8 Elementary Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid When Starting Out

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Starting out in photography may seem like a daunting task. There are so many things to learn and practice that sometimes it can seem like an impossible task. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts and if you want to take better photos then you need to be willing to put the hours of practice and learning in.

The good news is that these days there are lots of resources online that can help you. To get you started here are 8 elementary travel photography mistakes to cut out when starting in photography.

temple in asia in golden light -  Travel Photography Mistakes

Mistake #1 – Setting Your Camera On Auto

It always amazes me when I see newbie photographers with the latest expensive DSLR, using the auto mode. Besides capturing better quality photos from a resolution point of view, the other main benefit of DSLRs is the amount of control that you have over the photo taking process.

Admittedly auto functions on cameras are a lot better these days. But often it means compromises which are not necessarily best for the image. For example, if your camera is setting your ISO too high you will get a lot of noise in your photo. Instead, you may decide that actually underexposing your image slightly, which you can then adjust in post-production, will be a better compromise than extra noise.

But the biggest reason you should avoid auto mode when starting out is that it will stop you from learning. You need to learn to be able to set your shutter speed and aperture. You need to learn when and how much to raise your ISO by because it’s the only way that you can have full control over the final outcome.

auto mode on DSLR -  Travel Photography Mistakes

Mistake #2 – Shooting in JPEG

I can’t see any reason why anyone would want to shoot in JPEG format with a DSLR camera. Unless you are on a specific brief that requires instant upload of the images to the client, capturing JPEGs shouldn’t be an option. The only reason that people use JPEG mode in the camera is to save disk space.

But ask yourself if it’s worth compromising the quality of the photo for the sake of buying a couple more memory cards?

If your camera has RAW files (which all DSLRs and most mirrorless and compact cameras do these days) that’s what you should use. It gives so much more flexibility when it comes to post-processing, supplying images to clients, and even printing them out.

Even if you plan to only use your images on social media you are better off capturing the images in RAW, post-processing them and then saving them as JPEGs.

raw setting on a DSLR menu -  Travel Photography Mistakes

Mistake #3 – ISO Too High

A few years ago I remember bumping into an amateur photographer in Vietnam. As we got talking it became apparent that he didn’t understand what ISO actually was and how it affected his photos. He just assumed it was a number that allowed him to take photos in most conditions. So while his ISO was at 6400, his shutter speed was 1/4000th.

For those of us who were photographing in the days of film, ISO was the sensitivity of the film to light. So if you wanted to capture photos in darker conditions you would use a roll of film with a higher ISO.

This concept is exactly the same now in digital photography. The higher your ISO the more sensitive the camera’s sensor is to light. The downside of this is that the higher your ISO is, the more noise you will get in your image.

So while the amateur photographer I met was able to capture photos in any and lighting conditions, all of his images when zoomed-in were soft and grainy. So one of the biggest tips for any aspiring photographer is to always keep your ISO as low a possible and only increase it as much as you have to in order to get the shot.

The Kremlin -  Travel Photography Mistakes

Image taken at 4000 ISO means noise and an image lacking sharpness.

Mistake #4 – Shutter Speed too Slow

One of the biggest struggles for newbie photographers is often capturing sharp images. One reason could be that the camera has been focused on the wrong part of the image. The other big reason is often that the photographer didn’t use a fast enough shutter speed.

At slow shutter speeds of 1/60th or slower, you simply will not be able to hold the camera steady enough for sharp photos. Even 1/60th for some people might be too slow so it’s worth testing this when you are starting out.

Start capturing photos of the same subject at 1/100th all the way down until the image is blurred. You’ll then know how slow you can go. But your shutter speed is also dependent on how fast the object that you are photographing is moving and the lens you’re using.

For example, you might be able to capture a photo of someone running with a shutter speed of 1/250th. But a fast-moving car would need a faster shutter speed to freeze it. If you’re using a 300mm lens you will also need a faster shutter speed (keep the shutter speed as a reciprocal of the focal length so 1/300th).

With experience you will learn what shutter speed you will need so make sure you practice photographing different moving objects.

blurry trumpet player -  Travel Photography Mistakes

Shot at 1/40th of a second. This was not fast enough to freeze the action so the image is blurred.

Mistake #5 – Photographing at Midday

For any outdoor photography, light is often the key component of turning an okay image into a great image. As such photographing at midday when it’s bright and sunny will usually mean your images will look flat as the harsh light washes out shadows. So try to avoid photographing around midday and instead build your shoot around early morning or late afternoon/evening.

 Travel Photography Mistakes - two guys by a lake

The light is too harsh and so the image looks flat.

Mistake #6 – Not Being Ready

One of the great satisfactions for photographers is capturing those fleeting moments that would otherwise be missed. But to do that you have to be ready.

That means having your camera out of your bag, turned on, with the lens cap off. You should also get into the habit of adjusting your settings as you are moving around to cater for the conditions so that you are ready to capture the image when the opportunity arises.

rural farm with pigs in Asia -  Travel Photography Mistakes

Mistake #7 – Highlights / Shadows Clipped

One of the key tools for you as a photographer is the histogram. Even if you don’t fully learn or understand how to read one, the one thing you should know is how to use it to see if your highlights and shadows are within an acceptable range.

Highlights are bright areas in your photos and shadows are dark areas. If your highlights are too bright they may actually be completely white with no detail at all. Similarly, if your shadows are too dark they will be completely black. This is called “clipping”.

The best way to check this at the time of taking the photo or in post-production is to use your histogram. If any part of the histogram is cut off on the left there are pure black areas in your image and if it is cut off on the right there are pure white areas in your image.

By spotting this on your histogram you can either adjust your settings to avoid clipping or fix any issues in post-production.

photo with clipped areas -  Travel Photography Mistakes

The areas highlighted in red are pure white and the areas highlighted in blue are pure black. In other words, those areas are “clipped” and will have no detail.

Mistake #8 – Photo Not Straight

Whether you are an advocate of post-processing or someone who doesn’t believe photos should be altered, the one thing that you should always do is to ensure that your images are straight.

Of course, it is best to get things right in-camera when you are taking the photo. Some DSLRs have various elements to help you get your image straight when you look through the viewfinder or on the LCD screen.

But if you find that your image is not straight, make sure you fix it in post-production.

grid view on a DSLR screen -  Travel Photography Mistakes

Conclusion

Most people who start out in photography will make some of these mistakes along the way. The important thing is to learn from them and move on. But if you can cut these mistakes out from the start you’ll be well on your way to capturing better photos.

Have you made any mistakes that others should avoid? Please share your experiences below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Kav Dadfar is a professional travel photographer based in the UK. His images are represented by stock agencies such as 4Corners Images, Robert Harding World Imagery, Getty and Axiom Photographic and they have been used by clients such as Condé Nast, National Geographic, Wanderlust travel magazine, Lonely Planet, American Express, and many others. To keep up to date with his latest news follow him on his Facebook page

  • Jacqueline

    What a beautiful capture of Wat Arun! I am in Bangkok next month for the first time. What is the best place across the river to set up for this view? Thank you so much for the tips!

  • sdreamer

    For #1 I agree and disagree. A lot of times I shoot auto mainly when traveling. This lets me focus more on framing. For an enthusiast or someone looking to get into the field this should lead into learning more manual controls. You’ll review your photos and see what went wrong then figure out how to fix it and a lot of the times it’s moving out of auto into program mode. Then as it goes on moving to shutter or aperture priority then into full manual. If you can’t get past shooting in auto after you review photos and just live with it that type of person will never have the drive to go past auto and just wanted the latest and greatest to shoot with. I don’t think it’s a sin to shoot auto when starting out.
    #5 is almost impossible for people just starting out. Unless you’re sole mission is to capture far off locations, most people are traveling for leisure and/or family. I definitely agree midday is harsh but instead of completely avoiding it maybe suggest what can be done to help such as bracketing and post processing. Again another obstacle that could be used for learning instead of just writing off. Plan your trips around light maybe put less important locations midday for the itinerary, try to fix post processing and keep the places you want in the best light. #7 ties with this as you get more clipping from that harsh light. I’ve made this mistake and the only solution is to learn what I can do, plan better, and take another trip 😉

  • Starting out definitely feels very overwhelming, I tried couple times and learning about balance between all the elements made me quit. But this is a comprehensive article which makes it all look a bit easier – maybe I’ll try again!

  • jsm1963

    Seems like it would have been handy to show the historgram of the clipped photo.

  • H Shaheen

    I agree with all but one of the “mistakes” to avoid. As a non-professional, I often do not have the luxury of being able to take photos early in the morning or late afternoon/early evening. If I were to do that on my travels I would have to forgo taking photos of a significant number of subjects. If one has time at a location and the flexibility to be at a particular spot at a particular time during ideal light conditions then early morning/late afternoon is clearly more optimal than midday.

  • Topic_goes_here

    Another list said not to make the mistake of not taking one’s time to observe and set up a shot. For me, photogenic places and moments occur on family vacations, I can take only the amount of time that my wife lets me. Ha. 🙂

  • Tom Cooper

    @Ana Kral, – one of the worst things you can do is try to master everything all at once. You will almost always fail.

    Get out and try just a few things. Practice the craft of photography, and try to notice when you are getting better results. Even if your photos are not what you would like, if they’re better than before then you have made progress. Eventually, some things will become second nature.
    Then it is time to learn more.

    Keep trying and keep learning.

  • Robby Bottom

    Thank you so much for this article. I am leaving in three weeks for South Eastern Europe and am so nervous about what I will be able to photograph. I did a class once and they said not to use RAW so I appreciate those comments. I do know about the midday comments and I know that is right but sometimes, that is the only time you have to capture something, unless you have the luxury of being in the one place for a longer period of time. I so much appreciate your expertise and hope that this old brain can remember even half of it. Thank you again.

  • Michael Barnes

    not completely comfortable with some of points raised:

    “setting your camera on auto”. so what if i want the camera to do the heavy lifting? i can certainly use Manual, but it takes longer. sure an auto shot might not be perfect, but i find Manual takes a fair bit of trial an error. do i have time for trial and error? does my subject? i think were a bit harsh on auto users. stepping up to a DSLR can be very overwhelming.

    “photographing at midday”. im on holiday, im only there once, ive got limited time, do i want to be in a strange unfamiliar place in the dark? do i have a choice? i shoot when i can and make the best of it. its not a mistake, its a consequence of travel.

  • Bipin Gupta

    This was a beautifully written article in a short one page and the Novice should benefit.
    The mid day harsh sun is a terrible time to shoot but as quite a few pointed out Tour Travellers have NO CHOICE.
    So we were in Spain with the famous Thomas Cook with 44 beautiful couples and an amazing Tour Guide. But we landed on the Beaches of Barcelona at 1.30 PM. It was August and blistering hot. Lucky for me I had read this up on the Internet and managed to get some good photos. No squinting too thanks to my old style Thyristor Flash Gun.
    And here is the BOMB: Switch to AUTO (Green) or P-mode. Shoot both RAW + JPEG and then go home and use Lightroom. Hey guys it is ‘no crime” to shoot JPEG. From my Pentax K-5 the JPEG output straight from the camera is simply peppy and brilliant. And the camera’s Dynamic Range is so high it permits 8 EV of JPEG recovery. So underexpose a bit as blown highlights can never be recovered.
    RAW is amazing. I can recover a perfectly dark almost non viewable photo in LR – 15 or moe EVs.
    The point I am making is that the Novice should choose a DSLR with the highest Dynamic Range – read up DxO Mark.
    In weird or challenging lighting conditions I will shoot RAW as I can correct the WB in LR.
    Your Gear matters too friends which the Pros will tell you NO. So go for the best you can afford.
    My Travel Lenses have me covered from 10 mm to 300. In Europe 10 mm is a MUST – narrow Streets, huge monuments, squares and cathedrals. So I carry the Sigma 10-20, the Tamron 17-50/2.8 – note F2.8 inside dark museums, cathedrals etc, Pentax 18-135 HD WR – note weather resistant – sudden downpour in London – I went on shooting while the others packed up, and the Pentax 55-300 HD WR – like in the Canadian Rockies where you can spot Bears, Deer, Wolves, Bison high up in the snowy mountains. Note I am a Zoom Lover but do have some very fast Primes – for those just in case situations.

  • benkoerita

    Thank you for the article, it is quite educational. Although I have a few comments (I am prone to nitpicking).
    I was a bit surprised that on the clipped photo, there is no indication that the clouds are supposed to be pure white, whereas other parts of the sky that was light blue on the spot appearing white IS the clipping. Actually, the harsh-lighted middayphoto gives a better example of overexposed skies.
    I believe auto mode can be useful for a rather unexperienced photographer in certain situations, when they definitely cannot miss or mess up a pic. On the other hand, with a DSLR you have about 150 000 shutter actuations – sure you can sacrifice a few thousands for practicing in your backyard.
    About this constant disdain of jpeg shooters: why not both? I measured my skills partially based on whether I am content with the jpeg. Also, during an outing I am able to send jpegs via e-mail (or upload to social media), whereas I would need to lug around my 6-pound laptop and to edit on the go just to send a nice virtual postcard to my family or friends (who usually watch it on a not calibrated 1-2 megapixel resolution screen) if I shot only in jpeg. For the real keepers I use the RAW format.
    About that midday photo session: are you aware that many places with touristical interests are closed between 6 pm. and 10 am? Of course, you may find a way around: B&W is usually more forgiving to harhs light, also finding hard subjects (an extreme examle: brutalist architecture), planning those outings when an overcast day is foretold, looking for patterns emerging from the shadows and spots of light, finding a shadow, placing the subject to its own shadow, there are countless means for coping with harsh midday light.
    Just do not tell to the budding amateur/hobbist that don’t do this or that BECAUSE this is not the proper way. Your aim is to get them out of auto mode, therefore do not propose another automatism!

  • What would you suggest is the good thing to start with? I have Olympus E420 so not the best camera but quite decent for an amateur I think?

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