If a photo is worth a thousand words, then travel photos are worth a lifetime of stories. We take pictures to hold fleeting moments closer to our hearts—a real-time snapshot of memories made. But we all know the feeling when the photo just doesn’t do the moment justice. How could a smartphone camera or even your average DSLR compete with the emotions that accompany the brilliance of a sunset or the sound of giggles?
Travel photography is one of the best ways to tell your unique story of destinations, both well-traveled icons and paths less taken. Thoughtful travel photos will allow others to see the story through your eyes via real relics of your experience.
Read on for some tips for capturing the most unique, display-worthy travel photos as you explore the world, from day trips in your neck of the woods to locales across the globe.
Do some reconnaissance on your destination
Whether you are a spontaneous traveler or a meticulous itinerary planner, do a bit of research on your destination. Not only will it help inform your experiences, but it will help you anticipate the best opportunities and the tools you’ll need for the epic travel photos to come.
Look into the basics, first. Consider the climate, terrain, sunrise/sunset times, availability of cell phone service, languages spoken, and your means of transportation. Pack and plan accordingly.
It’s important to pack light on an exploration day, especially if you will be traveling on foot. You might want a lightweight tripod, a poncho for you and your camera in the event of rain, and appropriate DSLR lenses for the scenes you expect to be shooting (wide-angle for landscapes and portrait lens for people). You definitely want to bring a portable charger – taking photos eats up a lot of smartphone battery.
Also, be sure that you—and your subjects—dress for the scene. For example, if it is expected to be windy, a long and flowy dress will create a wonderfully dramatic photo. If you’re going to be hiking in a lush green forest, decide if you’ll wear neutral or bright colors. If you’re the photographer, pack a hat rather than sunglasses on a sunny day so you can more accurately see how color is coming through on your photos.
Use local guides to lead the way to the must-see destinations (and must-take travel photos)
The beating heart of any destination is its people. They are the experts of the land, culture, fan favorites, and best-kept secrets. If you want to truly capture the most whole, authentic essence of your destination, you’ll need to consult the locals.
In Medellin, Colombia last year, my friends and I met a rideshare driver with whom we are still connected to this day. He was so friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful on that first ride that we asked if we could hire him to be our driver and tour guide-by-proxy for the weekend. There was a small language barrier; we spoke enough Spanish to get by, and he was very patient with us. With a loose list of places we wanted to visit, he filled in the gaps with authentic roadside eateries, more-than-iconic views, and scenic routes. It truly made the trip unforgettable. He led us to some of the best travel photos we otherwise never would’ve found on this short, four-night trip.
So, strike up a conversation with your taxi driver, your server, or friendly patrons at the bar. But always be aware of your surroundings and stay safe in the process. In Colombia, our driver told us, “No des papaya.” It’s the colloquial Colombian way of saying: Don’t let your guard down, and don’t make yourself a target.
Reimagine the cliché travel photos
The most well-known photo opportunities, like “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, are famous for a reason. But you, a photographer who is always seeking more creative and display-worthy moments to capture, want to approach the cliché shots differently. Take a recognizable location and do something surprising with it. This way, you’re sure to capture one of your favorite travel photos of the trip.
Social media and travel blogs are great resources for scouting out epic views for unbeatable photo ops. (Bonus points if you discover a blog or social media profile run by a local culture connoisseur in that destination). You can use a search engine to find “best photos to take in [insert destination here].” You can also use social media platforms to search the city you’re visiting to see what travel photographers and influencers are snapping. Then, dial it up a few notches.
Choose your subject wisely. Even if your goal is to capture a wide shot of an incredible landscape, a defined subject, such as a person or a contrasting-colored object, will add some novelty to your photo.
Create unexpected moments in classic photo opportunities by changing up the framing and focus to make it interesting. For example, get closer or step further away. Look to the right, then the left. Get down to ground level and look up. Or get on top of something and look down. Add lines and angles to your shots. Bend an arm, or use architecture, fences, etc. to draw the eye in toward the focus of your subject.
Play with the composition of your shot to put your own creative spin on a well-known photo op. This turns a photo from a memory snapshot into a work of art.
What story are you telling?
The best travel photos—and photos at large—tell a story. They capture the essence, not just of the destination, but of the cultural moments that touched you.
How can you show the traditions and techniques that went into creating your lunch? Can you help your viewer understand what the weather felt like? Which emotions were flowing in that moment? These are all questions to consider when you are thinking about telling a story through impactful travel photos.
If you think for a moment, you’ll be surprised at the seemingly small details that can create a strong visual story through photography. Your brightly colored shoes, now dusted with mud from a rainy day, on the historic cobblestone streets of Italy, for example. Or a close-up of an older woman’s work-worn hands kneading bread at a café in France. To get into the creative gear for this, think of the memory or moment you’re trying to capture. Then, find something visual to represent them (like the shoes, or the hands that made the bread). Get close and capture the fine detail from different angles.
Always be respectful and kind to the people (locals and tourists) around you while you’re shooting. It is usually best to use yourself or your travel companion as the subject for your human-centric photos. If you want to photograph the locals during your travels, ask first, or at least after. As always, the best photos of people showcase candid emotions.
Get your viewer’s imagination and wanderlust flowing by taking intentionally “different” photos. Get creative, get weird. (You can always delete it after). Forget posing your subject and instead include movement (e.g. a flowing flag or your subject taking a step forward). Turn your subject’s back to the camera. Also, don’t be afraid to cut something out of the photo. Put the background in focus, then try the foreground. Use the rule of thirds and avoid the expected, straight-on, middle-third framing. You can use surprising details and unusual visual tricks to draw your viewer’s eyes to the things you want them to notice about your photos. Get them to imagine the moments you want them to experience with you.
Display your travel photos artfully
Connect to your creativity by thinking about each photo as something you’d hang on your wall or in a gallery. This will help train your brain to think less like a tourist and more like a professional travel photographer.
Would you frame photos of the same person in the same pose over and over again? Probably not. Diversify your photos by including wide panorama shots, close-up detail shots, candid emotions, and memories in motion.
Use the panorama feature on your iPhone camera, and crop it into framable slices. There are apps that can do this for Instagram carousels, and the same proportions work for framing. Try printing them as Fracture glass prints and hanging them in a row (called a polyptych).
You could also create a color-coded or destination-focused Photo Wall. Display the essence of the places you’ve traveled to by picking the best photos that showcase the most memorable cultural and scenic moments of your trip. Get started today.
With these tips in mind, you’re sure to collect display-worthy memories wherever you go in the world. While you see the world through a photographer’s eyes, don’t forget to look up and just experience it every once in a while.