How To Improve Your Travel Photography – Composing and Capturing the Moment

This is the second part of a three part series on How to Improve your Travel Photography.

Now that you know how to get into the photographer mentality, it is time to go out and take those great shots.  Here are 10 tips that will help you compose and deliver your story through your pictures:

Reischtag Cupola in Berlin

1. Understand composition… and keep it simple

Composing an image goes beyond just placing your subject and other objects in a scene.  It is also a way to tell the story you want your photo to convey.

When composing, look for patterns, angles, textures, colors, objects, light, and other details that will help tell your story.  Composition is strongest when you pay attention to detail, especially in travel photography.

But, be careful not to put too much into a single photograph. Try not to have more than two main subjects in the image, or else it can be confusing to the eye.

El Morro and San Juan Cemetery

2. Don’t forget about your horizons

Horizons are a good reference of orientation and a measure of how leveled the image is.  Horizons, also considered as datum, can be horizontal and vertical.  The most obvious horizons are found in sunset images, the line created when the sky meets the water, but other horizon references can be window sills, floors, linear patterns, columns, and even non linear objects like trees.  Don’t forget that horizons not only level the image, they help compose it too.

Warsaw's Old Town Square, Poland

3. Know how to balance, frame, and use the rule of thirds

A balanced composition doesn’t need to be perfectly centered, (ie. you in the middle of the image).  Balance can be achieved asymmetrically with “heavy” objects on one side of the image while “lighter” objects or open spaces are placed on the other side.  This also helps the image “breathe” and not be cluttered.

The rule of thirds is a balance relationship on pictures.  It states that the focus or main object should be placed on one third of the image in order to achieve an aesthetically attractive composition.

Framing also helps balance and focus your subject in the image.  Good framing objects can be doorways, windows, arches, and column spaces, among others.

Doves at Old San Juan

4. Consider the foreground, background, and dept of field

Play with what you place in the foreground and background.  Depth of field depicts the distance between the main subjects and their backgrounds. The subject in the foreground is usually sharp and in focus, while the background gradually fades out and blurs.  Try blurring the foreground in certain shots while blurring the background in others.  Both techniques tell a different story.

Me at the Jewish Museum in Berlin

5. Get high, low, and around

Taking all your shots from a 5’-6” point of view can turn out to be boring.  Don’t be afraid to kneel, lay on the floor, and to safely climb in order to shoot your subject from different angles.  Be creative; get far, get close, use stairs and balconies, shoot a detail, shoot the whole scene, or look for unique angles.

For an uncommon perspective of your subject, go high and point the camera down; to make it look monumental, go low and point the camera up.  The more unusual you are, the more interesting your shot could be.

Roman Statue at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

6. Don’t be afraid to get close, really close

We all know cameras have zoom, but zooming from a far distance doesn’t have the same perspective, depth, details, and colors than actually getting close to your subject to take the shot.  Getting close also enhance the dept of field effect in pictures.

Ollantaytambo Sunset

7. Be aware of the light and its effect

The best times to shoot are during the early morning and late in the afternoon, just when the sun is low in the sky, casting soft, warm rays of light that create a desirable glow on your subject.  During midday, from 11:00am to 2:00pm, the sun is at its zenith and the radiant light is at its strongest.  This creates a very bright light that washes away the colors and makes it difficult to capture details with the camera lens.

Make the effort to get up early and to stay out late.  Another advantage to this is the ease to get your shots with less tourists or distractions that constantly interrupt your shots.

Machu Picchu Llama

8.  Capture action

The best travel photographs often portray some action.  Have in mind that action doesn’t necessarily involve physical movement.  Action can be effectively achieved with a deep stare of a person, or by projecting potential movement.  On the other hand, it can also be a capture of a running marathon or a flag waving in air.   Action is part of the atmosphere of your environment; when we manage to capture it we deliver a better sense of place.

For landscape shots, placing a subject in the image helps to bring life to the image and keeps it from being boring and static.  They also help establish a sense of scale in comparison to the background.

Woman Weaving in Cuzco

9. Evoke something

Evoke a sense of action, of time, of place.  Recognizable cultural icons help establish a sense of place and the sunlight helps establish time.  These little details help create a better photo and deliver your story.

Quechua Women in Cuzco, Peru

10. Capture faces and expressions

Don’t be afraid to photograph faces and expressions, without being annoying or invasive, of course.  No one wants to see pictures where all you see are back of heads, no expression.   Adding faces to your location both tells a story and adds humanity to the image. Be spontaneous and get the expressions of merchants in the market, performers on the street, people chatting, among others.

It’s important to note that successful travel photography is not about getting an award-winning photograph with every shot; it is about delivering a story and an experience.  You want to deliver the real sense of what you experienced to your friends and family.

Previous: Getting Into the Photographer Mentality.
Next: Simple Post-editing of your Pictures.

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  1. says

    Thanks Norbert! We all love a good photography post. My camera has the ‘thirds’ grid on the screen as an option – and I permanently use the option! :) It’s great for keeping the horizon straight as well because you can line the horizon up with the top line of the grid. I’m the champion of unintentional slanted photos!
    Have a great Christmas / New Year / Holidays! Dread to think what our New Year photos are going to look like! :)

    • says

      haha! That’s a good feature in your camera. Very useful I bet. Thanks! You too have a great Christmas and New Year!! 😀 I bet that after a few drinks in New Year no “thirds” grid will keep our photos straight! lol 😉

  2. says

    Sweet, great tips! I especially struggle with faces and expressions and taking pictures of people in general, even though I think that some of the most meaningful pictures are of people. Great shots!

    • says

      Thanks! Getting photos of people is somewhat hard in many cases… either they shy away, or you don’t want to bother them by asking, or whatever the situation. In my opinion, unless planned and asked for, these are the ones you just have to shoot many times without thinking much, just capture their actions and expressions as they happen.

  3. says

    Everyone always says “Great tips!” but seriously, Great tips! If there was one principle I would love to see the aspiring photographer walk away with it’s the rule of thirds.

    • says

      Thanks Robin! Yes, the rule of thirds is a really simple way to immediately enhance most photos. Like you suggested, it is essential to know for every aspirin photographer.

  4. says

    Outstanding tips! I’m really working on improving my photography this round of travel. Your tips are reminding me of some things I knew and also teaching me new things. Thanks so much!

    • says

      Thanks Michael! Definitely, the best thing is to get out there and play with your camera. A few thousand pics might sound a lot at first, but when you get into all the details, effects, modes, a few thousand pics are taken very easy… It’s all about practicing, playing, and making it work!

    • says

      Hey, rain can be a good setting too! play with shutter speeds, depths, and even with the almost monotones contrasts that are created in rainy days. Those can be great for “moody” pictures.

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