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Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid

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Read Time: 12 min
This post is part of a series called Travel Photography.
Tips for Traveling with Non-Photographers
Building a Location Database with Lightroom

Traveling to distant lands, or even around your own country, can be an exciting time many want to capture with a camera. But most of us know the dread that comes when asked to view photos from a friend's trip. Often the album is large and the photos are only mildly interesting unless you were the one actually on the trip.

There are a number of classic travel photography mistakes listed in this article. My hope is to help you, and others, pop out of that normal travel photo groove and improve the quality of photos you deem worthy to show friends and the Internet at large.

Faces Are Too Dark

Cameras are catching on to this classic problem. You stand your friend/spouse/family/partner/host in front of large monument X because you trekked half way across the world and want to prove you were there with these great people (more on overusing these types of shots in a bit).

They have a beaming smile that should light up the world because you all are finally HERE! But what happens to the photo when monument X is well lit and they are not? Or worse, the sun on this once in a life time moment is coming from behind them or maybe your monument X happens to be the ocean?

Because of the difference is lighting and the limits of digital cameras today, it is often the case that faces will be too dark, especially when they are backlit. Many smaller point and shoot cameras have face detection technology that automatically corrects for this, but if shooting with a DSLR, you might need to make the adjustments yourself.

A few things you can do:

  • Use Exposure bias/compensation to over expose the scene in general, to the point where faces are brighter.
  • Use spot metering and point it directly at the person being photographed.
  • If the sun is coming directly over a shoulder, change position a bit. A shot looking down the beach, instead of directly into the setting sun, will give better lighting.
  • If you are close enough, you can use a fill flash to light up faces.
  • When all else fails and the subject can't be moved, make sure the face is exposed properly and let the sky/highlights blow out. The shot below of my friend Pam of Nerd's Eye View is a good example. 'Proper' exposure according to the camera left her face too dark (first photo), but by biasing things towards her, the statue and the Rapid City sign, I captured the most important elements in the scene.

Badly Cropped Photos When Others Take Your Photo

You have the position just right. This time YOU want to be in the photo as well. You pick a likely passerby who appears they won't run off with your camera and ask them to take your photo. If they have trouble locating the shutter release, this should be your first warning that you might not get the photo you have in mind.

At this point, save yourself some time. Most passerbys don't have a lot of photography experience, especially when it comes to framing. If you want you and your travel companions to be framed perfectly with monument X in the background, take an example picture and show the willing photographer how to frame your shot. This example shot will save time reviewing the photo after the stand-in photographer asks, “is this ok?" because they had no idea of what you wanted.

In the example below, I already had the classic Machu Picchu photo and wanted something a bit more fun (see “Me in front of stuff" below). I showed my guide the crop I wanted so as to include the city but not all of me, lest my best attempt at a Derek Zoolander face be missed. He positioned and cropped just right.

Boring Landmark Shots

The devil is in the details. It also turns out, some of the best travel photos are in those same details. When taking a photo of grand landmarks (the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon, Angkor Wat, etc...) by all means get the large, pulled back photo attempting to show grandeur and size. But don't stop there, because often those shots are not taken in the best light (especially if you are on a tour).

If you take a shot of the Eiffel Tower in broad daylight, it's going to be boring and washed out. Here are some options for landmarks to jazz them up a bit:

  • Get closer. A lot of photos can be improved by simply getting closer. You might not fit the entire object into one frame, but that really is okay. If you go to Paris and get an interesting shot of the bolts of the Eiffel tower juxtaposed with a local street vendor selling flowers, people will be more drawn to that shot than simply showing the entire tower.
  • Wait for the light to change, if you can. The Golden or Blue Hours (before and after sunset/sunrise) can be a great time to snap shots, especially of man-made structures with lights.
  • Zoom in. Pick out just a part of the landmark that draws you in. Maybe it is a pattern of the rock in the Grand Canyon or the scroll work along an arch of the Taj Mahal. Show the small things people won't see from your broad shot.
  • Let in some blur. Leave your shutter open longer (1/10th of a second is a good starting point) to allow some movement of people or cars in the scene. Be sure to place your camera on a steady object, like a tripod.

Boring Museum Photos

The first step here is to check with the museum to make sure photography is allowed. Beyond that first step, most museums that allow photography will not allow flash photography. This leaves you with shooting with ambient light and you will need to make sure you adjust your white balance for the type of light they are using (it would be good to be familiar with the manual white balance settings on your camera before you leave on the trip). This white balance setting will be important when you are trying to reproduce the nuanced colors of various works of art. Having discoloration in your shots because of improper white balance is a major factor in bad museum photos.

Know your ISO, that is the next step. While the lighting might be great for viewing, it is often not so great for shooting. You will likely need to increase your ISO as well as open up your aperture (choosing the smallest number available) in order to choose a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake.

Lastly, don't forget to bring back wide angle shots of the museum and its galleries. We often get so caught up in taking photos of individual pieces of work that we forget to show their setting. Stand back and take a wide angle shot from a corner or entry way to show the size and arrangement of the space.

Ugly Night Shots

Night shots confound many people. They can be a bit tougher because there is naturally less light. And what light there is, isn't usually of the right type. Check your camera for a night mode. This is often depicted with a city, star or moon sitting over the shoulder of a person closer to the foreground. It is an easy way to give your images a chance of exposing properly.

The problem with most boring night shots is from a camera's tendency to switch the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second when the flash is engaged. At that shutter speed, there is not enough time for fainter city lights to show up in an image. They are often muted or dull.

The night mode setting allows the shutter to stay open longer while still firing the flash. This allows foreground objects to be properly lit while staying open along enough for background, full of faintly-lit objects, to be properly exposed. It's a best of both worlds scenario.

Me In Front Of Stuff Shots

We all take them. And for good reason. They are the shots I call “Me in front of stuff". It's empirical proof that you were there (we'll ignore the capabilities of Photoshop to reproduce the same for a minute) and you stood in front of Landmark X.

Snapping these photos, though, need not be as pedestrian as is often practiced. The normal stint is to stand fairly rigid, smiling a 'normal' smile and facing forward, just barely off to the side of of Landmark X. Imagine you are your audience viewing these photos at the end of your trip. Imagine watching you stand stoic in front of every sign and monument. Now snap back to your first “Me in front of stuff" shot of the trip and realize it won't be your last. Plan ahead to have some fun.

Instead of this standard pose, over and over again, I suggest jazzing things up a bit. First, interact with the landmark if at all possible. Hang off of it. Lean on it. Act like you are holding it up. Be goofy and have fun. Second, capture it from another angle. We've all seen the Eiffel Tower at a distance, but I have seen few pictures of people leaning against the legs, looking up. The key here is to have fun and make people look forward to your next “Me in front of stuff" shot.

Not Shooting The Little Things

Look! The Vatican. Look! The Statue Of Liberty. Look! The Badlands.

So often when we travel and take photos, we go after large monuments. And we should! They are grand and beautiful and iconic and should be prized and placed in your photo album back home (or online).

At the same time, don't forget the little things that make a trip special. It might be something special to you (a flower your husband picked for you while in Rome) or it might be something unique about the location (the different colored taxis in Morocco).

The problem is we DO start off shooting the little things in a new location. Everything is new and exciting and fascinating. But during the trip, things lose their luster. It's usually a case of sensory overload. I remember looking at a stack of brightly colored plates in Marrakesh and nearly not snapping a photo because, well, “I've seen soooo many bright plates in this market!"

I also have a photo of a menu ordering book in Nepal, where we'd place our order and hand it to the cook. It's something I used dozens of times and nearly didn't take a photo of such a mundane, small thing. But it brings a smile to my face every time I see it because it was a big part of the trip in a small way.

Only Backs Of Heads

This is a tough one and I realize most people out there won't want to make the stretch. How often have you returned home to find most of your shots of locals are only showing the backs of their heads or are shot from the hip, often cropping off the head or legs?

You're not alone. Except for the most extrovert of travelers, those with charisma oozing out their pores to the point others seem to be sucked in by a black hole of their welcoming nature, the majority of us struggle with approaching strangers and asking to take their photo. It's not easy and that's an understatement if you have tried it when faced with a language barrier.

Yet it yields wonderful results. Even if the characters in your photo are posed and obviously aware of the camera, what those faces say, in smiles or frowns, still tells a lot about the area. For some suggestions on how to make a connection and bring back better travel portraits, click on over to the post Travel Portraits: Methods For Making A Connection.

Know Your Audience – Some For Me, Some For Them

Mount Everest shot for them. Copyright Peter West Carey

Presenting your photos back home is another area most of us don't put much thought into. We select the photos that we think look pretty and mean something to us, post them on Facebook or Flickr and call it a night.

If you are like most travel photo posters, you post too many photos because you have an emotional attachment to many of the photos. “Here's one from that great restaurant where the waiter brought us free champagne." “And this one was right after John fell in the river in his clothes. He's kinda blurry, but you can kinda see that it's John." Having that attachment is great and will help you relive your fond memories for decades to come. The only problem is, they tend to stop others from viewing all your images.

...and a prayer wheel shot for me. Copyright Peter West Carey

If you really want to share your trip with others online (this is certainly different than in person where you can retell stories with gusto) then it will help to make two piles. One pile is for you. It is all the special memories captured in possibly not well lit or composed pictures. It is images you will likely put in a photobook. The second pile is that pile, but smaller.

It is shots you know others will understand. They are images which aren't followed by the phrase “I guess you had to be there." They should stand on their own and there shouldn't be a lot of them. You don't have to show every single day of your trip and you will likely show far less pictures. Showing less pictures actually works to your advantage as more friends will ask questions, starting a conversation and a chance to relive your trip through words and laughs with friends and family.

Do you have any particular travel photo suggestions you'd like to offer? Please feel free to leave a comment below. And post links any awesome travel shots you've made around the world.

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