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How to Use a Travel Photography Shot List to Come Home with Better Photos

Checking off your travel photo listWant to bring back travel photos that your friends actually enjoy viewing on Facebook? Want to make sure you don’t miss anything when visiting a new culture? Then it’s time to make a list!

We all have our easy ruts we fall into when photographing, but travel, for me, is about expanding my view. That’s why I take a travel shot list and try my darnedest to get at least one of each shot when visiting a new location.

What’s on my list?

Here are some tips for you to help make a travel photography shot list for your next trip. Feel free to use my list and add to it with your own ideas.

1 – People – old, young, and in-between

Spread out your people photos between age ranges. I’ve seen a bazillion images of old ladies from Cuba, while often missing are people like me; middle aged and fairly normal, even a bit boring. Round out your people photos with more variety, is all I am saying.

Portraits in Bhutan

What’s not to love about those shoes and that smile?

Kids are an easy target as they often love having their picture taken. You will need to be aware, though, that not all parents wish for their children to be photographed. That’s the crux of it; parents worry how the images this stranger just took will be used. Sometimes all it takes is a simple “Hello” first to the parents to gauge if taking photos is okay. If language is a barrier, you can also point to your camera, then to the children with an inquisitive look on your face. Either way, no matter the answer, respect the parent’s choice.

Peruvian kids

Kids playing in Inca ruins, Peru

Delhi street market scene

Street scene in Delhi, India with people my age.

Men at Red Fort, Delhi, India

People watching at the Red Fort, Delhi, India

2 – Food – preperation, presentation, social aspect

Food brings us together. It’s a basic need we can all relate to, even if we don’t know exactly what we are about to eat.

Cooking at a Sikh Temple

Inside the commercial sized kitchen at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

Don’t just shoot the Instagram-worthy image of a plate of the amazing new delicacy you are experiencing, find a way to shoot the preparation of food. Get behind the counter (where it’s allowed) to see how it’s cooked, and where it comes from. As you plan to share these photos (why else are you taking them?), you may find that a large, and often hidden, swath of your friends and followers have a strong interest in food prep.

Buddhist monastery kitchen in Nepal

The full kitchen at a monastery, high in the Himalayas of Nepal

3 – Architecture – old, new, juxtaposed

In some locations the old and the new architecture matches, Bhutan comes to mind. I watched artisans paint a brand new home with traditional patterns and motifs from the nearby 400 year old monastery. Everything there fit a certain style.

Buddhist Temple in Punakha, Bhutan

Looking up at the Punakha Temple, Bhutan

Then we have countries making vast changes from the old style to what constantly evolves as modern – think of Tokyo or Dubai. Look for the differences even where you think there is just one style.

4 – Water – how is it used?

While food brings us together, water is even more vital to our lives. In California we are familiar with our current drought, but forget that not every place has this problem. Some places are quite extravagant with their use of water, while it is a scarcity in others.

Water in use in Nepal and India

Scarcity of water in Kathmandu means water lines, while a woman in Varanasi, India, washes her clothes in the river.

How do the locals use water? Do they wash their laundry in the rivers? Are there fountains everywhere? Are their cities built along waterways, or with vast ports?

Infinity pool and Dubai

An infinity pool 23 stories up in the Burj al-Arab, Dubai, UAE

Old water storage tank overflowing and leaking

In the woods of Oregon, there is often way too much water.

5 – Transportation – private and public

How do people get around? At home we have our patterns, and often don’t see the other forms of transport we might use. But when you travel, it will hopefully be obvious how the people there transport themselves.

Tuk-tuk ride at night

Tuk-tuks in Amritsar, India, are the easiest way to get around town.

It might a passel of buses, camels, rickshaws, taxis, or Maseratis.

Also, how are goods moved? Does your location have shipping traffic and a lot of cargo? From continent to continent, the methods for moving goods from here to there can be vastly different.

Boating on the Ghanges River

Boating along the Ghanges River in Varanasi, India

6 – Commerce – macro and micro

When I think of macro-commerce I think of things like whole industries like: agriculture, tourism, and banking.

With micro- commerce, I think of markets and vendors, where money actually changes hands. Who’s selling what, and who is buying? Is there a special technique to transactions?


Try to capture both the large scale, and intimacy of commerce, and show how things may be very similar, or very different from what you are used to back home.

7 – Nighttime

When the sun goes down, don’t stop shooting! Learn to find light, and exploit its unique qualities during the night. Maybe you have some moonlight or some neon in your location. No matter the source, there is still light at night.

Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, at Night

Balanced Rock in Arches National Park, Utah, USA takes on a new look at night.

Does your location shut down when the sun hits the horizon? Or does it rally for an all-night bender?

I found the markets in Aqaba, Jordan come to life once the heat of the day was done. I also found that the town had way more neon signs than I ever expected, but hadn’t bothered to notice while touring in the daylight. Get out at night and explore.

Noel in Aqaba, Jordan

Neon in Aqaba, Jorda


8 – Religion

How different parts of the world practice religion has always fascinated me. There isn’t a single part of this globe, that does not have some nod to the local religion, in some aspect of their lives.

Minaret of a mosque in Oman

Colorful minaret in Jebel Shams area of Oman

It may be subtle, such as a small altar to burn incense, or it could be the overt repetition of churches across a city. Travel is a time to break out of your routine and try new things. Stick your head (respectfully) inside a temple. Tour a mosque. Visit a cemetery to see the influence of religion on those in the past.

Buddhist monks in ceremony, Bhutan

Photography inside many Buddhist temples in Bhutan is banned, but on the night of this retreat for monks from all around the valley, I was allowed to shoot the ceremony.

Military tombstones and flags located in Eastern Washington, USA

Military tombstones and flags located in Eastern Washington, USA

9 – Landscapes – natural and manmade

I love landscapes, so they come easy to me. But, I have not always been a fan of cities and people. So, it takes me some effort to really appreciate the organization and layout of a nice cityscape. But it’s always worth it to bring back a mix of both in your images.

View of Canyonlands National Park at sunset

No people to see. Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA.

Photographers and Cho Oyu, Nepal

A few people give a sense of scale to Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain in the world, Gokyo, Nepal.

Sunrise view of Seattle, Washington and Mount Rainier

Here there are a lot more people in Seattle, Washington, USA

I am reminded of the craze for photos of Iceland. I’ve seen my fill, and rarely was a single cityscape in the mix. Black sand beaches with ice, waterfalls, all that stuff shows up – but most photographers have left out the manmade landscape. Include it! At least once.

10 – Icons – clichés big and small

I know people who refuse to shoot iconic locations. “They’ve been over shot and I wouldn’t be caught dead shooting them,” is a common refrain. Ignore those people.

Taj Mahal and reflection

The classic Taj Mahal view.

You’re traveling, so have fun. Shoot the Eiffel Tower if you’re in Paris. Hit up Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, and why not get a reflecting pool image of the Taj Mahal, or a cigar smoking lady in Havana? Do it. Get a posed photo of Masai Mara villagers, a llama in front of Machu Picchu, pretend to push over the Tower of Pisa.

Heck, even get a photo of that same waterfall everyone else visiting Iceland has shot.

That being said, you probably shouldn’t share only the cliché shots. Unless you’re on assignment to shoot something highly unique, go ahead and hit the clichés, then move on to the rest of the list. Better yet, look around your cliché location for something new to bring back and share.

Tourists at teh Taj Mahal

The not-so-classic view of the Taj Mahal, but a lot more fun.

11 – Wildlife – domestic and truly wild

My daughter’s obsession with taking photos of cats in Morocco sticks with me as a reminder to not ignore the domestic animals, along with the wild. I’ve photographed big cats in India and Africa, tarantulas in Peru and breaching whales in Alaska. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t convey the fact that the town of Essouira, Morocco, with its fresh fish markets, is a haven for cats of all kinds.

Breaching humpback whales, Alaska, USA

Humpback whales in Alaska, USA

FIghting Hippos, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Fighting hippos in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

What about the beasts of burden? The donkeys, llamas, horses and camels? Put those on your list as well.


12 – All the pretty plants and flowers

Some of us just don’t care that much about plants. A green thing giving off oxygen at home is the same as a green thing giving off oxygen halfway across the world.

Rhododendrons in the Himalayas, Nepal

Rhododendrons at 14,000′ up in the Himalayas

But, I had no clue there were rhododendrons in the Himalayas of Nepal, much the same (but smaller), as both the ornamental and wild versions, I knew in Washington state growing up. When you get down to the tropics, the plants certainly get exotic, don’t they? Grab their wonderful colors and adaptations to share with friends back home.


This list can be just a start for your own customized version. Take it, shape it, make it your own. Put your favorite things on the list, but also keep those that don’t interest you. Growth as a photographer comes from trying new things and shooting new subjects.

Lastly, when it’s time to share your trip photos, I would suggest using 2-4 images from each category when making an online album. This will force you to pick only the best and it will give your viewers a good cross section of what you saw on your travels.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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