Sean Bagshaw's Top Twelve Totally
Tricky Travel Photography Tips

For anyone who likes to take photos, travel photography is likely to be one of your favorite and yet most photographically challenging endeavors. It is natural to be artistically inspired when visiting exotic locations, ancient cities, new cultures and areas of natural and scenic beauty. Additionally, for many of us, vacation is one of the few occasions we have the spare time and energy to get the camera out. However, the very nature of traveling offers up a host of challenges that often stand in the way of capturing great images, including but not limited to jet lag, language barriers, food poisoning, getting lost, over drinking, hostile locals and lost/stolen gear (my father in law had his camera gear taken at gun point in Mexico!). In the end, there are few things more disappointing (or excruciating to your family and friends) than going through hundreds of out of focus, poorly exposed, blurry and lackluster photos from your trip of a lifetime.

While I'm not able to travel to far away destinations as much as I'd like, and far less often than some more dedicated professional travel photographers I know, over the past ten or fifteen years I have still managed to take my share of bad travel photos. Fortunately, all that trial and error has allowed me to develop some skils and tricks that have vastly improved my chances of bringing home images that don't leave my family looking for a way to weasel out of “Dad's slide show night”.

Idealistically, good travel photos will convey the essence of your travel experience, allowing others a window to grand landscapes and cityscapes, people and customs, cultural events, architecture, and even the trials and joys of being “on the road”. The following are 12 tips (no relation to 12 step programs) that I use to ensure that I bring back the best possible images from my time spent in the field. I hope they will bring you much success and photographic acclaim the next time your travels inspire you to bust out the camera.

  1. Don't get too wrapped up and weighted down with gear when traveling. Less can be more. If you are planning a once-in-a-lifetime African photo safari, by all means pack the 600mm lens that requires its own rolling suitcase. If you get hired to photograph swimsuit models on a beach in Tahiti, make sure to pack your lights, reflectors, make-up kit and air brush. Otherwise, leave that stuff at home. For each trip I look carefully at my equipment and try to take only what I am sure I will use. For me, the ideal balance between having what I need and not being a slave to my gear means taking a camera body, one or two zoom lenses to cover a range of focal lengths, batteries, flash memory cards, a few filters, a cable release, a flash unit and a tripod. In some cases I end up taking more gear as a professional requirement, but when I do, it rapidly complicates things. Many do quite well with far less and I have taken some great photos on family trips when all I had was a small point and shoot camera and a light tripod.

  2. Carry your photo equipment with you on the plane. Whether you take a pocket camera or a full photo backpack, make every effort to have it fit within the carry on luggage dimensions. It might be tempting to check your camera, thinking that the photos won't happen until you reach your destination. However, I don't like the odds of letting others be responsible for my equipment. I can always replace clothing and other items along the way, but replacing lost, broken or stolen camera gear is always a hassle, and sometimes even impossible during a trip, especially if you are out of the country. Besides, if you have your camera with you, you can take advantage of the photo ops that occur in airports and out the plane window right after take offs and before landings.

  1. Make time to photograph on your own. I'm often by myself or with another photographer when I travel, so I don't usually have to worry about this. But on family trips, or those I take with non-photographers, I tend to do more quick snap-and-go photos when with the group and save the time consuming and self-absorbed photo hunting for when I can get away by myself for an hour or two. My ability to focus, explore and think creatively is much better when I'm on my own and my family really appreciates not having to sit on the sidewalk for 30 minutes while I wait for the light to be “just right”. For me the best times to get away are early in the morning before everyone else is up, or later in the evenings when I can go back and revisit places that I might have seen with the group earlier in the day. If I'm in a city I also go out for some night photography if I haven't passed out from too many margaritas. The great thing about the morning/evening solo photo jaunts is that, in addition to putting in some quality photography time, this also happens to be when the light is the best for photography anyway (see #4 below).

    I have never been one for taking guided tours, but I know that many people like to travel this way. I imagine that (unless it is specifically billed as a photo tour) photography on a tour would be very challenging since you don't control the schedule and the itinerary may leave little time for exploring and taking photos. In this case I would employ some specific photo techniques that would allow me to make the most compelling photos possible while on the move in a group (see #9).