Chances are, if you’ve ever tried to document your travels with a camera, you’ve taken some cliché, if not really cheesy travel photos. I certainly have, and I’m embarrassed to show those photos to friends and family after my trips.
In this article (and of course video above), I’ll be giving you my top nine tips to take your travel portrait photography to the next level. Hopefully, we can all capture some shots that we don’t feel the need to hide on our finsta.
1. No Stiff Smiles
No big cheese! We’ve all taken awkward family photos with big forced smiles and they’re as uncomfortable as they are cliché. I’m not saying look like the grumpy dad at Disney on your entire vacation, but loosen up. Try telling jokes or making your subject laugh to get a more natural reaction. This leads us right into Tip 2.
2. Break Eye Contact
Don’t look into the camera, especially with a big cheesy smile. Everyone would rather be on the beach with a mai tai in their hand, but we’re here for Aunt Gertrude’s 102nd birthday, so let’s try to make the best of it. Try capturing your subject looking at the architecture or landscape. Show them truly enjoying the scene, not the camera.
3. Competing Subjects
Pick a subject. One thing that travel photos suffer from is the lack of a subject. Before snapping a photo, pick your subject: What’s the focus of the photo? Whether it’s little Timmy, a building, a landscape, or even a slice of Sbarro pizza, have your person pose to emphasize themselves or the subject. The angle of your camera and depth of field are powerful tools for emphasizing a subject in your photos. Now, let’s dive a little deeper in Tip 4.
4. Environment Interaction
Climb stairs, lean on a rail or wall, sit on a bench, etc. Don’t be an idiot and hop the fence of Buckingham Palace for TikTok clout, but the most boring photos in the world are, “Here is a person… standing in front of a thing.” Get creative, but don’t be that person that ruins it for everyone.
Avoid crowds. This may mean waking up before the average tourist, walking the extra mile, or stumbling upon that hidden gem that no one knows about. Talk to locals if you want to experience something unique off the beaten path. This is a secret to making great friends and finding unique photo opportunities that haven’t been shot to death already.
Golden hour at sunrise and sunset will likely be your best lighting in most cases, but it’s different for each environment. And some places, like Las Vegas for example, truly come alive after the sun has gone down. Pay attention to the light for some truly dynamic images.
In large cities with skyscrapers like NYC, you’ll find great golden hour light on streets that run East & West, while North & South streets will be darker because the sun will be blocked until closer to mid-day.
In addition to lighting, composition is a huge part of what makes any great photo memorable. How you choose to frame your image, the angle, and the height of the camera will tell your audience where to look in the photo. Always be thinking about the rule of thirds, symmetry, asymmetry, keeping your horizon level, and not having distracting elements in your shot. You may find yourself laying on the ground to get the perfect shot, so suck it up buttercup, because in photography, this is the kind of dedication that takes a photo from being just okay to being great.
8. Candid Moments
It sounds easier than it is, but be sure to capture candid moments. This is probably my favorite tip. Not every shot needs to be posed. Capturing your subjects in a journalistic fashion as they explore the environment, will lead to more natural feeling expressions and more genuine storytelling images of your travels. You’ll be taking quite a few more shots, but when the moment and the lighting are working together… that’s a great photo!
9. Put the Camera Down
A counter-intuitive tip here: put the camera down. I have trips that I hardly remember, aside from some photos stashed on a hard drive, because I had my camera up to my face the entire time. I completely missed out on the moments and memories with friends and family, because I was so worried about trying to capture them. And that, Alanis Morissette, is actually irony. Taking the time to enjoy your surroundings will lead to better imagery when you’re not tunnel-visioned through your viewfinder.
Those are my nine tips for taking better travel portraits! Until next time, get out and go shoot!
About the Author: JT Armstrong is an award-winning military photographer and is currently the video director for the U.S. Space Force. He runs the Youtube channel RunNGun Photo that focuses on sharing photography tips, tricks, and hacks. This article was also published here.