Top 10 Tips for Travel Photography

It was the fall of 2012, and I was happily planning my first trip with mom, just us two, to Istanbul.

Cheap flight with free exit row upgrade?  Check (thank you, MileagePlus status!).  Cool little flat in the old part of the city? Check.  Budding list of must-eats and restaurants?  Check.

It was all coming together beautifully, and then I had a terrible realization: there was no one to take photos.

As you probably know by now, my hubby is the man behind the lens at Wanderrlust and, in my possibly biased opinion, takes damn good photos.  But, since he is neither a mother nor a daughter, and more specifically, neither my mother nor my daughter, he was not invited.  And this was Istanbul, one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world – a place like this demands more than random snaps on the phone or IPad.

So, we bit the bullet and bought me my very own DSLR – a Canon EOS 7D, to be exact.  H describes the 7D as the top-of-the-line in Canon’s “prosumer” category (he has the 5D Mark II, predecessor of the Mark III at the low-end of Canon’s pro line).

We had many a tutorial, and still do, as my memory retention on this stuff is probably hovering somewhere around 7%. Luckily, you don’t have to be a pro to take a good photo or two.  If you’re not getting what you want out of your travel photos, family photos, social media photos, whatever, here are our (ok, mostly H’s) top tips to help you up your photography game:

  1. Learn a little something about photography, especially if you have invested in a good camera.  Again, you don’t need to know everything, but you should know the basics, and there are plenty of great online resources.  This one and this one should get you started.  Remember to have your camera handy so you can play around with it as you go.  You can also try using an online simulator.
  2. Think about what you want out of a photo before you take it.  I can’t tell you how many times on this trip we’ve watched people hold up a camera, phone, or IPad and snap photo after photo willy-nilly without even looking through the lens. Honestly, do ANY of those photos turn out?  Instead, ask yourself these questions: what is/are my object(s) of interest?  Do I want to take a portrait of someone or a specific object?  Do I want to capture the scenery?  Say you’re exploring the jungle and come across a beautiful waterfall.  You say to your wife, “Honey, jump in there for a photo.”  The waterfall is pretty tall, so you either end up cutting off the waterfall (and its majesty) somewhere in the middle, or backing so far away to capture the whole thing that you can barely see your wife’s face, and now she’s just messing up a shot of a beautiful waterfall.  So, in this case I would ask, do you want to capture the magnificence of the waterfall, or a picture of your wife enjoying herself on vacation?
  3. Composition matters.  Once you’ve chosen your subject, be intentional about where you place it (hint, it’s probably NOT in the center of the frame).  Divide your frame up into 9 square boxes, three horizontal and three vertical (see below).  This will give you four lines with fours points of intersection, which also happen to be points to which the eye is naturally drawn when looking at photographs.  These points and lines should be your road map for composing an interesting and balanced photo.  See here for more on the rule of thirds.
  4. top 10 photo tips - rule of thirdsZoom with your feet first, lens second.  In other words, physically position yourself in relation to your subject as best you can, and then let the lens help.
  5. Think before you flash.  NEVER use a flash on a camera phone, and try to avoid using one on a point-and-shoot.  Why? Cameras have incredible sensors, so even if your subject appears dark, it’s actually pretty simple to pull up the exposure and bring things out of the shadows in post-production (there are even apps to help you up the quality of your phone photos – I like snapseed). Conversely, if you over-expose (meaning you let too much light hit the sensor), the sensor is basically blinded and gathers no data.  For DSLRs, there are plenty of great uses for flash, but unless you know what you’re doing, the flash is probably not going to be your friend.
  6. Be patient.  You’ve thought about the shot you want, composed it, adjusted your camera, and bam … someone wanders into the frame.  As you can imagine, this is really common in travel photography, where you are often sharing your subject with hundreds or thousands of other people.  We often spend time waiting for the right conditions, whether it’s for people to disperse or better lighting.  Or perhaps you’ve shot your photo, but you’re not loving it.  Recompose, play with focal length, film speed, whatever, and try again.
  7. Be picky and know when to call it quits.  It’s not uncommon for H or I to bring the camera to our eye, compose, and then not snap anything.  Sometimes, things look better in real life than they do through the lens, so put down your camera and enjoy the moment!  Conversely, if what seemed like a good photo in the moment turns out to be a dud, let it go.  Better to show off 10 amazing photos than 100 blah ones.  For the record, than less 4% of all the photos we’ve taken on this trip so far have made it to our photography page.
  8. Be respectful.  I’m on a mission to spread photography etiquette – for me, this means a few things.  First, if photography and/or flash is prohibited, please respect the rules, especially since the no-flash rule is often in place to prevent the degradation of priceless art.  Second, try to avoid walking into the frame when others are taking photos.  I know this is really hard to do at crowded tourist sites or in cities, but if you happen to notice yourself doing this, step out and let that person get their picture.  Hopefully they’ll return the favor and pay it forward.  Third, don’t hog the shot.  I’m happy to step out of the way for someone to get a snap or two, but please, don’t make others wait all day while you do selfie after selfie. Finally, please don’t treat local people like zoo animals.  I’ve seen way too many foreigners walk up to someone who is in his or her ethnic dress and shove a camera in that person’s face.  It is beyond degrading and rude – I had this done to me in rural Vietnam by a big group of teenagers, so I know how it feels firsthand.  If you want a photo, ask first.  If the answer is no or the person seems hesitant, respect that and find someone else to ask.  You’d be surprised how many people love to have their photos taken, and it makes for a better shot if your subject is a willing one.
  9. For the love of all that is good and holy, no more selfies.  There is exactly one person I know of who takes truly fantastic selfies.  ONE.  You are probably not that person.  No one needs to see shot after shot of you, in front of the same thing in 50 different poses.  Not even your mom.
  10. There are exceptions to every rule.  Photography is an art and should be fun.  Try our rules, throw out what doesn’t work for you, and invent your own!
  11. Always shoot in RAW if you can.  Sorry, there is no exception to this one.

top 10 photo tips - hj sand

Fellow photographers, what are your top tips?  Please share your expertise in the comments.  Oh, and in case you were wondering, my photos from Istanbul didn’t turn out half bad.

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