Travel photos (whether they are with a smartphone or a digital camera) are such an important part of many adventures and vacations. Considering the number of questions I receive each year from family, friends and clients, it’s clear a lot of travelers are still looking for ways to make their travel photos better. Below are 10 simple tips that will help you take better travel photographs, no matter what your camera cost:

Avoid trying to capture everything

Too much clutter does not help take better travel photographs.

This carpet and bag shop in Istanbul is colorful but this photo is little more than a snapshot … too much for the eye to look at.

We all do it: We’re on holiday, and the food is great, the people unique, and the views inspiring. We want to capture all of it. Frequently this can mean busy, hectic scenes with a lot of activity. There are three options to get a great photo in this instance — don’t take it, focus in on what moves you, or try and get a wide shot to show the action.

  1. Don’t do it. Step back and enjoy the situation. Sometimes I find not taking a photo allows me to enjoy the situation and embrace the action.
  2. Shoot tighter shots, get closer, and focus on the things in the scene that move you.
  3. Step back or get up above the scene and shoot as wide shot as you can to get as much of the action as you can.
Get in close if you want to take better travel photographs.

One solution was to take this tight shot of local colorful handmade hats in the same scene.

Capture your unique perspective

Captuer a uniqe perspective if you want to take better travel photographs.

Dinner scenes such as this have been photographed millions of times. To make your travel photos stand out, look for a fresh perspective on something common. Here, I chose to look down on the table from high above.

Every famous landmark has been photographed thousands of times. When it’s your turn, to take better travel photographs if a common place, act as though you’ve never seen it before. Take some time and walk around and get a different perspective. Find what appeals to you and capture your unique angle. Which may mean getting down on the ground or up on a bench.

Take photos of the people

Put people in your photographs.

Locals playing backgammon at the Turkish baths in Tblisi. After a while, they did not even know I was there.

People shots are frequently among my favorite travel photographs. Whether the photos are of the tourists and some of the interesting things they do, or of the locals doing what they always do, there are people all around you and many opportunities for capturing memorable, funny or cute images. I’ve found the best approach is to be friendly, say hi, introduce yourself with a smile, and ask if you can take photos. Then, if you are granted permission, simply blend as best you can. Before long, if you have permission to take photos, your subjects will forget all about you.

Stay away from the center

Better travel photographs place the subject not the center.

Placing the Land Rover on the right side of this image instead of the center allows the viewer to see the herd and leads the eye.

Too often, less experienced photographers believe it is best to place the subject right smack in the center of the photo. By doing this you unfortunately actually create a rather boring image. One common compositional technique to avoid falling into this trap is to use what is known as the “rule of thirds.” This means you mentally divide the image into thirds, horizontally and vertically. Think tic-tac-toe, and then place the subject in one of the “thirds.”

I like to move the subject away from the center and see how it balances with the rest of the frame, including other potential subjects as well as the light. There are no rules to guide you in doing this, and you’ll quickly realize that your instincts are your best guide. You’ll know when you have it right. You can also do a couple of different compositions and see which you like best – experiment. Because digital film is free.

Fill the frame

Fill the frame for better travel photographs.

By filling the frame, rather than standing back and trying to take the entire plane. Here the plane fills the frame, and the eye is drawn to the pilot.

When you’re shooting a wide scene it is sometimes difficult to determine where to place the subject in your shot. Making the subject too big will take away from the scene and compromise your story. Making the subject too small may confuse the viewer because they wont be able to determine what the subject is.

You can minimize this by almost filling the frame with your subject and offsetting it to one side. Filling the frame clearly identifies the subject and offsetting it enables you to include enough of the rest of the scene to tell the whole story.

Keep it Simple

Keep it simple for better travel photographs.

Caucausain Shepards resting on a hill in the National Park of Tusheti. By getting closer to the dogs, they become the focus, rather than the mountains behind.

While trying to photograph a scene with a lot of elements it is sometimes difficult to determine what your subject is. The result can be a “busy” photo with too many things to focus on. This can also distract the viewer, as they don’t know where to look.

I always like to keep things simple. Choosing one of the elements as the main subject, and then getting closer provides more options for framing. Either method will result in less distraction for the viewer and better travel photographs as a result. Keep it simple and they’ll know exactly what you intended them to see.

Make it vertical. Or maybe horizontal

Sometimes you need to go vertical for a better shot.

This photograph ended up looking better as a vertical composition. Don’t get stuck in always shooting horizontal or vertical.

We all get stuck in routines. Take a moment to review pictures you’ve taken to find a trend. Maybe you always shoot vertically (common with smartphone users). Or maybe you always compose horizontally. Figure out your habit, and then change it up. Shots often beg to be one or the other so follow that instinct. Heck, all you have to do is turn your camera!

Frequently, I’ll capture two or sometimes four different compositions of the same image and determine the best later when I edit them. This way you always have options.

Lead your viewers

Lead your viewers into the photo for the best travel photographs.

Crossing the ice on the Marsh Fork of the Canning River in Alaska. The highlight of sun draws the viewer’s eye into the photo and toward the two people walking on the ice.

Often, the difference between a snapshot and a great photo is simply the composition. A photo of the desert and a distant mountain is just a photo of sand and rock until you lead the viewer’s eye into the photo with a narrow road leading from the lower corner and up toward the mountain. A splash of color is another technique that adds depth and interest to the subject and serves to guide the eye – such as placing the orange glow of sunset off-center in the horizon just behind the mountain. Once you start looking at scenes to photograph, you will soon see lines and shapes everywhere to help add an accent to your images and just like that you will find you are able to take better travel photographs.

Space creates movement

Leave space for your subject to walk into or look out from for better travel photographs.

Leaving space to the left of this Maasai herder provided room for us to see the direction he is walking and gave space for him to move.

Even though photographs themselves are static, they can still convey a strong sense of movement. When we look at pictures, we see what’s happening and tend to look ahead – this creates a feeling of imbalance or unease if your subject has nowhere to move except out of the frame, i.e. give your subject room to “breathe” by not crowding it toward the side.

You don’t just get this effect with moving subjects either. For example, when you look at a portrait you tend to follow someone’s gaze, and they need space in the photo to look toward and not just off the edge.

Look beyond, around and behind your subject

Better travel photographers look at the entire scene including the background.

I originally noticed the light shining out towards the sea. By waiting a few seconds for the light to shine directly toward the lens made this a much more impactful image.

Don’t just concentrate on your subject – look at what’s happening in the background, too. This ties in with simplifying the scene and filling the frame. You can’t usually exclude the background completely, of course, but you can control it. For example, wait a second until the bus passes or the lighthouse light comes into view and shines directly towards you. This would have been a very boring image without the light from the lighthouse.

You’ll often find that sometimes changing your position is enough to replace a cluttered background with one that complements your subject nicely. Don’t like that street sign? A few side steps may just plant a tree in front of it to block it. Or you can use a wide lens, lower aperture and a longer focal length to throw the background out of focus.

I’ve got one BONUS Tip for you, too: HAVE FUN! Traveling should be an enjoyable, exciting time. Capturing great images to document your trip or show friends and family back home is a great way to enhance the experience. But don’t get obsessed trying to take better travel photographs. Relax, be friendly and immerse yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you find.

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Rick Saez

Rick Saez is a California-based international travel, landscape and adventure photographer. He’s led expeditions and photo trips to Alaska, Nepal, Mexico, Africa and has photographed in 25 different countries on six different continents. Rick recently launched The Outdoor Biz Podcast where he interviews outdoor professionals to learn their stories, tips, strategies, and ideas about outdoor business, careers and lifestyle. Rick has been published in magazines such as Austrian Ocean 7 magazine, Runner's World, Alameda magazine and more. His clients include Eagle Creek, Mountain Khakis, Sea to Summit, Orvis, WETA Trimarans, Lowepro, Montbell and Sage to Summit.
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