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How to Improve Your Travel Photography From Start to Finish

by Wei Xi Luo on 08/01/2014

Grand-Place, Brussels

Grand-Place, Brussels, Belgium

Before, during and after you go on a trip, there are a few things to consider to improve your pictures as a photographer, no matter where the place is. Why do some people seem to get crappy shots, others seem to have loads of postcard shots while some people take off to the beaten path with creative shots? How can I get those iconic shots while still maintaining creative control on what you shoot? Without saying more, here are some ways to improve your travel photography.

Before travelling

12) Identify your main travel purpose

Are you on a photography travel? A business trip? A relaxing vacation with your spouse? A humanitarian trip? Although it might seem trivial and even stupid to answer, it is extremely important to know what your main travel purpose is and plan according to it. Don’t go on a 1 week vacation to Iceland with minimal gear and no tripod. Similarly, don’t ruin that honeymoon with the big L lenses and all your photo gear. Yes, those are extreme examples, but knowing why you are travelling is all about setting your expectations right.

11) Pack only what you need

Similarly to point 12) above, you have to choose what gear to bring according to your travel purpose. Unless it’s mainly a photography trip in some remote area where proper equipment is a must, usually, the lighter your gear is, the better it is. If you’re travelling to a city or urban location, compactness is a must. Although you might (and probably will) pack more, a one body, two lens or two body, two lens combo is usually good enough for travel photography.

10) Plan where you want to shoot

Save yourself some time while travelling by looking at some places where you might end up going. Google is your friend here : people often share their favorite shooting locations on forums and other websites, and knowing where and how to go to these places and make a real difference. For example, before I went to NYC, a quick search told me that one of the best places to get a shot of the skyline of the city is not in Manhattan, but actually in the Brooklyn piers. As a result, I got those MetroCards ready and saved myself a lot of time.

9) Check all your gear before leaving

A no-brainer. Make sure that your batteries, memory cards and chargers are all packed up and checked before hitting the road or the plane. If you forgot them, you might be able to buy them while on travel, but if not, then you’re screwed.

Canadian Parliament

Parliament, Ottawa, Canada

While travelling

8) Get the “postcard” shots first

Typical for travel photography, people often expect you to get the cliché, postcard shots that are iconic to each city. While you might not like the over-photographied postcard shots, your friends and family are expecting you to show these shots to them when you get back. By getting the postcard shots covered first, you are now free to let your creativity take over and shoot for the rest of your trip more creatively.

7) Tour the place like a local

Obviously, tourists often gather in highly crowded places designed for them. But if you wish to improve your travel photography, you’ve got explore like a local too. No, I am not saying that all tourist hotspots are inherently bad and that local neighbourhoods are a must, but you arguably have a much higher chance to take better and more creative pictures in lesser-known places.

6) Shoot in aperture priority mode

For pure manual fans out there, this one might be controversial. Speed and efficiency is king in travel photography, and while modern RAW converters can easily salvage a +- 3EV shot nowadays, if you accidentally forget to adjust your shutter speed while entering a dimly lit room, you’re in trouble. For most of us out there, our camera meters are more than good enough for properly exposed shots. If you absolutely need control over both shutter speed and aperture, “manual” mode with auto-ISO might be a good compromise given how good at noise control recent cameras have been. Leave the full manual mode for panoramas.

5) Find creative angles for compelling pictures

One of the best ways to get better pictures and to improve your travel photography is simply to shoot at different angles and perspectives. Shoot straight up, get down low, shoot diagonally, everything is allowed. You can even use a monopod and use a timer or remote shutter to get on top of a massive crowd (don’t hurt anybody though, haha)!

4) Don’t shoot excessively

Pretend that you are shooting with a film camera (or shoot using one for real). With only 24/36 exposures per roll, I’m pretty sure that you won’t be spamming that shutter as much as you would do now. Digital does have its advantages by its unlimited frames, allowing you to shoot and experiment without worrying about cost, but there is a line between taking a reasonable amount of pictures at different angles and shameless shutter spamming. If you feel a compulsive need to burst every single time you shoot, than you probably fall into the latter category :P Remember, quality over quantity. By shooting excessively, not only does it teach you bad photo habits, but you will also miss a lot of the experience and enjoyment a trip comes with.

Mont des Arts

Mont des Arts, Brussels, Belgium

After travelling

3) Backup your pictures (twice)

Depending on what you bring, you should preferably even do this while travelling, but when you’re back home, make sure that everything is copied and backed up properly, on at least two separate media, before deleting your pictures from your SD card. With storage this cheap, there are no excuses not to backup your pictures. Accidental deletion and hard drive failures do happen, but you have to make sure that your pictures do not disappear with them!

2) Post-process and show your best

What distinguishes average photographers from good photographers is mainly in their post-processing. Often, beginner photographers either don’t edit their pictures at all, or tend to overdo it. Although there is no exact technique and best look to a specific shot, practice makes perfect. Learn and master your photo editor. Experiment. Although if your picture looks like a squished-up murky HDR, you’ve probably gone (a lot) too far. On the same note, what distinguishes good photographers from great photographers is mainly in what they show. While the good photographer might edit 20 out of 100 shots and show 5 of them to the public, a great photographer might edit 20 out of 100 shots and only show 2 of them to the public. Edit your good shots, and show only the cream of the crop! Remember, no one will judge you for the pictures you didn’t show.

1) Do something with your shots!

Print them. Share them. Make an album out of them. No matter what you are going to do with them, please do something! Yes, some people like photos sitting in their hard drives, but printing your shots is vastly better than viewing them on a computer monitor, especially for large format prints (24 x 36 and higher). Have you ever heard of that photographer who regretted making prints out of his shots? No? No. Then neither will you.


About the guest author: Wei Xi Luo is the founder and owner of the Photograph IO blog here. The blog also has a Twitter page and a Facebook page. If you liked his content, please take a look at his blog!

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