Travel is a genre that has almost universal appeal; we all love going on vacation and "better holiday photos" is the joint top reason people have when I teach new photographers. It can also be tricky to give universal advice because everyone approaches holidays in a different way. I could do a top 10 tips for dedicated photography expeditions and still have some left over for a family vacation! With this in mind I've outlined the top 10 things I always do when I travel and keep in mind to maximise my chances of getting great shots. I hope they work for you too!
Note - this post doesn't talk about specific gear. Everyone shoots with different kit & different styles so it's pointless recommending specific lenses or cameras. Instead, in a later post, I will talk about some of my own must-have travel kit.
Research, Prepare, Plan
Do all the research, preparation & planning you possibly can before your trip.
This is flat out the best advice I can give, regardless of whether you want great travel photos or not!
I start by planning out the major places, people and sights I want to visit. I also keep an eye out for special events like public holidays or festivals that might be happening during the trip too - these can be great ways to meet locals and get some good street/portrait shots. Once I've broadly planned out my trip I go back & break things down, going into much more detail. The goal is to find the lesser known facts & features about where you are going. I look for things I can easily fit into my main vacation schedule alongside the main evemts. I look for landscape locations I can easily reach from my hotel and use an app on my phone to calculate blue/golden hours & sunrise/sunset times (The Photographer's Ephemeris - get it, it's great). I plan out everything I think might be worth my time in a little notebook and draft up a rough timeline.
My award-winning fire-breather photographs (above) were 100% the product of forward planning & research! The visit to the Singapore Night Safari was the main event; investigating in more depth I discovered the fire-breathers would be performing. I then had time to pack the right gear & research how to photograph fire - this meant I was able to start shooting immediately without having to figure out how to expose correctly on the fly.
This has been a long first tip but it's because I think it's so important. Better planning means more time shooting, more keepers and better photos.
Don't Pack Light - Pack Right
Most photography sites offer the banal advice to "pack light". This is crap to be honest - overly simplistic garbage :)
The trick to getting the most from your travel is to pack what you need balanced with what your trip allows. This doesn't always mean packing every lens you own but sometimes it might! For example, I spent just over a week travelling around Myanmar, an 1800km round circlecovering Rangoon, Bagan, Mandalay and the remote Inle Lake. I packed almost my entire collection of cameras, lenses, cards, filters and a tripod. I wasn't exactly packing light but I knew I would definitely use each item and I was travelling in cars & vans. What's the harm in having your gear with you when you aren't physically carrying them? Had I been hiking around it might have been a different story but if you pack right you know that you will have exactly what you need, when you need it. Not packing your 600mm lens when you're on safari because it's a bit heavy is just stupid but carrying it around on a walking tour of the Vatican is just as stupid!
Cut Out Clichés
Silhouetted backpackers. A triumphant mountaineer pointing into the middle distance. Monochrome driftwood on a monochrome beach. Intense, contrasty, HDR portraits of old people. Anything to do with train tracks/rooftopping...
All of these are tired, overused and in the case of the latter, idiotically stupid. Unless you're shooting stock photography, just don't do it. They are the types of image everyone has seen before and no one really bothers to look at.
Use your imagination... you're better than these cliches! :)
Make More Than Postcards
Everywhere we visit has the classic scenes; the iconic landscapes, famous monuments and colourful characters. These vistas are a large part of why we visit somewhere in the first place but don't focus all your attention shooting the textbook shots - unless you are supremely lucky, the light & conditions are unlikely to be better than the images you've seen already. Why waste precious time on your travels trying to replicate an image someone else has already made?
Don't misunderstand - I'm not suggesting you go and ignore the highlights because they've all been photographed before. Get those shots in the bank quickly then spend more of your time looking for new angles and different scenes. Classic photos will be fine for friends, family and Facebook but if you want something that stands out and stands a chance of winning competitions, find unusual twists on familiar scenes or even better, find new & unique ones!
Try A Guide
Even before I was a photographer this was something I'd do as much as I could while travelling. Having a local expert with you in the field is the perfect complement to your pre-trip research. Not only does it make the travel experience more comfortable, especially in some of the harder to reach regions but local guides really come into their own though is helping you get off the tourist trail.
You need to choose your guide carefully and explain what you are looking for but once you find a good guide they can take you to places that the majority of tourists will miss. There is no substitute for local knowledge and a good guide will get you to locations and introduce you to people that give you the edge when it comes to having memorable experiences and producing some outstanding photographs.
It's also nice to contribute directly to the local communities too & supporting a local guide will do just that.
Talk To People, Photograph People
It's a good rule of thumb for any photography... people like looking at pictures of other people. Famous landmarks & landscapes can be interesting but can sometimes feel like little more than "I was there" images, even when they are technically excellent. If you can capture the culture & spirit of a place through the people you see & meet you will get better photographs and be able to tell better stories. Including people in your landscapes adds a sense of scale, especially if they feel like part of the landscape. When your picture can tell a story rather than simply "show a thing" you are onto a winner.
Make Time To Explore - Get Lost!
You have done your planning, you've finished a long day of exploring with your guide. What next?
I always make the time to go out and explore on my own, without any particular destination - except maybe a decent place to eat at the end of the night - and see what I find! Whether it's jumping on a tuk tuk, hopping into your hire-car for a drive or simply going for a walk, exploring without an agenda and watching daily life can be relaxing and awesome photo fodder!
Stay safe and use common sense though, I generally do this only when I have a feel for a place and I know the neighbourhoods I'm exploring aren't dangerous. Another good reason to have a guide - you can ask!
Backup. Then Backup Again!
This one is simple and should hopefully be obvious - backup your photos frequently. Although I have never had cards fail while on an assignment I have had a personal card fail, thankfully AFTER backing up, and the though of losing gigabytes of images is enough t make any photography sick.
Nowadays I take enough high capacity memory cards so that I never need to wipe them before the end of a trip, generally four 64gb cards is more than enough. For backup, if it's a "safe" location where the weight of my gear is irrelevant I take my laptop which lets me backup direct to Lightroom and again to my cloud accounts. Where I can't guarantee my destination has decent internet, or I need to travel light, I use a WD Passport hard drive. This allows me to backup an SD card directly onto the drive and I can view the images from my phone. Even if I don't have my phone the system works a treat.
Finally, I always keep one copy of the images on me at all times, especially while out-and-about, and usually have the SD cards in a small, discreet pouch. Simple solutions to avoid a catastrophic problem.
Write a Travel Journal
Although posting your photos online can be a good way to share or memorialise your travel, personally I always create a photo-book for my major vacations. This means producing more than just photographs - every evening I make a few notes on things I've done that day, especially anything that has a good story to go with it. How did you feel when looking at a landscape, how does the place smell? Write down everything you can. Sometimes I don't get around to processing my holiday images for weeks or months later and being able to go back to notes can often help me choose the best way to process each photo.
Take this example - flying home from Myanmar I knew we would have clear skies and little light pollution. I set out to try to photograph the Milky Way from a moving plane! To do it, I needed to create a cocoon of coats and blankets around the window & another around myself to remove as much glare as possible from the cabin lights. Next I needed to press my camera as hard against the window as I dared - even shooting at ridiculously high ISO it needed a shutter speed of at least 3 seconds. Using a bag as a makeshift tripod helped a little. With my little setup in place I began shooting. It was very hit and miss, even the slightest motion of the plane or my hand would ruin the shot. I was also increasingly aware of the people behind me starting to get very curious and maybe even a little worried about what I was doing. I don't blame them, I looked pretty weird! I made a big display and loudly showed my wife the results so my fellow passengers and passing cabin crew could see what I was doing to allay any fears!
In the end it was pure luck I captured the Milky Way and a lightning strike in the same image but the story behind it is compelling.
Write down your experiences; they will make good photos more compelling and make for better memories.
Know Your Craft
This final point covers a number of things, all of which are important, about the art & craft of photography.
Obviously the first is to know your gear inside out. Often your time spent on location is limited and you don't want to be faffing around with a new piece of equipment you have heard is just perfect for this type of scene... while the scene itself is passing you by. Use what you know to best effect and you will get better results.
Next, understand what it is you are shooting and be sensitive to it. Naturally if you are shooting wildlife you don't want to running around bellowing like a stuck pig, or interfering with the natural world simply to get a photograph. This applies equally to interacting with people, especially during culturally significant events. You need to understand when it's appropriate to shoot and when to put the camera down - showing this kind of respect will often yield better relationships and opportunities than snapping constantly with no regard for others. Extend the same courtesy to fellow photographers too.
Finally, the very definition of travel means that you are guest of the place you are visiting. Even though you may have paid a lot of money for the privilege, never forget that it's a privilege and act accordingly.
i hope these tips are useful for you and I will follow it up soon with some gear recommendations. I would love to hear your own tips in the comments below/on Facebook or drop me a mail!
All images either free stock images or the author's own work.