5 Ways to Improve Your Travel Photos

Some of us can remember sitting through travel photo slideshows as kids: carousel after carousel of Uncle Herb’s bad photographs from his Mexico vacation. Don’t turn into Uncle Herb. You’re an avid and knowledgeable traveler, so don’t let yourself become that dreaded relative.

The flip-flops you bought at the Chiang Mai night market will eventually break, the tee shirts you bought in Ibiza will fade, but your digital images and photographs, properly persevered, will stand the test of time. Slide projectors have gone the way of the dodo, but the principles of good travel photography remain the same.

Use the following five tips for taking photographs, and you’ll have travel images you’re proud to show off. And, unlike with Uncle Herb, your friends and relatives won’t cringe when you bring them out.

Five Tips for Improving Your Travel Photos

1. Plan ahead

If you have the luxury of time, try to plan your photographic excursions. The best times to shoot are in the morning and late afternoon. Between 11am and 2pm, the sun is at its zenith and the resulting light is very white. It washes out colors and results in lackluster images.

Early morning and late afternoon light both have a special, warm glow. Work with it. If you have limited time, take a look at a map and try to anticipate which locations will be photographed best at each time of day.

Early morning has another benefit: in large urban settings, there’s usually less haze during the early morning.

If you have a few days, do a little reconnaissance. Take a quick walk around the locations you want to capture. Look at the position of the sun, the shadows, and the layout of surrounding buildings. Make notes on your map and plan your return. A little planning will pay photographic dividends.

Plan to take the best photos possible. Don’t say, “I’ll fix it in Photoshop.” Your aim should be to get the best photo possible on the first try. Forget about your computer and photo editing.

2. Go high, go low

Look for an interesting perspective on the scene you’re trying to capture. Try to get above it, or below it. If possible, kneel down and take your photo closer to ground level. Are there stairs nearby, or a second-floor café or balcony? Use them. The majority of photographs are taken from standing height. Boring. There are more ways to see the world than from 5’8″.

3. Get close

That’s right, get as close as you can without putting yourself in danger: whether physical danger or the danger of looking like a deranged tourist. Yes, your dandy digital camera has great zoom capabilities, but nothing beats getting close to your subject. The details and color will be better.

4. Capture faces

No one wants to see photographs featuring the backs of heads. “Get the face” was a rule an old photo editor drilled into me. A face, combined with your location, both tells a story and adds humanity to an image. If shooting in an exotic market, take photos of the merchants, not the backs of other travelers’ heads as they browse.

5. Consider the foreground and background

The way you compose your image says a lot. What’s in the foreground? What’s in the background? Consider using selective focus techniques. Have a subject in the foreground with the background blurred, or the opposite. Both techniques will tell a different story.

Many people are uncomfortable taking their camera out of “Auto” mode. Don’t be. Experiment. The great thing about digital cameras is the endless (and free) possibilities they provide. Experiment. Assess. Experiment again. This is best done before you set off on your travels. Knowing your equipment and its capabilities will also improve your travel photos.

Planning ahead is the key. Look at the scene and put some thought into your compositions before snapping away like a rabid shutterbug. Photography isn’t about cameras or expensive gear—it’s a way of seeing the world and relating that vision to others. Consider these five tips before looking through the viewfinder, and you’ll improve your travel photos.

Steve is an avid writer and photographer who spends his time teaching in China and photographing his experiences. You can find his blog and pictures at Asian Ramblings.