An Eye For Travel

Gear, technique and planning advice to make your best travel photos
Image of Santorini in Greece illustrating the use of a wide angle lens to capture scenic vista.

Santorini. In daytime, the village of Santorini, Greece, is serene and beautiful. Just after sunset, the city lights begin to come to life with a warm glow, and the sky takes a softer light as it presents its most impressive colors. I chose the 24mm range of my mid-range zoom to capture the golden sunset, beautiful village and dramatic clouds.

Creating an expressive photo collection from your adventures requires more than merely the technical elements of photography. To take better travel photos, start with advance planning and strategic decisions on what to bring. You’ll enjoy a well-rounded and more authentic experience by doing a little homework, getting to know your subjects, and conceptualizing how best to photograph them. The places that you travel to and people who you meet become an integral part of the photographic experience by providing fun and enriching memories for life.

An exceptional travel destination deserves your best efforts in order to capture special and memorable photographs. These are my top tips to take better travel photos.

Lens Choice For Travel Photography

Lens choice will help define your subject. I generally consider a wide-angle lens for cityscapes and landscapes. This lens allows me to capture interesting things that may happen within the frame, such as vivid streaks of light from passing cars or the stretch of stunning clouds during a long exposure.

Image illustrating when to use a telephoto lens for travel photography.

Palouse. Choices, choices. Wide-angle lens or telephoto zoom to capture a sweeping vista? I chose to shoot with a Nikon D500 and the AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR to isolate part of the vast rolling hills, shooting late in the day for definition of shadow and light in the Palouse. At 410mm on the DX-format D500, my equivalent focal length was 615mm.

A fast mid-range zoom lens can be handy for candid shots—and just about everything. I’ve used it for street photography and detail shots for a more striking image. A telephoto zoom is the perfect lens for bringing in the detail or for isolating a subject or just bringing in the subject a little closer. I used one for isolating and composing the vast landscape of the Palouse, creating a scene where the composition becomes more personal to the viewer. This lens is equally great to photograph travel portraits. It’s an excellent lens for capturing reflections on cars and windows. Each lens has a unique function that it does well, making it beneficial to carry a few basic lenses when you are hitting the road. If you have a zoom lens, bring it.

A fisheye lens is by far one of the most fun lenses I’ve used. With my Nikon Z 7, I use an AF-S FISHEYE NIKKOR 8-15mm f/3.5-4.5E ED zoom lens, which means I can use it for circular images as well as for rectangular. Either way, it’s a different look and can add a little spice to your travel images. With the lens pointed straight up toward the sky, I can capture a 360-degree range of fascinating architecture or colorful trees in a national forest. This lens gives you a highly unique perspective that isn’t possible with other lenses. If you enjoy the pursuit of original and highly creative photos, consider adding this lens to your gear bag.

Photo illustrating a creative technique for framing a subject in your photos.

Transamerica. I felt that a creative composition of shooting through the bench to capture the Transamerica building and pier lights in San Francisco would make for a far more interesting story. I thought this would be especially nice during the blue hour for the rich color in the sky and balanced light throughout the composition.

If you want to boil it all down to a single lens for a day, a 50mm lens is an excellent choice. They are fast, small lenses with tremendous potential. I have to admit, when I first got one, I was disappointed as it just seemed it wasn’t very interesting compared to other lens choices. However, I found that the true value and beauty of this lens is how you use it. If I get close to my subject, and I’m shooting using a wide aperture, the background will be softly blurred, and with any points of light in the subject, the bokeh is exquisite. This is a great walk-around lens in the city because I don’t generally need a tripod. It’s also great to use with large glass prisms for creative and special effects. It’s a light lens with a fun factor benefit, offering multiple uses.

Filters For Travel Photography

When I come across a great subject, I consider how I can best capture it. This includes anything from lens choice to a shooting technique that will enhance the subject. I try to put myself at the time and place that allows the best opportunity for good light or the best clouds, if any. Water features provide a chance for capture as a soft blur; cloud movement creates a look as if the clouds had just been painted across the sky. Conveying a sense of motion brings the photo alive, moving the photo from a snapshot into more of a work of art. You can also do this with the help of a filter.

My filter gear includes a variety of neutral density filters, which allow me to control light. I use these either to better balance light or for creative control, holding back light to extend shutter speed. I carry a 3-stop, 6-stop and 15-stop ND filter, plus a 2-stop graduated and 2-stop reverse graduated ND filter.

Sometimes a polarizer is needed, so I keep that handy as well. My go-to filter for a creative punch of color is a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer that can really make a nice difference with certain shots. Experiment and be bold.

Image illustrating the use of a neutral density filter to permit a long exposure.

Valensole Plain. Upon arrival in the lavender fields early one morning, the clouds filled the sky with a gentle motion that inspired me to use my 15-stop neutral density filter. During the course of six minutes, the clouds took on magical patterns, providing an interesting backdrop for an aging farmhouse and colorful lavender.

Try Adding A Sense Of Motion

One of my favorite shooting techniques involves a little planning and patience, but that strategy results in the creation of most of my favorite images. I like to make images that convey a sense of motion. This could be shooting streaks of light and colorful blurs from vehicles that pass by over the course of several seconds. Or it might mean setting up my camera to record voluminous cloud formations that are evolving over a five- to six-minute time span. I find it fascinating to record what happens over time in a single image. It changes the dynamics of a shot and creates unique, one-of-a-kind imagery. Plus, it has the benefit of removing people from your shot in busy cityscapes.

I look for potential opportunities for interesting weather during my travels and plan to make the most of any clouds. For shots that range from several seconds to several minutes, I use a cable release to prevent camera shake as I press the shutter. You can also think about both freezing the action and recording the action at a slower pace. This will give you a variety of options to portray the subject. Using both a wide-angle lens and a zoom lens and freezing/blurring the action makes for endless very different and exciting visual narratives.

Another option to work with when you have a great subject is to shoot video or time-lapse. Even short sequences can add to your travel story. In some locations, I’ll set up my camera for time-lapse and shoot with my second camera to get detail shots or other shots of interest. I absolutely love the slow-motion video setting in my Nikon Z cameras. Just a few seconds of recording can really come together for an interesting story.

An alternative for fascinating visual narratives is to shoot multiple exposures. This can be as simple as a double exposure that tells twice the story or something as fluid as 10 exposures creating an image that takes on an entirely new meaning. This technique can be especially engaging as you blend silhouettes with interesting textures, such as fall leaves. I used to do this in post; however, most cameras can capture and blend multiple exposures, creating wonderful photographic opportunities.

City lights at night in Venice illustrate the creative effects of shooting during the "blue" hour.

Venice. The blue hour is one of my favorite times to shoot. The light is balanced in the scene, and the color of the sky takes on a rich blue color. City lights begin to glow, adding drama to the composition.

Shooting After Dark

Shooting at night can be magical, providing many compositions with striking light and shadows. I try to take advantage of every low-light opportunity. A familiar and busy daytime location may be devoid of people at night, and a cityscape lit with dramatic light can take your street photography to the next level.

When I find locations that look promising for a night shoot, I will make a snapshot, noting the address to revisit. Or, after my sunset and “blue hour” shots, I may set out to explore a city. This is a great time to use the Picture Control Monochrome setting in my Nikon Z 7 (or a similar setting on your camera). The photos look vintage in black-and-white, and this style can make an image feel timeless.

On the flip side, I’ll arrive one to two hours before sunrise to take advantage of pre-dawn light. I shot the lifeguard towers in Miami Beach while it was still dark. I knew the towers would be illuminated over time by the city lights, and with a multiple-minute exposure, it would look amazing. How to focus in the dark? I pointed my flashlight at the tower, focused on that point of light, and let my camera record the magic during several minutes of time. The resulting image becomes surreal: no people, the rough ocean waves are smooth, and clouds are painted across the sky during my several-minute shot. Rest later—shoot when you get the best light conditions.

Illustration of using ambient light to take better travel photos.

Miami Beach. I wanted to try something different with a subject that is well photographed by anyone traveling in the Miami Beach area. I used the illumination of the city lights behind me over a four-minute period to provide ambient lighting for the lifeguard tower. Interestingly, the tower was basically invisible through the lens. Experimentation is one of the keys to creativity. I love trying something different and seeing what happens!

Find A New Angle

Changing your perspective can have a big impact on your photographs. It’s easy to shoot from eye level—how much more interesting might it be to place the camera at ground level or shoot from an elevated position? For those close-to-the-ground shots, I like using a Platypod, which is basically a flat tripod. It’s the easiest tripod to carry with you while traveling, and, depending on your subject, it might be the only tripod you’ll need. I use it with a Really Right Stuff ballhead, making my camera totally secure. I like this ground-level vantage point paired with a wide-angle or fisheye lens to capture all the interesting detail throughout the image.

Alternatively, I’ll look for rooftops or hilltops to capture interesting vistas. One of my favorite images came from ending up smack in front of a beautiful 15th-century cathedral; however, it was all too much for my wide-angle lens, and it wasn’t telling the story I had in mind. With a little scouting, I found a rooftop café that provided the perfect view not only of the cathedral but also the square in front and the lovely evening sky beyond. This picture in Santiago de Cuba has always been one of my favorites.

Image illustrating finding a unique perspective on a subject.

Santiago de Cuba. During scouting, I found myself at my destination but way too close to capture the story I had envisioned for this beautiful 15th-century cathedral. After a little research, I noticed a nearby rooftop café that provided the perfect vantage point. From this high-perspective location, I could include the cathedral and a dramatic sky after sunset.

Consider Infrared

I’m a big fan of infrared photography, and I’ll bring my infrared camera for the chance to shoot a familiar subject in an innovative way. Infrared is phenomenal with landscapes. Leaves are highly reflective of infrared light and show up as nearly white, while textured surfaces such as tree trunks remain dark. This is the camera I’ll use when in South Beach, Florida, to capture the Art Deco cityscape with pure white palm fronds resting across my composition. There is a big difference between black-and-white infrared imagery and traditional black-and-white shots. With infrared, foliage becomes more pronounced and dramatic, and there is a surreal factor that engages the viewer and draws them in. I had one of my Nikon Z cameras converted to infrared, and, depending on my travel destination, I’ll often pack it to bring with me.

What To Carry

As for my backpack, I have been using the Kashmir from f-stop Gear, which was designed for woman photographers. The advantage—especially now that I’ve switched to mirrorless—is that everything fits in, and I don’t have to be concerned as much about weight, although this camera bag distributes weight evenly. Depending on the location I’m shooting, I may pack a much smaller bag for day trips to walking locations within a city, where I’ll only carry the basics.

For inclement weather, I’ll pack a rain jacket and bring a scarf. I have a rain cover for my backpack, too. This protects my gear and lets me shoot in the rain, which can be full of rich colors and abundant reflections.

Other gear that I carry includes a small tactical flashlight called Fenix PD35. This flashlight operates using a USB rechargeable battery, making it a lightweight powerhouse at 1,000 lumens. I use this flashlight for establishing focus in the dark, light-painting a variety of subjects or simply lighting my way in the dark.

One last gear tip: I never travel without lens hoods. They keep rain off the lens while I protect the lens and camera with a simple rain cover. Rain can be your friend when you are properly prepared.

Image illustrating a tip to photograph architectural details as part of a travel portfolio.

Cuban Architecture. Changing my perspective allows me try to envision a great subject in a variety of ways. I fell in love with the historic architecture on this street. I simply pointed the camera up to take advantage of the aged signage and detail in this shot.

Planning

In planning a trip, I tend to do a lot of research using various apps. On my iPhone, I have the feature-rich PhotoPills app, which helps determine the best time of day for my shots, such as the golden hour or blue hour and even moon phases. I refer to weather apps often, so I know of any conditions that might produce intriguing cloud patterns or storm fronts to shoot. The Photographer’ss Ephemeris app (TPE) has a nice color forecast for sunsets and sunrises. I also like photo location apps like Google Earth/Maps, PhotoHound, Locationscout or Explorest for finding interesting locations to add to my travel destinations. I use tide charts for shooting beach locations and love the ease of at-a-glance wind direction and speed from Windy. For calculating long exposures with my 15-stop neutral density filters, I use an app called NDTimer.

You’ll find that with a little planning and creativity, you can create dynamic imagery that gives the viewer a sense of the experience of being there in the moment. And you’ll have fun doing it! 


Deborah Sandidge is a professional photographer and Nikon Ambassador specializing in world travel. See more of her work at deborahsandidge.com.