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Simple Travel Photography

Submitted by on April 7, 2008 – 2:27 pm14 Comments
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.


  • Beckie says:

    Just a quick thought on digital photos. Don’t forget to back them up once you get to a computer. Burn them to DVD, store them on an external hard drive, or print them all. There is nothing worse than realizing that your hard drive has crashed and taken all of your photos with it! Believe me, I lost two weeks of photos from my trip to Ireland this way. (Although it’s a great excuse to go back!)

  • Great tips!!!! I will certainly utilize many of these.

  • Chris says:

    Great tips. I like the idea of getting a different angle and waiting for something to happen. These seem obvious, but they are rarely done by amateurs. Thanks.

  • CancunCanuck says:

    Great tips, thanks. As someone who lives in tourist town, I’m always taking “touristy” photos, but trying to make them “photographs” instead of just pictures. As you said, you get a few great ones in with the not so great. I would just like to add the importance of lining up your horizon, particularly for beach and ocean shots. Yes, have something to focus on in the photo besides the ocean and sky (makes it more interesting to have a boat, person, sea gull, piece of shell, anything) but always line up the horizon, otherwise you’ll feel like tilting over when looking at it. Some wise photographer gave me that tip and it has improved my shots greatly.

  • Loved the tips and the comments…

    My one addition to backing them up is making sure that you have backup memory for your camera too. We lost 1/3 of a SD card on our last trip to Maui this last December. No error message on the camera, just couldn’t recover any of the photos.

    Good idea to download photos to a laptop or computer daily or ASAP to make sure you did get what you needed.

    Wes and Kathy
    FREE Digital Scrapbook Course

  • Sheila Birch says:

    Great comment about the “Wait” not always possible on vacation. However probably the most important aspect of getting the shot you want and getting the shot which makes an often common vacation subject into a really interesting artistic image with the wow factor. The ” Wait ” helped turn my hobby into a second income, so it does pay to allow some time and then some more time! Interesting article by the way handy tips.

  • Alex Berger says:

    Great tips! Thanks for putting them together and down on paper. It’s amazing the difference an extra 6o seconds can make when taking a photo.

  • Emily says:

    Someone taught me to put my camera on the portrait setting (on my Cannon it’s an icon of a person) to shorten the depth of field. It works great to get a professional-looking hazy background and sharply focused foreground. Here’s one example … http://www.flickr.com/photos/32235106@N02/3082157107/.

  • Eiseprod says:

    I totally agree with your suggestion under Angles and patterns where you said: Look for unusual angles to lend more interest to your photographs.

    During a recent wedding I covered, a thought occurred to me during the bridal toast. Rather than just taking the couples a portrait while they were clinging glasses, I poured a wine glass half full, placed it in front of the camera’s lens so that the actual wine is in the bottom third and snapped the couples clinging glasses through the clear transparent top of the glass. The effect was amazing… And the cuopless were very pleased with it. Since then, I aim to get that shot for all my clients

  • Karla says:

    Great tips, May I add once you have those great travel pictures you can print them to make great gifts, make a calendar to always remember your trips..yes a picture is worth a thousand words make sure others see it printed!…

  • Krista says:

    Great suggestions. I’ve had success using many of those same tips when I travel and have gotten some of my favorite pictures to show for it!

  • Extra tip: Consider recharging the back up battery. (Happens to me often…)

  • Kim says:

    Great tips and I love your picture of Lion’s Head and Robben Island. My “good picture” tip is to own a tripod. It is priceless when trying to take low-light pictures.

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