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Travel photography tips for capturing great shots on the road

Here are some guidelines for getting the pictures you want.

Shoot the details

Any postcard stand can provide you with facade pictures, panoramas, and aerial shots. You’re the only one who can concentrate on the minute details that enthrall you.

Focus on the hideous devil in a Last Judgment mosaic, a rivet in the Eiffel Tower, laundry hanging from the Gothic windows of a Venetian palace, a single bunch of grapes on the vine in Provence, the intricate marble pattern of a Romanesque building, or a cat sleeping atop a broken ancient column.

Frame the shot

Make it interesting: Take the picture through an open window or archway or flanked by a pair of ancient columns on a Greek temple. Get an Alp reflected in a lake or a town hall reflected in a puddle. Snap a pub with racks of bicycles on either side. If you can’t quite get the whole thing in a shot, give it up and zoom in for a detail instead.

Check your backgrounds

Nothing spoils a medieval or bucolic scene like a TV antenna, telephone poles, or tourists milling in the background.

Grab the best light

The light of early morning and late afternoon works magic on any scene, bringing out depth, deepening shadows, and warming up colors. The harsh noonday sun makes notoriously boring pictures.

Get the sun behind you

Try to get any light source at your back or glancing in from the side if you’re going for special shadow and light effects. One of the only times it's effective to let the light come right at you is to shoot a sun setting or rising directly behind a column on an ancient temple—a marvelous effect.

You know what your family looks like

Explorers used to plant their county’s flag to claim a new territory. These days we conquer by Kodak and plant the waving family. It’s nice to take a picture of your husband in front of Big Ben—and something in the water makes it impossible to resist the urge to pose like you’re holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa—but you don’t need to prove you were there at every single stop.

Plus, it’s more fun to get action shots of the family riding the train, going on a picnic, contemplating Rodin’s Thinker, whatever. Show that you traveled in and interacted with Europe, not just that you knew how to smile and wave.

Look for the unusual in the everyday

What sums up a country or culture? Half the things you’ll remember most about any trip won’t be the attractions but rather the sights and oddities of daily life over there. Go ahead, take pictures of old men playing cards, tiny Fiat cars, busy vegetable markets, double-decker buses, nuns on a scooter, or a sheep jam on a country road. Candid shots of people can be great, but may get some people mad. Be discreet and diplomatic.

Ask permission

It's a bit embarrassing, and it may often spoil the un-posed shot you want, but it is only polite to ask someone before taking their picture whenever possible. In some cases, people get outright mad if they catch you photographing them on the sly, whether it's a cultural thing or they're just plain shy and/or mean. Always ask—just say "foto?" and hold up the camera while pointing to them; they'll get the idea.

And if you're worried they will turn rigid and pose for you, take one shot like that then wait around until they get bored with you standing there and go back to hanging the laundry, playing bocce ball, or whatever it was that drew you to them in the first place. Then you can get the shot you wanted.

Don’t Be a Flasher

I have a good rule for the flash attachment: Don’t use it. Flashes are the most overrated and least understood of camera features. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the flash effects cheapen most shots, so either read up on flash techniques in a photo book or consider using it rarely, if at all. Here are a few general guidelines:

1) If you take a flash photo of anything behind glass, you’ll end up with a fuzzy image of the subject (the camera usually auto-focuses on the glass, not the subject you’re trying to capture) further obscured by a bright, white star-like image that covers a quarter of the picture. That’s the flash reflecting off the glass.

2) Flashes always flatten a picture out, which 99% of the time is an effect you do not want.

3) Do not take flash photos of artwork. Flashes destroy paintings and frescoes, doing more damage than leaving a painting out under the sun for many days. Flash photos would make the Mona Lisa your grandchildren see a pale, faded image of itself. Also, if I see you doing it, I will yell at you in public. Seriously. I do it all the time.

Just about the only time I ever use a flash is if I’m trying to take a night shot, in which case I use the option most pocket cameras now have of a “night flash.” This option basically exposes first the low light of the background by leaving the camera shutter open for a few seconds (you have to be very still—ideally, prop the camera on something and don’t touch it), after which it flashes so that the people or object in the foreground pops out of the image in a bright pool of light. If you use the flash alone at night, the subject will be washed-out and bright, but the background pitch black.


The perfect shot might not come out until the sun moves from behind that cloud or an unphotogenic tour bus pulls away. On the other hand, don’t let a good opportunity slip away. If a shot is good but you think you should wait, take one picture immediately, and then stick around to see if it gets better.

Get close

Unless you’re shooting an Alp, try to get within 10 feet of most subjects. Fill up the frame. Keep shots dynamic.

Find a new angle

Choose any angle that will get you a picture different from everybody’s else’s. Remember: you can turn that camera on its end; take some shots vertical, others horizontal. Eye-level is boring. Climb a tree, squat down, stand on a bench, hold the camera high above your head and point it in the general direction, or lie flat out on the ground. I do it all the time, and while I get funny looks, it makes for some great shots.

Keep track of your pictures

You won’t know which temple, church, or interior that was two months later at home. Writing down every frame is a bit excessive, but at least number each roll of film (use a Sharpie pen on the casing of the roll itself) and note in your journal when you change rolls. Then you should be able to reconstruct the photo album later. Most decent digital cameras make this child's play, since you can add a quick voice tag to any shot, or a caption once you import it into your photo editing software.


Intrepid Travel

This article was last updated in August 2007. All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2010 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.