So many of us enjoy travelling and taking countless travel photos on our trips (in other words travel photography). And whether consciously or subconsciously, we also know that travel photos have the potential to connect us to our beautiful world.
Images of places, cultures, art and even food can carry us away from our mundane everyday existence. They can transport us to a magical place that we once explored and experienced. There is nothing greater than reliving a magical sunset, that mountain summit or some beautiful architecture months or years later.
To ensure you make the most of your travels and experience as a travel photographer, here are 12 travel photography rules to keep in mind on your next trip!
1. Be a Knowledgeable Travel Photographer
Take the time to research the locations, customs, and photography norms of the place you will visit. Find out as much as you can about the place you are travelling to. And don’t just rely on websites and books. Having a real conversation with someone from the area is so much more helpful than any book out there.
Remember customs vary not only by country, but by region and religion as well. Understand and appreciate the diverse cultural context, and be respectful of these differences.
A little research prior to your journey goes a long way. It’ll help you avoid disappointment and despair when you encounter photography restrictions at your destination.
2. Be Observant of Your Surroundings
Life is happening all around you all the time. People interacting with each other, people interacting with nature, nature putting on a grand show during sunrise, sunset, or even during a thunderstorm. But don’t wait for some preconceived notion of the perfect moment to take your camera out and take your travel photos.
At the same time, don’t see the world simply through your viewfinder. Observe the scene, anticipate the shot that you really want to get and be ready. Don’t just fire away at every situation only to get home to realise that you completely missed the moment.
I once found myself in the middle of a village festival/ritual when I was travelling in India. I had no idea what was going on but knew I had to document it. Luckily a female photographer was somewhat of a rarity in this village and I was given a special seat in the middle of all the action.
It was fascinating to see and experience and of course take photos of.
3. Set Realistic Travel Photography Goals
A very famous travel quote, “We travel not to escape life, but so that life does not escape us”, really hits the nail on the head for me. Be real about why you travel and what you want to gain out of each travel experience.
If you are travelling to a marketplace and want to get a true sense of local lifestyles and customs, then look for naturally occurring scenes. Don’t look for people that you can pose or stage to get your shot. Those travel images are not true to your experiences.
This is by no means a perfect shot. But I love the fact that this angle shows just how crazy transportation choices can be in smaller villages and towns in some countries. It certainly makes for an interesting travel photo to share with friends and family.
4. Choose Your Gear Correctly
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Packing for any sort of travel is an art in itself. Especially if you are going away for an extended period of time. Travel photography requires a slightly different mindset in terms of gear than wildlife or portrait photography.
I find that for travel photography an ultra-wide angle focal length like the Canon 16-35mm f/4 or one like the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 works well. While a fast lens is ideal, I don’t usually find myself photographing at an aperture lower than f/4 or f/5.6 especially when I am photographing landscapes.
More often than not, I have more than one subject in the scene and also want to capture some of the background in order to provide context to the shot.
Another good tip for your travel photography trip is to be aware of the weight of your gear. If you are going to be visiting several places within a short period of time, you provably don’t want to carry all your lenses and all your cameras because of the weight and time restrictions.
I was in Rome for three days this past summer but couldn’t get the famous Spanish Steps without people no matter what time of day I tried. So instead, I chose to embrace the crowds and showcase this famous monument as the tourist attraction it really is.I used a wide-angle lens to showcase the people and the structure to tell the story of the popularity of a famous travel landmark.
5. Know Your Photography Gear
This is one of the basics of photography, no matter what your genre. You should know your camera inside out. When you are travelling and have strangers pose for you, that is not the time to try out different settings and fidget with your gear.
People begin to loose patience and often get leery of you and your ability to take a good picture. They are more likely to simply walk away, rather than waste their time with a stranger who does not know how to operate his/her camera.
Along the same lines, don’t take that new lens out for a spin when you are on the travel experience of a lifetime. And trust me this happens very often. I always have my DSLR camera with me when I travel. And people assume I must be a good photographer because I have a fancy camera.
So many strangers come up to me asking me if I can help them figure out how to turn on their new cameras.
6. Be Confident in Your Photography Skills
Travel photography can be quite fast paced. You are trying to capture a scene as it is playing out in front of you. You don’t really have the time or the opportunity to re-compose the shot and then click the shutter.
However, this does not mean that you have to just fire away at the maximum fps (frames per second) that your camera can handle, then pick the best of the lot in post-processing. Instead, use your technical as well as artistic skills to read the scene, analyse the light, assess the right camera settings, imagine the outcome, anticipate the shot and then take the picture.
Not only will you improve your observation skills over time but you will also improve your photography.
7. Be Present in the Moment
Being present in every moment of every day is a life lesson we all can benefit from. It doesn’t just apply to travel photos. Great moments happen every day around us that are worth documenting not just for our clients but also for ourselves.
Training your mind to really live life in the moment and not worry about all the other distractions will also help you really “see” what is around you. More often than not, you likely travel with a very tight agenda and timeline. No sooner than you get to your destination, you are already mentally prepared to move on to the next stop.
Instead, try and plan a single excursion for a day and really focus on learning and experiencing that place or activity before moving on. That way you can really take travel images that accurately speak to your experience.
8. Be Personable and Communicate Your Needs
Self confidence, an open attitude, and a genuine smile, are important wherever you travel. People around you will generally respond to you with the same attitude that you show them.
Be open and honest about your need to photograph something or someone. More often than not, people will respond positively to you. I have found that most people love to have their picture taken. If you are uncomfortable or nervous about something or someone, it’s best to just leave the camera in your bag.
9. Get Permission Before You Photograph People
Almost everyone around the world knows what a camera is, and what it can do. Even if you don’t know the language, simple hand gestures and pointing to the camera are enough.
Not understanding the language should never be an excuse to photograph an unwilling person. As a photographer, the responsibility of asking for permission before you click the shutter rests solely on you.
If you have time, learn some simple phrases, related to photography, in the language of your destination country. This will not only allow you to communicate more directly with your subject, explaining why you want to take a photograph, but it also shows your interest in the local culture.
Sometimes use your camera as an ice-breaker. Take a picture and show people the photos you’ve taken of them. You will find that photography instantly becomes more fun and less intimidating. More than anything, respect the fact that “No” really does mean NO.
Yes, I understand that there is another school of thought on whether asking for permission will ruin the composition of an image. A lot of photographers will argue one way or the other. But I am of the opinion that if you are taking a picture of a person, you should make every effort to ask permission – either before or after.
I remember one instance when I was travelling in India with my kids. We were visiting a temple in Southern India, and for some reason a lot of teenagers started taking pictures of my five year old son. They would come up to us and take selfies with my son.
Initially it seemed innocent enough, and my son posed with them. Soon it was getting to the point of being creepy, and I had to refuse. As a parent, I was extremely uncomfortable with having strangers take pictures of my kids.
This experience taught me a very valuable lesson – respect people’s personal space and personal preferences.
10. Keep Good Travel Notes
This will help you with your travel photography in the long run. Most people love to create travel photo books of their travel experiences. Having a good log or journal of your adventures will help you add detail and context to the images at a later stage.
If you are an aspiring travel blogger or if you want to submit your travel photos to a publication, these notes will be a life saver. Most magazines want as much detail as you can provide about a place, your travel experience as well as your travel photos.
If a pen and paper are not readily available you can even use the voice memo app on your phone to record an audio narrative of your experience.
11. To Pay or Not to Pay for Your Travel Photos
Perhaps, one of the most controversial situations while travelling abroad, is the question of giving money to people you photograph. There is always that one uneducated, desperate tourist who gives money to get what they think is an award-winning prized travel photograph.
And soon enough, it becomes a lucrative business in the local community. This can get quite uncomfortable and unsafe for other photographers travelling through the same places.
I prefer engaging people openly, and sharing my story and my need for a picture. In most cases people are more than happy to share their story, and to be heard. I too, walk away more culturally and emotionally enriched with the experience.
However, if someone expects money for a photograph, then the decision becomes less of whether to pay and more of whether to take the photo. That is a judgement call. Each of us needs to make it on a case-by-case basis. And remember to be mindful of the example we are setting for future travellers and photographers.
12. Travel Without Taking Pictures
As a travel photographer this is one of my favorite tips to share. Take the time to really travel without obsessing over capturing every minute of every day with your camera. Spend time exploring your surroundings, and your body and mind will thank you for it. Even if you are on assignment, add some down time to your schedule.
Not only does it help you relax, but also recharges those creative batteries for when you do get back to work!
I hope these 12 tips for travel photography were insightful and will help you achieve better travel photos on your next adventure. A little planning and a little patience will help you make the most out of your travel adventure and come back with some incredible travel photos that document your incredible journey.
For easier travel photography planning, you should consider finding a fixer or local guide to help – check out our articles great tips for sourcing the right person for the job. We also have great articles on black and white travel photography or common mistakes to avoid to keep improving your travel images.