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How to improve your travel photography

You want to have more than just snapshots from your trip around the world? Then it is time to learn something about photography. Get out of your automatic mode, learn about composition and how you get the results you want.

After you read this post, go outside and practice, practice, practice! That’s how you improve your travel photography.

Understand the terms

The most important thing, if you want to improve your travel photography, is to understand the basic terms: aperture, shutter speed, ISO and depth of field. In short:

Aperture: How much light enters through your lens (measured in f-stops like f/4 to f/22)
Shutter speed: The time your shutter is open (measured in seconds usually from about 1/4000 s up to 30 s)
Depth of field: The amount of your photo that is focused
ISO: Level of sensitivity of your camera to the available light

The combination of aperture and shutter speed determines your exposure and the depth of field of your photo.

Improve Travel Photography: Aperture and Shutter Speed

Blurry background: Aperture set to f5

Improve Travel Photography: Aperture and Shutter Speed

Sharp landscape. Aperture set to f11

Improve Travel Photography: Aperture and Shutter Speed

Aperture F3.5, Shutter Speed: 1/250 s

Improve Travel Photography: Aperture and Shutter Speed

Aperture 22, Schutter Speed 1/6 s – See the difference?

Read photography guides to really understand those terms and try it yourself. Go out and shoot the same photo with different settings and you’ll get it quickly.

Don’t shoot in Auto

You think your camera is smart enough to know how your photo should look like? This might be enough for snapshots but if you want to take your photography to the next level, get out of the auto mode. You can choose between Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Program Mode and Manual Mode.

Aperture Priority: You decide the aperture, the shutter speed is set automatically, so your photo is well-exposed
Shutter Speed Priority: You change the shutter speed and the aperture is set automatically, so your photo is well-exposed
Program Mode: The camera determines aperture and shutter speed, it’s quite similar to Auto but you are still able to change both according to your needs. Additionally, you are able to choose the white balance and change the ISO.
Manual Mode: Set all the settings yourself, you are responsible for a good exposure.

When should I use which mode?
During my travels, I usually take all my photos with Aperture Priority because this way, I can decide which depth of field I want for my photo.

Improve Travel Photography: Aperture Prio

Aperture set to F5.6 to get a blurry background and focus on the cactus ice

Improve Travel Photography: Aperture Prio

Aperture F18, Shutter speed: 1/13 to get this effect of the water

If you want to shoot photos of sporting events for example, where people move quick or moving animals, you need the respective shutter speed. Use the shutter speed mode here.

Improve Travel Photography: Shutter Speed Prio

If you want these birds to be completely sharp, you need to use shutter speed Priority and choose the highest shutter speed possible (e.g. 1/4000 s)

I barely use the program mode as I want to decide how my photo looks like. If you feel overwhelmed with all the settings, I recommend to rather use program mode than auto. But also: start learning the terms and more importantly: practice!

In Manual Mode, you are completely free and can decide everything yourself. If the exposure doesn’t work out the way you want to with your priority modes, use manual. Use this mode to experiment and play with your camera. Be creative!

Rule of Thirds

Every time I ask someone to take a photo of me in front of a landscape and see that I stand right in the center of the photo or am just a small part of it, I get the creeps. I usually ask people with good cameras because I suppose they know a bit about photography. But rather often, they seem to not know about the rule of thirds.

It’s not difficult. Just divide your photo into three equal pieces both horizontally and vertically, like this:

Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds

Now, try to place the important parts of your photo on those lines, this way your photo looks much better, trust me. Before you take your photo, decide on your key elements in the photo and compose accordingly.

Of course, there are always exceptions and you want to have your subject in the center for example when you want to photograph something symmetric. Or sometimes certain lines (like a path) lead to your subject but I bet in 95% of all photos, the rule of third will make the better composition than your subject in the center.

Examples

Improve Travel Photography: Bad composition

Example of a bad composition. The photo would be much better if the person would go a bit to the left and down, so I’m on the right looking at Machu Picchu and my whole body is in the photo

Improve Travel Photography: bad composition

I don’t like that we’re right in the center of the photo. The person who took the photo should have moved us a bit more to the left

Improve Travel Photography: composition

Horizontal lines are on the end of the rocks and the mountains in the background

Improve Travel Photography: composition

Look how the cactus ice is exactly on three of the “rule of thirds” lines

Change angles & experiment

Do you want to take a special photo of a sight which has been photographed by over a million people? Get creative and change the angle. Take a different photo than the crowd. See the details of a building, get down on the ground, to the side or whatever you can think of.

Photography is a creative art and you should experiment as much as possible. A photo of the Eiffel Tower was taken zillions of times. Making your photo unique is what makes the difference between a good and an impressive shot.

Improve Travel Photography: Change angle

Often a photo looks more interesting, when you change the usual angle

Happy feet above my head

Happy feet above my head

Use a tripod

Light isn’t always perfect. Especially when you want to shoot on a rainy day, in the morning/evening or even at night, it’s essential to use a tripod or a place to put your camera somewhere stable. You just cannot hold that still to get the perfectly sharp image.

Improve Travel Photography: Use a tripod

Use a tripod, especially for night photography

With a tripod, you can take photos with lower shutter speeds without being worried about blurry results. You can take a landscape photo with an aperture of f/22 (to have a big amount of focus in your photo) and use a low shutter speed. You can take beautiful photos of flowing water. Or just a sharp photo during the night without the use of your flash (which would ruin the whole atmosphere of the photo). You can just be much more creative using a tripod.

Avoid bright daylight

No, noon is not the best time to take a photo. The difference between the sunny parts of your photo and the shadows will be huge. So, avoid those times and better go out early in the morning or in the afternoon.

Heard about the golden and blue hours? The golden hours are the hour after sunrise or before sunset. The blue hours, on the contrary, are the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset. During the golden hour, the contrast between sunny and shady parts of your photo is smaller, you get warm colors and it looks more natural.

To photograph during those hours, again it’s important to bring a tripod.

Improve Travel Photography: avoid bright sunlight

Photo taken around 1 PM, impossible to correct the light situation in post-processing

It doesn’t have to be the most expensive camera

You do not need to pay thousands of dollars to get an expensive camera. If you don’t know about the above-mentioned things, the camera doesn’t make a better photographer out of you.

What matters is a camera where you can set all the important settings and then you just need to understand everything and practice, practice, practice!

After my DSLR broke about two years ago, I decided to get a mirror-less camera. It’s smaller, lighter and the one I got had an even better quality than my old DSLR. I don’t want to give away my Sony Alpha a6000 anymore. I am really happy with it and can only recommend you to get this camera if you’re in the process of buying one.

How do you improve your travel photography? Do you have anything to add for newby-photographers?

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How to improve your travel photography

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