Travel Photography 101

Travel photography can provide some of the most inspiring and intriguing imagery. Photographs trigger our memories, help us to illustrate a story, and show us a sense of place. When we travel, those memories can often seem richer, more vibrant, and more significant to us than when we are at home.

First impressions aren’t something that we only get when we meet new people. Each minute impression that you get from seeing a new country, a new town, or a new restaurant is something that you can express visually. When you travel (or play tourist at home), what are your first impressions of the place? What colors, scents, or sounds stand out? Each of these experiences can be expressed through the visual medium of photography.

When you hear the sound of horse hooves clacking against cobblestone streets or the deep horn of a passing ship in the sea, you can bring those memories and experience to life through your imagery. When you smell fresh baked bread wafting down a street, or feel the warmth of the sand beneath your feet, each of these moments tells a story and creates a sense of place. Bringing that sense of place through to your photography is what makes a travel image a lasting moment, rather than a fleeting snap shot, and your memories will be so much more vibrant for it. Not only is it important to capture the literal look of a place in travel photography, but for strong and memorable imagery, capturing the ambiance is important as well.


Knowing your place first

Before any trip, even one that you plan to do spontaneously, doing a bit of research to understand the customs and traditions is helpful. Photographers working for editorial publications will always do their research to know key items about a location before they arrive.

It is always important as a photographer to “gain access” for the best shots. Access can mean many things, but the more you know about a culture and the friendlier you are, the more doors (figuratively and literally) will open for you. Some of the most incredible photographs happen because you took a moment to say “hello” to a stranger, and they welcomed you to their world.

Knowing niceties in another language can always be useful, and knowing how to not offend in another culture will put everyone more at ease. Learning how to say, “please,” “thank you,” “Where is the bathroom?” and “This meal is excellent!” in another language has gotten me seamlessly though hundreds of trips with a smile.

Contemplate these questions and let them guide your photography:

  • What made you go to this place?
  • What season are you in? Is there something that only occurs during this time of year? How can you photograph the seasonality of your visit? Is there snow? Fallen leaves, or blooming flowers?
  • How is this place similar to your home and how is it different? Can you illustrate these differences and similarities in a visual way? Try to look intelligential, thoughtfully, and thoroughly, and truly see what makes this spot so unique.

When you arrive, notice your first impressions and write them down. Use this list as a preliminary checklist for your photography. What is the temperature, what do you smell, what can you hear, what can you feel? Capturing a photograph to illustrate each of your five senses will set your imagery apart.

What you see can be anything from shapes and colors to specific architecture, to people dressed in a certain way. How is this different from or similar to what you see at home? Show these differences through your imagery and imagine having someone look at your photographs without you there to explain them.

Do you smell hot baked bread? Find the bakery and the baker, offer to purchase a piece, if you can afford it, and take it all in. In many cultures, people have little in the way of money, and offering to purchase something from their shop or street stand is an appreciated gesture when you ask to take a photograph. You are getting something and giving something in return, and that is often greatly appreciated.

What you hear surely comes from something that you can see. Find the source of that sound and make an image. Is it clanging bells? Show those bells in motion to illustrate the idea that they create sound. You can use Shutter Priority (Tv mode on a Canon EOS camera), a slow shutter speed, and a tripod to slow the movement down, which helps visually express the ding-dong of the bells.