5 Secrets that Travel Photographers Use to Take Better Photos

"Lens Cleaning", Courtesy of The Preiser Project. https://www.flickr.com/photos/thepreiserproject/11779317145/in/photolist-iWU5AV-oujRX7-o5LWzG-9rbrRF-9Ut6Zh-99NWPS-r7XYyp-fDBeGq-sWJkC-nKtMGh-9QpcKA-97Hqrj-9aS1jt-aDmG4G-8Mhd9V-e4RyuH-kNVz7w-drmpKF-drmyX5-9FWDJf-9rbrUv-pteHJL-74nZ9r-bj2KaX-hmnLdL-b5ozUV-sbe6B-4f6PGV-7wZbwH-dhj87f-9jdKSJ-8Rfiv2-cxzud9-7rLEWf-cXoDTb-6V14bU-8YBgJ3-8MhcR8-b5T6VP-gUmLg7-aSzbVZ-qLc6dU-eRgxN-cmHqaw-drmpzM-r1D8gx-Bp2bMR-BQfoGi-prkzE9-rkzhSq

Travel photos are one of the most difficult styles of photography to shoot. No matter how much your equipment costs or how beautiful your subject, you’ll never capture the essential moments of your vacation unless you have the right knowledge and plenty of practice. Luckily, we can help. We asked one of our professional photographers, Samuel Webster, to write a short blog about how you can take better photos just by making a few small adjustments to the way you think about photography. The following are some of the secrets that he and his colleagues use to capture the shots of Italy (or anywhere) that fire the imaginations of their fellow travelers. Here’s Sam:

A good travel photo is a precious thing, but anyone who has ever tried to quickly capture a beautiful view or a magnificent cathedral knows just how hard it can be to translate what you see into the photo you take. That’s where I come in. As a freelance photographer it’s my job to travel the world on assignments capturing stunning images quickly and comprehensively. I’ve seen many mistakes while watching travelers try to capture their journey in photos, and it might surprise you how many of them are easily corrected. You won’t become the world’s best travel photographer two weeks before your trip but regardless of age, ability, experience or camera model, there are a lot of little things that you can do to take better photos of your travels. For the first installment of these photography tips, I’ll start with some of the most common mistakes I see travelers making and teach you how to avoid them.

Stop taking photos of art

A Walks of Itay guide poses with her camera-phone-picture of Michelangelo's David.

Taking pictures of art is human. Taking pictures of pictures of art, divine.

Don’t get me wrong: Italian statues are marvelous subjects for photography, so are monuments and all those grandiose, cavernous churches. It’s the paintings you should avoid. A few months ago, I was taking photos in the Uffizi Gallery for Walks of Italy’s Florence in a Day tour and a group of 25 tourists descended upon a Botticelli en masse! The few photos I saw on the backs of their cameras were dark and blurry, not to mention full of other people. What they didn’t seem to grasp, or perhaps didn’t care about, was this: You’re just not going to get an original or memorable shot if you walk up to a famous painting and snap it.

What to do instead

Take photos of details – the strokes of paint on the canvas, the gold frames, and the parts of the painting that strike you the most. A photo of the artwork in full can almost always be found on Google, but the small details that say “I was there” will make for much more special photos. Depending on the gallery, you are usually free to take photos of the space itself. Enjoy the long walkways of the Uffizi, or the wide-open spaces of the Pinacoteca di Brera. Try to capture how a statue sits within a space, surrounded by traveling art lovers. The arrangement of the space doesn’t happen by accident. Those photos are so much more interesting, and they tell a story in a way that a facsimile of a masterpiece never will.

2. Don’t take so many selfies

A couple takes in the view inside the Colosseum with a Walks of Italy Tour.

Instead of taking a shot of yourself in the Colosseum, turn your camera on those traveling with you – you won’t regret it.

It has become de rigueur to complain about people taking selfies in famous places but, personally, I think they can work in the right time and place. Unfortunately, in front of famous monuments is almost never the right time, nor place. Even monuments like the Colosseum will usually look small and cramped in a corner of the frame next to your head. Instead, I suggest you turn your camera on your family and friends. Catch them talking in a piazza, or underneath a statue. Volunteer them to be part of a show in Piazza Navona, and go crazy with your camera.

What to do instead

Capture memories, not things. Tell stories, not histories. If you have to take a selfie, try to get as much of your surroundings as possible in the photo with you (more on this in the next point). If you have friends who can’t shake their selfie habit, take photos of them taking selfies in beautiful places – your photographed memory will outlast theirs, I promise!

Which leads me to my next tip…

 3. Stop taking selfies the old-fashioned way

photo by Michele M. F. https://www.flickr.com/photos/e-coli/16235557282/in/photolist-qJFtxq-qmhjdQ-rmJNK3-qpcoJo-qzpYUH-rrPjfQ-rswyP6-EbohME-rjjD6Z-qtLBpm-rnwrrZ-xgZ99W-r7b88a-ts9T2s-qrZ1SQ-nwLoCv-peEBSg-CAR7iY-vizewK-CuogQg-BJRLZy-pFYJt6-Cn9NiK-r4ZqEC-rGEPQE-q9BjGa-BYhBs1-qSPKmC-v1Mqi3-rNeoiG-qZfWCK-qyfYTy-CfAYSy-C8jR4N-rnRrdu-xfshwj-qiWsJZ-yBaHVm-u2PQvp-tuuLpe-qRfECc-wnTyst-wsrKJJ-r8acPA-s2QMPb-pYEMHt-tQm8Qy-Dn2VB6-rwUMFw-9ctBgB

Selfie sticks are widely available for purchase from street vendors. | Photo by Michelle M.F. via Flickr

I know, I know, selfie sticks aren’t cool, even if they’re popular. Also, you absolutely need to leave them at home when you go to any gallery or very crowded place (museums in Italy are starting to ban them because of the damage people have done to works of art in the past year or so).That said, when you’re out ‘in the wild’, you have my permission to pull out the selfie stick!

Ignoring the fact that selfie sticks have a reputation for being a bit tacky and “touristy”, I promise you that real photographers only care about one thing: does it take a good photo? A selfie stick distances you from the camera and thus allows you to take better photos. Not only is it more flattering and natural, it lets you get the background in the shot. Without the background, you may as well take the photo in your bedroom at home. They also offer a really great way to take a video message to send back to family and friends.

What to do

Don’t angle the camera at 90-degrees to the stick. Go for 110 or even 130 degrees (so the camera is closer to being parallel than perpendicular). That way, you can hold your hand down by your side and get a photo without the stick in the shot. These two selfies of me were taken with a selfie stick. They’re much nicer when you can’t see the stick!

4. Son, we need to talk about Instagramming your food…

A ripe Italian tomato is definitely worthy of a photo!

A ripe Italian tomato from the Campo de’Fiori is definitely worthy of a photo!

My normal policy when traveling is designating just one food photographer per group of travelers. But if you must capture every amazing Italian dish and risk it getting cold in the meantime, try to move quickly and reserve your camera for only the special moments.

Last week in Rome, I tried Meloncello (like Limoncello, but made from cantaloupe) and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve got a photo of the glass full of orange liqueur. But I didn’t shoot the Limoncello I had afterward because it wasn’t the first time I had tried it.

What to do instead

Try to focus on the things that startle you, interest you, or can be counted as “travel firsts”. Just because it looks great doesn’t mean it needs to be captured. After a few days, the photos won’t seem so special. Nevertheless, if it’s your first taste of homemade lasagne, go crazy!

However, this tip goes further than that. I love food as much as the next slightly-overweight traveler, but the reason I return to certain places is only partly to do with the food. My favorite Roman restaurant has a waitress with the sunniest disposition you can imagine AND they make a great plate of spaghetti. If you’re taking photos of your food, the restaurant that serves it to you deserves a mention too. Take photos of the menu (steal the Italian one, even if you don’t use it to order!), the tables set for guests, and/or the rustic interior. Take photos of the restaurant from the street, with people passing by. Is this the third time I’ve written it? Capture the experience alongside the details.

5. Don’t share your photos as quickly as you can take them

Candid photography of people is a mixture of luck and patience. Sam got this shot by hanging around an area with a perfect column of light and waiting for the right subject to wander through. | Photo by Samuel Webster

Candid photography of people is a mixture of luck and patience. Sam got this shot by hanging around an area with a perfect column of light and waiting for the right subject to wander through. | Photo by Samuel Webster

Being a professional photographer teaches you to lose the idea of immediacy. If you’re serious about documenting your travels, whether for an audience or just your own enjoyment, you don’t have to do it in real time. This means sharing, at most, one or two photos a day on social media – enough that people see you’re doing well, and no more. Why? Because time spent editing and posting photos is better spent taking photos, at least while you’re away. Empty your telephone or camera before leaving home, and fill it before you return.

What to do instead
Take lots of photos and back them up. With a little time and space between the vacation and the return, the things that stand out about the trip will become clear. Your favorite places will want to be seen again. When my friends as me why I spend time in post-production instead of using automatic settings I reply that a photo that isn’t worth 10 minutes of my editing time is not worth showing to someone. By allowing yourself time to focus on simply capturing photos, you will have more to see when you return home and can make a better photographic memory for your family and friends.

Check out the Walks of Italy blog on how to take better travel photos!

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