A Guide to Taking Travel Photography

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Written by: Lucy Cartwright

Travel photography guides can be hundreds of pages long, offering detailed advice on everything from camera settings to composition. In this short-but-sweet guide, we’ll show you the basics of preparing, taking and storing your photos – what you point the lens at is up to you! You can find info on editing right here.

The best way to get the top photography possible from your trip is to travel round with your camera to hand and your eyes and mind wide open. Absolutely everything you see can be made the subject of an interesting photo – just because the street is strewn with rubble doesn’t mean the dust won’t glow like fire as the sun sets. If you’re desperate for a specific shot, come back at several times of day so the scene might be emptier, busier or better-lit, depending on what the final outcome looks like in your head.

Let’s get one thing straight – you don’t need a degree in photography to get back from your trip with some awe-inspiring shots. It’s perfectly easy to wow your friends (and even get a picture or two published) with a basic camera and very little technical knowledge…

What do I need?

The type of camera you use does not matter. Whether you’ve got a brand new 12 megapixel SLR or a cheap-as-chips compact digital from Woolworths, it’s what you do with it that counts. Great shots can be taken with any equipment.

That said; some things to check if you’d like to get the most of your camera include:

Whether or not the camera has manual functions – These include variable shutter speeds and aperture sizes, and allow you a lot more creative freedom, especially when shooting in poor lighting or difficult conditions.

Whether you prefer shooting digitally or on film – Both film and digital have advantages over their counterparts. Film photography is still the favourite of the purists (partly because the size of your prints can be much larger than a digital sensor allows), but digital photography has taken the world by storm. If you enjoy experimenting, digital might suit you better, as you can instantly see if your latest shot came out as you expected (and you won’t waste countless reels of film in the attempt!).

The option of taking a spare battery or two – Some digital cameras have internal rechargeable batteries – they’re great, but if you run out it always pays to have an extra set on you somewhere. Chargers and rechargeable batteries can save you a fortune in the long run.

Your storage of choice – If you’re planning on shooting with film, always carry spare rolls with you – there’s nothing worse than running out of shots just as the perfect picture comes into view. With digital, find out how many pictures you can store at maximum quality on your memory card – when travelling it’s always advisable to keep the quality high, as it might be a long time before you get the opportunity to visit again!

Guide to Travel Photography

Before you leave

There are several things you can do to prepare for a trip if you’re keen on showing off your photographic abilities.

Setting up an account with a website that hosts your photographs for free is a great idea, as it means you can give all your friends and family visual updates of your dream trip. That way, you can just email everybody a link to your page, and they can visit it regularly to be kept up to date!

As a member of gapyear.com you can upload your travel photos to the site for free. Not a member yet? Tsk. The site is free and easy to join – why not sign up today?

The site is simple to use, but we recommend practising by uploading a few pictures before you leave the country, just so you don’t end up trying to figure it out while you’re spending money in a Thai internet café!

Take a look at photographs in guidebooks and travel magazines – they can be a great way to train yourself to avoid the usual snapshots and are an inspiration to really experiment with the pictures you take.

Once you’re out there

A camera shouldn’t just capture what you see – it should encapsulate the feel of a place, so that when you return home, your photos can take you right back to the moment you took them: the smell of the air, the sounds all around you, and so on.

Don’t always try to concentrate on the big picture – quite often your best pictures will come from focusing on the little things, such as Lucy Cartwright’s shot of incense sticks on the first page of this guide or the photo of the fire extinguisher above. People might say that the devil is in the details, but you’ll frequently find the best pictures are too.

A lot of people can feel embarrassed to pull a camera out, especially if they’re trying to avoid looking like too much of tourist. We say – forget about being embarrassed! It could be your only chance to get a photo of your subject, so dive in there and take the best shot you can while the opportunity is still there!

It's important to capture the moment

Photographing people

To learn how to shoot great portraits takes a long time, and we’re not going to bore you with all the details here! A quick summary of the best way to get a good, solid portrait is:

  • Have your aperture open wide, if you’re able to change your camera settings manually – it’ll give you a shorter depth of field and place your subject’s background out of focus, placing them in much sharper relief (it’ll also mean you need a faster shutter speed, so camera shake is less likely). If you’re using an automatic camera, switch it to Portrait mode for the same effect
  • Focus on the eyes. They’re the most important part of the face and the one bit you need to keep in focus. Filling the frame with the head or face of your subject can create a very intimate image.
  • Ask them! In some cultures, pointing a camera at people can look quite suspicious, and you’ll often find them happy to pose for you if you ask nicely. Kids are often great fun to work with – let them look down the viewfinder of your camera or at the pictures you’ve taken if you’re using digital. Occasionally, we agree that’s it’s possible to get a sneaky shot without your subject knowing, but be prepared to accept the consequences if they spot you and don’t appreciate the attention!

Photographing landscapes and architecture

A very different process from photographing people, since buildings and landscapes tend to move around less. This doesn’t make it easier, mind you.

  • When taking a shot of wide open spaces or tall buildings, keep your aperture stopped down as far as possible if you’re trying to get everything in focus – the smaller the aperture (a larger f-stop number) the greater the depth of field. The Landscape mode on automatics and compacts should offer the same result.
  • If taking pictures at night, use a tripod, especially if you’re serious about your photography. Because there’s less light, the camera will need to have its shutter open for longer. Around 1 second will be suitable for urban scenes, but 10 seconds and above still might not be enough for a shot where there are no light sources, like the Australian outback. The tripod won’t shake as much as your hand, and you’ll be able to take much sharper pictures.
  • Take the time to frame your composition – split your frame mentally into a three-by-three grid, and use this to place your subject somewhere other than smack in the middle. Look for simple lines of symmetry and perspective that can make a standard snapshot into something much more interesting. It takes some getting used to, but the rewards are well worth it!

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