and the school warmer and more colorful. From my trip to Nicosia, Cyprus in September. (Nikon D810)
The natural light just before sunset makes the scene warmer and richer.

Shooting when the sun is low in the sky can be used to capture a scene better, like in the photo above, or it can be used to create a composition unique to that specific time of day. Examples of this would be a great sunset or sunrise picture. In the photo below, all the people and kites are in silhouette. The purples and yellows of the sky contrast with the darkness of the figures, creating a composition that couldn’t be shot at any other time of day without significant editing.

A kite in Puerto Rico
Kite Flying in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Here’s a great guide on how to shoot during magic hour, and use this calculator to find out when magic hour is where you’re going to be shooting.

Know when to Avoid and when to Use Backlighting

Most amateurs don’t think about the placement of lighting before they shoot. More serious amateurs know that it’s a general rule to avoid backlighting. However, there are times when backlighting will actually help make a shot better. Instead of thinking about avoiding backlighting as a general rule, instead think about the sun (or other light) placement and if it’s enhancing or detracting from your shot and if there’s a better place to shoot from to capture the image you’re looking for.

Here’s an example of shooting with backlighting where the light adds to the composition, through flaring, creating leading lines to the fountain water, and making the water seem to glow. That effect can only be achieved from this angle.

Using backlighting to illuminate the water in the fountain
Using backlighting to illuminate the water in the fountain

Backlighting isn’t always avoidable in travel photography, even when you’d rather find a different way to shoot. Tours, open hours, and busy itineraries are all reasons why you may end up at a place during a time when photography isn’t ideal, but you have to try to make it work since you may not be back to that place again.

In this shot, I was driving through the Troodos mountains and wouldn’t be back to this stretch of road again. So while these mountains might be better at magic hour, I only had this one moment to capture the scene. If I held firm to not shooting with backlighting, I wouldn’t have pulled over and shot this at all. I love the way this shot came out, where the light through the clouds is the subject.

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Here’s a video on how to shoot with backlight.

Mix Natural and Artificial Light for Night Shots

Night photography pulls out different skills than shooting during the day. For night photography, one fun trick to fantastic photos is to use the last light of the day when the lights from the building and the night lighting like street lamps or spotlights are on. The juxtaposition of a bit of daylight with the extra lights only associated with night amplify the light in the scene and makes it extra special.

For this shot of a ferris wheel in Minneapolis, I used the last few minutes of light so the background would be blue instead of black.

This photograph mixes the light from the ferris wheel with the last natural light of the day.
This photograph mixes the light from the ferris wheel with the last natural light of the day.

For this shot of the Acropolis, the sunset light and the night spotlights flood the shot:

The Parthenon at Sunset
The Parthenon at Sunset

Street Photography and Portraits

Traveling is as much about meeting people as it is about seeing the place you’re visiting. This should translate into your photography (unless you’re highly specialized). Street photography and portraits are a great way to have a collection of photos from your travels that showcase the entirety of your travel experiences.

Tell Stories through Candids

Candids can be both photographs of strangers and your travel companions. Candids are powerful ways to tell stories, because something is happening in the world that caught your attention in the first place. Your viewer will be able to be a part of this same story.

I walked into this scene in the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City. I was able to snap the pic without the man noticing. The viewer feels the same emotion I did in person: that they’re walking in on a private moment of reverence.

I walked into this scene while visiting the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City
I walked into this scene while visiting the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City

In this photograph, I caught a perfect moment of my friends walking to the boat to take us to our snorkeling adventure in Belize. I left the trip with a thousand posed photos of us looking amazing, but this candid ended up being one of my favorites because the emotion, movement, and lightness coming through when they didn’t know they were being photographed.

Walking to the Boat
Walking to the Boat

These are both examples of shooting candids from behind the subject, but there are many ways to get great candid shots. Here’s a post on 13 Ways to Shoot Candids.

Shoot in Continuous/Burst Mode

If you’re shooting people in the real world, you’re trying to capture a special moment. This can be easier if you shoot in burst mode or continuous mode. This gives you multiple frames in rapid succession, maximizing the likelihood that you capture a special moment with excellent composition.

When I went to Ireland, I saw this man at the Shannon Airport. I watched him for a few minutes, drinking a beer at 10 in the morning, before I decided to grab a picture. I snapped about twenty pics in a row in continuous mode. This let me select this moment as my favorite one to publish.

A man drinking a pint at 10 am in the Shannon Airport
An Irishman drinking a morning pint at the airport.

Burst and continuous mode are good even for portraits where the subject knows they’re being photographed. In this shot of my friend, taking multiple frames quickly let me select the moment where his eyes sparkeled the most, making his personality burst through the frame:

Use continuous or burst mode even in portraits to capture moving facial expressions
Use continuous or burst mode even in portraits to capture moving facial expressions

Use the Crowd

Lots of people who travel complain about crowds ruining their shots, but you can use the crowd as a single entity to create unique photographs.

When I went to the National Archeological Museum of Athens on a national Greek holiday, the museum was packed. I tried to get into the crowd to get a shot of the statue, but I couldn’t get a clean one. Instead, I walked around the statue and grabbed a picture of the chaotic scene.

Viewing Poseidon
Viewing Poseidon

Even when the crowd is smaller, you can still get an interesting shot. In this pic, I wanted to take a picture of the rocks without the tourists. But we ran out of time, and I still wanted to get the scene. I ended up with a shot I love even more, because the crowd creates scale and the man in front taking a selfie shows my exact experience of being there-watching people take selfies in the beautiful landscape.

The tour trickling back to the bus
The tour trickling back to the bus

Here are some tips on how to shoot better crowd shots.

Process & Publish Your Best Work

Get an Editing App

Lightroom, Snapseed, VSCO, ProHDR-there are tons of free photo editing apps available for your smart phone and of course there’s free and paid programs for your computer like Lightroom and Photoshop. If you want to get fancy, you can download multiple ones and use them for their particular strengths.

The photography apps I use now
The photography apps I use now. I also have Lighroom on my MacBook.

Edit Photos You Intend to Use

I never post unedited photos. Every photo that goes on my blog, Facebook Page, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest gets run through an editor. The only exceptions to this would be snaps and Instagram stories or posts that use old photos where I don’t have large enough files to get the tweaks I want. (I even edit screen shots like the one above). For my photography, I believe that editing should:

  • help tell a story
  • make the scene closer to how it looked in person
  • bring out the emotions of the photo

For example, look at this picture I took earlier this week in the church in St. Sofia. I started taking candids of these two that I saw lighting candles. They were completely wrapped in their prayer. I couldn’t get in closer to them without causing a disturbance, so I took about ten pics in a row on my camera’s continuous quiet setting. I knew I had captured the moment, and that editing would bring it out even more.

The original photograph of a couple lighting prayer candles in St Sofia
The original photograph of a couple lighting prayer candles in St Sofia

I typically run through the same edits every time, making adjustments based on what looks good for that photograph. The main ones to hit are rotate, crop, adjust color and detail settings and/or use a filter and adjust from there. I’ve outlined the steps I went through when editing this photo. This pic was taken on my Nikon D810, uploaded to my Dropbox, and edited on my iPhone in Snapseed.

Quick Edits to Improve Travel Photos
Quick Edits to Get Better Travel Photos

Because I edit photos every day, the process only takes me 1-2 minutes. I’m focused on getting travel photography out a few times a day, and I want my photos to feel like you could imagine yourself going to that place. I don’t do some of the more technical or complicated edits that you see in commercial photography or on Instagram.

Here’s the finished version I posted to Instagram:

A couple lighting prayer candles in the church of St. Sofia
A couple lighting prayer candles in the church of St. Sofia

The aim of the edits here was to focus on the subject better, move the crop so that the subject is in a dynamic area, emphasize the glow of the candlelight, and cut distractions so your eye goes straight to the couple and the candles. These edits focus the viewer on the story I wanted to tell, which was the quiet moment that passed between these two in prayer.

Here’s another before & after, this on in Lightroom Mobile:

The Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker Before & After
The Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker Before & After

Publish Your Best Work

These days most people post travel photos while they are on vacation, and then end up with a lot of picture files that they don’t do anything with. In this post on using psychology to travel better, one tip for reducing post-travel hangover is to do something with your photos when you return. For example, put together a Facebook album, a scrapbook, or display some in frames in your home.

I publish my photos on Instagram (2x day) and Facebook (a few ties per week)

Beyond being a travel memento, publishing your photos (especially on Instagram) will give you access to public feedback that will help you practice what works and improve your skills.

Final Thoughts 

With the improvement of cell phone cameras and the proliferation of high quality, free editing apps, everyone can be a great travel photographer. For those interested in improving their skills, try out some of the above techniques. Increasing your creativity and presentation can have great rewards.

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6 Comments

  1. These are all such great tips. It is hard as a beginner trying to find a place to start! There is so much information out there it is pretty overwhelming.

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  4. Great tips!

    Thank you for sharing and will be sure to implement some moving forward, especially for my food photography.

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