Humans are increasingly intent on documenting our lives photographically; according to one estimate, about one trillion photos were taken in the year 2015—and many of them were pretty good.
A glance at the high-quality images found on Instagram or Flickr is proof that you don’t need pro credentials or expensive equipment to take compelling photos of the world. My sister-in-law has a simple point-and-shoot, but she also has enthusiasm and a really good eye, and her photos are great—funny, touching and enduring. What more could you want?
If the pictures you take on the road don’t quite live up to that standard, you may be making some of the following common travel photography mistakes. Avoid these, and you’ll take more than your share of travel photos worth keeping.
Bringing Too Much Equipment
After a recent trek to Shi Shi Beach, Washington, on which my heavy DSLR equipment got banged around on sea stacks, doused by waves and infiltrated by sand, I purchased a small, waterproof point-and-shoot that offers 16 megapixels and weighs 8.7 ounces. The little camera has been a blast to have around in many ways.
You may find that having too much stuff can actually hurt your chances of getting a good shot; staying alert to and enthusiastic about photographic opportunities becomes much harder after even an hour of hauling 20 pounds of gear. My advice? Take the same approach to packing photo equipment that you do to packing clothes: Bring what you know you will use, and think hard before packing anything more.
Underestimating Your Phone Camera
Following on our previous point—do you even need to pack a separate camera? Most modern smartphones boast more megapixels than a high-quality DSLR I used to cover the Olympics just a decade ago. (It had six megapixels, while the iPhone 6 has eight and the Samsung Galaxy offers a whopping 16!) It turns out that your phone camera holds up pretty well even to fairly recent DSLR cameras. Add to that the availability of sophisticated photo editing apps, and your phone camera has a lot to offer.
Forgetting Memory Cards, Batteries or Chargers
This may sound obvious, but it happens all the time. It’s particularly common to assume the battery or memory card is still in the camera when it isn’t. The best solution is to put all your various camera components as individual line items on your packing list, and tick them off the same way you would for socks and docs.
Not Knowing Your Camera
Every camera is different, and with features expanding and improving all the time, it can be hard to keep up. This problem is most common when you purchase a new camera or smartphone right before a trip; there simply isn’t time to learn how it works. Give yourself at least an hour or two to tinker and experiment before you leave—because that elephant on safari isn’t going to stand around waiting for you to read the manual.
Burying Your Equipment
When you are out and around, the best photos tend to present themselves without warning, so you don’t want your camera to be at the bottom of your backpack. Keep it on top of the bag or even out of the bag; there are a lot of innovative camera straps on the market that make carrying a camera around less burdensome.
This is another advantage to having a small camera or using your phone; these fit easily into a pocket so you have them at your fingertips.
Having No People in Your Photos
Sure, it’s great to take pictures of architecture or animals or food, but if you don’t have any shots of yourself or your travel companions, you might find your photos less interesting to look back on later. I have a couple of very old photos from a trip to Europe—one of the Spanish Steps, the other of a good friend with whom I have mostly lost touch tearing a piece of bread on the Spanish Steps. Guess which one resonates more years later.
Travel is about not only the places you visit, but also the things you do and how you spent your time. I have a few gallery-worthy photos from a trip to Hamburg a few years ago, but my favorite picture from the trip is one of my kid blitzing down a giant helter-skelter slide in a park near our hotel. It captures our experience in Hamburg in a way that no postcard-quality photo could do.
Missing the Details
Photos of small things you notice, with which you interact on a human, often touchable level, are often more poignant than broader views of the big sights. A quick example: I have seen and taken a lot of cool photos of the Space Needle, but one I like best is of the giant bolts at the foot of the tower.
Photographing the Same Perspective Over and Over
Similarly, photos taken at the same distance from your subject, with the same focal length, the people in the same part of the frame, and the same overall composition, will tend to dampen the experience of viewing those pictures later. Samey-ness of perspective gets old even if you do everything else right.
Taking “Tourist Brochure” Photos
You see this all the time on social media—someone posts a photo, and the general sentiment is that it “looks like a postcard!” Which it does, and you can get it for 65 cents in the souvie shop. Or admirers will tell you a shot looks like a photo a pro would take, but you are not that pro. You want your photos to be your photos; you don’t have to take the same angle everyone else has taken.
Failing to Photograph Popular Attractions
Notwithstanding many of the foregoing points, I have found that deeming it uncool or unnecessary to take photos of popular attractions can actually be counterproductive. If it is worth taking a special side trip to the Eiffel Tower, it is probably worth taking a photo of it—but again, make it your photo, not the same photo that has been taken a trillion times.
Failing to Turn Around
An old photography adage goes more or less as follows: If you see a great photo in front of you, turn around. Sometimes the thing you are not looking at is even interesting than the obvious subject in front of you. In my sports photography, I see this over and over again; while taking photos of athletes receiving medals, a solid photo is the athlete celebrating, but the great photo might be his or her family embracing and weeping with joy right behind you.
Being Inconsiderate with Your Flash
Blasting someone in the face with a bright white light typically isn’t the best way to make friends, and flash photography is forbidden in many museums and other attractions. With so many cameras automatically deciding whether to deploy the flash or not, it’s vital to know how to turn this on and off. The upside is that so many modern cameras (including smartphones) have exceptional low-light performance, so you can often get a solid photo without flash.
In the end, we hope your camera can help capture the experience you are having, not just the stuff you are seeing. If so, some of the best of those one trillion photos will be yours.