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Travel Photography: What Speaks to You About This Particular Location

By: Liza Gershman

June 22, 2017

This article was originally published on April 1, 2016 and has been updated to include current product information.


old blue boat on a beach

Authenticity in your travel imagery will make a difference between a touristy image and an image that you could see in a magazine. The tips below will help you to achieve more authentic travel photography in any location.

What makes a location special? Food, people, interiors, landscape, details all set a location apart from others. Be sure to photograph something from each of these categories, when possible, to tell a complete story of the destination. Ask yourself, what specifically defines that place? What elements make this location different from home or other locations? Remember to find the answers through research, talking with locals, and your intuition.


people wearing colorful clothes waving flags in a street

Traveler vs. tourist

Being a traveler and being a tourist are two very different things. When you blend into a culture, it is far easier to get incredible travel imagery than when you stand out. We all know the images of tourists in black knee socks, shorts, and a million cameras around their necks. I wouldn’t want to have my photograph taken by them, and my guess is neither would you. Finding a way to blend into a culture will open doors, put people at ease, and give you the opportunity to create some of your best imagery on a trip.

Defining moments are the difference between photography and all other art forms. Henri Cartier-Bresson, a famous photographer known for his candid photos, once said, "There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oops! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever."

In travel photography, defining moments are everywhere! Stroll through markets and see how people interact; wait near a watering hole and watch animals drink; stand camera-ready near a jumping cliff and catch that defining back dive from a local as they jump into the water below. These moments are what separate your photograph from the same image taken by everyone else. Defining moments only happen once; being patient enough to wait for them will seriously pay off.


Photographing strangers

Photographing strangers is a typical aspect of travel photography, and being respectful of the people and culture you interact with is valuable. The Mayan people, for example, believe that when photographed, they lose their souls. It is considered to be incredibly disrespectful to photograph a Mayan person without expressed permission. Doing a bit of research about the culture you are going to will give you ideas on what is accepted and what is forbidden or offensive to that culture’s people.

Is it necessary to ask permission when you photograph someone? In standard journalism practices, you are only required to ask permission if the subject is indoors or on private property. Everyone outdoors or in a public space is fair game, but that does not mean that they will welcome a photograph. Put yourself in their shoes – do you like having strangers take your photo and then walk away? It is a far nicer experience for everyone involved when permission is asked. Of course, asking permission is always a best practice and not always easy to do. If there is a language barrier, then use signals to indicate your intent, like a smile and point at your camera. You will be able to see the expression on the subject’s face and know if they are giving you permission or not. It truly is a matter of common sense and respect. If someone seems nervous or uncomfortable, then continue on your way. Additionally, being sensitive to cultural events is wise when traveling. For instance, the Balinese funeral processions look like a parade to most Americans. Knowing the difference between a ritual and a parade is incredibly important here and reading a bit on the culture beforehand will allow you to understand the appropriateness of your desire to take a photograph. If your intention is to resell the image for stock or commercial use, then a model release is required.

shirtless surfer with yellow surfboard on the beach older woman sitting holding a cat surrounded by strings of beads hanging from the ceiling shirtless man smiling with wicker hat on

When someone asks you for money in exchange for his or her photo, how should you react? In many countries, even $1 is a tremendous amount. As a photographer, you are gaining something by taking a photograph and it is nice to give something back. You can carry a number of $1 bills with you to give in exchange for an image. But keep in mind the possible negative impact of simply tossing dollar bills around in a foreign setting. You may leave a more positive, lasting impression with a simple thank you and a smile, or (if language allows) engaging a subject in a brief but friendly and meaningful conversation after you've photographed them. You could also have a Polaroid type of camera and give an image in exchange for an image, or even offer to email the subject their photograph if you think that you will follow through.

When photographing people, you can use a variety of lenses, depending on your desired results. Using a long lens, like an EF 70-200mm, will help to maintain the proportions of the subject as the eye sees them, while compressing the background. On high-end fashion shoots, you often see the photographer with such a long lens that they are using a walkie-talkie to communicate with the subject on set. Using a wide-angle lens (anything under 50mm) will distort the subject because the wider you go, the more distortion you will see in the image. If you were to minimize the nose on the subject, then a wide-angle lens is never the way to go. Additionally, wide-angle lenses can make your subject look wider than they are in real life and also a bit shorter in proportion, as well. A 50mm lens or medium lens is a good choice for portraits that are from the waist up. An 85mm portrait lens is incredible for capturing an intimate portrait of your subject. If you want close details of eyelashes or wrinkles, then use an EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro (crop sensor cameras only) or EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS lens to get close and have these detailed moments with your subject. Macro lenses often make tremendous, sharp portrait lenses. If you want tight compositions with superb detail of skin texture or eyes, consider a macro lens such as the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 lens (for crop-sensor EOS cameras), or one of the 100mm macro lenses.

airplane perched on wooden platform surrounded by open marshy waters and plants


Food, landscapes, cities... oh my!

Food is a compelling aspect of travel. Make it a point to tell the whole story of a location and let food complete the story. Who has cooked the food? How is it being served? What ingredients are being used? Can you go and photograph the farm or shop in which the ingredients were purchased? What elements about this food are specific to this destination? Ask these questions and contemplate the answers as you begin to set up your food shoots. If you are on a trip to Mexico, you certainly aren’t photographing French fries to create a sense of place. Rather, you would want to seek out guacamole, limes, tequila, and chips. Look for specific items that really speak to the culture. Signature items from a destination will truly help your travel images tell a story, rather than just speak on their own. If you are curious about the food, people generally open up and are grateful. Remember, access is the most important aspect of travel photography that exists. If you are friendly enough, you might get invited into the kitchen of a famous restaurant, meet the chef, or go to the farm in which the produce was grown. You never know what possibilities will come your way until you ask.

Landscapes come in all forms, and capturing a landscape that is particularly significant to a location is an added element to effective storytelling of a destination. Find something that exists only in this place. Are you traveling in Wyoming? Photograph a landscape with a beautiful old barn in the background in a thunderstorm to let your audience know that this is the American West, rather than Nepal. If you are photographing a beach in Hawaii and telling a story of a typical day, be sure to photograph during sunny weather, rather than a rain shower. Think beyond the visual and into the emotional. How does it feel to be in this place? What are you asking your audience to feel when they see your photograph? Feeling is so significant in a successful image and will help you to convey time of year, season, time of day, and more.

Cities and towns have elements that set them apart from other locations, as well. Look to the skyline of New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, for example. Just by seeing each of these, you instantly know where you are. Find unique elements of the cities and towns that you visit and add them into your photography. You don’t always need to make something like the Golden Gate Bridge the subject of your image, but you can place it as a backdrop of a portrait, for example. For ideas on monuments, bridges, and other landmarks of significance, you can always look at postcards of the destination and challenge yourself to capture those in a new light. Try using a wide-angle lens if the postcard looks like it was taken from a “normal” perspective and see what new perspective you can bring to an image.

orange sunset overlooking water and an island


Packing wisely and lightly

Traveling with a heavy bag and every piece of gear you own can weigh you down, pose as a danger, and limit your ability to be spontaneous and creative. Know what lenses you really love and select to bring them out for the day, while leaving the rest of your gear at home. If you are in a foreign country, consider the idea that your camera equipment is much more valuable to someone who may have less you. I often tape over the brand of equipment when traveling, so as to not draw unneeded attention to the gear itself.

Bringing a spare camera body is useful because many locations are remote and finding a new camera body is near impossible or incredibly costly. Also, having backup batteries, memory cards, and chargers is a great way to travel. I always bring an extension cord (you never know how far away an outlet will be to you) and a universal power converter because not all outlets work with the same power output. The battery charger for nearly every Canon EOS and PowerShot camera is multi-voltage, and will sense incoming voltage from 100 thru 240 volts -- usually, all that's needed to recharge your camera's battery is a plug adapter in most international locations.

Because travel photography crosses so many genres of photography it can be difficult to decide what lenses to pack. Landscapes are best with wide-angles lenses that are 35mm or wider. For ease of packing you can find zoom lenses and minimize what you bring with you. A lens like an EF 16-35mm or 17-40mm (or EF-S 10-18/10-22mm, if you're using a crop-sensor camera), for example, will give you quite a bit of range, and will allow you to photograph in a number of wide-angle situations from landscape to groups of people, to food. The 24-105mm lens (or EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS lens, for crop-sensor cameras) is perhaps the best travel option, because these lenses can cover everything from landscapes at their wide-angle end, to portraits and close-ups at their telephoto zoom settings, and everything in-between.

Selecting a sturdy, inconspicuous camera bag is a worthy investment. When traveling, a backpack bag can give you much more mobility than a roller bag. Contemplate the sorts of activities that you will be doing on your trip and decide what shape and weight bag will allow you the most freedom to move.

foggy sky covering mountains overlooking a bright green field

Lighting makes or breaks any photograph. Even if you are looking at the most beautiful building, statue or field that you have ever seen, in the wrong lighting the camera will not see what your eyes do. In the right lighting, even something that isn’t beautiful in real life will look beautiful to the lens.

Time of day is important in photography. When you see those incredibly colorful images where sky meets land, many of them were taken in the wee early hours of the morning long before most people ever wake up. Part of being a great landscape travel photographer is the desire and ability to wake up before dawn.

The Magic Hour, or Golden Hour is another wonderful time of day for photography. This is the period shortly after sunrise or before sunset in which daylight is warmer and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky. The Golden Hour is just that…golden! Think of a field of hay, or an ocean sunset. Golden Hour is the time in which that light seems to just welcome you in. When you are planning a trip try to leave time to photograph during these moments.

Light isn’t the only thing that makes a photograph interesting. Shadow can be as compelling as light. Playing with shadows in your imagery can produce beautiful results. Pay attention to shadows during the peak of the day when the sun is at its highest and shadows are strong. Look to the ground when you are closer to noon and see what magic the lens can find there.

Nighttime photography is powerful as well. Get out your tripod and let the city lights or starry sky tell their story. Remember that contrast is important when making night imagery, and look for vibrant colors and high contrast scenes when possible. Think of an image of a freeway at night with the blur of car lights going by. Those lights shine brightly in comparison to the darkness of the night sky.

When traveling remember be familiar with your gear, seek out new perspectives when photographing cliché scenes, connect with the space and illustrate sounds, scents, and flavors, look for interesting shapes and shadows, and most importantly have fun!

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.