Whether you dream of seeing your photos featured in National Geographic, or simply want to make your Facebook friends insanely jealous, you’re ready to step it up in the travel photos department.
It’s important to me to create photos that reflect the emotion of the moment, so I’ve been honing my photography skills both at home and abroad through expert-guided photography classes, a bit of online investigating, and the simple act of doing. I was never more thankful for these skills than during my month-long trek through Patagonia, where I captured photos of age-old glaciers, granite mountains at sunrise, and a penguin I’ll never forget.
There’s a lot to learn for non-professionals who wish to advance beyond the realm of amateur photography, so I broke it down into five straightforward steps that are guaranteed to help you start snapping better travel photos:
1. Understand Your Equipment
You don’t have to be a professional photographer – or even have professional gear – to produce beautiful vacation photos. But you do need to know how to use what you’ve got! The best thing you can do before your trip is to get familiar with your camera. Test out different functions and learn the settings — that way, you’ll be fully-prepared to snag a shot of the city traffic zooming past, then deftly switch modes to capture a portrait of that quirky street vendor who caught your eye.
And if you truly wish to take your travel photos to the next level, you might consider investing in another piece of equipment or two. For anyone hoping to replicate those colorful sunset photos you see splashed across Pinterest, I have one word: tripod. A portable tripod is the tool that helps you capture the city lights at nighttime or the sunset ripping across the sky. It’ll also allow you to put your camera on a timer and jump in the photo yourself! Lastly, you’ll definitely want a sturdy, waterproof bag to carry your camera and accessories.
The important thing to remember is that you don’t necessarily need to spend thousands of dollars to take stunning travel photos. According to professional traveler photographer, owner of Geotraveler Media, and former MatadorU Travel Photography professor Lola Akinmade-Åkerström, “Your equipment doesn’t define your photographs – your best shots ultimately come down to creativity and composition.”
2. Get Closer
Travel photography is about opening a window onto an unfamiliar people and place. It’s about telling the story of your journey through honest eyes, and finding ways to capture the emotions of your experience. That’s certainly no easy task, so where do you begin? Shoot from your heart!
“Get right into the middle of the action,” advises Akinmade-Åkerström. “To take your travel photos to the next level, you absolutely have to get closer to your subjects, acknowledge them, and connect with them.”
Many amateur photographers tend to hide behind their cameras, using telephoto zoom lenses to capture their subjects from afar. Getting closer often means conquering your fears – whether they be of a language barrier, or hearing “no” as an answer. But if you’ve flung yourself to the far reaches of India or traveled to a secluded island in Panama, it’s time to recognize that you already have a pretty pronounced sense of adventure… so approach your fears, and approach your subjects! You’ve got nothing to lose, and only awesome photos to gain.
(The one caveat to this rule is if you’re capturing shots of wildlife with large teeth and/or sharp claws. Photographing a lion from a safe distance is preferable to the potentially dangerous alternative.)
3. Take the Unlikely Shot
When in Paris, the Eiffel Tower photo is a must. While no one would dare suggest that you skip over the iconic landmark, you and I both know that there’s more to see, do, and photograph in Paris than the fan favorites. Once you’ve captured the standard, symmetrical, head-on Eiffel Tower photo that every tourist takes home, try something different. Shoot the tower’s beams from below for an abstract view. Or better yet, photograph the local woman reading a newspaper on a nearby bench. You’ll walk away with an entirely unique photo, one that will reconnect you with your personal travel memories for years to come.
4. Know the Rule of Thirds
Of all the photography tips offered here, this is certainly the most technical, though still doable for even the most amateur photographer. The Rule of Thirds asserts that you should imagine your photo divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically (think of a tic-tac-toe board). The focal elements of the photo should be placed along these lines or at their intersections.
“But then the photo won’t be centered!” you say. Yes, that’s true… and that’s ok. Positioning your subject off-center creates more visual intrigue, resulting in a better photo. It’s a tried-and-true rule practiced by the pros, and one that will take your photo composition to the next level.
Beginner photographers, check your camera’s settings – some have a built-in feature that will display the lines on the screen (or in the viewfinder), so you can more easily compose a balanced photo.
5. Edit Your Photos
If you’re enamored of the glossy photos in your favorite travel mags and find yourself sighing over your hopeless attempts to reproduce them, I have a secret to let you in on. They’re all edited. That’s not to say that the photographer hasn’t done a wonderful job of choosing his subject and composing a stunning shot. But much of the travel photo magic happens after the shot’s been captured.
Akinmade-Åkerström highlights the importance of contrast levels: “One very small and practical step that will improve the overall quality of a photo is to work on contrast when processing the photo,” she suggests. Whether you’re using a photo editing tool like Photoshop or Aperture, or a simple program already installed on your computer, upping the contrast levels can add a vibrancy to your photos that you may not otherwise see.
Don’t be afraid to play around with other photo editing tools – saturation levels, color optimization, and cropping can all enhance your photos.
Keep these photography tips in mind on your next big trip, and I promise you’ll surprise yourself when you’re browsing through your post-travel photo album!
In closing, I’ll share one of my favorite cityscape photos, captured in a bustling Guayaquil, Ecuador using many of the above techniques: