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Travel Photography Tips from a Pro

A beautiful destination deserves your very best photographic efforts. If you have plateaued at point-and-shoot but are ready to take your photography to the next level, it’s time to enlist the help of a professional. I reached out to award-winning professional photographer and Nikon ambassador Deborah Sandidge for her best travel photography tips.

It turns out that it’s not just about ISOs and F stops (though it’s about that, too)—becoming a better travel photographer also requires packing strategically, doing advance research, and conceptualizing your shots. It can also mean engaging with your surroundings in ways that will both make your photographs better and give you a deeper, more authentic experience.

Read on for tips, tricks, and advice from Sandidge about taking better travel photographs.

SmarterTravel: What are your top photography tips for upping your game and taking great pictures while traveling?

Sandidge: Research the areas where you plan to travel, and don’t hesitate to find a local guide or ask locals for their opinions. Find your favorite locations and the best time of day to arrive at your chosen destinations by using Google, Google Earth, and Maps, and local apps like Google Trips that will tell you if there are any activities, local events, or festivals that are happening during the time of your visit. Find out when sunrises and sunsets will occur. Plan to be at a fantastic location at the most beautiful time of day. Shooting during this time with dramatic light will help you photograph a one-of-a-kind memorable “hero” shot.

If you have harsh light, then use it to your advantage to capture dramatic shadows or silhouettes. This can often lead to very dramatic imagery. Overcast conditions are generally great for soft light—try filling the frame with the subject to avoid an empty sky.

If I’m in a dynamic city like Ho Chi Minh City, I like to have several lenses available to capture all the diverse and never-ending action. I had the most fun capturing the sheer number of motorbikes in the city. Hundreds of scooters carry entire families, or deliveries—it’s a major form of transportation and fascinating to see and photograph. Almost anything can be transported on a scooter. Short video clips give the viewer an idea of how widely this form of transportation is used. A mid-range zoom is great for capturing the action.

Take time to shop markets. They [are] fun to wander through and offer amazing color and vibrancy for images. Take an “establishing shot” with a great subject and then move in for the detail shots. This is where a telephoto zoom allows you to collect photos from near and far and zoom in for detail and color abstract shots. A mid-range zoom is great for capturing the action of many shots from 24mm to 70mm. A zoom lens is perfect for discreet photos and for capturing detail shots.

Even a few seconds of video capturing motion can be a lot of fun and enrich … your experience.

To make your low light shots perfectly sharp, stabilize your images by using a tripod or a simple device such as a Platypod and a cable release. Although handheld shots generally work fine during the day, you may need to stabilize your shot in low light or for any creative or slow shutter use during the day.

Night can be full of fantastic color and a wonderful time to create photographs. If you can take a boat tour, increase your ISO to help stabilize your shots. Colorfully lit neon sails make for exciting imagery, and being out on the river gives you a beautiful vantage point of the city at night.

SmarterTravel: What’s the most underused-by-amateurs photography technique or trick? 

Sandidge: Move past the snapshot—it’s very easy to make snapshots in any beautiful location. It’s meaningful if you want to move past the snapshot to create images with impact. This can be accomplished by working with ideas that will enhance your photos. For starters, convey a sense of motion with your imagery by controlling shutter speed. This could be as simple as photographing a person walking in front of an interesting background. Set your shutter speed at about 1/15 of a second so that the person is rendered as slightly blurred as they walk in front of an interesting scene (graffiti wall, beautiful architecture). This same concept can be used for cars moving through the scene in low light; a shutter speed of several seconds or more creates beautiful streaks of light from passing cars, illustrating a unique sense of motion.

Think about water subjects such as fountains or waterfalls––far more interesting subjects to either imply motion with a slow shutter (you can use a polarizer to do this), or to completely freeze the action using a fast shutter speed. Something magical happens with an interesting choice in shutter speed.

SmarterTravel: How would you help amateur travel photographers who struggle to capture the beauty they’re seeing around them?

Sandidge: Capturing the beauty can be overwhelming as there is so much to take in. Relax. Start with the goal shots but be entirely flexible. You might have an idea of what to shoot, but be open to anything interesting that may come up and change your plans. Depending on light conditions, work with ideas that incorporate interesting light. Narrowing your aperture to capture pretty sunbursts in your images on a clear day will add sparkle and drama to your photographs. Try this with unique architecture, or through tall trees. Work with an idea [and] keep a checklist of concepts to use with your photography. A goal list goes a long way.

SmarterTravel: What are some key things to avoid when taking photos?

Sandidge: Choose your subjects wisely. Taking 10 shots of the same scene won’t make it any better; instead, move around, change your position, look for elevated positions or shots with different perspectives. Don’t shoot where it is not permitted, or if someone asks you not to. Some subjects are reverent, and as a good traveler and photographer, respect the local customs and requests. If you are entering a temple, church, or cathedral, make sure to wear the proper attire to show respect. If photography is not permitted, enjoy the experience and respect the wishes of [the] local culture.

SmarterTravel: What are some tips for being respectful of people when taking photos at a market or in a crowd?

Sandidge: I’m very sensitive about taking pictures of people when traveling. Some people find it offensive and some people find it intensely flattering. Establishing rapport with your subject is helpful, plus leads to better photographs. People like it if you show them how you photographed them, and share why you feel it’s important or flattering. People like to be shown at their best, so show them you can do this and that you are happy to provide a photograph via email. Avoid photos that may cast your subject in a negative way. People may request compensation for their images. This is best accomplished through your travel guide as cash may not be the most beneficial to contribute. A donation through other means may be preferable, and this is where a local guide can help. A long lens can be used for candid shots; however, if you catch the subject’s eye, smile at them, and point to your camera [to let them give permission]. This technique is especially helpful where there are language barriers. People may not notice a long lens when you are shooting from a distance, but if they show their displeasure, stop. If you’d like to photograph children, please ask permission from a parent. I was rewarded by a kiss on the cheek from a child who was thrilled I chose her to take a picture of. Those beautiful moments may end up being your most memorable.

SmarterTravel: Any tips for protecting your camera without adding a lot of bulk to a day pack?

Sandidge: Keep it simple, keep it safe, and keep your camera kit as light as possible. Carry what you will need for the excursion. A mirrorless camera such as the Nikon Z7 saves you quite a bit of weight, and the camera and lenses are lighter, allowing you to carry what you need without the added bulk. If you use something like a mid-range zoom lens, the 24-70mm lens for example, you’ll have the benefit of wide-angle but also 70mm range which can help with a variety of shots. Keep a lens blower and microfiber cloths handy to keep lenses clean. I much prefer a backpack with an extra zippered compartment on top so I can throw in a light jacket, a scarf, or even an extra lens. A 50mm lens and a fisheye can add a lot to your creative arsenal, and the lenses are fairly light and fast. The right kit is essential. Tried and true is most important; make sure to test any new bag to make sure it fits you well before you commit it to travel.

Here are 10 additional tips for taking better photographs:

  • Change your perspective: Shoot low or look for a high vantage point
  • Convey a sense of motion with your photograph, using a neutral density filter to slow [the] action
  • [To] create an establishing shot, use a wide-angle lens and capture unique foreground elements, narrowing the aperture to f/16
  • [To] isolate the subject, use a zoom lens with a wide aperture such as f/5.6
  • Vary your lenses; a 50mm lens used wide open can create a painterly look with backgrounds
  • Seek patterns and repetition of shape, color, light, and shadows; find diagonal flow to avoid static compositions
  • Look for colorful reflections in bodies of water, shiny cars and windshields, or even puddles
  • Shoot both horizontal and vertical versions of your composition
  • Carry a fast lens (f/1.8 or similar) for handheld low-light and night shooting
  • Carry a tripod, or use a Platypod, which is a flat tripod that you can attach your own ball head to
  • Don’t forget time-lapse and video; even short clips will add interest to your visual narrative

More from SmarterTravel:

Christine Sarkis is always looking for more travel photography tips. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

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