Travel Photography Tips for Sparking Serious Wanderlust
Because no matter how many photos you take on your journey, these souvenirs won’t push your baggage over the weight limit.
It goes without saying that we shouldn’t document every waking moment with a camera, and it’s usually best to unplug and unwind during once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences.
That being said, cameras freeze and preserve the powerful memories we never want to forget. And as long as photos are taken with intent, they give us something to look back on and allow memories to resurface.
Unless your memory is brilliant, you probably don’t remember all of the senses that come together to make a beautiful travel experience — think the smell of jasmine in a Turkish garden, the panoramic view from a seaside cliff in Ireland or the endless buzz of a street in Vietnam — but we can use photography to capture them.
“Our photographs need to bring these and other sensations back, to trigger our memories, and to communicate how we felt to others,” writes National Geographic photographer Robert Caputo in his Photography Field Guide. “To do this, we need to think and feel as much as look when setting out to make photographs."
Travel photography has its fair share of difficulties, though, and the unfamiliar scenery might throw you for a loop. So the next time you embark on a trip — whether it’s just a few towns away or to an entirely different continent — keep these travel photography tips and tricks from Scopio at hand. You might just turn an ordinary shot into a frame-worthy talking point.
1. Draft up a blueprint
I’m not saying that you should travel to a specific country because it’ll get you a thousand Instagram likes (Iceland, anyone?), but it’d be good to do some planning if you’d like to capture something beautiful on camera. Jot down a few areas you’re excited to photograph over the course of your trip, and see if you can crunch that out over the course of a day. If you don’t want to be distracted by your camera, you can also pick a location and devote it to really improving or experimenting with your photography.
It also helps to look up different tourist traps on image-sharing sites like Flickr or Instagram, where niche travel communities aren’t hard to come by. What parts of tourist sites do people tend to photograph the most? It’d be worth it to try and capture other areas or perspectives to really make your work memorable.
And either way, you’ll regret planning things at the last minute.
2. Invest in some equipment (or apps), but don't let it slow you down
A beautiful photo with awful quality is truly a sad sight to see. And though the tech world has made great strides in smartphone camera quality, the native photo apps in our iPhones are obviously no match to pricey equipment donned by serious photographers (and rightfully so).
This doesn’t mean that you should spend up a chunk of your savings on a DSLR and a slew of accessories for it. Instead, start by downloading and testing out a few camera apps right on your phone. Camera+, Manual and ProCamera are all a great value for the few dollars they’ll set you back. They’ll let you experiment with things the regular camera app lacks, including granular features like white balance, ISO and shutter speed.
For more serious smartphone photographers, the next step is to invest in some specialized equipment. Although these gadgets won’t magically make your photography skills better, they do help open your options when you’re capturing light.
Need to shoot from far away, but don’t want to compromise photo quality? Check out a clip-on telephoto lens from ExoLens. Want variety? Look into getting an olloclip. Shooting in dim conditions? Try to find a deal on an external light source.
All that aside, photo equipment can be a literal drag. And unless you’re a photographer on assignment for say, National Geographic or Condé Nast Traveler, carting along all of your clip-on iPhone accessories, a DSLR and other gadgets for the entire duration of your trip is a big no-no.
Plan a stop specifically for making photographs, bring all of your shiny equipment along and go ham. This will give you time to play with different photographic elements — think lighting and angles — without detracting from your travels as a whole.
3. Go for the road less traveled — or at least less touristy!
The biggest distraction from any gorgeous travel photo is probably a horde of tourists. And though you’ll never be the only sightseer on earth, there are still some ways to beat the crowd.
I learned this purely by accident. My parents live and work in Shanghai, and my brother and I make a Christmas pilgrimage there nearly every year. The last time I visited, my Mom and I decided to take the Shanghai-to-Beijing bullet train for a spontaneous trip. Our goal? To knock the Great Wall of China off both of our bucket lists. We hired a guide recommended by a friend the day after we arrived and were carted off to see this wonder of the modern world.
Climbing up the Wall was pretty jarring, and to say it was cold would be a gross understatement.* It was frigid. Bitter. Numbing. Freezing. The wind kicked up every once in awhile, too. The second I saw European tourists wearing snowpants, I learned that the dead of winter is most definitely not peak Great-Wall season.
My perspective shifted as soon as we were on the wall itself, though. The steep climb up was more than enough cardio to get my blood pumping and my body warm. And without the throngs of tourists making their way across this narrow fortification, the views were truly magical. It was just my Mother and me, our guide, speckles of tourists here and there and some peace and quiet away from the city. We found out later that the section of the Great Wall we visited, Mutianyu, wasn’t the most popular section, but actually the best in terms of restoration.
Needless to say, the photographs I took were pretty special — at least by my standards. My Mom and I caught a lucky break and learned a lesson at the same time.
If you’re planning on taking great photos and experiencing a travel location in relative peace, plan around the crowd. Show up to places early in the morning (which will also make for spectacular sunrise shots during the “Golden Hour”), find locales that haven’t been flooded by tourists and avoid peak season if it’s worth it.
*Don’t get me wrong — it was an experience I’m incredibly grateful for, and the cold turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
4. Become a night photography pro
There’s something truly special about unplanned photographs. And when you’re in an entirely new location, you’ll probably see many great night scenes that catch your eye.
In Shanghai, China, that could be the vibrant club scene or the vendors selling street food. In Varanasi, India, it’s the evening Aarti ceremony on the bank of the Ganges River. And in Manitoba, it’s the Northern Lights. All you have to do to capture these moments is snap a quick photo, right? Not exactly.
You might think that cameras operate in similar ways to the human eye. But if you’re not familiar with the intricacies of night photography, what you see as an unforgettable night scene will look more like a dark, indiscernible blob on your camera’s screen. And contrary to popular belief, flash isn’t a fix-all for this problem.
If you’re serious about capturing night photos on your trip, it’s 100 percent worth it to invest in a tripod, read up on night photography (there are guides for your iPhone, too) and maybe even take a class before your trip. Be sure to block off some time before your vacation to practice your new skill.
5. Keep an eye on your surroundings
This might go without saying, but I’ll iterate it just in case: Be hyper-aware of your surroundings, especially if you have expensive photographic tools on hand.
Snatch thieves live everywhere, and you better believe that they’re more than happy to take a smartphone or DSLR off your hands.
Take advantage of your hotel’s safe and lock away that equipment when it’s not in use. When you’re carting around that expensive equipment, invest in tools like a theft-proof neck strap and have a friend or family member play lookout for you when your attention is fully on your camera. You can even “fuglify” your camera if you’re feeling a layer of extra security. More serious photographers could also think about photographic insurance given that they’re often traveling with thousands of dollars worth of technology.
Like these travel photography tips? Follow Scopio on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn for more helpful advice for modern photographers. Scopio promotes extraordinary photos and videos from everyday people so they can be published and paid. Just send your best shots to firstname.lastname@example.org to share your work with your favorite brands. Featured photo courtesy of @thevoyagette/Instagram.
Written by Marlee Ellison