How to take the best travel photos for backpackers on a budget
We get it, we’re not all professional photographers with the best equipment money can buy and all the know-how to turn photos into works of art. We know the feeling of going through photos after an entire day with camera in hand, and realising that you need to spend less time thinking you’re Chris Burkard and more time keeping your fingers out of frame. Although these instances can feel discouraging, we’re here to tell you that there’s still hope for your travel photos!
We’ve put together a list of tips, from average photographers FOR average photographers, in hopes of rekindling the fire and giving you the confidence to pick up your photo taking device once again.
Timing is everything. Getting your timing right can be one of the most challenging parts of travel photography because it takes forethought and planning, which is difficult to do when you’re unfamiliar with your surroundings. The timing of when you go out with your camera will impact the type of light you’re dealing with, the amount of people that you need to account for in your photos, and what you actually witness.
If you’re after a beautiful, warm glow in your images, planning to get up early in the morning and be on location during sunrise will yield some beautiful results. If early mornings aren’t your thing or you happened to be out late the night before (you are travelling after all 🍻), then sunset is your next best bet. These periods of glowing skies and soft yellow light are referred to as the “Golden Hour”, and are many peoples’ favourite time to take photos. Once you’ve had your fill of warm light and bright highlights, you might also want to switch it up and chase the “Blue Hour”; we promise it isn’t as ominous as it sounds. This period of time is shortly before the sun rises over the horizon, or shortly after it sets. Since the sky is darker, you’ll notice that the shadows in your images will be emphasised and offer some great contrast with any highlights in the frame.
📷: Luca Bravo
Although sunsets and evening light are beautiful, sometimes the early bird really does get the worm. In our experience, it’s worth getting up for the early morning Blue and Golden hours because you usually beat the other travellers to the famous landmarks and vivid landscapes. It’s also an amazing way to connect with your surroundings and go at your own pace, rather than trying to rush around and line up the perfect photo before someone steps in front of you.
📷: Tim Scharner
All this talk about blue and golden hours can make it seems like those are the only times you can get great photos, but that’s simply not the case. Overcast days offer soft, diffused light that makes it easier to capture details across your entire photo without losing them in shadows or highlights. Stormy days are also amazing for giving your photos a dramatic feel; try including a large amount of sky in the frame to make the photo look “moody”. Chances are you will (hopefully) have some sunny days during your travels as well, keep that camera out! Direct light can be challenging to work with because the highlights are quite bright, and the shadows are equally as dark; which means that detail is often lost while trying to expose for one or the other. A fun way to make harsh light work in your favour is to try and shift your focus to high contrast areas of the scene such as shadows or silhouettes.
📷: Joshua K. Jackson
Basically, what we’re trying to say is that every time is a good time to take photos while you travel, it’s just up to the photographer to research when they have to be on location to get the photo they have in mind. Plus, when things don’t go your way, it’s always good practice to adapt and try to make the most of the conditions (lighting, crowds, etc.); your photos will only get better with practice! Our last trick with timing is to make sure you actually take some time for yourself. All too often we’ve walked through a destination, taken a mountain of photos, and realised that we didn’t take the time to experience our surroundings with our own two eyes. If your travel companions don’t want to wait for you to finish taking photos, it’s okay to meet them at a predetermined spot or encourage them to incorporate themselves into your photos!
Your travel photography will also improve as you learn to use a few different techniques. The techniques are by no means “rules”, but rather, tools that can be used when appropriate to make your photos more impactful.
Framing your subject between elements in the environment will draw attention to it and can have a nice, isolating effect. Get people looking where you want them to!
📷: Vitor Pinto
Rule of Thirds:
A key technique among many photographers is called “Rule of Thirds”, which essentially says that the human brain is attracted to objects that are either in the horizontal or vertical thirds of the frame. So rather than taking a photo of your s/o on top of a mountain in the middle of the frame, try having them standing to the right or left side of the frame and displaying more of the background in the image too 😍 ( maybe just don’t tell them that’s what you’re doing…).
📷: Henry Gillis
Try using lines in the environment to “lead the eye” towards a subject. This technique draws attention to your subject as the viewer follows the line up to them.
📷: Ivan Chen
The best way to describe symmetry is to imagine the photo frame as a seesaw. To have a symmetrical photo, try to weight each side of the frame evenly so that it is “balanced”. You can also play with asymmetry, which is a bit more challenging to get the hang of. Think of asymmetry as only “loading up” one side of the seesaw, there are still objects across the frame but they are not evenly balanced. It really boils down to what you’re trying to capture and what looks best to you!
📷: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos
It’s one thing to stand in front of a gorgeous landscape and take an amazing photo, but learning how to capture images in areas that are initially less stunning is equally as important for your travel photography. This is where positioning comes in, as in where you stand in relation to your subject.
Being in the action is a lot of fun and often yields beautiful results in terms of photos, but switching up where you are in relation to your subject will create variety amongst your photos and increase the chances of getting a keeper! Once you’ve gone around an area, taken some photos, and enjoyed the atmosphere; try stepping away from the action and taking photos from afar, or looking for a vantage point to see things from a higher point of view. Don’t be afraid to take a couple extra steps throughout the day in the name of some good photos!
It’s also easy to catch yourself walking with the crowds, staring at eye-level, and forgetting about the rest of your surroundings. You’d be surprised by how much you miss when you don’t take the time to look around. In busier places it can be refreshing to step off to the side, take a breath, and examine any potential photo subjects that you may have missed on your first walk through. Look up, down, and around – there is potential for photos everywhere. Rather than continuously shooting at eye level, play with getting low angles or resting your camera of different parts of the environment to create a unique look.
📷: Vitalis Hirschmann
The saying goes something like “The best camera is the one you have in your hand”, in an age of smartphones, mind blowing camera technology, and a film revolution, there’s a ridiculous amount of tools you may choose to capture memories. At the end of the day, it really isn’t about how fancy your gear is, it’s about how you use it. Sure, a multi-thousand dollar setup might allow you more creative flexibility or increase the array of conditions that are feasible to shoot in; however, there’s something to be said about learning to operate within the confines of your equipment – you might just need to compromise. Smartphones and smaller cameras can actually have an advantage for travel photography because they are lighter, easier to pack, and are less intrusive because people are used to seeing them.
A tripod is one of the main tools that will make a huge difference in your photos. They come in many different sizes, weights, and price ranges; so it’s important to find one that suits your needs. If a tripod isn’t high on your list of priorities, there are still options to help your images come out crisp and clear. In any given location, look for horizontal spaces that you can rest your camera on (garbage cans, ledges, benches, etc.), anything will be more steady than shooting hand-held. Using a tripod or alternative form of stabilisation will not only yield sharper images, but also allow you to use longer shutter speeds; which creates motion blur, light trails, and lets you lower your ISO – less noise in your images.
Upgrading your camera lenses as opposed to buying a different camera body is another way to increase the quality of your photos. Different lenses will be suited for different circumstances and help you realise your creative vision. You may be tired of reading this but the “best” lens is really dependent on your shooting style and what you’re hoping to create. Lenses can be quite expensive, but there are some budget brands that offer affordable lenses that are decent quality for the average photographer. Your local camera store will be happy to point you in the right direction if you explain to them the types of photos you’re after 🙂. Speaking of lenses, there are a number of clip on lenses that can be purchased for smartphones that won’t improve its performance, but are a fun way to change the type of photos you take. In addition to lenses, polarizer filters can be purchased that cut through the glare of the sun and increase the depth of the colour in your images – highly recommended!
Editing your images can either turn a good photo into a great photo, or become a complete nightmare. The trick is often to be light handed at first, if you make drastic changes to the photo it will likely begin to look unnatural; but don’t shy away playing with different adjustments to give your photos a specific look and develop a style of your own. Many social media platforms include preset filters, but also have editing tools integrated within them that might suit your needs just fine and give you more creative control. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive tool there are many free and paid options, for both phones and computers, that will offer much more in-depth adjustments. Learning to edit your photos will not only help to improve them, but also make less appealing photos more usable; for example, converting high contrast photos during harsh light conditions to black & white can salvage shots that aren’t as grabbing in colour. Using both smartphone and computer editing software gives you more flexibility to edit your photos on the go!
📷: Matthew Ronder-Seid
We aren’t claiming to be professionals here, but we have picked up these tips over years of hands on experience. The simple truth is that there is no trick to taking professional quality photos, nor should that necessarily be the goal of your travel photos. By taking the time to hone your photography skills, you will begin to figure out what works for you and how you like to shoot. These suggestions won’t make you a professional, but integrating some of them into your work definitely won’t hurt! 📸
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