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Our beginner’s guide to travel photography

About this time two years ago Mim invested in her first DSLR, a Canon 70D. She had been around cameras and darkrooms for her whole childhood; both her grandma and mother are photographers, yet never had the means to invest in her own DSLR. So the excitement which overcame her when she opened “her baby” was infectious. Naturally, I (Mark, who had barely seen a DSLR to this point), became curious in Mim’s new love and began my own tentative steps into photography.

At almost every opportunity, we both would head out to explore the streets and landscapes in and around Melbourne, photographing anything that took our fancy. Mim used her knowledge to try to educate; “if you lower the shutter, more light will enter the sensor, and the photo will be overexposed”, all the while trying to stress the importance of composition. It took me a good six months to understand the basics, but hours of reading, YouTube tutorials, and practice eventually had me on a similar level to Mim.

A year travelling around the world, photographing all manner of subjects day to day, from portraits to landscapes, markets to monuments, has us extremely comfortable on a DSLR, to the point we’re now employed for our travel photography skills.

Read more | What’s in our camera bag

Our journey through photography isn’t dissimilar to a lot of professional photographers we know, and we’ve slowly worked out that the most important ingredients for taking amazing travel photos is passion, persistence and patience.

It’s been a long journey, but one which we feel isn’t impossible for any aspiring photographers or bloggers out there. If you’re looking to take the next step in your travel photography game, then follow our simple travel photography tips for beginners.

OUR EASY TO UNDERSTAND TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE FOR BEGINNERS 

LEARN THE BASICS OF PHOTOGRAPHY

Do you understand your aperture from your shutter? Manual from auto? Nope? No need to worry, because neither did I until two years ago.

Whether you’ve got a new camera, or an old hand me down, the basic principles of photography are the same:

SHUTTER SPEED

You might have heard photographers say that if you can master your understanding of shutter speed, you can get seriously creative with your travel photography. But what actually is it?

Simply put, shutter speed is the length of time a camera shutter is open to allow light onto the camera sensor. In effect, the longer the shutter is open, the more light that gets let in, and vice versa.

If you’ve set your camera to a fast shutter speed, which you probably should during daylight (or your camera will automatically adjust if shooting in Auto), it will freeze the action completely. Using a fast shutter is great when photographing moving objects, such as human, animals, transport etc. without motion blur.

If the shutter speeds is slow (1/40 or under), moving objects will be blurred, as the object you’re photographing will move in the time it takes the shutter to ‘fire’. For the most part, you’ll only need to use a slower shutter speed at night, when the sensor needs more light to expose the image correctly. In some cases, this provides a great effect, but most of the time this isn’t the desired result.

Shutter speed is probably the easiest of all settings to understand and manage.

In standard light conditions, a shutter speed of 1/200+ is normal, while it’s advisable to not drop below 1/40 without a tripod, as the image may be blurry.

APERTURE/DEPTH OF FIELD

Aperture is a hole within the lens through which light travels into the camera body. Without going into too much detail, the smaller the aperture, the more of the scene is in focus; f9 – and above is generally a good mark. A larger aperture will make the focus point sharp, with parts farther or closer to the scene blurry, this is generally f4 or under. Aperture is generally dependant on the lens, but most standard lenses will have an f-stop range of f4 – f22.

It’s worth noting that, the lower the aperture, the less light that enters the camera. This will generally result in a darker image, so to let more light in, the shutter speed will need to be lowered as a result. On the flipside, the higher the aperture, the more light will be let in the camera. Therefore, the shutter speed will need to increase to compensate. To photograph wider aperture (low f-stop) in broad daylight is almost impossible, so keep those creative shots for early morning, late afternoon/evening. That is unless you have an ND filter, which is for another post!

As a general rule, most landscape photography will be taken at around f11 or above as, for the most part, you’ll want all of the subject to be sharp.

Those wanting to get creative will generally use a lower f-stop, such as f2.8, to play with the focused, and defocused areas. We generally use a lower f-stop when taking travel portraits, so the eye is focused on the face, the sharpest part of the image.

We recommend starting your photographic journey by using Aperture Priority mode on your camera. That way, you’ll control the aperture, and the camera will control the shutter speed. This will allow you to get creative and play with various aperture settings, without needed to worry about the shutter speed.

ISO

ISO is the level of sensitivity of your camera to available light. It’s essentially like a fake light, adding brightness to your image when the natural light is low. Due to this, having a high ISO (increased sensitivity) can lead to grain, or noise, to your images.

Quite simply, your ISO should never be over 200 when photographing in daylight. And for the most part, it shouldn’t be over 200 unless you’re photographing at night, or where light levels are low.

ISO in a way should be your last resort – if you’ve made the necessary changes to shutter and aperture, and natural light levels are still too low, bump up the ISO until the scene looks well lit. For most DSLR’s, anything above 6000 ISO will start to produce grain.

For travel photography, if you’re shooting a city at night without a tripod, or in changeable light conditions, like a market, ISO can really help expose your image correctly.

The Common Wanderer - Travel photography tips for beginners

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

If you’ve got the basics down, the next most important thing is practice. You don’t need to be travelling the world full time to get some practice in; just take your camera out at every opportunity and try different things. We’ve both found there was a correlation between our improved skills, and the time we put into photography.

Cities are often a good place to practice, as the scenes are so varied, as is the light. Practice at sunrise and sunset, adjusting your settings until you take a banger; head out at night where there’s little pollution and practice your astro game; and get your friends or family around and shoot portraits (we’re sure they’ll love it).

Once you’ve found your groove, always…

Travel photography tips for beginners

STUDY YOUR FAVOURITE PHOTOGRAPHERS/ INSTAGRAMMERS

There’s not a day that goes by where we’re not studying a photo by one of our favourite photographers, or Instagrammers, wondering how the hell they got some super awesome photo.

Often, it’s taken a lot of time, effort, technical know how, creativity, and some killer equipment. Study it, and try to work out in your mind how that photo was taken. We never condone flat out copying, but try to take a similar photo yourself.

But we often realise we know, and have the skills to get something just as good.

Read our post on who our favourite Instagrammers are.

Travel photography tips for beginners-learn from other photographers

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FIND, AND HANG OUT WITH PHOTOGRAPHERS

Before we left for our epic world over adventure, we went on a Qantas instameet with Instagram legends Jarrad Seng, Hello Emilie, and Paul Pichigan, as well as a host of aspiring photographers. In that one session alone we learnt how to up our composition, creativity and lighting game, information which has never left us.

When we were on the road, we’d seek out local instagrammers and go and shoot. It was the perfect way to see the city from a local’s perspective, and to meet some cool people along the way.

Even today, we’re constantly seeking out photographers to go on missions with, whether it’s on press trips, or on spare weekends in London.

The reason we do this is two-fold. Firstly,  it’s incredibly fun to hang out with like minded creatives, and expand our knowledge.

Secondly, it’s just super fun. We’ve found photographers to be super passionate, adventurous and generally interesting people.

Travel photography tips for beginners

COMPOSITION IS KEY

Whether you use Sony A7Rii or an iPhone, composition is key. In many ways, overall composition is subjective to the photographer, but there are a few simple rules of composition you have to follow to nail your photography game.

STRAIGHT HORIZONS 

Have you ever seen a famous photo where the horizon is on some awful angle?! Nope. There’s a reason for that.

Always make sure your horizon is straight, and if you have no horizon to work with…

SYMMETRY 

If you get them right, symmetrical photos just work. Symmetry is the balance of one half of the image with the other, creating an almost identical mirror image. Symmetry can work in nature or in cities – reflections off water, or glass/mirrors are common examples.

Always try to use straight lines. Symmetrical photos work, so line up your photo based on the lines of your subject. If it’s a tree, or a building, make sure the lines are straight.

VISUAL WEIGHT

Consider where you position your subject in the frame. If you think creatively and put them in different areas of the frame, you’ll potentially create something no one else has. Use the rule of thirds (see below) and think outside the square.

Travel photography tips for beginners-composition is key

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STUDY THE RULE OF THIRDS

The rule of thirds sounds like some annoying maths equation you’re meant to remember from the fifth grade. It is in actual fact a simple photography rule bound by how the composition of your photo is structured.

Simply, the rule of thirds is based on the theory that the human eye naturally gravitates to the intersection points of an image when it’s split into thirds. The rule of thirds divides photos into thirds using imaginary lines (or, lines that exist on your camera viewfinder. Important elements of the composition (the subject) are placed on or near the lines intersection.

Use the rule of thirds to line up and structure your images and you’ll be taking compositionally awesome images in no time.

Travel photography tips for beginners-the rule of thirds

THINK ABOUT LIGHT

Light, or more importantly, the use of light, is a key element to photography that is often overlooked. Good light can be the difference between a good and great photo.

Light allows you to be seriously creative, but for us, it’s still a massive learning curve.

It’s often not advisable to photograph in the broad midday sun as the light is harsh, overblown and the shadows often irregular. There’s a reason why a lot of the best photos you see look golden – most photographers will shoot in the morning or afternoon sun, often known as ‘golden hour’. Golden hour light is soft, and perfect for photography.

Light source is also important, especially when photographing indoors. Find where the light source is coming from and place your subject (if possible) in creative positions to make the most of the light.

Travel photography tips for beginners-the common wanderer

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UNDERSTAND WHAT LENS DOES WHAT

When we first started out, we had a 15-85mm zoom lens, giving us a wide and zoom capabilities. After a while, we decided to invest in a 50mm prime lens to get some nice low depth of field photos. We really struggled to adapt and yearned for the ability to zoom. But the more we used the 50mm, the more we understood it as a lens and the more we enjoyed it. Same goes for our 70-200mm lens, which incidentally is our favourite lens. It took ages to get used to, and changed how we shoot many settings.

There’s a lens to suit every style of photography, from portraits to architecture, landscapes and night-scapes. Spend some time learning each lens does (hire or borrow different ones if you need to) and you’ll begin to really understand and appreciate the creative possibilities photography can give.

Here’s a quick rundown:

PRIME LENSES

Prime lenses are lenses with a fixed focal length (eg. they don’t zoom). They’re usually sharper than zoom lenses, and are ‘faster’ – meaning they’ll have a larger maximum aperture, which enables quicker shutter speeds (by letting in more light).

A typical zoom lens has a maximum aperture of around f/4 at the wide-angle end. A 50mm prime with an aperture of f/1.4 prime lens, is four stops faster (great for low light).

Often brilliant for portrait or street photography, a prime lens makes you think about the shot more, forcing you to be more creative. Primes generally aren’t great for travel photography due to the lack of zoom (and sometimes the weight), but in our minds, they are an essential type of lens in any kit.

Wide primes

Focal ranges great for wide landscapes or cityscapes:  

  • 16mm
  • 22mm

Primes

A typical range of lenses for portrait and street photography include:

  • 35mm
  • 50mm
  • 85mm
  • 100mm

ZOOM LENSES

A zoom lens is pretty self-explanatory – it basically allows the focal length of a lens to be extended. Zoom lenses offer far more focal length than Prime lenses, thus making them far better for travel photography, especially if space is an issue.

Zoom lenses will typically have an aperture of f4, meaning they’re not as ‘fast’ as primes, but depending on the quality of the lens, you should still be able to take creative, low depth of field photos. They’re also known to be a little less sharp, which again only affects cheaper lenses.

Typical zoom lenses include:

Learn more about our gear and what’s in our camera bag here.

Travel photography tips for beginners- lenses

HAVE FUN

Photography should be fun. Sure, it can be a struggle to learn the basics, but even with an iPhone you can have a lot of fun photographing your travels.  

Next time you’re off on an adventure, thinks about the basics above and take your photography game to the next level.

Travel photography tips for beginners-have fun

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Travel photography tips for beginners

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