Travel photography can be a very daunting thing. You’re in a foreign environment, often surrounded by a lot of people, and you want to get that perfect photo for Instagram. However, if you know what you’re doing, it’s actually a lot easier than you would think.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions recently about how to get the best and most unique travel photography, so I thought I'd write down a few tips that I've picked up over the years that might help.
The first point is probably the most obvious: to take photos you need a camera. However, you probably don’t want to be travelling with a big and bulky camera, nor do you want to be carrying too many accessories. Keep it light and tight. As a bare minimum, have one camera body, one wide lens, one zoom lens, one tripod, lens filters, extra batteries, and an external hard drive.
External hard drives are crucial. I’ve mistakenly reformatted my SD card before backing up my photos to a hard drive, and I ended up losing a whole day’s worth of photos, so invest in a good, rugged hard drive. Make sure you back up all your photos from the day every night. You can also sign up with services like Google Drive or OneDrive and back up your photos to the cloud. The best bet would to combine both types of backup, with your photos backed up physically on a hard drive and digitally on the cloud.
When you’re out and about you will often find yourself in large crowds of people, and you may have some of your equipment stolen. This is one thing every photographer hopes never happens, but it’s something to keep in mind. That’s why it’s important to have camera insurance. In some cases camera theft may already be covered by your homeowner or renters insurance, but if it’s not, it may be worth it to get insurance from organizations like Professional Photographers of America. Doing so can really help to speed up insurance claims. If you travel a lot, this is an absolute must.
Time of Day
The time of day that you take your photos can have a huge impact on both the quality of the photo and the quality of your experience taking it. Most places have busy times between 9am and 5pm when most tourists will go out sightseeing. To beat the crowds, get up early -- around 5 am is a good time -- and go to the sight before anyone else is there. Not only do you beat the crowds, but you get peace and quiet to be able to think and get the shot that you want. You can then go get breakfast afterwards, avoiding the breakfast rush at most restaurants.
If you aren’t a morning person, another option is to go late in the day. People tend to stop going out to sights after sunset; however, this is the time when you can get unique nighttime photography of great locations without people being in the way. Just like in the early morning, you will have peace and quiet to compose your image properly and take your time.
Another benefit of shooting at night is the nightlife. Many places come alive at night -- it’s when the locals come out. In a lot of Asian countries, night markets are common, and though in recent years they have gained tourism, there are still many markets where very few tourists go, allowing you to get a good glimpse into local life. This isn’t true just in Asia; worldwide, you will find many things happening at night that are “for the locals”.
How to shoot
When it comes to taking photos, many tourists walk around with their point-and-shoot cameras that are on auto. You do not want to be one of these tourists. Instead, you want to make sure that you are shooting in manual mode. Shooting in manual will allow you to adjust the three main settings of a camera: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
Adjusting the aperture will allow you to have control over the depth of field in your image, meaning you can have the background blurred while your subject is in focus -- this is called bokeh and is currently very popular. Having control over the shutter speed allows you to capture motion in different ways, from super fast action to long exposure, opening up your creative options. Lastly, controlling the ISO lets you take photos in low light situations and gives smoother images by allowing you to remove noise.
Another thing you will want to do is to shoot in RAW -- you can set this up in the menu of your camera. This format results in larger file sizes, meaning that the image has more information and detail in it. This makes it perfect for editing and enhancing without losing anything you want to keep.
Use the locals
This is where things are going to get fun. You are out there, you know what gear to have, you know how to take the photos, but you don’t have a subject. Problem solved: use the locals as your subject matter. It might sound scary to go up to a stranger, but you can get some superb pictures this way. You can go to locals in cafes or on the street and ask if you could take their photo. More often than not they will be more than happy to have their photo taken. In fact, a couple of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken were at a Chinese market while they were restocking the food and on the street where an elderly local gentleman was smoking a cigarette. You can ask the locals if they have Instagram or email and send them the photo you took of them as a nice way of saying thank you.
Not only are locals good models, but they tend to know all that there is to see and do, which often includes hidden gems that tourists know nothing about. Strike up a conversation with a local, and ask them where they like to go to avoid tourists or if they know of any places that most outsiders wouldn’t know about. They will typically be more than happy to share some nuggets of wisdom on where to go. When I was in Montreal, I struck up a conversation with the owner of the Airbnb where I was staying, and he ended up suggesting some great cafes, restaurants, and places to see off the beaten path. Give it a try. You have no idea what kinds of cool places you’ll find.
Become the model
People like seeing other people, so it’s always a good idea to take pictures of people. If you can’t find a model for your photos, you can always be the model. I never leave for a trip without a tripod -- these are essential when you want to take photos of yourself. You can easily set up a timer on your camera and run in front of it for some great shots. What sounds more interesting: a photo of a lake and some mountains, or a photo of a lake and some mountains with you knee deep in the water making a shocked face? I would say the latter is more interesting to look at and would be more attention grabbing. One time I became the model and faceplanted into a pile of snow. Could I have taken a nice photo of a snowy scene? Yes, but a photo of a nice snowy scene with me flying through the air faceplanting was more interesting and eye grabbing. Go ahead and try being your own model.
Scout the location
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen tourists walking around snapping what seem to be hundreds of photos. These people tend to take boring, cliché photos that are a dime a dozen. What you need to do is slow down and scout the location. A few questions to ask yourself about the location are: What is going on? What’s happening on the sidelines that people aren’t focusing on? Many times I’ve seen one person take a photo, and everyone else immediately starts taking that same photo from the same spot. Get away from the crowd and find an angle people aren’t taking photos from. Be deliberate and take your time. Patience can really pay off, as can looking where the crowds aren’t.
Don’t scout or plan
Yes, I know that I just said to “scout the location” -- go ahead and yell at me in the comments -- but sometimes you shouldn’t scout or plan anything. Every once in a while, you can get amazing, genuine shots by not having a plan. You may be walking and hear that there is some music playing in the next street, and you follow it and find people just dancing on the street -- you’ve found yourself an unexpected photo opportunity. If something happens to capture your attention, the chances are high that it will capture the attention of someone else. When I was in San Francisco, we were by the pier but didn’t really have a plan. We just walked. While walking we heard some authentic Chinese music coming from somewhere, and we followed it. We found an elderly Chinese man playing music on the sidewalk, and we asked if we could take his photo. He consented, and as thanks, we left some money to support him and his music. If we had had a planned location, we never would have found this gentleman.
You can take it one step further and get lost. Now understand, I’m not telling you to get lost without reason in the middle of the woods -- I’m suggesting something more like taking the train and getting off at a random stop, walking and only turning right on roads, etc. Make it interesting. Go to places you never would have thought of. Believe me, you will find some really cool things when you get lost. Before anything, though, make sure you have a phone with service/wifi, and make sure you have a map to get back to a familiar setting.
I will give a disclaimer here: if a place looks unsafe, or you feel unsure, don’t go there. Bad neighborhoods exist, and you want to avoid them on your adventures, unless you’re with someone who knows what they are doing and where they are going.
Edit your photos
Once you finish your travels, you will probably have an SD card full of photos, and if you’ve been proactive, you will have your photos backed up on your computer and hard drives. What do you do next? You edit them.
You need to be very careful when you start to edit your photos -- I like to say that a little goes a long way. Travel photos are often pumped up with color and saturation to give them a real “pop,” and you can feel free to do that in your favorite photo editing software. What I recommend, though, is for you to find some good presets to use on your photos. Presets are previously designed sets of adjustments that can be applied to any image. You can find many free presets or purchase some from your favorite photographers. If you buy presets, you can add a professional touch to your photos and at the same time see the adjustments and how the presets were made. Once you get experienced, you can make your own presets and edit hundreds of photos with a single click.
You might find in your images that there is a person in the background who ruins the photo. This has happened to me multiple times. Most editing programs -- Lightroom and Photoshop are the ones I use -- have a tool to fix this called the healing brush tool. You literally just paint over the person or object you’d like to remove and *POOF* it’s gone. You may need to change the brush size and feathering so that it blends well, but the newer versions of these programs do a great job of easily removing unwanted things from your photos.
These are just a few tips from my few adventures and time as a photographer. I like to keep things simple, travel photography included. Just capture the people, the culture, and the essence of where you are. Happy travels!
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Love yourself. Love others. Love the earth.