Here are our favourite travel photography tips for beginners, based on our experience of going from complete amateurs to professional travel photographers in 3 years.
When you go on holiday many people want to take the absolute best photos possible so you can look back on, and remember, everything about those special moments. The sights, the emotions, the atmosphere; a good photo can bring back all of these memories.
After a decade of travelling the world I now look back on some of my old photos and think, “Damn, I wish I knew more about photography back then.” These days our images really match what we saw and how we felt on our travels, and they’re something I’m proud to display.
To help the beginner travel photographer out I have made this post with my favourite travel photography tips to let you come home with something you’ll be excited to show your friends and family (or even start making a living out of).
General Travel Photography Tips For Beginners
To start with let me talk about the general travel photography tips that I feel are not only the most important, but also the most difficult to master.
Developing an eye for photography can, and will, take years. It’s a never-ending learning process, but I promise you with practice you will get better. And once you start to get the skills for framing and composing a shot, the rest is easy.
Know Your Camera
I have been through many styles and brands of cameras over the years. First there was the film camera I had when I was 14, which sparked my love of photography. I had no idea what I was doing and I wasted a lot of money getting crappy images developed because I just didn’t know how to use it.
Then I bought a few point and shoot cameras as I travelled the world, before finally upgrading to an entry-level dSLR. This really sparked my love of photography, and now I’m using a professional, full frame mirrorless camera from Sony.
These days most people use digital cameras, which is so much better to develop your skills on. Still it takes some time to perfect in the field, and my first travel photography tip is to know your camera.
Whether you have a point-and-shoot, a mirrorless or a dSLR, take the time to learn about your camera. Figure out what all the buttons do and why they can be important.
Study the menu so that if you need to change a setting in the field you’re not spending minutes scrolling through it when timing is critical.
Also don’t forget to learn your camera’s limitations. Does it perform well in low-light or does the image fall apart? Is it sharp wide open, or do you need to stop down to get the best clarity? Does it have inbuilt image stabilisation?
Ultimately when you pick up your camera you want to feel comfortable and know exactly how it works. Then getting better pictures will come faster and easier.
Focus On The Golden And Blue Hours
Waking up early and staying out late is one of the best travel photography tips I can give. That’s because early in the morning and around when the sun sets is when you’ll get the best light.
The Golden Hour is that time when the sun is low in the sky and it throws a magical, warm glow across the scene. Think the first hour after the sun peaks in the morning, and the last hour or two before the sun drops over the horizon in the afternoon.
The Blue Hour is when the sun is now below the horizon and the sky gives off this beautiful blue hue. When you’re taking pictures of city and landscapes this is gorgeous!
To take better travel photos you need to get up early for that sunrise shot and be out snapping images instead of sitting in a bar in the evenings. If you’re not a morning person, get used to setting an alarm. Make sure you get set up in your location before sunrise is in full swing.
Taking photos in the middle of the day can still result in excellent shots, but in general you’ll find the sky too blown out unless there are some interesting clouds, and on a sunny day you’ll find the lighting can be a bit harsh.
Instead use the middle of the day to get street shots, or scout out locations for your sunrise and sunset photos.
Bonus Tip – Even if it looks like the sunrise or sunset might not be so beautiful, wait around. You never know when the clouds might break or the sky randomly lights up in brilliant colours.
Learn About Composition
You’ve probably heard about how important it is to compose a shot properly, and I bet if you’ve ever read a photography manual you would have come across the ‘rule of thirds‘. Good composition can be the difference between an average shot and an award-winning image.
According to some guidelines, it’s best not to put your subject in the middle of the shot, unless you are taking a close-up portrait. Instead try and play around with the rule of thirds and go from there.
This concept is where you divide your image into 9 even squares (many cameras actually have this feature built into their display options). Then what you do is you place the subjects and points of interest along the lines and squares. For example don’t place the horizon in the dead centre of the image (unless it’s a reflection shot).
Here’s an example of how this looks:
The idea of the rule of thirds is that this is a mathematical idea of what our eyes naturally find pleasing. So it’s good practice to incorporate this method into your shots.
Another thing to look for is leading lines that naturally draw your eye around the photo, as well as angles and shapes. Have a river flowing from the side of the shot up to a waterfall on the top left for example, or the foreground bending around, leading the eye towards a church at the top of the photo. This is a skill that you’ll learn with more practice.
An important thing to remember is that rules are meant to be broken, and there is absolutely no reason that placing your subject in the middle of your frame won’t work. Get used to analysing your shots with the rule of thirds, but please don’t use it as gospel if you think a different composition would work.
Framing, Framing And More Framing
It happens time and time again. You get so caught up with taking photos that you forget to make sure everything is perfectly in the frame. Don’t worry, I understand. I used to do it too. But the problem is it can often destroy a great photo.
When you look through the viewfinder or LCD screen, don’t just focus on the subject. Make sure you run your eyes around the entire frame to make sure you’re not accidentally cutting off something important.
Double check that you’re not cutting off the top of a mountain, or that your friend’s whole body is in the shot. This isn’t gospel, because sometimes having something cut off from the the frame can be good for composition, but you’ll have to be the judge of that.
Also check to see if you can use something natural in the scene to create a frame inside your picture. Think of looking out a window at a building, or a bent-over tree surrounding a pretty lake. These can also help make for great travel photos.
Move Your Feet
This follows on from framing and composition. When I take a shot I try to frame it like I would want to see it on a wall. Sometimes standing exactly where you are is not always the best structure for your shot.
This is one of the most important travel photography tips I can give – Move your feet.
The iconic Taj Mahal photo doesn’t look as good if you’re a few steps to the left of having it perfectly centred. Or maybe the river looks really pretty where you are, but if you move a bit more to the side you can also get some cool rocks in the shot.
Move around until you are happy with the shot. Take a few steps forward, backwards and to the sides to get an idea of every possible angle. Still take the photos, and that way when you are home and can see your photos on the computer and see which ones you like best.
Ask People For Permission
Travel photography isn’t all about capturing the most beautiful sunsets and gorgeous architecture around the world. Travel photography should also be about the people you meet. But if you’re a bit shy like me, how do you get those amazing portrait photos without feeling rude?
Simple – just ask for permission.
Asking people for permission to take their photo is polite and respectful. If you have had a great encounter with someone, or you just see a great opportunity to capture a wonderful portrait, give them a big smile and ask if it’s ok to take their photo.
We ask all the time. Sometimes we get a yes, and sometimes we get a no. If they say no we always respect their decision. What if someone came up to you and shoved a camera in your face without your permission? You wouldn’t be very happy…
But what if you want to get a candid shot, with the subject looking natural? Well this can be a bit more difficult but there are ways to achieve this without annoying the person.
Don’t make it obvious that you are taking their photo. Try to act natural and as though your taking photos of many different things in the scene. You can also keep your camera down by your side and point the lens in their direction.
If you have a zoom lens, use it. This was you can be on the other side of the street or market and still photograph the person.
Make Them Feel Comfortable
Another one of my favourite travel photography tips for portraits is to bring in another element to the shot. Most people will feel uncomfortable posing for a photo, but if you can make it about something else they will feel much more at ease.
As an example, maybe ask if they can pose with something in their store like a rug, or ask them to show you their wedding ring. This way they’ll realise there is more to your photo than just them. This will also add a lot more interesting elements to the shot!
Use A Tripod
A tripod is one of the best camera accessories you can have, and really essential for travel photography. This will allow you to get excellent shots in low light, as well as get creative with your images (like taking long exposures).
These days you don’t always need a massive tripod to travel around with, especially if you want to travel light and are a hobbyist photographer. Look at some of the Joby Gorillapods.
Another good thing about using a tripod is that it will force you to slow down with your photography and put more thought into each shot. Rather than just pointing and shooting, you will think carefully about where you want to set up your tripod and how you want to compose your shot.
Honestly if you want to become a better travel photographer, you’ll need to invest in at least a small tripod.
There’s nothing wrong with getting those iconic shots of the Eiffel Tower or Machu Picchu. They’re beautiful and are often amazing angles of famous places that everyone wants to visit.
But don’t forget to be unique as well! Find a different perspective that hasn’t been photographed a million times. In fact make it your goal to get a few unique shots that you can be proud of.
Rules were meant to be broken as well, so if you’re looking at a scene to photograph and have a crazy idea for some composition, then just go for it! Forget about the rule of thirds, place your subject directly in the centre and see how it turns out.
Find Your Voice As A Photographer
Just like a writer or musician finds a particular style they like, as a photographer you need to discover your ‘voice’.
Travel photography is such a broad term that can cover just about anything. Really just taking any photos of your travels will fit the description, whether it is landscapes, architecture, portraits, food or whatever.
What you need to do to really get passionate about travel photography is to find what you love the most and focus on it. If you really like black and white photography, then start shooting in black and white! Love taking images of crazy street markets? Then get out there and find them!
You will grow much more as a photographer with a passion and direction than someone who just takes nice photos of the most photographed places on the planet.
Experiment, learn, discover and nurture!
Technical Travel Photography Tips
While the technical side of using a camera is usually the most overwhelming thing for a new photographer to think about, it’s actually one of the easiest things to master. All it takes is a bit of study and practice.
If you’ve never looked into getting out of ‘Auto’ on your camera, then terms like ISO, aperture, white balance and shutter speed will seem completely foreign. I’ve actually written a much more detailed post about what all these mean, which will be published very soon, but for now let me do a very brief run down on these to help you.
Exposure Triangle of Photography
I can almost hear you thinking, “What is she talking about? Exposure Triangle? You mean like naked shapes?”
The Exposure Triangle is a metaphor to explain the 3 elements that allows light onto a photo. A camera captures light, and the right amount is needed so that your image isn’t too bright or too dark.
The 3 parts of the Exposure Triangle are aperture, ISO and shutter speed. Each one affects how light reaches the sensor in different ways, and getting this combination perfect is essential to capturing a beautiful image.
I’ll explain these three things briefly now.
Aperture is how wide, or small, the blades in your lens are and how much light goes through the lens. The aperture size is measured in F Stops, and displayed as numbers. f5.6, f8, f11, f16, etc
A wide aperture (small number – f2) lets in more light than a low aperture (big number – f22). A wide aperture also has a shallowed depth of field than a low aperture. I know it can be a little confusing, but you’ll pick it up the more you play around with it.
If you want the background blurry in your photo, you’ll want a wide aperture. If you want everything in focus, you’ll want a low aperture.
ISO is how sensitive your camera sensor is to light. A small number, such as 100, means it’s not very sensitive and therefore needs more light to leave an impression. A high number, like 6400, means it’s very sensitive and needs only a little bit of light to show up on the sensor.
The higher the ISO, the more noise shows up in a photo. Noise lowers the quality of your image, so in a perfect world you’ll want to keep this as low as possible (unless you’re doing astro and night photography). It’s also necessary to raise your ISO if you’re shooting moving subjects (or handheld) indoors.
Shutter speed is pretty straight forward – how long it takes for your shutter to open and close. This allows you to freeze a frame, or capture motion blur.
Want to photograph a bird in flight? You’ll want to have a fast shutter speed (1/4000th of a second for example). Want to make a waterfall look silky smooth? Go for a slow shutter speed (3 seconds for example).
Keep in mind that if you are holding your camera rather than using a tripod, you’ll need to have a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate your own hand movement. As a general rule 1/60 of a second is the slowest you should go so your picture doesn’t pick up hand movement. Any slower than that and you’ll probably need a tripod.
Combining All Three For Perfect Exposure
There is no ‘perfect setting’ for aperture, ISO and shutter speed. It all depends on what you are trying to photograph and the style you’re going for.
Luckily most decent digital cameras have two little tools that will let you play around figure out how all three work together – manual mode and histograms.
Manual mode gives you complete control over your camera’s ISO, aperture and shutter speed. If you change one, nothing else will change, unlike in ‘aperture priority’ mode or ‘shutter priority’ mode.
The histogram is a visual display of light. When the bars are all the way to the left, the image is darker. When they are all the way to the right, the image is lighter. When most of the bars are in the centre, this is perfectly exposed.
The best way to figure out what combinations work best when you’re a complete amateur is to put your camera on “manual” mode, activate the histogram, and play around with the settings.
Pick an aperture (f8 for example) and point it at the scene. Now look at the histogram. If the image is too dark, then you’ll need to let more light in. Let’s make the shutter speed slower. See a change?
Now put the shutter speed back to where it was and instead change the ISO. Make the ISO higher. Is the image getting lighter?
Spend an hour or two playing around with different apertures, ISO and shutter speeds so you get an idea of how each one affects the light hitting the display. Take note at how drastically things can change if a cloud goes in front of the sun, or you take the camera inside.
This just comes with practice of course, and knowing what settings you want for a particular scene will become second nature
Keep in mind that not every photo needs to be perfectly exposed. Sometimes having a darker image looks much better than having one that is nice and bright. You can use your judgement for this.
Bonus – General Ideas For Camera Settings
This is very, very basic and by no means should be read as gospel. There are a million different things that can affect why you would want a faster shutter speed, or wider aperture. But if you are confused about what to pick for what here’s a quick idea.
- Landscapes – You’ll want your aperture around f8-f11. You’ll also want your ISO as low as possible. Slow down the shutter speed accordingly.
- Portraits – You’ll probably want your subject sharp, but the background blurry to bring focus on the person. Have a wider aperture (say f2.8 for example), and a faster shutter (around 1/160 at the absolute slowest) to freeze the subject. Adjust ISO accordingly.
- Indoors – Because it is darker inside than outside, you’ll need to let a lot more light into the sensor. Unless you’re using a tripod, keep the shutter speed at around 1/60 as the slowest, and the aperture around f5.6 to start with. Adjust ISO and aperture accordingly.
Of course there’s a bunch of other styles of travel photography that would use different settings, such as astrophotography, architecture, street scenes, etc. In time you’ll learn what settings work best for each scene.
Use Manual Mode
This is following on from the Exposure Triangle. The best way to get to know your camera and how light works is to have complete control over what settings you choose. The only way to do this is to shoot in manual mode (shown by the letter M on most cameras).
It will take months of practice, but I promise you that in time you’ll be able to look at a scene and instantly know what aperture, ISO and shutter speed to use to get the exact style of image you’re looking for.
You can also use aperture priority mode (the letter A on your camera) if you don’t want to make the big leap to manual just yet. This way you can lock in the aperture you want (f8 for landscapes, f2.8 for portraits, etc) and the camera will automatically adjust the ISO (although you can control this part too) and shutter speed to get perfect exposure.
I highly recommend focusing on learning manual mode though until you have it perfected.
Shoot in RAW (if available)
When you take a photo on your digital camera, the computer chip inside it takes what you captured on the sensor and converts it into a format that can be easily read. For most cameras, these two formats are RAW and JPEG.
JPEG is a compressed format that the camera creates to save on space. In doing so it ‘locks in’ all the data that it picked up such as the colour and white balance.
RAW files actually saves all the data of what you took and doesn’t compress it. This means you can edit the photo and really play around with certain elements of the shot without damaging it. It’s like being given a negative in film photography, as opposed to a slide.
Most decent digital cameras will give you the option of shooting in RAW, and I recommend you use it if you ever plan on editing your photos. You will find the setting to change it in the menu of your camera.
Keep in mind that the file sizes will be a lot bigger (for example on our camera a RAW is 25mb, while a JPEG is just 12), so you’ll need to have extra storage. If you have no plans on editing your photos then shoot in JPEG.
Learn About Post Processing
Some people think that editing your photo is ‘cheating’. But the truth is photographers have been editing their photos ever since photography was invented. Think of developing film in a darkroom, which uses water, chemicals and light to change the exposure and contrast of an image.
99% of photos you see in your favourite magazines have been edited. Every professional photographer edits their photos. The reason is that not all cameras are great at capturing exactly what the eye saw in terms of colour and light.
If you really want to get the most out of your travel photography, you should start playing around with post processing. Many people have heard of Adobe Photoshop, but it’s a pretty advanced tool that most people wouldn’t ever need to use (until you get more experience).
To start with look at the free apps that you can get on your phone, such as Snapseed, or free programs on your computer, like iPhoto or GIMP.
Once you get serious about travel photography and you want to start editing all of your photos, we recommend purchasing Adobe Lightroom. Learning how to edit your photos in Lightroom is quite easy, but can be intimidating the first time you open it up. Check out some tutorials on YouTube.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Just like anything, becoming a great travel photographer takes time, and a lot of practice. The only way you can get better is by getting out there taking photos!
You don’t even have to travel the world or have the most expensive equipment available to be a great photographer. Buy whatever you can afford, go for a walk around your city and snap away.
We hope that this general guide on travel photography tips for beginners has been helpful. Please feel free to reach out to us if you have any other questions. Good luck on your photographic journey!
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