20 tips to radically improve your travel photography in 2020

2020 hast just arrived and it’s time for those New Year’s resolutions. How’s improving your travel photography for a resolution? Personally, I think it’s one of the best you could adopt for 2020.

I just watched a segment on the news where a psychologist warned against being overambitious with our goals and resolutions for the new year. Make a list with too many goals, or with ones which are unrealistic or more connected with social pressures than with your inner self, and you’ll be setting yourself up for failure.

While photography, both as a medium and an act, is more subject to peer and social pressures than ever, due to Instagram and other social platforms, taking photos remains, at heart, a deeply personal experience and one that we remain intimately in touch with.

So if you’ve sometimes felt unhappy with the photos you’ve taken in your holidays (I mean, who hasn’t?), it’s high time to put an end to that starting right now. Here’s how you can do it:

  1. Research your destination in advance (on Google, Instagram, etc.). Make a list of the places, attractions and activities you want to photograph. Star or flag them on your phone’s maps app for convenience.
  2. If you’re interested in the local culture, try to make your visit coincide with some local festival or celebration, big or small. The logistic challenges (finding affordable accommodation, contending with the crowds, etc.) will be more than made up for by the wealth of photo opportunities that you’ll encounter in such events.
  3. Once at your destination, ask around (at your hotel/guesthouse, tourist information offices, talking to locals) to find more information about the attractive spots and the best times to photograph them.
  4. Don’t forget to ask if there are any lesser-known cool spots where only locals go. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll discover interesting places to photograph that way.
  5. Arrive early in the morning to at least some of the locations you intend to photograph. The light will be better and you won’t have dozens of tourists all over your photos.
    Agung volcano behind a candi bentar, Pura Lempuyang temple, Bali, Indonesia

    I woke up at 4.30-5 a.m. in order to arrive at Pura Lempuyang temple (Bali) at the crack of dawn. One or two hours later people would have been literally queueing at this spot to take the photo with the manufactured mirror reflection everyone posts on Instagram.

  6. If you feel particularly drawn to a specific spot, monument, or attraction, photograph it at different times of the day, whenever possible. The different light will result in radically different photos, and sometimes it’s hard to know beforehand what the optimal time is. You’ll learn this with experience, though.
  7. Take the snapshots and cliché photos first if you feel like it. There’s nothing wrong about that, even if the resulting images will be very similar to all those taken at that same spot before. Yes, there are millions of Taj Mahal photos out there, but it’s ok to want to have our own.
  8. However, once you’ve done that, always try to make some images that capture that famous landmark in a more creative way.
    Reflection, Chiang Mai, Thailand

    Reflections on poodles are a creative way to show a well-known landmark such as Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai (Thailand). In this case I also waited for a monk to enter the frame (see tips 11 and 17 below).

  9. Work each location. Walk around, use different focal lengths and look for vantage points and different angles and distances to capture your subject in a variety of ways.
  10. Study the direction and quality of the light at each location, and how you can leverage it. Remember that photographically speaking any part of the day is better than the central hours around noon, when the light is harshest.
  11. Find a spot with beautiful light, or a photogenic background (like street art, or a row of quaint houses) and wait for someone or something interesting to happen. If nothing or no one interesting comes by, wait 5 more minutes. What’s the rush?
    Woman riding bicycle, Malacca (Melaka), Malaysia

    This street art in Melaka (Malaysia) is gorgeous and worthy of a snaphsot in itself. But waiting for this young woman to cycle through not only added interest to the image but also provided a sense of place.

  12. Don’t take all your shots at eye level. We all see the world at eye-level, every day, so a different point of view will help a photo stand out. So bend those knees!
  13. Or climb onto something (like a bench), or shoot over your head and above your subject, if your camera has a tilting LCD screen.
    Woman frying rakik kacang, West Sumatra, Indonesia

    Although this snack workshop in Sumatra was poorly lit, there was a lot of clutter I didn’t want in my shots. Shooting from above took care of that while providing a different viewpoint.

  14. Don’t forget to shoot details. They tell an important part of the story.
  15. If you want to make people portraits, always look relaxed and friendly. If you look as though you’re nervous or ashamed of what you’re doing, it will make people feel uncomfortable and suspicious (more about this in my post “How to stop feeling anxious about photographing people when you travel”).
  16. Use human figures to your advantage, for instance to give a sense of scale.
    Mount Fuji, Lake Kawaguchi, Japan

    I think the gigantic size of Mt. Fuji would have been obvious anyway, but including the fisherman at the bottom right corner gives a better sense of scale to the viewer.

  17. Shoot bursts when trying to capture motion (like people or vehicles moving through the frame) to increase the chances that at least one of the images in the sequence is good. If you only take one photo, you are much less likely to get a great shot. By the way, although many people I’ve asked don’t know this, most, if not all, smartphone cameras allow shooting in bursts: just keep your finger on the shutter icon!

    I liked the backdrop, so I waited for about 20 minutes at this spot. When I saw the kid approaching on his bike, I steadied myself and shot a 3-image burst. The third one is the strongest of the three and I further cleaned it up in post-processing.

  18. If you are shooting an interchangeable lens camera, get yourself a fast prime lens to shoot in low light conditions, interiors and at night: the image quality will be far superior to anything your kit zoom lens will ever deliver.
  19. Carry at least a small table-top tripod: great for longer exposures and low light shots, proper selfies (if that’s what you’re into) and places where big tripods are not allowed.
  20. Look more, shoot less. But when you find the exact moment or composition that you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to press that shutter! You don’t want to get back home and realize you missed your shot.

That’s the list! I’m sure you knew already some of the things mentioned, but maybe don’t always remember them in your trips. It happens to all of us.

Whether you use your phone’s camera or a dedicated (compact, mirrorless or DSLR) one, I guarantee that if you put into practice at least some of these recommendations, you’ll see a marked improvement in your travel photography. And you’ll be on the right path to further expand your photography skills.

As a final reminder for those of you who may not have downloaded it yet, last year I wrote a concise ebook with tips to help you take better photos in your travels. In it you can find some of the above tips explained in more detail, as well as many others that you should find useful. The book is free, so if you don’t have your copy yet, head to my home page and get the book now.

As always, feel free to leave your own tips or comments below, or ask any questions you may have. I wish you guys all the best for 2020!

6 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing such wonderful tips. I am a freelance photographer so I have travel a lot and these tips are the perfect guidline for me and I going to give more priority on (19) carrying a table top tripod.

  2. Love the shots and tips. I’ve been a freelance photographer for months now especially in the field of a wedding. Tips from this article can also be applied. Anyway, a great read and looking forward to more of your work, I’ve also seen your gallery. It’s awesome!

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