Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Travel Photography Tips

I’ve been asked more than once lately for a list of tips and techniques for taking good photographs while traveling. I’ve resisted adding my thoughts because there is a tremendous amount of excellent material already available on the web. Just do a search for “travel photography tips” and there you go.

But, if by adding some of the things that I have been taught and those that I’ve learned, I can cut down on the vast welter of indifferent and downright boring photo collections I keep coming across then there may be some use to my thoughts.

Equipment – Let’s get this question out of the way right off the bat. What kind of camera do I need while I am traveling?”

I loathe this question because there is no answer. Your needs, hopes, dreams, etc. for what you get out of your travels are so personal and idiosyncratic that I might have a better chance of answering a question along the lines of, What kind of socks shall I wear?”

Now I realize that my attitude here is not helpful so let me give you some broad guidelines.

If you already have a camera that takes decent pictures and you like using it then use that. It doesn’t matter if it is a film or digital, large or small. If you are comfortable with it then don’t bother with a new one – unless you can spend a few weeks if not months, getting to know the new one before you go. You cannot take good pictures if you don’t like your camera and especially if you don’t know how to use all of its features.

If you have to buy then I would recommend a digital camera.

(Yes I know that film is still superior to digital in many ways and that you can be very creative with film processing and so on, but that debate is for some other time. I recommend that travelers use digital, but if you want to use film then go ahead. Film cameras have been dragged around the world for some hundred and fifty years with outstanding results, so go ahead)

Now, you have a choice; large or small.

Large cameras, the so-called DSLR’s similar in size to 35mm film cameras produce stunning work but if you have an additional lens or two, some small accessories, ac adapters, filters, a flash, then you run the risk of looking like a Sherpa headed up a mountain with the expedition’s monthly food supply.

Large cameras also attract the attention of thieves which is okay as long as you are religiously diligent about keeping your equipment secure at all times.

Which brings me to two really useful security practices.

  • If you put your camera bag down on the ground, put one of your feet through a shoulder strap. This stops the stoop, grab, and run thief.
  • Keep the camera strap looped around part of your body or double loop it around a wrist.

While on the subject of straps here is something you must do if you have those kind of camera straps that are emblazoned so boldly with the name Nikon or Canon, or any other name.

Throw them away.

Do not use branded camera straps. They say to robbers, “Hey! Come steal me! I am worth a lot of money”

In fact, I make it a practice to remove all photographic brand names from all of my equipment, either by unpicking the stitching if it is a camera bag logo or covering up the Nikon name on my camera and lens bodies with duct tape.

I don’t go as far as some professionals who go to work on their hugely expensive bodies and lenses with sandpaper and dabs of paint to make their equipment look worthless, but the principle is sound.

Which brings me to small cameras, the unfortunately named Point and Shoots.

The Canon Powershot 110 - a superb camera

A superb line of cameras that are compact enough to stuff into the front pocket of a pair of jeans and carry everywhere all the time.

I always, at all times, carry a Canon PowerShot in a pocket. Canon. All of the other manufacturers also make palm sized digital cameras that rival if not exceed the capabilities of entry level DSLR’s. The digital quality of these things is amazing and for anywhere from 200 to 500 dollars you can have an inconspicuous shot taker that will give you gallery sized prints. And, because they look just like the 60 dollar Point and Shoots you can buy in any drugstore or even corner store, you will not be a target for thieves.

Ultimately, if you are going to be doing a lot of traveling on your own and you have any doubts about being able to properly look after your camera gear, then get something like a Canon S95/100/110 or anything even roughly similar from other manufacturers and use that. The results will be great.

So, gear aside . . . follow these principles.

Do not, under any circumstances, use the digital zoom feature.

If the camera allows it, disable it permanently. Only use the optical zoom. Digital zoom ruins pictures irretrievably. When you get home you will be able to use the superior picture zooming and cropping feature or your photo processing software which will do a better job. Using the camera digital zoom means you are deliberately shooting a crippled picture.

Which leads me to something that the brilliant Robert Capa, the war photographer, famously said,

“If your photographs are not good enough it’s because you aren’t close enough.”

Even if you have a zoom lens, always try to get closer to your subject. The results will be superior. This is particularly effective if you pull your lens back to wide angle and move closer.

Get low or get high but don’t take your picture from your normal standing position. The blandest of snapshots can be dramatically improved by dropping the camera to within a  few inches of the ground or by shooting from a high angle.

Think about the background in the picture. The brain is really very good at Photoshopping what it sees which explains why you are always so surprised to see when you get back home and display the wonderful portrait you took of a peasant in the Albanian hills a power transmission tower growing out of her head. Really work on this and be very suspicious of any photo composition you see in the camera that looks too good.

If you are not a well experienced photographer then one of best ways of improving your photographs is to compose them by using the rule of thirds. There are four spots in any image where if you position the center of interest of a picture; the peasant’s eyes, the mountain peak, the cavorting sea lion, etc., the result will be vastly more pleasing than the county sheriff’s booking photograph technique.

The spots are located one third of the way in from each edge of the image. Some cameras display this grid as a picture taking option. If you know what you are doing you can break this rule but if all you ever did was to follow the rule of thirds people would still call you an outstanding photographer.

If there is a postcard of the place you are thinking of photographing then buy the postcard and forget the picture. Really, there is no point in taking pictures that everyone else is taking. Unless you can get to the Taj Mahal at four in the morning as a murder of crows streams across the face of the full moon rising behind the minarets while star light reflects off the pool then don’t bother, just buy the postcard.

Get in the habit of periodically turning around while you shoot.

A magpie sits on the wing of a twin engine turboprop

Sometimes it pays to turn around when photographing an airshow to discover other pilots


It truly is remarkable how often you will see an unexpected photo when you turn your back on the running of the bulls in Pamplona, or the Pope’s procession in St Peter’s Square. Turn around and really look.

Olympus-voice-recorderTake notes, either in a notebook or into a digital recorder, of what, where and when. I have really remarkable photographs of people and places that I haven’t the vaguest idea of whom or whence. You don’t have to be elaborate. Just “Outskirts of Cairo, the Pizza Pizza across from the pyramids”, “Joe Bloggs and unnamed local bimbo, western Macedonia, Tuesday”

Throw out your pictures. Seriously now. Whenever you get a chance while traveling and certainly when you get home, go through your photographs and delete every one that is out of focus, pointless, dumb, a duplicate, or is flawed in some way. I aim for two or three keepers out of a hundred but I know others who are pleased with one out of three hundred. And nobody beats National Geographic Magazine which may illustrate one article with 15 pictures selected from the 12,000 that were shot.

Not only will crap photographs clutter up your computer but even worse, you may be tempted to post them on line and urge your friends to look at them. Please don’t do that – it is an affront to nature. Delete the crap, all of them.