How to Improve Your Travel Photography (Even at Beginner Level)

Blue water and colourful boats in Peru with mountain backdrop

People say memories are one of the best things you can bring back from a trip, but I’m willing to bet photos come a close second for most of us. However, it can be a challenge to get a beautiful shot when you’re far from being a pro.

The good news is, it doesn’t take long to build confidence and ability behind the camera. Start getting to grips with photography now and you’ll be able to put your skills to the test when you’re next on the road.

Discoveries Monument in Lisbon on a summer day
Move the subject to the side of the frame, or try using the rule of thirds, to draw the eye around the scene, as I did with this Lisbon photo.

Basic Beginner Tips

Think about composition. What story are you trying to tell in your picture, and what do you want to include or exclude from it? Move away from putting your subject in the centre all the time, and get to know the rule of thirds: imagine your screen divided into thirds each way (nine little squares) then have the subject intersecting the points where some of those squares meet.

Look for a flower icon, which symbolises the macro setting. This is perfect for close-up work, such as photos of flowers, food or shells on the beach. Without macro, getting physically close to an object won’t mean it’s in focus, and you’re often left with a blurry blob in your picture.

To help keep your camera steady, buy a tripod that’s small, cheap and simple (nothing heavy enough to be used as an offensive weapon). The Joby Gorillapod is an easy, adaptable tripod which clings onto surfaces, however uneven, using its three flexible legs. You’ll find a small hole on the bottom of your camera which fits on top of the tripod screw.

Belgian city square with crowds in tilt shift
‘Miniature’ mode is great to pick out details in your scene, such as this view from a restaurant window in Brussels.

Using Scenes and Modes

‘Miniature’ is one of my favourite modes, also known as ‘Tilt Shift’, which makes your image look like part of a model village by only allowing a specific strip of the photo to be in focus. It works well in cityscape photos, crowd scenes or shots of markets and shops. If you’re not lucky enough to have this functionality, try the Tilt Shift Maker with an existing photo to play with the effect.

To keep up with fast-moving subjects, such as dancers or musicians you watch on your holiday, try a scene such as ‘Kids and Pets’ or ‘Sports’. These are more reactive and have a faster shutter speed, allowing you to get in the thick of the action with less chance of blurring.

Watch out for unnecessary flash in your pictures, especially when you visit museums and galleries, where flash is often banned. Turn it off and use a mode like ‘Museum’, ‘Party’ or ‘Indoor’ for maximum effect in low light situations. If your scene is still too dark, try using the exposure compensation function, represented by a +/- logo, increasing or decreasing exposure in your image.

Watersports shot on the Sussex coast at twilight
A faster shutter speed helps to stop these Sussex kitesurfers in their tracks.

Going Manual

Ever wondered what ‘A’ and ‘S’ stand for on a more advanced camera? A is for aperture priority, which allows you to adjust the amount of light you can take in through the aperture (basically the eye of the camera). Confusingly, the settings are measured as f-stops with different numbers; a small f-stop number means a bigger aperture and more light, but also a narrower depth of field (the amount of the scene that’s captured). An f-stop of 3 would be great for a portrait shot, keeping the person in focus and blurring the background.

S is for shutter priority, so you can control how quickly the shutter opens and closes. Some brands refer to this option as ‘Tv’ (Time value), but ‘S’ is more commonly used. Shutter speeds are measured in seconds, so a reading of 1/250 is perfect for quick snapshots (the spray of a geysir, or a parade in full swing), but a reading of 4″ will last four seconds and will blur motion (making a waterfall look smooth, or capturing light trails from passing cars in a town).

Whenever you choose ‘A’ or ‘S’, you’re able to adjust that function in your photos, but everything else is done for you. You can still tweak other aspects if you want to, such as where light is measured from in your image (light metering) or the level of light sensitivity (ISO). To have maximum control, switch to ‘M’, which is totally manual.

Havana architecture looking down wide street with classic cars
This crumbling Havana street was one of many captured on the go, during a city tour.

Quick Tips for Travelling with a Camera

  • Invest wisely before you go: buy a spare battery or charger to keep taking pictures for longer. If you’re a prolific snapper, consider carrying a spare memory card too, or get one with a large capacity, such as 16GB or 32GB. Also look for insurance and a long guarantee when you’re buying a camera – for example, John Lewis offers a two year guarantee for free, which can be extended to three years for just £20-30. This even covers you for accidental damage.
  • Don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself – it’s better to blend in so you can take more spontaneous shots of people, but also so you can avoid looking like a walking target for thieves. I tend to rely on a compact camera when I’m travelling solo, then I use my bridge camera (the size of a DSLR) in a group, where I’m not the only one waving gadgets around. I also remember to pack a light-weight scarf, which I can use to cover the camera around my neck, and a plastic bag or canvas tote to store my bridge camera in when I want to conceal it more or it’s just giving me neck ache!
  • When taking shots of people, try to ask permission first. Even with a language barrier, it’s just a case of pointing at your lens and miming taking a photo, preferably having learned the word ‘photo’ in the local language so they don’t think you’re just a bad mime artist. If they do want to be in your shot, get them to relax and aim for a natural picture that’s true to them – not an identikit pose.

Hopefully you’ll find these tips useful and you can put them to the test. Happy snapping!