When we travel, the more special a destination, the higher our expectations are of being able to capture it on “film”. Making great photos can present a conflict between enjoying an experience in the moment, with the effort it entails to capture it for later. Some travelers naturally see the world through a camera lens, and photography is their art. But for others, great travel photos can be difficult to pull off.
I asked a few of our partner photographers how they approach travel photography, to get some of their favorite tips, perspective on what makes a great photo, and the cameras they carry.
In listening to them, I thought back to the time in my life when I was taking my best travel photos: it was during my solo trip around the world at age 20. So to spice this up, I found a few images - actually old 35mm slides - to pair with our photographer’s perspectives.
Whether you carry a fancy DSLR or have switched almost exclusively to phone photography like me, I hope these travel photo ideas contribute to your adventure.
First, let me introduce you to our experts:
- Kyle McCarthy, Freelance Photographer - you've seen his photos of Bluffworks in several of our blogs and social media posts.
- Matija Kljunak Photography, Wedding Photographer - we heard about him after learning that he owned 11 pairs of Bluffs to wear when he shoots summer weddings across Croatia.
- Michael Hawkins, Freelance Photographer - shoots beautiful landscape and travel photography.
- Andy Luten, Travel Blogger and Passionate Amateur Photographer - friend of the brand and expert on the ins and outs of air travel.
What Makes A Great Travel Photo?
We asked our experts what makes a great travel photo. And, our photographers highlighted two things: storytelling and light.
On storytelling, from Andy: “Anyone can take a snapshot. Snapshots usually involve, ‘Hey let's get a picture, [snap]… without regard for background, framing, or the story they're trying to tell’. A good photo will show depth, convey feeling, and look like it was done on purpose.” Matija shared that, “a good photo tells a story, gives some context, or is surprising in some way”.
Many years ago, I took this shot of a vegetable seller in Cairo. Kyle has a simple test: “Is the main subject in the image drawing your eye?” In this shot, the woman stands out due to her expression and color of her dress. Ironically, the shot would have been worse if she was on center.
All of our photographers felt that light was of critical importance. For Michael, it’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about a good photo — “shoot any scene at noon and again thirty minutes before sunset. Which one looks better? The ‘golden hour’ light is famous for a reason.”
Later, on that same day in Cairo, tired after wandering chaotic neighborhoods, I was looking for a quiet moment. So I climbed high above the city via the scaffolding of an abandoned construction site. I was surprised to find I wasn’t alone.
In this picture, the light makes the shot; it brings an emotion and softness that wouldn’t have existed if shot at high noon.
Get storytelling and light right, and you’re a long ways towards a good photo. On a practical level, whenever the light is bad, it’s a good time to put down your camera and enjoy the moment.
How To Think Like A Photographer
One of the best and simplest ways to improve your photography is to start thinking like a photographer. Largely, this means slowing down.
Extra attention to framing an image was at the top of their tips to take good photos. As advised by Kyle, “whenever you take out your camera, ask yourself how you could make the shot better, and adjust. Think about the composition before you take the picture.”
I once read a book about a guy who took only one photo a day. And boy were they good. It’s worth mentioning that all of the photos on this page were taken with film – back when framing an image really mattered. In the digital age, we can take unlimited shots, but more doesn’t necessarily equal better.
A suggestion from Michael is “shooting something from a perspective that isn't your normal eye level – get higher or lower – and see how it impacts the image.”
Take a look at this: The first image of this bridge in Northern Pakistan is strong, because it makes me pause when I think about walking across it —
But a more interesting angle helps this version tell a different story —
When shooting a landscape, Andy offered a virtual formula: “Good photos need depth, so you need to convey a sense of scale and give the viewer's eye a logical path to follow. Try to have something in the foreground that the viewer could reach out and touch, something in the middle ground that they could walk to, and something in the background that sets the scene for the fore and middle ground.”
The fence in this shot I took in Irian Jaya makes me feel like crossing the boundary into the village would be a big deal. These huts are typical of what I found in each village on my two week trek. Every night, someone would take me in to eat a meal of sweet potatoes roasted in a fire, and sleep alongside their family.
Back to how to use light deliberately in your photographs, Matija points out: “In travel photography, we can rarely choose our lighting, so let’s focus on one thing we can choose — the angle of the light. Is it coming from one pinpoint direction (like sun or a streetlight), from few directions (like big window in the room), or from many directions (like overcast sky)?”
I found Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia to be a paradise for interesting light, with lots of great angles.
Lastly, I found this comment from from Andy interesting in terms of acquiring a photographer’s mindset: “Make sure the subject of your photo is immediately apparent! You have just milliseconds to get people's attention, so the subject should be visible and obvious when you start to frame up a picture.”
It’s clear from these comments that one critical ingredient for a memorable photo is slowing down to shoot it with care.
Capturing Your Subject
Sure, there’s a time and a place for a killer landscape or architecture shot, but most of the time, people make a photo. There are a thousand shots of the Eiffel Tower, but the one that will be special to you will be the one with people in it that says, “We were there.”
Matija says: “Including people in your photos is much more beneficial for storytelling and sometimes offers additional insights, like a sense of scale. Ever seen a person underneath a huge waterfall or in front of a pyramid? It helps illustrate how mind-bogglingly huge some things are.”
Kyle suggests prioritizing candid shots over posted “Cheese!” snaps: “More often than not, I end up liking photos that are taken candidly versus photos that are posed. Learning to have my camera ready and knowing how to use it quickly to catch photos of things as they happen has typically led me to the photos I’ve liked most.”
Matija says: “A good trick is to pretend you’re fiddling with settings so they get back into their usual routine (kids being kids, for example) and then snap a surprising candid shot. Photos where people are being themselves are much more valuable than posed photos 20 years down the line.
Overall, the goal of photographing a person is catching them in the moment, so if they stop what they’re doing, then the moment is lost.
In Pakistan, we rode on top of buses for hours and I snapped this shot of a traveling companion asleep on the ride.
Getting In The Photo
And for that crazy idea that you might ever want to be in the photo yourself, here are a few tips on how to make it happen.
All of our photographers recommended bringing a small tripod, like a Gorilla Pod. Matija uses one of these with a bluetooth or WiFi enabled camera with an app on his phone that serves as a remote shutter so he can take a self-portrait before it happens. No timers and no running back to pose.
Andy admitted that “people give selfie sticks a bad rap, but I love using them since it allows more than just people's faces to be in the frame! Or, if you have a nice camera, find someone with a similarly nice camera and ask them to take your picture.”
I have a phone case with a tripod built in, made by ZeroChroma that I love.
Get this: when hitchhiking in Jordan, it’s typical for the first passing car to pick you up. This is me, hitchhiking in the back of a pita delivery truck, escaping a rainstorm in the desert of Wadi Rum.
Be A Respectful Travel Photographer
Ugh. I am reluctant to talk about this one…
Once, while when wandering the alleyways of Varanasi in India, I came across a kid getting an outdoor bath. It’s a common part of life there - bathing at an outdoor water source - and the beauty of the image caught my eye. As I prepared to take the shot, a girl intentionally got in the way.
I captured the image anyway. And I wish I hadn’t. It’s an amazing image, but not fit to share.
Michael put it perfectly: “When traveling and trying to capture images of people, keep in mind that these are human beings and not props.”
The vibe of consent from your subject is a big deal. Below is a picture that I took just around the corner from the bathing scene, with a completely different vibe.
As Kyle points out, “respecting people and cultures is more important than me having a good photograph. My hope is that the way I take photos would make a person feel honored and appreciated rather than used as a souvenir.”
Pick The Right Camera For You
A challenging topic is how to choose the camera for your trip.
Here’s where I land:
- I love the high quality photos I used to take with my DSLR camera.
- It was a pain to lug around.
- And in some cases, I felt like it objectified my subjects. (The difference between taking a cheerful snapshot versus turning someone into a piece of wall art is not insignificant.)
- It distracted from my trip, in terms of keeping the camera safe, particularly in bad weather and risky environments.
In the last couple of years, I’ve switched to carrying just a phone camera:
- This is because the phone does such a good job — better than some of the mid-sized, high end digital cameras that were supposed to be an improvement.
- My phone is always with me and easy to access.
- My phone is very well aligned with what I want to do with the photos which is 1) easily back them up and 2) share them.
- It’s easy to make my phone weather-ready (example: kayaking in Belize) with a simple waterproof case.
In order to decide on the best travel camera for you, you have to balance what’s most important: the trip itself, or the art of photography. Going to a DSLR requires an investment in both time and money; don’t underestimate the effort to upload, manage, convert, share, etc. with large, high quality photos. And sometimes too many photos are just too many photos.
Kyle says, “especially when traveling, the value of a quality camera on your phone can mean traveling lighter and taking pictures more discreetly, which are both invaluable qualities.”
For a once in a lifetime trip — like a safari, or an eye popping destination like India — Matija advises that “going to full RAW capture, which includes much more data, will result in better images”.
Andy goes the other way and suggests: “the best camera is the one you have with you, so I wholeheartedly recommend the smartphone you already have!”
Michael suggests investing in a small non-phone camera. “You don't need a full frame camera, but you can have a pocketable camera with a large sensor (this is the key) and decent glass for less than $500.”
Because all of these guys are more serious, what do they actually use themselves? Several guys mentioned using the same Sony a7RIII and Matija swears by the Fuji X Series. Spendy, but impressive.
I shot this pic in France with my iPhone, and think it captures the setting just fine.
When it comes down to it, photography is the art of telling the story of a moment.
The effect of photography should be to transport you to that time and place. My favorite picture of a moment is this one I shot on a train in India.
As Andy says, “I cannot show you how something felt if I don't take the time to feel it for myself.”