In this article I will talk about travel photography and how you can take great images of everything when you travel. I’m not talking about camping out at sunrise with bags full of lenses and filters to take epic landscape photographs; I’m talking about taking really nice shots of EVERYTHING! The food, people, details and landscapes combined – and all without turning your holiday into a photo shoot. With some simple tips you can come home with an album full of memories that stretches beyond a few hero shots.
Editor’s Note: The following article is written to be a fun guide to different types of documentary style travel photography. The author was exploring Vietnam as a guest of Helloworld Australia and Insider Journeys. She considers herself a jack-of-all-trades, master of none in the photography world.
8 Tips for great travel photos
#1 Landscape photography
As much as I love waking up for a sunrise and utilizing all of the photography tools available to me to get a killer shot, sometimes I just want to take some snaps and have them be nice. When shooting landscapes during the day I look for vibrant colors, leading lines and simple compositions.
If you want to come home with a handful of nice landscape images from your holiday but you don’t want to spend all your time out in the field at the break of dawn then look for simple compositions, vibrant colors and leading lines. Using the most basic techniques like the Rule of Thirds (imagine your photo broken down into thirds both horizontally and vertically, and place points of interest on these third lines, for example the horizon) and the light that is available to you, it’s possible to come back with some keepers. Good examples can include the narrow laneways of old Dubai, the canals of Venice, the rivers of Alberta and the irrigation lines of the rice fields of Vietnam.
#2 Photographing the locals
I’m sure that you love to meet the locals from whichever exotic location you’re visiting, but find it can be intimidating to ask for a photo. The trick to photographing locals is to have your camera absolutely ready to go before you even ask. I’m talking the right lens, the right light, and the right settings. Photographing strangers often means you don’t have the benefit of multiple shots to get it just right. A great focal length for photographing people is 85mm, it’s very flattering and it also means you don’t have to be in people’s faces when you shoot. Shooting in the morning or late afternoon means you’ll have soft, consistent light, on your subjects’ faces, and f/2.8 is a great aperture for shallow depth of field. For handheld shooting keep your shutter speed above 1/200th to minimize camera shake.
I desperately wanted to take a photo of a mother and daughter I had just watched rounding up their water buffalo in Ninh Binh, but I knew the chances of them speaking English were slim. I didn’t have my portrait lens with me so I made do with my 24-70 f/2.8 at 70mm, and I had it ready to go for the ambient light before I even asked. I snapped off three quick bursts and nabbed a keeper.
#3 Shoot the details
If you ever find yourself quietly admiring the small details of a new destination, then you might like to play around with isolating and photographing them. A great place to try your hand at detail shots is the local market. Using a shallow depth of field (f/2.8 – f/5.6) you can play around with photographing all manner of small details; the textures of a new fruit, a close-up of a flower, or even a line of colorful fabrics. Some photographers consider these filler shots but you might find they bring back wonderful detailed memories after time has passed.
I personally love the small details of a new destination and often take my most favorite shots at bustling markets, or in the garden of a palace, instead of the palace itself. I always look for bright colors and new textures, then isolate what I love from a cluttered background by either zooming in or using shallow depth of field.
#4 Use juxtaposition
In a new destination you can’t help but notice that often things aren’t the same as they are at home, and sometimes a fun way of photographing that is through juxtaposition. This is when two very different things are shot close together of contrasting effect, for example ice cream with a steak, or a beautiful field of wildflowers with an urban factory in the middle. New locations can offer unlimited potential for photographing two things with juxtaposition together, that you might not see at home. Think new versus old, natural versus artificial, nature versus industry, etc.
During an incredible morning exploring the Hanoi flower markets I enjoyed photographing the juxtaposition of the flowers besides the scooters, rubbish and chaos of Hanoi.
#5 Photograph animals
You might be fortunate on your travels to make some furry friends. This is often the case in South East Asia where cats and dogs roam the streets freely, and the smart ones know how to get a scrap of food or a cuddle. Photographing animals can be tricky at the best of times, let alone photographing animals that you don’t know very well. The first thing to remember if you want to increase your chances of getting a clean shot is to have a fast shutter speed, 1/1000th is ideal. Animals also benefit exceptionally well from having a sharp focus on their eyes, so a single focus point trained on the eye closest to you will work wonders. Other than that it’s really a matter of a little patience to capture a personality trait, or cute moment.
I don’t consider this photo a triumph of photography, by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought this puppy was adorable. I was able to quickly shoot a sharp image of him looking goofy, with a fast shutter speed and shallow depth of field.
#6 Photograph your resort or accommodation
If you want to take a great photo of your resort to show off to friends and family you might quickly notice that resorts are usually quite populated. Rather than waiting for scores of people to move out of your way it’s possible to make them a part of your image without being the focus of your image and you can do this by using a distracting foreground. Rather than straight out taking a photo of the pool, garden, or communal area of your accommodation, scout around for a nice foreground such as a garden bed, a great path, grass or flowers or even a reflective puddle.
In Mai Chau I stayed at the stunning Eco lodge in Mai Chau valley, and I desperately wanted to photograph the pool, but hordes of swimmers weren’t going anywhere. After playing around with various compositions I realized that the flowers planted around the pool made a distracting foreground when I focused on them, but used a fairly wide depth of field using f/11.
#7 Food photography
If you are a foodie, and let’s face it aren’t we all these days, then you’re going to want to take photos of some of the delicacies that await you when you travel. Food photography can be very hard, or very easy, depending on what you are trying to achieve – but for holiday snaps you should K.I.S.S. (keep it simple silly).
The hottest food photography trend to hit the market these days is the flat lay, or simply photographing food from above. You can do this with a simple snapshot, or take a few minutes to improve your shot. Firstly a single focus point trained on a plate of food nearest to the middle is best. Unless you want to stand on a chair and lean precariously over the table the best way to get this shot is by holding your camera above the table facing straight down. A reasonable depth of field like f/5.6 will mean you’ll still get enough food in focus, even if you slightly miss your planned focus point. Taking a few minutes to arrange the food and utensils on the table can also pay off in the final shot.
I am a massive fan of the flat lay. I think it looks great in most instances, plus it has the added bonus of showing everything you’re eating and drinking in a single frame. In Vietnam we made a roadside stop and I enjoyed boiled eggs, sticky rice in a bamboo pipe, purple corn on the cob and fiery hot bird’s eye chilies. I loved all the broken eggshells on the dirt floor and worked them into my composition with a wider vantage point.
#8 Photograph your travel companions
I’ve saved the best for last, photographing your family, friends, or loved ones. I’m sure you love the simple gift of taking a nice photograph of your travel companion(s) in an exotic location, without making a major production out of it.
The best way to do this is by beating the crowds, just that. Wake up early and have the pool, beach, or street to yourself, and get the shot you want without the distraction of hordes of people. Take a minute to think about composition so that your subject is well framed by the location; use local props if you want to be a real tourist. Then it’s a matter of referring back to basic portraiture rules like flattering focal lengths and good light, a given if you make the effort to wake up early.
In Mai Chau I wanted a nice shot of my travel companion, Simone, and I wanted the scene to be noticeably Vietnamese. We borrowed a hat from the resort, and set an early alarm hoping for mist in the valley. We weren’t disappointed.
So there you have it: How to take great photos of just about anything while you’re traveling, without destroying your holiday to do it. Always keep a camera close at hand, and enjoy showing off the many aspects of a new destination through your own unique photography: people, landscapes, food, animals, details and all the special moments that pass you by.
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