Whether you’re still in the planning stages for a trip or currently on the road, you’ll want to have great images of your moments abroad. Inspired by my own ten-day trip around the beautiful country of Iceland, this article will give you 10 travel photography tips to help you bring home amazing memories and stellar photos.
It was the trip of a lifetime, but despite the promise of spectacular landscapes and wildlife, I did the unthinkable and opted to leave my full frame Canon camera at home.
I still took pictures of course, turning out over 7000 captures. In my bag were the Olympus OMD EM1 and EM10 along with two pro lenses, the 12-40mm f/2.8 and 40-150mm f/2.8. I also brought a 1.4x tele-extender, a variety of filters, and many batteries. The only thing missing was the mirror inside the camera, and the extra weight of a DSLR kit.
Here are my biggest takeaways and travel photography tips from shooting those thousands of images:
1. Use Super Slow Shutter Speeds
A long exposure can be used for creative effects. By showing the motion of a subject, it’s possible to push your camera to the extreme and capture a side of life that’s not evident to the naked eye.
At 1/30th of a second, a waterfall becomes a gorgeous silky cascade tumbling over the mountain’s edge. Gentle streams and babbling brooks can benefit from slightly slower times like 1/15 or 1/4.
The general rule of thumb is to experiment between 1/4 and 1/60. Note that these slow exposure times are prone to camera shake. If a tripod isn’t practical, try to stabilise the camera on the ground or on a boulder.
2. Don’t Be Afraid of People
To capture the beauty and serenity of a location, you often have to arrive early to beat the crowds of tourists. This is true especially in Iceland, where the volatile weather brings people out en masse when the sun is shining. On bright, sunny afternoons, you’ll find infinitely more people than you would at sunrise or sunset.
Don’t let this deter you. Images of people enjoying nature’s beauty and serenity open the door to a whole new realm of photographic possibility.
By including a human element, the image will have a greater impact on its audience. The viewers can personally relate to the subject and will bring emotion to the scene.
Additionally, images of people enjoying the outdoors are popular with a wide variety of clients and are great for creating saleable prints and stock photos.
3. Give Your Wide Angle Lens a Break
The contrast found at midday makes it difficult to hold the detail in the sky while properly exposing a foreground. Rather than resorting to an HDR shot, use the occasion to simplify your composition.
Does that bright sky really add to the overall scene? If not, give your wide angle lens a break and switch to a medium telephoto lens.
Before pressing the shutter, check all four corners of the frame for any unwanted bright areas. The human eye tends to focus on these areas first. As you eliminate these distractions, the design of the photo will become more evident.
Just remember, if you are hand-holding the camera with a telephoto lens, opt for a slightly faster shutter speed to prevent camera shake. At these greater magnifications, even the slightest imperfections become noticeable.
4. Rent a Lens
Most of these travel photography tips are about technique and creative choices and won’t cost you a penny, and while this tip might cost you a little, it can be more than worth it when you get a wider variety of shots.
I rarely shoot at f1.2 while at home, but I planned for a few dark interior shoots that required a fast aperture, beyond my f2.8 lens. I was able to rent a great 42.5 f1.2 Panasonic lens for a reasonable price from BorrowLenses.
Sure enough, this lens came in handy on several occasions and allowed me to shoot when it would have otherwise been impossible. In addition to the extra light, the incredibly fast aperture made it easy to create ultra-shallow depth of field.
The process was simple, easy, and secure. I returned the lens in the same box I received it in. Renting a lens was well worth it.
5. Look for Details
Study the space around you and pay careful attention to details. Through your own curiosity, you can uncover moments and capture photos that most would pass by.
Let’s use this blue poppy flower below as an example. At first glance, it appeared rather plain, and certainly not suitable for a beautiful photo. Yet I noticed how the rain drops had collected on the inner petals, and I wondered how it would look with a macro lens, essentially eliminating the rest of the scene.
At this close magnification, the scene became much more interesting, hinting at Iceland’s lush landscape and frequent rainfall.
6. Use Backlighting
Of all the directions of light, perhaps there’s no finer option than when it’s coming straight at you, as when you’re shooting directly into the sun. You can use it to bring landscapes to life, add visual interest to portraits, or highlight the colour of a flower petal.
Keep in mind, backlighting can be a tough scene for a camera to expose properly. If you’re not comfortable with metering manually, take several shots using exposure compensation.
Bracketing this way is a quick way to handle an otherwise tricky scenario. As you’ll quickly see, the results are worth the effort.
7. Use a Polarizer
To enhance the rich colours of rainbows, consider using a circular polarizer. With this simple filter, the blue skies will pop, making the rainbow’s colours stand out against the darker background.
In addition to the increased saturation, it cuts the glare on nonmetallic surfaces, making it the perfect tool for wet leaves, lakes, and streams. With its ability to dramatically alter a scene, a polarizer is one of the most useful accessories a photographer can carry.
Just note, a polarizer will reduce the amount of light entering your camera by 2 stops. To compensate, you’ll need to adjust your exposure. One simple way to do this is to raise the ISO.
8. Lie Down
Why limit your compositions to the traditional perspectives? Prepare to get your jeans dirty and capture some compelling images. While on the ground, try holding the camera in both portrait and landscape orientation.
Setting up the vertical frame may initially be somewhat awkward, and you may prefer one composition over the other at the time, but shoot both horizontal and vertical compositions from this perspective. When you get home, you’ll be glad to have more options to choose from.
9. Use a Graduated ND
Discovering neutral density graduated filters was an “a-ha” moment in my photography career. Without them, it was nearly impossible to fulfil my vision of a well-exposed foreground coupled with a dark, dramatic sky.
Naturally, my travel photography tips would not be complete without my recommendation of using ND filters to get this, often stunning, effect. It’s one that you can achieve outdoors, regardless of where in the world you’re travelling to.
Using a 3 stop (0.9) soft edge filter, I was able to darken the sky while retaining detail in the old church. The rain started falling just as I captured the shot, but I managed to secure this image before the skies really opened.
10. Slow Down
When travelling and moving from place to place quickly, it’s tempting to get the shot and move on to see the next thing. This pace can make it difficult to be creative and try new things.
A better approach is to slow down and spend more time to really observe and connect with the subject. No subject is too small, no detail insignificant.
This is one of the most underestimated parts of being a photographer, and something that’s far too easy to lose sight of: studying subjects through the lens leads to a deeper understanding of the world around you.
Beyond all the best practical travel photography tips for a great set of travel photos is this fact: the act of going to unknown places and exploring it visually through our cameras helps us gain insight, knowledge, and experience life-changing moments.
Iceland was an amazing adventure and one that solidified my belief that photography is about so much more than the gear.
Having a small lightweight kit did indeed make it easier to have the camera with me at all times, so the camera was not a distraction, but rather an extension of the activities I had planned. Instead of going out to “take pictures”, image making happened naturally throughout my trip, and the results were incredible.