Looking for the best travel photography settings? You’ve come to the right place.
In this guide, I take you through the settings you need to capture stunning travel photos, including:
- The travel camera mode that I highly recommend
- The best aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for travel photography
- How to set up your camera for beautiful shots of church cathedrals and other interiors
- Much more!
Of course, there is no single list of perfect settings for travel photography; it depends on the situation. That’s why, at the end of the article, I detail a few specific scenarios, and I share my approach (including the exact settings I use for each one).
So whether you are looking to head out on your first travel photography adventure or you’re an intermediate-level photographer hoping to really explore more advanced settings for different scenarios, this guide is for you.
Let’s dive right in.
The best settings for travel photography: getting started
While modern cameras offer a huge array of settings, you only need to understand a few specific items to achieve beautiful travel shots: camera mode, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
So in this section, I offer practical guidelines for adjusting each of these settings (based on years of experience as a professional travel shooter).
The best camera mode for travel photography
Travel photography settings starts by picking a camera mode. These modes determine which specific camera settings you control – and which settings are chosen by your camera.
Now, most cameras offer basic modes, such as “Auto,” “People,” “Landscape,” and “Macro,” but I recommend you avoid these. While they make travel photography very easy – just point and click! – they’re not especially intelligent. They don’t know what you’re shooting, and so they won’t get you consistently great results.
These modes are where the power is at; they let you carefully specify key settings, such as aperture and shutter speed (more on these in a moment!).
Aperture Priority mode, for instance, lets you choose an aperture and ISO while your camera selects a shutter speed (with the goal of getting a bright, well-exposed image).
Shutter Priority mode, on the other hand, lets you choose the shutter speed and ISO, while your camera selects an aperture.
And then there’s Manual mode, which gives you complete control over all settings and tells your camera to let you do all the hard work.
Personally, I’m a fan of Aperture Priority mode. It offers plenty of control, but it also makes selecting the right settings quicker. You simply dial in an aperture and an ISO, your camera picks a shutter speed, and you can start capturing some beautiful travel shots.
The best aperture for travel photography
Aperture refers to the opening in your camera lens, which widens and narrows to let in more or less light, respectively.
Note that different aperture sizes are referred to using f-stops, where a low f-stop (such as f/1.4) corresponds to a wide aperture, and a high f-stop (such as f/22) corresponds to a narrow aperture.
What does an aperture do? For one, it adjusts image brightness (i.e., exposure). Wider apertures let in more light, which in turn creates a brighter image (so if you’re shooting when the light is low, you can widen your aperture to brighten up your shots).
Second, the aperture adjusts the depth of field, which refers to the amount of your image that appears sharp. A wide aperture will create a very small window of focus, while a narrow aperture will keep the entire shot sharp from foreground to background.
The best aperture for travel photography depends on your intentions. If you’re doing travel portraits or detail shots, a wide aperture – such as f/2.8 – is ideal, as it will create a beautiful blurred background effect. This, in turn, will show off your subject.
But if your goal is to create landscape-style images that emphasize every little detail, from grass in the foreground to mountains in the background, a narrow aperture – such as f/11 – is the better choice.
Personally, I tend to shoot at around f/8 to f/22 as it lets me showcase plenty of stunning details when capturing landscapes and cityscape scenes. But it’s a good idea to vary your aperture depending on the scene, the subject, and personal preference.
The best shutter speed for travel photography
The shutter speed is the length of time your camera shutter stays open – in other words, the length of time you are actually taking a photo.
Longer shutter speeds let in more light, which is helpful when shooting at night and during sunrise and sunset. But lengthy shutter speeds also produce image blur. To shoot photos at a shutter speed below 1/60s or so, you’ll need a tripod; otherwise, you’ll end up with soft, unusable images.
So what shutter speed is best for travel photography? If you’re working in bright light, you can easily set your shutter speed to above 1/200s or so, which will keep your photos sharp (even if they feature moving people).
However, once the light starts to decrease, you’ll either need to lower your shutter speed or raise your ISO to keep your exposures nice and bright. If you have a tripod handy, then dropping your shutter speed is fine – and it’ll even help you create beautiful long-exposure landscape photos like this one:
The best ISO for travel photography
ISO refers to your camera’s sensitivity to light.
The higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera becomes, and the brighter the resulting image.
Unfortunately, high ISOs also produce noise, which looks bad and will quickly ruin image quality.
So what do you do?
When the light is good or you’re working with a tripod, keep your ISO as low as you can (around ISO 100). That way, you get the best-quality travel images.
But when the light drops, if you’re shooting handheld, raise the ISO as much as necessary (and never more). Boosting the ISO will keep your shots well exposed even if you use a fast shutter speed, so when working handheld in low light, it’s a sacrifice you have to make – just don’t push it any further than you need to.
Advanced travel photography settings
Once you’ve mastered your basic settings, think about how you might respond in particular situations. For instance, if you’re photographing a beautiful mountain sunrise, what settings should you use? What if you take street shots around noon? What if you head inside a cathedral?
In this section, I take a deep dive into the best travel settings for different shooting scenarios.
Scenario 1: Landscapes at sunrise and sunset
Sunrises and sunsets offer incredible opportunities to capture the landscape bathed in glorious light. But you have to choose your settings very quickly; otherwise, the beauty will pass and you’ll miss your chance. Here are the settings I like to use in such travel landscape situations:
- Camera mode: Aperture Priority
- Aperture: For landscapes, I will generally select an aperture of around f/8, as my goal is to keep the entire scene sharp. However, if I’m looking to focus on a particular subject and blur the background or foreground, I’ll widen my aperture to f/4 or f/5.6.
- Shutter speed: When working in Aperture Priority mode, the camera will select the corresponding shutter speed; as I’ll be working on a tripod, I simply go with whatever the camera gives me.
- ISO: 100. By keeping the ISO low, I prevent the image from becoming noisy.
Scenario 2: Sunny midday street shots
When photographing travel street scenes during the day, you’ll often have lots of good light – but you need to be ready in case your subject moves into the shade or clouds block out the sun.
I recommend the following settings:
- Camera mode: Aperture Priority. This allows me to respond quickly to changes in the light (as my camera will adjust the shutter speed automatically!).
- Aperture: Around f/8. My goal is to keep the subject and the surrounding environment in focus, so I select a narrow aperture for a deep depth of field.
- Shutter speed: 1/60s is a good starting shutter speed. However, if your subject is moving or you’re using a long lens, you’ll want to increase this (often to around 1/250s or more).
- ISO: I start at ISO 100, but if I need a faster shutter speed (i.e., if the camera has dropped the shutter below 1/60s or I’m photographing moving subjects), I’ll increase it as required.
Scenario 3: Cathedral interiors
Church and cathedral interiors are often dimly lit, so you’ll need to take certain steps to keep your shots sharp. My best advice is to mount your camera on a tripod, though if that’s not an option, then be sure to use a camera and/or a lens with powerful in-built image stabilization.
I generally select my settings as follows:
- Camera mode: Aperture Priority. (Sensing a pattern? I really like Aperture Priority!)
- Aperture: Around f/8; I want to keep the entire shot in focus, including the floor, walls, and ceiling.
- Shutter speed: Around 1/60s or more to prevent blur due to camera shake. However, I may drop this when using a tripod.
- ISO: ISO 400. While you should always try to keep your ISO to a minimum, you’ll generally need to increase it when shooting indoors, especially if you’re handholding your shots.
Scenario 4: Animals in the wild
When traveling, you may have opportunities to capture the local wildlife (potentially at very close range). Wildlife photography is very different from standard travel photography – you’ll need to work quickly and keep your finger on the shutter button. I also recommend using your camera’s burst mode; that way, you’ll be able to nail any split-second opportunities that may appear.
Here are my recommended settings:
- Camera mode: Aperture Priority. This mode is especially critical when shooting wildlife. If you spend too much time fiddling around with manual settings, you’ll often miss the shot.
- Aperture: f/5.6 – f/8. It’s generally important to keep the entire animal in focus, so I try to avoid widening my aperture past f/5.6 or so.
- Shutter speed: 1/200s or more. Animals often move fast, and you need a fast shutter speed to freeze that motion!
- ISO: 100-200, though don’t be afraid to raise it as the light drops.
Travel photography settings: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to head out and tackle pretty much any travel photo situation.
Just remember: The best travel settings suggested here are meant as a general guide and can vary depending on what you are shooting. If you feel a setting doesn’t work for you, that’s okay! Over time, you may even find that you prefer different settings when doing travel photography.
Now over to you:
Where do you plan to travel next? What type of travel subjects do you plan to shoot? Share your thoughts in the comments below!