The Art Of Travel Photography

To make evocative travel images that tell the story of a place and its people, look beyond photo clichés

Banff Winter Pond, Alberta

Ever since early photographers began capturing images of faraway places in the mid-19th century, travel photography has enthralled people with tantalizing glimpses of distant lands. Even before the dawn of air travel, photography was shrinking our world by transporting us to foreign countries. Thanks to an assortment of intrepid photographers who roamed the globe looking for the unusual and the exotic, magazines like National Geographic brought the outside world to living rooms across America.

Today, many of us travel with cameras in search of evocative images. But as pictures from around the globe flood the Internet and publicize many of the world’s photo hot spots, it’s harder than ever to find unique shots. When was the last time you saw a fresh composition of Yosemite Valley or the Taj Mahal? Are there really any new ways left to depict lions while on a Kenyan safari? How do we find compelling images without slipping into cliché?

As a working travel photographer, my approach to shooting a destination begins even before I pack my bags. My pre-trip planning includes compiling a thorough shot list for the location. Beginning with specific requests from the client, I find more ideas from browsing stock photo sites to see how a location has been covered by others. Bookstores and the library carry photo books covering diverse locales, and tourism websites often feature regional photo galleries. These potential shots become the foundation of my itinerary as I organize them by location, best time of day to shoot and proximity to other shots.

Intimate slice-of-life shots are another way to bring the viewer closer to a culture or an area. A shopkeeper with her wares, a close-up of flowers or local cuisine, and architectural details enhance the visual story begun by grand panoramas and sweeping cityscape shots.

Arriving on location, I work steadily through my shot list to capture the images that clearly evoke a sense of place. As redundant as they may be, it’s hard to go wrong with classic vistas like the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands parking lot and Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel Overlook. Cliché or not, strong images of the world’s great places are a nice addition to any serious shooter’s portfolio. But to expand our craft, we need to look beyond the obvious and dig deeper.

As I move down my list and tick off the standard shots that identify the destination, I also look for new ways to interpret those icons. Leaving well-trodden routes to wander backstreets, climb hills and search for rooftop views gets me seeing in different ways. Some of my favorite shots happened only because I veered away from the familiar.

Intimate slice-of-life shots are another way to bring the viewer closer to a culture or an area. A shopkeeper with her wares, a close-up of flowers or local cuisine, and architectural details enhance the visual story begun by grand panoramas and sweeping cityscape shots. Every destination has something that distinguishes it from others. Spend time walking the streets or trails, and sooner or later those elements will reveal themselves.

The basic rules of travel photography still guide my approach to shooting on location. I look for the wide shot that captures the overall scene, the medium shot that isolates one or a few features, and the close-up detail shot. Without exception, I’m out shooting during the soft, rich light of early morning and late afternoon into evening. During the hard midday light, I’m scouting the area, photographing people or details in the shade, or shooting with a polarizer to cut down haze in scenics.

While travel to remote regions can result in images that take us far from the ordinary, there are plenty of features near home that evoke the essence of the landscape and culture. While the photos here may be a mix of familiar and unfamiliar, all were taken in North America. None was planned. Each is a combination of light, weather, serendipity and a desire to be in the right place at the right moment.

Banff Winter Pond
A cold winter’s day of shooting around Banff, Alberta, in dreary light had produced little in the way of keeper images. Late in the afternoon, I walked to some half-frozen ponds outside of town and noticed a slender band of clearing sky just above the western horizon. With temperatures hovering around freezing, I decided to stay and see what might happen. Thirty minutes later, the sun broke through, and golden light spilled across the water and surrounding mountains.

Knowing the window of light would be brief, I worked fast using a variety of angles, but I wasn’t satisfied with the results. Switching from medium telephoto to wide-angle lens, I lay down on the frozen pond and crawled toward the water’s edge until the thin ice began crackling beneath me. I started shooting with the aperture adjusted for depth of field, but my camera was unable to expose evenly for both the dark foreground and the bright sky. The solution was a grad ND filter held against my lens, enabling me to balance the difference in light between the two areas and avoid a blown-out sky or lost details in the landscape.

Within 15 minutes, the magical glow faded as abruptly as it had appeared. The rapid shift from gloomy gray to dreamy light was a reminder that patience and watching changing weather conditions can lead to dramatic lighting.
Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM, 1⁄15 sec. at ƒ/10, ISO 100

Copper Canyon Sunrise, Mexico

Copper Canyon Sunrise
While traveling in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, I left my hotel before dawn to watch the light as it moved across the rugged barrancas and ridges of this remote region. Since many of the overlooks face east into the rising sun, I anticipated the area would be more of an afternoon shoot and wasn’t expecting much.

Wandering along the canyon rim at sunrise, I noticed a tourist immersed in the serenity of the canyon. Her silhouette framed in the branches of the tree added a human component to the distant ridges bathed in buttery light. Wanting to convey the vastness of the landscape with a human component, I shot tight, adding enough of the receding ridges behind her to place the subject clearly in the environment. The evaluative meter setting in my camera exposed for the canyons and left the person in silhouette. Although the image may look posed, she was captivated by the view and unaware that I was behind her. Being there as the light merged with her private reverie was a privilege.
Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM, 1⁄100 sec. at ƒ/11, ISO 100

Bonaventure Island Gannets, Québec

Bonaventure Island Gannets
Large bird colonies are raucous, aromatic and chaotic, and with a little patience they can yield stunning images. Each summer many thousands of northern gannets come to Bonaventure Island in Québec to mate and nest. After a brief boat ride from the mainland and a 30-minute walk across the island, I arrived at a roped-off viewing area. Beyond the rope, hundreds of pairs of gannets crowded together on their nesting grounds.

After photographing the colony with a wide-angle lens, I moved in with a telephoto lens to photograph individual birds. It took me awhile to find a pair that wasn’t stained with guano or dirt, but eventually I spotted these two at the edge of the colony engaged in their intimate bonding ritual. Wanting to isolate them from other birds, I lay down on my stomach, steadied my telephoto lens and began watching the pair. The birds were changing poses constantly, which required fast shooting, and since they weren’t moving toward or away from me, I switched to manual focus to avoid the autofocus lag time and ensure the eyes were in sharp focus.

As I studied them, I noticed certain behaviors followed in sequence, and I was able to anticipate different poses. This shot is one of those moments, representing the strong bonding that takes place between a species that mates for life. The guano stains on my elbows and knees were a worthwhile price to pay for the privilege of witnessing this intimate moment.
Canon EOS 7D, Canon 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM, 1⁄1000 sec. at ƒ/6.3, ISO 200

Monument Valley Sand Dune, Utah

Monument Valley Sand Dune
Monument Valley, Utah, is famous for its colorful buttes, spires and towers, but it’s becoming harder to find a unique angle on this iconic landscape. For a more personal experience of the park, I hired a Native American guide to take me away from the usual tour routes. As we hiked along a dry creek bed, this rippled dune with pinnacles in the distance intrigued me, but an overcast sky made for dull lighting so we kept walking.

Two minutes later, the clouds broke and I sprinted back to the scene just as sunlight hit the dune. Crouching down, I moved close with a wide-angle lens to emphasize the ripples in the sand that lead the eye to the distant pinnacles. I had time to shoot only three frames before the cloud shadow returned, and two were blurred due to camera shake as I caught my breath from running, but this one was a keeper. The animal tracks climbing up the dune add an element of mystery to the photo.
Canon EOS 7D, Canon EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM, 1⁄60 sec. at ƒ/14, ISO 100

Alaska Kayaking, Inside Passage

Alaska Kayaking, Inside Passage
After a soggy week of wet weather and dull light along Alaska’s Inside Passage, the skies cleared one morning and we launched two kayaks from our small expedition ship for a trip into a protected bay. The surrounding mountains reflected perfectly in the still water, and as we approached the shoreline, the lines of sky and land began converging on the mirror-like surface.

Having positioned myself in the stern so I could photograph my kayaking partner as a foreground element, I positioned us so I could capture both kayaks and the landscape with a wide-angle lens. With everyone paddling slowly, I was able to freeze the paddle motion with a fast shutter speed, yet still keep a decent depth of field. With the sun at our backs, the tricky part was keeping my shadow off the kayak. Soon after I took this shot, a breeze rippled the water and the reflection vanished.

Equally spectacular but unseen in this photo are the hundreds of golf ball-sized, white jellyfish swimming gracefully just beneath the surface.
Canon EOS 40D, Canon EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM, 1⁄125 sec. at ƒ/9, ISO 100

Eric Lindberg is a freelance photographer and writer based in Denver, Colo. He’s the 2011 Society of American Travel Writers Photographer of the Year. You can see more of Lindberg’s photography at