Three things that make a great travel photograph 17

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I’ve been photographing Iceland for the last few weeks, trying to extract every ounce of color and light from a typically grey, dark place in February. The weather absolutely did not cooperate: winds blew so hard I could barely stand at times, with gale warnings regularly in effect and gusts to 25m/sec (55mph). Despite the horizontal rain and sleet which hampered photo opportunities, I repeatedly (stubbornly?) ventured out in hopes of capturing meaningful pictures.

Because of the poor weather and challenging conditions, I went back to basics by focusing on the three things that really matter: Light, Color, and Composition.


Jokulsarlon glacier beach at sunset on an overcast February evening in Iceland.



I used to shoot everything; now I’m far more selective. I prefer to wait until the light is good because I know that without good light, I don’t have a picture. Often this means staying in one spot waiting for the light to improve or returning to a place later in the day.

I took the shot below at the end of a frustratingly overcast day. I imagined that if the clouds were to momentarily part, some nice light might fall on the mountains in the distance. So I stood and waited. The clouds indeed parted and I was able to take the picture I wanted. You might say that I got lucky with the light – and indeed I did – but I also put myself in the right place at the right time to be able to take advantage of the scene. The sun was only out for a few minutes, and I got the picture I wanted.


Myvatn, Iceland

Myvatn, Iceland in February.

The best light occurs during the blue hours and the golden hours. Blue hours are just before sunrise and right after sunset when everything is bathed in a deep, dark blue. Golden hours occur after sunrise and before sunset when everything is saturated in beautiful golden light.

That means you have at least 4 hours each day of reliably good light – a lot of time if you choose to take advantage of it! Sadly, we are usually sleeping through the sunrise and busy eating or exploring through the sunset. If you want to take your best travel pictures, you need to plan to take pictures during these times.



Light and color are very closely related because good light almost always gives spectacular color. Everything looks great during the golden hours, so find an interesting subject and go photograph it!

Godafoss in Iceland

Godafoss, Iceland in golden light

Blue hour can be more of a challenge because you’ll need to find complimentary colors. Yellows, oranges, and reds go well with blue so I try to spot those colors and use them as a focal point. Buildings are typically lit with tungsten light which can be attractive against a blue background.

Iceland blue hour

Iceland blue hour

Good color can also be found when a scene is photographed in black and white. The colors of black and white compliment each other nicely when a scene is done right.

Vik, Iceland

A black sand beach in Vik, Iceland on a stormy February day

Another trick I’ve picked up is shooting in a much warmer color than what my camera automatically selects. I do this by selecting “overcast” on my white balance settings, or by manually dialing in a high (warm) color temperature.

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik



Composition is how you frame your subject. Amateurs love to place the point of interest in the dead center of the picture, but more experienced photographers look at the overall scene as they compose. Think about your picture as a whole – what do you want to convey? How do you want to present your picture to viewers?


Dettifoss framed with snow

Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. To convey that power in the shot above, I framed the picture so you can’t see the bottom of the falls. The base is wherever you imagine it to be; maybe infinite.

Composition is very subjective. In the shot below I liked the balance provided by negative space in the sky and snow. I also liked how the rocks formed a triangle, the end of which was my friend taking a picture with his iPhone. I’m sure other photographers might have shot the scene quite differently. The important thing is that you think about what looks good to you rather than just pointing and shooting. Often it only takes a small adjustment to turn a good photo into a great one.

Vik, Iceland

Vik, Iceland

I’ve been to plenty of places with bad weather, but these last weeks in Iceland were some of the toughest conditions I’ve encountered. By focusing on light, color, and composition (and with a little bit of patience and a LOT of warm clothes!) I was able to come home with the pictures I wanted.

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