Take Travel Photos Like a Professional – Even on Tiny Journeys

People who take photographs for a living know how to capture images that convey an emotion, an idea or a moment in a single shot. For the rest of us, getting that perfect shot can be elusive. How often do our images live up to our expectations or match the feeling of being there, allowing us to revisit our trip later and share it with others (even if it's just a trip around the block)? We asked four photographers whose work we love Salva López, Kari Medig, Luisa Dörr and Fumi Homma – for their tips on capturing some of that professional magic in our own travel photography.

April 16, 2020
Chiseling wood in Japan
Japan.   Photo: Fumi Homma

Slow down and Focus

If there’s one thing our photographers emphasized, it’s this: Slow down. “Almost everyone is in a hurry,” Homma points out. “Don’t rush. Take your time.”

“Making photos that resonate with people requires a lot of mental focus,” Medig says. “When I’m on assignment I try to really immerse myself in a place, to the point where I can experience an almost trancelike hyperawareness of my surroundings: This allows me to really see.”

Luisa Dörr agrees: “Just be open to the place, enjoy your trip and be patient. Keep trying until you have the images that you’re satisfied with.”

Looking down a spiral staircase.
Cuba.   Photo: Kari Medig

Set the Scene

Travel photography is all about a sense of place, so if you want to create images that really capture the experience of being there, noticing details others may miss is important.

“Being able to single out scenes or patterns helps to give a photo story a deeper sense of place,” according to Medig.

Dörr also emphasizes the importance of being present and connecting with the location. “Feel the place where you are,” she says. “Understanding the place will help you to make better images.”

“The art of photography is to organize visually the outside world,” say López. “While travelling, I always try to capture the mood of the atmosphere.”

The north coast of Hawaii.
Hawaii.   Photo: Kari Medig

Watch the Light

When shooting outdoors, it’s important to be aware of the quality of the light – and how you will use it in your shots.

“Natural light is the best kind of light,” Medig says. “Time of day is a great way to use natural light to your advantage. If you’re going for softer, warmer images, get out in the light closer to sunrise or sunset.”

For López, “lights and shadows” are important components of a good picture. His home city of Barcelona “is very shiny, so direct light is really helpful.”

The women at Acaraje da Dinha serve black- eyed pea and shrimp fritters to the public
Salvador de Bahia, Brazil.   Photo: Luisa Dörr

Look the Other Way

Medig is also a big fan of finding a major landmark... and ignoring it: “For me, singling out little stories around the main scene is one of the simplest ways to make a more compelling photograph. Everyone has taken iconic photos of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona or the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

“But what if the camera looked back at the crowd? At the sunglasses vendor by the tree: Maybe he would make a nice portrait? Or the local couple taking a selfie with their dog: Does this make an intriguing scene? It’s the small stories unfolding around the main event that are often the most interesting and give travel photographs a greater sense of place.”

Palm leaves in a jungle.
Komodo, Indonesia.   Photo: Salva López

You Don’t Need Much Gear (But a Tripod’s Always Helpful)

There’s a lot of photographic equipment available these days – and it may be useful in some cases – but the pros we spoke to suggest keeping it simple.

“Tools are just a medium,” Dörr says. “They help in the process but they don’t create. It’s always about your vision, so don’t spend tons of money on gear.”

But if you’re only bringing one thing other than your camera, Medig has a suggestion: “A tripod. This gives so many more options in low light. It can be a hassle to carry around but nowadays there are nice light ones that can fit easily in packs.”

Earl Kamakaonaona Regidor plays music for guests
Hawaii.   Photo: Kari Medig

Personalize Your Portraits

Taking photos of people you encounter on your travels is a great way to remember the connections you made along the way. But make sure to actually connect.

If you’re taking a photo of a local, López says, “you have to be brave and ask to photograph someone any time you feel like there is a good picture. The challenge is to be brave enough to do it.”

Medig agrees: “Rather than using a big lens and ‘sniping’ strangers from afar, I prefer to take portraits of people who I’ve had a genuine connection with, who have given me their permission.”

And framing a portrait is important. López suggests looking for “white frames, lights and shadows. The main character should be in the centre without noise.”

Two people look across the water at a row of cherry blossom trees
Japan.   Photo: Fumi Homma

Priorities Matter

Deciding what and who to photograph is almost as important as how you take the shot, according to Homma: “It depends on who you are as a photographer and the style that you like. It’s better to think about the priority of your photograph, not just framing or composition.”

Medig suggests a few things to consider prioritizing: “There are many simple ways to improve the impact of a travel photo, even if it’s just to document a trip: Interesting light, a unique composition or beautiful colours are all tried and true methods.”

Two Komodo dragons, one laying its head on the other's back.
Komodo, Indonesia.   Photo: Salva López

Practice like a Pianist or a Writer

For Dörr, there are two keys to getting better at photography, whether with a phone or a full camera: “Practice and practice.

“If you are a pianist, for example, you practice every day and not just on the day of the concert. With photographs it’s the same. Be kind to yourself and enjoy the ride. With time, your images will look better.”

Medig also sees parallels with other kinds of art forms: “I recently watched a documentary about photographer Dorothea Lange. Her words stuck with me: ‘To me, beauty appears when one feels deeply, and art is an act of total attention.’ I equate the idea of ‘total attention’ to how writers organize their thoughts when they sit down to write, except I do this while walking around in situ with a camera.”

Looking for inspiration on where to take great travel shots? Check out our tips for planning your next trip on Instagram.