Great photos in general, and great travel photos in particular are easy to spot. It’s pretty simple! If I look at one of my pictures and I can say: that’s nice, or that’s a very cute smile of my daughter, or what a beautiful landscape shot, or this picture reminds me of what I felt at that time and place…then I know that my picture is great. On the other hand, if my photo makes me ask: why did I take this picture? Or those 20 pictures of the same scene…then my photo is probably not that great. However, taking great travel photos that impress you or others is not easy. Read on and find my five simple principles for taking great travel photos.
I am not a great travel photographer, but I have certainly improved over the years. So, how do you become able to take great travel photos? I am talking about travel photos that capture not only what you see but also some of the emotion you feel?
In order to improve our travel photos, let’s step back and get a bit philosophical.
Venice, Italy – Gondola on Grand Canal with the beautiful Rialto Bridge in the background
See my photos from Venice
Why do we take photos when we travel?
We usually take a picture because there is something we want to remember. Whether it is the smile of a child or a beautiful sunset, it is the emotion we experience that we want our cameras to capture so we could re-live these emotions by looking at the picture. This leads me to come closer to defining the purpose of photography.
The purpose of taking a picture is to capture with the camera what I see with my eyes and what I feel with my heart. The better I can capture both image and emotion the stronger my photos become.
This is both the purpose and challenge of photography. It is a simple purpose that is very hard to achieve practically.
So, how do you take great travel pictures?
Taking great travel photos has more to do with you than with your camera
Over the years, I have collected the most important principles for taking great pictures. There are many lists available with tons and tons of tips and tricks, mostly technical. However, I created a list with the most important photography principles rather than technical photography tips.
Taking great travel photos has a lot more to do with your intent as a photographer than with what kind of camera and what settings you use.
1. Clean your lens
Really? Yes, you must clean your camera lens regularly especially if you take pictures with your cell phone. Because we use your mobile phones so much, it is very easy to touch the lens with your sweaty fingers. Lots of fingerprints on the lens will eventually turn into blurry photos. So, make a habit of cleaning your lens when you take pictures. Yes you should have piece of cloth for cleaning your lens, but even using the inside of your cotton t-shirt will work great.
2. Focus on what you like
This is probably the simplest principle for taking great travel photos but it is the most powerful and it is the most ignored by photographers. In other words, when you want to take a picture ask yourself what is it about what you are looking at that made you think you want to take a picture. The more specific you can answer the better your photograph will be.
Beautiful beach house on the California coast at Monterey
See my photos from Monterey, California
This is one of my favorite travel pictures taken on the beach at Monterey, California.
Yes, everything was beautiful but this house really caught my eye and was just gorgeous. The rocks in the foreground were leading my eye to the house so that’s what I was trying to capture.
This thinking helps me focus on what impresses me and helps me frame my picture according to what I like.
So is it the colors, or maybe a building or the way a child smiles that impresses you? Find out what impresses you and capture than and make sure you eliminate the rest. This is the hardest principle to apply, but with practice you will get better at it.
3. Remove distractions
This photography principle goes hand in hand with focusing on what you like. Once you start focusing on what you like about what you see you will start to remove what you don’t like. Once I started applying this principle my pictures became much cleaner and interesting.
It’s simple…when you remove distractions, your photographs will become much more focused and interesting. If you don’t remove distractions from your pictures, those distractions will become subjects in your photo whether you like it or not.
Is there anything distracting, like people, trash cans, street signs, cars, etc? During last few year I really tried to consciously pay attention to the background. My travel photos were immediately better and more interesting.
Distracting cones and road signs in front of Buckingham Palace,London
See my photos from London, England
This picture could have been much better by simply stepping in front of these road signs. All this would have taken an extra 30 seconds and a few steps. But at that time, I didn’t think and I just pointed my camera and shot the picture.
Most of the times it takes incredible little effort to just have to wait a bit and let the cars or people pass. Also just moving a few inches to the left or right would hide a garbage can or a brightly colored street sign. If you are just a bit more patient with yourself you will have time to look at the background. And when you do, you will love your travel photos!
4. Place people correctly
Another big distraction in travel photos is placing people in the middle of the photo. I am talking about the people you do want in your photos: your family and friends you travel with.
The easiest distraction to eliminate is placing your people subjects to the side of your photo instead of the middle.
During my first trips, I always placed my family in the middle of the photo which would cover most of the beautiful background I traveled so far to see. This is was very distracting.
What do you do? It is simple!
When your background is very important to capture, make sure you place people to the side of the photo as to leave room for your beautiful background.
Choose your focus point on the people subjects, so that they are clear, then move your camera slightly so that people appear to the left or right edge of the photo.
5. Be patient and add something interesting
This is the first principle that I started applying when taking pictures. Most people, myself included for a long while, take pictures something like this: Oh that looks nice, click! Or, Oh that looks nice, let’s all stand in front of it and ask someone to take the picture…click! Then you look at the pictures at home and you’re disappointed…if we would’ve moved to the right it would’ve been much better. Or look at that brightly colored trash can…looks bad!
Flock of birds flying near Leeds Castle in Kent, England
See my photos from Leeds Castle
Here I decided to wait a little before leaving this spot that had a great view of the castle. I only had to wait one more minute to capture the flock of birds flying low next to the castle which makes the whole picture a lot more interesting. Being patient is probably one of the most powerful principles of photography.
6. Careful with the zoom
Every traveler wants a camera with a big zoom to get in close. However, zooming in can bring terrible results when applied to travel photos. Here is what to watch out for.
If you use a phone, never zoom in because you would be using digital zoom which will turn out terrible. You can only safely do it on two camera phones like the newer iPhones. Even in these cases however, do not use digital zoom. Treat your phone as a fixed lens camera and you will be fine.
When taking pictures with your phone, never use digital zoom. This means that you should never pinch the screen to zoom in closer. Digital zoom will ruin your photo.
If you have a camera, remember to steady your camera more as you zoom in more. The more you zoom in the steadier your camera must be. Zooming in amplifies every little camera shake and if the camera is not steady, your pictures will be blurry.
How to make sure you use these principles
Develop a mental checklist. Practicing the principles above, will eventually develop in a mental checklist that helps you take better travel photos. Personally, after years of practice, I take pictures very differently. My mental checklist takes an extra 20 to 30 seconds of thinking and looking.
My mental list for better travel photos goes something like this: Oh that looks great! Hmmm…what’s great about it? Oh, the color is nice on that building…hmmm…what if I move closer…or further…or to the left? Maybe I can find someplace higher for a better view. Yeah…make sure the trash can doesn’t show. Oh…that’s better…click!
Gear that helps with taking better travel photos
A good quality, budget, compact point and shoot camera can produce much better travel photos than your cell phone. This is especially true if you like to use your zoom on your phone.
What helps you improve your travel photography?
Leaving the technical details aside, did you find any principles that helped you improve your photography? For me, the five principles listed above represent the first and most important steps towards better travel photos.