The Beginner’s Guide to Travel Photography: Capturing the Spirit

So you’ve finally landed in (insert destination of your choice here) and you’re ready to give your camera a workout (in my case, a Canon Rebel XSi). Shooting in far-flung locations can be an inspiring and invigorating experience – but it also comes with some unique challenges. You have to keep the photographic in mind all the while attempting to get your bearings in check, which can range from which direction to go to converting currency to staying safe as both a foreigner and a photographer. This challenge is compounded when you want to get shots of people. This is, however, arguably the most compelling and telling way to capture the spirit of a place.

Selecting Subjects

Choosing who you want to take a picture of usually means a bit of planning and a bit of luck. On the planning side, certain times and places are especially ripe to witness unique scenes with people. These can include holidays, festivals, and markets. Planning and having done some background research on locations you want to hit up can definitely help you find interesting subjects and unique cultural customs. Other times, it’s just a matter of being in the right spot at the right moment. You can also utilize your other senses as a guidance too – be aware of not only what you see, but what you hear and smell as that can lead you to some interesting spots. While I was traveling last year through Southeast Asia, I was constantly on the lookout for scenes showing local life, while also seeking out the not so everyday (as in the photo below of a procession during the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket, Thailand):

Approaching Subjects

In some situations, you want to approach your subject before pressing the shutter. This depends on individual circumstances, and you have to feel out each situation and trust your gut on this. Sometimes interrupting a moment will ruin the shot; other times, interaction with someone will open up a shot that would not have been possible otherwise. If you want to get a photo of a child, it’s best that you get consent from a family member though not possible in every instance. When and where there is a language barrier, simply pointing to your camera and making hand gestures usually gets the question across. Most of the time, people love having their photograph taken. I’ve found that even those who are a little camera shy will open up if you approach them in a friendly way and are honest about your intentions. If you have time, it’s also great to let the subjects see the picture on the camera’s review screen. Before you actually land at your destination, it’s also a good idea to read up on etiquette related to photography. Some people do not want their photos taken for cultural or religious reasons and others feel increasingly exploited by camera toting tourists, so best to be aware in advance. I approached the women watching these two children in a village in northern Thailand and got the the go ahead to take the kids’ photos.



Using photography techniques that can say something about where you are and who the subject is can be very useful. Paying close attention to the background as well as details like clothes and textures can add another dimension of interest and artistry. Take advantage of the effects different apertures lend themselves to. Also shooting a series that tells a story can be an effective way to really show particularities about where you are. This may entail in-depth research, testing your patience or returning to the same place multiple times. If you don’t have a ton of time, at least try to get a wide range of shots. For instance, detailed, close-up shots of someone as well as wider ones that show the environment and provide some context. While wandering through a market on the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I got some wide shots to show the busyness of this street market, as well as this one:

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