Nothing beats living in the moment during your big, bucket-list journeys, but these trips-of-a-lifetime come and go in an instant. That’s why travel photographs are essential. Travel photographs can take you back in time to the destination and the emotions you felt there. And, let’s be honest, they’re always fun to share on social media.
But travel photographs are not created equally. If you’re interested in travel photography, you’ve likely seen images in magazines like Travel and Leisure that left you thinking, “That’s way out of my league!” Take a breath, grab a pen, and have a seat -- I’m a professional travel photographer, filmmaker, and journalist, and I’m highlighting nine travel photography tips to help you take gorgeous photos on your next big trip. Bonus? These tips are for smartphone, DSLR, and mirrorless camera photographers.
Taking amazing travel photographs is easier than you think.
1. Photograph During Golden Hour
One of the quickest ways to improve your travel photography is to set that alarm an hour early or hang around your destination’s most photogenic spot until the evening because sunrise and sunset lighting can do wonders for your images. It’s best to have the sun setting or rising at your back for a warm, orange glow cast upon your subjects.
That said, get creative! I like to shoot straight at the sun while it’s setting for a dramatic scene. To capture your time in a botanical garden or on a unique walk or hike, you can get tree branches and flowers in the foreground with the sun shining in the background; this way, little flares that look like sunrays actually pop up in the photos.
2. Try Different Vantage Points
It’s easy to whip out your phone or camera and photograph from eye level -- that’s why the majority of images from, say, the Eiffel Tower, look the same. That’s a fine approach if you’re not looking to level up your travel photographs. If you are, it’s time to get creative.
Instead of photographing an attraction head on, crouch down and get some flowers in the foreground or shoot from an angle with an awning that perfectly frames your subject. This doesn’t require a fancy camera, although you can add a soft blur to the framing if you are shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera (just make the f-stop lower and focus on your subject). Even without a fancy camera, a little interest on the sides or in the foreground of your shot can do wonders for your image.
3. Add Dimension To Your Images
Having a subject (let’s say a flower) in the foreground with a mountain in the middle-ground and the sky as your far-off background brings multiple layers of dimension -- and therefore interest -- to your images. As you pull out your camera or phone for your next travel landscape shot, trying thinking about what you can use as your foreground subject that easily pops given the middle-ground and background elements.
For example, in this photograph taken on desolate Beechey Island in the Arctic, I used the flower as my foreground to pop against the otherwise drab, sandy hills in the middle ground, with that blue sky in the background. This helped me tell the story that even in barren parts of the Arctic, life can survive. And, even if there wasn’t a story involved, it still made my shot much more interesting than an eye-level, one-dimensional photo of my surroundings.
4. Photograph Intentionally
Unless I’m photographing wildlife in action, I always take a beat before shooting to think about the actual image. What story am I trying to tell? How can I make this image unique? How can I capture the emotion I’m feeling -- or that my subject is feeling -- in one small frame? This tends to leave me with fewer (but better) photos, instead of a backlog of images I’m not very excited about.
The difference between an ordinary photographer and a powerful, captivating photographer is their ability to tell stories -- to have their photos mean something. If you go into your travel photography (especially for those big, bucket-list destination shots) with this in mind, you’ll come home with photos you’re proud to display.
5. Engage All Five Senses
The most common travel shots are typically landscape or top-attraction images, but some of my favorite travel photographs have nothing to do with sights at all. Photographing food, for example, can help me remember how tasty that sharp block of cheddar was. Photographing a person I’ve had a conversation with can help me remember the things we said, the cultural barriers we crossed, and, if I’m lucky, the new person I can call a friend. Think beyond simply the destination and capture the culture, the traditions, and the small, unique memories only you can share.
6. Use Natural Light
If you’re dabbling in food or portrait photography, natural light is your absolute, must-have best friend. Tungsten and fluorescent lights will cheapen your image. If you have the flexibility while dining in, say, a tour guide’s home, ask them to turn off the lights and move your cheese dish or the tour guide (depending on what you’re photographing) closer to the window to capitalize on that beautiful natural light. If you can’t find great light inside, try heading outside.
If you’re dining at a restaurant, things can get a little trickier. You probably can’t just ask the hostess to turn off all the lights. Instead, head to your camera’s white balance setting and adjust based on the lighting. If the room has yellow light, set your camera’s white balance to tungsten. If it’s fluorescent, set it to fluorescent. You can also customize your settings it if you’re comfortable experimenting (this is my go-to).
If you’re shooting on an iPhone, there’s always room to edit white balance after you’ve taken your picture.
7. Use Apps To Your Advantage
As I’ve mentioned, you don’t need a fancy camera to create high-quality images. Apps including Adobe’s Lightroom -- the free mobile version of the popular desktop editing platform -- give you an unprecedented opportunity to capture high-quality images with your phone, and Lightroom is available for Apple and Android. If you photograph within the app, it saves a high-res version of the photograph (similar to “raw” photos in DSLR and mirrorless cameras). This gives you impressive flexibility when editing within the app. You can brighten without losing quality, adjust shadows without the photo turning grainy, and you have all of the best features of the actual desktop platform.
My favorite aspect of the app is the ability to adjust specific colors (for example, upping the saturation or color vibrancy of red without over-saturating the entire image). Here’s an example of an image I photographed and edited in the Lightroom app:
8. Always Edit Your Images
Speaking of editing, you absolutely must edit your images if you want to improve as a travel photographer! Few photographers release their raw, untouched images as the final product. They spend a good chunk of time editing down to the smallest details.
But, fear not, if you’re photographing for fun, you don’t need to dedicate hours to editing your images. Just a few simple tweaks, such as increasing contrast, adjusting shadows and highlights, and adding or removing saturation can work wonders on your images. Some of my favorite free editing apps are, of course, Lightroom, as well as Snapseed for Apple and Android and PicMonkey for desktop.
9. Have Fun And Break Some Rules
The best thing about photography is the freedom to let your creativity run wild. Have fun with reflections. Look for unique angles. Try some moody hues or experiment with super-vibrant colors.
The more you photograph, the more creatively you’ll look at the world. I look up to appreciate the sun rays flaring through palm trees at the beach and hit the pavement after a big rainstorm in search of puddles with perfect reflections. Whether you’re at home or exploring a bucket-list destination, it’s fun to view the world as a photographer!
Disclaimer: The only rule you can’t break as a travel photographer is to ask permission before photographing. It’s best practice to learn a person’s name and ask permission before taking their picture. While you may be practicing your photography and enjoying your vacation, these bucket-list destinations are still a person’s home.
This world is full of photogenic destinations, but if you’re looking for inspiration, Iceland is definitely my favorite. Here’s how to visit the country’s stunning Blue Lagoon. Happy snapping!