Before you go on your holiday, wherever it is, make sure you read these 79 essential travel photography tips, with crucial advice on everything from packing to the best camera settings for your destination. Images and words by Tom Mackie
With the holiday season upon us, there’s no time like the present to hone your photographic skills to enable you to capture glorious travel photography fit for a gallery wall – or at least pride-of-place in your living room!
But the variation of subject matter and lighting conditions you’ll be greeted with while overseas can be daunting to capture successfully, especially if you’re juggling quality time with your family against quality time with your digital camera!
That’s why we’ve put together no less than 79 tried-and-tested travel photography tips to guide you through the best ways to tackle photography while on the road – all from personal experience!
We start with crucial travel photography tips for planning and preparing for your trip. Then there are essential camera skills, from aperture choice to metering; clever photographic techniques, from composition (read our 10 rules of photo composition – and why they work) to using filters, as well as creative techniques to master, from stunning silhouettes at sunset to picturesque panoramics.
Plus there are tons of quick photography tips to help you while on vacation, including what lenses to consider, how to shoot better candid portraits and what to photograph when it’s raining.
Travel Photography Tips: Packing and Preparation
Tip 1: Pack just what you need
Only take kit you’ll need for your chosen location. For example, it’s pointless taking mosquito repellent to a desert. With more weight restrictions on airlines, pack only the clothes you will wear – then take half of them out as you will survive without them! On one trip, I’d missed the check-in time so I couldn’t check my bag, so I quickly stuffed my clothes down the sleeves of my coat and wore the rest on the plane.
Tip 2: Research the location
Find out as much as you can about your destination by reading up on practical guidebooks, such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. The internet is also invaluable, with many specialist websites giving in-depth information about even the most off-the-beaten-track locations. Read forums for other people’s first-hand experiences, especially on how to access difficult areas for photography and what time of year is best to go.
Essentials to pack
Tip 3: Don’t forget battery chargers for your camera and mobile phone – and a travel adaptor.
Tip 4: A laptop is great for backing up images, keeping in contact via Skype or email, as well as rudimentary image editing.
Tip 5: A portable hard drive is essential for making a secondary backup, in case the laptop gets stolen.
Tip 6: A Gortex zip-out, fleece-lined jacket is especially useful – even in summer. It has loads of pockets for survival essentials such as a torch, waterproof trousers, and a Gerber multi-tool.
Tip 7: My Flight Logistics sunrise/sunset calculator tells me exactly where the sun will rise or set, anywhere, at any time of year.
Tip 8: Beat the rush
While most tourists are still asleep, I’m out making the most of the great morning light – and because most people are still in bed you won’t have coach-loads of people getting in your photos and spoiling your shots! Photographing villages, towns and cities at this time of day makes the photographic experience more enjoyable.
Late afternoon and on – until after the sun sets below the horizon – is another ideal time to take pictures. In the so-called ‘magic hour’ – when the sun is just above the horizon, either in the morning or evening – scenes are illuminated with a wonderful warm, golden glow.
Tip 9: Book hotels with great views
I always book hotels, B&Bs or villas because of the location or the view. Why make life difficult, travelling to scenic viewpoints, when you can shoot right from your window? I once booked a hotel in Barbuba called the Beach House just for the view from the rooms overlooking the beach.
What sold it to me was the hammock and the whole essence of the location. Use tripadvisor.com to get honest guest reviews of the hotels – they often even recommend the best rooms for views.
Tip 10: Take the right kit
There is nothing worse than discovering that you need that lens you left at home. Remember to take essential kit for the destination you are going to.
Pack a small bag with a basic kit including: DSLR body; good lightweight tripod; a wide-angle zoom, such as a 10-24mm or 16-35mm; a mid-range zoom such as a 24-70mm; a telephoto zoom, such as a 70-200mm; a cable release; polarising filter; and possibly a couple of ND grad filters (see ND grad filters: what every photographer should know).
If room, include a 1.4x tele-extender and a macro lens. When flying, always take your equipment as carry-on luggage: if it’s overweight, put some lenses in your coat pockets. They don’t weigh people – yet!
Easy ways to find an interesting location
Tip 11: Ordnance Survey maps give the most detailed information for finding locations.
Tip 12: The internet – you’ll find everything you want to know about a holiday location, and probably quite a lot that you don’t want to know!
Tip 13: Local postcards will point you in the direction of lesser-known places, as well as the iconic travel locations.
Tip 14: Tourist information offices employ local people who will have insider knowledge about the area.
Tip 15: Google Earth is great for finding out how to get to locations and discovering likely viewpoints.
How to book cheap overseas trips
Tip 16: Cheapflights offers what it says on the box and is also a good source for cheap holidays. The web is full of holiday bargains.
Tip 17: House-swapping is a good way to stay somewhere cheap – if you have a house that is in a desirable location.
Tip 18: If you can go last-minute – such as tomorrow – then great savings are on hand with many travel agents, if you are open- minded about where you go.
Tip 19: Remember Teletext? There are many bargains on holidays abroad to be found right here.
Tip 20: Self-catering accommodation often works out much cheaper than hotels – and you have much more room.
Ways to travel light
Tip 21: Roll your clothes as it takes up less space and produces fewer creases.
Tip 22: Never take work with you – unless you are a photographer!
Tip 23: On long trips, post purchases home rather than carry them.
Tip 24: Hard suitcases eat up your luggage allowance. Instead use hardwearing canvas or nylon travel bags.
Tip 25: But don’t travel too light or you may become a terror suspect!
What to wear when it’s hot
Tip 26: Sunscreen! Be safe; factor 30 and above will keep harmful rays at bay.
Tip 27: Sandals keep your feet cool and comfortable – but it’s not cool to wear socks with them!
Tip 28: Wear loose-fitting, light clothes. White will reflect the heat, whereas dark colours will absorb heat.
Tip 29: Jeans are out and shorts are in – or chinos if you prefer to look more stylish.
Tip 30: A hat keeps you cool by keeping the sun off your head and face. Or blend in and dress like the locals.
Travel Photography Tips: Camera Settings
Tip 31: Use Aperture Priority mode
When photographing landscapes, you want to achieve a maximum depth of field so the scene is sharp from foreground to background – so it’s best to use Aperture Priority mode (Av). You can choose the f/stop required and the shutter speed will be set automatically (see more: Dial M for… Your exposure modes exposed).
Just be aware that, if you can’t use a tripod and want to use a narrow aperture, the shutter speed might be too slow to handhold. Many tourist attractions don’t allow tripods, so try setting the camera on a wall or similar.
Conversely, if you want to shoot a portrait of one of the locals during your travels, isolate your subject by using a large aperture, such as f/5.6, and selective focus, to blur a distracting background.
Tip 32: Select the RAW setting
Why shoot in RAW? Because if you don’t it’s like driving in Ferrari but only using first gear; you’re not getting the full potential from the car – or in this case the image file. RAW is like having a master negative that contains much more data, whereas JPEG is like only having the print.
RAW enables you to go back at any time and process the image in a different way. With RAW software and technology improving all the time, it’s good to have the original RAW file to convert again and again.
Take better candids
Tip 33: There is nothing worse than cheesy posed pictures. Grab candid pictures when the subject is unaware that you’re photographing them for better results.
Tip 34: Use a telephoto lens to capture natural portraits of locals and to blur distracting backgrounds.
Tip 35: Use fill-flash in bright, sunny conditions to fill the shadows and bring out colours.
Tip 36: Get in close to your subject so they are recognisable: a common mistake is to have a person too small in the frame.
Tip 37: Show off a beautiful location by having a person actively doing something within the scene, such as walking along a beach.
Tip 38: Know your metering modes
Understanding the difference between metering modes will help improve your travel photography. Best for most situations is Evaluative metering. This averages readings from all four corners and the centre of the viewfinder.
Partial metering takes a reading about 14% of the centre of the viewfinder; this is useful when doing a portrait of a person who is backlit. Spot metering takes in about a 3% area and is useful for metering smaller subjects in the frame, which would otherwise be over-exposed. Finally, centre-weighted metering concentrates on 60-80% of the central part of the viewfinder.
Tip 39: Get white balance right
White balance settings will adjust the colour temperature for any given lighting situation to correctly render elements that are supposed to be white – instead of grey or some other colour.
Remember that, if you are shooting in RAW, the image on the display is for viewing purposes only and can be changed post-processing; however, if you are shooting JPEG, the white balance setting will effect the file at the point of capture. The cloudy white balance setting is great for just warming up a scene a bit.
Tip 40: Read your histograms
When reviewing images on your LCD, press the Info button to bring up your histogram. The left side of the graph indicates the shadow information and the right side the highlight information of the scene.
The idea is to make an exposure that puts the graph as far over to the right of the rectangle without going over the end – if it does, it means your highlights are blown out. When you’re in very bright, sunny conditions it’s impossible to see the image on the LCD, so use the histogram to check if your exposure is correct (find out How to read a histogram: free cheat sheet).
Tip 41: The best ways to use camera filters
If you only had the choice of using one filter, it would have to be a circular polariser. It’s useful because it not only reduces unwanted reflections and glare from surfaces such as glass or water, but increases saturation in blue skies.
To get maximum polarisation, place your subject at 90 degrees to the sun. You may also want to try using graduated neutral density filters. They are great not only for contrast control, but to add drama and atmosphere to skies, by balancing the exposure of the sky so it’s in-line with the foreground.
Travel Photography Tips: Photography Techniques
Potential pitfalls to avoid on holiday
Tip 42: Get travel insurance and ensure you’re covered (some policies don’t include high-risk countries), as well as covering cancelled flights due to ash clouds!
Tip 43: Avoid losing memory cards by carrying them in an organised card wallet instead of carrying them loose.
Tip 44: Always take cameras as carry-on luggage on planes. Baggage handlers are particularly fond of camera equipment…
Tip 45: Don’t drop your DSLR in the sea! An Aquapac camera housing gives good protection and allows you to take underwater photos.
Tip 46: If shooting on windy coastlines, constantly clean the lens as the salt spray clouds up lenses.
Excuses to get away from the family so you can take photos!
Tip 47: “I want to take some pictures for the Christmas card.”
Tip 48: “I think the hike to the photo location is too far for you.”
Tip 49: “You need some bonding time with the kids.”
Tip 50: Go out before they get out of bed. The light is the best then and you’ll be back before they even knew you were gone.
Tip 51: Offer to spend a day shopping with your loved on in exchange for spending a day of picture-taking.
Tip 52: Get creative with your composition
A common mistake is to place the subject slap-bang in the centre of the frame. Try placing it according to the ‘Rule of Thirds’ – along imaginary intersecting lines one one-third into the frame from the top, bottom and sides – for a more pleasing composition.
I often use a combination of the Rule of Thirds and framing to create a more interesting composition. Also remember to use other composition tools, such as framing and leading lines, to draw more attention to your subject.
Tip 53: Look for patterns
The big advantage of photographing in exotic locations is the opportunity to capture unique sights with your digital camera. A great example is all the interesting textures and vibrant colours that are no-doubt overloading your senses.
Focus on specific areas, such as sand dunes or rows of colourful holiday homes, to fill your frame with these wonderfully photogenic elements (learn How to set your autofocus for macro photography).
Tip 54: Hunt out interesting subjects to shoot
Your photos are memories of your travels, so photograph everything of interest. Look for captivating ‘living’ subjects, be it people, wildlife or plants. For these subjects try using a long-ish focal length (around 200mm) and wide aperture (such as f/4) to get them to stand out from their surroundings.
Also look for items that are indicative of a location – such as local fruit or spices, colourful hats or handmade blankets, shells or other natural elements – that will make striking images.
Tip 55: Shoot into the sun
You may have been told to have the sun at your back to get perfectly exposed shots, but this will also result in flat and boring pictures! Shoot into the sun with a wide-angle lens and stop down to at least f/16 to create a natural sunburst for a dramatic image. Try placing the sun just peeking out from behind a tree or other interesting subjects.
The best subjects to shoot when it rains
Tip 56: Waterfalls! Not only because there’s plenty of water, but the overcast conditions provide soft, even light for a low-contrast image.
Tip 57: Woodlands come alive with colour under overcast conditions, as direct sunshine tends to be too high-contrast/distracting.
Tip 58: Head indoors – interiors of cathedrals, museums or even shopping malls always have something of interest to shoot on a rainy day.
Tip 59: Gardens look good in overcast light and the rain will make the foliage glisten and come alive.
Tip 60: Close-ups of nature are great anytime, but especially in wet conditions as more creatures come out, plus the overcast light brings out every detail in the subject.
Travel Photography Tips: Get Creative on Holiday
Tip 61: Use ND filters for long exposures
Neutral density (ND) filters are great fun to use for various effects. They come in various densities to reduce the amount of light entering the lens, resulting in longer shutter speeds for interesting photographic effects.
In popular tourist locations, try using an ND filter combined with a long exposure to blur moving people into thin air! Anything that moves during the exposure will disappear (find out How to clear crowds with an ND filter). Use an ND for coastal scenes and the long exposure will blur the water to create a misty effect.
Quick pointers for better travel photos
Tip 62: A lightweight, sturdy tripod will improve and expand your travel photography.
Tip 63: Always carry your digital camera. You never know when a photo opportunity will present itself.
Tip 64: Change your angle. Don’t shoot everything from eye-level; try moving the camera higher or lower. Images from a bird’s eye view can make a refreshing change.
Tip 65: A well-placed person can add human interest to improve an image – for example, to give a sense of scale to a waterfall.
Tip 66: Photographing individual details can tell as much about a place as the big picture.
Tip 67: Make a picturesque panoramic
When you come across a scenic viewpoint, instead of using a wide-angle lens so that everything appears small, try shooting several images and stitching them together in Photoshop (learn how to Shoot and stitch panoramic photos in 8 easy steps).
This works best if you are using a tripod and allow at least a third overlap of each image so there is enough information to stitch the images together. Focal lengths of 50mm or longer are best. Use manual focus and manual mode so that all of the exposures are consistent.
Tip 68: Shoot cities at night
Cities come alive with lights and colour at night, and distracting details such as cranes, wires and unsightly buildings melt away in the background. Every holiday destination will have something that looks great at night (read the 12 common errors of night photography – and how to fix them).
Good subjects include illuminated fountains, sculptures, churches or cathedrals, and market places. Use fountains or statues as foreground interest with the main subject in the background. Or juxtapose old architecture with new to give more depth and dimension to your images.
Tip 69: Play with HDR
The HDR (High Dynamic Range) technique is perfect when you have a high-contrast scene. With your camera on a tripod, take several exposures for the shadows, midtones and highlights. Depending on the exposure range of the scene, three exposures with 2-stop increments works well and can be done by bracketing your shots. Combine the images together using a program like Photomatix Pro.
Don’t overdo it by having too much detail in the shadows, which makes for a surreal image; I prefer to make it look as though the eye would see it (learn how to Make HDR images from 2 exposures).
Tip 70: Get great silhouettes at sunset
Shooting a brilliant sunset is something we all do on holiday. Sometimes, though, they don’t quite turn out quite as we saw them. A great way to improve sunsets is to silhouette a distinctive subject, such as with the little chapel and cypress trees in our example.
Remember to compose your subject with the right balance of dark areas, especially when it comes to the foreground. The tendency is to include too much, as our eyes see much more detail. To enhance the sunset, simply switch to cloudy white balance. If your camera allows custom colour temperature, you can increase the temperature to enhance the warm tones.
How to shoot nature while on holiday
Tip 71: Use a wide aperture to blur distracting backgrounds (find out How to remove background distractions in 3 steps).
Tip 72: Use a telephoto zoom with a tele-extender to get in close. Zoom lenses also allow quick recomposing when animals are on the move.
Tip 73: Position yourself for a clean background, especially if photographing birds in flight. Study the bird’s flight pattern and wait until it flies into the uncluttered area.
Tip 74: In order to freeze the action of an animal, increase the ISO to achieve a faster shutter speed.
Tip 75: Use both eyes to shoot; one to look through the viewfinder, the other on approaching animals so you can anticipate the action.
Lenses to consider for travel photography
Tip 76: A good wide-angle lens for shooting landscapes and interiors of small spaces.
Tip 77: A mid-range zoom is a great all-rounder to have in your kit bag.
Tip 78: A macro lens – 50mm or 100mm. These are brilliant lenses for macro shots, plus a 100mm is also an ideal focal length for portraits.
Tip 79: A tilt-shift lens is perfect for keeping buildings vertical.