As I'm a few days from heading off to Nicaragua leading our next photography tour, I thought it would be a good time to share these tips. So here are 11 travel photography tips to help you with your A-game so you can return from your next trip with your best photos ever.
#1 – Be best friends with your camera
This is something you want to do anyway, and ideally before you go on your trip. Buying a new camera right before you leave is not the best idea. You may struggle to find the settings and know what each button does, and in the process miss some good shots. So if you're considering getting a new camera, do so well in advance of any travel.
Spend time with your camera using it, and getting to really know it. Here's the litmus test. If you can put your camera up to your eye and know how to change the following settings without looking at a menu you're good:
- Shooting mode (P, S/Tv, A/Av, M) – do you know what dial or button changes this? Try and get off full Auto if you can – but practice this at home, not once you get to your vacation destination.
- The shutter speed – can you change it with your eye at the viewfinder?
- Aperture – same question.
- ISO – what button do you need to press to change it? No menus! You want to know how to do that without lowering the camera.
- Focus point – know how to change a single point to a different spot, and move it around while you're looking through the eyepiece.
- Exposure compensation – know where that button is and which dial to turn to increase or decrease the exposure compensation. Usually it's a +/- button.
If you cannot do all of those things, keep practicing! I am not kidding. Most pros I know (myself included) can adjust all those things with their camera up to their eye. Also if there are any buttons on your camera for which you do not know their function, learn them. Do this challenge: Photography Challenge – Use Your Camera Daily – and see if you aren't best friends with your camera after 30 days.
Set up the Quick Menu and use it
Does your camera have a quick menu or info button? Most do, on Canon cameras, it's the Q button, on Nikons is the “i”, find out for your brand/model. It should allow you to see most of the common settings without going through the menu. If so learn to use it. The only time you want to have to dig around in the menu is to do any really custom settings – not the basics. Quick menu (or info) can and should help you change the following:
- White Balance
- File size (although you'll want to leave that on RAW, more on that later)
- Autofocus modes (continuous or one-shot, zone or single-point)
- Flash compensation
- Drive mode (single frame, burst, or self-timer)
- Picture styles (monochrome, vivid, etc.)
- And more – as a bonus many are customizable so you can put the things you find you want to adjust most often on there.
So why is this important for travel photography? Because knowing your camera inside and out is key to NOT missing important moments. It's the difference between getting the shot or going home disappointed.
Become one with your camera. Never miss an opportunity again, and come home with winner shots.
#2 – Be safe
This may seem like an odd tip, but keep yourself safe personally, and taking good care of your gear is pretty important for travel photography. If you have your camera stolen, it seriously hinders the number of great shots you can come home with.
Here are a few tips for being safe:
- Carry a bag that is hard to get into (pick-pockets) or one that has a zipper against your back. Carry it on your front if you feel you're in an unsafe area (markets and busy places can be havens for thieves as you're forced to brush up to, and walk close to other people)
- Use a bag that doesn't look like a camera bag. I use an Osprey bag with a padded insert so it looks like a regular day backpack. Ones with CANON or even LOWEPRO splashed all over them can announce to the world, “Hey I got expensive stuff in here!”
- Get a secure camera strap and wear it across your body. Not over your neck or one shoulder – across the body (one arm goes through). I use one made by Pacsafe that is slash-proof and really hard to tamper with (below).
- Always be aware of your surroundings. Watch your camera when it's on a tripod too. Don't leave it loose sitting next to you. It's too easy to grab. I had a guy try and do that to a girl on my Cuba trip. He ran past her and grabbed, but she had the strap on her neck (at my insistence) and all that happened was she got knocked over (she was not hurt). He did not get the camera.
#3 – Take a tripod and do some night shooting
I love night photography! I try and do some on every trip I take. Part of the reason I love it so much is that it's usually a lot quieter, the tourists are all having dinner, and it's different. Many beginning photographers and your average person with a point and shoot camera, pack it in when the sun goes down. They assume because there is no light you can't take photos anymore. Wrong!
Buy a good sturdy, but lightweight, tripod and pack it in your suitcase. Plan on a late dinner, and go have some fun.
There is so much you can photograph at night, especially in a city. Always exercise caution and safety (see tips #2 again) and go out in pairs or with a buddy. Add some night photography into your collection you will make family and friends take notice, I promise.
Here are some articles to help you with night photography:
- Night Photography Quick Tip – Adding Light
- Easy Guide to Night Photography
- Tips and Tools for Light Painting – Review of Light Painting Brushes
- Three Special Effects for Night Photography
- How to Photograph Star Trails and the Milky Way
- How to do Night Photography
- Night Astral Photography – an Interview With Jesse Summers
#4 – Chase the light
Photography is all about light. In fact by the very origins of the word even:
The word “photography” was created from the Greek roots φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.
So if you make light your number one priority you will make better photos. What do I mean by that? Well, I often get asked by my students what do I do when I find an interesting subject but the light is too harsh, from the wrong direction, or just bad. My answer – I don't take the photo.
Here are two examples of what I'd call “bad” or the wrong lighting. The bright sunlit side of the street and the dark shadow side have too much contrast range between them. Your eye will always go to the lightest areas. So this is not ideal, especially if your subject is in the shade or worse, in both sun and shade.
I will either see if I can find another camera angle to shoot from, or possibly return to the same spot later when the light has changed. Or better yet keep moving and find a new subject that has better light. Sometimes I will focus in on smaller areas instead of looking at the big picture. There are usually a million and one interesting subjects that present themselves when we travel. Your job is to find the ones with good light!
Here are some other examples shot on the same street, moments after the two above. See how I focused in on one person on the shady side? Notice how the focus is clearly on that person? This is better and is using the light to best advantage. Also, in Nicaragua, it's way less hot in the shade!
Find the light and wait!
Another even better option if you have time on your side, is to seek out and find some spots that have outstanding light and sit and wait. Wait for the right subject to appear IN that light. Then BAM!
Can you start to see how important the right light is? Light that highlights and caresses your subject. Light that flatters the subject and tells the story you want to relay to your viewers. The right subject is important, but the right subject IN the right light is vital. Get this one thing, and your photos will be elevated to the next level. Here's one more example:
Photograph the sunset
We joke about this when we're traveling but often I am literally chasing the light, trying to find the perfect spot to shoot a sunset. This is where research and scouting ahead using an app can help you. Use these tips to take advantage of a great sunset when you find one:
- Expose a bit to the underexposure side to darken the sky. This will give you deeper, richer colors.
- Play with your White Balance settings. Shade or Cloudy will add warmth making your sunset more orange. Auto WB can ruin your sunsets because it tries to neutralize any color cast and it's hard to recover that even if you shoot RAW.
- Put an interesting subject in front of the sunset and focus on it. The sunset is just the background. You still need something to add a layer of depth to your image and something for people to notice.
You can find more info here: 3 Tips for Creating Spectacular Sunset Photos. Incidentally, if you're more of a morning person, the same tips apply for sunrise and you can often avoid crowds that way too.
#5- Shoot RAW format
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this but if you can shoot raw, do it. If you aren't ready yet, or know how to process them consider shooting both. Yes, you'll need more memory cards (probably double) but it will mean you have more latitude when processing your photos later. So give yourself the flexibility and data to work with later.
Read: Why shoot in RAW format for more info.
Over to you
Now it's your turn to apply these things to your photography. Even if you do not have the opportunity to travel these tips still apply. If you don't know your camera well enough to be BFFs, take it on a date. Night photography not something you've tried? Get out and do it. And above all be conscious of light and how it plays in your image.
I will have FIVE MORE tips to continue this list next week, so stayed tuned!