Travel photographs are memories. You look at a picture and it conjures up thoughts, feelings, and smells that take you back to a long-forgotten place.
Photography is a skill that takes time, effort, and practice to master. It’s also not a question of gear — great travel photography is very much about the photographer.
Here are 8 simple travel photography tips you need to take better pictures right away. If you follow these rules, you won’t go wrong!
1. Composition: Taking Pictures People REALLY Want
Patterns: the human brain is a sucker for them. We’re always looking for patterns — be they shapes in the clouds, symmetry in buildings, or colours that complement each other. There’s just something about a pattern that our brains love.
Understanding these patterns and what pleases the human brain is a nifty shortcut to taking better photos. And that’s what composition in photography is all about. Learn and apply the rules below, and you’ll start taking more photos that people will enjoy.
Before launching into them, though, some important basics. First, ensure that your camera is level. You don’t want wonky horizons. Your brain generally doesn’t like them; they’re the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.
Next — stop moving. You want to be as still as possible when shooting to avoid blurry images. Hold your camera with both hands and be steady, or use a tripod.
2. The Rule of Thirds
One of the most important rules of composition is known as the rule of thirds.
I learned recently that this is based on how babies learn to identify their mothers’ faces, which can be split up into three parts, comprising the eyes, nose, and mouth.
The rule of thirds requires you to break an image into three equal parts either vertically, horizontally or both. The goal is to place key compositional elements into those thirds.
On your device, find the setting to enable a grid over the preview screen. Four lines will appear, two vertical and two horizontal.
3. Leading Lines
When composing a photograph, you want to make it as easy as possible for the person looking at it to figure out the subject and focus of the image.
One way to do this is with leading lines — the use of natural geography or other features that the viewer will naturally look at first and which will lead their eyes to the main subject.
Roads and railways are excellent as leading lines, particularly in big landscape shots.
4. Foreground, Midground, and Background
Have you ever taken a picture of a mountain or city skyline and then looked at it later and wondered why it doesn’t manage to convey the majesty of what you were looking at?
This is likely because your photograph is a two-dimensional image and you have lost the sense of scale that is apparent when you are present and in the moment.
When composing a shot — and this is particularly true for landscape photography — think about the different elements in the foreground, midground, and background of the shot.
When you are out and about in the world, think about everything around you. If you see a far-off mountain you want to shoot, look around and see if you can find something interesting in the foreground or midground to incorporate into the shot. If you’re near a river, maybe that could be a canoe. Elsewhere it could be a house. Or a group of sheep. Or a car starting to scale a winding road.
If you’re shooting a city scene, look at what is happening all around you. Street vendors, different modes of transport, and signs and storefronts can all be incorporated as foreground to provide context and scale for your city skyline or that interestingly shaped building.
If you can’t find something, be creative. Find someone to stand in your shot to provide that scale. If you’re travelling with a tripod, do what I did in that railway shot and use yourself as the subject. Just remember not to confuse your viewer too much with too many compositional elements, and keep it clear what the photo is of.
Thinking beyond the big background parts of the image and focusing on the smaller elements will help you create more balanced, pleasing images.
This compositional technique isn’t about hanging a picture in a frame; it’s about using what’s around you to “frame” the subject you are trying to capture, illustrating to the viewer what the shot is of and drawing their eyes into the scene.
When you have found your subject, look around to see if there’s a way you can frame it creatively. Some good options for framing include vegetation, like tree branches and trees, as well as doors and windows.
6. Focal Points
One way to be sure that people look at the part of the image you want them to look at is to have only that part of the image sharp and in focus and the rest blurry.
This is particularly effective for isolating people or animals in shots — take a look at wedding or sports photos of people, and you’ll see how often the subject of the shot is the only thing in focus.
To start with, you can achieve this effect with the “portrait” or “people” mode on your camera.
7. Use of Colour
Colour is really important in photography, particularly how different colours work well together. For example, blue works well with yellow (sunflowers in a field), and red works well with green (Christmas!).
To figure out which colours work well together, take a look at this colour wheel.
Generally, colours opposite each other on the wheel will complement each other. These colours don’t need to be evenly balanced in a shot — often images work best with a small percentage of one and a greater percentage of another.
When you are on your travels, keep an eye out for contrasting and complimentary colours that you can incorporate into your shots. Spice markets, old European cities, rural meadows, and old colourful barns in green fields are a great place to start.
Remember that when you are taking a picture, you have all the background and surrounding knowledge of your trip in your mind. When you look at the image later, all of that will come back to you.
No one else has that advantage. To them, that shot of a waterfall is just that — a shot of a waterfall. The story of the five-hour hike there through a leech-infested jungle? Lost. The feeling of how refreshing it was on your skin when you took the plunge in to cool off? Also gone. It’s just a two-dimensional image on a screen, likely quickly flicked by to be replaced by the next image in the stream.
It’s your job to bring all that lost context to life.
We’re often told that a photograph is worth a thousand words. As a photographer, it’s your job to convey those words. Figure out how to tell that story with your image. Get the shots that pull your viewers into your stories. Use emotion, find and freeze moments, and incorporate the human element so your shots resonate with your viewers.
Spend time thinking about the shot you are trying to create, the moment you are trying to capture, and the story you are trying to tell your viewer. Put yourself into their shoes, imagine you are going to be looking at the shot with no other context, and try to build the shot from there.
Practice makes perfect – and travel photography is no different in this regard! The more photos you take, the more you will learn how to compose and capture great shots. While reading some travel photography tips will definitely help, the key is to actually go out in the world and practice them. The more you practice, the faster this will all become second nature. It won’t happen overnight, but over time your skills will improve — I promise!
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start taking some photos!