Travel Photography – Ten Steps to Heaven

travel-photography-tipsSo you’ve finally got round to it – you’re off on that trip of a lifetime, trekking to Everest Base Camp, hiking the Inca Trail to Macchu Piccu, backpacking to India or overlanding across Africa. Naturally enough, you expect to produce a fabulous photographic record of the trip, that will have Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide beating a path to your tent, pleading to publish your images that capture the essence of world travel. After all, if you’re going to places like Asia, Africa and South America, you can’t fail, right?

Well, realistically, you’re not likely to interest the major travel publishers in your photographs. Lonely Planet have their own picture library, containing over 500,000 – that’s half a million – images already, and they only accept new submissions of 500, so unless time and budget are unlimited, your photographs will be a personal collection, that can be published to the world on your web site. But with a little forethought and preparation, the pictures you bring back will be far more than a record of the trip.

Here’s the 10 step plan to perfect travel photographs:

Step 1: Research – Read the guide books. Find out what are the main attractions and photo-opportunities, but be aware of other possibilities that will arise when you’re out there. If you buy a new camera for the trip, familiarise yourself with its operation thoroughly before you leave.

Step 2: Prioritise – in the context of the trip, how important is the photography? On a lightweight backpacking trip, you’re probably carrying minimal gear, so a compact camera, plenty of film, and spare batteries are all you’ll want to carry, but this will limit the type of pictures you’re likely to take to a record of the trip, which can make great photo-journals or travelogues. If you expect to return home with stunning shots which capture the essence of your travels, then you’re going to need more gear, maybe even a back-up camera in case anything goes wrong.

travel-photography-tips2Step 3: Gear – you’re going to need a good quality digital compact, or preferably SLR with zoom lens to produce more than snapshots. Memory cards are easy to carry, so take plenty, and relatively inexpensive if bought before you leave. Cameras need batteries, so take spares. You can guarantee they will fail at the most inconvenient point of your journey – mine packed in at a village halfway up Mount Meru in Tanzania (yes, I did have spares). Other useful items include ziplock bags to keep out dust, and silica gel or uncooked rice to avoid problems caused by condensation if conditions are very humid. A UV filter is always useful, both to remove unwanted ultra-violet radiation, and to protect the lens. Talking of radiation brings us to airport X-ray machines – are they harmful to digital cameras and memory cards or not?

Step 4: X Rays – there is no evidence that airport X-ray machines have any adverse effect on digital camera or memory cards. In the case of film, there was a possibility that some older machines, or the more powerful equipment used for scanning hold baggage, could theoretically cause a fogging effect on the light-sensitive emulsion, but in many years of travel, including to Africa and Asia, I never had a problem. Digital memory cards can be happily scanned without any worries, and you should always carry your camera bag into the aircraft cabin to avoid the possibility of accidental damage caused by careless baggage handling.

If you are carrying very new equipment into a country like Japan, it is wise to carry documentation to prove you bought it prior to arrival in that country, or the customs inspectors at your return airport may think you are importing new gear, and hit you with import duty. Professionals have to make out a carnet listing every piece of equipment to avoid this problem.

Step 5: Safety & security – keep the cameras and memory cards out of the sun as much as possible, and in sealed ziplock bags if it is dusty or humid. Many cameras will not work in very cold conditions, so keep them inside your clothing, where body heat will stop them freezing up. Taking very cold cameras into a warm humid atmosphere will cause condensation to form on the glass surfaces of the lens elements, and also inside on metal and electrical contacts, so this should be avoided also.

Robust camera cases like Oyster or Lowe Pro offer the best from protection from knocks, and are less distinctive than conventional camera cases. It’s a fact of life that the value of your camera gear represents the equivalent of about a year’s wages in third-world countries, so it’s not a good idea to wave them around too much – in places like Nairobi, or Nairobbery as it’s usually called, unwary western tourists are regularly mugged for a pair of trainers or less.

Step 6: Don’t be over-ambitious – be realistic about what you can achieve. Travelling through different places means you’re on the move, with little time or opportunities to wait for the light to improve, or return at a different time of day to get the shot. Quite often, you have to get what you can while you can, and if conditions are not ideal, if the weather is poor, if it’s the wrong time of day when you happen to be there, then you just won’t be able to replicate that famous picture you’ve seen of this exact place. But sometimes you’re lucky, and everything falls into place just when you need it to – so make sure your camera is locked and loaded, accessible in your gear, and ready for action at a moment’s notice.

travel-photography-tips3Step 7: People Not Places – pictures with people invariably work better than empty views, but make sure you ask permission first. Don’t just stick your camera in someone’s face and click away. It’s rude, and they won’t thank you for treating them like zoo exhibits. In some countries, people can react quite aggressively if they spot western tourists pointing cameras in their direction. Far better to speak to them first, and interact – once the ice is broken, people react naturally, and you will get better images as a result.

It’s not unusual nowadays for some tribespeople, like the Masai in East Africa, to have recognised the commercial value of their appearance, and to demand payment for being photographed. Some tourists deplore this, but it does not seem unreasonable to be asked to pay a few cents to an impoverished African who will have a starring role in your travel memoir. Digital cameras are great ice-breakers for showing people the pictures immediately, and professional travel photographers often carry a Polaroid camera to give out instant prints to the people they photograph. Real people in real situations invariably make better pictures than staged tourist events.

Step 8: Think about the Image – don’t just point and click, remember to think about the image. Consider the viewpoint, and try to get unusual angles of famous tourist sights rather than reproducing the standard view that every other tourist is busily snapping away at. Try to get as close as possible to the subject, and fill the frame. Simplify the composition by eliminating extraneous information. Don’t forget to shoot close-ups as well as general views – often, the details will tell you as much about a place as the big picture.

Step 9: Remember The Plane-Spotters – sometimes you have to put the camera away. Remember the case of the plane-spotters in Greece? In most foreign countries, even in Western Europe, it’s simply forbidden to take photographs of military installations and personnel, the police and security forces, and even government buildings. If you disregard this, as the plane-spotters discovered to their cost, you face the very real prospect of arrest and imprisonment, or at the very least confiscation of your camera, and a very unpleasant experience to remember.

travel-photography-tips4Step 10: Get Involved – the best pictures are produced when you immerse yourself in the places you visit. Spend some time engaging with local people, taking part in normal life, and try to capture the essence of a place photographically. When you get back, your pictures will form an indelible record of your trip of a lifetime – who knows, you may even interest Lonely Planet!

Simon Kirwan is a photographer with a passion for the outdoors. He spends as much time as possible visiting the mountains and wild places of Britain and the world. After visiting Nepal and photographing the Himalayas in 1999, Simon was named ‘Observer Outdoor Photographer of the Year 2000’. He has since traveled overland across East Africa visiting Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe; in addition, he has photographed the mountain ranges of Europe including the Spanish Pyrenees, the French and Italian Alps, and the Polish Tatras.

Despite his love of travel and the excitement of visiting new destinations, Simon is equally happy to wander the hills and mountains of Britain’s countryside, especially Snowdonia, the Peak District and the Lake District where he can indulge his love of mountain walking and scrambling as well as photographing the ever-changing landscape.

Aerial Photography by Simon Kirwan
Travel Photography by Simon Kirwan

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

Leave a Comment

Personalize your comment with an avatar from Gravatar.com!

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever