What I've learned about Travel Photography

Published on June 08, 2011 under Photography

Me in Vienna

Probably the biggest reason I ever wanted to get into photography was for travel. When I went to Greece in 2006, we only had simple point-and-shoot cameras, and while the photos were ok, I always wanted to get those "National Geographic" quality kinds of shots just so I could really have lasting memories.

I've been on several trips now with my DSLR, and learned a few lessons specific to when you're traveling with a decent camera and gear. I've made mistakes in my travels, but learned from them, and hopefully my past mistakes become help for your own vacation shooting.

Plan ahead

Packing for travel photographyWhen I prepare for a trip, I'm all over the internet not only figuring for the places I want to visit, but also the sights and spots worth shooting photos of. There are several ways of going about it. Try reference sites like Wikipedia or Wikitravel, books on your destination, or even just look around Google Images and Google Maps.

Another possibility is to check out a gift shop when you arrive in your destination. Look at the postcards and any tourist books they're selling. They can tell you a lot about landmarks and items worth shooting.

Packing light is a big rule when you're doing travel photography. When I first traveled to Europe with my camera I overdid it. I brought my camera body, four lenses, tripod, monopod, speedlite, memory cards, batteries, and chargers. What I found is that I mainly only used the body and two lenses. Most of the rest I carried around and barely ever touched.

Nowadays, I'll only travel with one or two lenses, camera body, a smaller travel tripod, speedlite, memory cards, batteries, and chargers. The rest I just don't need or I can find ways to live without them. If you have access also to a simple point-and-shoot, bring it as well. You never know when a simple camera might do the job as well as or better than the DSLR. Always think in terms of keeping it simple. Not only to challenge you to put your skills to the test, but also so you're lightweight enough to bring your stuff on the plane. Never check-in your photography gear!

I'll also highly suggest you invest in a camera bag or backpack that is very nondescript. Sure you might have that nice Canon or Nikon bag with the shiny logo emblem on the side, or that light camera pouch you can sling over your shoulder, but those kinds of bags are gleaming targets to thieves. It says you have expensive camera gear, so they should rob you when you're vulnerable.

I bought a simple camera backpack that really doesn't say "camera" on it. Granted a thief can see I have a DSLR when I pull it out of the bag, but sitting on a bus or tram with the backpack only showing just says it's a backpack.

Think about investing in travel-specific gear

Travel lenses, tripod, and monopodPart of packing light can be easier if you invest in certain pieces of gear that are meant for travel. A nondescript bag is one I mentioned, but a travel lens might be the best investment. This type of lens is also known as a "carry around" lens because it contains a focal range as small as 18mm to as high as 200-270mm. This lens alone could cover pretty much all your needs, from shooting family members, to a landscape, and even zoom in close-ups.

Many professional photographers have been divided on these lenses. Some believe you won't get great sharpness or clarity, but others have shot and shown the photos in detail online, proving what I said before that it's more about the user and less about the gear.

Now if you would rather not buy a travel lens, then I would suggest just using what you have available. Originally I used my kit lens (18-55mm) and a zoom lens (75-300mm), which worked out well. On my last trip I took the zoom lens with a wide-angle lens (17-40mm) and things turned out fine. A travel lens isn't essential, but it makes your life easier.

One other great tip I picked up is to invest in an inexpensive 50mm prime lens. The reason is that you can get a lot more light into the camera more easily, so if you happen to be in that old church where flash photography isn't allowed, you can get better results with this lens and toying with the ISO.

Stabilization gear can seem like a burden when traveling. I know from the pains of carrying a tripod around parts of Europe, but only using it a few times. Pick up a small, but sturdy tabletop/travel tripod. I know it doesn't look like much, but it'll do the job when you need stabilization. You'll have to get inventive like setting it up on a tabletop, garbage can, ledge, etc.

If you want to go further, try out a monopod. Scott Kelby spoke of how many museums and interior spaces won't allow photographers to use a tripod, but they won't say anything about a monopod because you're taking up less space. If you think you can shoot great with just your arms, then don't bother with a monopod.

Make use of technology

GeoLogTag on an iPhoneThe beauty of photography now in the digital age is that we have many more cool tools to enhance our experience. GeoTagging is a big deal with me now when I travel. It's the idea that when you later upload your photos online that you mark on a map where you were when you shot the photo. It's great simply to better image the entire world, and show others where you found that great shot. If you look at any of my vacation photos on Flickr, I geotagged them all on a map.

Some high-end cameras will come with a built-in GPS to track where you are, but most of the rest do not. I actually use an app on my iPhone called GeoLogTag to do the job. I actually love using my iPhone abroad for many purposes, only relying on the GPS and Wi-Fi. You can read about how to use your iPhone abroad here.

Now if you don't have a smartphone or aren't interested in getting all GPS, you can go simply with a tourist map and a pencil. You don't need to mark every spot, but just draw a path here and there on the map so you can remember where you were later if you want to geotag the photos.

I also think it's a good idea to bring some means of backup with you. One trip I just simply brought a small external hard drive, and my camera's USB cable. Whenever I took a break, I'd find a cyber café and connect up everything to pull all the photos down. On another trip, I brought a small laptop to do all that. If you want to bring a load of memory cards and forgo this, then do it. I personally like to bring the means to empty out the cards into a hard drive and thus know my photos are safe until I get home.

What to shoot

Passage in Athens, GreeceSo we've been through all the talk on preparation, gear, and technological advances, but what about the subject matter? Yes, landmarks are the usual standards, but in all honesty, you should try to tell a story with your photos. Take yourself or anyone who sees them on the trip with you over and over. I know too many photographers will get into only the scenery and the creative, but they forget those tender moments with family, the laughable photos, etc. This is even one reason to bring that point-and-shoot as a secondary camera.

I always like to try to capture the culture of the location I'm in. Churches, landmarks, and statues are all nice, but sometimes a photo of a hidden passage, people on the street, a marketplace, cafes...all of it is what I like to call the "actual country" (thinking in terms of the country you're in). Take care to catch these spots and get the "whole picture" (to make a bad pun).

Another idea is simply to get artistic. Sometimes you'll just see something interesting and you want to grab it. I know for me it could be a decorative door, a different angle on a statue, or even just some abstract/contemporary look at objects and items in your view. What you shoot is up to you, but getting creative can enhance a vacation album and break up the monotony of family shots and landmarks.

Fruit Tart from Cafe Demel in Vienna, AustriaShoot the food as well. Every meal you sit down in, just grab a few shots of the meals you eat. Maybe burgers at a foreign McDonald's isn't photo-worthy, but the ethnic dishes (if you try them) are definitely worth the shots. Again, it's part of not only showing the local culture, but also telling that story of your trip.

Be sure to shoot the signs and plaques of statues, buildings, and landmarks you photograph. It's a handy tip just to make your life easier when you are posting photos online or wherever. I made this mistake in the past and spent hours doing Google searches for the names of places, as well as their locations.

Last tip...more is better than less when you're shooting. I'm serious. We're in the digital age, and if you packed plenty of memory cards and a hard drive, just go ahead and shoot loads of photos. I'll actually set up my camera on continuous shooting and grab multiple shots of everything. Your first shot might end up blurry, so be happy you have 2-3 more to pick from.

When I went through Prague and Vienna, I actually set up the AEB (Auto-Exposure Bracketing) and fired off HDR setups of most of the landmarks. In the end, I barely used any of them as HDR photos, but I was happy I had the option. When you're far away and won't get more chances to reshoot scenes, less is definitely not more. Shoot 1000 photos and use the best 100 in your final album.

You can view my vacation photos off my Smugmug page.

Do you have any added tips for travel photography?

Tags: travel, photography, lessons

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