Ten Tips for Better Travel Photography

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Are you looking for ways to get better photos when you travel?  Do you need some tips and tricks?  Are you planning a vacation and want to return with photos that wow your friends?  Well, look no further...here are some thoughts about it that have been bouncing around in my head for a while!  Hope this helps!

Top Ten Tips for Better Travel Photography

As you may know from reading this blog, I travel frequently and bring along my gear so that I can capture photos while I am on the road.  Figuring out what to bring - and how to pack it - is a very personal thing I think, and a bit of an iterative process.  The more you do it, the more you figure out what works for you.

It's hard to compile a top ten list, since you never know who is reading it, and whether it will be applicable to them or not.  As I said above, it is very personal.  Some of this may help, and some of this may be a no-brainer.  It depends on both your skill level as a photographer and your depth of experience in traveling and taking photos (and carrying gear around!).

Without any further rambling, here are my Top Ten Tips for Better Travel Photography:

1.) Get the right gear.This may seem obvious, but I frequently see folks trying to take a shot of something way off in the distance with a point & shoot camera.  Sadly, it just won't work.  If you want serious photos from your travels, I believe you need a serious camera.  Note that I did not say "expensive".  You need something though that can give you adequate capability with a lens (or, lenses) that will let you get wide-angle shots (for those Italian countryside landscapes!) as well as zooming into things that are off in the distance.  For me, this means a DSLR, not a point-and-shoot.  Yes it's a little bigger and heavier, but it's about the photo, right?  I just can't see any way around that one. 

You can see what equipment I use on this page: http://www.nomadicpursuits.com/my-gear/ but you don't need all that.  I shot for years with a fairly basic DSLR and a single 18-200mm lens, and it worked great!

2.) Bring a tripod.  I know, a tripod is somewhat heavy and can be unwieldy at times.  So what?  Do you want serious photos, or do you want to travel light?  I think that is the question.  I do love to travel light, but whenever I am in a situation and need the stability that only a tripod can give me, I tend to forget about how much of a "hassle" it was to bring it along.  And when you look back on the photos later, do you remember that it was a drag lugging around a tripod, or do you think "man that is a sweet shot"?

Here's a perfect example.  I took this shot on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, TX a couple of years back.  We were on the Riverwalk for dinner on the night right after Thanksgiving when they light up all the Christmas lights.  They have a huge parade of floats down the river, all decked out and lit up - it's awesome. It was a crowded place - really crowded - but boy am I glad that I brought my tripod, because I love this shot.  No tripod = no shot.  Even if you have arms like Dolph Lundgren, there's no way you can hold the camera still long enough to get something like this.  This was a 13 second exposure in low light.  Good luck Dolph.

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3.) Get the right bag.  If you ask any photographer what the best bag is, you will likely get a different answer each time, and probably all of them will say they are still searching.  For whatever reason, selecting the right bag seems even more personal than selecting a camera.  People get really into this stuff - including me.  Recently I upgraded to the Think Tank Streetwalker Hard Drive and love it.  It's not a small bag, but it easily hold everything I need, from my laptop to the full frame camera body, 3 lenses, my Kindle, countless cords and accessories, and some snacks.  Despite all that, I still have room for more stuff.  It's a great bag.  Also, you can attach a tripod to it so you can bring that along easily!  And it fits under the seat in front of me on a plane!

I highly recommend a bag that either is a backpack, or can convert to a backpack.  This is because you will want to wear it and walk with your camera in hand in a lot of places.  Shoulder bags and all that other stuff just don't work for me.   I want a full backpack so I can slip it on and forget about it!

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4.) Get up early.  So you are on vacation and you really want to catch up on sleep right?  And you stay out late at night because you want to do as much as possible, experience the culture, and have fun?  Wrong!  Get up early and go shoot - especially if you are in a touristy area.  Here's the deal - all the other tourists are staying up late and sleeping in.  So if you get up and shoot early in the morning, you have it all to yourself, plus the light is soft and dreamy.  Isn't that awesome??  I love shooting at incredible places early in the morning.  It's an easy way to get shots with no other tourists in them.  Then, if you are tired, go rest during mid-day when the light is really bright.  Or get some caffeine and keep going, there's lots to shoot!  

This is the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, CA just after sunrise.  I had it all to myself.  Well, there were some birds.

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Here's another example - this is Central Station in Glasgow, Scotland.  I got up early on a Sunday morning and was able to walk around this (usually) crowded train station without anyone getting in my way.  Try that at 2pm and see how hard it is to get a clean shot.  The word impossible comes to mind.  :)

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5.) Download the Stuck on Earth app.  Trey Ratcliff who runs the photo blog Stuck in Customs recently launched a new iPad app call Stuck on Earth.  It's a fabulous (and free!!) app that is quickly becoming an essential photo trip planning tool for me.  In addition to offering up curated lists of top spots to photograph in various destinations worldwide, the locations are geo-tagged and you can map them out right there!  It's fun and easy to use, and since the lists are created by folks who are generally from those areas, you can count on finding some great spots that you might have otherwise missed!

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If you do not have an iPad, then Google Maps is your next best friend (and I still use it too).  Use Google to find the most popular spots or landmarks that you want to photograph, and then be sure and plan out your route for maximum effectiveness.  Think about which direction the sunlight will be coming from, and what time of day you can get to the spot you want to shoot.  It all matters.  If you plan ahead, even just a little bit, it helps tremendously! 

6.) Make friends before you go.There is a massive community online of photo-enthusiasts from all over the world.  I tend to find that photographers love to share their hometowns and their favorite spots - it's a little like showing off your children!  I frequently search on Google or Flickr for ideas, top 10 lists, etc.  Then reach out and contact that person for additional advice.  You may even make a friend out of it!  In some cases, I have made friends through Flickr or wherever, and then planned a photowalk with that person when I get to their town.  Now that is a real treat - you basically get someone to escort you to the best spots, and you have a great time hanging out with another photographer at the same time!  A total win!

7.) Get religious, and pick a platform.  I am talking about churches and train stations here, not gods and politics.  Churches and train stations have some of the most photographic interiors that you will ever come across.  The architecture is stunning and they are just beautiful!  Everyone pays visits to the big, well known churches.  You should too, just be sure and bring along the gear. They are popular, but crowded.  Get there early if you can.  Same with train stations.  Plan your shooting in a train station early on a weekend morning, if at all possible.  Most times folks are in a hurry, zipping through a train station to get to the next stop.  Arrive early, slow down, and you will find some real beauty there!

This is Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, CA.  I got there early, and still had to wait a few minutes, but then it was just me for about 30 minutes.  Wonderful. (And I had my tripod!  You read tip #2, yes?)

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This is Union Station in Kansas City - what an incredible place.  This was actually late in the day - but the same thing applies: go when crowds are least likely!

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One more train station - I love them!  This is Paddington Station in London, England.  You guessed it - early one morning!  No tricks here - it was just empty!

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8.) Shoot first, ask for forgiveness later. Ok, I know some folks will disagree with this, and think it is disrespectful, but that's ok.  Here's my opinion: if you are somewhere and want to take a photo, just take it.   Sometimes for silly reasons they object, so I always try and shoot first and if I have to, ask for forgiveness later.  In other words, be bold and get your shots done fast.  Worst case, play the role of the uninformed tourist, then kindly put your camera away.  The most they will do is ask you to leave - which could be a drag depending on where you are - but there is really no harm in taking a photo.  All you are going to do is post it online and get people excited about going there - what's the harm in that?! 

9.) Get the big shots but look for the small ones.   Everyone shoots the "big stuff", and you sort of have to, right?  It's like proof you were really there.  No one believes you went to Paris until they see your photo of the Eiffel Tower, for example.  Nothing wrong with shooting the big ones - and they are great - but all I am saying is that there are countless little shots just waiting for you everywhere, so don't blindly march to the big spots while neglecting the overlooked gems right under your feet.  As much as I love great shots of the big stuff, I am usually more interested in shots that reveal some character of a place, and that you may not have seen before.  It's more original and interesting.  In other words, SLOW DOWN.  (I am speaking to myself as much as to anyone reading this.)

Here's a perfect example.  I was in London and had hit some of the big sites, and was making my way to another one.  I came across this wonderful store front, and just had to capture it.  It just looked so...English.

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10.) Have fun and experiment.  This is the biggest point I will make, and in many ways the most important.  Enjoy your time in a new place.  Make this experience uniquely yours.  It's exciting and magical to be somewhere new.  Take photos of some of the locals.  Go to a festival.  Take a photo of a door, or an alley - in other words, take photos of anything that catches your eye.  It doesn't matter what you do with it later, but I can guarantee you that you will remember the trip better if you have some random, unplanned photos that you took along the journey.  Here's a few of mine...and enjoy your travels!

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Thanks so much for reading this and do let me know your feedback in the comments section below!  Have fun out there travelin' and shootin' - it's so exciting and adventurous!