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7 Common Mistakes That Could be Ruining Your Travel Photos

Have you ever been disappointed when you’ve seen your travel photos after returning from a trip? Travel photography is incredibly easy these days with the plethora of different camera equipment, but making images that are unique, and really capture the essence and emotion of a destination isn’t easy. Those beautiful travel images in magazine and brochures often don’t happen by accident. It takes hard work, dedication, and persistence to capture great travel photos. Here are some of the common mistakes that could be ruining your travel photos.

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1 – Not enough research done ahead of time

If you want to capture any destination at its best, you have to spend time researching it and understanding as much as you can about it before you go. I was once told that to be a travel photographer you have to be the most informed tourist in town. Besides the obvious places of interest and highlights of a destination, you need to understand customs and traditions, local foods and communities, and what makes each place unique and different. You then need to research and be completely in sync with all the elements such as the weather, the direction and intensity of the light, and even pollution and visibility levels. In addition to all of that you also need to understand what imagery already exists for the destination you are visiting, so that you can make your images unique in order to stand out from the crowd.

This location is not a well known place on one of the Orkney Islands off Scotland. It was only through extensive research and looking at walking maps that I was able to find it.

This location is not a well known place on one of the Orkney Islands off Scotland. It was only through extensive research and looking at walking maps that I was able to find it.

2 – Trying to do too much

The main reason for researching a destination thoroughly, is to be able to gauge exactly how much you can do. One thing that I always find incredible is the number of photographers I see who turn up at a scene, spend a few minutes taking photos, and then move on to the next.

Every now and then you will get lucky and all of the elements are right for the perfect photo, but the majority of the time you have to be prepared to wait. The key is to put together a realistic shot list before you leave home so that you are always aware of where you need to be and when. You need to factor in travel times, including the possibilities of traffic and delays. The key is to not cram too much into your shot list, so that you can spend enough time at a specific location and wait for the right photo. Remember that it is far better to return from a trip with six outstanding photos, than 50 mediocre ones.

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I had to wait around an hour for the light to change and be a little softer before being able to capture this photo.

3 – You’re too far away

The famous Magnum photographer, Robert Capa once said that, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”.  With the advances in zoom cameras and lenses, it is far too easy these days to stand back and rely on the technology to get us close to the action. Obviously at certain times there is a necessity to stand back and capture the wide scene, but often people rely on their cameras or lenses in scenarios where they need to get closer to their subject because of shyness.

Being closer makes the image much more intimate and also builds a connection if, for example, you are photographing a person. One of the best ways to practice getting closer to your subject is by setting yourself the task that you are not going to use your zoom at all. This way you are forced to actually move around and get closer if you need to.

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Getting close to your subject makes for much more intimate photos.

4 – Taking tourist shots

I was recently speaking to the Art Director of a large British travel magazine and he told me that 99% of the images he receives from prospective photographers are what he considered tourist shots – the type that you see on post cards. More and more these days picture editors are looking for photos that are unique, or are a different take on an established setting or place.

The only way to achieve this is to firstly do your research so you understand what already exists, but also spend time analyzing and composing the image before taking the picture. Try to think about what the story of the photograph is, and what elements could make it better. It might be that the beautiful landscape before you could work better with a person to show a sense of scale. Or it could be that you actually need less of a crowd. The key is to critic the composition and return to the scene if you need to.

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This mosaic of Christ is one of the most photographed parts of Hagia Sofia. Including a tourist in the shot tells this story and is the reason this image was used in the magazine.

5 – Settling for the first photo

It’s very rare for me to ever choose a photo that is my very first shot from a location (although it does sometimes happen). Most people make the mistake of settling for their first photo and moving on to the next location. Unless you have all the elements in place – like the perfect subject and composition, light and weather, you are compromising the final result.

A huge part of this is planning and your shot list, and if you have set yourself enough time at a location, you will be willing to hang around until you can get it right. So the next time you are at a location and you have taken the first shot, spend a few minutes and just analyze the scene before taking your second or third shot.  You will be surprised how often your second, third or fourth photo becomes the best one.

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My first few photos of this scene didn’t have anyone in it and they looked pretty uninteresting. It was only after waiting, and taking more time, that I managed to capture this shot.

6 – Not being ready

As a travel photographer you often have to wait for the right time to capture the perfect photo, but sometimes fleeting moments will present themselves that require quick action. These are moments that will be unlikely to happen again so it is imperative that you are ready to take a picture at a moment’s notice. This means having your camera charged, switched on, and the lens cap off. The last thing you will want is to have to try and get your camera out of your bag or change batteries, and miss the opportunity. You will also need to have a complete understanding of your camera and settings, and how to use everything. This all comes with practice and experience but in time it will become second nature to you.

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I only managed to snap one photo of this couple before the man stood up. You always need to be ready.

7 – Missing the best light

Light plays a major role in how your photos look. For any sort of outdoor photography, light is one of the key elements that can make a great photo. It’s no secret that early morning and late afternoon offers the best light for outdoor photography. The soft golden light can transform a scene that would normally be mundane, into a captivating photograph, so it is important to plan your shoot accordingly to maximize these few hours of the day.

But certain locations or subjects are photographed best at different times of the day, at different times of the year. The key is to ensure that you are always aiming to photograph your subject at the best possible time.

Easy morning and late afternoon offers wonderful light for outdoor photography.

Easy mornings and late afternoons offer wonderful light for outdoor photography.

Capturing great photos on your travels, whether you plan on selling them or shoot just for your own personal use, can be incredibly rewarding. Not only will it give you wonderful photographic memories of your trip, but can often enhance your experience of the destination as you spend more time looking and returning to places. Make sure you avoid some of these common mistakes and you will hopefully capture some truly unique photos.

Any other common mistakes people make when photographing on their travels? Are you guilty of any of these mentioned above or some others? Please share your thoughts below.

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Kav Dadfar
Kav Dadfar

is a professional travel photographer, writer and photo tour leader based in the UK. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images and Robert Harding World Imagery and they have been used by clients such as Condé Nast, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, and many others. Kav is also the co-founder of That Wild Idea, a company specializing in photography workshops and tours both in the UK and around the world. Find out more at That Wild Idea.