7 Proven Ways to Come Home with Better Travel Photos

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It s all about the light

Your next vacation or around-the-world escapade is the perfect time to brush up on your photography skills.

After all, taking a great photograph is never more important than when you’re seeing people and places you may never see again. Travel opens your eyes to other cultures, and if you prepare before you leave, it can also open the eye of your camera lens to infinite possibilities.

But first things first – let’s make sure you have a basic understanding of photography before you step onto the plane. Here’s a list of seven proven ways to come home with better travel photos.

#1 Take a good look at your gear

You don’t need to spend a million dollars on crazy-expensive gear. However, you do need a camera from this century. Better yet, a camera that was made in the last five years. Technology is changing so rapidly that you’re really going to notice a difference with newer cameras.

Also, don’t be afraid to check out the new lightweight DSLR cameras that are all the rage. You may feel cooler hauling around a huge Nikon D5300, but a more compact model can take great pictures too (plus compact is always better when you’re traveling).

#2 Get intimate with your settings

Get intimate with your settings

You haven’t just been leaving your camera in Auto mode, have you? What fun is that? Now I’m not saying you have to learn how to manually focus before you take-off for say, Fiji, but at least get familiar with these three need-to-know settings (the Exposure Triangle) on your DSLR camera.

#3 Do your research

Dive into Google Images, Flickr, or 500px to look for photos (and photographers) you love. Choose at least three travel photographers and follow their blogs.

Not only will get some great ideas for photographs, you’ll be able to find tips and techniques for getting specific effects you’ve seen in the photos you admire.

#4 Get to know your subject

Get to know your subject

Photographing people is one of the most exciting parts of travel photography. Imagine getting great shots of Buddhist monks in Laos, a tribesman in the African bush, or mountain people in the Himalayas. But you’re not just going to walk up to someone you’ve never spoken to and stick a camera in their face (promise me you won’t do that).

So how are you supposed to approach your subject? The #1 tip is to make friends first. That can be tough in and of itself when there is a language barrier, but it’s not impossible. Read: Practical tips to build your street photography confidence (which also applies when travelling).

#5 Get lost

Get Lost

You’re not going to get great travel photographs taking pictures of the monuments and sites that every other tourist on earth has already photographed. When you travel, get lost! Venture out into villages and unknown areas that no one else goes to. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path.

The most exciting photos you’ll take won’t be of the Empire State Building, they’ll be of the ancient bartender in that random dive bar in Astoria, Queens (the one you never would have found if you hadn’t gotten completely lost).

#6 Get close

Repeat after me: “I will not be a lazy photographer.”

Get close

Lazy photographers use lenses instead of legs. I want you to use those legs of yours to walk, run, jump, swim, crouch, bend, and move any way you can to get close to your subject. Why? Because the simple act of getting close to your subject will drastically improve your travel photographs.

Once you’ve followed step #4, don’t be afraid to put your camera as close as possible to your subject, sometimes right in their face even.

Disclaimer: this tip does NOT apply to house fires, political violence, or wildlife safaris.

#7 It’s all about the light

It s all about the light

The other day a student of mine showed me a photograph that was taken in the middle of the day, under the hot Hoi An sun. There were several problems with the shot, but the main reason it looked flat and lifeless was simply because of the time of day it was taken.

I told her what I tell everyone; don’t bother getting out your camera between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. The light is too harsh. Get up before the sun and/or wait until the sun is about to set, and you’ll enjoy amazing light that will work wonders for your photographs.

That same student sent me a photo the following day, this time taken just before sunset. It was 10x better. Had she suddenly become a better photographer in less than 24 hours? Yes. But only because she learned to tell time.

Follow these seven tips and I have no doubt you’ll be taking amazing travel photographs on your next trip. Have any additional tips you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments below.

Safe travels!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Etienne Bossot Etienne Bossot is a French photographer whoโ€™s been based in Hoi An, Vietnam for the past 7 years. In addition to shooting commercial, destination weddings and travel assignments for local publications and international corporations, Etienne runs a variety of photography tours and workshops throughout Southeast Asia.

  • Super article Etienne!

  • Bill Bentley

    Etienne, the article is titled travel photography. Do you sit in your hotel room between 8-4? Yes, golden hour is of course the nicest light, but plenty of amazing images can be made during the day. Shopkeepers and industry often close before sunset. I was hoping to read about some tips to deal with the challenges of bright daytime shooting, such as rule No. 1 is to use a quality polarizing filter, etc.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    excellent, it is so surprising that the cheap compact camera could capture such shallow of depth photo #4. And there are so many photographers get killed & captured because they are using their legs in battle field ;). Great Article.

  • Bill, of course there are plenty of photos to take during the day, but the goal of my article was to show people what they can do at times they usually stay in bed.

    Of course things always look more beautiful early morning and late afternoon, it offers the kind of light cameras love to capture.

    While shooting in the middle of the day is much more challenging, as you mentioned. One has to be much more creative with their composition to manage to get something nice, such as playing with colors, patterns, repetitions and shapes for example.

    http://500px.com/photo/23648151/walking-to-lunch-by-etienne-bossot?from=user_library

    The use of a polarizing filter will only help saturate some colors more, not sure this has to be a rule #1 thing.

  • Merci Jean Paul. De tres belles photos sur Flickr, je follow! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • namberak

    “You may feel cooler hauling around a huge Nikon D5300…” Uh, should I get rid of the 5300 I bought last year, that all my lenses mount to, in favor of something smaller? Um, I think not. ๐Ÿ™‚ Seriously though, it’s not much bigger than Nikon (and Canon’s) higher end ‘point and shoots’ and it’s certainly smaller and lighter than the D90 I carted around for so many years. I would also submit that great travel photography is *not* about the camera. The right camera is the one you feel confident in, IMHO.

  • Deb

    Wonderful photos. I disagree with #1 though. There are many photographers still happily using film, and if they are comfortable using their older cameras and dealing with film and while following all the other points, they have just as much chance of getting great travel photos, if not a better chance.

  • Heidi Johns

    As I read this article I was thinking how familiar the words seemed, and then I got to the end and realised it was Etienne! I enjoyed our time with you in Hoi An, photographing in that perfect light! Great article, and useful tips . Thanks for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I agree the polarizer doesn’t fix direction of light which is overhead, or quality of light which is harsh. I also agree there are many good subjects and ways to shoot at midday.

  • great image!

  • thanks Heidi! It’s a small world isn’t it? ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Dave

    Shooting during the “Golden Hours” is ideal, but you’ll be visiting areas throughout the day. I find that shooting in Raw allows me to adjust Contrast and Saturation judiciously in Raw conversion to make some of the images taken midday more appealing. (Don’t get carried away). Also, during the middle of the day, move in closer, show less sky and show more people or architectural details, etc.

  • Geoff

    #4 is highly debateable, Etienne. Photographing people doesn’t have to be a choice between ‘sticking a camera in their face’ or ‘making friends’. If you’re looking for unposed images and not smiley faces then observation, timing, patience, positioning, instinct and experience can get the desired results.
    Personally I never ask permission or introduce myself to subjects because by doing so any spontaneity is gone. It’s the glance or gesture that I’m looking for, not a cheesy grin at the birdy.
    Here’s a couple of my results…
    https://www.behance.net/gallery/18123683/London-calling

  • Geoff, yes I also agree with you.l This is a discussion I already had with another fellow photographer (http://www.picsofasia.com/2014/03/11/getting-close-staying-far-subject-discussion/).

    Basically, yes, when getting close to the subject, we lose the dynamism of being natural. But then, a new dynamic is created, and our subject may become natural again, or getting back to do what they were doing in the first place. Then, we and our subjects are more comfortable, and have much more clues about the composition.

  • filarc

    you can see photo of birds on http://www.mp3chardonneret.blogspot.com

  • Andy Whiteman

    Interesting article. It’s great to take photos early and late but I’ve have also taken good shots in v bright light. Also have to disagree with your comment about age of your camera – I use a D300 and a D7K -they are great cameras I’m not interested in constant technology upgrades. D300 performs great up to 1600ASA and the D7K higher. Wish manufacturers would sell sensor/firmware upgrades – would be much more sustainable/green and would save throwing away great pieces of kit. With regard to weight yep my D300 with a 18-250 Sigma zoom is a bit of a lump but you get used to it – the Fuji range is lighter (body only) but once you bolt on their latest zoom there’s not as much in it. In 5 years time I’ll probably buy a D750 which, by then, will be totally past its sell by date but still a great camera and at that time who knows what the latest technology will be…implants in my forehead so my eyes take the photos?

  • Kushnav

    Great article! I loved your bottoms-up approach and I personally know that it can work wonders!

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