How to Take Good Photos – What to Look For When Traveling

Most people carry cameras when they travel to record memories of the trip. What you photograph depends upon your interests of course, but it’s fairly common to see photo after photo of the traveling individual or couple or group, but very little about what makes the destination important. When my husband and I spent three weeks in Italy, we realized we only had one photo from the entire trip of us together! We’re glad to have that one photo because we can prove we were there, but mostly, we have photos that tell the stories of the destinations. Good travel photos convey a sense of place and a feel for the culture.

For example, we visited Chongqing- the biggest city in China and one of the biggest in the world with a population of over 33,000,000 people. The story of Chongqing was told not with photos of Mark and me in front of the zoo, Mark and me in front of the bird market, and Mark and me in front of the bus, but with photos of traffic, chaos on the roads, masses of people in intersections. It was told with photos of people on the sidewalks doing all manner of activities such as washing clothes in a tiny tin tub, sorting greens and other vegetables with the food spread out on the sidewalk itself, people sitting at tiny plastic tables, people selling eggs on a corner. The zoo is famous for the pandas, and although I took plenty of panda photos, the people watching the pandas were fascinating, as were the grandmas carrying babies in traditional wicker carriers on their backs, the monks reading about the pandas on huge signs in Chinese characters. All of these were indicative of the people in Chongqing, China, and the flow and pace of the city.

If you are on a tour bus, stay alert and take photos from the bus window – it’s amazing what fine photos you can take through the window of a moving vehicle. You may have to use photoshop or another photo editing program to remove the spots from the windshield, but it can be done. And while you are driving, snap shots of the street signs or landmarks also to help you identify where you were. Shanghai is a city full of gorgeous, modern buildings, and I got photos of most of them through the bus window. If I’d just sat without camera in hand, I would have never gotten those photos, yet all the modern buildings help tell the story of Shanghai.

Besides street or monument signs, be alert for other signs that can tell stories also. One of my favorite photos is a sign in Xitang, a “water city” not too far from Shanghai, that says “The Battery is Retrieved.” The sign conveys a sense of place and culture, certainly, with the Chinese characters, but it also makes me smile. First, the Chinese love slogans and pronouncements. Second, anyone who has tried to put together a toy on Christmas morning knows that the Chinese to English translation can be confusing at best. This tells me that the people are being urged to recycle and this little box with two holes on the front is a receptacle for used batteries. But best of all, when I read THE BATTERY IS RETRIEVED I felt triumphant! I got a huge kick out of it. I thought, hooray! We have it! The battery has been retrieved! Almost like finding buried treasure. That sort of travel photo is amusing to others but certainly brings back a flood of memories to the traveler.

The photos of infrastructure, buildings, people and destinations are important, but pretty photos can convey a sense of place also. For example, we went to Vernazza in Cinque Terre, Italy. Vernazza is one of the five hill towns on the Ligurian Sea. I was sitting by the harbor writing postcards and looked up to see the most beautiful sunset ever. It’s a gorgeous photo and though one can see a sunset anywhere, when I look at this one I am transported right back to the harbor in Vernazza, and the feeling of relaxation I had there washes over me. The “pretty” sunset photo definitely conveys a sense of place.

In contrast, our last night was in Shanghai, a city we loved. I looked out the hotel window and saw that the sun was just about to set. I grabbed the camera, aimed and shot – you know how quickly the sun disappears, so you do have to be fast. The sunset can be just as pretty in a city, silhouetting tall buildings and grimy infrastructure. As a travel photo, it of course evokes this city we loved. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking infrastructure can’t be compelling.

While touring museums, historical buildings, and other sites particular to where you are, take photos of the signs explaining the history, the names of paintings and the artists, and pick up brochures. Having this information is incredibly helpful if you journal or make photo albums. While photos of the signs aren’t travel photos per say, they are indispensable for remembering those things you are sure you’ll remember, but of course, you forget.

You will naturally take better travel photos if your camera is with you, in hand and ready to go. In London, I was walking down a passageway in a tube station (subway). I was in a hurry but I just grabbed my camera – which is always around my neck when I travel – thinking, I need a photo of the interior of a tube station. The great thing about digital camera is that you don’t have to wonder if you are wasting a shot or if it will turn out well. My hasty picture of the tube station interior surprised me. It’s a gorgeous spiral of white tile with green and red highlights, and the perspective makes it looks like a funnel. Besides evoking a sense of place and culture, I think of all the jokes about looking into the light, approaching the light. I think of the movie Poltergeist and Finding Nemo, which satirized “stay away from the light.” So this photograph makes all kinds of things go through my mind, but really, I just love the shape of it all and the stripes and handrail – those little bits of color, and the fact that I was in a tube station in London! It’s so much better than a photo of me standing in front of a tube station, for example. When you are prepared and shoot quickly, you may get surprises.

I hope this has opened your eyes to how you can take interesting photos that convey a sense of place and culture while you are traveling. They are much more interesting to recall and look at than a bunch of people standing in front of each cultural attraction – but don’t forget to take some of those too, to prove that you were there.