Planning a trip or vacation? Want to capture gorgeous, memorable images on your next travel outing? Travel photography is a ton of fun, but it can also be very challenging. You’re in a brand-new environment, you have limited space for gear, you need to figure out how to capture original photos of touristy spots, and you often need to accommodate the needs of other travelers – in other words, you have a lot to think about.
And because many trips are fast-paced, you generally won’t have the time to experiment with various settings, compositions, and lighting techniques. Instead, you need to get your shots right from the very beginning, which can be a tall order, especially if you’re a beginner.
Never fear! I’ve spent years capturing travel shots around the world, and in this article, I share my absolute best tips, including:
- Gear advice to get you started
- The best settings for travel photography
- How to successfully prepare before photographing a new destination
- How to come back with unique photos of popular subjects
- Much more!
By the time you’re finished, you’ll be ready to embark on any adventure with your camera – be it a quick trip to your favorite city or a lengthy vacation to a far-flung part of the globe.
Let’s dive right in.
1. Travel light
Travel photography, by its very nature, is inspirational and exciting. So when packing for a trip, it’s easy to get carried away and end up with multiple camera bodies, handfuls of lenses, a dozen accessories, and more.
But this presents various problems. For one, the more equipment you have, the more you’ll be weighed down when shooting – which will lead to discomfort and a lack of inspiration. Plus, practicalities such as baggage allowance and insurance costs often mean that taking lots of equipment becomes very expensive. (In fact, if you are dead-set on working with more than a minimalist gear setup, it may be cheaper to rent equipment on arrival.)
My advice: travel as light as you can. Pare down your kit until you have:
- One travel camera body (two, if you have room for a spare in your bag)
- A wad of memory cards
- A lightweight mini tripod or even a super-flexible Gorillapod
- A portable storage unit
- A pocket-sized compact camera
- A flash
- A small selection of travel lenses
- A durable camera bag that distributes the weight evenly over your shoulders and protects against heat, cold, sand, and moisture
That way, you’re able to travel comfortably and avoid extra costs. Note that you may want to sacrifice some flexibility in order to cut down on weight (for instance, you might need to leave your super-telephoto lens at home). Just remember that the benefits of traveling light far outweigh the costs!
2. Use a flexible zoom lens
Here’s one of the easiest ways to decrease your gear load when traveling: Do away with your array of lenses and instead carry a single, high-quality zoom.
What kind of zoom is best? I’d recommend purchasing an 18-200mm or a 28-300mm lens, if possible. Really, the focal-length specifics aren’t important; instead, it’s about carrying a lens that shoots at wide, standard, and telephoto focal lengths – so you can capture stunning landscapes, standard portraits, and distant buildings.
And pay attention to the lens’s maximum aperture. The wider the aperture, the better, as it’ll let you capture beautiful images even in low light. (Unfortunately, wide-aperture zooms are bigger, heavier, and more expensive, so you’ll need to think about the aperture very carefully. You don’t want to purchase an all-purpose zoom that actually weighs more than a few small primes.)
If, after packing your all-purpose zoom, you have extra room in your bag, you might also consider taking a small prime lens (such as a 50mm or an 85mm, useful for portraits and low-light photography). And if you’re serious about landscape photography, an ultra-wide lens, such as a 12-24mm, is often a good idea.
3. Take a good travel photography camera
While you can capture great travel shots with any camera – including a basic smartphone – certain models will make it far easier to get consistently outstanding results that you can print large, share on social media, and add to your portfolio.
Now, there’s no one-size-fits-all travel camera, but the best products tend to offer:
- A compact design. As you might have predicted, the smaller and lighter the camera body, the better. Mirrorless models tend to be more compact than DSLRs, and APS-C models tend to be more compact than full-frame models (and Four-Thirds cameras tend to be more compact still). Some full-frame cameras are designed for travel, however, so don’t feel you must stick with a smaller sensor!
- Solid resolution and low-light image quality. Megapixel count isn’t a huge deal these days, especially since most cameras offer at least 20 MP of resolution, but the more pixels you have, the bigger you can print (generally speaking). In other words, if you plan on creating huge travel prints for your living room, you’ll probably want to purchase a higher-resolution camera! Some cameras also offer better high-ISO capabilities than others; the higher the ISO can go without noticeably degrading image quality, the easier it’ll be to shoot indoors, at sunrise/sunset, and at night.
- Reasonably fast autofocus and continuous shooting speeds. If you’ll be shooting any action subjects (such as people and cars moving through the streets or wildlife on the run), you’ll want a camera with decent AF capabilities. You’ll also want to look for a model that offers a fast burst mode so you don’t have to worry about missing split-second moments.
- Good ergonomics. The more comfortable the camera feels, the easier it’ll be to shoot all day! You should also look for handy features such as a fully articulating touchscreen and (on mirrorless cameras) a high-resolution viewfinder.
Unfortunately, the absolute best travel cameras do tend to be on the expensive side, but there are plenty of budget options that’ll still do a great job. You can always start by purchasing an entry-level model; then you can learn how to use it well and upgrade down the line.
4. Use the right shooting modes and settings
Most travel photographers care deeply about image quality, and for good reason: The better the image file, the bigger you can print your images, the more flexibility you have when editing, and the better your images will look in all scenarios. Therefore, I highly recommend you implement a few specific modes and formats when doing travel shooting.
First, make sure your camera is set to RAW. It’ll give you maximum post-processing flexibility, and while RAW files do require editing, the result is worth it. (Not ready to switch directly to RAW? Consider shooting in RAW+JPEG, which produces both types of files each time you hit the shutter. This will give you RAW files for in-depth editing in addition to JPEGs that you can immediately share on social media – though the additional files will take up more space, so make sure you have plenty of memory cards and/or external hard drives on hand.)
Second, get off Auto mode and shoot in Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual mode. All three of these options will give you control over your camera exposure settings, which is key if you want to capture detailed, creative photos. Aperture Priority is often a good place to start, but if you like the idea of digging in and really understanding all your camera settings, Manual mode is another great option.
Third, adjust your aperture and shutter speed for different creative effects. Aperture heavily influences the depth of field (i.e., the amount of the image that’s in focus); you can create a beautiful background blur by shooting with a shallow depth of field, which can be hugely useful when photographing people or wildlife. Shutter speed adjustments will keep your travel photos sharp, even when capturing action – though you can also slow down the shutter speed to artistically blur moving subjects, such as water and clouds.
5. Take nightly notes
Every night, after a hard day’s work with your camera, take the time to jot down a few notes in a journal about the day’s events. It may sound unusual, but it really does make a difference.
For one, it’ll help you add keywords and descriptions when you organize your images later on. And it’ll help jog your memory months or years later, allowing you to share otherwise-forgotten stories (and the accompanying photos) with friends and family.
Don’t just include notes about events, however. I’d also encourage you to write down any technical or artistic thoughts. After all, if you’re spending hours and hours in the field, you’re bound to enhance your photographic knowledge – of exposure, of composition, of autofocus techniques, and so much more. By taking the time to write down any key realizations, you’ll help cement them in your own mind, and you’ll also create a little reference journal that you can reread (and re-learn from!) years down the line.
6. Give yourself specific times to do photography
If you’re looking to combine travel photography and vacationing – especially if you’re traveling with others – you might run into a problem:
While travel photography is lots of fun, vacationing (e.g., relaxing on the beach, hanging out at the hotel restaurant, etc.) is far easier. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself doing a lot of vacationing and very little picture-taking. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with such an approach if that’s what you want out of the trip, but if your goal is to capture a portfolio of top-notch travel shots, it’s important that you dedicated unbroken stretches of time to serious shooting.
I’d recommend deliberately scheduling photoshoots at certain locations. You can do this mentally (“I’m going to shoot at [specific location] at [specific time”), or you can tell your traveling companions where you plan to be and when. Not only will this ensure that you spend the necessary time working with your camera, but it’ll also help your friends or family members adjust to the realities of travel photography, which can be difficult for a lot of folks.
7. Scout locations in advance
Scouting is an underappreciated and underutilized part of travel photography – but in my view, it’s absolutely essential.
Without scouting, you may never find the best views, the best architecture, and the best street scenes. You may not photograph attractions at the right time of day, either, which means that your photos won’t be as good as they can possibly be.
Of course, when you’re on a trip and you’re crunched for time, scouting may seem impractical, which is why I recommend a scouting approach that relies heavily on pre-trip research. Here’s what you should do:
- In the months leading up to your trip, do some thorough research on the internet. Everyone’s process is different, but you might consider looking at other photos captured at the location, articles discussing key photography spots, or even satellite images on Google Earth.
- Make a list of all the key locations you want to photograph. Consider the position of the sun and how it will affect your opportunities. Determine whether each location is best visited at sunrise, sunset, or midday. And feel free to prepare a shot list for on-location use.
- When you arrive at your destination, consider walking to the local tourist information center. Ask the staff for any recommendations, as they’ve often spent a lot of time on the ground and have likely interacted with plenty of photographers. If you have the time and money, you might even ask whether there are any local guides or fellow photographers who can show you some of the best areas.
- Finally, use all of your research and planning to tackle each opportunity.
While the scouting approach I share above will certainly work well, if you do happen to have extra time on your trip – especially if the light isn’t cooperating for photography – some in-person scouting can certainly be beneficial. You can always have fun walking to different locations and considering possible shots, which you can use in the days to come.
One caveat, however: You need to be prepared to drop everything and change your approach at a moment’s notice. When traveling, things can happen: the weather might not cooperate, your transportation might fail, or (on a more positive note!) you might run into a better opportunity. Don’t focus so much on your plans that you fail to adapt to real-life conditions.
8. Ask for portraits
We’d all love to grab those beautiful travel portraits – the kind of images that express the subject’s culture and character – but many of us choose to fire off a telephoto shot from across the street out of fear of rejection.
Here’s the thing, though: up-close, personal, intimate portraits are so much better than images taken from a distance. And plenty of people are happy to pose for a moment while you take your shot, provided you ask for permission.
So take a deep breath and just go for it. Say, “Excuse me, could I take your photo?” The worst that could happen is that they decline – which, when you think about it, is not actually that bad. Plus, chances are that they will smile and nod their head in agreement. Then you can capture an image or two.
(If you’re photographing someone who doesn’t speak your language, you can generally catch their attention and just point to your camera.)
By the way, if a person does agree to sit for an image, then be sure to thank them and show them the LCD monitor afterward. You might even take a handful of images, especially if they seem relaxed. But don’t linger. When it’s time to move on, then move on.
One more tip: When you do find someone who’s willing to pose for you, take the time to adjust your camera settings and choose a composition that’ll give you a good result. Make sure you get on their level, use a wider aperture to create background blur (or a narrower aperture to keep the surroundings in focus), and watch out for background distractions.
9. Take proper precautions
Most places are relatively safe. But even the safest places have their rough parts, and you – as a tourist carrying thousands of dollars worth of equipment – are often an ideal target.
So when you’re out shooting, be careful. Always tell someone where you’re headed, never take more gear than is necessary, carefully check your routes in advance, and even as you shoot, pay attention to your surroundings. If you feel uncomfortable in a certain area, then consider moving on.
I also recommend you take certain steps prior to your trip. Take out adequate travel insurance – that way, if you get injured or sick, you won’t have to pay thousands of dollars for medical care. And get an insurance policy on your gear. Some policies even pay for emergency gear rentals in the event that your equipment is stolen.
(Note: Before purchasing travel or gear insurance, be sure to check the policy carefully. You may find that certain activities and situations aren’t covered, such as adventurous activities and gear water damage. The devil is in the details!)
Also, invest in solid luggage locks and maybe even an anti-theft bag (there are plenty of good ones designed specifically for photographers!). And pocket a small amount of local currency in an easy-to-reach place, then keep the rest of your cash elsewhere.
Finally, keep a list of emergency numbers and phrases on your person. It might seem like overkill, but better safe than sorry, right?
10. Think outside the box
Photography is all about creativity. But if you only shoot the obvious travel photography ideas – the kind that you’ll find in any tourist guidebook – then you’re bound to feel uninspired, bored, and (pretty soon) burned out.
Of course, certain views are popular for a reason. They often look strikingly beautiful, and it can be fun to capture your own version of a timeless image, even if it’s not strictly original.
So have your fun. Take the popular shots. But then go farther. Look for unique angles and compositions and lighting. Consider your creative possibilities, such as shallow depth of field effects and even intentional camera movement techniques. Try to see the scene from a perspective that is very you.
My recommendation? Limit yourself to ten safe photos, where you focus on nailing the exposure and other technical qualities. Then unleash your creativity.
A few ideas for original images:
- Shoot from the ground with a wide-angle lens (even if it makes you dirty!)
- Climb some stairs and shoot from above
- Wait for dusk, mount your camera on a tripod, and slow down the shutter speed (to capture a stunning shot full of beautiful light and colors)
- Work on compositions with leading lines, diagonals, and frame-within-a-frame elements
Really, the sky is the limit. It’s art, after all. So flex those artistic muscles!
11. Research your location
Technically, this is part of the scouting process, but it’s so important that I decided to give it a section of its own.
When I say that you should “research,” I’m not just referring to shooting locations, scenic vistas, and so on. I mean that you should really dive into the culture and history of your travel destination. Try to understand what’s unique about the location. Try to understand what living in the location is truly like. Try to understand why the buildings and the landscape look the way they do.
Then use your research to inform your images. If you discover that a certain building has an interesting history, go and photograph it (while paying careful attention to the way the history is expressed through the building). If you discover that a certain location has an unusually robust fishing industry, go and photograph the local workers.
Also, if you haven’t yet booked your travel arrangements, check the local calendar for spiritual or religious events, traditions, national holidays, and cultural celebrations. Then schedule your trip to coincide with one (or more) of these events. Visiting during the right time can offer an astonishing breadth of photographic opportunities, especially if you’re a fan of portrait and documentary images!
12. Post-process your travel photos
Post-processing is an essential part of all forms of photography, and travel shooting is no exception. While you don’t need to spend tons of time on each photo (unless you want to!), you should at least spend a bit of time in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, Capture One, or any other basic RAW processor.
Be sure to correct the white balance, do a bit of distortion correction, and adjust the exposure as needed. Then feel free to experiment with various other options that’ll give your images more pizazz: Crop to improve the composition, add a bit of saturation to make the colors pop, add some Clarity or Texture for improved crispness, and boost the contrast.
Over time, you’ll start to develop an editing style of your own, but when you’re first approaching travel photo editing, just have fun and see what you can create.
13. Do something with the images
So many beautiful images languish on hard drives. They go unshared. They go unviewed. They go unused.
Don’t let your hard work go to waste.
Once you’ve arrived back home after a trip, go through your images. Organize them carefully, find the best shots, and enhance them with editing.
Then consider what to do next. If you’ve bagged some wonderful photos, you could enter a travel photography competition. You might consider uploading the files to a stock site to gain a bit of extra revenue.
You might also use your images as the start of a portfolio, which you can use to approach magazines, travel guides, and tourism websites.
Finally, whether or not you decide to make money off your photos, be sure to share them with family and friends, either in person or on social media. You could even put together a little presentation where you discuss your travels, tell stories, and share your favorite shots.
Travel photography tips: final words
Travel photography may seem like hard work, but it’s a lot of fun, and it can be so rewarding.
So remember these tips. And the next time you go on a vacation, you’ll be guaranteed to capture some stunning photos!
Now over to you:
Which travel tip is your favorite? Which do you plan to follow? And where will you travel next? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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- ADVANCED GUIDES