Getting Started with Travel Photography

Marianne Stenger
1st June 2021

Although we all take photos on our travels these days, travel photography is about more than just capturing fun holiday snaps to share with friends and family. Travel photography is about telling a story. It’s about transporting your viewers to the places you’ve been and introducing them to people you’ve encountered along the way.

As a travel photographer, it’s also your responsibility to document the communities and environments you’re visiting respectfully and accurately. This means thinking about how your images will impact and portray the people and places you’re photographing.

Of course, you’ll also need to pack the right equipment and accessories, and have a good understanding of how it all works so you can get the best results possible.

Read on to get our top tips and advice for travel photography and everything that goes into preparing for a photography adventure somewhere new. And, don’t forget that you can turn your best travel photos into a professional quality photo book with Bob Books’ easy-to-use designer software or app. Get inspired by previous photographers photo books on our bookshop such as William Fortescue & his photo book 'East Africa'.

East Africa by William Fortescue

What to pack for travel photography

Different photographers have their own views on what type of photography equipment is essential while travelling, depending on their skill level and photography niche.

Wildlife photographers, for instance, may want to have a telephoto zoom lens, whereas architectural photographers may need a tilt shift lens and street photographers may favour prime lenses. Keep in mind too, that when it comes to travel photography, lugging around too many lenses and accessories can actually slow you down and become a hindrance.

So if you’re preparing for your next travel photography adventure, here are some important travel photography accessories to pack, in addition to your camera and lenses.

1. Camera bag

There are many types of camera bags, from backpacks to shoulder bags to roller bags. Regardless of the type you choose, make sure it’s comfortable to carry, and is sturdy enough to protect your expensive gear. Do some research ahead of time to find a bag that will fit both your gear and your style of travel.

2. Lightweight tripod

Tripods are essential for taking pictures in low light conditions, but since regular tripods tend to be heavy and bulky, you may need to invest in a separate tripod to take with you on your travels. The ideal travel tripod would be foldable and lightweight, while still being sturdy enough to handle the weight of your camera and heaviest lens.

3. Notebook and pen

Since it can be difficult to remember all the details of the photos you’ve taken while travelling, a little pocket-sized notebook and pen can come in handy when you need to jot down information about the people, things or places you’re photographing along the way.

4. Spare batteries

Carrying a few extra batteries is a good idea even when you’re shooting in your own neighbourhood, but it becomes even more important when you’re far from home and won’t have easy access to power outlets.

5. Extra memory cards and card reader

Like the spare batteries, carrying a spare memory card or two will ensure you never miss a shot due to inadequate storage space. The capacity of memory cards has increased greatly over the years, so depending on how many photos you normally take; you may only need one or two extra cards. A card reader is also a must if you want to be able to backup your photos regularly while you travel.

6. Lens filters

Lens filters, like UV or polarizing filters, are generally inexpensive, and in addition to reducing glare, increasing contrast and enhancing colours, they can also prevent your lenses from getting scratched if accidentally knocked against a hard surface.

7. Travel adapter

Even if you’re bringing extra batteries, you’ll still need to charge up between photo shoots. So in addition to bringing your regular camera battery charger, it’s a good idea to invest in a high quality universal travel adapter.

8. Camera cleaning kit

If you’re shooting outdoors, a simple cleaning kit is essential if you want to get sharp photos and keep your gear in good working order. At the very least, make sure you have a few microfiber cloths and lens cleaning wipes. Carrying a few Ziploc bags of different sizes is also a good idea, as they can be used for everything from protecting your gear to keeping things organised.

Top tips to improve your travel photography

If you’re looking to take your travel photography to the next level, the following tips will help you plan ahead, and greatly enhance your travel photos as a result.

1. Be patient

Photography requires a lot of patience, especially when you’re in an unfamiliar place. If you want to capture stunning travel images, you’ll need to take the time to observe your surroundings, identify your subject and set up your shots. Not all of them will work, but staying patient will increase your chances of getting the photos you envisioned.

2. Research your location

Before you leave, spend some time researching your destination and scouting out the locations where you think you’ll want to shoot. Learning about the customs and cultural norms in the country you’ll be visiting is also important in order to avoid doing anything that might be viewed as disrespectful.

Start by finding out how people dress and behave in public places, and what their attitudes are towards visitors and photography in general. For example, in order to enter many religious buildings, you’ll need to cover your shoulders, legs and head. In some countries you could be fined or even imprisoned if you photograph certain locations or buildings.

Talking to other photographers who have been to the area you want to visit can also be helpful, as they may have suggestions on where and when you should be shooting in order to avoid the busiest times of day or unfavourable lighting conditions.

Images © Isabella Gomes

3. Be prepared to get up early

In photography, the brief period of time just after sunrise or before sunset is known as “the golden hour” due to the soft, warm light present during these times of the day. Since the early morning is one of the best times for shooting, you may need to sacrifice your holiday lie-ins to take advantage of the lighting. Getting up early is also the best way to avoid crowds and observe the locals as they begin their day, which will allow you to capture far more interesting travel photographs.

4. Find a fresh perspective

Try to avoid shooting photos in the exact same spot where all the other tourists are snapping theirs. Get off the beaten path and find something new or look for fresh ways to photograph well-known landmarks. For instance, instead of photographing a landmark on its own, you could include the street vendors or tourists milling about. You can also look for reflections or other interesting details to include. You can also try experimenting with new angles and different framing techniques.

5. Interact with people whenever possible

Photographing people abroad is a great way to provide your viewers with an insight into the local culture, but just like at home, you shouldn’t just walk up to people and start snapping photos. Be friendly by exchanging a greeting and asking if you can take a picture. 

Of course, asking for permission before taking a photo of someone isn’t always possible if you’re capturing spontaneous moments. But interacting with your subjects before or after taking a photo will usually translate to more meaningful and expressive photos.

With this in mind, if someone notices you photographing them, stop for a moment and try to greet them in their own language, explain what you’re doing or show them the photo you took. If you’re in a shop or café, it’s polite to buy something or stop for a drink. Of course, if for whatever reason someone doesn’t want you to take a photo, put your camera away and move on.

Images © Isabella Gomes

6. Reflect on how your photos will portray the subject

Another important consideration is how your photos will portray and impact your subject. Think about the political, economic and social circumstances of your subject. Would sharing that photo harm people in any way? Would it objectify them or portray them in an unfair or unnecessarily negative way?

For example, if you’re visiting an impoverished village, why focus on unpleasant things like rubbish or unsanitary living conditions when you could document how the people there make their living or photograph meaningful interactions between family members or friends? Of course, it goes without saying that if you’re photographing issues that are culturally or politically sensitive, you should take care to protect the identity and privacy of your subjects.

7 Provide some context

If you want your photos to accurately portray a situation, it’s important to provide some context when sharing your photos. Think about the story you’re trying to tell and what text can be added to accurately explain what the picture is about and avoid contributing to stereotypes about a particular group of people or part of the world. If your photo was in any way posed or staged, you should also share this information when captioning the photo or providing the backstory.

8. Always be respectful

Having respect for the people and places you’re photographing is a big part of being an ethical travel photographer. Don’t climb on monuments and ancient ruins or trample through protected nature areas just to get the perfect shot. If you’re photographing wildlife, keep a safe and respectful distance and never try to feed or interact with wild animals.

Images © William Fortescue

Using your smartphone for travel photography

Going on a trip and only have your smartphone? Although you might be slightly more limited when using your phone as opposed to professional camera gear, mobile photography also has some benefits.

For one thing, smartphones are more portable and can be ready at a moment’s notice. Using your phone to take pictures also allows you to be more discreet and get different types of photographs than you would if you were lugging around a DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.

If you take the time to get to know how your phone’s camera works, you can take some pretty amazing photos with it. With this in mind, here are a few tips for taking better travel photos with your phone.

1. Venture out of auto mode

Although auto mode can be quite effective in many situations, there are times when it just won’t cut it, such as in low light or when capturing fast action. Most phones these days will allow you to change the shutter speed, ISO and white balance, so start by learning about these settings and how they can affect your photos. If you want something easier to get started with, try shooting modes such as burst mode for action shots or panorama mode for landscapes.  

2. Take time to set up each shot

Because we take so many pictures with our phones, it’s easy to become complacent and get into the habit of snapping photos without really thinking about important things like composition and lighting. So, try to slow down and think about the type of light you’re working with and where it’s coming from. You should also consider your subject and how to compose a strong image, while avoiding any unwanted clutter distracting from your subject.

3. Experiment with different angles

Most people take photos from the same angle, so trying out a few different angles can help you take more interesting and striking photographs. When photographing people and animals, shooting at eye level often works quite well, but there’s no hard and fast rule you need to follow. Get creative and find new angles, whether that means shooting from above, below or behind your subject.

4. Use the rule of thirds

If you want to get more creative with your composition, the rule of thirds is a great place to start. It’s based on the idea that when pictures aren’t centred, they’ll be compositionally more interesting. Most smartphones allow you to enable the camera grid, which can help you to understand the rule of thirds and make sure your horizons are level. Instead of putting the subject at the centre of every picture you take, you can place it along the gridlines or at the points where they intersect.

5. Stabilise the camera

Stabilising your phone when taking pictures is very important, particularly when you’re working in low light situations such as indoors or later in the day, when even slight movements can lead to blurry photos. If you don’t have a phone camera tripod, make sure you hold it with both hands and rest your elbows on a stable surface or brace them against your body while shooting.

6. Find the best light

Before taking a photo, check the direction of the light and find a spot where your subject will be neither over nor underexposed. Although you might think that bright sunny days would yield the best results, it’s actually best to avoid shooting in direct sunlight in the middle of the day, as this type of lighting can lead to harsh shadows and blown out highlights.

If you’re shooting outside on a sunny day, look for a shaded spot where you’ll get more even lighting. If you’re indoors, try placing your subject near a window or other source of light. Also, avoid using your built-in flash unless it’s absolutely necessary, as it can be harsh and unflattering.

7. Get in close

Oftentimes, image quality will suffer when you zoom in with your phone camera, so before using the zoom function, see if you can move in closer to your subject. In many cases, moving in closer and filling the frame will also help you to draw attention to your subject and create more dramatic images.

8. Download a good photo editing app

If you plan to take the majority of your travel photos with your phone, it’s a good idea to look into getting a good photo editing app that will help you process your images on the go. Some apps are great for more advanced editing while others are more straightforward and come with easy-to-use filters, so before choosing an app, think about your skill level and needs.

9. Keep your phone clean

Since your phone goes everywhere with you, it’s going to get a bit grubby from time to time. So, before you take a picture, get into the habit of checking your lens for dust, specks of dirt or fingerprints that could ruin your photos. Keep a clean lint-free cloth on hand to give the lens a quick wipe.

Ready to plan your next photography adventure? For more travel photography inspiration, be sure to check out our interview with professional travel photographer Stefano Pensotti. Alternatively, if you’re looking to do something creative with your existing travel photos, here are some ideas for designing a stunning travel photo book.