For as long as I can remember, I have pored over travel magazines, Lonely Planet guides, and coffee table books to dream of faraway places. Visual stories of sailing the Nile, crossing Europe on a high-speed train, and hiking to Machu Picchu are permanently on my mind. I often thought if there was one thing in the world I’d want to do, it would be travel photography.
In 2017, I finally took the leap and bought my first ‘real’ camera, quit my corporate job in finance, and left for a backpacking trip around Europe. I had no idea how to take the photos that I wanted, but I knew I could figure it out along the way. It took thousands of photos and many hours of practice and studying. Now, however, I finally feel that I can capture my vision. Now, after four years of learning and perfecting, here are my seven tips for improving your photography.
1. Keep It Simple
Figuring out how to start taking photos can feel overwhelming. When I began learning photography, I had no clue what kind of camera to get, how to create Instagram-worthy photos, or where to even begin with everything. Fast forward — there have now been many countries and tens of thousands of photos — I can confidently say that it’s not the gear that makes a good photo–it’s you. Give yourself the time and freedom to experiment, practice, and fail. Great photographs can be taken on an iPhone or a professional Canon setup. What matters is making the most of the gear you have and putting yourself in the ideal situation to get the shot.
Personally, I found that bulky gear and huge zoom lenses got in the way of gaining confidence when I was trying to learn. The smaller and more discreet the camera at first, the better. You just have to get out on the streets and take photos. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to get started. Keep it simple. Being light on your feet is also a bonus to extended travel!
2. Time Your Shot
Most people know that sunrise and sunset are the best lighting conditions to create great photos. At first, I was skeptical of this and didn’t pay too much attention to it. I just tried to take photos whenever I could, and a lot of times, that was in the middle of the day. But eventually, midday light can feel flat and lacking in dimension. The soft light at the beginning and end of the day can add a visual element to your photos. This helps them stand out and draw the viewer in. Making a point to wake up early and stay out a bit later can make all the difference in creating okay photos versus great photos.
3. A Travel Photography Secret: Get in Close
The one piece of advice that had the most impact on me as a photographer is this: If you don’t like your photos, get in closer. One definite subject should be obvious to the viewer right away. Getting in closer to capture only fresh peaches in a market in Georgia or a hand-kneading pizza dough in Italy can add an element of intrigue and suspense.
Landscapes and cityscapes are great, but a lot of times, viewers can get lost in the sauce. We’ve all seen photos of the Eiffel Tower, but what if you got in close and showed certain architectural details that aren’t highlighted so frequently? Getting closer helps to tell the story and keep the viewer guessing. Details are remembered and bring out special qualities in a place. Pick a particular door in San Miguel de Allende or one statue in a temple in Bali rather than one shot showing the entire scene. These photos will have a lot more meaning to you years down the line. They’ll also make it possible for you to get multiple shots in one sitting.
4. Slow Down
Creating movement and a sense of time is key for travel photography. One way to do this is by slowing down your shutter speed and capturing a moving object against a stationary background. People riding mopeds in Vietnam or someone walking through a beautiful space creates a sense of time and place. This makes your photo unique and unable to be replicated. That scene, exactly as you saw it, will likely never happen again. In the age of bucket list shots on Instagram, creating different and unique imagery will really make your work stand out.
5. Opt for VSCO or Lightroom
The best apps to edit your photos on the road are VSCO and Lightroom. I personally started with VSCO and still use it to this day because of their filters. They have so many options, and the app allows you to manipulate the filters to your liking. Lightroom is great for the fine touches and editing photos as is but doesn’t provide filters that will transform your photos right away. You would have to spend more time working in it to develop preset filters for yourself. For beginners, start with VSCO. For intermediate photographers, try to graduate to Lightroom and edit your images from start to finish.
6. Get Off the Beaten Path
I think it’s safe to say that scrolling through Instagram makes us feel like we have to take the same bucket list photos as everyone else. I mean, there’s a reason certain photos are so popular—the scenery is stunning! But at this point, going to the same location and replicating the travel photography you’ve seen is the easy way out. You will not feel any sense of satisfaction afterward.
What is rewarding is venturing even just a tiny bit off the beaten path and discovering a unique scene for yourself. This takes an extra 30 minutes, but the photos can end up being your favorite shots for years to come. Instead of taking the shortest route to the Trevi Fountain, take the side streets. You’ll discover more authentic day-to-day scenes and maybe even the best gelato of your trip from a small family-run spot that’s a local secret. Those photos will be memorable.
7. Photograph What You Love
Lastly, the most important thing to focus on is capturing what you love and what grabs your attention. Love food? Great, work on capturing your favorite meals in good lighting, highlighting the special details and ambiance. Love mountainscapes? Go and take photos of mountains as frequently as possible. Love architecture? Explore your own city and backyard to get some practice in before hitting the road. Capturing what you personally love ensures that you don’t get burnt out. It also helps you continue to put in the time and effort to get better.
Trial and Error
Photography requires an endless curiosity for seeing the world and a love affair with learning. Today, I can take pictures that I love, and yes, I still take photos that I want to delete instantly! The most important thing we can do is show up and practice. Try new techniques, editing methods, and lighting scenarios. Make sure to focus on capturing what you love and find interesting. There is always room for improvement, but the best thing we can do is get out in the field and put the time in. The photos aren’t going to take themselves!