10 Basic Tips to Make Your Travel Photos Better

Note: February 16, 2017. This is a slight update to a post I did more than three years ago. I haven't changed much other than re-editing a couple photos and substituting a couple of horizontals for their vertical cousins.

In the past three months, I’ve posted a photo per day on TravelPast50. And, I’m only about a quarter of the way through the photos I’ve taken since we’ve been traveling since mid 2010. I’ve got a long way to go.

Of course, some are better than others, but I’m proud of a lot of my shots. I hope you’ve liked them too.

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So, here are a few rules I try to follow to make good shots. I hope they are helpful for you.

men cremation ceremony bali
Get close, which you can do just by asking.

1. Get close.

If you are shooting people, closer is better. Sometimes it’s a bit intimidating to walk right up to someone and push a camera in their face. I find it’s a good idea to have a story to go along with your pushiness. Mine often starts with, “I’m a photo journalist, and I’m working on a story about … Do you mind if I take your picture?” It works.

hanoi girls
Get on the kids' level. They'll interact with you if you do.

2. Get on the appropriate level.

If you’re shooting adults, you can stand. But if you’re shooting children, squat. You’ll get more interaction, and a photo from their perspective is just more interesting.

3. Wean yourself from the Auto setting.

If you’re on auto, you’re asking for all sorts of problems, such as bad focus, bad exposure, bad color balance, wrong depth of field, etc. Read your camera’s manual and experiment with the various settings until you can do them automatically–and appropriately for the setting you’re in. A very good half-way measure is to select either aperture priority or shutter speed priority. Choose one based on what you are shooting. If you're on the street, you might want to select a medium aperture so that you will have depth of field in case you (or your camera) isn't exactly focused on your main subject. Select shutter priority if you, or your subject, is moving, in order to stop or blur the action, as your vision dictates.

kicking soccer ball san sebastian spain
I used a slower shutter speed to intentionally blur the boy kicking the soccer ball.

4. Select your shutter speed.

Basically, there are two ways to control exposure: shutter speed and lens aperture. They are reciprocal. In other words, one click faster exposure equals one click more open on the aperture. But, they are not completely interchangeable. A faster or slower shutter speed might be appropriate for what you are shooting. Do you want to stop action, such as when you’re shooting sports? Or do you want to soften and convey motion, if you’re shooting moving water? Then control your shutter speed for the effect you want.

flowers cuba
Use a larger aperture to soften the focus of the background.

5. Select your aperture.

Along with exposure, aperture selection also controls your depth of field, i.e. the amount of your frame which is in focus. If you are shooting a landscape, you probably want to select a smaller aperture, which will give you a larger depth of field. Your entire frame will be in focus. However, if you’re shooting a portrait against a busy background, select a wide open aperture to throw the distracting background out of focus.

gourds on porch cantabria
The “Rule of Thirds” makes this an interesting composition. If the table full of gourds were in the middle, it wouldn't be as interesting.

6. Use the “Rule of Thirds.”

Imagine drawing lines dividing your frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Position your main subject at the intersection of two of these lines. You’ll end up with a more pleasing shot than just putting your subject in the middle of your frame. This is especially true of shots than include the horizon. Put the horizon line either one third from the top, or one third from the bottom. Nothing is more boring that a shot where the horizon divides the frame in two equal halves.

paris street outside pompidou center-2
It's the angle looking down on the composition of the people and air vents that makes this shot.

7. Look for the unique angle.

Your perspective will add to the drama of the image. A straight on shot may be best for a straight on subject, but an oblique angle, or shooting up or down on your subject might be the perspective that give you a unique great shot.

colorful paris street pompidou center
This shot was taken at almost the exact spot as the one above–as you can see from the air vents at the bottom of the shot. But because I stood at the rainy window for a few minutes and looked out over the city, I saw the color of the buildings that was missing from the gray scene of the pavement below.

8. Take your time.

Consider using a tripod. Unless you’re shooting some frantic action, you have the time to move around your subject, try different angles, and compose carefully, making sure to eliminate distracting elements that may be creeping in on the edges of your frame. Be sure that your horizon line is straight. Slow down.

Don't be the guy who took this photo. He must be some kind of rank amateur.
Be this guy instead. He seems to know what he's doing, and who cares if the cathedral is overexposed? It's background.

9. Expose for the main subject.

One of the common errors you see in photographs of people is the camera has exposed for the sunny sky in the background and the people in the foreground are all dark and unrecognizable. That’s where manual exposure comes in. You have to take your exposure reading from your main subject, set it manually, and just let the sky be overexposed. Unless you’re shooting a landscape, who cares about the sky anyway?

10. Break the rules.

Now that you know some rules, break them. Make your photos your own.

P.S. you can check out a lot more of my photos at my Smug Mug site. Just click here.

Just in case you are interested, there's a post here where I talk about the photography equipment I use. Have a look.

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15 thoughts on “10 Basic Tips to Make Your Travel Photos Better”

  1. Some really great tips there, thanks I really need them.` I think the easiest one to remember is the rule of thirds so i shall be practicing that one first.

  2. I think a man napping on the ground in the middle of a plaza and someone smoking under a
    huge fan that could suck him into oblivion makes that shot interesting.

  3. …the Beatles strolling along the bottom to catch their subway also adds to the charm. So I guess it is the angle. after all…forget the subjects.


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