Avoid These 5 Major Mistakes Made By Travel Photographers


Whether you are traveling abroad or within your own country, there are several mistakes that I’ve seen travel photographers make that hinder the process of making memorable photos.

Five Major Mistakes Made By Travel Photographers

Mistake #1: Not being aware of cultural sensitivities and laws

When you travel to another country it’s easy to forget that the people there may see certain things differently than you. For example, in China, you will see signs up in temples asking you not to take photos. So it should be fairly obvious that doing so may cause offense.

Others are not so obvious. Did you know that in Spain the law prohibits photographers from taking photos of people in public without permission unless they are taking part in a cultural event such as a festival? That’s right, Spain is not a great place to be a street photographer (although that doesn’t stop people from doing it).

Unless you know this, you probably think taking candid photos of people in Spain is perfectly okay (as it is in most other places). Once you understand the attitude (and the law) towards photographing people in Spain, you can adjust your behavior to fit in with local expectations and behavior.

If you want to create a street photo of somebody, it’s best to stop them and ask for permission. That way you protect yourself and (added bonus!) keep out of trouble with the police.

Avoid These 5 Major Mistakes Made By Travel Photographers

I made this street portrait in Cadiz, Spain after asking the street vendor if I could take his photo. If I had tried to take a photo without him noticing it would have been illegal, and if he had called the police I would have been on the wrong side of the law.

Some countries have laws forbidding the photography of certain buildings, like airports. Did you know that photographers have been arrested, jailed, and accused of spying in Greece for photographing an airshow at a military base? If you’re going to Greece it’s a good idea to know which buildings are out of bounds for photographers. Make sure you’re aware of any legal restrictions in your country of travel.

Mistake #2: Being disrespectful to local people

When you travel somewhere new, especially somewhere that is exotic to you, it’s easy to treat people as if they were laid out, like colorful extras in a movie scene, for you to take photos of. That is not true, and it’s disrespectful and unkind to act as if it is. Imagine how you would feel if somebody from another country came and tried to take photos as you went about your daily life, without consideration for you and your feelings.

It seems to me that a big part of the problem is when people travel through other countries without interacting with locals in anything other than a commercial context, such as renting a hotel room or eating in a restaurant. Sometimes this is down to language – it’s hard to strike up a conversation in China if you don’t speak Chinese, for example.

But your travels (and life in general) can become a lot more interesting if you are open to non-commercial experiences with local people. Try having conversations with people about their hopes and dreams, what they do for a living, how they like living in their town and similar topics. You’ll gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the places you’re traveling through when you do.

Avoid These 5 Major Mistakes Made By Travel Photographers

A Spanish friend of mine invited me to see a farm owned by a member of her family. I would never have gotten to see the farm or make this photo if we didn’t know each other.

Language study is an excellent way to meet local people. I have many good friends in Spain and South America that I met online through websites aimed to help people learn other languages. I’ve met most of them in person and learned a lot about their culture and countries in the process.

Mistake #3: Not putting safety first

Another mistake I’ve seen photographers make is forgetting to take care of their personal security or failing to take appropriate precautions to guard their gear against theft.

Most photographers travel to most places without any security problems, but there is always the potential for something to go wrong, especially if you don’t put much thought into your personal safety and the security of your camera and computer equipment. Some countries are safe, others can be dangerous, so make sure you do your research beforehand and take any appropriate precautions.

A good travel insurance policy that covers your gear (check the fine print) will help give you peace of mind if the worse does happen.

Mistake #4: Taking too much gear

We’ve all seen the type of photographer that walks around with a large dSLR camera and telephoto lens, perhaps even two, swinging from their side.

At the other extreme are photographers who travel with just one camera and one lens. When I worked at EOS magazine we published an article about a photographer who traveled to India with one camera and a single 50mm lens. He made some beautiful images so the approach worked for him.

Avoid These 5 Major Mistakes Made By Travel Photographers

During a recent trip to China, I calculated afterward that I had used my 35mm lens for 73% of the photos, including the one above. That tells me that I probably could have taken just that lens and still enjoyed a very productive journey.

There’s nothing wrong with taking lots of gear, especially if it works for you. Professionals often take lots of lenses so they know they are covered for just about any situation they may encounter. But there are a couple of things worth considering.

  • The first is that a large camera and lens combo is an obvious target for theft. Smaller cameras attract less attention and don’t look as expensive.
  • The other consideration is creative. If you have too much gear it’s heavy to carry around and you can waste time trying to decide which lens/camera combination to use.

The key is to think in advance about the subject matter you intend to photograph and what gear you’ll need for it. If you are into long exposure photography, for example, then you’re going to need a tripod, cable release and neutral density filters.

If you are photographing people, you need to decide what lens or lenses you are going to use for portraits. If you are photographing local architecture, you will probably need a good wide-angle lens. If you are going to walk around all day taking street photos, a small camera and lens are much less tiring than a large DSLR with a telephoto zoom.

You get the idea. Ultimately, you need to find the right balance between taking enough gear to meet your needs and taking too much. Also, if security is a concern, you may want to consider leaving your more expensive gear at home.

Mistake #5: Not doing enough research

If there’s one mistake that links all the others, it’s this one – not doing enough research. It’s important because it makes you aware of any local laws or cultural sensitivities you need to know (mistake #1).

As part of your research, you may get in touch with local people (mistake #2) who can give you advice or help you gain access to places or events you would never know about otherwise. Some photographers go even further and work with a fixer – somebody who introduces you to other people, translates if necessary, and acts as a bridge between you and the local culture.

Research alerts you to any security considerations (mistake #3). It helps you decide what gear you need to take, and avoid overload caused by taking too much equipment (mistake #4).

In other words, doing your research is a key part of avoiding the mistakes that many travel photographers make.

Avoid These 5 Major Mistakes Made By Travel Photographers

Research also helps you find interesting places to photograph, such as this ancient fishing village in north Devon.


These mistakes are based on my observations of other photographers while traveling. But what mistakes have you seen other photographers make? What mistakes have you made yourself? I’m looking forward to hearing your responses in the comments section below.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Stefan Frank

    #1 Germany too ;o)

  • Tracy Lee

    Great article but I wonder how many people will adhere to the information? I’ve never understood why people think that it’s ok to photograph children in other countries – if you wouldn’t want a tourist photographing your child why do you think it’s ok to photograph theirs? I’ll be travelling quite a bit this year and specifically bought a decent travel lens that won’t bring attention to my camera gear – I’ll be leaving the expensive gear at home. I’m sure the criminals know the value of beige lenses or lenses with a red stripe. More articles on cultural taboos would be helpful because it’s not always easy to find this information.

  • I agree. Great article!

    A little research before going to a country will help a lot. For example: France is a strict country too when it comes to photography.

    Considering the lens: In Lightroom (and other tools) you can check out the metadata to analyse which focal length you use most and select your gear according to that.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • markflag

    Worked a year in a central European city. Had a 25 mm f 1.4, a 12-60mm 2.8-4, and a 50-200 mm 2.8-4. The vast majority of photos were with one of the first two lenses with the 50-200 pulled out on rare occasion or for specific reasons. Most of the time it stayed in the apartment. I generally only used the 12-60 unless going out at night or into churches in which case the fast lens was invaluable. The advantage was returning from 6 or 7 hours expeditions without shoulder or neck pain. Filters? Nah. Shoot RAW and process.

  • Cecilia

    In most countries you should not photograph military people or installations.

  • Rick Kuhn

    The good thing about research is eliminate wasting time going to get the great photo of the church on the canal in Amsterdam, only to find they just put up scaffolding a couple weeks before you arrived. Don’t go looking for a tulip farm in Autumn. Etc. And do respect people’s wishes, as you would want them to do likewise for you – like not wanting get a photo of you sobbing at a funeral. The Swartzentruber Amish sect in Tennessee does not want people to take their photographs. It is not against the law, but it is disrespectful. No issue taking a photo of their farms, etc. Do unto others…

    It is NOT illegal to take photos of the subways in NYC, but it makes some folks freak out, especially at WTC sites. Those folks been through hell and I will yield to them or the cop who asked not to get photographed cooking burgers on Staten Island after the Sandy Storm (just wanted to be anonymous).

  • pete guaron

    One of the reasons for doing research is that I have so often found the subject I want to photograph is under restoration – and either closed (worst case) or boarded up (better – but still not suitable for photography). At least if you know in advance that this is happening, you can make appropriate adjustments to your plans and your itinerary.

  • drdroad

    Interesting that this ‘travel photography’ articles assumes you understand all travel photography is international.

  • Once was caught taking photos of a prison entrance where I had visited inmates. I was in the parking lot. I had a film camera and ended up opening up the camera and exposing the whole roll in front of them to negate any pictures I had. There were privacy issues I hadn’t considered.Guard asked- what if an inmate was visible near the front door? I was much younger hence the film camera.

  • Paul B

    Great article, I didn’t know about the photography laws in Spain. I think France has a similar law.
    I very nearly got arrested in St. Petersburg for taking photos on the underground (subway to our American friends!) The stations are absolutely stunning, but it seems classed as military establishments. So, no photography!!

  • waledro

    Unless you’re a professional photographer who relies on top quality prints for making a living, why not use a high-end all-in-one camera, like the Panasonic FZ-2500 or Sony RX-10 V? One lens that covers close-ups to long zooms. Less weight, less hassle. And, with wonderful results.

  • LC


    I have been travelling overseas for more than 40 years and have had some interesting interactions. My wife and I were going through the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia and stunned by the beautiful art and architecture when by chance I noticed that one of the windows was open (all other windows were closed throughout the museum for climate control I guess). The view across the Palace Square to the very beautiful General Staff Building was right in front of me (through the open window) – an opportunity for an elevated shot I could not get any other way. I took the photo and was quite pleased with myself.

    Unfortunately for me I was immediately confronted by a very burly formidable female Russian guard in uniform that was less than pleased. I couldn’t understand her but I could see that she was not at all happy and must have thought that I had opened the window. I tried to explain that I hadn’t opened the window and I saw from the response that a few months in a Gulag might be on the cards. Pleading my innocence must have finally worked but if looks could wrinkle a baby’s bum I think I witnessed it.

    Whilst in Russia don’t ruffle feathers if you can help it.

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