Last updated on October 26th, 2018 at 11:42 am
So you booked your next trip(s) and you want to document it with some travel photography. But how?
I started this guide a few years ago and regularly updated since. When I started myself, as a beginner, I had so many questions.
What camera should I use, what is the best setting, how to spot the best places, what makes a great photo composition, how to approach locals in the street?
This is what this ultimate beginner’s guide for travel photography is all about. Answers to most common questions.
Photography is a form of art, and like any form of art, it can be subjective.
All of the suggestions and tips in this guide come from my personal experience in travel photography and obviously can be debatable, it’s my personal opinion. However, I believe this guide is a good starting point from which to expand your experience.
And most important, add a comment below with anything that I have missed, anything that needs to be better explained, anything you would like covered, any suggestion you may have.
I have written and drawn these PDF and JPG papers as a good reference to use before or during your travel photography. I usually give them away in my workshops and I suggest to keep them in the own mobile and go back from time to time to have a read.
I write these papers on a regular basis. If you are interested to receive them as well as other exclusive tutorials and travel stories, join my free newsletter.
Later in this post, I have also created the possibility to download this Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Travel Photography as a separate PDF file that you can read whenever you want, even offline.
This is a fair question.
What is travel photography?
Is there any description, or reference definition?
Easy question = difficult answer
Why? It’s very subjective. In saying that, I tend to agree with the Photographic Society of America on most of its definition. And let me go through the most important points:
I do use Adobe Lightroom to improve my photos. I usually start on shadows, highlights. Sometimes I replicate an old film output (Kodak, Fujifilm). Why this should not be considered anymore travel photography meanwhile a greyscale monochrome conversion is.
The majority of the people are not colour blind and a b&w photo is much more unusual, and far from reality, than a photo with a higher dynamic range, like our eyes are actually seeing the place.
You may already know there is no best camera for any photography type.
Sometimes I am surprised to read or hear someone, even in an authoritative position, saying “The best camera for wedding photography is the Canon XYZ” or “The best camera for sport is the Nikon ZXY”. I wonder if there is any sort of compensation, or affiliation, behind it.
Back to travel photography. There is no unique model or brand. It mostly depends on you, what kind of trips you usually do, what is your budget (very important).
I personally suggest travelling as light as possible. There is no need to take 6 lenses with you. There is no need to have a “big” camera.
I myself prefer to have an interchangeable lenses camera, however, there are nowadays a few compacts for travel photography in the market which are such a great value.
Here below a list of guides and tutorials that will help you not only to buy a camera but also to use it in the best way:
If you are after an amazing photography course, that explains everything you really need and so much more, then have a look at the incredible videos of Marc Levoy, retired from Stanford and now working with Google on their photography technology.
Marc used to teach Digital Photography at Stanford and he has generously recorded and posted for free his entire course. You can watch it here. It can be quite technical in some points (he was made for University students) and this may tire you off quite quickly. After all, it’s a 20 hours course, not the typical YouTube video.
Even before you start your trip there are so many things you can do to get ready. You will better enjoy your photography and travel experience if you have everything ready for it.
I am not talking here on suggestions as “Make sure your batteries are fully charged” and the likes. There is much more than that.
Here below my 7 steps to prepare my photography holiday. I suggest doing that even if you are going on an organised photography tour.
You get used to the process and you get familiar also with the places you will be visiting
Build your own gear list with all you think you are going to need. With the time you will be able to optimize it
Once you decide/know the location to visit, look online for inspirational photos. Add them to your personalized map. Check the light in the photos and how you could improve the composition.
You will spend 3-4 hours for each location before your trip, however, you will be fully rewarded once on site as you already know what to expect.
The number of uncertainties will be much smaller.
Here below few posts, apps and websites I usually use:
Nowadays most of the airline allow 7-10kg carry on luggage which is, I know, nothing. And now you cannot pack batteries in your checked in luggage.
I usually take a laptop and my photo gear. That is usually over the 10kg. I have reduced my essential kit to my laptop, camera and two lenses. All charges in the other bag.
If you are still over. Here is a little trick. Put something in the pocket of you jacket. They will check the weight of the carry on luggage at the check-in. After that, the gear can go back to the bag 😉
Another trick I use is to wear my camera with the heaviest lens I have. They never asked me to pack it.
And lastly, I took sometimes my laptop out of my bag and put it in a small bag (I use one of my cycling food bags, check a few photos here to have an idea). I reckon you can also use one of the heavy paper bags they give you in the clothes shops, so it looks like you bought something at the airport.
Believe you me, I was able to take with me the unthinkable. In my last trip, I had also my drone with 3 batteries and the GoPro with 2 spare batteries.
I use protective cases for all my equipment, except the main camera which has to be ready to shoot 😉
Roller bag is great when you move at the airport and from/to the hotel.
They are a real pain in any other cases. Walking in the street of Athens can be a real nightmare where the pavement is irregular if existing.
And how many places like Athens in the world?
And how many cities worst than Athens?
I tried the roller bag but I eventually gave up. Presently I use a Timbuk2 which is more of a Messenger Bag.
It’s a personal thing.
The travel photography tour will make your life so much easier, besides the ton of useful information, you will be able to get from your tour leader. You will improve your skills and share the trip with other people with the same passion.
The drawback is that you have to follow the program and the timing set by the tour. You do not want to be late as you do not like to wait I guess. Basically less flexibility.
Should I join a generic tour for my photography?
I would not suggest it.
It will be impossible to organise your photography as you would like it. There are too many people around and, even worst, a schedule to stick with.
You can’t just wait that 20 minutes more for the golden hour. The guide will implore you to leave.
Again take it easy, if you decide to go with a group, it is absolutely fine, just do not expect that everybody else will wait for you and your photography
Few words can take you a long way with the locals. In any kind of trip, photography or not, organised or not.
I am sure you appreciate when a foreigner is able to communicate in your language when you are in your home country.
That works the other way around as well. It is not like English should be spoken by everybody. English is just one of the many languages in the world.
What are the main words you should learn, or at least write on your mobile so that you can use it later on:
This is really a basic vocabulary you can build and use during your trip
I have also two apps to suggest and an important trick to use
Both apps above can be used offline once you download the dictionary on your mobile
Unfortunately, things may go wrong and insurances may help. The essential kit is
If travelling alone, take always with you a business card of the hotel or/and a number of family members that can be contacted in case.
If travelling to China, make sure the business card has both Chinese symbols and Pinyin.
If travelling to Cuba and you are a US citizen then double check with your insurance if you are covered. Most probably you will be not.
Credit cards travel insurances may not cover you when travelling to US
This is a 1 million dollar question without an answer.
You will have to give up something whatever choice you make.
If you decide to take all the lenses you have at home you will give up in manoeuvrability as you will have to carry lots of equipment, and pay attention to it.
The alternative is a superzoom lens, say 18-200, but the photo quality will not be as great
My bare minimum is a prime (35mm) and my beloved zoom lens (24-105). I would use the prime for street photos, markets and places I do not want to get noticed that much (the 35mm is really a small lens). Everything else is for the 24-105mm
When on the road there are a few simple things to take into consideration. Here below you will find XX travel photography tips for beginners, to use on your first trip.
And even if it’s not your first time you travel with a camera you may be amazed by a few suggestions you actually never thought about.
You may also skip this section and go straight to the more advanced section that will surely help in your travel photography career
Travelling alone, especially in some areas of the planet may be dangerous. Besides, your mate can help you during your photography, if she/he feels like. He/she may even help you transport your gear, although this may be asking too much LOL
At night it is almost essential. It can be really dangerous to go out on its own. I still remember one night in Queensland, I was out doing star photography. I was shooting and suddenly I heard a noise…..and ops, a big snake. Packed up and left in seconds. In case of accidents, nobody really knew where I was. Avoid these situations.
And I know, the partner usually gets quite bored, wanting to leave asap. Luckily in these days, there is Instagram and Facebook that helps to pass the time, and not only.
I noticed that my partner has actually started having an interest in photography, just because she can shoot, apply a few filters, add a comment and publish it.
It is a pretty immediate action which is taking millions of people into photography.
There are many photographers that may argue that Instagram is not a photography platform as such. I don’t want to enter in this discussion now. I believe anyway that Instagram was and is able to open up the creativity side of many people.
And it’s fun.
It is not about quantity, it is about quality.
Do not be stressed with a monstrous plan to visit Australia in 1 week, as an example.
Sydney 2 days, Melbourne 2 days, the Great Ocean Road 1 day and 2 days in the Great Barrier Reef ….in the rainy season.
Yes, you have been to Australia, but not really. The best of Australia is the nature and the landscape around and far away from the cities.
This is not just about Australia. What about “Europe in a week trip”. I would not be able to even plan 2 weeks in France LOL.
In the end, it is more the time spent on the car or in the airport lounge that actually visiting and photographing a place.
Pace yourself and plan well in advance your photos.
It’s easy to come back from a trip with lots of photos, maybe 200-300/day.
It’s more challenging to be back with just a few outstanding.
Quality over quantity.
When shooting just think you are still using a film, and paying for every single photo you will develop 😉
During the planning phase, you built your photography list of places to visit, based also on photos you saw on Flickr or 500px. Fantastic. However look around you, there is always space for a new corner, a new interpretation, a new site to take the inspiration from
I would love to but it is a matter of fact that it is almost impossible to make a great memorable photo every single day. It’s the nature of photography.
A great image comes from a combination of factors and the stars do not align every day.
So take it easy, it’s not you, it’s just the way it is.
You are on vacation, after all, relax. In most of the cases, an outstanding photo takes days, with sites re-visits for the best weather condition.
I always think I have a great outcome if I come back from a holiday with 5-10 great photos. I rarely succeed.
Travel photography is not just about landscaping. It’s also about documenting the people in the area you are visiting. Every region, country, city has the own typical faces that represent the place you are having your trip.
Portraits may be not as easy as landscape photography where you manage your time and you don’t usually need to ask anybody’s permission.
But before even asking the permission, stop, have a chat, start a conversation. You never know what it may lead to.
My experience is that I come out from a portrait not only with a photo but with a story.
I will talk more about portraits in the “advanced section” later.
A landscape photo is about, well, about the landscape of course, about the scene that you have in front of you.
How many times have you read that you should not include people in your landscape photography?
Probably many! There are however few exceptions. First and foremost when you need to give a sense of scale to your photo.
I love vast landscapes as a desert, a mountain chain or a big rock, a cliff but the photo will never give justice to the size….unless you have a person in it
A person can add romanticism to your photo as well as happiness to balance your landscape.
Adding a person in a photo does not mean directing someone, it may simply mean waiting for the right moment when a person walks by.
Sometime this may not be possible, and a friend or the partner may help (although, based on what we talked about before, this may not be considered anymore travel photography, but a great photo anyway)
I woke up at 4am, I went for a few photos at sunset at 7am, up the mountain, back at the hotel.
Yes very tired but I would never stop smiling at anybody, even the usual street touter that in some countries may never stop. It’s all good we are on holiday.
The smile takes you a long way. Enjoy yourself and make fun of yourself
Yes, these are the hours when you will get the best results:
Try new photographic techniques during your trip. Shooting moving objects, for example, is a great way to give an idea of movement. Panning is another way.
Learn this technique on the tutorial Shooting moving objects – Panning.
Yes it is not the best time of the day. However, you can still plan to do some travel photography as:
That makes miracles in places where you are far away from civilisation. The drawback is that you need to carry one of these small instant cameras with you.
Nowadays the size is not that bed
It’s all about leaving a recollection to the locals, it does not happen every day and you will make the life easier to the next photographer, although you are raising the local expectations LOL
You see somebody’s famous photo and you ask yourself, wow, how did he/she make that photo with the subjects just there in the right moment?
You have probably seen the famous photos of the Chinese fishermen with the lamp or the fishermen on the stick in Sri Lanka.
Sometimes it’s just about being lucky to be in the right place at the right moment.
Other times, well, you have to pay for somebody to stay there at the right time, as easy as that. If you do not like that, no worries, move on.
I was recently in Sri Lanka and of course, I wanted to take photos of the famous fishermen on the sticks. Unfortunately, nowadays the reality is that you have to pay them to go up there ($10). I asked to pay but I would go up on the stick LOL
Paying does not always mean giving cash, although sometimes locals do ask that, it may mean also buying drinks, food or other things to break the ice, have a chat and most probably taking a photo.
Do not stop with your raw images. Download them on your PC and start the post production phase, cropping, working on the shadows and the sky, adding brightness and contrast where needed, correcting the white balance.
If you shoot in JPG most of the post-production is executed inside your camera. Do not leave your camera the choice, you are the photographer.
Rule of thumb: do not go over the top. If you are asking yourself if you are pushing too much one setting, well, probably you are already.
It may be expensive as a start but it pays back with the results. If you are visiting a 3rd world countries, you will end up paying a very small amount of money and he/she will be your PR for you, besides taking you to the asked sites.
He/she can organise the food for you, transportation and much more. He/she can even introduce you to the family, what a great way to to do some more portraits.
If the photos are connected to a story they will have a better dimension. You want to add the emotional factor to your photos. That is the third dimension. This explains as well why travel photography is not just landscaping.
It’s about coming back from a trip with a project, a story, a visual story, moments of life with a reason to be connected.
What is the most frustrating thing in travel photography?
Losing a photography trip because you forgot to make a copy. I would smash my….well, doesn’t matter what.
I personally suggest this process:
In this way I have usually 3 copies with me:
If there is a good internet connection I upload them on my virtual drive. That is the fourth copy
Yes, usually you can take photos inside the airports.
Most probably you will not be able to use your tripod and that’s why I would highly suggest taking always with you a small, strong, gorilla tripod. That will work fine in most of the places where tripods are not allowed
The airport photos are quite interesting and they can be used when you try to document a story that goes through a different location. Besides we have usually so much time at the airports
Is travel photography only beautiful sceneries or is it also about local life and possibly food?
I believe it is all of this and more. I really think that city, street and travel photography are all part of the same root, which I love to call “Travelography”.
When travelling, I spend a considerable amount of time photographing landscapes, mostly at sunrise and sunset. However, in the last few years, I have started including in my travel documentation also some street and local life photography.
This is actually becoming a real passion and I could see, through these years, also a transformation of my way to make photos.
I have learnt a few lessons along the way and I wanted to share them with you
That’s how I started my photography. That’s how many people start photography. Trying to catch the best sunset or sunrise.
In some respects, it’s very easy, it’s you and the landscape in front of you. You do not have to talk with anyone, no fear to ask anyone to take a photo. Once you set your camera, and you know few tricks, that’s it.
But then comes the weather which may turn a photo from good to magical.
And the weather is of course unpredictable.
And this means landscape photography can be really complicated and disappointing when things turn for the worst.
My experience is to drive or ride to the location even in terrible weather. That’s actually where I got some of the most beautiful photos. The sun rays breaking through the clouds are like a gold mine for landscape and travel photographers.
These are few links which will help with Landscape Photography
In Australia and USA, as in many other countries, you may take photos of people in public places without asking.
I like however to be every time sensitive with my subjects. For example, I do not take photos of homeless or destitute people, unless I ask first and I receive approval.
When visiting a country I always suggest to check the local rules and laws
Having people in your photos may be an issue in case you want to sell them in stock photography websites as you need to have a release form if the face is clearly recognizable.
Of course, there may be some locations that do not allow photography, these may be private or even public areas. Or they do not allow tripod/monopod.
I never take photos of children unless I see something interesting. I anyway introduce myself to the parents and I explain who I am (I give my business card) and I promise to send the photos. They may still say no of course and that’s ok.
If using the drone, check the country rules even before flying there. As an example, India and Qatar would not allow entering the country with a drone. In Sri Lanka or Fiji, you would need a government permit to fly it.
Some links here that would certainly help you
I usually run travel photography workshops and one question I am asked quite frequently is how can I make portraits of people I do not know when I travel.
Before going to the suggestions I like to say that people, in my opinion, may add character to the photos.
A photo should be able to talk, either through a great composition, magic colours or people in the image.
A person portrait or a group of people in the working environment or even a close up on a body part can say a lot about the story around the person or even the place where he/she was born or grown up
These are few of the things I have learnt in my years
There is still the last suggestion I can give.
be persistent, never give up
Sometimes it just does not work. It’s not the right day. It’s not the right person. It’s not the right lens.
The most important thing is to never give up. There are always gorgeous days ahead of stormy days.
And here is probably the most important tip. Practice with your gear and be ready. There is no worst situation than having the subject ready, maybe after a long talk, and you can’t use the camera quickly and properly.
I am sure you already heard this advice. Practice at home with an orange or a lemon. Once you get the right light and, most important, the right texture, it means you are ready and confident.
There are situations and locations where it’s easier to make photography when travelling.
There are so many famous photographers to take inspiration from. I will add a few names later in the guide
And they do not need to be all travel photographers. For example, I love Cartier-Bresson’s work, a famous street photographer that has done history with his pictures. And he is one of my top inspirations when composing a photo.
Watching photos from these amazing legends help to have a better composition. Studying from the consolidated gurus always give a a big help before you can refine your own style.
And have a look to some famous painters work. Van Gogh is my number one reference. His study of colours is one of the most interesting, still today. If in Amsterdam go to visit the Van Gogh Museum, a must.
There are two main components in travel photography
Content is more important than form. You can have the best form, however if there is not a story behind, the photo will not say that much. On the contrary, a great story may miss a good form
These are few tips that may help you to frame a better photo
With horizontal lines things look at rest, they don’t move, they are stable. Think of a simple photo of the horizon, it calms you down.
Vertical lines are instead more powerful. Think of skyscrapers or trees, they are less stable, and more dynamic than horizontal lines. Your eye tends to follow the skyscraper from bottom to top.
Diagonal lines are however the most dynamic and energetic lines that can give more edgy photos.
The first composition rule you learn in photography is probably the Rule of Thirds. It’s a great start however the issue with this rule is that it is based on horizontal and vertical lines.
The Golden Triangle in this respect works better because it is based on diagonal lines.
Cartier-Bresson used it quite a lot and we can only agree with him, right?
The intersection of the lines creates “powerpoints”. This is where you may want to put your subject
Lead-in lines help the eyes to focus on the subject. We had already an extensive talk about lead-in line and how to use them in landscape photography. The concept applies similarly for any type of photography.
In this case, back alleys or small lanes work great as lead-in lines as well as buildings do.
Watch out that lead-in lines can work to your advantage or disadvantage, taking the attention out from your subject. Practice, practice, practice
Make a nice contrast between your subject and the background so the subject pops out and separates from the background.
The ideal figure to ground is a black dressed person with a white background in this way there is better separation between the subject and the background.
For example, the separation between the subject and the background makes photos of silhouette working great.
Figure to ground works well also with colours. If you have people in your photo, they absolutely pop out when they dress in contrasting colours to the background.
Do you remember the first big photo on top of this post, the one with the title (pasted below for your convenience)? There is a couple. She is dressing in blue and she is the ideal figure to ground example. He is dressing in brown and he almost disappearing on the sandy background.
Triangles add harmony and balance to the photo.
Try to find 2 of the elements of the triangle (stable ones) and wait until the third element comes into your composition, of course easy to say, much more complicated to do it.
Try to look for a frame into a frame, this could be a window, a door frame or simply a tree branch
It’s so important to plan in advance a travel photography trip. If you will not do it then there is a very high probability you will miss out on a few photo opportunities.
Here below 11 ideas that can help you during your trip but the best comes this list
Now the best comes.
I have organised a very long post that goes down to every single idea with a few photo examples. Moreover, in this article, you will find also a section that explains how to build a shot list for travel photography.
Best of all, you can download for free your shot list template that you can automatically fill in with all the locations you will visit and your ideas. This will make your travel photography trip so much more effective and efficient.
Everyone has the own style in any form of art. And every artist needs time to create the own. This is why I suggest always to explore the work of the great travel photographer of our time and of the past.
Here below a list of my reference travel photographers. It’s not exhaustive by any mean but a good starting point. You should build yours and keep updated on their work. Stay connected with them, either Twitter, Instagram or YouTube.
These guides are designed to help the travel photographer to achieve the best from the visited country or city.
They include the best sites with examples of images and a handy map. Also, it’s listed the best gear to take with you (not the brand but the type of lens and camera that works best).
In some cases, I have also included information on how to move around and photography shops that could be handy in case of problems
It can be quite complicated. Travelling, making photography and trying to sell them is probably not the most convenient way, although it can be a good fun.
The reality is that it’s very hard to sell photos nowadays. You may be able to make few bucks on stock photography websites, but certainly not a living.
Having a blog does help. You can use it as your own magazine. Once you have traffic you can sell space, advertising, become influential and possibly organise your photography tours.
Here are a few articles that may help:
Till last year I almost refused to make videos. There is a lot of work involved, especially in post-production
I have been starting doing that for a few months now. Do not think featured movies. Just some few seconds here and there. Mostly when we move from place to place, just to have a bit more of documentation on the trip.
I use these cuts as b-roll shots for the trip photo-videos. It does not take too long and they give a nice sense of story. They do not need to be perfect and usually they do not need audio as there will be music in the video.
I use them in my social environments, mostly Instagram and Facebook.
They are great for engagement, but difficult to monetize. It’s more about having a face and a connection. After all, it’s not all about money 😉
If you print this guide, or save it in PDF, from the browser you will notice that formatting is not great. You will get a file of other 100 pages with lots of blank lines.
I tried to reorganise the content on a proper PDF that you can download or print. It is around 40 pages and the links work without problems
Enjoy and let me know your feedback. Leave a comment, I answer all of them.
Stef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.
Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry.
Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world.