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How to Become a Travel Photographer

19 min read

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Ever dream about ditching your day job and exchanging it for getting paid to travel the world and take awesome pictures? Well, as romantic as it sounds, succeeding in the travel photography industry takes more than a travel bug and a good eye for the perfect photo.

Travel photography is one of the most popular photography genres. It makes sense because you can make money and have fun at the same time. Who wouldn’t love a job where you travel to exotic locations and do something you would do anyway–take pictures? But there are some things you need to know if you’re thinking of jumping into this very competitive genre. 

So, for those newbies out there, we’ve put together useful steps for becoming a travel photographer that covers everything from how you can practice to finding those perfect locations so you can capture that stunning image. Without further ado, here is how you can get started as a travel photographer.

Steps for Becoming a Successful Travel Photographer

Travel photographers work their butts off to get their gigs and make enough money to cover their expenses. And in a world where photography is becoming more and more accessible to the general, standing out from the crowd can take some doing. But if you think you’ve got what it takes, the following steps can help you get underway.

1. Know Your Camera

This step may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t bother to check out the various settings on their cameras. It might help to watch videos online about how to use your camera, but you should also experiment with it. 

Take photos of the same object or scene using different settings so that you can see exactly how the settings change the image. That way, when you take it out on the road, you know how to get the images you want and don’t have to fiddle with it while the perfect light you wanted disappears.

2. Practice

If you’re thinking of going into travel photography professionally, you’ve got to practice. Learn your camera inside and out. You don’t have to have a fancy camera to learn to how to work with light and angles. Get to know your camera intimately while you’re still an amateur and work at getting your photography to a high standard, both technically and creatively.

There’s a lot of competition out there, and you need to be on your game to be in the game! That means practice, practice, and practice, but how? It’s actually pretty easy. 

Think of the town you live in. If someone came to you and wanted to know the best places to go and the most beautiful photographic locations, where would you take them? Where do you go with friends when they are visiting?

Those are the places you can go to practice your photography skills. It doesn’t matter if they’re gorgeous landscape photography opportunities or vivid street photography opportunities, both are relevant to travel photography and will provide you with an opportunity to practice. Take pictures and experiment with your camera, various lighting techniques, and different angles. That will prepare you for shooting on the road.

3. Scout Out Locations

When you have a place you want to go, scout out locations where you will want to shoot. Do searches on social media and the internet to see what the usual images of that area look like, and then try to think of ways you could do it differently. 

Perhaps, you could take photographs from a different angle or at a different time of the day. How can you get a photograph that will set you apart from the masses? It might be as simple as taking pictures from the left instead of the right like everyone else, or it could be a different perspective, like looking down and seeing a reflection of the image you want in the water of a fountain.

Doing a little scouting will also help you to organize yourself, and it can help you plan where you should stay so you can be closest to each location. Furthermore, if you’re thinking about the shots you hope to get, that will help you choose the right equipment.

Scout out locations ahead of time so you know where to go. It's a great travel photography tip that will help you find the most photogenic locations like this beautiful mountainous coast.

4. Be Flexible and Willing to Explore

Sometimes, the best places for adventure and great photographs are not on the map. Be willing to get off the beaten path and explore different locations around your destination. You never know when you might run into a quaint, picturesque village that will reward you with compelling and beautiful images. This is true as well for areas within a location. Check out different restaurants or shops that are located off the main route. These can result in excellent people pictures too.

Ask the locals where to go for great adventures and photographs. They likely will have many suggestions that did not show up on an internet search, and these can be the best places to go. Most of them are happy that you want their opinion and are more than willing to help. 

If you’re traveling to an area where they speak a different language, take the time to learn a bit of their language, particularly how to ask where to go to get great photographs. Even if you botch their language, they will usually appreciate the effort and return the favor with great suggestions.

5. Choose the Right Equipment

You’re going to be traveling, so you’ll need to think carefully about what you should bring. You want to bring enough equipment, but you also want to pack light. At a minimum, you’ll need the following: 

  • Camera body
  • Lens
  • Tripod
  • Polarizing Filter
  • Batteries and extra batteries
  • Charging cords
  • Memory cards and extra memory cards
  • A camera bag to carry everything

The kind of camera and lens you’ll want depends on what kind of shots you are thinking about taking. But, in general, you’ll probably want a good, versatile lens like the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Standard Zoom Lens. It’s good for capturing the action, it’s good in low light, and it can be manually overridden. Another good lens is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM. Most photographers say it’s an essential lens, and it’s more affordable. 

A 50mm prime (35mm for APS-C shooters) is a must-have. A prime lens, apart from the fact that these are extremely sharp, does one thing; and that is they allow you to get a shot in an instant. With no zoom ring, you have less reason to dabble around with camera control; that evidently leaves more time in hand to shoot.

As for your tripod, it should be small and lightweight, so you can carry it anywhere you go, whether it be up a mountain or down a long trail. 

Extra batteries, memory cards, and charging cords are essential. You might think you won’t fill up that memory card, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you do. Also, you might promise yourself you’ll faithfully charge your batteries every night, but trust me–bring extra batteries. Of course, you don’t want to forget the cords you need to charge everything! 

An extra tip here – most camera setups, battery chargers, and computers are dual voltage for countries that are on 220 as opposed to 110, but you might want to bring a universal plug. You plug your conventional US plug (one wide prong and one narrow prong) into this, and then you can plug it into any outlet. It’s lightweight and worth the effort to bring, just in case. 

A polarizer works best on sunny days. Sometimes the bright light can wash out the colors, such as the blue of the sky or the turquoise waters of a mountain lake. A polarizer helps to bring those colors out. And you can find relatively inexpensive polarizers that will work just fine. They’re also small and lightweight, which makes them an excellent travel accessories. 

Finally, the bag is essential. Having a bag that can accommodate camera equipment is a must for professionals. It can help you organize yourself and provide a convenient way to carry your equipment.

photographer taking images of mountains.

6. Have Patience

This is particularly true when you’re at that crowded tourist site. You might have to wait 15 minutes or more for the shot you’re trying to take to be just perfect–maybe that means clear of people, or maybe it’s the lighting, or perhaps it’s for something to occur, like the sunrise.

Whatever it is, plan to be able to take your time and be patient. Patience will reward you with the most compelling images. After all, you don’t want the same shots that everyone else is getting, and even if you tell yourself you’ll come back again, you might not. So, just wait until the shot is perfect.

7. Wake Up Early and Stay Up Late

The best light for photography is in the morning and evening, and the worst is midday. So, in this case, the early bird really does get the worm! Early morning is also the best time to get photographs of tourist sites–without all the tourists. If you arrive early enough, you’re likely to have the place all to yourself. 

At the other end of the day, sunset also produces beautiful colors for stunning images. You should check ahead of time when the golden hour is at your location. And you should have your photography spot already picked out.

8. Be Considerate

Don’t trespass on someone’s property–ask permission, and offer to share some of those pictures with the landowner. Don’t take pictures of people without their permission. Obviously, if you’re taking a picture of a busy city street, you won’t be asking everyone’s permission, but if you’re taking a picture of a shop owner on that street, you should ask if it’s okay.

A considerate travel photography tip is to ask permission before taking someone's picture, like this woman in colorful clothing.

It’s helpful if you talk to the person first about other things–maybe ask them for directions, or for advice on where to eat, or maybe buy something from their shop. This breaks the ice. Sometimes they will ask for money to take their picture. It’s up to you whether to give them any or not, but if you decline, do so politely.

9. Learn How to Pre-focus

Pre-focusing is a technique wherein you focus on a spot in the frame in advance, anticipating the movement of the subject. This technique allows you to frame the shot in advance and then wait in anticipation for the subject to arrive so that you can press the shutter release. One of the prerequisites for great people and street photography is to use the camera as discreetly as possible.

One of the greatest exponents of street photography Henri Cartier-Bresson used to paint the shiny metallic parts of his Leica black and practically hid in a corner to capture the most natural poses you would see in images from the street. 

How to Promote and Sell Your Travel Photographs

Have patience is the perfect photography tip for beginners. You'll be rewarded with great images like this llama in front of Machu Picchu.

10. Build Up Your Portfolio

Your portfolio is how people will be able to get to know the bulk of your work and what variety of themes you can work on. It will also provide a point of focus for anyone considering hiring you. And in the end, the more you practice, the better you’ll get, and the more your portfolio will improve.

11. Get Your Photos Out There

Don’t be afraid to enter high-end travel photography competitions or submit your photos to different media sources. It won’t help to be a great photographer with no audience to appreciate your work.

Make a list of every client who might be interested in your images and create a marketing plan to get your work in front of them. Magazines such as National Geographic hire people they already know and have been following for a while.

12. Make Sure Your Images Communicate a Compelling Story

It’s not enough to be a great photographer. Travel photography that stands out conveys a theme or narrative that will affect viewers. If a viewer walks away with a strong central message, they’ll be more likely to form a strong impression. Having strong themes in your work can also help gain clients looking for work on similar topics.

13. Research the Various Stock Photography Venues

Submitting stock photography is probably the easiest way to build up your travel portfolio and make some money off it. In fact, just about every travel photographer does at least some stock photography. But don’t just submit photos – do your research. Look at what’s selling and what’s missing, and find out what images their clients are looking for.

Take time to really look at the work of the industry’s top photographers. Put yourself in the photographer’s shoes and try to imagine what they thought when they took the shot. Notice the different components in their photos (i.e., lighting, angle, etc.) and what effects they have on the viewer.

travel photographer taking photos.

The Essential Tips for Travel Photographers

Here are some of the best tips to help you create stunning, intriguing, and visually appealing travel photos.

14. Pack Light and Choose Appropriate Clothing

You’ll likely be traipsing all over different types of locations with variable terrain and perhaps in variable types of weather. So, bring appropriate clothing, but don’t overpack. One good rule of thumb that experienced travelers will tell you is to pack what you think you’ll need and then reduce that by half. And be sure to bring good walking shoes!

You also want to think about what you should wear if you’re putting yourself in the photographs. It’s probably best to avoid clothing with writing on it as well as colors that are either too bright or too subdued. You want it to be just right, Goldilocks! You want to think about what kinds of images of you are appropriate for your portfolio.

15. Be Prepared for the Weather

Don’t be afraid to shoot in variable weather conditions! Inclement weather can make for some great photographs. Clouds can act like a natural light diffuser and allow you to get great shots even at midday. They can also create a more moody feel to the images.

Don't be intimidated by inclement weather. You can get great travel photography shots even on cloudy days, as seen in this landscape photo.

There are a number of rain photography or snow photography ideas. Here are just a few: 

  • Take some macro shots of flowers with raindrops on them or some other surface with raindrops; 
  • Get a street shot of the reflective, wet streets and people with various colors of umbrellas; 
  • Take a blurred shot through a rain-streaked window; 
  • Get a peaceful shot of raindrops falling on a pond; 
  • Get woodlands shot with snow gently falling.

One thing you will want to do if you’re out in inclement weather is to protect your gear. Rain covers are a must, and if the weather is cold, you’ll want to keep memory cards and batteries warm.

16. Shoot in Burst Mode

This will help, of course, if you’re shooting something that’s moving, like animals. It can help you capture that spectacular whale breaching shot or birds in flight, but it’s also a good idea in general because using burst mode results in several images to choose from.

It’s also a particularly helpful when you’re handing your camera to someone else to get a shot of you. You’ll have several images to pick from, so you can pick the one where everyone’s eyes are open, and everyone’s smiling.

Use burst mode to capture action, like this bird in flight.

17. Think Outside the Box

Play around with your composition. Try putting the main subject in the middle, off to one side or the other, up a bit, or down a bit–get different perspectives! You can choose the best of the images, but by being willing to try different compositions and angles, you increase your chances of getting that stunning shot. Sometimes, you might even get down on the ground and shoot up! It could be worth your while.

18. Don’t Forget the Small Details

It’s easy to get caught up in photographing the big things–the cathedrals, the sweeping landscape scenery, or the elephant in the middle of your campsite! But don’t forget the details.

Get a shot of the architectural features that make up the cathedral, shoot some macro shots of the flowers in that landscape, or get a closeup of the elephant’s eye (use a zoom lens here). This helps you weave the shots together to better tell a visual story.

Another travel photography tip is don't forget the details like this elephant's eye.

Again, always pay attention to the details. In cases where you are shooting a street scene, creating a portrait, or photographing a vast landscape – pay attention to the elements that define your image. These can appear as the bright red door on a quaint cottage, the ducks sunbathing in the garden or the lip-stained coffee mugs on cafe terraces.

Paying attention to the small details will create a visual story for your viewer – one that captures a breadth of moments where time, place, and experience collide.

19. Keep Your Camera Accessible

Even if you’re out on an excursion where you don’t expect to use it much, always have your camera handy. You never know when something might come up (like that breaching whale image below), so be sure that you have it accessible and ready to go at a moment’s notice. 

Always make sure your batteries are charged and you’ve got a memory card with plenty of storage available. It also helps to have a bag where you can get it out quickly to capture the moment.

image of a whale jumping in the sea.

Travel photography is a great way to capture memorable moments from your recent adventures. Yet, with the phenomenon of traveling photographers, you may be wondering how you can keep your images looking fresh and artistically unique.

20. Find the Best Light

When shooting outside, finding the best light is important. As most of us photographers already know, there are specific times of day that are ideal for shooting. These pockets of soft light are often referred to as the golden hour, either in the morning at sunrise or in the evening during sunset. By photographing your surroundings during these times, you are sure to achieve some beautiful images. But, as you are most likely capturing images throughout the day, direct sunlight will be inevitable.

Even though it may be a bit more difficult to adjust to, you can use the sun to your advantage. Instead of shooting in an open space where the sun is harsh and heavy, try choosing a pocket of shade where the sun may be gently shining through. Be creative with the use of the sunlight and frame yourself to grab the perfect shot.

21. Photograph Your Setting with a Mixture of Landscape and Portrait Shots

Whether you are photographing architecture, a nature landscape, or a cityscape, switching up the orientation of your photographs will add variety to your travel photos. Use landscape when you photograph any setting this is wide and horizontally long, this way you can create an image that fills up the entire frame.

When photographing a monument or landmark that stands tall rather than wide, utilize the portrait orientation to create perspective and depth. A great example of alternating viewpoints is when photographing the Eiffel Tower. If you are close to the tower, as to be standing underneath it, a portrait with a low vantage point would create a sense of power and dignity to the attraction.

If you were to photograph the tower from a distance, such as from the platform of Trocadero, you could employ the landscape method in order to capture not only the tower but the surrounding streets of Paris.

22. Add the Element of People

It is often noted that travel photographs are heavily influenced by capturing the landmarks and elements within the city or landscape. Although it is important to photograph the architecture, facades, or mountain tops – a collection of travel photographs should also include the culture and people of the destination. The integration of people into your work may lean more toward street photography than traditional travel imagery, but I believe that including subjects in your images gives them new life and perspective.

As much as you want to remember the beautiful Norwegian cottage situated on the river, you will probably evoke true and lasting memories from the photograph of the market owner who sold you fresh fruit every morning. It is important to not only photograph the physical surroundings if your location but to infuse the life of the city and your personal experience into your images.

tourists walking on the street.

23. Capture the “Out of the Ordinary”

When visiting a destination that is popular and known for its tourist elements, it can be easy to create photographs of only the well-known landmarks or scenery. For example, let’s say you are visiting Rome, a beautiful city that attracts visitors from around the world. You may be inclined to focus solely on photographing the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, or the Vatican.

Even though these are worthwhile sites to see, there is much more to Rome than what is in plain sight. Instead, choose to take the back alleyways and cross into the quiet areas of the city. Witness the true Italian culture of hidden cafes, an authentic spot where the owner’s hand rolls his own pasta or the kids peeking out from their window frames in the apartments above. Capture the essence and lifestyle of your destination’s culture, for it is often the out-of-the-ordinary sites that reveal the true breadth of a city.

cafe on the street.

24. Use Unique Framing

Another tip to remember is to be intentional with the framing of your images. Just because you may have seen a spot photographed at a certain angle does not necessarily mean that it is the only option for capturing the scene.

Choose to alternate your perspective with shots that are of full composition, low or high vantage points, and varying in distance. This is your opportunity to create an image from how you perceive and view the setting around you.

mountains.

25. Pay Attention to Visual Design

In cities with ornate and delicate architecture, impeccable design will highlight your photographs. Just as in sprawling nature landscapes, the peaks of mountains and the way they meet with the sky will create visually alluring lines of depth and composition.

Whether you follow the lines of your setting or choose to go against the grain to create a varied viewpoint, using the designs of both man and nature will allow you to envision and infuse artistic elements into your travel photos.

26. Create a Different Perspective

In order to ensure that your travel photos are not a carbon copy or replica of an image you have already seen, focus on photographing your setting from your own perspective.

I want to go back to the Eiffel Tower example to explain how perspective can be altered based on the photographer’s eye. For most, an image of standing in front of the Eiffel Tower is a standard travel photograph. But, for the creative artist – the city offers an array of ways to capture the Iron Lady and your subject without conforming to the masses.

changing your perspective.

For example, a once unique perspective was to have your subject sit on the downward incline of the steps at Trocadero. This created a juxtaposition of lines – with the tower standing tall and the subject on a diagonal intersecting within the frame.

This image was once a new take on the monument but now has become popular among many tourists. I encourage you to try and create a new perspective such as this with your photographs – you may end up creating the next go-to perspective for tourists to follow suit.

27. Don’t be Afraid of Nighttime Photography

Shooting at night is a hit or miss for most photographers. I can admit that I was always wary of shooting nighttime images due to the lack of usable light. But, for some destinations, the city or landscape becomes even more alive and remarkable in the hours of darkness – some examples include London, New York, Tokyo, or Paris, as well as nature’s wonders such as the Northern Lights.

nighttime travel photography.

When taking photos at night, use external sources such as the lights of the city or the illumination from stars in the wilderness to help light your frame.

The best advice I can give is to understand your camera and lens nighttime capabilities and practice prior to your trip – this way, you can create memorable photos from sun up through sun down.

28. Integrate Your Personal Style

One of the most important tips to remember when capturing travel photographs is to never change your personal style. This applies to when you are both shooting and afterward in your post production editing.

If you’re not a professional travel photographer, you may feel the need to change up your style in order to fit the mold of this niche. Instead of changing your technique and vision, focus on creating photographs that represent your personal style – your travel photos should still align and be aesthetically cohesive with your work.

This isn’t to say you should rule out creativity or be afraid to take risks. Just remember that when you are creating your photos, you want to envision a setting to create work that is recognizable to your unique visual eye.

Play around with your composition is another great photography tip. This photo of a person in a suspended chair is a great example.

In the end, you’ll need to be passionate about what you do. Travel Photography may seem fun and exciting as a hobby, but once you turn it into a job, it will have all the stresses of a highly competitive market added to it.

It affords you the opportunity to combine your love of traveling with your passion for taking beautiful photographs. But, it can be challenging, especially for the beginner. These tips for travel photography should help you get started or improve your images. 

If you think ahead and plan where to go, what kinds of shots you want to get, and the equipment you’ll need to get the shots you want, you’ll reduce your stress and help ensure you have what you need when the time comes. 

You also have to prepare yourself by packing the right clothes, something comfortable and appropriate for the times when you’re in the picture. Additionally, you want to wake up early and stay up late to get those moments when the light is just right and/or when you’re all alone. 

You’ll also want to consult with the locals on where they recommend you should go. Those secret little hideaways can be real gems for the photographer. Don’t forget to be polite to the locals by always asking permission to come on their property or take their pictures. 

Remember to be flexible and play with different perspectives. And don’t forget the basics, like cleaning your lens, keeping your camera accessible, and backing up your images. Finally, remember to take a moment to look around and appreciate how lucky you are to be doing what you love.

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Usnea Lebendig is a travel and landscape photographer who loves trekking in the wilderness, exploring other cultures, and using photography for social activism.
Usnea Lebendig is a travel and landscape photographer who loves trekking in the wilderness, exploring other cultures, and using photography for social activism.
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