10 Ways to Improve Your Travel Photography

10 Ways to Improve Your Travel Photography

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How to improve your travel photography

Get the most out of your travel photography and capture the moment with these 10 simple tips. Most of these tips are pretty basic and some of them are useful for traveling in general.

1 – Focus on faces

Sounds obvious I know, but whether it’s wildlife or people, it’s often best to focus your lens on the face of of your most important subject. We are naturally drawn to eyes, so that’s where you’ll usually want to focus.

10 Ways to improve your travel photography

2 – Shoot fast

Photographing people in fascinating cultural situations requires a totally different mindset to shooting landscapes.

Forget your tripod, forget low ISO settings and think less about image quality and more about capturing the moment. Be ready, by relying on your autofocus and fast shutter speeds to freeze the action. Handheld is the way to go because you just don’t have the time to be fiddling around with tripods.

In bright sunlight you’ll get away with ISO settings between 400 and 1000 but when the light starts to get low, don’t be afraid to crank that ISO way up into the thousands.

Use wider apertures like f/2.8 to achieve faster shutter speeds and get a pleasing shallow depth of field to accentuate your main subject. Shooting in Aperture Priority mode (AV) lets you quickly dial in the desired aperture while your camera decides on the shutter speed.

If your lens has some kind of vibration reduction be sure to switch that on when going handheld.

Travel Photography tips

3 – Learn the lingo

Take at least a few hours while traveling to learn the basic language skills for your location. Knowing how to say ”Hello, excuse me, please, thank you, sorry, yes, no,” etc., goes a long way even in countries where English is spoken in tourist areas.

Having some basic language skills can make a huge difference to the type of access you’ll get, and the things you’ll get to see. Language opens doors that would otherwise be closed to the average tourist.

4 – Hire a translator or guide

Getting access to people’s everyday lives is often difficult if you don’t know any locals, especially if it’s your first time at a particular location. Consider hiring a guide or translator so that you can communicate with locals on a deeper level than just knowing the basic phrases.

I’ve done this a few times and you sometimes get to make great friends with your guides, who will be happy to introduce you to interesting people and places.

Travel Photography Tips

5 – Smile and make friends

When taking pictures of strangers or communicating with locals, don’t be a dour faced tourist. Smiling is universal and softens what might otherwise be an intimidating approach to people who have little experience with adventurous foreigners.

If you want people to like you, a smile is a good place to start.

6 – Ask for permission whenever possible

If you’re able to ask a person for permission to take their picture, you should. In many countries there is no legal obligation to do so but it’s just good manners, and some people may have religious reasons why they’d really prefer not to have their picture taken.

Conversely, don’t interrupt a delicate social situation if there’s a chance it might be socially awkward. This picture I took at the very famous What Pho in Bangkok is a good example. The monks were taking an exam in front of hundreds of tourists under a high pressure situation so I’m hardly going to walk up and interrupt.

Wat Pho Thailand - Travel Photography Tips

7 – Choose the right lenses

When it comes to capturing atmospheric cultural shots, I’ll choose prime lenses that offer a lovely blurred bokeh effect while keeping my main subject sharp. Typically these will be in the 35mm, 50mm or 85mm, range on a full frame camera. These types of lenses will give you that lovely cinematic look that all-in-one zoom lenses just can’t deliver.

You can achieve a similar look with big telephoto lenses but those are less portable. Smaller primes also make you look more low-key and have great image quality.

Best lenses for travel photography

One of my favourite lenses for travel photography is the Sigma 85mm 1.4 prime.

8 – Carry two cameras

This goes back to what I said about shooting fast. With people and animals you often won’t have time to switch lenses, so consider carrying two cameras that have lenses for different purposes. Let’s say a wide angle lens on one camera, and a lovely 85mm prime for portraits on the other. This way you’ll be able to cope with most situations at a fast pace.

If you are going to carry two cameras, try and keep one in a small bag at all times. If you look too much like a paparazzo it might intimidate some people.

9 – Step out of your comfort zone

I’m not advising you to put yourself in danger. You should always use common sense, but consider doing things you might otherwise find yourself saying NO to. That’s where you’ll find the best photo opportunities.

An example of this would be my recent visit to a mountain cave in Thailand called Phra That Cave in Kanchanaburi Province. The cave has no lights, claustrophobic tunnels and thousands of bats, some of which you’ll have flying right in your face. To me, that’s fun, but to others it’s a living hell.

10 Travel photography tips

”Bats, you say? Thousand of bats?”

10 – Take responsibility for your own safety

Third world countries (and even some first world countries) have a very vague concept of Health and Safety. Modern day westerners are raised in a bubble of relative safety that can sometimes result in us having a misplaced sense of responsibility.

Use common sense when traveling, and don’t assume that those hastily built steps you’re about to climb have been passed by a safety inspector.

Got Your Own Tips?

I’d love to hear your travel photography tips. From always carrying toilet paper to having your lawyer’s phone number on speed dial, please share your hard earned experiences and let’s grow this tip list.

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Gavin Hardcastle is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

  • Keith Starkey

    We were good until you said, “In bright sunlight you’ll get away with ISO settings between 400 and
    1000 but when the light starts to get low, don’t be afraid to crank that ISO way up into the thousands.” Man, if I even think about raising my ISO past 400 on my D3200, it screams, cries, throws temper tantrums and ultimately curls up into a DSLR fetal ball, refusing to even talk to me for the next 10 days. (It’s bad. Really bad!)

    Otherwise, all is well in D3200 land!

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    heheh, a faster lens might help greatly Keith. Failing that, this new generation of mirrorless and DSLR are getting really good at keeping noise at bay.

  • Keith R. Starkey

    Very true.

  • Michael O

    I use a D3200. I will only ever use high ISO like that when in dark places, as otherwise, the camera cqn cope in sunlight quite well. I use my 50mm prime, 85mm prime, 18-55mm, 10-24mm and 70-300 all in sunlight fine.

    Please don’t blame the camera.

  • Keith R. Starkey

    Michael, surely you jest! The host of this article said, “In bright sunlight you’ll get away with ISO settings between 400 and
    1000 but when the light starts to get low, don’t be afraid to crank that ISO way up into the thousands.” So, in context, I wasn’t referring to using high ISO in good light.

    But the D3200 does not handle high ISO, period. 800 ISO is too high in most cases, and 1600 is horrible (talk about noise!), and that’s when I’m using my killer 35mm 1.8 DX. (We won’t go into the disaster if I use anything of lesser quality!)

    Again, I said nothing about using high ISO in good light. I’m sorry if you misunderstood me.

  • First off let me say I’m not a pro and travel photography isn’t my territory. But as a tech journalist, I sometimes opted to shoot my own images during festivals, tech expositions and so on. I can say that I got away with pictures shot at ISO 3200 when the sun is low using Nikon D3100 and 55-200 at 200mm (shutter speed around 1/125). Did the picture came out insanely sharp and ready for a magazine? No. But that was used by a number of professional sites in their articles.

    I cannot find an online copy of that image right now, but let me show you this: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aisajib/16517512681 This was shot at 92mm at 5.6, 1/100, ISO 3200. I had no way but to use 1/100 because of the focal length, and I had to raise the ISO all the way up (3200 is the highest D3100 can go except the extended crap).

    Again, the picture isn’t magazine or billboard-ready, but it’s good. Her mom is incredibly happy with this image and she said she was going to print this.

    Now, if I can handle 3200 ISO on my Nikon D3100, I don’t know why you can’t with your updated camera (unless you’re shooting for magazine or really large prints).

    The key here is to shoot raw and know your editing program (I use Lightroom and Photoshop). The initial result of the picture I linked to above was still a bit grainy and underexposed. With noise reduction in Lightroom and sharpening in Photoshop, I was able to get both color, saturation, and sharpness back.

    I wrote all these just because, I’m guessing, you and I on the same league. We can’t get the most expensive lens and camera (full frame?) out there, so we have to learn to make do with what you have. You have a better camera than me. So high ISO shouldn’t be an issue unless you’re shooting for magazine or large prints.

  • Keith R. Starkey

    Very nice shot, Aminul. Very nice.

    I’m not sure what it is (though it’s in keeping with everything I’ve read about high ISO use on the D3200), but my D3200 simply doesn’t do well at 800 and higher; noise really starts getting bad. I think, though, I may do some more higher ISO testing in lower light situations using my 35mm 1.8 DX lens (a very good lens for low light) and see the results. Maybe even post them here.

    As for post production, I too use Lightroom, which I know it pretty well. I’m also studying Photoshop, but I’m no graphic artist, so I’m concentrating on editing that Lightroom simply can’t do or doesn’t do well (refined cloning, compositing, HDR, etc.).

    Anyway, I’ll do some more testing and see how it goes. Thanks much.

  • With a 1.8 prime you’ll definitely be able to shoot at lower ISO. I shot that with a normal zoom range, so my aperture was small.

    Make no mistake that I too had high noise in this image when I shot this in RAW. I had to clean it to get it to where it is now. And I’m no graphic artist either. 🙂

    Try the Noise reduction slider to 40 in Lightroom and sharpening at 70 (use the masking slider to selectively apply it to only to only the edges). After that I export the photo in JPEG and open in Photoshop, which then triggers Photoshop Camera Raw plugin where I do the noise reduction and sharpening one more time. By this point I have bare minimum noise visible on my images. Of course, through this you lose some sharpness, but nothing that can’t be added back if the original picture was sharp to begin with. (High Pass filter is my favorite tool for sharpening.)

    Play around with these tools and you’ll be happy to realize that High ISO = big-no is an overrated fear. Of course for stock photography high ISO is a no-no, but for 80% of our work, especially those of us using entry level cameras, this process works even with high ISO.

  • Keith R. Starkey

    Thanks much, Aminul. As I was writing my previous post, I was thinking of a pool hall downtown that looks really cool outside of it on the sidewalk…lots of neon lights, some street lights. With a setting sun, the hall starts to bloom in colors. The 1.8 lens will give me the low-light shooting ability, but I’d definitely need to up the ISO to get the shot where I want it, and that’s what I’ll be testing…that and perhaps some portraits as well. We’ll see.

  • Jan Kovacs

    What is really amazing is that who ever will give an example of travel photography will most likely show a monk from Tibet or close proximities. If there is a photo contest a carriage with oxes through the mud will always win. And really I am tired of all those. I wianted to see a travel photography example from Europe, but as impressive as a monk from Asia.

  • MJ

    Fair enough! Also the other way round: for a European like me, a picture of a waitress at a diner in Arizona would make a great travel photography 😉

  • Malte Christensen

    And here I take my tripod with me wherever I go. Getting sharp photos “quickly” at F/ 2.8 is not that easy, right? There’s a difference between shooting street and most other things.

  • Also, as a 300+ lb former football player, get small, and don’t trust the chairs or the stairs…

  • Marc

    When the subject is a person in street photography, I always try to share the picture I just took by showing the camera screen; that often opens the door to a second series of shots, which I always find much better because the subject is more reaxed !

  • Marc

    One problem in Europe – shall I say France – is that permission to share is required in writing. Cartier Bresson said, before passing away, that with today’s laws in France, he would have never taken up photography and only painted…

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Absolutely Marc, when the subject is interested I always do the same thing. When they see how good you’ve made them look they are almost always happy for you to keep taking more shots.

  • Tom Endress

    Very true. My D5100 and D7100 are great at high ISO.

  • jane Austin

    jHow do you get your photos so clear and crisp, is it camera ,lens I would love to know

  • BazzaBoy

    If the cave had no lights, how did you manage to take such a beautiful well-lit photograph. Please share your technique.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    The technique was simply using ISO 50000 while at an aperture of f/4.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Hi Jane, it is a combination of things, technique, correct camera settings, lens choice etc.

  • Are you perhaps judging your (RAW?) shots at 100% maybe?

    All the shots you’ll see on the web are of course downsized JPGs and converting to JPG removes a lot of the noise straight off the bat, and obviously the smaller resolution helps disguise the noise too. Just something to bear in mind as it’s very easy to be super-critical of your own shots straight out of camera.

    Sure, on my D70 I’d never use above ISO800, but it came out in 2006. I’d fully expect a D3200 to perform much better, easily usable at ISO1600 as a minimum.

  • Don’t be afraid of auto ISO – it’s a fantastic tool to assist aperture priority mode for getting fast shots.

    On my D7100 I just dial in the minimum shutter speed I’ll accept for the lens I have on and the camera will bump up the ISO only if the shutter speed is below that minimum.

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