Have you ever taken a vacation and then come back home and start editing your photos and wished you were able to get better photos? As you start looking at them and remembering your trip, you’ll often realize what made a bad photo amounted to one simple idea, composition. It is not so much about what equipment you are using, I have taken some memorable photos with my iPhone, but framing, composition and some creativity will make a huge improvement in your travel photography.
In this article, I’ll share simple composition ideas with you as well as some other travel photography tips I use when I travel.
1. Rule of Thirds
Without a doubt, this is the single most important rule you can use when composing your images. I know, there will be hardcore photographers that will dispute this rule and I agree, all rules in photography are made to be broken. But let me explain a little bit about how this rule will help you, then once you master it, then you can start breaking it.
Let me break this down into a couple of areas, because there is a lot going on in this simple grid.
Don’t put your subject in the center of the frame.
Many people place their friends or family in the center of the frame, often covering up what is in the background. Those little red circles are a reminder not to do this. You want to try and place your subject at one of these intersecting points. Simply use your feet to adjust your framing, you don’t have to make people move.
When I shot this photo of a shopkeeper enjoying his lunch in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I had less than a second to frame it in my mind, put the camera to my eye and take the photo and be gone. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by getting his attention, but I had already had the rule of thirds and framing figured out in my head.
So you may ask, why place him on the right intersecting point vs. the left? Well, that takes me to my next point.
Whenever you take photos of people, whatever direction they are looking, you want to place them opposite of the direction they are looking or facing. So in the example above, because he is facing to the left of frame, I put him on the right, so there is lots of negative space in front of him. So remember to always place your subject opposite the direction they are facing to make a more pleasing photo.
What if they are looking straight ahead you may ask? Then this would be a good time to break that rule and put them in the center of the frame. If you remember Steve McCurry’s famous photo of the Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula. He placed her in the center of the frame as she looked directly into the camera. Perhaps he would have had some negative space if she was looking more into the frame.
The photo above of the little girl in Mto wa Mbu village in Tanzania is also another example of me breaking the rule.
So how do the vertical lines come into play? Any object, scene or person that has to dominate vertical lines, you’ll want to place them off to the right or left as seen in the example above. This is a tulip growing out of a tree and is the dominant subject in the photograph. Other vertical subjects might be a waterfall, tree, sailboat mast, etc.
Many people when taking landscape photos, will put the horizontal line of the horizon in the middle of the frame. But there is a better way, and that is, of course, to use the rule of thirds again, by placing the horizon on the upper or lower horizontal line.
In the example of above of the Catamaran I shot in the British Virgin Islands, you can see where I placed not only the horizontal line where the sky and water meet, but the vertical line of the mast as well.
This photo also brings up my last point with the rule of thirds. Whatever direction an object is facing or moving, such as a car, boat, train, etc., you always want to place it, so it is moving into negative space. If this boat were facing towards the right of frame, I would have placed it on the left of the frame.
This also works with people as well, especially those that are running or moving should always move into the frame. Tracy and I were in Maui and one day a kiteboarder started playing offshore, and I thought it would be a perfect time to shoot as I had never had the opportunity to do so. Without even thinking all my shots always had him facing into the frame such as the example above.
I like the photo so much, I even created a fake magazine cover and sent it to the Kiteboarder, Gian.
Turn on the Grid For Better Composition
If you have an iPhone, you can turn on this grid by going into Settings>Camera >Grid
On an Android tap on Camera>Settings(Gear Icon)>Grid Lines
Instagram also has the grid available anytime you add a photo to publish. Use this to align your photos for the best composition.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of what the Rule of Thirds is all about, when to use it and why it works so well. I would like your feedback on this first tip, the Rule of Thirds, for those of you that are just learning photography. I know for all you advanced shooters, there are a thousand different ways to break this rule.
2. Don’t Wish a Photo Away
How many times have you wished you had taken a photo? I used to do that all the time until I made the decision that I would never “Wish a Photo Away”. What you have to understand when you travel, is most opportunities are at the moment, and you have to take them as they present themselves. Sometimes in the back of our minds, we think we might come back to a location while we are on vacation but rarely does that happen. You have to just take the photo and not wish that you had.
A couple of years ago I was travelling in Africa, heading to the Serengeti from the Ngorongoro Crater. Our driver was driving about 50 miles an hour along a washboard road, giving us a “Maasai Massage” as we called it because the road was so bumpy. Up ahead I saw three boys who were painted as Maasai warriors. I had seen a few like this before as we drove and regretted not stopping. But this time, I told our guide Gabby to stop, I wanted to take pictures of them and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. The photo above was the result of that stop and is now a 30×40″ canvas to help me to remember that I always need to take the shot.
Check out our other Africa Portraits post where I did they same on another trip to Tanzania. We were able to interact with four Maasai and have them climb a tree for us to get some great portraits.
Take that photo when you have the opportunity, don’t let it be the one that got away because maybe you were too shy to interact with a local or thought you might be able to come back to a location.
3. Slow Down and Experience the City and People
I remember the days when I travelled, where I had to see as much as I could of a country. I would head to a city, spend a day there then off to the next place so I could check it off my bucket list. Those days are over as I learned that as a photographer, it is better to spend multiple days in a location to get a feel for the rhythm of the city ultimately allowing you to take better photos.
I’ll give you an example of this. I decided to go to Istanbul and the suggestion of my Son. He spent some time in Istanbul and spoke highly of the city and knew I would like it because of my interest in photography. I did a lot of research on the city and ran across a great photo of the Taksim Trolley in the snow. So I knew I needed to head over to Taksim Square to capture the trolley. The problem was the weather was not cooperating, and It rained each time I went over there. My photos were boring, and I was a bit frustrated. Having eight days in Istanbul, I figured I would get some keeper of a shot, but I needed to be patient. After two days of shooting in that area, I decided that maybe nighttime would be best and the rain would create some great reflections. So the night I went, it quite raining so no reflections, but for whatever reason, I felt more relaxed shooting the area and realized that nighttime, the shopping district came alive. The image above was one that I was finally happy with, especially with the lady in the trolley, connecting with the viewer of the picture. The additional time spent in the city allowed me the opportunity to get not only this photo, but some other wonderful images while in Istanbul.
Here is another, every day I would go to the Galata Bridge in Istanbul and try to take photos of a fisherman who cast a line from the bridge. But the fisherman are very aware of your camera and its hard to get a good photo that might make a compelling portrait. For two days this gentleman was on the bridge fishing but had no interest in giving me a good opportunity. On the third day, he seemed more relaxed after having seen me the previous days, I presume. Finally, I was able to get a photo I wanted, by being able to take the time and let things unfold. Only after I got back to the hotel did I realize he was wearing a Microsoft hat, which is funny since I am from Seattle.
So when making your travel plans, if time allows, spend more time at a destination. Don’t try to run to every little village and major city just to say you have been there. Spend time getting to experience your travels like a local. Go to the daily markets, walk in the neighborhoods or perhaps ride a tram to a stop that yo have no idea what is there. This will not only enrich you as a person but improve your photography as well.
4. Learn to Tell A Story
Successful travel photography is being able to create a story with your photographs.
It is always great to create an “Establishing Shot”, like the Eiffel Tower, Space Needle or other famous landmark or location, but don’t forget about the medium and detail shots to tell the story. Chances are many people will have the same photo as you do if it’s a famous landmark, but what else makes this location unique and how you can share that story photographically?
I am always looking for a little bit different angle or detail to help tell my travel story. For example the photo above in a Maasai village, I put the camera close to the ground to get a better view of them starting a fire. By doing this, I was also able to get the details of the beads they wear on their ankles and get a close-up shot of the sandals.
Fishermans Terminal in Seattle is a fun place to explore for lots of details and the photo above also incorporated a sign into the image as well. This is another part of telling your story, always take photos of signs. This serves two purposes. First, it helps you remember where you have been and two, if you are in a foreign country, you may forget how to spell the location, and a sign will help you remember the name of the place.
So look for the small details that help you tell your travel story. Don’t miss the establishing shot of where you are at, but the details are what make your detailed story more interesting.
5. Learn Where and How to Focus
Make Sure The Eyes Are in Focus
When taking pictures of people or animals, you want to make sure you set your focus point to the eyes. I have seen photos with sharp noses and blurry eyes and I’ve even done this myself, but you want to be aware that the eyes should always be sharp. Especially if you are taking a portrait, even if it is simple street photography.
Single or Continuous Focus Mode?
I use single focusing mode on my camera 90% of the time. I also only have a single focus point to ensure that I am controlling the cameras focus point. When looking through your viewfinder, if you see multiple boxes light up when you press the shutter button, you know you have multiple focus points turned on. See your camera manual on how to change this.
With a single focus point, I use this spot to focus on the eyes. Many beginning photographers don’t realize when you push the shutter half way down; it locks in the focus if your camera is not in continuous focus mode. Holding down the shutter button half way, you can then reframe your shot, and the focus point will stay. Depress it the rest of the way and it will then take the photo. It will also lock not only the focus but the exposure settings as well. In this mode, there is no continuous focusing after you press the shutter halfway.
With my style of shooting, my focus point is on the right-hand side of the frame as the graphic on the left illustrates. So on this shot of the pirate, I would have focused on his left eye (Since this eye is the closest to the camera) and then reframed it a bit off center to take the photo. If I didn’t maintain pressure on my shutter button after focusing, when I pressed the shutter button again, it would have focused on the background.
When would I use continuos focus mode you may ask? Fast moving objects such as children running or perhaps an animal like a race horse or other fast moving object, you might find continuous focus mode helpful. Your camera will analyze the scene and track it by automatically readjust the focusing. Some consumer model cameras may have a focus lag and cannot always keep up with the moving object, so in this instance, you might want to stick with single focus mode.
With the iPhone and Android, there is an easy way to make sure the eyes are in focus. Just press your finger on the screen on the person’s eye, before you take the photos and the camera will automatically focus on this point. Not only that, but it will also adjust and set the exposure correctly.
Where to focus for Landscapes?
A good rule of thumb for taking landscape photos is to focus about 1/3 of the way up the frame on that first lower horizontal line on the rule of thirds grid. This point is known as the hyperfocal point, and this will insure that both the foreground and background will be in focus. You can also put your camera in landscape mode, which is the icon of the mountain range, to make sure you are in the proper mode when shooting landscapes.
6. Isolate Your Subject From the Background
My style of shooting travel photos has always been to use a shallow depth of field to help my subject pop out from the background.
There are a couple of easy ways to do this.
Switch to Aperture Priority
Most lenses have a sweet spot in the f/5.6 to the f/8 range for sharpness, and this range is always a perfect setting for travel portraits. Set your camera to AV on Canon or A on Nikon and adjust this setting to f/5.6. Of course, make sure you focus on the eyes of your subject. Looking at the EXIF data on the photo above of my Mom in a lavender field, I shot this at f/5.6 but also used a long lens at 180mm, which allowed me to “Compress” the background even more. This helped isolate her from the background even more, but shooting at f/5.6 made sure her face and body were still in focus. Had I shot this at f/2.8, portions of her face might be a bit softer.
Switch to Portrait Mode or Use a “Nifty Fifty”
Portrait mode is a simple way to make sure you are in the proper mode. Usually, it’s an icon on your camera with a lady with a hat, or it might say Portrait in your menu system. Switching to this mode is a quick way to get better portraits because it reduces the depth of field. Some of the more modern consumer model cameras will also adjust for more pleasing skin tones in this mode.
The photo above of Rick Williams used in article Seattle’s Most Influential People of 2011 in Seattle Magazine. This picture was a simple portrait taken on the street as Rick was carving a totem pole in memory of his brother, John T. Williams. This photo I used my “Nifty Fifty”, 50mm f/1.8 lens which runs about $125.00 on Amazon. Notice how soft the image is on the side of his face? This is what happens when you are in Aperture Priority shooting at f/1.8. Switching to an aperture of f/5.6 would have made his whole face in focus.
In conjunction with portrait mode or aperture priority, another way to soften or compress the background is to use your zoom feature or a longer lens. You will be forced to stand further back from your subject if you use this technique, but I think the portraits are more pleasing when using this method as seen in the example above.
7. Experiment with Slow Shutter Speeds
When I travel to Amsterdam, I am always amazed at how many bicycles there are in that city. I read somewhere there was over 800,000 and they are a great subject to experiment with slower shutter speeds. The photo above was shot at around 1/4 second. I simply put my camera into Shutter Priority Mode (S on Nikon and TV on Canon) and shot from the hip so that the cyclists would be natural in the photo.
Zoom or Twist Camera with Slow Shutter Speed
Who says bus tunnels have to be boring? This photo was taken at 1/6 of a second, and I zoomed the lens as the shutter was open. I only handheld the camera and after about three to four shots I was able to time it right to create the effect I wanted. This effect works well when you are standing in front of an object, like a parked vehicle, to convey the feeling of motion.
Have you ever wondered how photographers get photos of waterfalls that are silky smooth? They do this by having a long exposure and a tripod. This photo of Christine Falls at Mt. Rainier National Park is one of my favorite waterfalls to photograph. The exposure was 1 second if I remember correctly and the camera was on a tripod, but I also used my 10-second timer. Sometimes when you press the shutter button, you might move the camera as the shutter opens, creating a photo that may not be tack sharp. So I use my ten-second timer on the camera, so the camera has a chance to settle down before the shutter opens.
The one challenge you might have on a bright day is you will be unable to have a long shutter because it’s too bright outside. To solve this dilemma you will want to use “Neutral Density” filters. These cut out the amount of light your camera sees, without changing the scene. My suggestion would be to buy the square ones as they can be used on multiple lenses with an adapter.
You’ll also need a tripod and for travel I use the Gorilla Pod Focus Tripod with a Joby Ballhead. The tripod is small enough to fit into my camera bag and allows you to secure professional camera equipment weighing up to 11.1 lbs(5kg).
iPhone Tip: If you have an iPhone, put it in live view mode and take your shot of the waterfall. Tap on the photo you just took and click on Live then Long Exposure and you’ll get a similar effect.
8. Take an Iconic Photo and Make it Your Own
You’ve all seen the iconic photo of the Amsterdam sign near the Rijksmuseum. Chances are the photo looked the same as everyone else’s, except for the people around it. I struggled for awhile on how to shoot this sign and not be the same. Many times when I am shooting an object, I will walk around it to get a different angle. The sun was getting low on the horizon, and I thought it would be great to get a shot with the sun spilling over a person. I set my camera to aperture priority mode and set it at f/22. This allowed me to create the star effect with the sun. As soon as the girl stretched her arms out, I knew it was a perfect shot.
Of course Tracy, always the joker that she is, saw another opportunity to get a different photo by using me as the subject. When she showed it to me, I was cracking up.
The Gum Wall in Seattle is iconic, being that it was rated the second germiest place in the world next to the Blarney Stone on Tripadvisor.com. I wanted to get a unique photo of this wall and nothing was very inspiring. I changed angles, took some detail photos, tried to include people interacting with the wall, but nothing “Stuck”. If there is one thing I learned about travel photography, you need to be patient and let things unfold in front of you. That is exactly what happened here when these three friends wanted to make sure their gum was as high on the wall as possible. This is still my favorite photo of that location in the Pike Place Market in Seattle.
Here is one last example combining the Experience Music Project, the Seattle Monorail and the Space Needle into a single photo.
Before you travel, it might be wise to do some homework of your destination and look at what other photographers have done with iconic landmarks or locations. Use Instagram and Flickr to do a search for the photos you are interested in by looking at the top rated photos. On Flickr.com, you can also sort by interesting to see what people like and get additional ideas.
9. You Need To Edit Your Photos
I know I will probably get a lot of groans from the purists out there, but if you want your images to stand out, you are going to have to touch them, plain and simple. Now I’m not talking about massive over saturation to make the colors pop, but using programs as simple as Lightroom and Adobe Bridge which are included in the Photoshop CC version, to auto correct some things. If you have a mobile device, Snapseed works just as well in many cases and it is free for both the iPhone and Android.
A Few Examples Of Editing Photos
The photo above was an OK shot, not my best work, especially with the crooked horizon, but I thought it had some possibilities to improve. By bringing it into Adobe Bridge and use the Auto function to give it some pop, straightening the horizon and a bit of cropping of the dirt field in the foreground, the photo looked much better.
Another I shot in Istanbul of the Trolley. The photo by itself is pretty boring, but if you look a little closer, it is telling a story. The trolley on the right has a little boy who jumped on and is riding it. The original photo would be a throw away for me if it were not edited. Again, I brought it into Bridge, pushed auto mode and then exported it into Photoshop and then used one of my favorite plugins from Topaz Labs, Topaz Adjust. It took me about 2 minutes to edit this.
The last one is another example of what editing can do for a photo. The same technique as the one above, using Topaz Adjust to bring out the details along with using Bridge.
Just for fun I also brought the photo into Snapseed and edited in less than a minute on my iPhone 7 Plus. Had I spent more time I might tweak the exposure a bit more and bring out the colors by boosting saturation in the image. If you want only to edit on your phone, download Snapseed and send yourself an email attachment from your computer of the files you like.
For you more advanced users, I would suggest that you only shoot in RAW if you camera allows it. I don’t want to go into all the details of why in this article, but here is a good video and reference at SLRlounge.com, to help you understand the advantages. If you are reading this article while on vacation, I do not recommend you switch to RAW unless you know your software can handle a RAW file.
If you have been hesitant to photo editing, now is the time to look at this as a way to bring your photos to life and create some impressive vacation photos.
10. Shoot More
For you to improve your photography, you are going to have to get out and shoot whenever you can. After awhile you will develop a rhythm and find what works best for you. I look back over the years at some of the photos I have taken that I thought were good and they were quite bad, so bad in fact that when I shared one online to a photographers forum, I was skewered, to say the least. I didn’t let it deter me, but it drove me to become a better photographer. I started carrying my camera with me everywhere, and this was before I had a powerful camera in my pocket with my iPhone.
I always thought that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work – Chuck Close
Start in Your Backyard
The first place to start is in your backyard. If you live in a small town, there are many stories you can tell photographically, but you need to make that first step and get out and shoot. If you live in a major city, you can be more anonymous, and there is always a vibrancy and energy that will inspire you.
Join A Meetup Group or Photo Club
I belong to a local photo club, and almost every month they have a field trip where we go somewhere fun to shoot. It is a wonderful way to learn about photography techniques and our meetings after outings, we share and critique each others photos.
You can do a search on Meetup.com for photography meetups, in my area there are over 30.
Following a Few Websites
Here are a couple of websites I follow on a regular basis for inspiration.
FroKnowsPhoto.com – Fro’s website is loaded with great information for beginners and advanced photographers and in an entertaining way.
CreativeLive.com – Get on their mailing list so you can learn about free multiday seminars on photography, editing, making videos, etc.
Dpreview.com – If you are looking to upgrade your camera equipment, go to this site to learn more about the options and the in-depth review of hundreds of cameras.
The Big Picture – If you are just looking for travel photography inspiration, check out The Boston Globes website. Photos from all over the world via wire services and individuals are showcased here.
There are so many more websites to be inspired, what are the places you go to for travel photography inspiration?
There are so much more facets of travel photography that I didn’t address, but I wanted to share some ideas that have worked for Tracy and me when we travel. Ultimately it’s about your art and what you want to do with it. Remember to keep your eyes open and shoot when you can. Soon you will develop a style and a rhythm and discover what works for you. Perhaps you’re too shy to approach people to take photos when you travel, so maybe you’ll become a better landscape photographer. But don’t forget to step out of this comfort zone, to add more dimension to your travel photos. There is always something compelling and worthwhile that you can embrace to help find your “Focus”.
(Note: We use a program titled Short Pixel to reduce image size for faster loads on our blog. As a result, the quality is less than what you would see on the original)
What are Your Travel Photography Tips?
As always, Tracy and I would like your feedback on what has worked for you and feel free to leave a comment below.