A Brief Introduction to Travel Photography

Today I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years about simple travel photography. This post is not geared toward the enthusiast with the SLR, but for the average person with a point-and-shoot who’d just like to take pictures as mementos of their trip or share on a blog.

Picture Taking

First off, don’t worry that you may not have the fanciest camera out there. You can still get good photos without expensive equipment. All of the photos I’ve taken for IO since I started blogging here have been with my iPhone 4S camera, without any apps to change the functionality. Here are some basic pointers. (Edit: I upgraded to the iPhone SE on 7/13/16, but my only camera remains a smart phone without any special apps!)

What's wrong with this photo? The lighting. This picture was taken looking into the sun, and is washed out.

What’s wrong with this photo I took at Zion? The lighting! This picture was taken looking into the sun and is washed out, the sky doesn’t look blue at all.

  • Pay attention to lighting. A picture taken towards the sun won’t look as nice, if the sun is behind you, the colors will be a lot better. Pictures taken before sunrise or after the sun has set will look more grainy besides being darker. Pictures taken when the sun is really high in the sky will be more washed out looking. And pictures taken during the hour after sunrise or before sunset will have more vibrant color. Artificial lighting will also give a different effect from natural light. One of the big differences between expensive cameras and simple ones is how well they handle poor lighting conditions, so you’ll need to watch the lighting yourself.
Ahh, much better lighting here! The sun is behind me, adding color to this vista of Bryce Canyon.

Ahh, much better lighting here! The sun is behind the photographer (me), adding color to this vista of Bryce Canyon.

  • Always have your camera with you. The biggest benefit to point and shoots is that they have virtually no prep time, so use that to your advantage and take it with you whenever you go out exploring. You never know when might stumble across something interesting.
  • Take multiple shots. The more pictures you take, the more likely one will be usable. Try experimenting with different angles on the same subject, or centering the picture on different objects in a scene. You can also try leaving the subject of the photo off center intentionally for a more artistic look.
Here the focal point of the picture (the tree) is slightly off-center, which can be visually pleasing.

Here the focal point of the picture (the tree) is slightly off-center, which can be visually pleasing. This was taken at Badlands National Park days after a freak blizzard hit, the snow adds a startling contrast to the green vegetation.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Most people don’t think of snapping a photo as a skill like playing an instrument or changing the oil in a car, but it is. The more you do it, the more you’ll get a feel for how to line up the elements in a frame to get a good picture. While some people might be naturally gifted at composition, everyone will improve with practice.
RV photography example: capturing just one part of the RV with the most interesting part of the setting ( tall redwoods) for an interesting photo.

Capturing just one part of the RV with the most interesting part of the setting (tall redwoods) for a unique photo.

RV Photography

Every RVer out there who has a blog wants a picture of their RV in an interesting place to share, but it can be a challenge! RVs are so big that they can be hard to capture in one frame without getting unwanted elements like the neighbor’s RV in there too. Plus, while the location you’re visiting may be beautiful, it’s entirely possible the immediate area surrounding your campsite is not. What’s an RVer to do?

  • Focus on one part of the RV. Move in closer to just get a picture of the best part of your site. Maybe it’s your deck area all set up with chairs, decorations, and the welcome mat going inside. Catch a sunset glinting off the polished wall of the RV. Take a picture from inside the RV looking out the window with the best view.
  • Watch the angle. When you’re parked at a campground, take pictures from the front of your site looking back, so that the road isn’t in it. Position your picture so that the RV is blocking the electric pedestal, water, and sewer hookup. Likewise, if you have neighbors you might be able to block their RV behind your own if you angle it just right.
  • There are a few things going on in this photo: it's angled so the hookup side with the less pretty cords and hoses isn't visible, the neighboring RV in the site right next to me is behind me and thus invisible. And of course there's the rainbow - I just got lucky there.

    There are a few things going on in this photo: it’s angled so the hookup side with the less pretty cords and hoses isn’t visible, the neighboring RV in the site right next to me is behind me and thus invisible. And of course there’s the rainbow – I just got lucky there.

    Take pictures on travel days. If you’re going to be driving with your RV through a park or on a road known to be scenic, keep your camera on hand and watch for pull-outs along the side of the road. These are some of the best places to get those awe-inspiring RV travel photos. The header of my Rig page was taken at such a pull-out in Badlands National Park, the campground I stayed in there was not nearly as picturesque.

Picture Editing

I use photo-editing software on my computer to touch up many of my pictures before I post them on this blog. The program I use is Adobe Photoshop 7.0. It came out in 2002 so it’s certainly not cutting edge anymore, but it was considered high end when it came out and still suits my needs.

If you’re looking for a free program to get started with, I’ve heard good things about Picasa which is run by Google and stores your edited photos online instead of on your computer, which means you’ll never accidentally overwrite your original photos. GIMP is another one that’s gotten good reviews.

Also worth a note: some cameras these days give you the ability to edit the photo right on the camera before even uploading it onto your computer. If your camera has this capability, you might not even need to download a computer program.

Some people prefer to keep their pictures completely natural, and some will spend a lot of time making a photo look just perfect or even surreal. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I do value simplicity and time-efficiency. Therefore I don’t use “brushes” to change individual parts of a picture, but just stick to “filters” that adjust the whole picture. They take a lot less time to use – important when you’re putting up to ten photos in a blog post twice a week.

  • In this photo I took in the Smokey Mountains, the right side of the photo has a Sharpen filter on it, the left is what the original looks like.

    In this photo I took in the Smokey Mountains, the right side of the photo has a Sharpen filter on it, the left is what the original looks like.

    Sharpen This filter will make a picture look more crisp and edges more distinct. I used this filter on the the current IO header so that it was easier to distinguish me from the rocks I’m standing in front of. It can also help if your hands shake when you take pictures, or if you’re taking a picture while in motion (like from a car) and it comes out blurry.

  • Contrast I use this tool on every single photo that goes up on IO these days. On my editing program it’s a slide tool, pull it one direction and it decreases contrast – decreases the darks and lights and makes the photo’s mid-tones more prominent. Pulling the slider the other way increases the contrast and makes the darks and lights more prominent, which is what I want to do with my photos. Photoshop 7 has a filter called “auto-contrast” that’ll optimize the contrast for you, this is what I do. On more gray photos with poor lighting auto-contrast might make a huge difference in how a photo looks, on a photo with good lighting it’ll make hardly any difference at all because the photo already has good contrast naturally.
  • Color Saturation Most photo-editing software will let you adjust the colors of a photo – make the whole photo look more red, or yellow, or blue, or whatever color you want. But what you’re really looking for is a way to adjust the color saturation. It’s another slider that when you pull it one way, will decrease saturation and make a photo look more black and white; and when you pull it the other way, will make the colors already in the photo look more vibrant. I increase the color saturation on many of my photos to make the sky look bluer, the grass look greener, etc. Increase it too much though, and the photo will start to look unnatural.
  • Brightness This is another slider tool, and it does exactly what the title suggests. Pull your cursor one way, and the picture will get darker, pull it the other way, and the picture will get lighter. It’s really handy for fixing pictures that were taken in low-light conditions to make them easier to see. Tip: When you adjust a picture’s brightness, you’ll usually also want to adjust the contrast. Dark photos usually have low contrast, so increase it to get better detail.
This is a progression of filters applied on top of each other. From left to right: original photo, auto-contrast, color saturation increase, brightness increase.

This is a progression of filters applied on top of each other. From left to right: original photo, auto-contrast, color saturation increase, brightness increase. By the time you get to the far right though, this view of the Narrows has been edited so much that it’s starting to look unnatural.

Now it’s important to note that while these filters and tools are useful, there is a limit to what they can do to fix a bad picture. You’ll want to practice the good photo-taking techniques I described in the first section to get the best results.

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I know there are other amateur photographers out there who read IO, and I would welcome any further tips you all have about taking and editing pictures in the comments below. Now get out there and have fun taking photos of your travels!

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20 Responses to A Brief Introduction to Travel Photography

  1. Glenda January 27, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

    A great way to get everyone in a group shot smiling, with eyes open, looking at the camera is have everyone look down, count out loud to 3, & then everyone looks up at the camera together.

    Also, find a tree branch or something pleasant to “frame” a scene, look for patterns or repetitions, & shoot lower or higher than normal eye level.

    • Becky January 28, 2015 at 8:27 pm #

      Thanks for these tips Glenda, I’d never heard of that group picture idea before.

  2. Ron January 27, 2015 at 10:21 pm #

    I use Picasa with good results, easy & free. You have some stunning photos here. Ron

    • Becky January 28, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

      It’s nice to get a thumbs up from someone who uses the program Ron, thanks for commenting.

  3. Vincent Goetz January 28, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    Capture One software is the bomb…it is the best raw editing machine available. BTW, everyone should be shooting their images in RAW. Using JPEGs or other files that have been compressed diminishes your ability to edit the image.

    • Becky January 28, 2015 at 8:29 pm #

      Never heard of Capture One before Vincent, thanks for sharing.

  4. Jodee Gravel January 28, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    I continue to be surprised by the quality of photos I can get from my IPhone’s camera. My new IPhone 6 is even better at capturing those elusive purples in the sunrises….. Still, when we hit the road we want an SLR with a great zoom and a few other features to play with 🙂 Great tips – thanks Becky!!
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..KISS – Keep It Simple SaturdayMy Profile

    • Becky January 28, 2015 at 8:32 pm #

      Phone cameras sure have come a long way Jodee, it’s hard for me to justify buying a “real” camera when I can get pictures this good from my phone. Enjoy the SLR when you get one, they can do some pretty amazing things!

  5. Rene Kipp January 28, 2015 at 11:02 am #

    I use a program called ACDSee to edit my photos. I have an older version and it could probably use an update, but I’m satisfied with it so far. The camera I typically use is a point and shoot Fuji brand. Eventually I’d like an SLR but it could become burdensome on a hike.
    I have a bad habit of not getting the sun behind me and usually have washed out pictures. I’ll have to try some of the filters on my program and see if it helps.
    Thank goodness for digital photography. I still remember shooting a roll of film, getting it developed and finding out the shots I was looking forward to seeing weren’t worthy of sharing.
    I think the delete button is the best thing ever when it comes to photography!
    Rene Kipp recently posted..Virtual Garage SaleMy Profile

    • Becky January 28, 2015 at 8:36 pm #

      Haven’t heard of that one Rene, thanks for sharing. And good luck playing with filters!

      Sometimes it’s impossible to get the sun from a good angle when you’re trying to photograph something, unless you can come back to the same spot at a different time of day. In that Zion picture I would have needed to come out in the morning so that the sun was behind me, but I never made it back there. And yes, gotta love that delete button. 🙂

  6. Tom B. January 28, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    Becky: Great post. I have a closet full of high-end DSLR equipment, but some of the best pictures I have taken have been with my iPhone. Why? Because the iPhone was what I had with me at the time. The best camera in your arsenal is the one you have with you, not the equipment at home or at the office. I love the pictures you post on your blog; I get to see places I might never see in person. Take care.

    • Becky January 28, 2015 at 8:39 pm #

      Thank you Tom, I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I have a few photographer friends with DSLRs and they can churn out some amazing pictures, but I know I wouldn’t have the patience to get those kind of cameras set up for the “perfect” shot.

  7. natan dotan January 30, 2015 at 7:04 am #

    Becky, great article here, i am a wildlife and travel photographer and must admit i love the “pay attention to the lighting” stuff…great one
    natan dotan recently posted..What Makes Africa Photo Safari So Addictive That You Never Want To Miss One?My Profile

    • Becky January 30, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

      Thank you Natan, I’m glad you enjoyed this post.

  8. Ed @ Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets January 30, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

    For little ole you to get positive kudos from someone that presumably takes photographs for a living (Natan) is saying something. As I have mentioned in the past, you have wisdom and experience beyond your years. Thanks for sharing the photography tips. Some of us are at the age where, if we knew these things, we’ve forgotten their importance. Thanks for the reminders.

    • Becky January 31, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

      Thank you Ed, and you’re very welcome!

  9. natan dotan February 7, 2015 at 7:28 am #

    looking at the smokey mountains side by side images, thats a nice sharpenning tool that you are using…i like it, nicely done
    natan dotan recently posted..Welcome to one of our best Adventure Photo ToursMy Profile

    • Becky February 7, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

      Thank you natan.

  10. Michael Steele December 19, 2016 at 1:13 am #

    My version of PhotoShop is 2.5.1…from around 1990. I don’t have a computer that will run it now lol I currently use GIMP, although it was a steep learning curve. I don’t do as much editing as I did in the 90s, when I was in desktop publishing.

    I once had a film SLR system with Pentax and Vivitar SLRs, multiple lenses, flashes, tripods, filters, a full darkroom…I’m very happy with digital lol! For most of my photography, I use Panasonic prosumer cameras with long zooms, and while they’re cheap–about $300 new–you can’t get good photos in poor light. Sometimes, even indoor light isn’t enough for them. But they are compact, lightweight, and versatile. With lens zooms ranging from 28-35mm equivalency, up to over 500mm equivalence without having to attach a different lens, you can close in on a bird or a deer–or the name tag on a camp host 🙂 –with ease.

    You can help your sky shots tremendously by using a polarizing filter. I’ve used a pair of polarized sunglasses in a pinch, but autofocus cameras may focus on the sunglasses or filter, instead of your scene, so manual focus (or focus lock) is a help. Obviously, this will also darken your shot! Sunglasses tend to have distracting scratches and other such “features,” as well 🙂 so use a new pair if you try that route 😀
    Michael Steele recently posted..Back to the life I love!My Profile

    • Becky December 19, 2016 at 7:33 pm #

      My photoshop disc stopped working so I switched to GIMP when I had to reinstall everything on my computer a couple months ago. It’s working well for me but I keep things pretty basic.

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