Tips for Taking Great Travel Photos

A comment in another thread coaxed me to start this new thread. Would anyone like to share their favorite tips for taking great travel photos? Could be DSLR, P&S, or iPhone (but maybe say which one to make it easy to identify the equipment category). I know there are lots of articles out there about this, and perhaps share links if you have favorite resources, but i think there are several accomplished photographers on these boards, and I'm especially interested in personal tips that have resulted in your most cherished photographs.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17796 posts

Rose, I'd have to give that some thought, but some of the tips that readily come to mind are..... > The best lighting is either early or late, when the shadows are most pronounced, and generally less people to get in the way. The lighting is somewhat "flat and unspectacular" at high noon, so I try to avoid that except for snapshots. > Having an easily identifiable local site in the background will provide some context. Be careful about "framing" though - if taking a picture of a relative with the Eiffel Tower in the background, make sure that the subject is positioned so it doesn't seem that the tower is growing out of their head. > I find that having a DSLR or more advanced Camera provides a LOT more flexibility in getting good shots under a variety of conditions. The ability to use the most appropriate Lens for the situation, as well as being able to change the ISO, aperture, shutter speed and other settings is really beneficial. However, in order to get the best results from a more advanced camera, there's a greater "learning curve". I use several Cameras during travel and in terms of flexibility and overall best quality I find the DSLR to be best, then the P&S (which is easiest for videos) and finally the iPhone (which can take reasonably good photos, but there ARE limitations). It's late so that's about all I can think of at the moment. I'll add more later if I think of anything. Cheers!

Posted by D.D.
England
375 posts

After living in various places in Europe for a while, I don't take as many photos as I used to. It's usually when I have visitors. I am not a professional photographer; just an ordinary person with a cheap camera. But I really dislike the type of travel snapshot where everyone is lined up like a row of corn right in front of a famous landmark, staring at the camera with fake smiles on their faces. If I'm going to have people in my pictures, I like for them to be doing something naturally, such as looking in a shop window, walking down the street, stepping off a boat, bicycling, etc., with the famous landmark in the background. If I only wanted a shot of a famous building straight on, I could just buy a postcard. One of my favorite photos is of a family member leaning on an ornate lamp post outside a train station, watching the train come in. You can see some of the city in the background as well as the name of the station on the sign. Another of my favorites was when my husband took a shot, without my realizing it, of me looking at fabric on tables outside a shop in Provence. I later made a tablecloth out of the fabric and when visiting family commented on it I showed the photo. They thought it was a clever souvenir.

Posted by Randy
Minneapolis, MN, USA
1509 posts

1) More often than not, put the main subject of your photo off-center (some variation of the classic 1/3 rule). Over-centeredness becomes visually oppressive quickly. Combine it with something else visually interesting in the other part of the photo. 2) Take more photos of "quiet" things than "loud" things. Loud things are like the Eiffel Tower - big and brash and predictable. Quiet things are quaint back streets, children at play, stonework, an old man reading a newspaper on a park bench, etc. These things will be better memories of a trip. Don't forget to take photos of small things, too. 3) Leave your flash turned off indoors and trust your camera to handle the dim light. Most cameras are surprisingly adept at low-light. While there are times when indoor light will make photo-taking difficult, I can't remember the last time I found a photo dependent upon a flash pleasant to look at. As a bonus, you won't bother other people with your flashing either. Finally, and this is more of a personal preference/gripe of mine; Limit the photos of people posing in front of famous sights. You were there. They were there. You don't need proof. You won't forget, I promise. Take candid/casual/natural photos of people while out seeing/doing things. But the staged look-at-me-standing-in-front-of-______ photos have never impressed me at all.

Posted by George
Canada
836 posts

Agree with Randy. The best of his tips, leave the flash off. I started doing that 5 or 6 years ago because the light bounce was so unnatural. I'd sooner have a tad under-lit relief, in a church, than one with light bounce.

Posted by Nancy
Costa Mesa, CA, USA
149 posts

Hi Rose, Great idea! As a semi professional photographer, here are my tips.. 1. Learn the settings on your camera and play with them before your trip to get a feel for what they really do. As the previous poster said, many cameras can take great low light photos w/o flash but you need to know how to set the camera to do that. 2. Look at scenes from different angles. One of my favorite shots of the Eiffel Tower is taken from just underneath the tower looking up.
3.Use your camera to slow down and really "see" what's around you! Finally, the "best" camera is the one you have with you!

Posted by Gretchen
Andover, MA, USA
289 posts

Hi! this is a fun and helpful thread. I agree with the others so far. I would add that unless specifically shooting a landscape, one good tip is to get closer! For example, if you're taking a photo of a famous painting, get closer and just take a detail of the painting. Or, if you're taking a street scene, do the regular photo of the whole street, and then zoom in a do just the doorknob or a mailbox. Also, take photos by turning the camera about 45 degrees so the same old cathedral photo you've taken in every other city you've visited looks fresh and new. Hope these help.
I look forward to reading more of these.

Posted by Roy
Auburn, AL
805 posts

Good travel photos start at home. Try to view your hometown like a visitor would. Walk about your neighborhood looking for unique views of ordinary scenes and shoot those. Then go to the scenic areas around you and view them as if you were seeing them for the first time. Shoot the same scenes from different angles at different times of the day and night and season,and experiment with different camera settings. You won't always have ideal conditions while traveling, but by practicing with the camera in your neighborhood or hometown, you can learn how to get good shots when the weather, lighting and even angle of the sun conspire against you.

Posted by Pamela
New York City, NY, USA
3314 posts

I got some great advice when I took a photo workshop on the Isle of Skye. First, vary your shots. Don't take just landscapes or city views, take some shots of the flowers you're seeing or a lamp. As Steve put it, there three zones, distant, middle distance and close ups. Mix'em up. Second, don't try to include everything in one shot. Steve summed this up for me when he looked at a shot I had taken. I had mountain, the stream and in the foreground a thistle. His comment, "you don't need the thistle," has become a bit of a mantra for me in photography and other things. Third, don't be afraid to include people in your shots. Sometimes they can really set the stage of the picture. I really want to see that pix of the person leaning against the lamp post watching the trains! Fourth, make sure that some of the photos include you! I love a picture that someone took of me on The Charles Bridge in Prague. It reminds me that I was really there. I take two cameras. One is Canon Rebel XTi the other a Nikon coolpix. I like the latter for when I'm out in the evening with friends as it is smaller. And I have a nice combo wide angle / zoom lens that I keep on the DSLR at all times. Pam

Posted by Paul
Tuscaloosa, AL
877 posts

Include people in your photo. This holds true for people you know, but also for ones you don't. As others have suggested, try for candid shots over staged or arranged pictures.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

These tips are great! Thanks and keep them coming. One thing I've been trying to focus on is to include something in the composition that establishes perspective, such as part of a tree branch in the foreground or slightly framing one area of the primary, much larger building, bridge, etc. in the background. If possible, try to capture light filtered through the leaves. The presence of an unposed person or small group also accomplishes the same goal. Whenever I take a photo of an expanse of flowers, I always take a second shot by moving in for a close-up of a few blooms, and a third macro shot of a single flower. If photographing artistically beautiful shop window displays (some are mini public art galleries!), pay attention to what's reflected in the glass. Any tips specific to capturing architectural detail?

Posted by Perry
Pearland, Texas, USA
215 posts

... maybe the best suggestion we've seen is to carefully examine the photographs in the local picture postcard displays. This may provide tips on the sort of day (and time) for a visitor to capture on film special subjects, not to mention the best positions for the photographer to occupy. Happy travels ~ P

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
2612 posts

A lot has already been covered, however I will say that the comments about lighting are the most important part of a great image. That is what photography is... light and shadow... I am a professional photographer and have also taught at the college level as well as run a number of photo workshops , so I will approach this as I do when we are on a workshop with people who want to take better travel photos. One thing we do is give assignments for the day and I think that helps gives direction to your photography... rather than just wandering and taking a bunch of meaningless snapshots. One fun assignment is for each person to choose a color, then do a 'stream of consciousness' writing about that color (which means to simply write for about 5 minutes, whatever comes into your head when you think of that color...don't think about what you are writing just keep writing ..words, phrases, sentences) Now the assignment is to photograph that color for the day wherever you find it, and see if you can reflect your personal feeling about that color in your images. As you search for your color you may start to look at your surroundings a bit differently. The following is what one of the students at our workshop in Costa Rica wrote.."Brown by Ann George... Brown makes me feel quiet, reflective, strong. Brown is not obvious. It is the earth raw and naked. It flows unto me...It is not joy, nor sorrow, not inspiring. It is warm and nurturing, safe and strong. Brown is natural and unembellished, simple-peaceful-quiet. Brown is not noticed as are all the other colors, even black. It waits for the observant one, the one with time to recognize its strength. It does not wander or excite, it is structure and support for all the other colors. The other colors are decorations for the soul but brown is the soul, it is not its decoration. It is bareness, blandness with meaning. Brown is beautiful." So, that was her inspiration for the day!

Posted by Leslie
Colville, WA
252 posts

@Terry kathryn - I love that photo assignment, too. For my yearbook class, I went to Walmart and grabbed a bunch of paint samples and had the kids choose a color they wanted to photograph. Instead of just a bunch of pictures of their friends, they had to search someone out wearing that color and ask to take their picture. I need to add the writing aspect to it also. Thanks Back to the original question, I like to take pictures showing old and new against each other or pictures showing textures. Though I have some great camera equipment, when I am traveling, I usually only take a small point and shoot or use my phone camera.

Posted by June
Edmonton, Alberta
250 posts

Great tips! I use the grid tool to keep centred or to purposefully off centre. Best photos i have taken were at dusk in Florence, where I spent almost an hour taking varying shot in the fading light. Love the bridges. Also, while it may be cheesy, I take food pics of my meals. It is a neat memory. I rarely photo people, mainly sights. Windows are a passion and reflections in windows are very cool.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Wonderful, inspiring photo assignment! Thanks for sharing that. I saw a program once where people had to go out into the street in NYC and take a photo of something, then come back into a studio and design and construct a piece of clothing using something in the photo that had inspired them to choose the subject. Then they had to present it and explain their inspiration and the relationship between the photo and the garment they had created. The notion of having a theme for at least a portion of a day's photos is a great idea. About reflections in glass windows, on my last trip I was so focused on composing the photo based on what was behind the window, in the display, that I didn't see the ghostlike reflection of myself in the glass. I was startled to see it later, but ended up loving it. Another time I inadvertently captured my own shadow against some ruins. Note to self: Take the time to really look carefully at the composition.

Posted by mick
jasper, il, usa
49 posts

A couple of other ideas from an amateur. Do your homework - if you really want great photos of a mountain/building/etc that faces east don't show up at 5 in the afternoon expecting a great shot. Be there when the sun is breaking the horizon. Don't wait for bright, sunlit days. Right before or after a storm is a great time for contrasting shots.Sometimes the best shots are when the sky is a foreboding grey and the buildings are beautiful, pastel colors. Don't take every shot from your usual standing position. Kneel down and see what your shot looks like from ground level - a small change in perspective can produce a major change in appearance.
Most of all, stand and enjoy the beautiful/unique/fun sight before you as you take your photos. After all, the human eye and brain is still the best way to create memories.

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
2612 posts

Rose...I have done a number of 'reflections' images... if lucky, they can be really amazing. I typically try not to have myself in the images, but if it cannot be avoided I will photoshop myself out. I will also take a photo of myself and one of the grandkids I am traveling with by viewing our reflection in the window, put my camera by my waist and take our photo that way. Assignment # 2... Spend the day photographing as many images as you can using the rules of composition. Try finding an image that has an 's curve' (think of a winding road leading to a cottage) Follow the 'rule of thirds' putting your subject in either the top/bottom 1/3 (think of a horizon line ) or in the left/right 1/3 (not dead center) Find an image with 'leading lines' (think of the iconic image of a tree lined street in France with the bicycle rider and loaf of French bread in his backpack...both diagonal leading lines take us to the subject... typically more dynamic if photographed from a low angle) Use diagonal lines as often as possible, they are one of the strongest compositional elements...straight lines are the most stagnant and often cut your image in half (horizon line in middle of image)
Assignment #3... Photograph textures... watch the play of light and shadow. As light skims across a subject it increases texture as the difference between the highlight and shadow increases... A good reason not to photograph an older woman with the light skimming across her face:) However, it is perfect lighting for a character study. I have a whole file of some of my favorite textures from many trips and I combine them in layers in photoshop with my images to give a painterly look to some of my prints. @Mick... great advice, when the rain appears, or the fog, or the snow, grab your camera for some amazing images.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Thanks, Terry Kathryn! I never dreamed the idea for this thread would generate such great responses. I'm trying to better understand, remember to look for, and find the vanishing point in both paintings and photographic compositions. Since buying my first camera I seem to have had a natural eye for diagonals. The challenge is to expand my seeing. My friend who is an artist can look at the same waterdrop I'm looking at and see it in a completely different way. This thread is giving me so much to think about and go out and practice.

Posted by Charlene
Centennial, CO, US
916 posts

Some of my favorite photos are those I've taken of tables ... before, during or after a meal. I hold the camera level and a few inches above the table, and get a photo of the glass of wine or cup of cappucino or plate of fish, but also (most importantly) the background. This works especially well outdoors. It captures a peaceful moment as well as a bit of scenery that puts it in context.

Posted by Pamela
New York City, NY, USA
3314 posts

One of my favorite pictures is of a pint of ale sitting on table next to a copy of The Scotsman with the Inverness Castle in the background. :)

Posted by kat
parkdale
200 posts

I love the color you get when taking pictures of a farmer's market. For your own mementos you may want to take pictures of meals you had or something unique about your hotel room. I have a great picture of a Bellini I ordered in Dresden, replete with pansy and other garnish. Store windows: Cheese shops, bakery shops, gelato bins, etc. One of my favorite picture is of 3 year old twins in Paris carrying baguettes back to Dad's restaurant!

Posted by Melissa
Naperville, IL, USA
12 posts

Hello, Here is an article I wrote on my blog. I hope you find it helpful! Liberated Traveler
Melissa

Posted by Tom
Hüttenfeld, Hessen, Germany
9134 posts

A couple of obvious answers, but I'm not sure if they've been covered yet: Keep the sun behind the photographer, not the subject, unless you're looking for a specific effect. So, this can influence what time of day you visit a certain site. For example, the westward view of Heidelberg from the Schloss is stunning, but if you want a clear picture, you need to take it in the morning. Buy a small, pocket-sized tripod. Most useful for shooting in low-light conditions. For very popular, well-known landmarks, visit them early in the morning to get the most unobstructed views. For example, Charles Bridge in Prague is covered in a sea of humanity after 10 in the morning. Earlier, the few people on the bridge can add to the atmosphere of the shot, rather than obstruct it. Many old buildings are illuminated in a soft light after dark. Learn to use the time exposure function on your camera (and use the above-mentioned tripod) to capture them best at these times. Quite simply, don't expect to captured brightly colored, postcard-perfect shots of rural landscapes between the months of November and April. The air in Europe north of the Alps is usually too damp to allow for good visibility. But if you want some close-up atmospheric shots of buildings shrouded in mist, this is your opportunity. Finally, a plea. If you want to preserve memories of the beautiful paintings you saw in a museum, please, buy a book or poster at the museum shop. Or at least, don't be that photographer who needs to take a picture of every damn painting in the museum, and who gets annoyed when other visitors have the nerve to stand in front of the painting and interfere with his photo composition.

Posted by Paul
Tuscaloosa, AL
877 posts

Melissa, thanks for the link to the Liberated Traveler blog. It helps drive the point home by including examples of the suggestions illustrated in actual photos. I'm passing the link on.

Posted by Kelly
St Petersburg Florida
948 posts

Don't quite discredit the iPhone. The newest iPhone takes some of the best photos, especially outdoor photos and perhaps objects in motion. My husband and I mountain bike and my canon g11 can't quite get the quality of my husband and his bike coming off a rock drop that my iPhone takes.
My canon g11 does take great up close shots. We doing slide shows for our friends and family of our trips, everyone loves the food and beverage photos. I agree with others about market shots. A bunch of olives together......that weird cauliflower that is spiny......the mouths and eyes of the sea life.....bunch of flowers.

Posted by Melissa
Naperville, IL, USA
12 posts

Paul, thank you for passing my blog on! I'm just a teacher that loves to travel and share what I've learned :).

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

The last para. of Brad's reply reminded me of something I'm doing more and more. When visiting museums, there sometimes isn't time to read as carefully as I would like the descriptive text on gallery walls or labels next to paintings, etc. I quickly photograph the artwork and accompanying text, then devote my in-person time to actually looking at the real painting, statue, display case, etc. Later, when reviewing the day's photos I take time to read the text carefully. I try to do it at night on the same day as the visit so it's fresh in my memory.

Posted by Pamela
New Castle, Pa, USA
22 posts

I do not have the technical expertise that many of the posters have. I use a Nikon bridge camera and a Nikon point and shoot. I only take the obligatory photos of landmarks etc. Everybody knows what the Eiffel Tower looks like. I do both digital and conventional scrapbooking so I tend to take multiple themed picture that capture the uniqueness of the area. Foreign toilets are an unusual but interesting theme. It's one thing to talk about the toilets it's another thing to have pictures! Because I am a gardener, I take lots of close-up pictures of flowers that I collage. Parisian Smart Cars and Mopeds, Italian gelato stands, display windows, clotheslines and door curtains, weddings, and local people we have met in our travels are just some of my themes. For me, I find that when I look back at these types of pictures, they evoke the same sense of discovery that I had when we were there.

Posted by Brad
Gainesville, VA
7213 posts

Quite a few tips here already that help me take great vacation pictures. My top tip to an amateur is to take lots of shots, out of which you will have some great shots. That's so much easier to do in the digital age, memory is nothing compared to packing rolls of film. Second tip would be to try for a 50/50 mix of close ups with your other pictures. It was said before, but take some pictures of a famous building from several angles while also taking close-ups of some architectural details. Photos with people are always interesting. Make sure you take some candids of people in a bar/cafe, people walking dogs, kids playing in parks, etc. In Europe I've never been yelled at for taking photos of kids kicking a ball, or even of a woman hanging laundry from her balcony - though I have had some rough remarks for taking a picture of a Russian babushka lighting a candle in church and taking some shots from unusual vantage points at the Vatican (maybe church is the common theme). When you get to a new place, or start a new day, take your first photo of a sign or iconic sight; that will help you place your photos when you get home.

Posted by Sarah
Stuttgart, Germany
2012 posts

I agree with Chris. I'm not a particularly good or patient photographer, I don't have a good camera (just a cheap point & shoot) so I primarily use photography as a way of capturing moments with friends or family than fooling myself that I'm going to be able to capture a landmark or landscape better than a postcard. I buy a lot of postcards! It's my "I was there" memento. And I enjoy traveling with friends who seriously are good photographers. Took few pictures in Copenhagen last weekend because I was with a friend with a DSLR who is a great photographer. Another bonus: I'll actually be IN the pictures as opposed to just the one taking them. When traveling with a group it makes sense to have one designated photographer instead of 4 people all taking the same picture. I also find that having a crappy camera keeps away the temptation to view my entire trip from behind a lens. I see a lot of people who are so busy recording their memories of a trip that they experience less. My basic point is, unless you've seriously invested time and money in learning photography skills and having good equipment, your pictures are probably not going to be that great. Either acquire the skills/equipment or chill out a bit about the picture taking and don't worry about it so much.

Posted by Rose
NYC
922 posts

Many thanks to all the serious photographers who responded with great tips, as requested. I learned a lot from the replies and have several new ideas to try out on future trips, both local and distant. If anyone thinks of something additional, please pop back in and share. Thanks again and happy snapping!