10 Tips for Improving your Travel Photography

Anna Zhu, winner of our 2009 Travel Photography Scholarship, shares what she's learned in her career so far.

Hi everyone, Anna here. I was of the winner of the 2009 Travel Photography Scholarship to Antarctica with Jason Edwards. When World Nomads asked me to guest blog post I didn't think I'll have much to write, but a three line draft somehow morphed into half an essay, hope you all find at least one tip useful. Enjoy!

You've got a big trip ahead and you've just bought yourself a new camera - congratulations! Here are a few things I've learnt about travel photography that'll hopefully help you take your best travel photos yet.

Tip 1. Read the manual

New cameras are exciting, but there's nothing more frustrating than being unable to access the features you invested in. You don't need to know what every button does (I probably only use about 50% of my camera's features), but knowing how to switch your camera into manual flash, the dials for aperture and shutter priorities, and exposure compensation are a must. Spend a couple of weekends before your trip making friends with your new camera, you'll be rewarded.  

If you are a beginner and have the time and inclination, a short course in the basic technical aspects of photography would be wise. Camera bodies may have changed over the years, but the mechanics of photography have not.

Tip 2. Research

You've probably picked your travel destination of because of it's picturesque landscapes, cultural richness or abundance in flora and fauna - and photographic evidence of all this is probably already aplenty. Jump onto google and flickr (and your local library - for those of us who prefer analog research), and see what other photographers have captured. You can decide whether to emulate them (a great way to learn) or to carve your own path according to your strengths.

When I was researching for Antarctica, I found lots of images of ice and wildlife, but very not many modern-day portraits of people who venture into this landscape. My strength is in portraiture, so I decided to investigate this path. 


Tip 3. Set yourself a simple brief

This one may not be for everyone, but I find that setting myself a simple brief helps me get into the photographic 'zone' of looking for shots, and usually means that end up with images that are a little less random. They don't need to be complicated - "Photograph where you are at sunset everyday", "Photograph the third person you see every morning", or even "Photograph your dinner everyday" (but food bloggers do this already :). 

When I couch-surfed in Buenos Aires for three weeks, my brief was simply to take a photograph of every person I met - this included my hosts, the baker, streetside florists, people I asked for directions, bus drivers, everyone! I ended up with about a hundred portraits which were then edited down into a series. 

You can practice this technique before you leave, and see if it works for you. Take your camera out for a weekend and set yourself some parameters, e.g. "Photograph anything yellow" or "Photograph from knee height only". You'll be surprised how setting limits actually encourages you to photograph more (you know what you're looking for), and of course, you'll end up with a set of thematically coherent images.


Tip 4. Pack smart and pack light

I'm small and have fallen into the trap of bringing more than I need (or can carry) many many times. From personal experience, the worst is to be on holidays with more camera gear than you strictly need. You'll end up with equipment that's too heavy to lug around the entire day, but you feel guilty for not bringing them out as you flew them halfway across the world for this exact purpose. Thus you end up a mule to your gear, getting tired after half a day on your feet and not enjoying the trip at all.

The trick to packing light is to know what you want to photograph (this is where tips 2 and 3 come into play), you can then decide which lenses to leave and which to pack. One general purpose lens (the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 is great) may be enough for most, but I swear by my fixed 35mm f/1.4. I also wouldn't recommend bringing more than two lenses - you'll spend more time screwing and unscrewing than taking photos.

Tip 5. Take your camera everywhere

How many times have you seen a completely amazing composition and hit yourself over the head because you decided to leave your big camera back in the hotel and make-do with your iphone? Tip 5 derives directly from tip 4, pack only whatever camera gear you can comfortably carry, that way you won't feel it's such a chore to haul it out everyday. 
Disclaimer, take your camera everywhere, but probably not when you're diving or drinking.

Tip 6. Bend your knees

This was the first thing Jason taught me. And this tip could alternatively be named "look for unconventional perspectives", but I didn't this it was as catchy (not that the other tip names are very exciting either).

Our first instinct is to raise the camera to eye level and shoot, this probably works fine most of the time, but you'll be amazed what a different some knee bending does. Suddenly you're looking at the work from the perspective of a child, or a small animal. But why stop there? Place the camera on the ground, or climb onto a table for a higher perspective. Who says a photo can't be upside down? Or be a photo of a reflection of a painting of another photo? The possibilities are endless, sometimes confusing, but indefinitely satisfying when you can capture something that will give people pause before they figure out what they're looking at.

Bend your knees

Tip 7. Keep a backup

Just because that camera's new, don't mean it won't break. I recommend keeping a backup camera of some sort, especially if it's a once in a lifetime trip. Your backup doesn't have to be fancy, it can be a lightweight little point and shoot, or even your mobile phone. 

Also, don't discount film. For those who have a lens system that are compatible with the older film bodies within the same brand, I'd recommend tracking down a film body (usually inexpensive off eBay). They are a great backup to have as the older bodies usually operate via windup or disposable batteries (no charger cords!) and 35mm film is still relatively easy to buy. You'll have the option of posting the developed rolls (don't risk posting undeveloped negatives as some security scanners can be detrimental) back home, knowing your photos are safe waiting for your return.

Tip 8. Number your memory cards

If you have multiple memory cards like me, make your life easier and number them. I've recently lost about 5 gigs of HD video on a recent trip back to the motherland (China), because I confused my cards and wrote over one I'd already used. Good thing I shoot like a nut and have 30 other gigs to remember the trip by. 

If you have the time, back them up! If you're traveling in remote areas, the safest bet is to carry a laptop and external hard drive. When in a city though, an equally good lo-fi option would be to take the cards to a camera shop and have them back everything up on two copies on DVD. Post one set back home and keep the other set with you.

Tip 9. Have fun!

I believe travel photography should always be more about the 'travel' than the 'photography'. I think it's a little too much pressure to set out on a trip with the mission of taking good photos rather than having great experiences. Photos capture what's in front of the camera, but also reflect whoever is behind the camera.

Do your homework before you leave (tips 1-4), and let lose when you're there. When you are confident with your equipment, it means less time eyeing the menu screen and more time eyeing your surroundings.

Tip 10. Edit edit edit.

Ever had a friend show you their 3 hour long travel slideshow which invariably would have 20 shots of the same mountain top? Please, don't put someone else through that. 
Taking the photo is only half the process, being selective with what you show at the end is difficult, but is essential to improving your photography. Like any form of learning, review and critique are key. Plus, once you isolate the good shots (for me, usually about 10-20% of a shoot) and imagine the rest never happened, you'll feel like a king. 

Tip 3 (shooting with a brief in mind) applies to editing as well. If you consider what your editing for, your selection would be more appropriate and a natural narrative will emerge. Editing a series to show your mum would be different to editing a series for a potential photo buyer.

The right software can go a long way to making a tiring process easier - I highly recommend Lightroom. It's easy to use and it's cataloging system is incomparable when it comes to working with a large amount of files.

About Anna

Anna Zhu is a Sydney-based freelance portrait photographer with a passion for people and storytelling. She specialises in dynamic portraiture for corporate bodies, has just serendipitously stepped into the wedding photography market, and is fortunate to count not-for-profit organisations as regular clients. See Anna's commercial work here. Her wedding and lifestyle portfolio is at Anna Zhu Photography.

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  • Teri Owen said

    I'm a professional- part time and I think you covered the important information. The last is key.

  • Elad said

    Thanks for this post. I highly recommend utilizing the Cloud (iCloud / Google Drive / Dropbox) to back up your photos and videos during your travels (if your Wi-Fi permits). Backing up to your external storage is insufficient because if it breaks down (mechanical hard drives are unreliable) or is stolen from your accommodation, along with your laptop and SD cards, you would lose everything.

    A cloud backup is safe and sound no matter what happens to your local backups that you carry with you. If you can't find decent Wi-Fi to back up with, it might even be worth to invest in a 4G SIM card just for the purpose of backing up your media.

  • Rebecca Reeder said

    You are so right about packing light with lenses (as well as clothing.) I have missed some once-in-a-lifetime photos while unscrewing and attaching different lenses!

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