3 mins

25 tips for better travel photos

Our panel of experts explain how to make next year’s travel photos your best ever, using only what you’ve already got: a camera and your imagination

Follow these top tips to improve your travel photography (iStock)

Meet the experts

Suzi Eszterhas (SE) is an award-winning professional wildlife photographer, based in California and the UK. As well as shooting assignments for newspapers and magazines worldwide, she leads inspirational wildlife photography tours.

Paul Harris (PH) has a distinguished 25-year career documenting people and landscapes around the world, with a particular focus on environmental issues and adventure travel. Based in North Yorkshire, he is a judge on the Wanderlust Travel Photo of the Year competition, and will be assisting with the Wanderlust Journeys Cappadocia Assignment this autumn.

London-based Peter Mallet (PM) is an in-demand editorial photographer, shooting travel assignments for Wanderlust, Sunday Times Travel, Geographical and other top magazines.

Additional tips by professional photographer Steve Davey and editor Dan Linstead.

1. Take a camera everywhere

As the adage has it, ‘the best camera is the one you have with you’. The fanciest DSLR in the world is no good back in your hotel room.

2. Think before you shoot

Look in and around the scene, and think about how you are going to make the most of its potential. Is the foreground interesting enough? Are the colours too distracting? If light, weather, time and mood are simply not helping, come back another day. PH

3. Get to know your camera

OK, so nobody loves reading the manual – but the more you know about your camera’s capabilities, the more creative you can be. Even the humblest compact camera has a myriad options, so start experimenting. Take the same scene different ways and compare them. Try it once with flash, and once without; once close-up and once out wide; try different shutter speeds and white balance settings.

For a handy demo of how to use basic SLR settings, have a play with the virtual camera at www.camerasim.com.

4. Use back-lighting for drama

Conventional wisdom says you should take photographs with the sun behind you, which tends to give warmer tones. But sometimes you can achieve dramatic results by placing yourself so your subject is back-lit (shooting with the sun facing you). This is especially true if you’re shooting in the early morning or late evening, when the sun often produces a warm rim-lighting around the edge of your subject. SE

5. Don’t miss the ‘golden hours’ after sunrise and before sunset

You can take good photographs at any time of day, but at dawn and dusk the light is best for revealing the full texture of a landscape. This light can be very short lived, especially in the tropics, so you need to be ready at your location in good time. PH

6. Introduce movement

One of the easiest ways to animate a scene is to allow a bit of motion blur – birds in the sky, passing bicycles, the bustle of pedestrians in a city centre. Selecting a Shutter priority (S or Tv) or Manual mode (M) is the easiest way to achieve this. Brace yourself against a wall to avoid camera shake, and shoot at 1/15 sec or slower to get a sense of motion. For longer exposures, you’ll need to rest your camera on a surface, or use a tripod.

7. Learn to read a histogram

This scary-sounding word is actually one of your camera’s best-kept secrets, and an easy way to judge exposure – especially in bright conditions when it’s hard to see your camera’s screen.

A histogram is a graph that pops up on your camera’s preview screen, showing the range of exposure in the photo you’ve just taken. Very dark shadows are indicated on the left, very bright highlights on the right, mid-tones in between. In general, you’re aiming for an even curve, with a few shadows, a few highlights, and most of your image in the mid-tones. If your histogram is piled up high on the right (highlights) you need less exposure; if it’s over to the left (shadows) you need more.

8. Be patient

Good photography requires patience – you’ll often need to wait for light conditions to change, for that lion or humpback whale to do something interesting, or for the right kind of person to wander past. If you’re on holiday with family or friends, try to give yourself some time alone to concentrate on photographs rather than forcing everyone to wait for you. And once you’ve got a good subject in your sights, stick with it. SE

9. Get to know your subject

Even a few words can break down barriers and enhance a portrait. Give a friendly smile, and ask permission before you snap away. If you talk first, you’ll also have more time to plan your composition, and enjoy the meeting more. Consider how you would feel if you were the subject. PM

10. Shift the horizon

The horizon doesn’t have to be in the middle of your image. If the sky is full of storm clouds or rainbows, fill the frame with it, placing the horizon close to the bottom. If the sky lacks interest, remove two thirds of it – the leading line of a waterway or winding road will make up for loss of sky and create drama of its own. Above all, try to keep the horizon level – for a few pounds you can buy miniature spirit levels that fit into your camera’s hotshoe. PH

11. Focus on the eyes

In any portrait, the eyes need to be sharp. You have a couple of options to achieve this. You can use a single focus mode, half-press the shutter release to focus on the eyes, then recompose your picture with the button held down to lock the focus. Even better , use a continuous focus mode and move the active focus point so it is over the eyes. As you take pictures, the camera is continuously making adjustments to keep them sharp.

12. Fill the frame

Before you press the shutter release, look at the edges of the scene. Does everything in your photo need to be there? Is it balanced? If there’s acres of sky, does it enhance the composition – or should you re-compose? Or get in closer? If there’s a lot of background to a portrait, does it help or hinder? Shoot what you want to show – and nothing else. PM

13. Be in the right place at the right time

Try to know what will be happening when and where. If you’re photographing wildlife, where do certain species congregate? Where will the Kenya/Tanzania Great Migration be?

If you’re shooting a city, is there a festival on? If you’re shooting a coastline, when is high tide? Read guidebooks, trawl websites, use apps and even phone experts. SE

14. Look for pictures, then prepare for them

If you see a backdrop you like, pre-focus your camera. Then, when that photogenic villager/elephant/tuk-tuk enters the scene, you’ll be ready. PM

15. Use side-lighting for texture

When the sun is from the side you get richer textures and more prominent shadows, often giving landscapes greater depth and interest.

16. Experiment with depth of field

To create the three-dimensional feel of being part of a scene, use the wide-angle part of a zoom lens with maximum depth of field to lead the viewer in with sharply focused interest in the foreground, such as rocks or bright colour. Alternatively you could blur a uniform foreground with a longer focal length and wider aperture to create a window for your scene. PH

17. Include figures in your landscape

Rather than have a friend or local stare into the camera, have them walk or face into the image – this leads the viewer’s eye to the landscape beyond. Use a larger depth of field (smaller aperture, or the Landscape setting on a compact) to keep foreground and background in focus. PH

18. Use fill-in flash outdoors

If you’re shooting a portrait outside on a sunny day, the background will often be much brighter than your subject’s face. Flash can help reduce the harsh shadows in your subject’s eye sockets. The simplest way is to switch your flash to the 'forced' or 'always on' mode. You can get an even better result by setting the flash to be a little duller. Experiment with setting the flash exposure compensation to -1 stop for a more subtle effect.

19. Use portrait format for landscapes, and landscape for portraits

Too many photographers forget to turn their camera on its side. Not all landscapes lend themselves to landscape format – mountains, snaking roads, tall trees and buildings can all be more striking shot vertically. And the same goes for portraits in landscape format. Several of the ‘People’ winners in this year’s Wanderlust Photo of the Year competition were actually shot landscape format. Try to use the words 'horizontal' and 'vertical' instead of 'landscape' and 'portrait' to remind yourself to think outside the box.

20. When good things start happening, shoot a lot

You may not notice little details when something exciting is afoot – and if you take only one image, you may be disappointed. This is abundantly true for wildlife photography: take a few shots even if your animal isn’t doing much, just for insurance. SE

21. Assign cloudy days for taking portraits

The softer light allows you to be freer with your composition and lets the subject relax their eyes. If it is a sunny day, try to shoot in the shade. Adjust the white balance to warm up portraits taken in cold, blueish shadow light, either in-camera if JPEGs or in post-processing if shooting RAW. PM

22. Tell a story with portraits

Say something about your subject by including telling details: the tools of their trade, the clothes they wear, the place they live. These give life and meaning to a portrait. PM

23. Use slow-synch flash indoors

Indoors, standard flash generally means harsh and unflattering portraits with very dark backgrounds. For more atmospheric results, use slow-synch flash (Night mode on some compacts), which combines flash with a longer shutter speed, and brings ambient light into the picture.

24. Shift your viewpoint

Try moving to the left or right, standing on your tiptoes or lying on the ground. Climb those stairs, peer through that archway, or get down behind that cactus. A fresh angle can cut out background distractions, provide a striking composition, and change the relationship between elements in your photograph. SE

25. If you can, shoot raw

Most digital SLRs allow you to shoot in RAW format, rather than JPEG – which means you capture virtually all the data in an image, rather than a processed, slimmed-down version of that data. RAW files are bigger than JPEGs, so they take up more space on your memory card, but they give you much greater room to make adjustments when you’re processing, so you can compensate for poor exposure or white balance, for example.

Want more tips from the travel photography experts? Join Wanderlust and Peter Harris for two photography workshops (Brush up your photo skills and Come home with great pictures) at next year's Adventure Travel Show in January 2012. Find out more here.

This article has been taken from Wanderlust's sell-out travel photography magazine Take Better Travel Photos. You can still buy a digital copy of the magazine. Find out more here.

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