If you’re looking to graduate from a casual photographer to an official Enthusiast Photographer and improve your travel photography in the process, this article is for you! I’ll keep it simple and offer mostly advice that cost nearly nothing, at least money-wise.
What is a good photo anyway?
It pays to think about this before triggering your shutter as it sets a tangible goal for your improvement. (Much more tangible than ‘shoot better photos’, at any rate.)
Let’s start improving – cameras & technique
Upping your photography game requires an investment, be it time or money.
If you can only afford investing time, I’d suggest using whatever camera or phone you have, but going to RAW capture. The investment in this case would be time required to learn how to handle the RAWs and actually editing them.
There are hundreds of articles written about advantages of RAW capture so I wouldn’t get too deep into it. Comparison between JPEG and RAW photo would be something like comparing eating in a fast food vs. growing your own organic ingredients (shooting) and then carefully preparing them (editing). It takes time and effort, but the results are game-changing!
RAW files are bigger and slower to process, but contain many times more information which is at your disposal and allows you to work magic later in the editing phase. Furthermore, as RAW tools get more advanced, they often let you get more out of your files years later. So that one perfect shot can keep getting better as tech gets more advanced, year after year!
Most modern cameras allow for RAW capture, and it’s only a matter of selecting the option in the menu. What most people don’t realize is that many modern phones also allow RAW capture — both Apple and Android. In this case you may need a dedicated app for that.
Which app you pick on your phone is of little consequence because RAW capture is done at system level, so you’re basically choosing a user interface which has limited influence on the actual photo you record. The biggest differences are ease of use and level of advanced controls offered.
My favorite app on iOS is called Halide — intuitive to use with enough power when you dig in. On Android, try Adobe Lightroom, but it’s possible your stock app will allow you to turn on RAW capture.
(Note: RAW photo is a concept. The actual file-container for RAW photos on most phones is a DNG-format file, so look for that in the options if you don’t see RAW).
You can edit RAW files on your computer or on your phone, even if you captured them with a real camera.
Try Adobe Lightroom or VSCO app on both iOS and Android. Lightroom is unmatched in its refined rendering and editing engine, while VSCO is unparalleled in the number of creative editing presets it offers to give your photos that artistic twist.
For truly tricky scenes, I will often use Lightroom to get the most out of the RAW file and then pass it on to VSCO as a simple JPEG for finishing touches. For less challenging photos, I’ll import RAW file directly to VSCO.
Phones usually fall short in quality compared to cameras, especially in tricky conditions like low-light, but in some cases computational photography comes to our aid. This term involves many different things today, but one that is of interest in this case are apps that take multiple photos of the same static scene and put them together to get a synergy which is greater than the sum of its parts.
In this particular case, phone’s camera suffers from a huge amount of noise making it practically unusable for night time shooting. However, since noise is random, taking a lot of shots and adding them together will cancel the noise and enhance static parts — photo of a landscape for example.
This won’t work for moving subjects or from unsteady hands, but with some support (leaning on a wall or a phone tripod) the results will wow you and be comparable to much larger cameras!
A good example of an app allowing for everything I described above is Cortex Cam (both iOS and Android). It will effectively reduce noise, moderately increase the resolution of the captured photo while preserving sharpness and save your photo in a lossless format. It can even work hand-held and automatically align the images!
If you can afford to invest some money in your photography, look into getting a large(r) sensor camera.
They come in fixed-lens packages or interchangeable-lens variants and differ in sensor sizes. Bigger sensor usually means better light gathering capabilities (meaning less noise in the dark) and generally more attractive background blur (bokeh).
Travel photography has a set of requirements that are very well suited to a newer generation of mirrorless cameras (as opposed to old-school DSLRs). Most of these have interchangeable lenses, making them very flexible for anything you may want to throw at them on the road or later on.
Popular mirrorless travel choices include micro 4/3 cameras (like Panasonic or Olympus) or even bigger sensors of APS-C cameras (Fuji is a popular choice). While there are full frame mirrorless cameras from the likes of Sony, Nikon and soon Canon, they are more expensive, bigger and may get you bankrupt while getting yourself a decent set of lenses. Unless you want to shoot in very dim light, they’re probably not worth the investment and extra effort to haul them around.
There are many detailed buying guides to help you pick a particular model at your price point — dpreview.com is a great starting point. If something catches your eye, there’s usually an in-depth review to really get to know your potential pick before you spend the hard-earned cash.
Camera, check. Now, how do you take a better photo?
If you can capture an interesting story or good lighting in your shot, you will often end up with a great photo. If you can get both in one shot, you will have recorded a truly amazing photo!
How to find good lighting?
Entire shelves of libraries are filled with books on lighting theory, but let’s focus on a few basic tips.
First thing you need to do is start noticing the qualities of light around you. For now, let’s say the light’s most important qualities are directionality and temperature (warmth or coolness).
Directionality tells us whether most light is coming from just one pin-point direction (like sun or a streetlight), from few directions (like big window in the room) or from many directions (like overcast sky).
Depending on this apparent size of the source, your photos will create vastly different impressions on the viewer. It’s best to start being aware of these different sizes of your sources and noticing how they influence the emotions and atmosphere of the photos depending on your subject.
An amazing photographer once gave me a tip that opened my eyes: shoot with a black & white preview on the LCD (regardless of whether you actually capture photo in color). Removing distracting colors will make it much easier for you to see the quality of light itself.
It’s way beyond the scope of this post to start explaining the details here, but I will mention that shooting people generally favors less directional light as it avoids ugly shadows on their faces (e.g. big window nearby, or cloudy sky), while urban or natural landscapes will often look much more interesting with very directional light precisely because there will be shadows giving the scene a more dynamic look (like direct sunlight from a lower angle).
In travel photography we can rarely choose our lighting, so focus on one thing you can somewhat control — the angle of the light. This is most important for pin-point sources (like sun) and your basic method of control is simple – time. Sun is moving from low to high to low, so picking your angle comes down to waiting for the right time of day.
Shooting a portrait when the sun is high above you will produce deep and unappealing shadows under eyes and nose of your subject. Since you can’t flatten out the face, most flattering portraits happen when the sun goes low, which is just after sunrise or just before sunset. It’s hard to limit yourself to shooting only very early or late in the day, so generally, avoiding mid-day sun will already help. For those truly spectacular portraits, wait for those two magical periods (also called golden hours).
This brings us to second important quality of light — warmth and coolness, or simply temperature. If we ignore artificial light sources, sun at noon is a pretty neutral white, by definition. This gives the colors their true tone and definition, but as travel photographers, we don’t really care about that. We’re after that certain appeal in photos and it turns out most people react well to slightly warmer photos.
Due to how our sky filters sun’s white light, the warmest light is during the aforementioned golden hours — roughly one hour after dawn and one hour before sunset. This is very lucky because that is the exact period when sun is at its lowest point, illuminating subjects in a very direct and often interesting way — whether you’re shooting people, streets or mountains, you will get that extra wow effect!
How do you tell a story and offer some context?
Start by not focusing just on your subject. What’s happening may be obvious to you, the photographer, at this point in time, but will it be clear to someone who wasn’t there looking at the photo two years down the line?
Imagine you want to photograph a street player in downtown Buenos Aires. Obvious thing to do would be to push through the gathered crowd, frame him dead-on and take a shot. That shot, however, would be dry and taken out of context.
Ask yourself, what’s the story you want to convey?
In this case, it’s probably the whole experience of a foreign city, on a street filled with music and spectators. So why not include all that in the shot from the beginning? Go wide, hold your camera above your head and capture the street player through other spectators. It will be a much more revealing photo.
After that, go close and shoot an interesting detail. Maybe his face in the passion of singing, or his callused hand on the strings of the guitar. This, too, will add to the story and context.
Beginners too often focus on details and huge zooms, but details by themselves don’t tell much. It’s good to start wide and start telling your story from the beginning.
Another good idea to play with is shooting your subject through something else that’s relevant to the story and which will remain in a blurry foreground, but still recognizable. It will add to the story because it’s similar to how you’ve seen things while you were there!
In the above example, those were the blurry silhouettes of spectators around the street player. Or, you may want to shoot an amazing waterfall in the jungle. Why not shoot it through a bit of vegetation that surrounds it, so that the leaves on the periphery of the photo reveal the majestic waterfall in the middle?
It’s representative of the most basic of stories — walking up to something — so it will be instantly familiar to the viewer. As you get more skilled, you’ll find creative ways of varying this in many interesting ways. Another good way to start taking better photos and stories is asking yourself a few questions each time you feel itch in your trigger finger.
For example: Why am I shooting this? What is the story or feeling I want to convey? Do I see myself ever looking at this photo again a year or two later? Does this photo have a place in the narrative of my travel or my life?
If your answers to these questions aren’t clear, then don’t shoot it until you figure it out! To get better, it’s important to filter signal from the noise and focus your efforts and creativity on few shots that matter, instead of dispersing them over many hundreds of photos.
Overshooting has truly spread in today’s world of ubiquitous smartphone cameras. What’s the first thing you see people do when literally anything starts happening? They take out their phones, of course, never thinking whether there’s any point in capturing it or what they might do with those shots later on. It’s become a sort of a reflex response.
Most of us have phones with thousands of shots — unculled, unedited and often not backed up anywhere — where after a few days we couldn’t find a photo we’re looking for if our lives depended on it. So what’s the point in having shot them at all, instead of simply having enjoyed and truly experienced that moment?
Don’t get me wrong; once you find something really worth capturing, feel free to go crazy shooting, varying your approach, angle and distance. That’s how you learn what works and what doesn’t!
Including friends and family in your shots
I think the days of including yourself or your travel partner into each and every shot are long gone (or at least, they should be). Travel is affordable enough that we don’t need to constantly prove we’ve actually been in front of the Great pyramid, the Eiffel tower or the Victoria falls.
This is why I shoot slightly differently during our trips. Most of the time, I simply record what I see. If my wife happens to be in the shot, spontaneously doing whatever it is she’d been doing (usually admiring the view), cool. If not, no need to stop her each and every time to pose.
Including people in your photos in this way is much more beneficial for storytelling and sometimes offers additional insights, like a sense of scale. Ever seen a person underneath a huge waterfall or in front of a pyramid? It helps illustrate how mindbogglingly huge some things are, and it’s really not necessary that the person is looking into the camera and smiling.
Staring in awe at the majestic waterfall with mouth agape tells me much more than a forced pose staring into the camera.
In rare exceptions I will simply see a shot where I feel a person will bring something extra to it even posed. It may be a beautiful portrait of your family lit by last rays of sunset, your spouse inside an interesting building, your friend on a forest path or your kid in front of a piece of street art. I just go by feeling and it’s perfectly fine as long as you don’t force it every time.
Finally, if you’re shooting your family, allow for some interaction between them instead of having them say ‘Cheese!’ every time. A good trick is to pretend you’re fiddling with settings so they get back into their usual routine (kids being kids, for example) and then snap a surprising candid shot. Photos where people are being themselves are much more valuable then posed photos 20 years down the line.
Including yourself into photos
Selfie sticks are soooo yesterday! I say that tongue-in-cheek, but the fact is that with selfie stick you always get the same basic shot — same people, same framing, usually same pose and smiles — only backgrounds change.
Selfie sticks are great for shooting people, but where most people go wrong is when they themselves become a constant foreground in each and every shot.
Asking strangers to shoot you is slightly better, but you’re basically putting everything into hands of random people you find on the street who probably just want to get the shot over with and get on with their lives. Not a good recipe for beautiful photos.
The best results will require most effort, like everything in life, and that’s a tripod for your phone or camera. Phone tripods fit in your pocket (I carry a credit card sized one in my wallet!) and ultra-small tripods with bendable legs will be enough to support most cameras, even smaller DSLRs. Many of them cost next to nothing and they’re small and light so you’ll never notice them until they’re needed!
The dream scenario is one of the many bluetooth or WiFi enabled cameras on a small tripod with accompanying app that will let you see the shot in real time, pick your focus and snap as many shots as you wish, with yourself included. No timers and no running back to pose. Instead you get a predictable framing, reliable focus and instant image review.
Including strangers in your travel photos
Street photographers capturing people have different approaches, depending on what they want to do with those photos later on.
If you’re shooting strictly for yourself and have no commercial use in mind (like selling stock photos), in most countries it’s perfectly legal to shoot a stranger on a public place without explicit consent. (You may want to verify this for more exotic countries, though)
How people may react to that usually depends on the size of your camera. We’ve all been almost completely desensitized to people snapping photos with their phones and this is exactly what you’ll find travelling around. However, take a big black DSLR with huge lens out of your bag and people will start taking notice.
One approach to fix this is approaching people and asking for permission, but this will almost certainly ruin the moment.
My approach is using common sense and good manners. If a person looks unthreatening, I will often smile, point my camera and click, doing it slow enough so the person can look away if (s)he doesn’t want to be photographed, but quick enough not to ruin the moment if (s)he’s okay with it.
Phones, compact and mirrorless cameras have an advantage here because they allow use of the screen to frame and take the shot, which means your face is not completely covered with the camera (as when looking through the viewfinder). This makes it easier to smile, establish eye-contact and rapport with your subject, even for just a few seconds.