What makes a great travel photo?

close-up of sand dunes
Great travel photos need great light and solid composition. But adding a dash of mystery never hurts.
Courtesy 40 Nights Photography

Let's face it -- just about anyone can take a nice picture of the Great Sphinx of Giza. And on a clear, blue-sky day, Mt. Everest, lined with brightly dressed climbers, is a magnificent but easy target for everyone who happens to be carrying a camera.

Yet there's a gaping chasm between competent travel photography and truly great travel pictures that seize your attention and sear themselves into your memory for years to come. Understanding the difference can make or break the pictures you capture while you're on the road.


We'll cut straight to the jugular here. A great travel picture -- like any great picture -- tells a story. It connects your audience to the scene in your composition. It engages a viewer's imagination, stops them for a moment and has a magnetic pull that draws their eyes.

So before you even touch the shutter button, consider the tale that you're trying to tell. Is this story about a person, a place or a thing? Or is it a magical combination of all three, delicately balanced with precise composition and exquisite lighting?

Like a timeless, catchy pop song, a strong image has a hook that grabs a person and makes him want to understand more about what's happening in this work of art. To that end, you want your visual creation to be less like "Who Let the Dogs Out" and more like "All Along the Watchtower."

Your quest to make an enduring, chart-topping image won't be an easy one. The highway to photography greatness is littered with the roadkill of thousands of clichéd and trite images captured by well-intentioned but misguided photo bugs. Keep reading, and we'll open your eyes to what makes a really great travel picture.


The Power of Participation

picture of man taking pictures of mountains from cliff edge
Go far, climb high and work hard. You don’t necessary have to risk your neck, but getting off the beaten path is a good way to find your own unique visual style.
Courtesy 40 Nights Photography

A great travel photo distills the essence of a person, place or culture into a dynamic image. Balancing the elements of a splendid picture, from lighting, to composition, to timing is a little like honing expert swimming skill.

That said, the shallow end of the photo pool is where good images drown, never to be seen again. To make a truly exceptional travel picture, you have to jump into the deep end with both feet. In other words, don't just be a creepy observer, lurking the shadows and living vicariously through the action around you. Dive into the fray and participate in the landscape and culture you traveled to experience.


To make the most your headlong journey, think ahead. If you're heading to a part of the world that's new to you, prepare yourself mentally in advance. Do some homework on the region, its people and even its economy. This will give you a base of knowledge with which you can use to understand the stories unfolding before your eyes. Consider your research an indispensable aspect of your image making.

Once you're on site, get moving. If you're in a populated area frequented by tourists, don't be one. Bypass tourist hotspots and people who exhibit caricatures of themselves to satiate the expectations of visitors. Instead, get off of the main roads and interact with the locals, even if you aren't familiar with the language.

When you do approach locals, remember that your tactics matter. Although covert candid street photography is a proven technique, you also risk drawing the ire of people who don't want their pictures taken, or who are taken aback by your sneaky approach. Simply asking for permission to take someone's picture is good manners. In some areas, doing so might prevent a hostile confrontation or even save your life.

If you're rebuffed by a particularly photogenic subject, consider opening your wallet. Some of the world's best photographers occasionally offer cash to people if it makes them more willing to participate in a short portrait session.


Focus on Fundamentals

nighttime images of statue, city
Before you ever board your plane for a distant destination, make sure you understand your camera. With some practice, you can take nice pictures even in tricky lighting conditions.
Courtesy 40 Nights Photography

Don't expect to fire off shots with a brand-new, unfamiliar camera and still achieve travel photo greatness. Likewise, you can't conjure wonderful pictures if you're struggling with basic rules of composition. Nail down the fundamentals while you're still at home.

It starts by understanding your equipment. Whether you have a pro-grade SLR (single lens reflex) camera and a suitcase full of lenses or a simple point-and-shoot camera, you won't get far unless you know your gear inside and out. At the very least, understand how to control the settings for aperture, shutter speed and ISO setting, and know how to quickly switch from various modes depending on your subject and light conditions.


You'll also need to understand the importance of composition. If you aren't already, you'll need to be familiar with terms like the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Spiral. In short, these terms guide you to compose your photos with the subject off-center. The slight sense of imbalance tends to draw the human eye and make images more fascinating, no matter the subject.

And whatever subject you choose, fill your viewfinder. That is, get close enough to your subject that you aren't including a lot of extraneous objects that clutter the scene. Generally, simpler compositions that portray only vital elements are the most striking. You may have to choose an awkward angle or get very close to your subject in order to pull of this kind of reductionism, but more often than not your efforts will pay off.

Quality of light is also critical. Regardless of what you're shooting, the angle, tone and color of light in your image will affect its emotional quality. For example, a city street at noon might look drab or stark. At night, that same street may be awash in mysterious light that beckons hauntingly to your camera's lens. As a quick and dirty rule, though, the first hour after sunrise and before sunset frequently offers some of the most interesting and flattering light each day.


Traveler, Prepare Thyself

mountain road scene, foliage
A well-planned trip engages all of your senses and lets your mind wander through the scenes in front of you. A thoughtful photo can do the same.
Courtesy 40 Nights Photography

When daydreaming about making spectacular pictures at a far-flung locale, it's easy to get lost preconceptions about the stupendous photos you'll come home with. You can ground yourself by continually reminding yourself about two aspects that make most great travel photos – hard work and persistence.

Of course, you always want to have fun on your trip. But great photos don't usually fall into your lap. Sure, those mystical shafts of light that appear magically, as if on cue, right as you enter a lost-long tropical village might make for lovely pictures. Yet the most unforgettable pictures you make might not present themselves until midnight in the middle of a torrential thunderstorm.


That brings us to our next point: Be prepared for anything. Dress for the weather, and then be prepared for far worse. A sudden downpour or big wind doesn't deter professionals. Why let it stop you? Get wet, get dirty and dress comfortably for a long shoot that could go longer than you anticipate.

To keep your energy level high, pack light. Strip your equipment list to its basics so that it doesn't hold you back, weigh you down and make you tired. Toting that 400mm lens all day will be exhausting, especially if you're not even sure you need it.

You'll definitely get tired eventually, because you'll commit to take a lot of pictures. You should always think through your shots when you can, but don't be afraid to shoot hundreds or thousands of images in a search for the elusive, unforgettable picture. Sometimes it takes that kind of persistence.

Similarly, dedicate time to your chosen subjects. The first and most obvious angles and compositions are rarely the best. The longer you spend working on an image, the better it will be.

By committing yourself to the task of really understanding a place, you will better attune your eyes and your mind to the elements that make for superior pictures. Respect the people and the land, tread softly, be kind and you'll find a way to share the essence of a place through the pictures you create. Your reward will be travel pictures that transport your viewers (and yourself) back to the time that you tapped the shutter.


Author's Note

As a professional photographer and road trip junkie, I'm addicted to that rush of throwing my camera and camping gear into my car and zooming down the highway. If there's anything I've learned, though, it's that really great travel photos don't happen when I'm in "zoom" mode.

The best images always happen when I take the time to slow down, take a long, deep breath and stay still long enough to soak up what's happening around me. After all, it's not the camera that understands what makes an image work. It's awareness. And the cool part is that with just a smidgen of practice with a camera, anyone who works on their awareness can make a picture worth remembering.


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