Being a travel “snapshooter” is simple. It’s easy to get visually inspired when you’re traveling because you see new and unusual things all the time. Like many others, you probably get the urge to simply point your camera and record every interesting thing you see. The subject might be intriguing, but are your photos any good?
Unfortunately, an interesting subject does not automatically make for a great photograph. Strong photos depend more on the photographer. That said, even skilled photographers get caught up with busy travel schedules and forget to slow down to make great photos of the cool things they’re seeing while traveling.
In an effort to help you take better photos the next time you hit the road, I want to share with you five things I believe all the best travel photos—and any photos really—have in common:
1. Great Exposure No Matter The Time Of Day
“Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman, founder of Kodak
The word ‘photography’ means painting with light. Learn to see when the light is best for the style of photograph you want. For instance, morning and evening hours have softer, richer light than in the middle of the day.
Traveling does not always allow us to be where we want to when the light is best. Planning your travels to be somewhere special around sunrise and sunset will allow you to make the most of the light. If you find yourself a fabulous subject in the middle of the day, make the most of it. Midday sun is challenging, but not impossible, to shoot under. Instead of giving up before you even start, embrace the circumstances and light and push yourself to think creatively.
[Recommended: Five Tips For Shooting Better Portraits In Harsh Midday Sun]
The other four things on this list may come into play even when the light is not spectacular.
2. Mood-Inspiring Color and Tone
“The ability to see the quality of color and its different relationships is an art, as well as a skill that must be honed through continual exercise.” – Nevada Wier, travel photographer and author
Color is everywhere, even when there doesn’t seem to be much of it in sight. Tone is relevant when we are working in black and white. Tone is affected by color when it’s captured in our photographs.
Together, color and tone are the expressions of reflected light. They will create mood in your travel pictures. As you come to photograph new locations and situations, look at the predominant colors in the scene and figure out which colors are dominant. Are they fresh and bright? Muted and dull? Do they fit the feel of the images you have in mind?
Consider the relationships between the colors as you make your compositions. Look for the colors that do not fit and try to eliminate them from your frame. Tone works in similar ways but in black and white. Carefully choosing the tones in your monotone photos will largely determine the mood they reflect.
Before you press the shutter button, ask yourself the following question: “Do the colors/tones I am photographing fit with the feeling I have about being here?” If you can answer “yes,” then you will likely make stronger photographs.
3. Composition Based On Content
“Now, to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravity before going for a walk.” – Edward Weston, photographer
Knowing the rules of composition so well that you can apply them without consciously thinking about them takes practice. The more practiced you are, the more instinctively you will make great compositions.
Filling the frame is the rule I consider most helpful to use in every picture you make. As you travel, you may be continually faced with fascinating subjects to photograph. There’s often a tendency to include too much in a single frame. This results in watered-down photos with no central focus.
Look at the corners and edges of your frame as you compose. In general, look at what this rectangle includes. If it’s not relevant, eliminate it from your composition. If you do, your travel photos will tell more compelling stories.
4. Deliberate Timing
“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographer
Before you randomly take a photo, wait for the “right” moment. Make it count. Whether you are photographing a landscape or the action at a cultural festival, anticipation and planning are key. Observe and be ready for the optimum moment to press your shutter button.
[Related Article: 15 Travel Photography Tips From Destination Photographers]
Sit quietly at the foot of a waterfall. Stand aside in a busy city street. Walk around a festival with your camera in your bag. Getting a feel for a place will help you add its vibe to the pictures you make of it.
5. A Connection With The Subject
“Photography is the art of observation. It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” – Elliot Erwitt
Connect. Be present. Interact. If you’re photographing a person, flash them a smile, chat with them a little. Help them relax as they’re having their photo taken. Approaching strangers in a friendly manner often brings the most positive results. You may also just make their day because you paid attention to them.
It can be extremely challenging to find a balance and include all these elements in a single frame. However, once you’ve learned to use your camera intuitively, you will be free to concentrate on these five things that together will make the best travel photographs.
If these ideas are new to you, practice them. If it helps, focus on one element at a time over the next five times you head out with your camera. Build them into your skillset and you’ll transition from creating a travel snapshot to composing a magnum opus. Your pictures will convey not only what you saw, but how you experienced your adventure.
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