How to Capture the Travel Photos You Really Want 49

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With all the cameras, lenses, and photo software on the market today, it’s truly a great time to take pictures. But same as it always has been, the camera doesn’t make the picture… the photographer does. And simply owning a DSLR doesn’t ensure you’ll triumphantly return from a foreign land, memory cards full of pictures destined to wow and amaze.

Ger in Terelj National Park, Mongolia

Ger in Terelj National Park, Mongolia

I’ve been there, and it’s extraordinarily frustrating to return from a big trip with less than stellar photos. But over the last decade, through trial and lots of errors I’ve finally figured out how to reliably take the kinds of pictures I want when I travel abroad. Let me save you some years of trial and error here. Because in hindsight, it really wasn’t all that hard after all.

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, India

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, India

“You had to be there”

Have you ever experienced something truly incredible and thought, “I just HAVE to take a picture of this!” But inevitably the picture fails to capture the moment, and you resort to the all too common phrase, “well, you really had to be there.”

That’s because what we perceive as “interesting” involves all our senses: the sounds, the exotic smells, the taste of the air, and the feel of being in a foreign land. Absolutely none of that readily translates into a good picture, and when it does it’s called luck.

Pictures directly connect only with our sense of sight, and because of that they instantly strip away so much of what makes a moment interesting.

Digital photography’s biggest strength and greatest weakness may very well be the same thing: it’s quick and cheap to take tons of pictures. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of mindlessly snapping away. The best pictures come not from shooting but from thinking. Nearly all of my portfolio pictures were methodically thought through. When I finally press the shutter button, it marks the completion of a much longer process of thinking about how I can get the best possible picture.

The shot above of Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, India may look like a quick snapshot, but it was anything but. I had driven by that spot and made a mental note to return during “blue hour” (the hour after sunset). The following evening I walked around in search of a good spot to take photos. I sat on a curb, low to the ground to emphasize reflections from the wet road. I set up my camera for a longer exposure to show motion, and I took pictures of interesting people over the course of an hour. The scene had always been there, but capturing it photographically was anything but luck. A mindless snapshot would have looked very, very different, and it would probably be accompanied with me saying “you really had to be there.”

Alley in Besalú, Spain

Alley in Besalú, Spain

Start thinking before you leave home

Ask yourself, what interests you about this place? Why do you want to travel there and what do you hope to learn? Just as thinking about the weather helps you determine what clothes to pack, thinking about your pictures helps you decide what photo equipment to bring. I have too much photo gear at home to bring on any one trip, so I’m constantly asking myself what I want to capture and how best I can do it.

When I traveled to Besalú, Spain, I knew I wanted to capture the quaint feel of a small European town. So I brought my tripod, my sharpest zoom lens, and my remote shutter release. When I explored the town at night I took my time with the scenes I thought would help me best capture the feel of the town. I knew I wanted this picture (or something like it) before I even got on the plane to Spain.

Powerlines in southern Iceland

Powerlines in southern Iceland

The two questions to ask yourself

When I shoot, I’m constantly asking myself two questions:

  • Why is this interesting?
  • Is there anything I can do to make it visually MORE interesting?

On a recent trip to Iceland I spotted some ground haze that was really interesting. It gave everything a sort of mythical and grand feel as I drove on the main highway, but it’s very difficult to take a picture of something as vague as haze – you can’t just shoot the horizon and call it good.

Haze is interesting to me because it makes things fade away quickly as they fall into the distance. If I was going to make an interesting picture I needed to find something that stretched toward the horizon, visually leading the viewer into the haze. I continued driving and eventually spotted these power lines. Perfect! I parked the car and walked until I found an angle I was happy with. Even better that the mountains were in the background – they added the mythical and grand feel which I experienced in the moment.

Through the years I’ve slowly learned that it’s perfectly okay to not take a picture even when something is interesting. Without these power lines, I’m not sure it’d have been possible to capture what I felt when I saw the haze. I was content to drive through the area, happily enjoying the view with my camera tucked away in the back seat.

Rock formations in Vik, Iceland

Rock formations in Vik, Iceland

Reliable ways you can add interest

Here’s a quick list of methods I depend on to add interest to my pictures:

  • Take a picture of something. Know what your subject is before you press the shutter.
  • Use the rule of thirds to emphasize your subject. It works.
  • Use lines and shadows to lead the viewer into the shot
  • Hold your camera at something other than eye-level. Everyone sees at eye level; show your viewers something new.
  • Shoot in good light – sunrise, sunset, and blue hour (pre sunrise and post sunset)
  • Vary your shutter speed to show motion or smooth water. Neutral density filters and a tripod help
Sunset in Puerto Natales, Chile

Sunset in Puerto Natales, Chile

Find your travel/photography balance

I always challenge myself to take the best travel photographs I can, and it motivates me to explore far more of a destination than I would ever see without a camera. Forever searching for the “perfect” picture, I’ll do things like hop off the bus and head straight to waterfront of Puerto Natales, Chile at sunset when I otherwise would have been looking for accommodation for the night. I never would have seen this beautiful sunset from such a scenic a setting if I didn’t care about taking good pictures.

Deep down though, I’m still a traveler first and a photographer second. I’d rather hang with the locals until the early hours of the morning than wake up early to shoot the sunrise. And I never neglect the people I travel with in favor of taking pictures. I use photography as a way to compliment my travels, not the other way around.

That’s my balance and I’m happy with it. Even though I’ve probably I’ve missed some amazing pictures over the years, I’ve gained plenty of experiences and enjoyed a lot more culture than I would have if it were all about photography. My balance isn’t your balance, and I urge you to find your own!


Ed Graham is a traveler, writer, and photographer living in Chicago. He loves cold beer, cold weather, and warm people, and he’s been passionately taking pictures for over a decade. He just finished a big trip to Iceland and is already looking forward to his next journey: a winter trip on the Trans Siberian Railroad from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, Russia. For more photography tips and to read about Ed’s travels, check out his website at The Polar Route.

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

49 thoughts on “How to Capture the Travel Photos You Really Want

  • Frank

    This is a great post. I just got a camera that’s an upgrade from a point and shoot and am interested in learning how to take great travel photos. It would be a shame to redesign my blog and travel RTW without taking good photos to go along with it, I’ll be using the tips above for sure. Thanks!

  • Ruth (Tanama Tales)

    Thanks for the tips! I am always looking for info on how to improve my photography. I particularily liked how you ended the article. I find it difficult to find a good balance between traveling and taking pictures and I am one of those who will not go back to a place at certain place to take pictures (often travel with limited time).

    • Ed Graham

      Ruth thanks for the comment. My photography improved 100% when I started making a concentrated effort to capture good photos, rather than passively shooting whatever I happened to see in a moment. I schedule photography into my travel now, and I’ll often plan on being out shooting when the light is good.

  • Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Breathtaking images and even more profound thoughts on such, Ed.

    Indeed: “Deep down though, I’m still a traveler first and a photographer second. ”

    Therein lies ever the dilemma. Would that I had a second lifetime – so that I could spend this one absorbing the globe with my naked eyes. And the NEXT life slowly, thoughtfully capturing its magic in pixels.

    Still, we can all take note of your fine tips (i.e. planning ahead, etc.) and especially your mention of “Hold your camera at something other than eye-level.”

    Coincidentally I participate in photog mini-challenges over at SmugMug. com (highly recommended) and recently issued a new challenge: Capture a “Unique Point of View” (e.g. sometimes it’s as simple as getting down low, or shooting through a natural frame in the scene, or simply thinking outside the box for a new perspective of the subject in front of your nose.)

    • Ed Graham

      I know what you mean! Every time you look through that viewfinder you are missing the larger perspective of the world before you. But I always hope that I am able to make a photographic memory that lasts a lot longer than the moment itself.

  • Ali

    Really great advice, and incredible pictures! Sometimes I’m good at planning my pictures, but definitely not all the time. Something I need to work on.

  • Kay Dougherty

    Fabulous photos and some great advice – thanks! I have a Nikon D-60 that I bought about four years ago to take on a trip to South Africa. I love it and get some great shots with it but have to put on my face of shame and say I still use it on automatic! I want to learn how to use it more creatively but somehow never get that high on my priority list before a trip. I think your planning advice could be very helpful. Thanks for putting this together – I know these posts take hours out of people’s lives to prepare (although you might not know it from reading mine)!

    • Ed Graham

      I don’t know why there seems to be such a stigma with using automatic. In my mind the less time you spend fooling with the camera’s menus the better, and the more time you’ll have to focus on taking good pictures. Personally I use aperture priority 99% of the time but truth be told, it’s really just automatic mode on steroids.

  • Nora

    Another photography tip/technique I regularly practice is to try and see the world as the camera does.
    When we look at a scene with our eyes, it is coloured by all our other senses, and we are ingeniously able to “erase” elements of the scene from our visual picture that aren’t complimentary – such as power lines, garbage bins, or other elements that aren’t part of the scene we ultimately want to shoot.
    I’ve taken many a gorgeous sunset shot only to realize afterwards that there was a power line running across that I just didn’t “see”!
    The camera captures everything – for better or worse.
    This may be a very basic tip, but one that has lent to my taking way better pictures overall.

    • Ed Graham

      I really like your point Nora. Something as simple as a shadow can drastically change the meaning of a picture. And we don’t really notice shadows when we are out walking around, but our cameras sure do.

  • Tracy Antonioli

    “I always challenge myself to take the best travel photographs I can, and it motivates me to explore far more of a destination than I would ever see without a camera.” YES. That. That is how I feel. I’ve said it many times–my camera is the best travel companion I could possibly imagine (though I have nowhere near your level of skill and artistry).

    Though I’m also awed by your ability to keep a balance; when I read the beginning of this post, I thought ‘you must travel by yourself most of the time’. I do travel solo more often than not, but when I don’t, there’s NO WAY my travel companions would be ok with the amount of time I’d LIKE to take to take photos. Which has made me more of a ‘drive by’ photographer. Which does, in fact, result in some seriously sub par photos!

    I will definitely take these thoughts into consideration on my next trip. Well written, well explained–and gorgeous shots!

    • Ed Graham

      Thanks for the comment Tracy. I agree it’s harder to take good pictures when traveling with someone else or in a group, but most people don’t mind splitting up for a few hours, and they appreciate the quality photos when you return. And when I travel with someone new we talk about travel styles in advance so there are no surprises.

  • Alex Lop

    Excellent post. Really illustrates the way in which photography can completely change the way you see something, or the way in which you see the world. Great post.

    • Ed Graham

      Photography drives me to see so much more of the destination and pictures are the best souvenirs – they’re free (digital) and they don’t take up any physical space in my bag!

  • Cassie

    Gorgeous photos and great tips! Thinking before you shoot is huge, as is remembering to have a subject. I’ve got a habit of mindlessly snapping landscape that are beautiful in person but turn out boring in photos because there is nothing that stands out as a subject, nor acts to give it depth.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Ed Graham

      Thanks for your comment – I have always considered landscapes to be among the most difficult photos because what we see and experience as beautiful almost never translates easily into a photograph.

  • Joe Kunin

    Great post! I find another thing to keep in mind while travelling and shooting, is that not every shot will be a portfolio worthy winner. Sometimes you have to slough through a large number of bad shots to get into a rhythm, and from that natural rhythm your best photos will emerge.

    • Ed Graham

      Thanks Joe, yeah sometimes I’ll have a shot in mind and spend all this effort trying to get to a good vantage point to set up for the shot, and end up with something entirely different from what I’d hoped. But then I start looking around more, a lot of times the portfolio shot is behind me or above me, and not where I originally thought it would be.

  • Nailah

    Those photos were just beautiful. Especially loved the women in India and the boat in Chile. Definitely want to step up my travel photography this year and reading this article is a great way to get started. Thanks for the article – I’m going to link to it on my blog’s FB page.

  • Jessica

    I am heading out on my first major trip, and want to take the best photos I can. I am for sure an amateur photographer, and reading this tips has increased my confidence that I will be able to take photos that will capture my trip and WON’T make me cringe! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Greg Prohl

    Fabulous photos, Ed, and the accompanying writing is every bit as dynamic and interesting as the pics. I look at a lot of travel photos and take many of my own but I have to say yours are some of the best I’ve seen. Great stuff.

  • Ally

    Lovely Post. I have been determined to start learning how to use my SLR but I keep putting it off, it just seems a bit confusing but I guess I wont get any better if I don’t practice. I have to say your picture of the palace of the winds is way better than the one I took a couple of years ago, its a nice twist, sometimes the landmark isn’t as important as the culture and people around it

  • Puru

    These are some amazing and inspiring photographs. There is so much to learn from you. Shamelessly following you everywhere now 🙂

  • Sanjeeta kk

    ‘I use photography as a way to compliment my travels, not the other way around.’ That sums it all! I belong to Rajasthan and have been seeing these monuments for long…never thought that Hawa Mahal could be captured in such an artistic way..Beautiful.

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