Things I learned from photographing 30+ countries by @edgrahamphoto 28


We can all benefit from better pictures. Maybe you want to capture more vivid memories, maybe you want a more eye catching blog, or perhaps you just want to come home from your next trip satisfied with the photos you took. No one knows better than I how frustrating it can be to come back from a big trip with disappointing photos.

After 6+ years of self taught trail and error through 30+ countries, I’m happy to say that I’ve finally figured out how to consistently take the kinds travel photos I’ve always wanted.

orange sunset over the water

Three things I’ve learned

1. Photography is simple.

There’s nothing complicated about it. I really, truly believe that simplicity is the key to taking good pictures. It’s not about Photoshop or Lightroom or HDR. The best pictures always stand on their own as good pictures. Editing just makes them better.

Here’s a straightforward look at the Washington Monument taken from across the highly visited Reflecting Pool. The photo has pop for two simple reasons: I placed the camera near the water to maximize the visual impact of the reflections, and I shot it just after sunset which gave the dramatic colors. Almost no editing was needed.

Washington, D.C. memorial

2. Your camera doesn’t matter.

Please, put your wallet away! Throwing money around does nothing to help you take better pictures. Some of the best shots I’ve ever taken were captured years ago with my trusty Canon Rebel XTi, worth about $200 today.

The scene below is from Zurich, Switzerland. Shot in December 2007, I took the picture handheld on my Canon Rebel at ISO 800 (this was a really high ISO back then). Then picture remains one of my favorites to this day. Seriously, save your money.

Zurich night street photo

3. It’s quality, not quantity

Digital lets us take pictures all day long for free. The problem is there’s no penalty for mindless photos. A single quality photograph of something interesting helps me remember the places I visit far better than a hundred bad ones.

Here’s a recent shot of Chicago, USA, one of just five pictures I took that night.

Chicago waterfront at sundown sunset night lights on

Skip the Trial and Error

So how can you avoid the errors I made and skip straight to the good stuff? That’s what my new series of regular guest posts is all about. The best and easiest way to get started is to get to know the difference between seeing and photographic seeing.

Next time you’re out experiencing something amazing, ask yourself if the experience can be captured photographically. In other words, can you imagine a picture sized rectangle around it? And if you can, would the experience still look good? This is seeing photographically, and unfortunately most of the time the answer is a resounding no. You can try this anywhere, and you don’t even need to bring a camera (but it’s better if you do).

Let me show you what I mean. Amidst Istanbul’s daytime crowds and chaos, I looked up and imagined a rectangle around the scene above me. I thought it would make a good photograph, but the shot was unbalanced because the daytime sky was too bright. I returned the following morning before sunrise (what can I say – I was jetlagged), and I ended up with a travel photo I’m happy with. I’ve always wanted to take travel photos like this, but I didn’t always know how.

morning istanbul sky shot

About these guest posts

When I got my first digital camera I remember reading all I could about ISO, aperture, and what kind of expensive photography equipment I should buy. I realize now that it hardly made any difference at all, and it would have fallen into place anyways if I only knew how to take a half decent picture. With my ongoing series of guest posts here, I want to share the things I wish I knew then so that you can come home with the travel shots you want, far faster than I ever did.

I’m thrilled to be a regular contributor here at Go See Write. Thank you for reading, and thanks Michael for having me.

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Ed Graham runs the travel photography website The Polar Route. He has photographed his way through 30+ countries over the last 6 years and counting. He plans to help simplify the often complicated process of photography so you can avoid the mistakes he has made and start taking better travel photos right now.


28 thoughts on “Things I learned from photographing 30+ countries by @edgrahamphoto

  • Megan

    I love that shot of the Washington Monument–plus, it just goes to show that sometimes the rule of thirds isn’t necessary. 🙂

  • Thomas Dembie

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more with point number 2. People assume that someone who takes good pictures does so because of the camera. I hear all too often “… if I had that camera I would take these types of photos as well.” Yeah right! Composition, ability to set up the shot the way you want it using manual mode etc. don’t happen automatically with a good camera.

    • Ed Graham Post author

      Definitely, just look at all the amazing work people put up on Instagram all the time – all shot with “just” a cell phone!

  • JR Riel

    I think that final shot was a real winner, the way the buildings intertwine with the tree branches plays exciting tricks on the mind! This inspires me to get back into photography. Thanks!

  • Tony

    Some good points here, especially #2, I completely agree that gear is no substitute for talent and experience. However, I do have to respectfully disagree with some of your other points.

    I think your third point is half right: taking hundreds of *mindless* photos is not productive. However, taking many thoughtful photos is the best way to get the shot you want. Different angles, different settings, experimentation, all these things come together in unexpected ways, and while you may be happy with your five shots of Chicago, had you taken the time to shoot more shots (thoughtfully) you probably would have gotten many other shots you were happy with. For instance, in your skyline photo, I would have tried shots that didn’t make the orange ladder the subject of the photo, and maybe focused more on the skyline instead.

    Just because you may take 100 shots to get the one or two that work doesn’t mean that those other 98 shots were not needed, it just means that you explored, and exploration is one of the keys to creativity and growth.

    Also, I feel compelled to mention, as someone who has worked as a professional photographer and designer for over a decade, there is no shortcut to photographic seeing. Experience, talent and shooting many, many bad (and good) shots is the only way to develop innate instincts when it comes to pre-visualizing a photograph. Some people will get there quickly and some may never be able to do it with success. The only way to get the shots you want is to shoot, a lot, and by far the majority of shots will not work. National geographic photographers might shoot for six weeks to produce 12 final photos for an article, photos culled from thousands of other good, bad, and everything in-between shots.

    Remember, it took you six years to get to a point where you feel confident, and even though there are tips and tricks galore, they take time and practice to master. Photography is like any other art form: there is no substitute for experience.

  • Ed Graham Post author

    Hi Tony, thanks for taking the time to comment and for bringing up some excellent points. I see where you’re coming from and I agree with many of the things you say, but I disagree with your statement that there are no shortcuts to photographic seeing. Imagining a photographic rectangle around scenes in daily life is a perfect way to practice photographic seeing without the need for a camera. And once learned, photographic seeing helps us differentiate between travel scenes that are worth shooting vs scenes that are better off enjoyed simply as travel experiences. This makes travel photography much more efficient and rewarding as we have more time to enjoy the culture and sights while not shooting photos. Whether you consider practicing a shortcut or experience I guess is a matter of semantics and we may be on the same page after all.

    As far as my 5 pictures from Chicago, I did look at other angles through the viewfinder but none showed what I wanted nearly as much as the picture with the ladder so I didn’t bother with them. I could have shot them for free with my digital camera but it’d have been a waste of memory space and those scenes were better enjoyed in person than through the lens of my camera. That is one of my favorite things about photography in the internet era; just because I personally found the ladder visually interesting doesn’t mean you would have shot the same scene. You may have focused on the skyline and came back with a picture you were happy with too. That’s why I love looking at other peoples’ pictures – to see what they saw that I didn’t.

    And that’s another thing about travel photography, unless you actually are on a photo assignment there’s not much point to spending the entire time looking through your viewfinder on the chance your 1 in 100 or 1 in 1000 appears. I always prefer to strike a travel/photography balance that lets me enjoy the travel experience and still come home with pictures I’m happy with rather than pouring 100% of my time in a country only into my pictures.

    I should also clarify that my camera and I have gotten along splendidly for a while now. However it was a learning curve to begin with and back then all the photo books I read talked about aperture and ISOs and rules like the rule of thirds, and not much more. That’s why I wanted to start this series on the things that really matter to travel photography – the elements of what makes a good picture in the first place.

  • Brittany

    I can not wait to read more as I could always use helpful photography tips. I love taking photos but I am a daughter of a photographer and always feel the pressure to get the best shot!

  • Cyndi

    Thank you for these great, easily digestible and transferable (to shooting) tips! I’m just getting started on my journey to learn to see photographically, how to use a DSLR camera, and ultimately taking better shots. I’m looking forward to the other guest posts!

    • Ed Graham Post author

      Thanks for the comment Cyndi, I’m glad you’re finding it useful. Many of my favorite shots through the years could have been shot on any camera, at any aperture / ISO combination so I want to help spread the word on what actually does matter. By the way, I’m digging the photos you posted on your site; especially the Mt. Fuji ones – WOW that is too cool.

  • Wannabe Travel photographer

    I also have memories of some great shots I took with my first digital camera from “Trust”. Gear is not the only factor, and having a good DSLR doesn’t make you a photographer, but it still put a big limit to your development after you reach the edge!

    • Ed Graham Post author

      If all you ever shoot with is a cell phone or point and shoot it’d probably be limiting for travel photography, but today’s entry level DSLRs and even many mirrorless cameras rival the pro models from a few years ago in terms of features and image quality… that one camera is “pro” and another is “amateur” or “entry level” is purely a marketing gimmick.

      The original Canon 1Ds was considered a pro camera when released but today it costs less than the “amateur” Canon Rebel DSLRs. That doesn’t make the 1Ds any less of a camera, it just means they’re both pretty freakin good.

  • Anne McKinnell

    Hi Ed,

    Great post! I think you nailed it right on the head in point #1. Photography is simple. At least, good photography is simple!

    Usually, the more simple the photograph the better it is and the more impact it has. And yes, there are shortcuts to seeing photographically. Simple techniques for creating good compositions can easily be learned. I try to teach that to my own students. Clean lines, uncluttered backgrounds, not too many things in the frame. Simple is better.

    Thanks for such an insightful post and I really like your idea of imagining the rectangle. I’m looking forward to more of your posts!

    Anne.

    • Ed Graham Post author

      Thanks for the comment Anne! I like your tips. When I think about the photos I’m drawn towards, they are almost always uncluttered with a strong subject. Now that I think about it “simple” maybe isn’t the right word, a better word would be elegant!

  • Alana - Paper Planes

    Looking forward to more post in this series! I am by no means a photographer (and struggle with a DSLR) but know that I can continually improve with what I have and compose better shots…good to hear someone saying you don’t have to have a wonderful/expensive camera!

    • Ed Graham Post author

      Thanks Alana, I have a new post coming soon that I think will prove once and for all that it’s not at all about the camera (among other things).

  • Alana - Paper Planes

    Looking forward to more posts in this series! I am by no means a photographer (and struggle with a DSLR) but know that I can continually improve with what I have and compose better shots…good to hear someone saying you don’t have to have a wonderful/expensive camera!

  • Arianwen

    Amazing photos. I can’t believe that photo of Zurich was taken with a pretty cheap camera. It’s incredible. I think a lot of it comes down to the vision of the photographer. Some people are so creative with their photography while others don’t have a clue about positioning, lighting or anything else!

    • Ed Graham Post author

      Thanks a lot Arianwen. I love looking at others’ pictures because it gives so much insight into what the photographer sees as important. You can learn lots about a person through their pictures.

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