How to Get into Travel Photography

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  By Keenan Gilson
How to Get into Travel Photography www.sleeklens.com

The thought of grabbing our camera and landing in a foreign country probably sounds very appealing to us as lovers of photography. New faces, places, images, and experiences are all waiting for us if only we could just figure out a way to make it a reality. Let’s consider some ways that some, including myself, have been able to break free of the typical 9 to 5 job and pursue our passions; travel and photography.

Travel photography to me is one of the most exciting fields to jump into. It is filled with excitement and adventure that will let you even forget that you’re working. As someone who has ventured just a bit into the world of travel photography, I must say it is a great experience. This article is the ultimate guide for beginners who would like to know as to what equipment you will need to get started on your travel photography. Travel photography doesn’t really require a lot of tools but the tools mentioned here are some essentials you will need to get the job done.

Beginner Gear Needed for Travel Photography

1. A Camera

Of course, you can’t be a travel photographer without a camera right? A lot of people make the mistake of believing that you need a $2000 dollar camera to take a great photo as a professional travel photographer. This is completely false as a great camera in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use only leaves you with a great camera. Nothing is wrong with getting one of the best cameras within your budget and slowly building your tools from there. Cameras capable of getting the job done are available for prices way under $1000 USD. Take some time out and research a few DSLR’s on Amazon and B&H to see where you can find the best deals. If you find yourself interested in one specific camera, try and rent it from your nearest camera depot before buying it. Take it for a spin and do a few test shots to see how it handles and then from there you can make your decision. If you don’t have the convenience of renting from a camera depot then I would best advise to do some research and watch a few youtube videos or look at some of our camera reviews to see if any match your needs and budget.

2. Lenses

If your camera purchase doesn’t already come with some a set of kit lenses, then you should look into a couple lenses that will work perfectly for travel shooting. However, most camera purchases will come as a bundle with two kits lenses and other accessories. It is then up to you or your budget to determine if you are pleased with the shots produced by these lenses or you would like to invest into some others. If you are interested in buying a lens for your day to day travel shooting then I would suggest looking into a 24-70mm. This lens will allow you easily capture anything from portrait to landscape shots with ease. You may even find where this lens is on your camera body for the majority of your journey if not all of it. Another I would suggest looking into for your subjects at a distance would be the 70-200mm. With both of these lenses in your camera bag, you should be ready to capture just about anything.

3. Camera Bag

Speaking of a camera bag, it is important to have one perfect for day to day traveling. This is also one of the essential tools you need to protect your expensive equipment and hold your accessories, like a travel tripod. Luckily these aren’t hard to get a hold of with all camera bags on the market today you’re bound to find one that matches your budget and style. However, don’t get blinded by the price and forget the safety of your equipment from the elements. It is important to have a comfortable but water resistant camera bag or at least one that comes with a rain cover.

4. Memory Cards

Of course, other essentials will come into play such as having extra memory cards of 32GB or more. After a while, it gets pretty easy to fill a 16 or 32GB with raw files and you don’t want to run out of storage on your trips.

How to Plan a Travel Photography Trip

1. Budget

Our first travel tip is to make sure you have some sort of safety net in terms of finances. You never know what’s going to happen or what random expenses will present themselves when moving to a foreign area. This is especially true if you don’t have any experience living in a foreign country or with traveling in general. Therefore, having some decent savings is pretty important.

You will want to do research on the cost of living and factor this into your move. For most, they think that living abroad is not plausible because of the expense. Surprisingly though, depending on where you go it can be very affordable. Figure out what typical monthly expenses will be and make sure that with your current savings, even if you don’t have work for some time, will be easily sustainable. For me personally, I am currently living in Thailand and the cost of living, along with what I view as necessary, are really on the low end of things. This enables me to spend less time and money on things that don’t have a big importance in my life. Instead, your money can go towards things that you truly enjoy such as traveling, experiences and digital camera gear.

2. Consider Working Abroad

If you want to do more than just visit places for vacation, the next step would be to find suitable work. There are many ways that can enable you to live in a foreign country for the majority of the year if not the entire year. One way is to work around 3 months back in your home country and then keep your expenses low while living abroad; typically Asian countries are really quite low.

Many have found that working online is another sustainable option. A few people that I know are teaching English online and it’s enough for them. If your English is decent, especially if you’re from America, you can almost always find a job immediately. There are a ton of Asian companies ready to hire, especially if you have some sort of English teaching certificate such as a TEFOL certificate. If you have a bachelors degree you can expect to be making more right off the bat as well.

Working in a foreign country is also a possibility but most of the time you should expect to make less than you would in your home country. It also usually requires a sponsorship from a local business in that country and a special type of visa. This is not the most hassle-free option, especially if you plan to be constantly traveling, but it has worked for many people as a sustainable option if they plan to stay put for a while.

3. Make The Most Of Your Vacation Travels

As a creative individual, you will find so many new/fresh opportunities to expand your portfolio. Don’t get caught up in the vacation mindset so much that you don’t take these opportunities seriously. Use the time you are away to make the most of your new surroundings and experiences. Take your camera with you everywhere and make the effort to create daily. In this way, you will make your portfolio that much more diverse while at the same time saving those precious memories.

20 Travel Photography Tips for Taking the Best Pictures

1. The Importance of Good Composition

Creating a travel photo with a sense of place means choosing the feeling you want to suggest and then paring down the elements to just that. With this sunset shot from Colonia de la Sacramento, Uruguay, I could have taken it from the harbor highlighting the sun over the river, but instead chose to put the small café in the foreground not only for the human element but to suggest what a peaceful moment it was. Here were people just appreciating the scene. I look at this image and get a sense of what it was like to sit there at a table sipping a drink.

Colonia de la Sacramento, Uruguay

2. Good Light Sets the Mood

Good light can be anything if it serves the intent of showing a sense of place. It need not be early or late in the day for that golden hour. If you want to suggest desert heat, maybe the glare at midday will do it better than the warm light at dawn. Creating the feel of a deep, lush forest is usually accomplished best on an overcast day when there aren’t distracting harsh globs of sunlight hitting the leaves.

Garrapata State Park, California

The rugged, almost primal quality of the California coast near Carmel in the shot above comes across more clearly with the cold, stormy weather I experienced there. On other days, I’ve photographed the same area to show a different sense of place, one where the ocean is a calming, renewing force. In either case, I tried to communicate how it felt to me at the time.

3. Use Contrast to Your Advantage

If I want a calm, tranquil feeling, I keep the contrast relatively soft. In the shot of the impala in Kruger National Park, South Africa, I resisted the urge to make the scene really crispy, thus making it even more dramatic. I wanted the tranquility of the moment to come through instead. However, with the shot below of the canyoners headed into Spry Canyon, Zion National Park, crisp is exactly what I wanted. It brings out the texture and contours of the slick rock and suggests the danger of rappelling down into the canyon. I also showed the enormity of the place by waiting until she was far enough away to be a tiny figure in an overwhelming landscape.

Spry Canyon, Zion National Park

4. Don’t be Afraid to Crop

Yeah, you want to get the cropping right in the camera, but who said you have to be a prisoner of the sensor’s aspect ratio? By cropping to a square, for example, you can eliminate extraneous space on the sides of the composition and better draw the eye to the subject. With that comes a certain calmness because the image is well-balanced. On the other hand, you can create more tension with a rectangular frame by placing your subject off-center.

5. Use a Vignette

Darkening the edges of an image not only directs the eye toward the subject, but can also add a specific mood. I usually try to keep the vignette from drawing attention to itself by not making it too dark, but if I want to suggest a feeling of intimacy, I’ll make it a little heavier than normal. In the picture of the canyoneering rappelling into Vinegaroon Canyon, Death Valley National Park, I darkened the sides with a curves adjustment in Adobe Lightroom to give the feel of dropping into a deep, enclosed space (I masked out the canyoners to maintain the light pouring in from above).

Vinegaroon Canyon, Death Valley National Park

If a moment is overwhelming you, go ahead and first get the record shot or go for the beauty shot. But then pause to think about what is making this place special to you and how it feels to be there. That is, discover the sense of place, and I think the resulting photograph can be the true winner because it will connect with the viewer on a deeper, more emotional level and therefore be a lot more powerful.

6. Make a Shot List at Home (and Then Tear It Up)

It’s not a bad idea to get a feel for your destination. For example, I eyeballed enough pictures of Tuscany to learn it had rolling hills and medieval towns. That at least primed me for what kind of situations I might find interesting to shoot. But then I started to make lists of specific scenes others had photographed so I could bag them, too, and realized that wouldn’t work. I needed to discover my own landscapes and narrow streets.

So I forgot all I had seen in favor of simply stumbling about the farmlands and villages in search of images. I know, I know. That doesn’t sound like a formula for a good travel photo, but it forced me to be open to everything, every possibility, and my camera cards filled with successful images. I admit this requires a little self-confidence to be so laidback but it also takes an attitude of losing yourself in the simple, fulfilling pleasure of travel and the adventures it brings.

7. Don’t Pressure Yourself

I think one of the best travel photography tips is by not comparing what you see in the viewfinder to others’ past photos. This can only create feelings of despair and the illusion you’ll never equal those supposed masterpieces. Forget about winning likes on Facebook or Instagram. Look for subjects that dovetail with your interests. Maybe you have a thing for doors, which in many places are unique from home to home. So blast away. Maybe you like street photography. Have fun with that. You are unique and you’ll see all this in ways no one else can.

Vatican tour guide. While we were waiting in line to enter the Vatican Museum, our guide gave us a preview of some of the artwork we were about to see. Her enthusiasm came through in the shot and tells a brief story from our trip.

8. Concentrate on Recording Your Experiences

This gives you a start, a doorway through which other images can emerge. Look for the stories inside your trip. Take pictures of your travel companions doing whatever it is you did (selfies and mug shots in front of famous landmarks don’t count). If you stay at a B&B, for example, ask the proprietor to pose for a portrait. Take a picture from your hotel window. Record the meals you ate. For our major excursions, I like to put together a photo book afterward of our adventures, and so I use that as a reminder to look for storytelling photos.

9. Walk to Your Destination

This may not always be possible, but there’s so much to see and photograph when you use a bit of shoe leather as opposed to a bus, subway or taxi. I carry a small daypack for a couple of lenses, camera battery and cards. I look for details, some of which speak of the culture and some don’t. I like to take pictures of people and during a walking excursion to the Spanish Steps, I snagged one of my favorite shots of two women in conversation. Couldn’t have gotten that from a speeding taxi. At one point, we have turned around—my wife called it “lost”—and because of that, I stumbled on a great travel photo of the Pantheon.

Storm clouds over the Pantheon, Rome. While walking to the Spanish Steps, I stumbled across this scene, one that I probably wouldn’t have seen if we weren’t on foot.

10. Allow Yourself Time to Wander

As a corollary to the above, if you have a rental car, take a back road instead of the main highway, or just randomly drive down different roads. These days with GPS, it’s tough to get permanently lost, so explore! You won’t find the country’s iconic landmarks, but you’ll likely see and photograph places few people do.

11. Relax, You Don’t Have to See Everything

I’m forever amazed at how some people feel the need to rush from place to place, measuring the success of their trip in how much they saw. Mixing photography with travel is a lot easier if you plunk down for a few days in one location and wander out from there. You’ll still see a lot, get a great feel for the culture and ultimately come back with far better images because you had the extra time to look around.

Wondering what I might find, I wandered into the Horti Leonini Gardens at San Quirico d’Orcia. I came across this white cat sitting outside a maze.

12. Be Curious

If something looks intriguing, don’t just pass by because you’ve got a specific place you’re going to—check it out. Or, if the tour guide has you pointed in one direction, sneak a peek at you. There are unexpected images almost everywhere you turn if you just look.

13. Be Flexible

It rained while we were in Rome. Oh, dear. No photo ops, right? Nope. We walked to the Coliseum at night with umbrellas and were rewarded by images filled with shiny streets. Plus, only a few, brave tourists were milling around so we nearly had the place to ourselves.

Pizzeria, Via Cavour, Rome. We went walking in the rain which transformed a possibly ordinary shot into this shiny, colorful scene.

14. Get a Record Shot for Your Personal Pleasure

One of the great things about photography is it reinforces your memories. So instead of berating yourself for being an uncreative hack, go ahead and get a standard issue shot of the Eiffel Tower. Twenty years from now, you’ll be glad you did. Also, by letting go of your aversion to the cliché picture, you might start to see unique angles for more personal takes on the subject.

Lastly, sometimes you just get lucky. You can’t predict at home what the light is going to be like or what rare convergence of elements is coming your way. But by keeping your mind—and eyes—open, you can create photographs that are meaningful to you both from an artistic standpoint and as a document of your experiences. And, by the way, I never got to San Giovanni. Oh, well. I hear it’s great.

Many people that I know have taken the images that they were able to capture and sold them as both stock video and photography. If you are in hard to reach locations or really foreign looking areas, take advantage of it! Capture as much footage of the area as if you were covering it professionally. You can then upload these clips online and people can pay you to use the photos or the footage. This can be another form of income.

15. Avoid Crowded Locations

In travel photography, it can be difficult to photograph locations filled with tourists, but nevertheless, we want to get amazing photos of the great places on this earth, which often happens to be filled with tourists.In this article, I will give you some tips on how you can photograph places with a lot of tourists and get incredible results. I will be using my trip to Venice as an example throughout the article.

Before You Go

If you plan to visit popular tourist destinations and look to do a lot of photography I highly recommend that you go off-season, when there are fewer tourists. In Europe, the high season will be during the summer months for most places, and therefore it is preferable to visit sometime else during the year. Depending on the location the months just before or after summer can be great to visit but also during the colder months. By choosing seasons with low numbers of tourists you will find it much easier to photograph places without getting tourists in the frame anywhere you point your camera. I went to Venice in October which turned out to be a great decision, the weather was nice with temperatures reaching twenty degrees celsius (still needed warm clothes for sunrises and sunsets) and primarily there were considerably fewer tourists compared to the summer months.

You also need to bring a suitable camera equipment depending on what you will be photographing, Besides from your camera I recommend that you at least bring a normal zoom lens and if you have, a wide angle and telephoto lens. If the normal zoom lens doesn’t have an aperture of f/2,8 you could consider bringing a normal prime lens as well. For my style of photography a tripod is invaluable, so I recommend bringing that as well if you are going to do anything else than shooting in daylight, which I strongly encourage for many reasons (more on that later). In Venice, I almost exclusively used my 24-70mm f/2,8 on my Nikon D800 which was a great setup that worked for street photography, cityscapes, and various other shots.

If you haven’t already been to the location you are going to you should also research what places are good for photography. Sites like 500px.com are great to get inspiration from. Knowing what places to visit before you go can save you a lot of time and effort when you arrive and will, of course, help you find good places to photograph.

Shooting beautiful places and avoiding tourists

If you want to get fantastic photos of usually crowded places a quite obvious solution is to go when the place is empty, luckily this is usually the same time that the light is the most beautiful, only drawback being that your sleep might suffer. Sunrise is a great time to capture places that are usually packed full of tourists since most of them still will be sleeping and the light usually is perfect. I recommend that you wake up with enough time to arrive at the place you plan to photograph (know where you are going in advance and stick to one place per sunrise) and still have some time to set up before the sun actually rises, and sometimes you can find some great photos just before sunrise. This might mean that you have to wake up as early as 05.00 in some cases, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Early sunrise in Venice
The same location later on the same day.

Another alternative is to photograph places at night using long exposures, this will, of course, yield an entirely different look to the photo and the risk of tourists will be entirely eliminated (for the most part at least).

If you are staying in the same place for a while it can be a good idea to come back to a place several times if you are not happy with the photos at first. Maybe you wanted to capture a fantastic sunset looking out over a city but when the time comes your sunset is ruined by a thick layer of clouds. In this case, you might be able to come back the next day and get a fantastic photo.

Another important photography tip is to be patient. Try not to be frustrated when a couple of selfie stick-wielding tourists are blocking your perfect shot of the Rialto Bridge, but rather set up your tripod, frame the picture and be ready to press the shutter as soon as they move out of the way. This is relevant not just when waiting to get a clear shot but also while waiting for the light to change for the better, I once stood for two straight hours on the top of Tour Montparnasse in Paris packed full of tourists waiting for the light to be just right so I could get the shot of the Eiffel Tower that I really wanted. Eventually, I got the shot.

Since the tourists are gathered among the most famous sites you can try your luck exploring less known parts of a city, you might be surprised by what you can find. But when you are photographing those famous landmarks, try to improve your photography skills by doing it differently from everybody else. This can be done by finding unique angles or concentration on details among other things.

Also, you should not rely on Adobe Photoshop to fix issues there might be with your picture, like bad technique or tourists in the frame. Yes, you can do a lot in post-processing, but it is always best to start out with the best possible shot, so if there is something you are not happy with, try to fix it on location. But don’t forget that if it’s done right it can be really interesting to have people in your images as well.

If there really are too many tourists that won’t be moving out of the way at any time soon (and you can’t come back later) you can use a really dark ND-filter to achieve a very long exposure, which will make the tourists disappear, as long as they are not standing still.

 

16. Avoid Cliche Travel Shots

Isn’t it funny that you always see the hundreds of other photographers standing in the same spot? Having other photographers around doesn’t mean you can’t get a unique image. Just, avoid standing where they are.

As you do your travel photography research, pay attention to what the cliche images are! Otherwise, how would you know what to avoid? You should also plan out some shot ideas to avoid the cliches. Of course, this is not meant to be a hard schedule, it should be a guideline, something to adjust if needed. Some travel photographers prefer to wait until they are in a new place to figure out the story. This way, it is a more natural process. Even so, doing research beforehand will help give you an idea what to expect. You may learn an interesting fact that could change the way you shoot in a location. Before going to Porto, I learned JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book while living in the city.  This changed the way I walked around the city. I found small details of buildings I could reference back to the Harry Potter books. It was so much fun! If I hadn’t done the research, I may not have known this fact until after I left. As a photographer and Harry Potter fan, this would have been frustrating and heart-breaking!

17. Golden Hour

The time of day you shoot can be the difference between a hobbyist and full-time pro. How often do you see people shooting iconic landmarks smack in the middle of the day? D’oh! If you were there at the right time of day, you would have a higher quality image. Shoot the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. During the day when the sun is brightest, shoot indoors or be aware where the sun is. Using a reflector can help reflect light where you want it to go.

18. Walk Around

First, assess the scene. What do you see? What do you want to capture? Take a nice walk around the scene. Search for interesting angles or actions happening. What does this subject look like from the side? Look up, look for ways to shoot down. Walk across the street and see what it looks like far away versus up close. Try shooting a few frames and see how they come out. How can you improve them? Does the image tell a story? It can be a good idea to walk away from the subject for a while as explore something new. Come back to it another time (if timing permits) with fresh eyes. This can change your perspective.

19. Shoot a Portrait

Try finding someone interesting who would be willing to let you shoot a portrait of them. If you are near a famous landmark, this will be easy. Everyone enjoys a good photo of themselves, even more in front of a famous location. Play with aperture camera setting, blur out the landmark. It’s interesting the Eiffel Tower blurred in the background. Most would make it the main focus. Maybe it is an interaction between people or a candid unposed image. That will give you a unique spin on that location. Moments are singular and will never again occur in exactly the same way.

20. Shoot Daily Life

Expanding on the above, try to create a sort of environmental street portrait. Look for a scene which speaks to the emotion of the place. It could be an interaction between a local couple, or a street vendor and tourists. Add the element of the landmark to your background to give it a sense of place. You will tell a story of daily life in this location, in a more interesting way than just each element on its own.

Avoiding cliche shots in travel photography is not difficult to do. Even though there are other photographers around, you can still walk away with a unique image. All you need is a plan and to do your research. Learn what to avoid and brainstorm how to avoid it. Take a nice walk around, get to know the locals, ask questions. A new world will open up before you if you just start a conversation and take an interest in the people and culture. This care and emotion reflect in the images. You’ll walk away with a great story and a better image.

With some proper planning and forethought, following your passion for foreign lands can be a possibility!

Keep learning and have fun!

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Keenan is a professional photographer that specializes in commercial and portrait/street photography. He is originally from California were he studied photography at the University of La Verne. Due to his love for travel and people, most of his time is spent abroad visiting foreign countries. He loves to collaborate with other creatives and is always looking for ways to improve and learn new things.

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