If you read my blog, then you probably know that travel and photography are my passions, and I write about both of these subjects quite extensively. My love for travel fuels my passion for photography because I have a deep-rooted desire to document all of the wonderful and beautiful places that I visit. But it isn’t enough to just have a passion for travel photography. In order to be a successful travel photographer, you need to know how to approach the craft to be successful.
In this article, I am going to lay out ten simple rules for you to follow in order to be a successful travel photographer. Following these simple rules won’t guarantee you success, but I can ensure you that not following these rules will set you up for failure. If you learn these rules, work on following them as you are on the road shooting, and have a passion for what you are doing, then you will be ahead of the curve.
Spend the Time
One of the most, if not the most, important skills that you will need to learn in order to be a successful travel photographer is patience. I cannot stress enough how important patience is to travel photographers. It is something that can mean the difference between going home with the shot of a lifetime or going home completely empty-handed. It’s something that I really struggled with when I first started getting into travel photography and it is something that I am still working to improve upon to this day.
Now, you may have noticed that I used the word “skill” instead of “trait” when I mentioned patience. This wasn’t a mistake. While patience most certainly is a trait that some people possess more of than others, when it comes to patience and travel photography it really is a skill that you learn and continue to sharpen as you progress in the trade. You need to be willing to spend the time sitting and waiting for the weather conditions or the lighting to be right for your shots. If you aren’t willing to put in the time and be patient then you are leaving an awful lot of your photography up to chance. If you do that, more often than not you aren’t going to get the quality of shots that you want.
As you become more-and-more experienced, you will learn when you will need to be more patient and when it pays more to cut your losses. For instance, when I was in Zermatt, Switzerland I really wanted to get some great shots of the Matterhorn. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Zermatt the Matterhorn was covered in fog. I spent hours staking out my preferred vantage point waiting for the conditions to be right to get the shot I wanted, only to be left disappointed that day. Instead of being discouraged, I was back at it again the next day and finally got the shots I was waiting for. In this case, patience really paid off for me.
If you want the pictures that you take to mean something to others, then the pictures you take should mean something to you. I know this sounds like common sense, but you would be surprised at how difficult this can be to keep in mind while you are taking pictures during your travel. Too often we get caught up in capturing what we have seen other people capture online and what we think other people would like to see.
Your photography is supposed to tell a story about your travels and your experiences. If you aren’t true to yourself, then you aren’t really telling your story. Trust me, this can be painfully evident in the photographs that you take. The best way to make sure you capture your story in your photographs is to make sure your shots are authentic.
When you are traveling, learn to be on the lookout for those impromptu moments that you can capture that show how people live, what is important to a community, and the places that are special to people. These impromptu, spontaneous images will often end up being the most powerful images that you capture during your travel. These are the images that will tell your story of your travels.
For instance, when we were driving back to Arusha from the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, we stopped off in a Maasai village to learn about how they lived and to get to know their customs and traditions better. One of the most memorable moments for me was when they did a dance to greet us to their village. The images that I captured of that dance were some of the most moving images I took on my trip.
Do Your Research
While it is important to make sure the photographs you take when you travel are authentic, that doesn’t mean you should go into your trip without doing any sort of research on the location(s). In fact, doing the right amount of research before you travel can actually help you take more authentic photographs. If you are familiar with the local customs, how people live, and which places are the most important to people, then you will be in better position to capture these things in the pictures you take.
Doing the right research can also give you some important information on the best ways to capture the moments you want to capture on film. For instance, the proper research can give you some valuable information on cultural festivals you should attend, the best vantage points to capture important landmarks, the necessary equipment you will need to have with you to capture the photographs that you’d like to capture, and how to find the best light for your photographs.
Before I went to Tanzania, I did quite a bit of research on the area and decided pretty early on that I wanted to capture some great shots of Mount Kilimanjaro. It is such an important landmark, not just locally, but worldwide as well. It is the tallest mountain on the continent of Africa, which makes it one of the 7 summits of the world, and holds a certain mystique in the minds of both locals and travelers alike. By doing the proper research before I left, I knew exactly where to go to capture the best images of the mountain and when the best times of day to get the best shots of the mountain. I was still able to capture authentic shots that told the story of my trip, but without the right research, it would have taken me a lot more time and effort to get those shots.
Put Safety First
During my many travels, I have found myself in countless uncomfortable situations while taking photographs. Some of these uncomfortable situations I created myself, and some of these situations became uncomfortable because I was genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of other travelers. No matter where you are visiting, you should always place safety first when you are taking photographs. There isn’t a picture you can take that is worth your life.
For instance, when I was in the Southwest United States this past Spring, we visited the Horseshoe Bend overlook just outside of Page, Arizona. It is an absolutely breathtaking viewpoint of the Colorado River that you can see in the picture I included above. However, if you are familiar with Horseshoe Bend then you know that it is also without any guardrails and isn’t monitored by US National Park Rangers or other staff. For this reason, it can also be a very dangerous viewpoint.
I cannot tell you how many people I saw taking unnecessary risks near the edge of the cliffside to get selfies and to take other photographs. It got so uncomfortable for me to watch that I told my wife that I had to go because I didn’t want to see someone fall to their death. Not even one month later, a man did fall to his death at Horseshoe Bend, and just this week (not even 8 months later) a 14-year old girl fell to her death while visiting Horseshoe Bend as well.
So when you are traveling, it is important to always put the safety of not only yourself but the safety of others as well, first when you are taking photographs. As amazing as that selfie might be, or as great as that shot you want to take might look, it isn’t worth the cost of your life or someone else’s life.
Be Respectful of Other Cultures
One of the best things about travel is the opportunities it provides you to learn about other people’s cultures and ways of life. As a travel photographer, you are blessed with the opportunity to capture these cultures, traditions, and ways of life in images that you can share with others. However, with great opportunity comes great responsibility. If you are going to photograph other cultures, you need to first learn how to respect other cultures.
If you are going to photograph other cultures when you travel, then you must make sure that you are doing everything you can to make sure the photographs are not only legal to take but are culturally appropriate as well. For instance, in most countries, it is unlawful to take photographs of military installments, police officers or military personnel, or to take photographs of customs and border patrol stations. That’s all pretty common sense stuff.
However, it also may be culturally inappropriate to take pictures of certain religious shrines or places of worship or of people in the act of worshipping. If you would like to photograph a cathedral, mosque, or other places of worship, it is always best to ask before you start taking photographs. This is especially true if you are going to be taking pictures of worshipers as well.
In addition to being sensitive to what you photograph, it is also a good idea that you make sure you yourself have dressed appropriately and are acting in accordance with local customs and traditions when you are traveling. You may be required to take your shoes off or be prohibited from wearing casual clothing before entering a house, a restaurant, or place of worship. This is why it is always important to research the places you are going to visit before traveling.
Always Ask Permission
One of the best ways to be respectful to the culture and traditions of the people you are visiting when traveling is to always ask for permission before taking any photographs. Not only is it taboo to take people’s photographs in some cultures, but it is just plain respectful to ask before taking a photograph of someone regardless. You should always make it your practice to ask before taking a portrait shot of someone when you are traveling.
To be extra safe, I would strongly suggest that you carry photography release forms with you when you travel and ask people you want to photograph the people you want to take portrait shots of if they will sign a photo release form for you. Not only are you requesting their consent to take their photograph, but you are then also asking for their consent to use the photographs that you take. I have created a photo release form for you to print if you would like to have some to take with you when you travel.
You won’t need to use a photo release form for every time there is someone in your photographs, but you should use one every time you take a picture that highlights someone in your photograph. For instance, in the picture above I didn’t need to get the consent of all of the people on the boardwalk and on the boats in the canals of Gent, Belgium before taking my photograph. However, when I took some portrait shots at a Masaai village in Tanzania it was appropriate to get consent.
Keep a Journal
One of the easiest rules for travel photographers to implement, but something that is so easily overlooked by photographers that are just getting started, is to keep a journal as you travel. It is so easy to get caught up in your travels and your photography that is common for photographers to forget about documenting their travels for future reference. This may not seem like a big deal at the time, but it can be rather frustrating when you go back thru your pictures in the months and years that follow.
When I first got into travel photography over a decade ago, I was so consumed with making sure I had the right equipment, trying to refine my photography skills and too busy researching and planning my travel adventures to think about documenting what I was photographing at the time. I look back at those early pictures now and I am frustrated by the lack of detail I can provide about what exactly I was photographing.
If you are just starting to get into travel photography, I strongly encourage you to invest in a nice journal and get into the habit of writing down notes about what you saw during your travels, what you photographed, and other information you think will be valuable to you in the future. Believe me, you will be thankful that you took the extra time to do this in the future.
Know Your Gear
I am a very firm believer that the photographer makes the photograph, not the equipment. This is a belief that is reinforced every time I see a stunning photograph taken with nothing more than a phone camera, and that happens more often than you think. Now, I am not saying that good camera equipment cannot make your job as a photographer easier, because good equipment absolutely can. However, what I am saying is that expensive camera gear is not necessary to take great photographs.
So if you are thinking about getting into travel photography, but you are worried about the investment that you will need to make in gear in order to take meaningful photographs, then I am here to tell you that you don’t need to worry about what type of gear you have. Having a passion for travel and photography are far more important.
What you do need is to understand how to use the gear you have. I probably don’t need to tell you that every camera is different, but I am going to anyways. Each make and model of camera, from the most expensive DSLR to the most basic smartphone camera, has its own strengths and weaknesses. Not only will you need to learn how to use your camera, but you will need to learn these strengths and weaknesses if you are to be a successful travel photographer.
Taking travel photographs can be such a rewarding and fulfilling experience. Often times, the subjects in your photographs go to great lengths to make you feel welcome, teach you about their culture, and help you portray your travels in your photographs. This is why I think it is incredibly important to always try and give back to the local communities when you travel. Without their embrace and support, your job as a travel photographer would be infinitely more difficult.
Some great ways to give back are to always try to buy locally, stay locally, and eat locally when you travel. When you are looking for accommodations, make sure you choose a place that is owned by and run by locals. The same goes for choosing a restaurant to eat at and stores to buy gifts and supplies at. The more you support the local merchants and retailers, the more the community with thrive.
Another great way to give back is to invest your time in volunteering. Offer your photographer services to assist a local business or school, or donate some time to assist in other ways. You can also consider donating all of the clothing you brought at the end of your trip. Not only will this greatly help the local community, but it will mean you get to travel much lighter on the way home. Whatever way you decide to give back, you will get a warm feeling of satisfaction when you see how much it is appreciated.
The final rule for travel photographers should be the easiest one to implement but is often the most difficult for some of us. It is important that you remember to always have fun when you are traveling and taking photographs. If you don’t have fun, then that will show up in your work. You won’t be as creative and your photographs won’t be as genuine as they would be if you were having fun as you go.
Make sure you mix things up a bit. Try different photography techniques, even if you aren’t sure they will work out. Try different types of equipment for shooting, even if you aren’t familiar with the equipment. And make sure you get off the beaten path when you travel. Sticking to just the prime tourist locations can stifle your creativity. Make sure you continue to push the boundaries of what you are comfortable with and always try and enjoy what you are doing. If you aren’t enjoying it, then you should try changing things up. Believe me, I know it can be easier said then done when you aren’t getting the results you want, but if you aren’t having fun it will be all the more difficult to get those results.