9 Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos
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Growing up, I obsessed over every new issue of National Geographic. When I stared out the window and daydreamed in math class, it was about going to see the Great Barrier Reef or the Northern Lights. While I still haven't checked either of those off my travel agenda, I have been lucky to travel to and photograph a number of incredible locations and have learned a lot along the way.
Do your research
As a travel photographer, I always start each trip with a considerable amount of research. To a certain degree, research can be a double-edged sword. It can provide additional context that’ll give you a richer perspective but it can also create preconceived notions and expectations that will keep you from experiencing a trip in the moment. Try to find the happy middle for yourself.
Personally, I start my research by reading about the history of a place, moving into the current political landscape and looking into the main economic drivers of a place. It can be helpful to know what industries fuel the country you're visiting. Depending on the overall goal of my trip, I generally then research popular hotels, restaurants and tourists spots. If I’m trying to pitch some aspect of a trip to a publication, it helps to know if a certain place has recently been written about and if it's been recently photographed.
Every now and again, you simply get lucky and find yourself at the perfect place and at the right time but to consistently take good travel photos, you’ll have to prepare with research.
Usually when I want to photograph a hotel or restaurant in a new location, I try to reach out ahead of time. It’s a lot easier to get the photographs I want if I’m collaborating versus stealthily trying to grab a few shots.
I don’t delight in illicit photo adventures. For a recent trip to Austin, I was researching hotels and stumbled across a photo with a story about how the photographer had broken into a suite to take the photo and was then kicked off the hotel property. They ended the story by concluding that it was worth it. If you’re trying to create a little adrenaline rush or a story to tell over drinks then that might be worth it. If you’re trying to take photographs for your portfolio, a brand or a publication then the additional work to get permission seems more worthwhile to me.
There are so many different genres of travel photography but reaching out, getting permission, finding a guide or asking locals for assistance will make your life easier 99% of the time no matter if you’re trying to photograph a mountain or a luxury hotel suite.
Check the weather
Always check the weather. Even if you’re going for 2 and a half weeks and can only see part of the trip, check the weather. So many times, I’ve gone to a place that’s always hot or always rainy, only to arrive and find the exact opposite to be true during my trip.
To some degree, weather also influences what photography gear I pack. If I know it’ll be cold and rainy, I leave my drone behind. If it’s supposed to be sunny and hot, I grab my diffuser and my lens hoods. Usually, I like to add the next place I’m headed to my weather app a few weeks out so I have a general sense of the weather range. This seriously saved me when I recently went to Austin because even though it should have been warm and sunny, it actually turned out to be quite chilly and rainy for most of the trip. Thankfully, I came prepared and had lots of layers.
Take a day to adjust
Whenever possible, I like to take a bit of time to adjust before trying to photograph a new place, especially if I’m traveling internationally. Walking around with a camera around my neck is not discreet and it can impact my interactions with people. Ideally, I like arriving at a place in the late afternoon or early evening and walking around till about dinner sans camera. It gives me ideas of what I’d like to photograph and builds up my excitement.
Years ago I read an interview with a photographer that said he never asked for permission to photograph anyone. His perspective was that people should feel grateful for being part of his art. I was appalled.
My photography is my livelihood. I often reflect on the fact that I deeply benefit from the photos I take on trips. Sometimes I directly benefit when my images get licensed. Sometimes I indirectly benefit when I get hired by a brand because of my travel imagery. The same is rarely true for the people that appear in my travel photographs. So I feel that the least I can do is to make sure that everyone I photograph has a good experience and feels heard. If that means they don’t want to be photographed, I respect their wishes and move on.
Hone your perspective
I find it baffling how often I go somewhere beautiful and there will be a mob of photographers all photographing the exact same thing! On a trip to Iceland, a largely empty and very beautiful country, I stumbled across a group of about 20 photographers all camped out in one spot shooting the same perspective. There is safety in following the crowd but there isn’t originality.
It’s fun to take a classic shot. If you’re invested in social media, that typical image will probably do well because it’s recognizable to people (and we all like to feel smart and savvy). I have nothing against doing this but take a bit of time to look around afterwards and find a perspective that specifically appeals to you. If you do that often enough, over time you'll start to hone your own perspective and style.
Think about the color palette
Each place has different colors and different light. Take that into consideration as you start to shoot. For example, in Southern California, it’s almost always bright and sunny so I often expose my images a little brighter when I'm there. For the the Pacific Northwest, it’s often overcast and grey so I expose my photos a bit darker.
Don’t force it
Every now and again in commercial photography and travel photography, for some mysterious reason a shot just doesn’t work. The angle looks weird. The light isn’t great. Things just don’t align right. You can end up spending a large chunk of time trying to force things but when the moment isn’t right, it’s best to move on. Sometimes, you just need to come back at a different time of day to get better light.
For whatever reason, I have found that when I try to force a shot, it wears me out and leaves me feeling exasperated. When I walk away for a bit, I can tackle it differently and either get what I'm looking for or realize that it's not what I thought it would be.
The first time you visit a place, there’s an adjustment period. It takes a bit of time to find your way around and to find spots to shoot. When you come back to place, that adjustment period is shorter.
For years, I always focused on going to new places. Returning to somewhere I had already been seemed like bad use of a trip. I still have an extraordinarily long list of places that I would like to visit and to shoot but I've learned to appreciate return visits. They're always productive and often comforting.