How to Take Better Travel Photos


2019 Update: This post is by far one of the most popular pieces on Paper Planes. If you’re picking up what we’re throwing down, then check out the photography+yoga+culture+good living retreat we’re organizing this November in Chiang Mai here! 

Retreat in Chiang Mai


Looking back at photos of when I first moved to Thailand or traveled around Southeast Asia I’m torn between two feelings. On one hand, I love them all – it was such a new, exciting time for me and looking at the photos brings back a hint of that excitement and novelty. On the other hand, they kind of suck. 

Since then, I upgraded to better camera gear, improved my composition skillz and learned how to better process and edit photos. I still am by no means a great photographer, however, and often fake it when it comes to the technical side of things.

Fortunately, I am friends with people who are more talented and smarter than me and actually know how to use their camera. What’s even more fortunate is that these friends stayed with me in Chiang Mai for months and not only indulged me in some photoshoots, but let me steal some of their photography tips and tricks as well. (You can also see some of the cameras and gear I personally use here.)

So, today Laura and Tim from Sullivan & Sullivan Studios – a couple of yoga teaching and social working turned photographers and retreat organizers, self-described typewriter pen pals who became best friends,  fell in love, got married and started dreaming of ways to tell the world’s great stories together – are going to share some of their tips for taking better travel photos with you.

How to Take Better Travel Photos | Paper Planes
This is Laura, she’s going to teach you how to take better travel photos…this horse trusts her, so you can too. Shot in: Trinidad, Cuba

Sweet baby Ganesh, we’ve all been there — your acquaintance down the street gets back from some package sight-seeing trip to Mexico and is like, “Come over and look at my photos!” and 3,000 unedited images of a donkey on the side of the road later, your brain is mush and you never want to speak to another human again.

DON’T BE THAT PERSON.

Or the person who floods Facebook with a trillion blurry shots of their food from Indonesia. Consider these humble tricks when planning your travel photography and your Facebook friends will thank you.

(Note: there are some tips and lingo in here that are aimed for beginning DSLR users, but most of them will apply to the iPhone photographer and DSLR user alike. Take what serves you and leave the rest behind!)

You can’t capture everything!

If your images are going to pack a punch, they need to be well-edited and sparse. When I first started travelling, I bent over backwards trying to document every little detail of every little experience. The way a salad was arranged, the way the light hit the Gothic bricks, the expression on my travel companion’s face when we sang happy birthday on a Spanish beach. But I quickly realized that by trying to document every moment, I wasn’t really being a part of them. I was reminded of this again in New York last year, when I got stuck walking behind a guy who was literally strolling through Soho, filming each step on his iPad. HIS IPAD. He was trying to seize a moment to enjoy again later, when really… He won’t. He was missing the experience in real time in a vain attempt to capture it forever.

When you’re abroad, the temptation can be very real to document the trip in its entirety. But if you step back and only shoot the things that really speak to you, you can trust that the story of your travels will be told well. Put the camera down. Notice what’s happening with each of your senses. Be present, and the photos will follow.

Don’t replicate the same photo everyone else has — find your own angle

“Photographs shock insofar as they show something novel.” –Susan Sontag

Every famous landmark has that one iconic image, but you’ll make a mistake by trying to replicate it. When you show up to the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower, pretend like you’ve never laid eyes on it. Try to find the details that other people missed. If something is always shot wide-angle, capture a tiny detail, and vice versa. I’ve still never been to the Grand Canyon, but I always get excited when I think about photographing a tiny ridge, a small stone, a minute detail that the big images can’t include. I know I’ll never be Ansel Adams and I don’t want to be—I want to be Laura. Be you, and create your own iconic images.

How to take better photos
Not the same as all the others…  Shot in: Valladolid, Mexico

Follow the light

Google “sunrise/sunset times” in your city and set your schedule around them. The gentle light that crawls in right before the sunrise, the cool haze right around sunset… There’s a reason they call these times “golden hour.” You can banish the harsh midday shadows, stay out of the noon heat, and avoid crowds, all by following the first and last light of the day. This also allows for siesta time, and there’s no arguing with that.

If you have to be out shooting in the brightest times of day, never fear! There are a couple of tricks that will help you manage dat sun. First, seek open shade. You know that super-bright white light that happens in photos when the sun is hitting your subject directly? That’s called “blow out” and there’s no IG filter that will ever fix it. Avoid having mixed light on your subjects so you can properly expose for the entire image. Second, use the light to your advantage. Put the sun behind your subject (whether it’s a person or the Pyramids) and use it to create beams of light and lens flare. Basically, if you have to shoot in bright daylight, own it, but make the sun work for you rather than vice versa.

How to take better photos
Shot in: Havana, Cuba

Keep your f-stop low

A general guideline: the higher your f-stop, the less interesting the photo (this is arguable when it comes to panoramic views and groups of people, but think of it as a basic rule of thumb). When subjects are sharp and the background is blurry, that background blur is called bokeh, and it’s controlled by your f-stop. Most cameras with built-in lenses will start somewhere around f2.8, and staying as low as possible will help you capture the tiny details leaving extraneous information out of the frame and draw the eye in.

How to take better travel photos
Okay, um, they are darling…   Shot in: Havana, Cuba

Respect your subjects

When I started getting serious about photography, my biggest concern when abroad was being respectful of the people I was shooting. It can feel quite invasive to have a camera flung in your face, even when you know the photographer, and I never wanted to treat traveling as a way of simply checking off the boxes (one Thai hill tribe elder, CHECK! One Bolivian coca farmer, CHECK! One Cuban taxi driver, CHECK!). Not only does having a pre-determined idea of the “kind of person” you want to shoot put them in an inappropriate box, it will limit your ability to relate with people on a basic human level. Cultivating a deep curiosity and respect for the people you are living and traveling amongst will freshen your vision and allow for the creation of more organic, mutually respectful photos. This isn’t you thieving a shot; this is you sharing an exchange with a fellow human. And if you aren’t doing that, then why are you travelling?

Be open to your surroundings.

A friend of mine was visiting the ancient ruins of Tikal, a stunning Guatemalan site that draws visitors from around the world, and she came home with a dozen stories not about the incredible architecture or history, but about stopping on the path to crouch down and closely observe a unique bug that she’d never seen before. I can’t help but feel that the people who rush from one attraction to another are missing the real heart and soul of a place—the little discreet things that guidebooks never tell you. Keep your eyes open to the things you’ve never been told to shoot. Your photos will be exponentially better.

Taking better travel photos
Like empty glass soda bottles   Shot in: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Take the leap into manual

If you’re not already shooting in Manual mode, it’s time to play. Give yourself more control over the final image you’re getting by leveling up to Manual mode, and you’ll never look back.

Compose well. Mix it up.

Solid composition can make a plain photo great. While rules are made to be broken, and you’ll never see me insisting that the Rule of Thirds is the only way to shoot, I keep one specific thing in mind while I’m shooting: that the human eye can only take in so much information at a time. The more you are able to “guide” the eye through your photo, the better. Some examples: Use stark backdrops to frame your subject. Pay attention to where the lines in a photo are facing (such as roads, mountaintops, limbs). Exclude information the eye doesn’t need. Look for symmetry and repetitive patterns. The list goes on, but remember that the “thing” you’re shooting is only the first consideration—everything surrounding it is just as crucial for a stellar shot.

Stay Present - And take better travel photos.
Stay Present – and take better travel photos Shot in: Tulum, Mexico

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” –Robert Capa

Ok, Robert Capa died in the Indochina War because he really believed in that, and maybe you don’t want to go that far. But his point stands: get closer. Don’t try to capture it all in a single photo. Get detailed, baby.

Keep it simple.

THIS IS A BONUS ANALOGY FOR LIFE!

When I think about my basic rules for travel photography, I find that they overlap a ton with how I imagine a life well-lived: being present. Being respectful. Looking for details. Ditching the stress of doing and seeing everything. Finding your own voice and using it bravely and generously. What else could you want from life– or your photography?

Now go forth, fellow travelers, and pay loving attention to this crazy amazing world. I can’t wait to see your images.

Now that you seen that they know their stuff, and tend to travel to some pretty interesting places, follow Laura & Tim on Instagram at @sullivanandsullivanphoto.

Photo Gear for Traveling

Want to get started with your own travel photography? See what’s in my travel camera bag here.

Like this post? Pin it to save for your next trip!

How to Take Better Travel Photos via Paper Planes & Lightworks360

47 Comments

  • Posted November 15, 2015
    by Katie

    Great post with a fresh perspective on advice for travel photography! I find that these kinds of lists are so often redudant and, really, kind of lazy — this one’s not at all! I’ve been shooting in manual for years but am still working on upping my technical game. Saving this post!

  • Posted November 15, 2015
    by Alana Morgan

    Thanks for reading, Katie – this post certainly has a bit of personality ;)

  • Posted November 16, 2015
    by Flora

    Fantastic post! And thanks for the push of experiment – I really need to leap into the manual setting more often :p

    • Posted November 18, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      I do too…

    • Posted September 27, 2017
      by Mubashir

      Nice back ground and fabulous photo

  • Posted November 18, 2015
    by Karen

    Very interesting take on photography & life in general. Take your time & be present – great advice for many things

  • Posted November 19, 2015
    by Cest La Vibe

    Nice tips, especially the one about keeping your f-stop low.

  • Posted November 19, 2015
    by Brooke Mure

    Any suggestions for not too expensive/portable cameras that would be good for traveling with?! :-)

    • Posted November 20, 2015
      by Alana Morgan

      Good question…it depends on what your budget is and what types of photos you’ll be taking. Before I got my DSLR I used the Canon PowerShot G16. You can get cheaper point and shoots, but it took some of the best pictures possible without having a DSLR and fancy lenses.

  • Posted November 23, 2015
    by Alexandra

    This is a great post. I’m trying my hardest to learn about photography right now! If I may give a piece of constructive criticism without being rude, I think you have to many featured stories scrolling on your home screen. I counted 33 in all. I noticed because one flashed by and I was like “ooh I want to read that” and then after going through about ten I was like “jeez where is it?” I think 4 or 5 would of your best/favorite/newest would be a better amount.

  • Posted November 24, 2015
    by mariana bittencourt

    great post! I’m almost trying to learn more about it and this post it’s easy and good to read :) thanks for the tips

  • Posted December 12, 2015
    by Gerard - GQ trippin

    Amen. Thanks for reminding people to take unique angles. I needed the reminder too. :)

  • Posted December 27, 2015
    by Marc

    Good tips and appreciate it. I always never follow the conventional way to take pictures and try my best to capture the feelings. Always follow the light is a must.

  • Posted January 6, 2016
    by Zippy Sandler

    Thank you for this. I struggle with photos – and have always preferred words, but as a blogger I need to do both. These tips will come in handy.

  • Posted January 10, 2016
    by Helen Chik

    Love this post Alana! I need to do my own for fashion photography!

    I’m trying to plan another trip to Thailand ASAP! Miss you! xxx

    Helen xx

    • Posted January 11, 2016
      by Alana Morgan

      Yes you do – and teach us the secrets of taking self portraits… COME VISIT. You have a room and cute little dog waiting for you.

  • Posted January 15, 2016
    by Sbo

    I enjoyed the post, and the will surely use the simple tips given.
    Thank you

  • Posted January 23, 2016
    by Eden

    Muchas gracias senorita! I’m no professional photographer, but I have always loved and enjoyed capturing just about anything no matter where I am and after some research I’ve decided to pursue photography more seriously.

    These tips are welcomed, received

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Posted February 3, 2016
    by Nicky

    Finding your own angle is soooo important. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Posted February 8, 2016
    by Robert

    Some great advice for us amateur photographers. I’ve recently purchased a new iphone6+ and having a great time with experimenting with the camera, particularly night shots. I like your advice on keeping things simple and looking outside the box!

  • Posted February 9, 2016
    by Mumun

    Some awesome tips. I love your tips about not capturing everything. After sometime, I realized this was the truth and great photographers weren’t the ones that took the most photos, but the ones that understood the right moment.

    That IPAD guys is weird.

    Will keep this in mind for my next voyage with my camera.

  • Posted February 10, 2016
    by Pat W

    Always great to be reminded that photographs are to be reminders of traveling, not the total experience. F-stop reminder is much appreciated.

    • Posted February 10, 2016
      by Alana Morgan

      So true – you need to find a balance between snapping away and simply experiencing a place!

  • Posted March 11, 2016
    by Anea

    I just came across your blog for the first time and I absolutely love it! Thanks for sharing this post. I’m quite new to travel photography and so this post was a big help!

  • Posted June 22, 2016
    by tim fisher

    Not what I expected nor anticipated, so a thumbs-up.

    Maybe buy at least one fast, f1.4 (?) lens, be it 35, 50 or 85mm, you will never look back?

    Composition – lighting – timing

    Not always interlinking, but fundamental.

    Practice composition without a camera, most of the finest photographers recommend this discipline.

    Get used to the hours before both dawn and sundown. After 9am, the sun is so strong, the colours cold – it is time for a siesta.

    There are many genres of photography but never, ever, pass up an opportunity to visit galleries, especially national / regional ones and view the paintings.

    Count your own progress relative to the numbers of hours you spend viewing photographic and paintings in galleries – they really are that interlinked and no, the internet is not a viable substitute (unless you are house-bound or in such a remote location that it’s the last resort).

    Read and view everything HCB – he of The Decisive Moment – ever said or photographed.

    LensCulture – this is the website to visit, as is the annual Sony and the World Press Awards. Try the BJP-online too for more inspiration.

  • Posted August 12, 2016
    by Nancy Miller

    I do not have anything but a point & shoot Nikon. I am beginning to travel more & feel frustrated that I don’t have more “control”. Any suggestions on cameras for novices? I mostly take photos of gardens & architecture which I make into cards & send to friends.
    Loved your “in the moment” piece. I recently visited l’Orangerie in Paris & was dismayed to see a gentleman taking a photo of every single painting without actually looking at them with his bare eyes!
    Thank you

    • Posted August 16, 2016
      by Alana Morgan

      I take a lot of photos, but it bugs me too when I see people just snapping away at everything without really looking at the scene or soaking up where they are! You can find some of the cameras and gear I use in this post: http://www.paperplanesblog.com/best-travel-photography-gear/ Before I got my DSLR (which is just an entry-level one, I’m still a novice too) I used the Canon G16 which is still a point and shoot but allowed you quite a bit of control and was really good at macro shots, like for flowers. Hope that helps a little!

  • Posted August 25, 2016
    by Billy

    Excellent tips. I need to work on a lot of these. I love the low F-stop one!

    • Posted August 26, 2016
      by Alana Morgan

      I still need to work on them too…the F-stop is about the only one I have down!

  • Posted August 27, 2016
    by Leo

    Maybe nice advices, but poor post-processing.
    How about to make full contrast and good color correction?

  • Posted August 31, 2016
    by Tracey Warbey

    Shooting in manual was a game changer for me.. easy to learn, takes a lot more time to master! Definitely worth all its effort though!

  • Posted September 22, 2016
    by Sarah Yekinni

    Found your blog on Pinterest and I love it! I’m always looking for tips and tricks to improve my travel photography and these were very helpful! Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Posted October 21, 2016
    by Mariana Perrone

    fantastic post and tips!

  • Posted December 8, 2016
    by Lynn

    This is honestly one of the best posts I’ve read on the subject. The reminder to step away from the camera once in a while and enjoy what’s going on around me was very much needed—I tend to get so caught up in the mindset of ‘how will I present this moment on my blog’ that I forget to actually enjoy the moment. :(

    • Posted December 9, 2016
      by Alana Morgan

      Me too – my photos have definitely changed since starting blogging. They gotten better and more interesting but don’t catch the small personal things so much.

  • Posted January 15, 2017
    by Lisa

    I just got my first serious camera and I find this post soso useful! Thank you for sharing!
    Also, Happy to have found your blog! I love the layout, the style the content…everything! Looking forward to following you :)

    Lisa

    • Posted January 15, 2017
      by Alana Morgan

      Glad it was helpful…have fun play with your new camera!

  • Posted March 1, 2017
    by Frida Ode

    Great post that gave me a lot of new inspiration! Thank you!

  • Posted March 13, 2017
    by jessica

    i’m looking for a new camera to take better pictures but these tips are very helpfull thank you!!

  • Posted September 8, 2017
    by KES

    Love the advice! Can’t wait to try out some of these tips :)

  • Posted May 1, 2018
    by Elsa Anderson

    My husband and I are taking our first big trip around the world this summer and we want to take a lot of great pictures, so I am glad I found this article! You make a great point that you should follow the light and take pictures around sunrise and sunset to avoid midday shadows and avoid crowds during your photos. Also, we will make sure to keep it simple because we want the pictures to reflect the real memories of the trip and bring joy as well look back at them in the future.

  • Posted May 7, 2018
    by Katie Featherstone

    Thank-you for including the part about respecting your subjects. It’s amazing how often that is forgotten…

  • Posted February 3, 2019
    by Daniella Schoeman

    These are super useful tips that I will mosr definitely be trying!

  • Posted May 6, 2019
    by Christa Adams

    I loved this article and new perspectives on getting creative with travel photography — much needed. I adored that photo of the two young boys. Thank you! :)

Leave a comment

CommentLuv badge