Previous Next
Join a growing community of thousands of travel journalists and develop your skills in travel writing, photography, and film with a course at MatadorU.

EVER GLANCED in exasperation at travel photographs wondering why yours taken of the same landmarks or subjects never turn out as stunning?

Great travel photographs share a few similarities even though their subjects may be as different as a sweeping landscape or a brooding portrait.

“A” for Action

Travel photographs that always work portray some sort of action. It could be a soft glance over a steaming coffee mug or an aggressive rugby match on a muddy pitch. Capturing action in your photographs adds atmosphere that an otherwise straight-on shot cannot.

The same concept can be applied to landscapes. A photograph depicting a lush green meadow can easily transform from boring to interesting if you captured a couple grazing white sheep as well. Including other elements in action into your landscape shots will also add a sense of scale in comparison to their backgrounds.

I could have easily taken a snapshot of the girl walking away, but sooner or later, I knew she’d turn back. Call it the sixth sense, but people subconsciously know when they’re being watched. That’s how some of the more memorable travel portraits are taken.

“B” for Balance

Not “white Balance” which refers to the amounts of red, green and blue (RGB) colors in a photograph, but rather, the process of creating a balanced photo. You’ve probably heard the terms “framing” or “rule of thirds” thrown about in terms of photography.

In a nutshell, it means your travel photograph needs to be symmetrical and aesthetically attractive in the framing of its subjects. Balance can be achieved without putting subjects right in the center of the frame. Using natural frames like arches, doorways or windows can also balance your photographs.

The photo above of two locals taking a break in St. Georges, Bermuda shows how I’ve applied the rule of thirds by shifting them off center to the right side of the photograph.

“C” for Composition

Although “C” alphabetically comes after “B”, composition always comes before balance in travel photography. How you paint a blank canvas or compose a musical piece can be likened to how you compose a photograph. You mentally map out what story you want your photo to tell.

Composition means looking for patterns, textures, angles, vivid colors, placing of your subjects, close-ups, framing, and other visual cues to help tell your story.

I’m using the composition rule of “subject placement” in the photograph above.

At first glance, you will notice the light bulb aligned above his head. As you notice more details, you will see he’s wearing a backpack and is looking towards a plaque on the wall. The story I’m conveying is that he is a traveler in a museum who has been enlightened by what he is reading.

You’ve heard the old cliché, “the devil is in the details.” With travel photography, the strength of the photograph lies in subtle details. Looking for little details that others might otherwise overlook usually completes the story you’re trying to convey with your photograph.

Another composition technique I applied below was looking for “vivid colors” to tell a story. I waited patiently for the Quechua woman below to reach the terracotta-colored wall because I knew her bright blue shirt would pop against the wall once she reached it.

Going back to high school days of art class, we were taught that blue and orange are complementary colors which work well together.

Focus on Photography by Fodor’s explores composition in great detail.

“D” for Depth of Field

In layman’s terms, depth of field means depicting distance between subjects of focus and their backgrounds in your photos. The subject in the foreground is usually sharp and in focus, gradually fading out. According to Cambridge in Color, “Depth of field is the range of distance within the subject that is acceptably sharp.”

The photograph taken in Riga, Latvia illustrates this concept. Fodor’s provides an excellent explanation on controlling depth of field.

“E” for Evocation

The one common trait memorable travel photographs share is that they evoke a sense of time and place without being cliché. Snapping a photo of a monk in front of a wall is exactly what it is – a photo of a monk in front of a wall, but photographing a monk around cultural icons, incorporating shadows, and other angles not only gives you a better photo overall, but can also help viewers get the full story.

At first glance, the picture above depicts a nun walking. But as you look at more details within the picture, you get a full sense of where she is.

She isn’t carrying a bag or other personal effects which suggests she is someplace familiar. The direction and length of her shadow suggests mid to late afternoon, and the Slavic-type text on the walls suggests somewhere in Central or Eastern Europe. So the picture transports you to a monastery or nunnery in Eastern Europe around late afternoon.

* * *

Always remember that a good travel photograph isn’t one that is technically perfect, but one that instantly transports you there.

*From pro photographers to someone just getting started with a DSLR, the MatadorU travel photography course was created to serve a variety of students.

About The Author

Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström

Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström is a MatadorU faculty member and Network contributor. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Vogue, BBC, Fodors.com, and many more. Follow her photoblog at Sweden.se.

  • http://bubblesweb.co.nr Terri

    Very nice article, I’m into photography and want to travel so this helps a lot :)

  • http://www.adventurerob.com AdventureRob

    Nice article, I’d like to add ‘Get the face’ though. In up close photos, you can’t go wrong by capturing a face, 100x better then the back of a head.

  • Ryan

    I’m not an artist myself, nor have I studied it but I always thought blue and orange were contrasting colors (being on the opposite side of the color wheel). Still, I think your photo is fantastic and the combination of those two colors (like red/green or yellow/purple) do result in a stunning view but I’m not sure it’s because they work ‘together’ so much as they are so perfectly far apart from eachother. A blue sky meshing with a green sea shows two colors working together while a red flower in a field of green exaggerates the effect because they seem to work ‘against’ eachother.

    Again, I really don’t know what I’m talking about and I think your article (and of course, your photos) are great. I need all the help I can get when it comes to travel photography but Lord knows I keep trying!

    Cheers

    • http://www.lolaakinmade.com Lola

      thanks Ryan!

  • http://www.redweek.com/ timeshare

    Do you think a telephoto or a wide angle lens is more useful for travel? What zoom range is most useful? I’m looking at the 70-300mm canon lens, but should I buy something with a wider option?

  • Benjamin Baxter

    Wide-angle, easily, and wider is better. There are more narrow alleys than you can shake a stick at, and wide-angle is choice for landscapes.

    Longer lenses are good for crowding detail into a picture of a subject from far away, or for portraits. That’s about it.

  • http://www.yoquiero.info Richard

    Helpful tips, indeed – one can never not have enough in their knowledge base. I found my compact camera (Sony Cybershot) performed pretty good during daylight. Night time shot’s were too noisy and not very nice at all – of course I wasn’t using a flash but I just wanted to see and test the camera out.

    At the end of the day I think that if one is going to travel and spend the time why not try to get the best quality image affordable. While it was fun to shoot with the compact I was left frustrated at the end of the day.

    I believe Mark’s technique and philosophy may differ in some regard but all information like this is invaluable.

    Here’s a video glimpse from our adventure – Photography Workshop in Mexico:
    http://mexi.blip.tv/file/2596320/

  • http://nancythegnomette.com Nancy

    Great article. I’ve become such a fan of your writing and photography Lola!

    I’m just starting to get into photography and recently purchased a Nikon d80 with the kit lens. What’s the next lens you would recommend I buy for getting the most out of my travel photos?

    Thanks!

    • http://www.lolaakinmade.com Lola

      Thanks for the kind words Nancy! The next lens I would recommend is a telephoto zoom lens: 70-300mm or 18-200mm (if you don’t want to carry two).

      Check out this article – http://matadorgoods.com/dslr-camera-owners-3-lenses-you-need/

      I talk about the top 3 lenses you should consider owning. After a telephoto zoom lens would be a nice wide angle lens.

  • http://laurelsadventures.blogspot.com Ms Lala

    Wow, I feel like that silly photo class was nothing compared to your article! Very nice. I like that you talk about the essentials and nothing more. That makes for a great picture

  • http://www.OmnivorousTraveler.com Darrin

    Great tips, Lola! Your photos always tell a story.

    I agree that ‘getting the face’ can make a picture much more striking. But this leads me to wonder: how many travel photographers ask permission to take a close-up? Not everyone wants to have their picture taken.

    When I’m in that situation, I’ll ask and then show the person or people the picture in the viewer afterward. If they work at a street food cart, I’ll buy something from them too. It’s also great to see how a little conversation can warm things up first.

    • http://www.lolaakinmade.com Lola

      Thanks Darrin!. Excellent tips as well.

      Always ask, either verbally or nonverbally by raising your camera, whether you can take a person’s photo whenever you can.

  • http://www.yucatanholidays.travel/ Yucatan Travel

    Awesome post! Great advice for the photography lovers! In Mexico we have a lot of places to take amazing pictures!! Congratulations Lola!

  • AdventuresWeSeek

    great post, thanks for the tips!

  • Kimberly Fisher

    Very helpful, thank you!

From equipment choices to resources on photo editing, here's everything you need to do...
If you're interested in some serious travel photography, you need to have these three...
A selection of standouts from the 2013 Nat Geo Traveler Photo Contest.
Most of my favorite images are a result of hauling my camera further than my competition.
With these simple changes of perspective and equipment, you can capture fresh images of...
Telling a story through photographs requires a balance: people, place, action, and detail.
Since you probably spent hours researching and comparing different digital cameras to...
The pictures that draw me in always seem to have a story behind them. So the question is:...
Print photography magazines are still alive and kicking. Which one is your favorite?