Basic Tips to Better Travel Photography

I’m not a photography expert but I’m fast turning into a serious photography enthusiast. Sometimes I look back at my previous travel photography and I can’t help but cringe – what was I thinking I have to wonder… It’s not all bad, but a lot of it could be better (it can always be better).

As I’ve learnt more about taking photos I’ve learnt that there are some pretty basic aspects which can really improve your results; regardless of the technology you’re using. These are my basic tips to better travel photography; applicable  to all cameras from the iPhone to high end digital SLR’s.

1. Purpose/Goal

When you take a photo there is normally a reason you want to. You’ve seen an interesting person, you want to show that you were at the Eiffel Tower, a lion is emerging from the thicket… There are so many reasons to take photos, the trick to good photography is making sure the photo properly portrays your purpose/goal/vision.

Before you press that shutter give a moments thought to what you’re trying to capture; is the essence of your idea within the frame? When you understand your goal/purpose you can then use the following tips to better capture your ideas.

2. Composition

Almost all tips for better photography will talk about composition and for good reason; good composition can be as simple as adjusting where you point your camera and it can turn an average shot into an amazing one.

Composition is about including everything that adds value to your photo and not including stuff that detracts value. It is about emphasising your subject and capturing the purpose of the shot. It is about how your eye looks at a photo, how it takes in the detail and whether your brain perceives it as pleasing or not so pleasing. Composition is so important, fortunately there are some pretty simple ‘rules of composition’ which will take you a long way toward shooting better travel photography.

Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is derived from research into how people look at photos; it has been found that the human eye does not instinctively look at the centre of a picture but tracks toward one third intersections. The rule of thirds states that you should place your subject of interest (where you want people to look) on an intersection of horizontal and vertical lines spaced in thirds.

The rule of thirds can be applied to many aspects in your image to improve your composition, not just the main subject. In the landscape photo below I’ve placed the horizon on the bottom third rather than in the centre as is so common. If taking a landscape shot of a sunset (sky is most interesting) you should generally aim to place the horizon on the bottom third, conversely if you’re shooting a river it would make sense to place your horizon on the top third.

Leading Lines
Good use of ‘leading lines’ composition is about drawing the viewers eye to your subject. A line of some sort, whether straight or twisted, from the edge of your composition to your subject can lead the eye to what is important. A common example is the use of roads to lead your eye into the picture to the point of interest. Lines that lead your eye to the subject (and stop) are called ‘leading lines’ and these are encouraged while lines that run to your subject and continue on past can carry attention away from your subject. Lines can also influence the mood of your image. Vertical lines convey power, horizontal lines convey peace and diagonal lines generally convey a sense of motion. This is all simplified and I wouldn’t worry about whether a handrail in your frame is powerful or peaceful but it can help to think of lines in your composition and how a viewers eye may follow them.

Foreground Interest
Sometimes scenery which appears amazing can seem kind of dull when photographed. This is often an issue caused by the scenery being large (all over the image) and your eye not having a particular point to focus on. An easy solution is to photograph something of interest in the foreground; a rock, a tree or even a person… An element of interest which is close to the camera (in the foreground) can give the viewers eye something to return to as it explores the expansive background and makes the viewing experience more pleasing.

Frames can also have a similar effect – framing your subject with a doorway, window, canopy of trees or anything else which creates a natural picture frame around your subject.

3. Exposure

If you are using a point and shoot camera, correct exposure and focus will be less of an immediate concern than if you are using a digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera. That said, it is always good to know what correct exposure looks like and from here you can learn how to best use your camera to achieve it. Correctly exposing your image is about showing proper detail – you can lose detail by over exposing (too bright) or under exposing (too dark) parts of your image. Sometimes it is impossible to correctly expose all of your image (without selectively enhancing part of your image in software, or taking multiple images and combining them with software – like Photoshop) in which case you should aim to correctly expose your main subject.

Be aware when composing your image of aspects which will over expose (when correct exposure is found on a darker subject) like white objects, light bulbs or sand/snow in bright sunlight. If possible avoid capturing these in your photo altogether, but particularly on the edges as the human eye will tend to track over to bright objects (distracting from your subject).

Check in your camera manual for ‘exposure compensation’ which will allow you to adjust (up or down) the exposure level determined by your camera’s sensor. Decreasing your exposure compensation for instance will bring out more detail in the sky on bright days.

Mouse over image for the original photo I took (Background badly over exposed)

4. Use of Colour

Colour is complicated – especially for someone such as myself without an artistic background. Psychologically colours can arouse different emotions (red is intense while blue is more tranquil) and together they can complement each other or contrast (in dramatic or displeasing ways). Be aware of colour in your photography and try and determine if the colours complement each other or contrast. Does it emphasise your subject and help portray your purpose or is it distracting and detrimental?

5. Understanding Light

Good photography is all about the light. The intensity, the angle, the tint/colour, the direction and the number of sources. Great outdoor photos are normally taken at dawn or dusk – when the sun is less intense and lower; shadows are softer, brightness of the sky and ground are more even allowing better overall exposure and it is less likely that the image will appear washed out. As a general guide try to take your most important outdoor photos in the morning or afternoon and avoid midday. If you do find yourself shooting outside in bright sunlight consider using your camera’s flash for foreground subjects – ‘fill flash’ to soften shadows and compensate for the very intense overhead light source (the sun).

Comments

  1. Good tips, Sam. I’m always searching for what random thing I can put in the foreground if my original composition has nothing there.

  2. The Sunflower image is fantastic because foreground as well as background both are clear. How you did that? Photoshop editing or it is as it is. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’d love to ride across India one day, sure you’re having an amazing journey. The foreground and background focus was achieved by setting my camera to a very small aperture (f/11 +) so that as much as possible is in focus. I then focussed on the sunflower. The photo has had some editing in Photoshop, but the focus is how it was taken (plus a little sharpening).

  3. A pretty good tips Sam.. I love photography and this is very useful for me, much appreciated.. Thanks! :)