11 Tips to Make Your Travel Photos Better

electrical workers near leon spain
Another illustration of point 7 about looking for interesting lines. But mostly I put this photo here just because I like it.

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.

I’ve been consciously trying to improve my photography the last few years, and by that, I mean paying a lot more attention to how I’ve been doing things. The nature of the traveling we’re doing means that, by default, I’ve been shooting a lot more landscapes and other static scenes. Here are some tips I’ve gleaned from looking at the work of other photographers, taking a couple of seminars, and my own 50,000 or so exposures I’ve made over the past three years.

1. Use a tripod (or at least a monopod.)

yosemite camera on tripod
Using a tripod at sunset at Yosemite made me take my time and thing about the shot I was making. It also made it easy to stay there for an hour and shoot over an over again as the light changed.

The main thing using a tripod does is make you slow down and think more about what you are looking at. Mostly, it’s a composition thing. But, there are plenty of other implications for the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed you’ll be using, and those are important as well.

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2. For some shots, you need as much depth of field as you can get.

At England's Exeter Cathedral, the detail and depth of field come from using a tripod and a small aperture to get max depth of field.

Photography 101 tells you that to get your foreground and background in sharp focus, you are going to need to stop down your lens. Perhaps all the way to f/22 or however far it goes. If you do that, and focus properly, everything from the foreground out to infinity will be sharp. Of course, if you are stopped all the way down, and are also using a slow ISO of 100 or thereabouts, you’re going to need a slower shutter speed to get the correct exposure. That’s where the tripod comes in. If you are hand holding at that ISO and f-stop, you’re going to have camera jiggle, and that’s just going to make your lens sharpness irrelevant. In fact, the sharper your lens and the bigger your file size, the more jiggle will be magnified. So, even if you are using a tripod, use mirror lockup and/or remote shutter release or timed shutter release. There’s no point of introducing your clumsy finger on the shutter button to add jiggle.

3. Focus on something, not everything.

temple golden pavilion kyoto h
There's a lot of framing going on here by various elements, but there's no doubt what the main subject is: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto.

Pick out the main subject of your landscape and compose your shot around that. It could be a building, a mountain, a road, or a rock in the foreground. What it is doesn’t matter as much as the fact that you have chosen something as the main subject. You might also want to remember the “Rule of Thirds” here and place your chosen focus point at one of the intersections of the imaginary lines you’ve drawn dividing your frame into thirds from top to bottom and side to side.

4. Think about the sky.

atacama desert chile
The sky is adding nothing to this shot of Chile's Atacama Desert, so leave it small.

Is that what you’re really shooting, or is it the foreground? If there’s nothing special going on in the sky, leave it out or minimize it. Normal composition guidelines suggest you put the horizon one third from the top or bottom, but if the sky is not important, you can get rid of it. Conversely, if what you are shooting is a spectacular cloud formation, sunset, or whatever, a thin sliver of earth might be just what you’re looking for. But, you should choose one or the other. If you make the photo half sky and half ground, i.e. put the horizon in the middle of the frame, you’re going to get a middling picture every time.

sunset shirakawago japan
Just the opposite of the shot above, I left just enough of the mountains in the foreground of this shot to give it the proper perspective.

5. The foreground is important for scale and for framing.

giants causeway antrim ireland
The foreground at Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland is plenty interesting here, especially since it leads your eye straight to the mountain which highlights the scene.

The reason you see so many photos of a mountain in the background framed by leaves of a nearby tree is that it just works. It draws attention to your main subject as well as gives scale to a distant object. Of course, it adds three dimensionality and perspective, which also serves to emphasize your focus. Also, a shot which features a foreground object and yet leads your eye off to the horizon puts that object into a context that makes it more emphatic.

6. Less than ideal weather is ideal.

pichincha quito ecuador
We were hiking up the volcano Pichincha near Quito, Ecuador. It was a sunny day, which made the shooting pretty boring. But as sunset approached, the clouds rolled in, and voila. A nice shot, but we thought better of climbing through the clouds in the dark.

There are two things that tend to kill the dramatic light that makes a great landscape shot: a cloudless sky with bright sun and complete overcast. I hate them both. Work with the clouds and be patient. Sometimes they are dramatic in themselves and provide a nice frame or even the main subject of your shot. Other times, they cast defining shadows, and when you’re patient, spout that one ray that hits your main topic and illuminates it beautifully while bathing the rest of your scene in a softer light. Like I said, be patient and wait for the light to do what you want. If it doesn’t happen, try changing angles or come back another day.

7. Utilize lines which emphasize perspective.

el escorial library spain
The painting of the ceiling of the library at El Escorial in Spain is amazing. But you get a real sense of the scale because the emphatic perspective from a low angle leads the lines off to the horizon.

A road winding toward the horizon, a stream wending its way toward you, a roof line leading down a street. All of those give depth and movement which impart interest to your shot. And sometimes, those lines are also patterns which, in themselves, are the interest point of your shot.

8. Get up early or stay late.

sunrise lily pads minnesota
Sunrise makes this shot. The color, and especially the oblique light which highlights the edge of the lily pads. An hour later, and this is nothing special.

The color and angle of the light at sunrise and sunset imparts a quality to your image that you can’t otherwise get. Also, there are often dramatic shadows that add your your composition. Those times of day are not as bright as midday, of course, so to get your depth of field and shutter speed you want, you’re really going to need that tripod.

9. Watch the edges of your frame.

Often–and I’m guilty of this on occasion–two things go wrong at the edges of your frame. Problem one is some stray element like a phone wire, a leaf, or a tourist creeps in at the very edge. You’re so concentrated on your main subject, you don’t notice them until it’s time to look at the shot on your computer. Yeah, you can maybe clone or crop them out with Lightroom or Photo Shop, but it’s a lot easier to just make a slight adjustment and get rid of them in the beginning. Problem two is your horizon line. How many times have you looked at the shot on the computer only to realize the whole thing is tilted five degrees? There’s an easy fix for this: just align the horizon line with the top or bottom of your frame in the viewfinder while you’re composing the shot. Again, you can fix this in post processing, but why not just get it right to start with?

10. Take your time and take lots of exposures.

tetons from idaho side 2
I've seen a million shots looking up the Snake River in Wyoming toward the Grand Teton mountains, but I got this one by driving over to the Idaho side and hiking in the national forest there. Same mountains, further away, but a different scene.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent twenty or thirty minutes fussing over one shot, doing all the things I’ve mentioned above until I get it just right, and then packing up my gear, walking 10 meters down the road and seeing a composition of the same subject I like much better. It happens all the time. All I can say is, take as much time as it takes to get something you love, not something that’s just “good enough.” Sometimes, that’s holding the camera over your head, or even bringing along a ladder. Sometimes, it’s getting down on the ground, or even lower. (Ever heard the famous story of Orson Wells digging a four foot hole in a concrete studio floor just for one five second shot in Citizen Kane? I’ve wanted to do that on occasion.) Sometimes it’s an odd tilt; sometimes it’s getting closer or further away. Sometimes it’s including a stray element that’s right in front of you, but isn’t part of the main scene. Sometimes, it’s leaving and coming back, and sometimes it’s walking around the back and looking at things from a totally new angle. (One time, I drove into an entirely different state to get another look at the Grand Teton Mountains.) Like I said, there’s no hurry. Take your time.

11. Bonus tip: Come back to your favorite spots again and again.

cantabria mountain 1
Clouds out our front door in Cantabria, Spain. One of about a hundred exposures I made of the same scene on different days.
cantabria mountain fog 2
Another shot of the same scene. This time, the fog's in the valley behind the shed. A different, and more dramatic look.

I heard this one from a famous photo teacher: “The average number of times a great photographer will go back to a spot to get the best landscape photo possible is 25.” For non pros, that’s not usually an option. But keep it in mind when you happen to luck into that photo on the first try. Luck matters, too.

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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19 thoughts on “11 Tips to Make Your Travel Photos Better”

      • Thanks, Lars. They evolved sort of naturally every time I went shooting, looked at the results and said to myself, “Well, I could have done that better.” It’s a learning process. The more you do, the easier it is.

  1. As travelers interested in photography, we may not know the difference from an Fstop versus a bus stop, but your hints are helpful either way. Slow down, frame your shot, select a focus, use a tripod. For the average person, these tips are already an improvement. Thanks for sharing thoughts and images!

  2. Hi Tom! Would you consider including your final camera settings w/some of your photos, especially those that you’re using to demonstrate “tips and tricks”? I so appreciate all of the good info, and having those final specs w/the photos you include might help bring it all home for me. Thanks for considering it!

    • Julie, I’ve never been sure why things like shutter speed, ISO, and F stop settings are useful, unless there is something in the photo that depends on those settings to illustrate how it was done, e.g. blurred movement, depth of field concerns, or noise (grain.) But, if any of those effects are the intentional results of the settings that I used, I’ll try to remember to include them. Thanks for reading and for the suggestion.

  3. This may be an older post, but they are all great tips that are still valid today (and great photos!). I would also add to use the rule of thirds. It’s something I didn’t use for years and I think it has made a difference in my photos. :)

  4. Some good tips – thanks. I especially agree about using the light in the early morning and evening. I must say although I do use a tripod at home for certain things, I have to be doing a trip with a particular photography focus before I’d consider taking or using a tripod for most travels. It really changes the nature of your day out if you have a tripod for company. And a phone camera often does a brilliant job.

    • Yes, the phone cameras are getting better all the time. But, for landscapes, which I shoot a lot, you can’t really top the dedicated DSLR and a tripod. And yeah, hiking with it is a pain, but often worth it.


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