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21 Essential Shots You Should Capture On Your Next Trip


For those of us that love travel and photography, there is nothing more liberating than being set free in a distant land, camera in hand. Everything is new, vivid and exciting and it seems like we can never bring enough memory cards to capture it all. Today we'll be looking at 21 essential photos you should aim to capture on your next trip away!

Why You Should Take a List

Returning home and relating your travels to friends, family and strangers helps keep holiday memories alive and is a great way to spread new ideas and sights.

It's often at this point, back home reviewing the images, that many of us feel we just didn't get it all. While we may have a lot of pictures of soaring mountains, there aren't many people photos. Or maybe we show scenes of market stall after market stall but never once do we really capture the weather.

The list that follows was originally introduced to me during a presentation at the Seattle Public Library by National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow. I have slightly modified the list, added a few items and given a bit of explanation to each item in hope that the list will enable you to capture a more full sense of place when traveling. It is not meant to be followed too strictly, but instead offer a great way to make sure you're on the right path the next time you start eagerly shooting in a foreign land.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Steve & Jemma

"Views" is a very broad category, and a good one to start with. This topic can define a broad range of shots, such as the view down a street or the view from your room. It can also mean classic views, those shots you've seen before because everyone has to take them from the same location, such as this tannery in Fes, Morocco (above).

Views are intended to be the larger, open shots that bring in a sense of being in one spot. Any photo can be taken from in front of the Eiffel Tower, but what is the view of the Tower like from a sidewalk cafe with crowds walking by?


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright k.a.i.

In some locations, the mix or difference between modern life and traditional life will be easily defined. I'm thinking here of places like Nepal or Mongolia where ancient traditions and temples can often be shot right along side cell phone towers and fast food restaurants. It's that bit of old and new that helps the viewer know where the culture came from and possibly where it's heading.

Photos don't need to combine the two elements every time, especially if you intend on presenting your work as an entire body (as in a gallery showing), but do keep an eye out for those contrasts showing modern and traditional life.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Hamed Saber

Many towns and cities, and indeed entire cultures, are defined by their architecture. More than just images of large buildings, get in close and show how the pieces come together. Or perhaps relate how the architecture of a culture changes from region to region to adapt to its environment.

Architecture often says a lot about the people who built it and why. Was it functional? Was it more ornate? What purpose did the form and shape serve when the buildings were erected? Ancient architecture often lends a glimpse into the past to relate how a people lived 1000 years ago.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright richardmasoner

How people get around is always fascinating to those back home. The further from home you travel, the more variety you will find. From the simple things, like cars with the steering wheel on the opposite side and double-decker buses, to rickshaws and elephants or camels, the range of how people get from point A to point B should always be included.

This is something best shot within a few days of your arrival in a new location, before the methods of transportation become commonplace to you and taken for granted.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Irargerich

If you're visiting large cities, the downtown area is a key component in telling the story of how commerce and life are lived. Downtowns are often crowded affairs, packed with businesses, places to eat and often a large homeless population. Traffic is usually at its greatest downtown and motion is a familiar constant.

There will be no lack of subject matter to shoot, which can often make the task that much more confounding. Try walking around for an hour or two just being a tourist, without your camera, to get a sense of the place before returning to get some great captures.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright nickgraywfu

How the people of a distant land socialize can be vastly different than at home. It will also require some cultural sensitivity on your part to not be overstepping any socially imposed boundaries. Do a bit of research before you leave home to find out what is acceptable and not acceptable to be shooting in a foreign country.

It's always polite to ask for a person's photo before taking it, but if you're wishing to catch them in natural socializing, this makes the task more difficult. Take time to introduce yourself and get to know others before taking their picture, such as in a group setting. Or, plant yourself in a park bench and just watch the interactions happen in front of you, noting patterns that may not be apparent to a fast moving tourist. Beaches, pubs, restaurants and athletic events are great places to look for socializing photos.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Jim Linwood

In any society there will be some stratification between the rich and the poor, often times with a middle class, but not necessarily so. The rich in any society may be hard to approach directly, but hints to their lifestyle can be given in other ways. Think of places that might be exclusive to the rich, such as country clubs or upscale restaurants. Opulence can also be conveyed in a number of other ways, such as flashy jewelry or cars.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright _overfly_

In contrast to the rich of a destination, the poor are often more numerous and easier to find. Most major cities will have a homeless population. These communities may be tight knit and reluctant to outsiders. As with any interaction, introduce yourself and get to know the people you will be photographing, if only for a little bit.

Both the rich and poor are fellow human beings and deserve the same respect we all desire. Speaking with both groups, instead of just photographing them, will also reveal more about a location than any guidebook can ever contain. And look beyond the directly homeless population to those who are struggling to keep a roof over their head and make a better life for themselves and their families.

Young People

travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Meanest Indian

The youth of a foreign location can be a mixed bag, just as they are at home. While the very young, still innocent in their ways, will convey a more naive view of the country you're visiting, the teens and young adults will let you in on where the country is heading. What do they wear? How do they speak? How do they interact? What types of technology are they into? And how do they fit in with their family?

The youth of a country are often wonderful to talk to as they are more unabashed in their view of their homeland. Depending on use of your images, you may need parental permission before shooting.

Old People

travel photography vacation tips

Copyright mcohen.chromiste

It may be a stereotype, but I have often found the older population fairly approachable and eager to chat. This makes them not only wonderful photo subjects, but also a wealth of information for finding the other items on your list. Their features will be influenced by the life they have lived, be it rough or easy, and typically a simple portrait shot hints towards what life is like in their country. Stop a while and enjoy their stories and history.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Raplh Hockens & David Greene

Art will let you know what is important to the people of the land you're visiting. It will also let you know how highly the culture appreciates art. It may contain large numbers of public works, easy to photograph in the context of their settings.

Is that work open and expressive or does it slant towards commercial or highly political? Are there a fair number of museums in good shape or has the will to attend to even the most basic of human needs required abandonment of most artistic endeavors? Seek out the art of a country and even if you don't understand it, it will help with understanding the people who saw it fit to hang on a wall.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright ufopilot

Ahhh sports. They often bring a people together like nothing else can. Be it a large gathering in a stadium packed with 100,000 other yelling fans or a small get-together in a local watering hole to watch a favored team, sporting events will bring about a wide range of emotions in the viewers.

If you're not familiar with the sport, take some time to observe how it's played so you can get better shots of both the action and the spectators. Get in close to the action and look for details, or stand back a bit further and capture the location or setting where the sport is being played. Check local papers for listings of upcoming events and don't be afraid to go watch something new. After all, that's one of the main reasons to travel!


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright phoosh

Water is the one of the things every single human has in common. Our requirement for water in order to sustain life ensures that population after population has found new, innovative and different ways of procuring this simple substance. We also use it differently from location to location.

From religious ceremonies, to a means of transportation, to a means of producing electricity, water's place in a culture is ubiquitous to the traveler. Look for varying degrees of water quality and availability. Often the quest to obtain clean water for nourishment is a photo essay in itself. While there are easy shots to be had with snow capped mountains or cascading waterfalls, go behind the average postcard images and see how a society values and uses water daily.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright dannysullivan

Just about any place you'd care to travel on this planet has an icon. The icon can be a person, an event or structure. It can be man made or natural. It can be obvious or hidden. Do a bit of research before leaving and see what icons there are in your intended path. Maybe it is a particular animal or restaurant. You'll know you've found an icon when at least two people tell you, "Oh, you just have to see _______!"

Quite a few icons will be overshot and overused. I'm thinking of things like the Leaning Tower Of Pisa. We've all seen shots of someone acting as if they are holding the tower up and if you like that type of fun shot, by all means, take it. But also look around for another angle on the icon. Something every other tourist won't be noticing. That's the challenge of shooting famous icons.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Wonderlane

Every civilization has some form of religion weaving through it. Some civilizations have multiple religions represented. This is where curiosity will help lead your shooting. Even if you are familiar with the religion, perhaps practicing it yourself, in a foreign culture there will be new nuances and ceremony to be observed.

If you're not familiar with the religions where you're traveling, keep an eye out for particular ceremonies and don't be afraid to ask around to see when people have a day of rest. That is often a holy day you may want to check into. Also, be respectful of the various religions before running around a church, temple, mosque, synagogue or any other place of worship.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Bert K

The economy of a destination can be broadly defined and it'll be up to your sleuthing skills to find out what makes a location tick. Are goods mainly exported or imported? Are there large natural resources and manufacturing capacities? What about the financial underpinning that keeps the country going day in and day out? And don't forget the simple things, like photos of the money or the methods of haggling in street markets.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Andrew Stawarz

Moving on to history, this is where research before leaving will serve the highest benefit (for the record, I'm a fan of both researching a lot before leaving, as well as just traveling without a clue and letting the road unfold before me). Having some knowledge of a location's history may help you notice the subtleties missed by the casual tourist.

Take for instance some of the pre-Inca walls built in Cusco, Peru. There are many streets still paved and walls still standing from the time before the Incas rose to power. Who were these people? Where did they come from? And where can you see evidence of their impact on modern culture? We often absorb many aspects of our country's history into our every day life which makes learning about a destination's past before arriving a key element to telling its story.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright Daveness_98

Next to water, food is another thing we all have in common. And what variety there is all over this planet! Some societies only use certain parts of an animal or plant while others waste nothing. How is it presented? And how can you convey the taste through photos?

That is the biggest challenge for any sensation that is of the senses other than our eyes. Food has a unique ability to make our mouths water just by looking at a photograph, so don't be afraid to take shots of even the most mundane foods you find while traveling.

Food Preparation

travel photography vacation tips

Copyright mangpages

Food preparation is just as interesting to many folks back home. Sometimes it's not enough to place a mouthwatering photo in front of this type of audience. They want to see how it was made. And you don't have to be a four star chef to appreciate the effort that goes into preparing both sustaining daily food and the more extravagant decadent meals.

Often chefs enjoy being thanked for a wonderful meal personally, so take the time to get into the kitchen and capture a shot or two. The same goes for daily life. If you're lucky enough to stay with a family or other locals, watch how they prepare their meals and what types of equipment they use. How is it the same as what you know back home and how is it different?


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright TroyMason

Weather is a huge defining element for any location. Both climatic impact and the more subtle daily influences can be seen in how people dress, how they work, and where they live. More than just pictures of large clouds, look for how the people have adapted to weather in their area.

Maybe floods are common so houses are on stilts. Maybe the intense cold causes them to bundle up in multiple layers of animal furs. If you are lucky to stay in one place long enough you will begin to see why certain things are the way they are because of the weather in that location. And get out to take photos on what you may consider 'horrible' weather. It may be the first rain that country has had in months and the local reaction to it will be vastly different than your own.


travel photography vacation tips

Copyright visualpanic

With the list of twenty items complete, we come to the catch all: Other. Other includes anything else that can give a sense of place, such as: nightlife, dawn, lighting, rhythms, shapes, pets, contrasts and overlapping layers.

This list can be repeated for as large or as small a location as you desire. Think of some place like the United States. You would need multiple copies of this list if you were spending a month in five different locations. How you define an area is up to you. It is my hope that this list will guide you to better tell the story of your travels in a way that stirs the imagination of those back home.

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