Simple Travel Photography

The view from the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town

I am not a professional photographer, but I do share the same goal as a lot of travelers who tend to be amateur photographers: take good pictures that capture the mood of the people or atmosphere of the location in a unique and interesting way. I have taken a few courses in my life and many bad photos. I once attended a National Geographic Seminar on photography. The host, a true, professional photographer of the highest talent, made all the attendees feel better about our skills after informing us that many a professional photographer takes a heap of bad photos to get that one photo that is great enough to grace the pages of the world-renowned magazine. I have taken some of the tips I’ve learned from my courses, books, magazines and websites to come up with this simple list of how to compose some decent photographs. Of course, these tips won’t necessarily get you into the pages of a magazine, but perhaps you’ll be proud enough of the results to share your photos with your friends. Here are the tips …..

Angles and patterns

  • Look for unusual angles to lend more interest to your photographs.
  • For a usual subject, an unusual perspective can mean the world of difference between boring and award winning.
  • Natural or manmade patterns always add interest to a photo.
  • For people pictures, move closer. Facial close-ups can show the dramatic lines of an older person or the baby soft skin of a baby.
  • Get down on the ground. Take your picture upward for a new perspective. This tips is especially nice when taking photos of children. Often we look down on children, but why not capture the world from their angle?
  • Alternatively, stand high and photograph looking downwards.
  • Avoid placing the horizon through middle of photo.
  • Use strong shapes, like a circle or triangle, to fill the photo frame.
  • Have a center of interest, but set it off-center in your frame.

Existing Light

  • Always be conscious of the type of light.
  • Early morning or late afternoon light is great for long shadows and interesting color. Use streetlights as your guide. Go out when they’re still on or just going on.
  • Get out when most of the world is still sleeping.
  • Place people in shady spots. This way, you avoid squinting eyes from the sun or silhouettes from a backlit subject.


  • Bad weather tends to make good photos. Here are a few examples:
  • Cloudy days are good for drama or to make bright colors pop.
  • Foggy times can lend an eerie or surreal feel to a photo.
  • Rainy days can add interest that’s not usually there or not usually photographed anyways.


  • To capture motion, slow the shutter speed (if this is an option on your camera). Try panning. On a slow shutter speed setting, follow the subject with your camera while holding down the shutter.
  • Capture an object entering or leaving your photo.

Other Techniques

  • Find a great location, the wait. Wait for something to enter the picture, e.g. a person walking by, a bicycle driving buy, a robin swooping in, etc.
  • Use the rule of thirds. Divide your picture into 3 sections and fill with different subjects, e.g. sky in top 3rd, boat in middle (slightly off-center), water in bottom 3rd
  • Arrive early and stay late. Not only is this tip good for landscape lighting, but it is also good when it comes to capturing the pre or post “show” (e.g. weekly bazaar set up, performers after the crowd disperses, parade 3 blocks before the start line).
  • Keep subject off-center.
  • Check out the postcards for good locations.
  • Capture the crowds of a huge tourist destination or go to the destination at an off-peak time.

People and Etiquette

  • It’s best to ask permission and then stay for awhile if singling out 1 or a few people (as opposed to a whole crowd).
  • Learn at least a few phrases in the local language to ask this permission (e.g. “hello”, “do you mind if I photograph you”, “thank you”, etc.)
  • After spending some time with people, they’ll start to forget about the camera and begin to act more naturally.
  • Incorporate the environment with the person or people.
  • When taking a photo of your friend in front of a landmark, try keeping the person close to you comprising 3 quadrants of your image, while the landmark is feature in the last quadrant.
  • Include everyday people with landmarks or buildings in order to showcase scale and interest.
  • Wander off the beaten path, down side streets, to non-tourist restaurants to capture more everyday life and less touristy locations where cameras are not always expected.


  • I won’t comment too much here. Chances are if you have a big enough interest in photography to invest in a lens-changing 35 mm camera, you probably have done the research or have the knowledge in this area. Here are just a few comments anyhow:
  • Telephoto lenses allow you to focus on your subjects without the background becoming a distraction. They also allow you to stack images in a photo.
  • Wide-angle lenses allow you to cover a wider area and, hence, is good for panoramic photography or “squishing” more into your frame.
  • The fisheye lens is a more extreme wide-angle lens that is good for close-ups, like flowers or insects, or distorting images.

The Obvious, Easy-To-Forget, and Technical Stuff

  • Recharge your digital camera’s battery.
  • Consider taking a back up battery.
  • Consider taking an extra flash card.
  • Take a USB flash drive to store photos and to free up flash card.
  • Take a zip lock or waterproof bag to protect camera in case of rain (or sand).
  • The higher your digital camera’s mega pixels, the better your prints are to work with. However, 6 mega pixels are plenty for creating good prints.
  • Don’t bother using your digital camera’s black and white setting. You can convert pictures to black and white when you get to your computer.

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