5 Tips to Shake Up Your Travel Photography

5 Tips to Shake Up Your Travel Photography

I love to look at travel photography, but man, sometimes it can all just seem mind-numbingly similar.

Put a cabin, some rocks, grass, or sand in the foreground, a lake or ocean in the middle ground, and a sunset or mountain in the background, preferably during a slightly cloudy day.

Shake. Rinse. Repeat.

I do this frequently; everyone does.  But that’s the problem.  Sometimes we need to break away from the formulas of what we think photographs should look like.  We need to think outside of the box and try to do things a little differently.

So here are a few tips and thoughts to help you create unique travel photos.

1.  Forget the stock photos and focus on daily life.

Man with Croissants, Florence

Man with Bread, Florence.

When we’re in a new place, sometimes all we can think about is taking photos of the beautiful architecture, the monuments, and the wonders that we travelled to see.  We have these thoughts from the countless guide books we’ve read and from the imagery we’ve seen over the web.  We want to take those same pictures to have for ourselves (and we should take these photos.)  But these things are not necessarily what gives a place its essence and its soul.

Stop and think about how you feel.  What is it that is creating that feeling?  Is it that tiny, bustling restaurant, lit up at night and filled with regulars?  Is it the well dressed men in expensive suits and shoes riding their bicycles to work?  Is it the chaos and constant traffic on the streets?  Is it the food vendors on the side of the road?  Is it the fresh bread and cheese?

For instance, what describes Italy better?  Is it your typical capture of the Duomo or the Ponte Vecchio, or is it a detail shot of an older man in a well-made suit walking on wet cobblestones and bringing home fresh bread at the end of the day?

2.  Combine the old with the new.

Old Florence Door with Pizza Menu

Old Florence Door with Pizza Menu.

Old Florence Door with Pizza Menu Detail.

Detail Shot.

We all want to photograph another time period.  I would do anything to photograph the Venice or Florence of a couple hundred years ago.  Unfortunately, we can’t and we need to come to terms with that.  If we are walking around searching for only painterly moments that look like they were taken fifty or a hundred years ago then we will miss out on so many fascinating modern and poignant moments.

Try to seek out moments that combine the old and the new – that pay homage to the past but update it with a modern twist, such as the above shot of the old, ornate Florence door combined with the modern pizza delivery menu – a quirky take on a classic city.

Tattooed Gondolier

Tattooed Gondolier

3.  Turn your camera away from the sunset and shoot a “triptych”.

Sunsets are gorgeous but they can also be cheesy.  If you are like me then you’ve shot hundreds of them and they all sit on your harddrive, all looking basically the same.  Instead, turn your camera around and focus the colorful effects of the sunset on the local architecture or landscape.

Then, take this further by creating a triptych.  Over the course of a couple hours, the light from a sunset will constantly change colors, from orange, to purple, to blue.  Set up a tripod, grab a good book, and take identical shots of your surroundings with different color pallets.  Then, frame them side by side on your living room wall.  They will look stunning.

Manarola Sunset 1

Manarola Sunset 1

Manarola Sunset 2

Manarola Sunset 2

Manarola Sunset 3

Manarola Sunset 3

4. Combine a simple detail shot with a great story.

In 2005, I crashed a moped on the swirling roads outside of Siena.  My left arm and my Canon EF 24-70mm F2.8L lens still hold the scars to show for it (both are fine).  You know you’re a photographer when you crash a vehicle and the first thing you do is check to make sure your camera equipment is okay.

The moment when everything went wrong.

The moment when everything went wrong.

Arriving in Montalcino a couple days later and deathly afraid of mopeds, I intelligently decided that it would be a fun idea to rent a crappy bicycle and ride it down one of the tallest hills in all of Tuscany with a tripod and a huge bag of my heavy (and most of it unneeded) equipment.

The ride down was fantastically fun, speeding without ever having to pedal and stopping frequently to photograph the freakish grapes and old wineries.  After a significant amount of time going downhill, however, I suddenly realized that I would eventually have to return the way I came.  By this point I was too far invested and so I kept going downwards and photographed in the surrounding area for the rest of the day.

I returned to the gigantic hill exhausted at the end of the day, 6 kilometers from the top, but psyched myself up to make it up the hill.  I balanced myself on the cheap bike with my lenses and tripod on my back and proceeded to pedal hard and fast and sped up the hill confidently.  A minute of this confident pedaling later and my muscles froze.  I stopped, rolled off the bike, and proceeded to gingerly walk up the hill.  The next few hours were a miserable pattern of 5 minutes of walking and 30 seconds of riding.  I finally arrived at the town late in the evening starving, exhausted, and numb but euphorically relieved.

Unfortunately, I would soon realize that all of the restaurants had closed for the night and food was nowhere to be found.

5.  Capture the Locals.

Dock Worker, Sikinos

Dock Worker, Sikinos

Ultimately, it is the locals that give most destinations their true feeling, so go out and capture them!  Hang around in a busy area for an hour and do some people watching.  Capture the locals candidly as they go about their everyday lives.  Mix these shots with your shots of the local architecture, the details of daily life, the monuments and of your personal stories and you will have a more complete document of the destination when you return.

The point of this list of tips was not to say that you shouldn’t take the typical travel photos.  That’s just not true.  But you should also try to push yourself outside of the norm whenever possible.  Try to create the type of photos that stand out and are unique.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Travel Mirchee December 31, 2012 11:31 pm

    Hey James, I must say that your photography skills are on par, with me :D
    still congratulations for these fabulous pics.

  • Corinna July 19, 2012 07:06 pm

    I find your article very stimulating.
    Old and new, does this qualify?

  • Lena July 14, 2012 05:06 pm

    Aigars: I really don't know. Debconf is dreffient from a council fair in that there are probably many bloggers attending Debconf who get more viewers than the main conference site. So the issue is not so much what the conference publishes but what delegates publish. Also Debconf is dreffient in that delegates have to register and you can have ToS displayed at registration time, while with a fair anyone can walk in.My point in publishing this is not to suggest that Free Software conferences should do exactly the same but to show that there is a precedent that not everything one does in public should be subject to unrestricted photography.The discussion that occurred after LCA 2011 (see the above post) was never going to be the end of the issue not even if everyone involved had been nice about it. We are going to have many more discussions as this isn't an easy issue to solve.

  • Colin Burt July 7, 2012 10:03 am

    On a container ship trip recently to China and Korea this Chinese worker taking a break just sat down, right where he was, amongst all the dockyard machinery. No recreation hut, no pie warmer, but they turn a ship around in hours, not days.


  • Mary-Ann Hill July 6, 2012 07:26 pm

    When on holiday, I've been in the habit of taking photos only of buildings and scenes and family and friends rather than "slice of life" people or "opportunity to tell a story" kind of photos. Mainly because I've been shy about focussing on people in public that I don't know. Guess if I want to get more memorable shots I'll have to get over that. I've been to Cinque Terra so immediately identified Manarola as one of its villages, aren't they so picturesque being carved into small pockets right on top of the sea! And the colours, beautiful, dreamy... Thanks for a great article. Cheers, Mary-Ann

  • Nate @yomadic July 6, 2012 11:17 am

    Great article. I've started taking street-photography series, as my "travel photography". My goal is to take photos on the city streets all around the world. This is one of the series:


  • Kerryn July 6, 2012 10:38 am

    Thanks, great article. It was nice to read and affirm the things I do on holidays, some of my favourite pics end up being of tge locals doing their thing. Sometimes it is the stuff going on around the buildings that really express the purpose and bring out the beauty.
    Thanks for inspiring!

  • Kenneth Hyam July 6, 2012 07:15 am

    Terrific article, James! I like the humourous anecdotes which are also I think rekevant to the taking or making of good pictures. The bicycle journey sounds like true dedication. The sunset pictures are amazing, with the dramatic changes in light. I think candids don't always mean asking permision to photograph, as then they become snaps or portraits, no longer real candids.
    Thanks for the tips!

  • Julia July 6, 2012 06:01 am

    Thanks for those tips! Definitely some new inspiration. Shooting the locals is sometimes easier said than done - once they notice you, the magic of just capturing a picture of them while they are going about their every day business is gone. At times I find that a real challenge!

  • Philip July 6, 2012 04:38 am

    The author does a great job of suggesting how to spruce-up a set of ho-hum photos (BUT all the relatives want to see these) from a vacation by adding-in vivid shots which tell about the enviornment and the people there.
    There appears to be a typo in the title of the #3 photos (Manarola). I think the author meant "triptych" (phonetically: "trip-tick") instead of tryptic.

  • HOOP July 6, 2012 04:30 am

    A technical point: the 3 images which you are calling a tryptic are really a "series". The tryptic 3 images) and dyptic (2 images) formats come from the 1300's style of painting for alterpieces for churches. They usually contain 3 or 2 images that relate in some manner (color, subject matter, etc) but are not the exact same scene shot 3 times over a period of time. That type of set of photographs is known as a "photo series", similar to the same birch tree shot in all 4 seasons, that tells contextual differences over time. Nice photos, good idea, wrong name, that's all.

  • Nancy July 6, 2012 04:24 am

    This was a fantastic article...and I loved the photographs - in particular, the man with bread and the tryptic . Thanks for re-emphasizing what many of us know but tend to forget--sometimes the exciting is in the mundane!

  • James Gonneau July 6, 2012 04:08 am

    Very relevant article. I think all our hard drives will thank us when we cut down on the "oh, I need to shoot that again with a different f/stop" :-)

    While there are as many definitions of what travel photography is (or landscape photography or nature photography...etc), I think most would say its something like: wow, would I ever like to go there and see that. And there is always the argument of "no, that's just a snapshot, not REALLY a travel photo".

    One thing, though, being on a cruise ship 5 stories up does give you a different perspective of "capturing the locals".

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesgonneau/5386510920/' title='San Juan 3' url='http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5212/5386510920_a476c06270_z.jpg']

  • Philip July 6, 2012 01:46 am

    The author does a fine job of pointing out how to go about creating art-form from an otherwise ho-hum travel-set of photos (I mean, mixing the art-form with the ho-hums). I think there may be a typo when the text refers to taking "tryptic" photos (as demonstrated in the Manarola shots). I believe the correct term is "tripthych" (phonetically, it sounds like "trip-tick")

  • Nightrider June 29, 2012 04:13 am

    I totally agree. Sunsets can be repetitious. I have a bunch on in my Lightroom and I am just about getting tired of it even though they all are spectacular shots. I will take the surroundings from now on, using my remote and keep clicking away at different intervals. Great idea. I also will try the time-lapse which I can easily set up on my Nikon D7000. Worth the try.

    Second, I have always taken pics. of locals. It tells the story. You are right again. I look at them time and time again. They are unique. No one else have them as the way I have.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 29, 2012 12:53 am


    Travel photography does not have to be isolated to spectacular landscapes and street scenes....look for fun places to go (not that those mentioned are not) like a street fair or county fair. There are so many cool subjects, it is mind blowing! You can also practice your motion blur photography...like this classic Ferris Wheel shot from San Diego County Fair!


  • Steve June 28, 2012 09:12 pm

    I love the manarola 3 shot, just as the lights are coming on! these are some great tips, thanks :)

  • Natalie June 28, 2012 07:14 pm

    Really love the tryptic idea too, definitely going to try that. Your example images are gorgeous!

  • Badflea June 28, 2012 05:58 pm

    Nice post! I always try to find new points of view during my travel...Here's one of my best...The train in the Hanoi downtown doesn't stop the home work of the old woman....There is a mix of old, new and lifestyle!

    Sorry for the italian


  • Sonia June 28, 2012 05:50 pm

    Wonderful article, definitely gives me a lot to think about and explore! Hmm, I better start to think about my next trip!

  • Mei Teng June 28, 2012 10:35 am

    Love the tryptic idea. And beautiful photos!

  • Scottc June 28, 2012 09:23 am

    Great tips!


  • Mikhail Anand June 28, 2012 08:48 am

    nice article..i mainly take pictures of locals and look for interesting scenes wherever i live..will try out trptic soon

  • Marcus S Davis June 28, 2012 08:29 am

    Yes, this is a great article. I'm going on a cruise to Europe next year and these ideas will be great for pushing me out of the box.

    Your story about the hill was great. I had the same feeling after 45 minutes in a surf lesson and dead-tired arms, catching a great wave that took me all the way in to shore, then realizing I had to paddle that much further to get back out in the ocean. Oh well. lol

    I can't wait to try the tryptic.

  • EnergizedAV June 28, 2012 05:51 am

    Can't wait to try the "tryptic"
    Here's an example of "Focus on daily life" (kind of)
    Nice post, Thank you.

  • James Maher June 28, 2012 05:44 am

    Woops! I made a note to find out what type of bread they were and fix that - but I forgot. Just googled Bocconcini though and it looks like it's a type of cheese. Anyone know what type of bread that is?

  • mmx June 28, 2012 05:36 am

    Nice article except .. they are "bocconcini" (a kind of bread) not croissants.

  • MikeC366 June 28, 2012 05:34 am

    Great article, has given me some more ideas for my next trip. I tried to capture locals when the Olympic Flame arrived in Doncaster yesterday. http://wp.me/p268wp-jF
    Hope I succeeded.

  • Marcel Borgstijn June 28, 2012 05:06 am

    Great article. Love the idea of not photographing by the rules, but do as you like. First of all you shoot for your own fun. If other appreciate it, well, that's a fine thing, but not the goal.

    The tryptic really is stunning. Will try that someday.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Alexx June 28, 2012 04:12 am

    I love love love this post! Im beginning travel journalism soon so this was very helpful! Thank you!


  • John June 28, 2012 04:07 am

    Very nice article. Love the story glad to hear that both you and the camera came out of it okay!

    "You know you’re a photographer when you crash a vehicle and the first thing you do is check to make sure your camera equipment is okay."

    Haha so true - When I tripped hiking and went tumbling down a hill first thing I checked was to make sure my camera still shot a clear photo then I tended to myself. :)

  • Hank Snafflerife June 28, 2012 03:12 am

    Thank you good sir. I am a traveller, and a photographer, and your tips are jolly good.

  • Steve June 28, 2012 02:54 am

    Good article. If I am travelling I always like to go down the backstreets and look away from the tourist areas.
    In this example I came across this scene which portrays the real Spain