Make Your Travel Photographs Yours

Everybody sees things differently, give yourself the space to experience it before capturing it on camera.

Everybody sees things differently, give yourself the space to experience it before capturing it on camera.

Travel photography has become more trendy than it has ever been. With the birth of tourism at the turn of the 19th century, British photographers brought back images of the world home in sweeping views of monuments, landscapes, and skylines. Travel photography was meant to record places.

Today, everybody has a camera. Smartphones have changed the way and speed in which we record and share memories, not just images. For some reason or another, this beautiful personalization of photography is something we seem to forget when we travel.

The excitement of a new place makes us want to snap photos of the scene to bring back with us, and we’re left with people holding up their cameras, phones, sticks, and tablets (yes, we’ve all seen those) instead of deeply experiencing their travels.

Can we all agree that this needs to stop?

Think about the images you bring out years later and savor. Ordinary moments that often leave the most lasting memories. That lazy Saturday morning you woke up to your mom flipping pancakes in her yellow apron as she always does. You can smell the warm maple syrup wafting through the house. You hear your dad sending off a fax and your little brother’s morning cartoons. The photo of your mom’s elbow and a corner of her apron is blurry and a bit dark. It’s a moment unrepeatable and beautiful. This is how we should be approaching travel photography if we want to preserve memories and not perfectly framed places. Postcards and search engine stock photos can satisfy that need.

Traveling presents an enormous opportunity to record milestones, emotions, and the everyday moments in an unfamiliar environment. You’ll feel more inspired, creative, and probably more tired thanks to the jetlag - but it’s all real. Try to memorize it for what it is.

TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS

Whether you're sporting a smartphone, disposable camera, or professional DSLR, these pointers will help you capture more meaningful, story-based, beautiful photographs.

5. SEE THE LIGHT

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Photography is essentially the impression of light on light sensitive material. Whenever possible, shift the position of the lens to capture the broadest, most "consuming" light. In most cases, you want to avoid heavy contrast between light and dark in your shot in order to allow the lens to "see" the most color and definition within a scene. 

Sunlight is softest when the sun is lower on the horizon because the atmosphere scatters light rays to create a softer, more diffused appearance. This occurs shortly after sunrise and a few hours before sunset. In other words, most photography in the mid afternoon sun is best avoided. In unavoidable harsh light, place subjects in shaded areas to avoid overexposure and unflattering shine and shadows. Again, remember to reduce contrast by having a more uniform presence of light within your shot.

4. CAPTURE THE STORY, NOT THE SCENE

For those that are used to "postcard photography", this tip is going to feel unnatural at first because you're used to: A. asking people to get out of your shot B. posing people to create your shot. Think of what you would write in a journal to describe your day, and then do your best to capture that with the camera. You wouldn't manipulate people to do or say certain things to make your journal entry better - the same goes for your photographs. You don't need to constantly announce that you're taking a photo. You certainly don't need people to be looking at the camera in all of your photos as well. How many times have interesting, captivating, memorable moments been shattered with, "Okay! Look here!" being yelled out at every silent moment? You don't need that.

This photo was taken in Paris along the River Seine in 2011. I distinctly remember this couple lazily strolling along the river with the Eiffel Tower peering over them. It was tempting to get another sunset photo of the tower, but I would have missed this - and that would have been a tragedy. It's one of my favorite photos from my week there.

This photo was taken in Paris along the River Seine in 2011. I distinctly remember this couple lazily strolling along the river with the Eiffel Tower peering over them. It was tempting to get another sunset photo of the tower, but I would have missed this - and that would have been a tragedy. It's one of my favorite photos from my week there.

3. AVOID SELFIES WHEN POSSIBLE

As a photographer, I especially value photographs taken of myself by other people. These are the photographs that I put on my social profiles, journal pages, and send back home to my family. When you hand the camera to somebody else, you are given the freedom to be within the scene you're aiming to capture. 

Of course there are instances where this is not practical. If you're recording the changes in your beard over a 6 month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, you probably want to keep your travel companion sane and want to avoid having them take a photo of your hygiene preferences on daily basis. Use your best judgement, and when possible ask someone else to take over for a while. 

We spent most of our time in Big Sur in our room because we got really sick. It wasn't the original plan, but it ended up being one of the most memorable and relaxing parts of our trip. I don't have too many photos of hikes and waterfalls from Big Sur, but I do enjoy the detailed log of loving our cabin at Deetjen's Inn.

We spent most of our time in Big Sur in our room because we got really sick. It wasn't the original plan, but it ended up being one of the most memorable and relaxing parts of our trip. I don't have too many photos of hikes and waterfalls from Big Sur, but I do enjoy the detailed log of loving our cabin at Deetjen's Inn.

2. ADD YOUR OWN CONTEXT TO THE MORE SCENIC PHOTOS

My feet were aching from hiking the Napali Coast the day before and I fully appreciated the reclining beach chairs on this beach in Kauai the following day.

My feet were aching from hiking the Napali Coast the day before and I fully appreciated the reclining beach chairs on this beach in Kauai the following day.

You will see beautiful places. You will come across scenes so breathtaking that you'll want to seal it up and tuck it into your back pocket. This is usually why we travel, and our photographs can reflect this without losing context. Find something that makes the scene specific to your experience. Whether that means you take a scenic shot from your hotel balcony, or your tired feet from hiking are relaxing in the foreground, find some context that will make sense to you years from now. Assume you won't remember, and find ways to remind yourself. 

The simplest way to do this is to add people or personal objects to your photos. But you can also try this trick with street signs, train tickets, indications of seasons or holidays, etc.

1. DON'T LET PHOTOGRAPHY GET IN THE WAY

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Unless your sole purpose of traveling is to gather photographs, don't let yourself get distracted by photography. Focus on the traveling and the pictures will come if you so desire. Being aware, present, and fully conscious of your surroundings will make for the best travel memories. Enjoy the sweet moments with those you're traveling with and meet along the way. These are the irreplaceable moments that you'll be able to look back on years from now and completely enjoy all over again. Photographs are mementos that can help you share and remember, but they aren't the only thing that you bring back. 

As a lover of photography and preserving memories, I am most satisfied and fulfilled by a trip when I bring back experiences as souvenirs. Resist strapping your camera to your neck for a few hours and climb the rocks. Tuck the phone away for a few moments and watch as the waiter proudly presents your dinner. Ask questions, take it in, create moments and keep memories that will last a lifetime with or without pictures as proof.