Travel Photography tips

Capturing the Action: How to Take Great Photos When Traveling

Julie Travel Advice 13 Comments

Traveling and photography go hand in hand. When you are in a new place and experiencing new things, it’s only normal that you would want to get that perfect photo, something to remember the moment by.

I love photography. When I travel, one of the things I look forward to most is having a memory card full of beautiful images at the end of a trip.

I am not a professional photographer. Everything I know about photography I learned from books, followed by lots and lots of practice. Now, we sell these photos online and some of our photos have even been featured in National Geographic, the Baltimore Sun, and other publications.

Here are my travel photography tips and tricks to help you take a better photograph.

Travel Photography Tips

Know how to use your camera

This one might seem obvious, but really, you should know the functions of your camera. Get to know your camera before you travel. Read the manual cover to cover, read a few photography guides (see our suggestions here), or take a photography class.

Learn all of the controls on your camera and practice using them as much as possible. If you want to take truly great photos, you have to take your camera out of its automatic mode, and start shooting in aperture, shutter, or manual mode.

When I was first learning, I used my camera almost every single day for several years. I started with photographing my kids, their sporting events, objects around our house, and then out traveling the world. During our year around the world, my photography got better.

Practice makes perfect, and that applies to photography.

Rule of Thirds

One of the easiest ways to make your photos visually interesting is to follow the Rule of Thirds. Imagine the photograph is overlaid with a grid dividing it into thirds both horizontally and vertically (some LCD displays on cameras will do this for you). The four points where these lines intersect are the places you should put your point of interest, such as someone’s eyes, the main subject of the photo, or an element you want to stand out.

Rule of Thirds

You can also position the horizon on one of the two horizontal lines.

Horizon Example

Basically, you want to avoid putting the person, horizon, or subject of interest smack in the middle of the photograph. Asymmetry adds visual interest to your photos.

Do Your Research

Let’s say you are going to Sydney, Australia and you want to take some awesome photos of the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the Opera House. Before you arrive, do your research: do a Google image search, look at the photos in your travel guide, and read travel photo blogs like this one! There are a lot of photography blogs that will tell you where to go to get the shot you want, or one that you didn’t even know was possible.

Sydney Australia

Once you are in town, take a look at postcards and souvenir books for unique views of the most popular landmarks. Use these images as inspiration for taking your own photos.

It’s worth this little bit of effort to capture those amazing photos you will always cherish.

Book a Hotel with a great view

On more than one occasion we booked a hotel purely for the epic view it provided. In Budapest, we stayed at the Hilton just for the view of the Parliament Building and the Danube River.

Budapest Parliament Building

By staying in a hotel with a view, it’s easier to take sunrise and sunset photos of that awesome spot you are overlooking. Plus, it’s pretty sweet looking out at a famous landmark to start and end your day.

Have you heard of the “Golden Hour?”

The “Golden Hour” is the first hour of light at sunrise and the last hour of light at sunset. During these times, the lighting is perfect for outdoor photography. The soft, warm light illuminates the landscape in a much more favorable way than the harsh, midday sun.

It can take some planning, and an early wake up call, to be ready to photograph during these times, but it is worth it. Plus, most sites are usually empty during the early morning hours, another advantage to getting up and out early.

Blue Mosque in Istanbul at dawn

Blue Mosque

Bring a tripod

If you know you will be photographing during lower light, such as at sunrise or sunset, you will need a lightweight tripod. This is absolutely necessary for holding your camera stable while you set the appropriate exposure settings.

Florence Sunset

A tripod also helps to photograph flowing water scenes and portraits. If you are traveling as a family, having tripod and an intervalometer allows to get everyone in the photo, since no one has to operate the camera.

Earth Trekkers Norway

Don’t have a tripod? Find a sturdy, stable alternative, such as a rock wall, fence, etc. This works well…speaking from lots of experience.

Tell a Story with your photos

They say a photo is worth a thousand words. A collection of photos can tell a whole story.

Let’s say you are walking through the city streets of Hanoi. Capture as many details about this scene as you can. Take wide angle shots of the streets, capture people in motion, and zoom into the smaller details, such as what is for sale in shop windows and street stalls.

In Vietnam

If you capture all of elements of the scene your photos will tell a colorful story.

Photographing People

This can be tricky, as some people and some cultures are resistant to having their photos taken. Again, do your research before arriving in the country, familiarizing yourself with their customs.

Cigar Lady

Before photographing someone, I always ask for permission first. Greet them with a smile and try to strike up a conversation (if you speak the same language). This opens them up to being photographed. Politely ask if you can take their photo, or hold up your camera and point to them if you don’t speak their language. Sometimes, they will say no. Don’t take it personally, just say thank you and move on. The more you do this, the easier it gets, and being “rejected” is not so bad.

Istanbul 2013

Buy Something

Many shopkeepers do not like it when you blatantly photograph what they have for sale without purchasing something. If you buy something, even something small and inexpensive, this opens you up to a conversation with the shopkeeper. Most likely they will permit you to photograph them or their items.

Grand Bazaar Shopping

Wander off the main tourist trail

Sometimes, the best photos are those of people in their natural element. The “real” city streets, where people live, hang out, and kids play. Sure, it’s great to see the big city sites, but sometimes the best moments, and the best photographs, come from exploring the local neighborhoods.

Ideas of where to go include the local market, a local neighborhood, or even just a few blocks off of the main tourist trail.

Walking through Kathmandu

Kathmandu in action

Now, I am not saying that you should wander into inner city streets, into areas that may be dangerous or unsafe. Always check with your hotel staff or people in the area to find out if the area is safe. And trust your instincts. If you have an uneasy feeling, leave. The last thing you want to do is to put yourself in a dangerous situation.

If you are where somewhere you don’t belong, the local people will usually let you know.

Dealing with Anxiety

There’s nothing like pulling your camera out of its bag to draw attention to yourself. Sometimes, even now, when I first arrive in a new place, I feel just a little bit shy and anxious about using my camera. Does this happen to you?

It really helps to have Tim by my side. I don’t know why, but I am much more comfortable having someone with me. It’s not that I feel unsafe, that’s usually not the case at all. It’s just the act of drawing attention to myself. Having Tim by my side calms me down and helps feel more confident. Then, after a few photos, I am in my element and feeling confident again.

If you experience a similar anxiety, start off by taking photos of your hotel and then wider-angle views of the places you are visiting. After a little bit, once you loosen up, it tends to be easier to engage with other people and get those close up shots that really tell the story.

Don’t Forget to Live in the Moment

I know that this is a post about photography, but when you are traveling, do not get hung up in photographing every moment of the day. Sometimes, you just have to put down your camera and enjoy the moment.

Do you want to learn about the gear we use to take our photos? Head over to our Travel Photography Gear Guide.


Do you have any questions about what you read? Feel free to comment or send us an email. We love talking about photography!

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Travel Photography Guide

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Comments 13

  1. Good afternoon

    I will be travelling overseas soon for the first time ever. Also possibly the last. To me this is the oppertunity of t a life time. I want to take as many fotos as possible. Do you have any tips for me. I am still learning and recently got a new camera.

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      Author

      Our best tips are in this article. Get to know your camera well and practice as much as you can before your trip. And while you are traveling, don’t forget to enjoy the moment. Taking photos is important, but so is enjoying the experience while you are there. Cheers, Julie

  2. Hi !

    I really enjoy your blog. I’ve been reading your tips everytime I travel somewhere ! I bought myself an mirrorless camera lately and I’m just starting to get used to photography. I was wondering, do you ever modify the pictures you put on your blog or your pictures are naturally nice like that ?

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      Author

      I edit all of my photos in Adobe Lightroom. There’s a learning curve with the software but it really makes your photos pop when you learn how to use it. I believe you can do a free trial with Adobe. I also recommend getting a good guide (I used the one by Scott Kelby) to teach you how to use it. Cheers, Julie

  3. Came across your wonderful site while researching where to go in Ireland. Great info, thanks. Although it’s probably beyond your intended scope, I’d love to know more about the specific settings you use in your photos. Are you usually shooting in manual mode or maybe prefer aperture priority? Is your full-wide setting typically at 24mm or do you change out your lens to a wider one? Wish I could see the settings for each of your photos. Do you maybe also have a Flickr site with the EXIF data?

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      Author

      Hello Dan. I shoot primarily in Aperture mode, occasionally in Manual mode. My full wide setting is 24 mm. I do not have a wider lens, although I wish I did!! No, I do not have a Flickr site. I do have a Smug Mug site with a small sampling of my photos. If you click the photo and then the Information button, you can see the Exif data. Cheers! Julie

      1. Your smugmug site seems broken! 🙁

        I love your photographs. Kind of curious, for those landscapes, do you use stuff like polarizers or grad ND filters?

        Thanks!

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          Author

          Yes, I took down our Smugmug account about 6 months ago. I use a UV filter 99% most of the time. If I am shooting with long exposures, sometimes I will use a neutral density filter. I use a B + W ND 82 102 0,6 – 2 BL 4x E. But generally I do not use a polarizing filter (although I proabably should in some lighting situations). Then I do my processing in Lightroom. Cheers, Julie

          1. Thanks Julie! You guys have made some awesome trips and you’ve made a wonderful site about them. I really enjoyed browsing here; and it actually helped me in deciding a few things about our upcoming holidays to Norway. 🙂

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            Author

            Great, we’re glad we could help! Have fun in Norway…it’s so awesome that we are going back, too! In just a few days we will be visiting Svalbard and the Lofoten Islands. Cheers, Julie

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      Author

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