Instagram has no dearth of inspiring travel photography. Scroll through your feed on any given day and you’re bound to spot a sunset painted a million different colors, a decadent brunch bursting with fresh fruit and pastries, hikers striking a triumphant pose at the peak of a mountain, and truly epic landmarks standing tall in all their glory. The overall effect is an idealized version of every vacation we take. But for every amazing photo you or anyone else posts on social media, there are hundreds of others that didn’t quite make the cut: Perhaps the horizon line was askew, a selfie at the beach didn’t showcase your most flattering angle, or that famous statue you were so eager to see wasn’t in focus in your shot. It’s a total bummer. These mistakes linger in our travel photography archives for eternity, embarrassing smudges on an otherwise picture-perfect gallery of the world. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just nail every single shot the first time? While perfection is rarely achievable, practicing your travel photography skills can definitely improve your ratio of duds to wow-worthy shots. And you don’t need years of training or innate talent to hone these skills either. To take better pics on your trips, you just need to learn a few basic tricks of the trade—and Robin Layton, a Pulitzer Prize–nominated photographer and Nikon ambassador, has some pro tips to help you get better at travel photography. I spoke with Layton about how to capture every magical moment on a getaway and create images that will help you relive the experience for years to come. Read on to learn some travel photography tricks you can use on your next big adventure. And see what happened when I took a Nikon D3400 camera out for a spin and put Layton’s advice in action on a trip to Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
From Casual ’Grammer to Travel Photography Pro
So you’re pretty happy with the shots you’ve managed to take casually but you’re ready to take travel photography a little more seriously. How do you move up to the next level? Start by upgrading from your smartphone, says Layton. While smartphone cameras have gotten better over the years, they just can’t deliver the crisp, dynamic shots that you can get from more powerful tools, like a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR). Which DSLR is the best option for people who want to take their travel photography to the next level? “Amateurs should make sure that the camera they choose can shoot high-resolution photos and videos and is lightweight to travel with. The Nikon D3400 is a great entry-level camera for anyone looking to step up from smartphone photography,” she says. “The camera is sold in a two-lens kit, so you can experiment with different focal lengths. The camera also has a guide mode that gives step-by-step instructions to learn as [you] go.” There are tons of great cameras on the market right now—work with the professionals at a well-established photo store, like B&H, to find the equipment that fits your needs and budget.In addition to making sure you’ve got the right tools, doing some advance planning for your trips can go a long way toward helping you take stunning shots. Do some online location scouting to find places to practice travel photography on your next trip, Layton suggests. “Before traveling to a new city, make sure to research the area so you can capture the most picturesque spots. This will be different for everyone, depending on their individual passions and interests,” she says. Love plants and flowers? Look up botanical gardens and natural parks on your next hiking trip. Are you obsessed with sunsets? Use Google Maps to research sites that face west. Or maybe you’re really into local artisans—make note of some craft markets and small workshops. But those spots aren’t the only travel photography opportunities you’ll have on a trip, so be prepared to snap some pics anywhere you end up. “Take your camera with you every place you go. You’ll never know what you’ll see, and if you don’t have your camera, you’ll kick yourself for it,” says Layton.
I tried it:
I have to admit: I didn’t love lugging around the camera all day. It was heavier than I was used to, and I like to travel light. But after seeing how much better my travel photography was compared to my usual iPhone pics, it felt worth the extra weight. I hardly noticed it after a couple of days. As for research, I asked around and looked online for suggestions about the best places to watch the sunrise in Roanoke. It turns out that there are some fantastic overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a majestic road that goes straight through the mountains. So I woke up bright and early and drove up there just before dawn to capture the sky turning from lavender to salmon to gold. Travel photography may have been the motive for the early wake-up call, but this adventure enhanced my experience in another way: enjoying the peaceful beauty of nature and breathing in the fresh mountain air while the rest of the world was fast asleep. I’ll never forget it.
Master of Light
The way you capture light is a dead giveaway for whether you understand the finer points of travel photography. How the light hits the subject has a direct impact on the overall mood of the photo. A high-contrast shot with dark, rich shadows gives a sense of drama, while softer light creates a more serene atmosphere. “Lighting is everything in travel photography, so it’s important to take advantage of the best lighting to get the best quality photos,” says Layton. If you’ve explored photography before, you may have heard the advice to shoot with your back to the sun. This principle helps you make sure your subjects are properly lit and your photo doesn’t end up blown out. But when it comes to travel photography, it’s worth throwing some of the old rules out the window, says Layton. “Don’t be afraid to shoot into the light where your subject is backlit. You can get some beautiful images that way,” she says. The quality of your travel photography can change depending on the time of day you’re taking pics. Bringing your camera to the beach at noon will create a completely different look than going to the same location at dusk. “[For nature shots,] the best light to take photos is early morning (before the sun rises) and during and just after sunset,” says Layton. “Midday light can be harsh and challenging, so for beginner photographers, I’d recommend taking advantage of the time of day to capture the best shots.”
I tried it:
Throughout my time in Roanoke, I kept noticing this really striking steel sculpture on the outdoor balcony of the Taubman Museum of Art, an architecturally beautiful institution that puts an emphasis on local and regional artists. I knew I had to take it home with me (in photo form, of course). So at about high noon (I know—not the ideal time for travel photography) I climbed up to the balcony, crept up close to artist Paul Villinski’s Self-Portrait, and took Layton’s advice, pointing my camera directly into the sun. With one press of the button, I captured this cool shot—along with some artwork that I could actually squeeze into my carry-on.
Queen of Composition
How do you compose a beautiful shot when practicing travel photography? Spoiler: It definitely doesn’t involve putting your subject front and center. Think of travel photography as a way to show the subject in a setting—not shine a single spotlight on it. “Compose your photo with your subject according to the ‘rule of thirds.’ Meaning, imagine your photo divided into nine equal parts using two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, making a grid. Place your subject at one of the four points in the middle of the grid,” says Layton. Placing your travel photography subjects at one of the horizontal or vertical thirds of the photo gives the viewer’s eye a natural place to land when it hits your image. It also leaves plenty of space to tell a story with your photo. And if you plan to include landscapes in your travel photography, you’ll rely on those horizontal lines for another purpose: keeping the horizon straight. A crooked horizon can ruin your sunset photo, says Layton. The angle of your image is also important. Amateurs tend to take every image at eye level, which can look a little dull. Travel photography pros aren’t afraid to crouch down and shoot low or take images with their cameras pointed upward to capture a subject in a fresh way. The angle of your photos is especially important when shooting architecture and art, says Layton. “Try different angles and distances from the monuments and buildings. Focus on the details, too—close-ups can be just as gripping as overall photos,” she says. As for food, go for an overhead angle, says Layton. “If you have one, use a 35mm or 50mm lens and stand above your plate for an interesting shot,” she says.
I tried it:
A tour of Black Dog Salvage, a treasure-filled salvage yard with cool furniture and art made from repurposed materials, proved to be a gold mine for practicing different travel photography angles. (You may have an idea of just how fascinating this place is if you’ve seen Salvage Dawgs, featured on the DIY Network and HGTV since 2012, but trust me when I say it’s even more visually captivating in real life!) A piano just outside the building was waiting to be turned into something fabulous (maybe a cabinet?). As Layton suggested, I zoomed in on one of the more interesting details of the instrument—the mangled keys. It allowed me to explore the artsier side of my travel photography. The inside of the salvage company was like a maze of junk-turned-to-gems. My photos from ground level couldn’t quite depict just how huge and packed this place was. So I climbed to an upper level and shot at a bird’s-eye-view angle to get an image that showed a charming snippet of everything this unique store has to offer.
Who doesn’t want fabulous photos of themselves and their friends on a trip? Travel photography should definitely include you as the subject at one point or another! But straight selfies can get monotonous after a while. Instead, plan your shot ahead of time and grab a friend. “You could ask a friend to stand where you want to have the photo taken, focus on them, and then switch places. Or ask a stranger to do the same and either take a photo of you alone or with your friend,” says Layton. But remember, you don’t have to be depicted in every single photo. Travel photography that shows your loved ones (or even strangers) enjoying themselves captures your perspective of the trip. Rather than asking everyone to line up for another cheesy group shot, try to be a little more discreet and spontaneous behind the camera, says Layton. “Take candid photos of everyone having fun. It’s best to do when your subject doesn’t notice the camera is pointed at them,” she says.
I tried it:
For travel photography that included me in the picture, I ditched my selfie stick and instead set up a shot of me in front of a vintage bus at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Then I grabbed a friend and handed her my camera. Voilà—an adventurous shot of myself that’s far more interesting than a regular selfie. Virginia’s Blue Ridge has a prominent craft beer scene. But I found that the friendly staff at the breweries were as much a part of the local food and drink culture as the flavors of the beers themselves. I put some of Layton’s travel photography tips to the test when I snapped a few photos of the staff members at Deschutes Brewery as they brought out samples of one of their most popular beers. Then I put my camera down and picked up a glass to savor this part of the culture in a more sensual way.
When to Put Your Camera Away
For some people (myself included), travel photography can help jog a memory of the experience a few months later. When I see that pic of a giant chocolate croissant, I remember the sweet fragrance and glimmering case of pastries at that bakery in Paris. But sometimes we get so focused on travel photography that we forget to take in the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being in a new destination. Part of developing your travel photography skills is knowing when to put the camera away—such as at live performances, says Layton. “When you’re at a concert nowadays, all you tend to see is a mob of people holding up their cameras rather than taking in the moment around them. As a photographer, I believe it is important to capture images to cherish our favorite memories. However, I also think there is a balance of capturing the moment and living in it. Know when to put the camera down and simply appreciate the music around you,” she says.
I tried it:
The activity I was most excited about on my trip to Virginia’s Blue Ridge was going to a live bluegrass concert at the Jefferson Center, an intimate venue for local arts set in a former high school. I had my camera out and ready when the opening act came on. But as soon as I heard Claire Hitchins, a local musician who sings soulful folk melodies, start talking about how good it felt to be home and begin crooning her first song, chills ran up my spine. The camera hung from my neck for the entire mesmerizing performance. Then it was time for the headliner, Grammy Award–winning bluegrass band The SteelDrivers, to kick off the main show. I could feel the excitement from the locals—who came out in droves—buzzing through my body, and my camera stayed just where it was. Travel photography means nothing if you don’t know when to live in the moment.