How To Take Better Travel Photographs

Photographs are great. Travel photographs are even better! The most portable souvenir, especially in this age of tiny memory cards, photographs help us relive a place and time years after the experience. My grandmother always said, “You take a trip three times. Once in the planning, twice in the trip itself, and the third time in looking at the photos” and I lived with the mantra my whole live, reveling in photo chronicles of all my trips, even when I used disposable film cameras.

For some of us, taking photos during a trip can be as much fun as actually being in a new place. Deciding what to shoot and the best angle to use. Gauging the light and determining which aperture and shutter speed are required to ‘get the shot’. Finding the best local spots to shoot. These are all things the serious (and/or paid) photographer enjoys. For the casual snapshot artist, most of these things don’t matter. Regardless of which type of photographer you are, I hope these tips help you make the most of your travel photography.


©M McCown All rights reserved

Pick the Right Equipment
I used to shoot professionally and had the pro gear I needed for jobs, including 3 full frame bodies, countless lenses, lighting and all the related accessories. It was great, but when I was fully strapped for a job I was adding over 30 pounds of gear to my 5’3″ frame. When I stopped shooting for a living, I continued to use my pro gear while traveling and I never regretted it BUT when I discovered micro 4/3 bodies, my traveling life changed forever and the quality of my images did not decrease at all. My point is that you DO NOT NEED to spend a fortune on the latest pro gear. Even a point-n-shoot in educated hands and paired with an artistic eye can yield gorgeous travel photographs. This guy photographed an entire Indian wedding on his phone and the results are pretty great! This photo of the Acropolis in Athens was taken with a point-n-shoot. Doesn’t really matter, does it?


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Know Your Gear
Even if you plan on NEVER shooting in any mode but Auto, read the manual that came with your camera. By understanding the basics of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO you can take your photographs to the next level. Being able to adjust the depth of field to isolate your subject or increase shutter speed and/or ISO to shoot in a dark place are just of the benefits of knowing how your camera works. The shot below was taken in Cambodia, handheld at f1/8, 1000 iso, and ss 100th/s using a 50mm lens. Had I not known how to adjust for the low light, my chances of getting this image would have decreased. I would have ended up with a flashed photo where all detail and color were lost or I’d have had a blurry photo and unable to tell the subject matter.


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Get Up Early
If you want to shoot nothing but lifestyle shots of people in famous places, getting up early isn’t that crucial. If, like me, you want the cobbled streets of a European city or the sands of a tropical island to yourself, get up early. Getting out into early morning mists results in an almost-meditative state. It is usually cooler, sites are usually empty, locals are usually going about their business and all this results in some one-of-a-kind images. This shot was taken just as Cairo was waking up. I was able to get vendors setting up their wares before anyone else was out and this pita delivery guy making his rounds. Even now, I can recall this morning vividly and it remains one of my favorite.


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Get Off The Main Street
Similar to the tip above, this one is all about discovering what the typical person never sees. Walk the extra two miles past the end of the paved path, climb the 300 steps (to the main dome of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica), sweat it out to get to the macaw culpa in the jungle. Go beyond what you see to get to what most don’t see. It will be worth it, I promise. I took this shot of the east side (back side) of Angkor Wat at about 6:30am. Not only did I get there before sunrise (tip #3), I went beyond the edges of what everyone considers to be the temple site. Where I wound up was cool and still and inhabited only by a tribe of macaques and a lone untethered horse. Kind of magical, really, and all mine.


©M McCown All rights reserved

Focus On The Details
Sweeping landscapes give you a great sense of someplace. So do photos of local residents. But don’t forget about the little details. These can make all the difference in telling the story of a location. Details about how a culture celebrates, gets from place to place, or shops. These are all great ways to give others a look at life somewhere else. These ema (wooden wishing plaques) hang outside a temple in Tokyo and by focusing on the little details I was able to capture something unique that helped tell the visual story of my time in Japan.


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Be Polite
If you want to get photographs of locals, be polite and ask. Some will ask for money, some will ask for a chat, some will decline. You won’t know until you try. Just don’t shoot without asking. It’s rude. During my time in Peru, there were demonstrations against the government on a regular basis and lots more armed guards that usual (so I was told). I really wanted a photo of one of the police guards and worked up the nerve to use my limited Spanish and asked this man for his photo. He said yes, as long as I sent him a copy for his mother. He posed, I shot and then, sent him a photo when I got back to America.


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Be Ready
Remaining aware of your surroundings is critical to your safety but it can also make the difference between getting a unique shot or not. Patience can play in your favor. I was able to snap this shot in Jerusalem because I wordlessly communicated to the monk that I wouldn’t use flash and he was kind enough to walk me past the throngs of tourists and pilgrims and put me in the prime spot to photograph this monks-only mass. I waited until they were all facing forward and the smoke from the incense was thickening. My patience (and politeness) paid off and this was a really amazing moment for me.


©M McCown All rights reserved

There are a ton more tips I could give you, but these are the most important. Take a camera everywhere you go, even on a walk to your local park. Experiment with settings and subject matter. Read as much as you can on the art of photography AND the art of photojournalism. Never stop learning and never stop shooting.

What do you think? Did I list some useful tips? Is there a tip you live by that I missed? Let me know in the comments!


©M McCown All rights reserved



4 thoughts on “How To Take Better Travel Photographs

  1. The Wild Wayfarer says:

    Loved these tips, I found them really useful. When I go somewhere I always feel like I have taken way too many pictures and need to put my camera down and enjoy the view, but then when I get home I seem to have missed out on so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • JavaAndJunket says:

      It is always good to take a moment (after you’ve gotten the shot) to breathe in your surroundings and appreciate the journey and the destination. Happy shooting and share some of your photos using my tips! I’d love to see them!


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