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How To Take Great Travel Photos

Photos from travelling adventures of the past are likely to be one our most treasured possessions in the years to come.

Everyone tries desperately to capture a moment in time, an incredible view or the essence of a amazing place they have passed through.

Back in July 2012, we introduced you to 3 talented and exciting up and coming graduate photographers, who would soon be hitting the open road in search of some awesome travel photos to be used in our Asia and Europe brochures.

Louis Leeson, was one of those photographers. Having scored a first in his photojournalism degree at the London College of Communication, he’s recently returned from a month travelling around Asia and has submitted some fantastic shots as a result.

Louis pre Asia trip

As someone who understands how inspiring and treasured a great set of travel photos can be, he’s here to share the secrets of his trade with you, so that you too can return home with a set of shots to be proud of.

Louis’ Top Tips For Capturing Amazing Travel Memories

Get Close

Something a lot of budding travel photographers do is to put too much distance between themselves and what they are shooting.

We have all seen photos of those who have just returned from far-flung lands; of robed, Buddhist monks, magnificent, Giant Pandas and spectacularly bulbous Baobab trees, but the subject is dead centre frame and so tiny you have to squint to see it.

And simply zooming in with a long lens is no substitute for getting up close and personal. If it interests you and you think it is going to make a great photograph; get up close to it; fill the frame with it; and show us the subject in detail.

It was one of the founders of Magnum Photos, Robert Capa, who said; “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” So get closer. You may see something you perhaps would not have otherwise, and your photographs will look great too.

Spinning top, Antop Hill, Mumbai, India.

Forget about full-auto mode

There are too many cameras out there whose owners never use anything but the full-auto setting. This is a terrible shame as it creates literally billions (380 billion according to the Lens blog of the New York Times) of homogeneous photographs that all “feel” the same and lack any visual authorship.

The problem with fully automatic settings is that they let the camera make all the important decisions. And whilst they may be increasingly intelligent nowadays, remember that scientists, not photographers, are often the ones to program them.

Learn to use your other settings. Take a moment to experiment with aperture priority and introduce some shallow depth of field with a wide-open F-stop. Capture some car headlights as they streak past by using exposure control to open the shutter for 30 seconds or more. Or go fully manual to really author every element of the photograph.

The bridge at Calle 11, Xela, Guatemala.

Know the local customs

So, you’re going to be travelling to some exotic and faraway places on your travels, right? That means new foods, new languages, and new experiences. It also means different cultures, customs, and beliefs, and if you want to photograph them you must study them first.

Not all cultures are as familiar with intrusive cameras or so bombarded with imagery as we are in the West. As such, some are quite skeptical of photographers, whilst others can be outright hostile.

But don’t worry, the key here is common sense. Indigenous people are more wary of cameras than cosmopolitan urbanites; places of worship or religious holidays will require a little more sensitive approach than the bar or the beach; and always take care before photographing young children.

A little consideration here will save you a hundred awkward encounters and, as it is unlikely that you will be the last photographer to pass through another person’s country, leaving a good impression will mean a warmer welcome for the rest of us.

A child in the temple, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Photograph a location at different times throughout the day

Perhaps the most well known building that demonstrates the rewards of returning at different times of the day is the Taj Mahal in India, but it is a good exercise for almost any building, location or natural object in the world.

Capture your subject as the sunrises and the long shadows slope past it for a ghostly or ethereal photo, or in the full glory of the midday sun for evenly exposed image, or wait until nightfall and watch your subject light up as the sunsets for a sci-fi cityscape.

It is not just the quality of the light which changes depending on what time you visit a location, but also the way people interact with it; London Bridge throngs with business men in suits at 6am stampeding to the office, but at 10pm it is a relatively quite, neon lit span over the river Thames upon which bright red double-deckers glide quietly by.

If you have the time, revisiting a place can be the most rewarding way to photograph it.

Ometepe Island, Lago de Nicaragua, Nicaragua.

“The journey is the destination”

If you do any serious travelling you will soon realise that a lot more time is spent getting to where you want to go that actually being there, and this is no bad thing.

If your train is delayed, then explore the station for an interesting photograph. If it is not delayed but is over 36 hours long; a real possibility in India, then explore the carriages and strike up conversations with the other passengers. If your chicken bus breaks down just over La Frontera to Guatemala, treat it as a gift because you have just gotten off the well worn Gringo trail.

The girl on the bus, Ciudad de Panamá, Panama.

Know your composition before you raise your camera and don’t overshoot

No one likes a nosy tourist with a camera fastened to their face whose flash is constantly popping. You can almost guarantee their pictures will be less than great, and where they have 10,000 images from a week long holiday, none of them are genuine snapshots of daily life because they acted in a way that altered the behaviour of those around them.

Get to know your gear. Know how it works without having to think about it. Know what a scene will look like through your lens before you put the viewfinder to your eye. It may sound easier said than done, but repetition develops familiarity, and that is all there is to it.

When you can do this you will be able to watch a busy street in New York or bustling souk in Marrakesh and know better when to raise your camera and take a photo. This will mean that you are not drawing attention to yourself and, hopefully, not affecting the situation around you and distorting what you are trying to capture. As such, your photographs will be much truer glimpses of where you have been.

Untitled portrait, Kolkata, East India.

Get up before dawn

You don’t want the same photos that everybody else has, do you? Well, get there before the rest of the crowd does. This usually means laying off the Chang, Corona, Tsing-Tao, Kingfisher or Pilsner Urquell for at least one night and getting up when the cock crows.

It will be worth it though. Not only will you get some nice light, but you will get some fantastic photos of the city as it wakes, or the people as they do their morning exercises. You will likely see some things that other travellers who are still in bed will not, and all without that added competition as well.

And you can take a break around lunch, especially if you are in a hot climate, just as the day begins to heat up and treat yourself to that beer you denied yourself last night, safe in the knowledge that you have a role of film or a memory card full of great photos whilst all the others all play catch up.

Morning at the Dong Xuan market, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Photograph people not places

It may sound obvious, but putting people into your photographs greatly improves them. You don’t want someone looking at your photo-album and saying; “That’s a nice 9th Century statue of Vishnu, but where is everybody?”

It helps the viewer of your image identify and appreciate what it is you’re trying to capture. And people relate to people. If you really want your photography to stimulate an emotional response in the reader, and what photographer doesn’t, then you have to make people your focus.

Rather than trying to photograph the people themselves, photograph their relationships with one another, the way they interact to their surroundings. Capturing these ephemeral elements is what will make your holiday snaps into brilliant photographs.

Mexico fans celebrate a goal against bitter rivals Argentina, Central Zócalo, Distrito Federal, Mexico.

Put the camera down

Are you 5000 miles away from your home just to take photos? No, didn’t think so.

Put the camera down and eat with both hands. Or leave it in your backpack and jump in the ocean. You will be a very dull person if all you come back from the other side of the world with is a neatly organised photo-album.

A camera cannot capture the smell of hot tarmac as it sticks to your feet in the mid-April heat of Mumbai. Nor can a photograph capture the sound of the minaret’s call to prayer. A camera is a poor substitute for a lifetime of memories, so if you are lucky enough to watch the sunrise over the Himalayas, do yourself a favour and just let it wash over you.

And there you have it folks, some awesome travel photography tips from an expert. Have a go at capturing your own images using his advice and send us the fruits of your labour. For more ace blog posts like this make sure you subscribe to the blog, we won’t let you down!