How to Improve Your Travel Photography – Getting Into the Photographer Mentality

Our travel photography is one of our most precious records, souvenirs, and memories of our experiences abroad.  But in many occasions, they fail to deliver the beauty, experience, and reason behind the captured moment.

If you’ve wondered why your pictures aren’t as stunning as how you expected, here are some basic tips that will help you improve your photography.  I’ve divided these into three categories: Getting Into the Photographer Mentality, Composing and Capturing the Moment, and Simple Post-editing.

But first…  While cameras vary significantly –quality, features, megapixels, point-and-shoot vs. DSLR– one thing is for sure, you can take great pictures with any camera if you know how to see as a photographer and think of your pictures as an artistic expression of your travel experience.

So, how do you get the photographer mentality?

South Korea

1. Practice, practice, and practice some more!

Be a tourist in your own city.  Practice at home by taking shots of random and common things, especially if your camera is new.  Read the manual and learn how to use it properly.  In fact, play and experiment with every setting you care to explore.  This will help you feel comfortable with your camera and will give you a better idea on how well your camera performs under different environments.

2. Plan ahead

If time is on your side and you know what it is that you’re going to see, make a plan of your photographic intentions.  Is there a story you want to tell? An expression? A statement?

When possible, do a little reconnaissance of your location.  Look for the light source and quality (ie. Sun’s position), space composition, shadows, etc.  This helps create a mental picture of how your photos could look.

New York City Subway

3. Don’t be all automatic

If you’re a beginner, use your camera in the automatic mode, but pay attention to the shutter speed (ie. 1/125) and aperture (ie. f/3.5).  Learn how they change as your environment changes.  When comfortable, switch to manual mode and play with these settings, among others.  This will give you the creative freedom to over/under expose, blur, and create other effects in your pictures.

4. Keep your camera accessible

You never know when that perfect photo opportunity might come, so you’ll want to be as ready as possible to have a better chance to capture it.  Have your camera stored in an easily accessible, yet safe, place in your bag.  Keep it charged, with enough space available in the memory card, and with the ideal or automatic settings.

Warsaw's Old Town Square

5. Learn to hold steady

Sometimes, even the slightest camera movement can create a blurry photo (mostly in dark environments). Depending on how serious you are about photography, you might want to carry a tripod.  If not, you can use flat surfaces where you can place your camera or press against in order to keep it steady while the long exposure shot is being taken.  Worst case, take a deep breath and hold it; hold your camera at eye level and keep your elbows close to your body.  This helps minimize our natural movement.

6. Take more than one shot of the same scene

Always plan to take the best photograph possible and don’t rely on fixing it later in Photoshop.  Take more than one shot of the same scene, with slight variations in angle, aperture, time exposure, and zoom.  One of those shots will be that “perfect” shot.

7. Don’t forget to look around and behind you

It is natural to walk and just look forward.  But by just doing that you might be missing the opportunity to capture the hidden details and compositions that are happening around, on top, and behind you.

Lake Arenal, La Fortuna

8. Embrace the weather

Rain, sunshine, wind, fog, snow – every environment presents a unique opportunity and picture mood.  Sunny days might present great lights and shadows, but overcast weather can also present ideal environments to express certain details, less contrast, or different mood.  In addition, non-ideal weather conditions present unique photo opportunities that not every photographer takes the effort to capture.

9. Don’t forget to look outside the camera’s viewfinder

No matter how serious you are about photography, don’t forget to experience the place through your eyes and not through the viewfinder.  You don’t want to miss the world out there.

Warsaw Palace

In the end, you want to experience your destination as a traveler while seeing things as a photographer.

It’s important to note that you should not look the perfect moment to get the perfect picture.  Instead, shoot freely as you feel inspired by the place, person, or thing.  Tell a story with your pictures and deliver a sense of your experience.  Your goal should be to inspire others to experience the places you captured and enjoyed.

Next: Composing and Capturing the Moment

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20 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Travel Photography – Getting Into the Photographer Mentality”

  1. Great pics. I much prefer taking photos in winter in Turkey – you can actually see scenery instead of haze! And I’m no expert – I do ‘Number 6’ all the time. Flick through every possible setting and snap away. SOMETHING will look good! 🙂

    1. That’s a great weather-wise tip for taking pics in Turkey. Exactly, trying different shots will get you one that will look fine. The game is to play and explore with your shots!

  2. Great tips. When we finally get around to trying out our new camera, we will be referring to this post. Until then, it is Point and Shoot for the NVR Guys. (I know, sad.)

      1. Jaime, I started exactly like that. No clue on DSLR. But you will see that using it is easier than what it looks. If you want to get one, I recommend you search between Nikon and Canon. They are both great top choices. I personally use Canon.

    1. Thanks guys. haha, no, it’s not sad. I still use a P&S for many things since it is handy and quick, but I combine it with a DSLR for shots I feel I want to play a bit more. But, there have been cases where I’ve taken the same picture with both cameras and the P&S delivered a better shot than the DSLR. So, it’s all about playing and testing.

    1. Haha, Thanks Zablon. The 7th tip is great not only for photography but also for our travel experience. It helps us see and discover more about our surroundings.

  3. Some great tips Norbert. I would have to say my tip is to keep it simple…. I can’t tell you how many times I have spent countless wasted minutes setting up a photo only to turn and snap a better one in an instant.

    Love the subway shot too…it’s all about capturing moments in time really.

    1. Thanks Michael. Great tip to add! Yes, simplicity in your shots helps. They often look better and tend to deliver more effectively. Plus snaps tend to look more spontaneous and often more “alive”.

  4. Norbert,

    Great tips for another P&Ser….I’m not the photographer in the family, but you’ve given me food for thought when it comes to me trying my hand at this photography thing.

    1. Just to quote from a photographer that I meet recently… she said, “your best camera is the one you have right now”. You can have an iPhone camera, a regular point-and-shoot, or whatever; if you know how to get the details, the composition, the intention, and the story… no matter which camera you have, you can get a great picture with it. 😉

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