12 Essential Travel Photography Tips

By Dave Johnson

These days we're taking more photos than ever, whether it's with a digital SLR, compact camera, or smartphone. No matter what kind of camera you have, though, one thing is true: You'll take much better photos -- more interesting, exciting, and engaging photos -- if you know a few "rules" of photography. Let's glean some tips from some photos taken on a recent vacation to Italy.

Overview

These days we're taking more photos than ever, whether it's with a digital SLR, compact camera, or smartphone. No matter what kind of camera you have, though, one thing is true: You'll take much better photos -- more interesting, exciting, and engaging photos -- if you know a few "rules" of photography. Let's glean some tips from some photos taken on a recent vacation to Italy.

1. Know the Rule of Thirds

A photo like this one seems balanced and well composed. For that, you can thank one of the oldest rules of photography, the Rule of Thirds (which you can learn about on the next slide).

1. Know the Rule of Thirds

Just imagine dividing a scene into thirds, sort of like a tic-tac-toe board. As long as you put the main subject on any of the lines (or at one of the four points where the lines cross), you're guaranteed to get a well-composed shot.

2. Break the Rule of Thirds

Of course, you needn't be a slave to rules. Just as a drummer sometimes plays just ahead of the beat, offsetting key elements can add extra tension to a photo. Just like in this example, where you can see that the blue sign appears below where the line of thirds should be.

3. Use Leading Lines

You can use roads, pathways, rivers, or, as in this example, an electrical line to lead the viewer through the photo to a point of interest. The birds on the line are just an added bonus.

4. Shoot Panoramas

Sometimes, the best way to tell the story of a place is to shoot it as a wide, dramatic panorama. No other kind of shot could capture the expansiveness of this town square, for example.

4. Shoot Panoramas

The good news is that panoramas are easy to do; just shoot a sequence of photos, making sure to overlap about a third of the scene in each. Then use any of the numerous panoramic stitching programs to automatically bind them together. For example, try Windows Photo Gallery for free and easy panoramic stitching.

5. Every Photo Can be Improved

Don't forget great photos are almost never made just by pressing the shutter button -- every photo can be improved with a little editing on your computer. Consider this shot, in which the golden column stands before a brightly lit outdoor wall, and compare it to the original unedited shot on the next slide.

5. Every Photo Can be Improved

To make the final shot, the column and ceiling -- which were in shadow and therefore underexposed -- were selectively brightened using a photo editing program. Without this tweak, the photo would not have been very interesting.

6. Capture Motion with a Long Exposure

Photos that capture a sense of motion are magical; they freeze time, but simultaneously tease us with the illusion of action. To get a shot like this, you'll need to wait until late in the day, towards sunset. Mount your camera on a tripod (even a very lightweight one will do) and set your camera on its manual exposure mode. Set a shutter speed of about one second and see if you like the result. Experiment with shutter speed and aperture until you are satisfied that you've made magic.

7. Look for Unusual Perspectives

If you shoot the same subjects that all the other tourists are shooting, your photos will look just like theirs. For a change of pace, look for unusual perspectives. Look straight up. Or, in this case, straight down.

8. Look for Unusual Subjects

You can think of this tip as "take photos of other people's laundry." You might not think that would make a good subject, but this photo is proof that such a skewed perspective can be fun. Look for subjects that are a bit off the beaten path.

9. Photography is about Light, Color, and Geometry

All photography boils down to light, color, and geometry -- and if you think in those terms occasionally, you can find situations that become fascinating shots because of their arrangement, colors, or both.

10. Sometimes Awesomeness Happens (If You Wait For It)

Patience is a virtue in photography -- even if your traveling companions don't agree. To shoot this scene, for example, I waited on one knee for almost five minutes until the square cleared of passing tourists. And then -- just as the scene got quiet enough to shoot the fountain, fire hydrant, and graffiti -- the pigeons unexpectedly arrived, making the shot worth the wait.

11. Shoot Photos at Night

Every location becomes something completely different at night, after the sun goes down and the artificial lights come on. Equipped with a lightweight travel tripod, you can take long exposures with your camera set to 2, 8, or even 15 seconds to see an entirely different aspect of your travel spot.

12. Don't Forget the Local Wildlife

Finally, don't neglect the wildlife -- be it dogs, cats, squirrels, or pigeons. There's a whole animal kingdom waiting for your shutter release.