Laurence is a professional award-winning travel photographer (and my husband!) and today he is going to answer some of those essential travel photography questions that we are often asked. If you have ever looked at other people’s photographs of a travel spot you’ve been to and wondered why their photographs were so much better that yours, this post will give you some helpful tips as well as point you to further resources if you are interested in taking your photography to the next level.
This Q & A post is designed to share some of the basics on travel photography, including things like how a camera works, advice on camera gear, how to protect your gear while traveling, the essential basics of composition you should know, tips for mobile photography, best photography editing software, and even tips on how to take a better selfie!
Laurence Norah has been traveling as a blogger and photographer for over 6 years and has photographed all over the world, from the wildlife of the Galápagos Islands to the Northern Lights in Finland. He even photographed our own wedding, both of them!
We both take a lot of photos while traveling, but most of the photos you see on this blog since 2015 were edited by Laurence. I actually developed these questions based on questions we often get and then put them to Laurence and we both hope you find the answers helpful. Without further ado, I will handle it over to Laurence!
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you first get into photography, and how did you get to the level of being a professional travel photographer?
Hello! My name is Laurence and I’ve been taking photos since I was 13, when my parents bought my a wonderful Canon film camera – the AE-1. I was lucky enough to be living in the Seychelles at the time, and had no shortage of beautiful things to take photos of.
It was however only in 2009 that I started to take photography more seriously. I left my career in IT and started to travel, starting off with a year in Australia. I took a lot of photos on that trip, a couple of which won awards in a major UK newspaper, when then encouraged me to believe that I could turn my hobby into a career.
That is what started me on my path to really hone my travel photography skills and also a desire to share advice with others wanting to take better vacation photos.
First could you just tell us very succinctly how a camera works, and what types of cameras a traveler might be using these days?
Certainly! The basic principle of how a camera works hasn’t changed for a long time. A camera is just a device to capture light. It does this with a lens, which focuses light onto a surface inside the camera body that can record that light. For a long time that surface was a piece of chemically reactive paper – film. In recent years film has been replaced by digital sensors which are able to record and save that information onto memory cards.
These days I’d say most travelers would be using a digital camera, either the one in the smartphone or a compact camera, or perhaps something a little bit more complicated like a mirrorless system, digital SLR, or an action camera like a GoPro.
Obviously most smartphones these days have a camera, which can vary in quality from quite good to fairly poor.
A compact camera (e.g., point-and-shoot camera) is often a step above, usually offering the advantage of an optical zoom. Smartphones and point and shoots are both OK for capturing a great record of one’s travels and are designed to be easy to use, but they don’t offer in the way of manual controls, so you can be a bit limited. Similarly GoPros are small action cameras that are great for sports and water related situations as they are small, durable, and designed for harsh environments, but have similar limits on control as smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras.
At the higher level you have DSLR (digital single lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras. These are the two options people should consider investing in camera equipment when they want to take photography more seriously. Both of these camera types are similar in that they allow you to change lenses, and have full manual controls.
The key difference is the interior workings – a mirrorless camera has no mirror inside it, which means you also don’t have an optical viewfinder. The advantage is that the camera can be much smaller and lighter as a result, which makes it perfect for traveling. Both types of cameras typically feature video capacity as well.
What type of camera equipment do you use personally? For someone wanting to take professional level photos, what types of equipment would you say are essential?
I’m currently shooting with a Canon 6D, which is an amazingly versatile DSLR camera good for everything from landscape photography to low-light event shots. Jess and I both use the Canon 6D as our primary cameras; she used to use a Nikon but switched so we can share lenses. I also have a couple of Panasonic mirrorless cameras including the Panasonic Lumix GX8 which also shoots 4K video which is great for taking photos of animals and moving people. I also almost always pack a tripod if space permits. You can see all my photography gear listed on my travel photography gear page.
At the moment though, for the majority of folks wanting to take great quality photos without the weight of an DSLR, I recommend mirrorless systems. These are smaller and lighter cameras that offer image quality almost on par with the high-end DSLR’s, without being so heavy, plus they still allow you to change lenses. I’d recommend looking into the Panasonic mirrorless system.
Many travelers these days are not even traveling with stand alone cameras, but are taking photos with just their cell phones. What tips do you have for those using a smartphone for mobile photography? Are there certain specs to look for those looking for a phone that can also take great photos?
I am a big proponent of the theory that the best camera is the one you have on you. There’s no point investing in a big heavy camera that you aren’t going to take with you. You are likely to always have your smartphone on you, so don’t be afraid to use it!
The main thing is to realize the limitations inherent in a smartphone. The sensors are very small, so you need to make sure there is plenty of light available. There’s also no optical zoom, so if you want to make subjects bigger, you’re going to have to move closer to them. Otherwise, the key things to remember are the importance of composing your images properly, trying to shoot with the sun behind you so it illuminates your subject properly, and ideally shooting at closer to sunrise and sunset when the light is better for photography.
Specs-wise, look for a smartphone with a fast aperture (f/1.8 or f/2.2) and optical image stabilization. These will let you capture images when there is less light available. My current favorite smartphone for photography is the LG G4 – I did a full review of it here.
For those traveling with point-and-shoot cameras, is it still possible to get good shots from these less expensive cameras? What are the limitations of these cameras and what tips do you have for those traveling with these types of cameras?
You absolutely can get good photos with compact cameras. It’s important to remember that the most critical component of photography is the photographer, not the camera – a well composed, well-lit photo can be taken with any camera in the right hands!
Of course, there are limitations to these cameras. The biggest is the sensor size – as camera’s get smaller, the size of the sensor inside is smaller. This means that they can’t capture as much light, and so won’t perform as well in darker situations, such as indoors. My main tip would be to learn as much as possible about photography composition – a good start being this article I wrote on composition!
What are you thoughts about GoPro cameras and similar cameras? For what kind of traveler, would you recommend these types of cameras?
There is a definite market for GoPro camera’s, and for their size I think they produce fantastic quality images. They do have limitations of course – you can’t zoom in or out, you can’t change the focus, and they don’t do so well when it’s dark.
However, they are the best option if you’re planning on doing more extreme activities that you want to film or take photos of, and so if you’re planning on anything that is likely to involve water, mud, dirt or snow, these are the best way to capture those moments!
How important are tripods for travel photography and for what types of photos do you typically use them? Any recommendations on tripods that work well for travel?
For landscape photography, I would argue that a tripod is essential. The reason being that humans aren’t very good at staying still. We might think we are, but as soon as you start shooting at lower shutter speeds, the movement of your hands will translate into blurry images.
Once you have a tripod, you can stop worrying about shutter speed and hand-shake, which opens up all sorts of longer exposure creative options. From shooting the stars to long exposure shots of waterfalls, a tripod will really open up possibilities.
I also prefer to use a tripod over a selfie stick for both self-portraits, couples photos, and group shots. It gives you way more control and produces a better photos. Check out this article for more tips on taking couples photos and group photos and this article for taking better solo photos.
In terms of brands for travel, in my recent personal travels I’ve been using the Vanguard brand of tripods, and particularly their VEO range. These are specifically designed for travel, with their carbon fibre model being incredibly light and portable. If you’re on a budget, they also have an aluminum option which is excellent value for money.
Travel comes with its share of risk for cameras and camera equipment and it can be heavy to just lug it around. Any tips on how you protect your equipment and ways to make it easier to carry on your travels?
A good bag can really help and keep you organized. I also recommend changing the strap from the one that your manufacturer provides to something a little more comfortable – either a sling strap or something similar. I have a number of recommended products in terms of bags and straps on my photography gear page.
In terms of protection, I always have a clear UV filter on my lenses to protect them from scratches, and if you have a sun hood for your lens that can also help.
Are there any travel photography books or workshops that you would recommend to someone wanting to take better travel photos?
Absolutely! I haven’t read a how-to book on photography for about 15 years so I don’t have any recommendations for books although there are plenty of how-to books on photography out there depending on a person’s level of expertise.
Books are great, but from my own experience, people learning photography often need a bit more, including video tutorials, practice exercises with expert feedback, and a forum to talk to other photographers. I actually get asked for my photography advice a great deal – popular questions include how to take a better picture, what camera gear to buy, and how to make money as a photographer.
So, I finally decided that the best option would be to write a photography course myself that covers absolutely everything I know about photography, right from the very basics of how a camera works, all the way through to post-processing and monetization.
The course took me months to put together, and consists of 33 lessons over 11 units – over 100,000 words of content! It also features videos of me talking about key photography points, downloadable cheat sheets, and homework assignments that come directly to me for review and feedback – plus lots more!
The course also features exclusive access to a group on Facebook where I set regular challenges and provide personal feedback and encouragement on images, plus I’m always available by e-mail to answer questions. I’ve had incredibly positive feedback about the course so far, and am really proud about how it’s turned out. It is designed for a wide range of audiences, from those who know almost nothing about photography to pros who are looking for advanced advice on things like long exposure photography, astrophotography, and post-processing.
So yes, my advice for anyone looking to take their photography to the next level would definitely be to check my Travel Photography Course out.
Many travelers are not going to invest in expensive camera equipment or take an in-depth photography workshop, but still want to have decent photos to keep for mementos and to share with family and friends. What are three easy things any traveler can do to take better photos?
First there are some essential things, and people must get the basics right to capture good images! Things like holding your camera steady and making sure your horizon is level, a minor detail but one that can ruin an otherwise great shot. I’d also suggest learning how to properly operate your camera, and what all those buttons and dials really do, so you can get yourself out of auto and start taking more control over your shots. Here are some additional tips:
One – Learn the basics of composition, including the rule of thirds, leading lines, use of color and symmetry.
Two – Take your camera with you everywhere and take more photos. Practice makes perfect!
Three – Spend some time editing your photos after you’ve taken them. Even a few minutes spend adjusting a photograph can reap tremendous benefits in terms of the final image. To get the most out of your images, you’ll also want to shoot in RAW mode to have more control over your editing. Even if you don’t edit your RAW files now, most cameras will let you take photos in both jpeg and RAW formats. This way you can save the RAW files and be able to use them in the future as you learn more about photography editing.
For those amateur photographers out there who want to get to your level, what tips to you have for them?
Photography is a tough game to get into, like any creative pursuit. Really, you need to spend a lot of time practicing and learning your craft, as well as considering how to market yourself and what sort of photography you want to be doing. I’d suggest keeping at it, persevering, and believing in yourself. Submit your work to competitions, promote yourself on social media, and try to get your name out there.
Tell us a bit about editing and post-processing of photos. How important is post-processing in your opinion?
Post processing is really important after one learns the ins and outs of their camera and has general composition rules down. I’d say at least 50% of my photography effort is dedicated to post-processing rather than actually capturing images. The digital tools available today are fantastically powerful, and the creative possibilities are almost endless.
You might hear people saying that post-processing is somehow cheating. This is nonsense. All photos are processed. If you shoot in JPG mode, then the camera is handling the processing. I’d suggest shooting in RAW, and taking control of the editing process yourself.
What type of software do you recommend for photo editing? Are there ways to quickly edit photos from our phones?
The industry standard for photo editing is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, although this can be a bit overwhelming as a beginner. Still, I’d recommend it if you are willing to put a bit of effort into learning how to use it – again, there are lots of tutorials online to get you going. But the importance is to edit so any photo editing program you may have on your computer will work and some cameras come with a free editing software.
For mobile editing on my phone, I use Snapseed. It’s an amazingly powerful mobile phone editing app which will allow you to significantly improve your photos. It’s intuitive, and best of all, entirely free. Available for both Android and Apple phones, as well as many tablets. Adobe Lightroom is also available for phones.
I know that composition is a very important element of photography. Could you tell us a bit about this and some basics about how travelers can use some of the rules of composition to get better photos?
Composition is all about creating photos that are pleasing to look at, based on the patterns and structures that the human brain finds pleasing. There are some guidelines to composing great photos – shortcuts if you will – that will help you take better photos very quickly.
The most important of these in my mind is the rule of thirds. This is where you break your photo into three equal parts, either vertically or horizontally, and put different subjects into the thirds. So for example, with a shot of a landscape, you might have one-third land and two-thirds sky. Or you might put a person standing in the right third of the image, and empty space in the left two-thirds. Most cameras allow you to overlay a grid on the screen to help you compose better photos, following the rule of thirds.
Some other compositional rules to consider include the use of color, leading lines and framing. This would be a whole post, which I have in fact already written, check out this post on composition to learn more!
How does time of day and weather play a role and affect how you take photos when you travel? What are some tips you have for taking photos in less than ideal light and weather conditions?
Time of day is really important for photography, because the light changes a great deal through the day. It is even more important for travel photography as much of it takes place outdoors.
The best times to shoot are around sunset and sunrise, the so-called “Golden Hour” and the “Blue Hour”. The Golden Hour is when the sun is still in the sky, with its proximity to the horizon resulting in light that is much more yellow in tone than during the rest of the day. The Blue Hour is when the sun has gone below the horizon, and the light has a wonderful blue tone.
During the rest of the day, and particularly around midday, the light can be much less flattering to your photos. The overhead light results in images that seem a lot flatter, with high contrast and colors that will seem to be faded. If it’s bright, maybe think about shooting silhouette shots. Or, head to the shade, and take advantage of a more diffuse type of light.
Shooting in the shade to avoid high contrast shots and doing more indoor shooting during the middle of day are ways to avoid unflattering midday photos. However, you have to work with what you have and still take that photo of the beautiful church or statue and you can also fix it up with some editing in post processing.
Of course, bad weather can also make it difficult to shoot and gray clouds, snow, and rain can make for difficult shots. If it’s stormy, incorporate the weather into your shots. For example, I love to shoot street scenes when it’s raining – you can get some lovely reflection shots with the rain, or focus on colorful umbrellas. Also be sure to protect your camera gear against rain, snow, dust, and sand!
Selfies may now be the most common type of photo shot by younger people, although the average selfie is pretty terrible from what I see on Instagram. Thoughts on selfies, and the best way to get a great selfie?
I have to be honest, I’ve not really embraced the selfie revolution! However, we have recently gotten a self stick to take couple photos (we specifically like this selfie stick model) although we don’t use it very often. But in some circumstances a selfie stick may be the best solution.
My tips, whether you are using a selfie stick or just your arm, would be the same as for any other photo – consider the composition of the photo and the story you are trying to tell. Hold your arm out as far as you can and try to hold the phone or camera as still as possible. You can always fix small issues (e.g., editing out your arm or straightening the photo) with some quick editing. A GoPro on a selfie stick can create some interesting effects.
If you are looking for a more professional photo, I’d recommend using a tripod and a camera with a timer if you can. Or more simply just ask a stranger to take a photo of you.
You can find more tips for taking solo photos and taking a better selfie here.
Millions of people take photos of iconic places like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Using the Eiffel Tower as an example, what are some ways someone could go from an average shot to a great travel photo?
It’s almost impossible these days to get a “different” shot of the Eiffel Tower, given how many photos of the landmark have been taken! The key is creativity – maybe try shooting from an unusual location, or from a different angle. You will take a better photo that most just by considering the rules of composition, thinking about your foreground, midground and background, and then spending a little time in post-processing.
Honestly, I have found that people love just about any photo of iconic places like the Eiffel Tower, but it pays to stand out from the crowd as a professional photographer.
Finally, could you share one final tip that travelers can use to elevate their travel photography skills?
Practice! There’s no shortcut for this one I’m afraid. Skills take time to develop, and there’s no magic answer to becoming a brilliant photographer overnight. Keep at it though, and you’ll start to find yourself improving in your travel photography. As Henri Bresson said, your first 10,000 photos are the worst!
That concludes our interview with Laurence, so hopefully you picked up some tips for improving your own photos!
We hope that you found some of this travel photography tips helpful! Do you have a travel photography question for Laurence or a question about gear, recommended software, or his online photography course? Just leave it as a comment below and we’ll be happy to answer it. Also feel free to share any of your own tips you may have for those wanting to take better vacation photos!