If you’ve come here looking for travel photography tips for beginners, or you want to improve your travel photography skills, I’m guessing you’re a lot like me. You love travel, but while you want to enjoy your holidays and make the most of the beautiful destination, you’re also a keen photographer and want to capture stunning images that you can look back on and share with your family and friends.
But travel photography is hard! There are so many challenges for both beginners and more advanced photographers alike. What gear should you take? How do you know where to go and when to go there? What about the weather? Photographing strangers is scary! Places are often crowded! There are so many questions and challenges that it can be quite intimidating to even start.
But as they say, a journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step. And you’ve taken that first step by coming here to read my easy travel photography tips for beginners. Hopefully all this advice will help inspire you to get your camera out and start improving your travel photography so you can create beautiful images of your holidays to enjoy for years to come.
Travel Photography Tips for Beginners: Planning
1/ Do your research
The best travel photography starts before you even leave home. To make the most of every destination, you first need to do your research. Look up the places you’re going to on Pinterest, Instagram, or your favourite travel blogs, find out where are the best places to go and the best time of day to go there, and get helpful advice on what gear to take. You can also search for images that inspire you and make a list of the sorts of themes and angles you’d like to get. That way, when you’re at the location, you won’t be wasting your precious holiday time searching for the right spot.
2/ Know your camera
Another thing you need to make sure you do before leaving home is getting to know your camera. I rarely read instruction manuals, but when I buy a new camera, reading the manual is the first thing I do. Modern cameras are packed with amazing functions to help you take stunning images, so if you just stick yours on auto and hope for the best, you’re missing a great opportunity to get the most out of it. If you’re a beginner travel photographer you don’t necessarily need to start learning all the manual settings, but even taking advantage of some of the different modes your camera offers – such as sports, nighttime or portrait – will really help take your travel photography to the next level.
3/ Travel as light as you possibly can
Don’t weigh yourself down with endless lenses, bodies, tripods and other paraphernalia. Yes it’s great to have lots of gear to choose from, but especially when you’re a beginner the key to great travel photography is freedom and flexibility. If you’re lugging a heavy backpack full of stuff, chances are most of it will end up staying in the bag, or by the time you’ve rummaged through it to find the thing you want the moment will have been lost.
This image was taken on Day 5 of climbing Kilimanjaro with a little Fuji X100T compact I bought specifically so I wouldn’t have to lug a DSLR up the mountain. I’m sure I got more and better shots with this because I could have it in my hand so it was ready to go every time I saw something interesting.
4/ Bring the camera you have, and always have it with you
The old tip, ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’ is absolutely true. There’s no point splurging on a fancy camera if it’s so heavy you end up leaving it in the hotel. I love my Canon 5D Mark IV, but I have to admit it’s very bulky and heavy and there are lots of occasions when it’s not sensible or appropriate to bring it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve ended up just using my phone because it’s quick and convenient – and you can take great travel photos with a smartphone! As a beginner, the number one best way you can improve your travel photography is by always having your camera close to hand so that when you spot that perfect moment, you’re ready to grab it.
Travel Photography Tips for Beginners: On Location
5/ Prioritise your photography
You may get lucky and spot a golden opportunity for the perfect photo, but if you’re really keen on taking the best travel images you can, you’re going to need to carve out time in your trip for photography. That’s what’s going to make the difference between a nice holiday snap and a professional-quality travel photograph. When I’m travelling, I often plan mornings or afternoons just to explore a place with my camera; for me it’s a great way to really get to the heart of an area and spot things I’d never normally notice if I was just walking round as a tourist.
6/ Get up early and stay out late
The best times to prioritise for travel photography are around sunrise and sunset. Not only will you get the nicest light – the hours just before and just after dawn and dusk (known as blue hour and golden hour) will give you the prettiest light and the most interesting skies, but you’ll also avoid the crowds and be more likely to get those gloriously empty images of your destination that you see on all the travel websites. Yes, it can be tough to drag yourself out of bed that early, but I promise you it’s worth it!
I took this image of our campsite in the Sahara Desert, Morocco, at blue hour, just after sunset, while the rest of my tour group were drinking wine round the campfire. I don’t regret it for a second, and of course I joined them as soon as I was done!
7/ React to the moment
While it’s great to have a plan, sometimes it’s even better to just chuck that plan out of the window and go with the flow. So you’ve arrived somewhere and it’s really crowded? The weather is bad? That famous landmark you came to see is covered with scaffolding? Then you’ll need to adapt. Travel photography is all about seeing what’s in front of you and capturing the spirit of the place, and if that spirit isn’t what you were expecting, just roll with it. When I was in India I found everywhere was really crowded, so instead of trying to take photos of landmarks (arguably quite boring anyway), I decided to capture the other people taking selfies and came back with some much more characterful travel images as a result.
8/ Set yourself a challenge
It can be all too easy to wander aimlessly with your camera, taking pot shots at random things and not really getting anything good. At times like these I find it’s really helpful to set myself a project. It might be to get ten really great photos of traders in a market, or to focus on doors, street dogs, or graffiti. You could force yourself to shoot everything without using your zoom or set yourself a travel photography scavenger hunt with a list of 10 or 20 different things you want to capture that sum up the destination for you. Doing this will really force you to think about your photography and help you bring back much better images than if you just fire off your shutter at whatever happens to be in front of you.
In Trinidad, Cuba I spent about three hours wandering around just taking photos of people in doorways; this is one of my favourites.
9/ Abandon your tour group…
If you’re taking a tour or travelling with a group, travel photography can be extra challenging. Getting stunning images takes time and patience, and if you’re always being told to keep up, or you’re worried about getting lost, that can really limit what you can achieve. So wherever possible, I find the best solution to this is to ditch the group and do my own thing. If you plan to do this, make sure you tell the guide so they’re not looking for you, get their number in case you do get lost, agree a time and place to meet later, and if you can, grab a friend for company and safety. I also always try to be one of the last back on the bus – not late, of course, so I’m delaying everyone, but not early either, so I’m not sitting in a half empty bus when I could still be out exploring.
In Chefchaouen, Morocco, I left the group and wandered off by myself to find interesting corners like this one.
10/ … but mine your guide for information
Taking a tour – even if it’s just a day trip or a guided visit to a site – does offer up one huge advantage for travel photography: local knowledge! Your guide should know all the best places to go, the key things to photograph, and the best times to go there. I always let the guide know that travel photography is my passion, and they will often give great advice and sometimes even adjust the itinerary to make sure I get extra opportunities to take amazing photos of the destination.
In Inle Lake, Myanmar we had a free day, and by chatting with the guide I learned it was possible to hire a private boat and go out on the lake before sunrise, which is how I got images like this one.
11/ Get lost on purpose
Sometimes the best images I’ve taken have been the unexpected ones, when you wander down a side street and discover a slice of local life that the guidebooks would never know about. If you stick to the beaten paths and follow the usual tourist trails, mostly what you will see is other tourists and the country’s polished public face. It’s only when you dip a little behind the scenes that you find the really interesting stuff, the bits that haven’t already been photographed a million times. So be bold. Wander curiously and see where it takes you – and when you’ve had enough just ask for directions or let Google maps guide you back.
Travel Photography Tips for Beginners: Composition
12 / Use the rule of thirds
If you’re a beginner travel photographer you may already be familiar with this concept. The rule of thirds states that if you imagine your image divided up into thirds horizontally and vertically, the most visually-pleasing composition is one where the subject of the image sits on one of the third lines. This draws the eye in and makes for a much more satisfying image than if you put the subject dead centre or too far off to one edge. It really works and it’s one of the easiest ways to make a huge difference to your photography in a single step.
In the image below, you can see the horizon sits nicely on the bottom third line, and the church tower and window are on the left third line.
Of course the rule of thirds is really a guideline more than a rule. Feel free to break it if you want to! If you scroll through the images in this post you’ll notice that the majority of them do follow the rule – but not all of them!
13/ Include people
While you probably want to avoid massive crowds of tourists, it’s a really great idea to try to capture individuals in your travel photos. Including a person can add a sense of scale to a beautiful landscape or give a focal point to wide shot of a landmark. A street with a few traditionally-dressed locals walking through will always capture the essence of a destination more completely than an empty road, while a charming portrait of a local character always makes for an engaging image. So rather than waiting for people to walk OUT of your shots, why not think about waiting for them to walk IN?
14/ Be patient
The best travel photographs rarely happen in an instant. Yes, it only takes a fraction of a second to click the shutter, but to get to that point you need not only planning, but also patience. Quite often I find I can see the potential shot, but the reality is not quite right. The sun needs to come out from behind a cloud, or I need the right sort of person to walk through the shot, or I want the market trader to hand over the money or the tourist to get out of the way. Often I can be waiting for ages for the thing to happen; sometimes I lose patience and give up, but other times the farmer I’ve got my camera trained on looks up and laughs and it’s totally worth the wait.
15/ Think about what’s in the background
A common mistake that many beginner travel photographers make is that they’re so focussed on the subject of their image that they fail to notice what’s going on in the background. Is there a tree growing out of your subject’s head? Did a tourist just wander into the back of the shot? Is there a parked car or pile of rubbish spoiling the view?
When composing your image, ask yourself, ‘what is this photo actually OF?’ and then try to exclude anything that distracts from that, either by reframing, moving your position, moving the subject (if you can!) or waiting until the annoying person in the back of shot has moved away.
In this image of the Falkland Islands I chose to include the people as I wanted to show the juxtaposition of the group and the albatross colony, but if I’d wanted this to just be a photo of the colony I’d have needed to move or zoom in.
16/ Move your feet
Most modern cameras have huge zooms which allow you to get a variety of different shot sizes from a single standing point. But if you stay stuck in one place, you may be missing out on a better view of your subject just to one side. So don’t get too attached to one spot: get closer, get further away, find a vantage point… you might just stumble across something unexpected. And as an added bonus: photography is great for your daily step count!
While the rest of my group were all standing together over to the left, I explored a bit further round to the side and was able to get a much better angle on this chimpanzee.
17/ Don’t copy Instagram
While it’s great to use Instagram for background research, once you’ve seen what’s out there try to think outside the box and do your own thing. No travel photographer ever won an award by taking the exact same picture as everyone else, and no one wants to look at hundreds of identical photos of the same place. How many photos have you seen of a girl in a big hat with her back to the camera looking at a view? It’s so unoriginal! See what everyone else is doing, sure, but then use it as inspiration and move forward.
18/ Take the obvious shot, then take a better one
Each time you take a picture, instead of just taking one, take two. First, the standard one from the conventional viewpoint, and then do something different. Zoom in, crouch down, move closer, walk round the side, wait for someone to walk into the frame, look for a different vantage point, find some way to make your image a little bit less ordinary. This will set you apart from the masses and give you unique, more eye-catching images.
This first photo of the Duomo in Orvieto, Italy, is perfectly nice, but don’t you think the second one is far more interesting?
Travel Photography Tips for Beginners: Best Practice
19/ Be culturally aware
There are many places in the world where photography is frowned upon. Some sites ban it, in other places local people just don’t like being constantly papped by passing tourists. Sadly with the rise of social media this is becoming more and more common, and it’s certainly something I’ve found frustrating in the past, but as a responsible traveller it’s your job to respect the locals and their customs. So if you find yourself in a place where it’s not permitted or appropriate to take photos, don’t do it. Simply enjoy being in the moment and focus on making memories instead.
20/ Ask permission
It’s not necessary (and it would be impossible) to ask permission from every man or woman in the street before you take a photo, but if you want to take a close up of an individual it’s a good idea to get their consent first. Doing this shows respect and gives that person the chance to decide whether they want to be photographed or not. Don’t worry if you don’t speak the language, a simple smile and a gesture towards your camera is universally understood.
Sometimes, however, you may not want to interrupt the moment as this can often cause the person to stop what they were doing and ruin the shot. In this case you’ll need to make a decision. If you’re far enough away and can quickly take the photo without offending them, do that. If you want to get closer, the best strategy is to ask permission, take one or two photos, walk away a little and wait for them to forget about you and go back to what they were doing, then come back and get the shot you originally wanted.
21/ Be safe
Of course it should go without saying that while following all of these tips, it’s important to be sensible. Don’t go off alone if you’re not sure you’ll be able to find your way back. Don’t wander into a dodgy part of town with a big expensive camera hanging round your neck. Make sure your money is secure and your backpack pockets are properly zipped and your passport is in the safe in your hotel so that someone can’t pickpocket you while you’re busy focussing on other things. Watch where you’re putting your feet so you don’t fall off a cliff or step in front of a car. If possible, have someone with you so you can keep an eye on each other. Photography is enormous fun, but that fun will come to a swift end if you get robbed or worse, and no image is worth putting yourself in danger for.
Travel Photography Tips for Beginners: Technicalities
22/ Bring enough memory and batteries
You’ve spent all that money to go all that way, so the last thing you want is to miss out on bringing home some fantastic images just because you didn’t bring enough memory! Make sure you’ve got your charger, at least one spare battery and a big enough memory card or two. Imagine how annoyed you’d be if you spotted something astonishing and then couldn’t capture it because your card was full or your battery died!
23/ Backup backup
Whether you can do this depends on where you’re going and how light you plan to travel, but I never go away for more than a few days without taking a laptop and hard drives with me. At the end of every day I download the photos and back them up on two drives which I store separately, so that if ever my camera or a drive gets lost or broken, I won’t lose all my images.
This image of a penguin colony in Antarctica was just one of several thousand that I took. Losing them all would have been a disaster so I backed up my photos every day
24/ Learn some basic post processing
If you really want to take your travel photography to the next level, you need to learn a little editing. No professional travel photograph you will ever see has come straight out of the camera; they have all been tweaked at least a bit. I’m not talking about hours of colour correcting and photoshopping here, and if you’re a beginner I’m not suggesting you pay for pro editing software (at least for now, you may well want to later on), but there are plenty of free tools out there (including the one that probably came with your camera) that will allow you to make a few simple improvements. Things like cropping, levelling a wonky horizon, or adjusting white balance or exposure, are just small corrections that can really help to make each image just that little bit better.
25/ Practise at home
And finally – yes, it’s all about practice. No one ever got good at anything overnight, but if you’re passionate and you want to learn, you WILL get better! Why not try taking your camera out round your local area, for example? Practice street photography in your own town or shoot landscapes in your nearest bit of countryside. That way when you’ve splurged your savings on that trip of a lifetime, you won’t mess it up!
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