Preparing to travel with your DSLR camera can often seem daunting, especially if you've never done it before. Luckily, I've learned some great basic tips for travel photography over the past 15 years traveling and photographing in over 30 countries, and today I'm sharing them with you! From the jungles of Belize to the crowded streets of Hong Kong, these tips should help you take better travel photographs.
Schloss Neuschwanstein, Fussen, Germany (taken with Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L @ 16mm)
1. Pack Light
The most important advice I can give – don’t pack too much! Someone once said “The best gear is the gear you have with you”. It couldn't be more true. If you bring 2 camera bodies, 4 lenses, a tripod, a flash, and a case to carry it all, they’ll just end up sitting in your hotel/hostel/tent/friend’s house for the whole trip. And that is definitely the worst kind of gear – the stuff you carry half way around the world and don’t use!
Street Cinema, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand (taken with Canon 40mm f/2.8)
As a life-long photographer, I always want to get great shots that I can print large (sometimes really large!). So I carry a DSLR camera and some great lenses. But I only bring one body and never more than two lenses. No tripod, no flash, no extra gizmos. With a little planning, you can prepare for any situation and not miss out on that once-in-a-lifetime shot, without carrying an extra suitcase just for your gear! So remember, pack light and take less than you think you’ll need – it’s always the best choice.
2. Always Be Ready
One thing you learn after many years of travel photography is that you never know where your next amazing photograph will come from. How many times have I put my camera away, at the bottom of my bag, just in time to see an incredible view outside the train window, or a fantastic portrait of a street vendor? Too many.
Sillhouette, Shanghai Train Station, Shanghai, China (Taken with Canon 24-105mm f/4L @ 105mm)
Whenever you’re outside, on public transport, or really anywhere – don’t put your camera away! Having learned the lesson the hard way, I now always keep my camera ready to pull it up to eye level and compose at a moment’s notice. To summarize, you should always be on the lookout for your next great photograph. Don’t just put your camera away when you leave whatever tourist site you just left. Your best photographs will come when you’re least expecting it.
3. Ask Permission
Often, your favorite travel photos end up being portraits you take of locals. This is because facial expressions, appearance and dress can convey so much about a country or region of the world, while giving us a glimpse into other people’s lives.
Joyce's Parents, Lilongwe, Malawi (shot with a Canon 17-85mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 24mm)
I strongly recommend asking permission before you take someone’s photo, particularly if you’re trying to take a close portrait. There are a couple reasons for this. The first one is obvious: you’ll avoid people getting angry at you and potentially getting into an altercation.
But the second reason is actually much more important. I’ve found that addressing someone directly, even if you don’t speak the same language, and asking their permission is a fantastic way to make a connection and get them to open up. Usually when I ask someone if I can take their photo, they look amused but almost always accept.
Regular people everywhere are naturally friendly and as long as you’re polite and respectful, they have no reason to say no. Just the act of asking causes them to open up, relax and feel more comfortable. In the best case scenario, you can start a conversation with them so they fully relax and you can get a completely candid photo – these tend to be the most intimate, precious portraits of all. So remember, always ask permission and you’ll get better photos!
4. Bring Two Lenses
If you’re bringing a DSLR with you, I highly recommend bringing two lenses – no matter where you’re going. I’ve shot both big wide landscapes and tight crowded cities and I always carry two lenses with me. The reason is pretty simple really. It’s unlikely that one lens is going to cover all your needs, and 3 lenses is just too much when traveling.
I typically take one mid-range zoom lens (like the Canon 24-105mm) and one fixed focal length wide-angle (like the Canon 35mm f/1.4L). Why take lenses with overlapping focal lengths?, I hear you asking. Some people like to take complementary lenses like a 18-55mm and a 55-250mm lens, in order to cover a large focal length range from 18-250mm. The problem is, I’ve discovered many photos are taken somewhere around 55mm and more often than not, you have the wrong lens on your camera.
Naxi Loom, Lijiang Old Town, Yunnan, China (shot with a Canon 24-105mm f/4L @ 24mm)
So you might see something cool in a crowded market (like this photo of a loom in a market in southern China) that you want to take a close-up picture of, but you forgot to take your 55-250mm off, so now you have to stop and switch lenses in the middle of the street. If instead you have a mid-range zoom (like the 17-85 or 24-105mm), you can get the shot without switching. You can zoom out a lot for those wide landscape or street scenes, or zoom in to get that great portrait or wildlife shot.
So why do I also bring a fixed focal length wide angle with me? Because I take photos all the time – both day and night. So after a full day of shooting, I often go out at night to shoot, whether I’m in a quiet village or bustling city. These night shots are nearly impossible without a “fast” lens – one with a wide maximum aperture. Most zoom lenses only open to f/4, so having a fixed lens (like the Canon 24mm or Canon 35mm), that can open up to f/2.8 (f/2.8 lets in 2x the light as f/4), makes all the difference between a blurry shot and a clear one in low-light situations. That's why I carry a mid-range zoom and a fast wide angle lens with me on every trip!
5. Protect Your Gear
When you’re traveling with any sort of camera, you’re automatically a target for thieves. Especially in very touristy places, you have to be on the lookout and keep your camera close at all times. One thing I always do is carry it in a bag that doesn’t scream “expensive DSLR camera in here!”
Karydi Monastery, Crete, Greece (shot with a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L @ 16mm)
I often see people walking around with camera bags that say CANON or NIKON on them in big, shiny letters. This is basically telling everyone in the world that you’re carrying a nice expensive camera with you - so nice, in fact, that you bought a special bag for it. Don’t do this! I do own a camera bag like this which said “Canon” in big letters on it, but I immediately took off the plastic label, and continue to use this perfectly good bag without having to tell everyone what’s inside it.
6. Take An Extra Battery
One tip I learned early on is to always take a spare battery. You can’t imagine how frustrating it is to find out half-way through an amazing walk through a unique, remote location you hiked 3 hours to get to, that you’re running out of battery and will have to stop shooting. For those of us who live for photographing our travels, this is like going to play basketball without a ball – you simply can’t play. So, always pack an extra fully-charged battery, especially when you’re heading out for a full-day of shooting, when you’re in a cold climate (batteries drain faster in the cold), or when you’ll be away from electricity for a couple days. In the last case, you might want to take a couple of extra batteries!
Canon LC-E6 Charger with 2 Canon LP-E6 Batteries for Canon 5D Mark II (Shot with Canon 40mm f/2.8)
7. Put the camera down
Finally, don’t forget to sometimes just put the camera down and enjoy the scene. Over the years, I’ve learned that sometimes you need to just stop taking pictures and really focus on just being there. Don’t look for the best angle, the best composition, the best subject. Just put your camera down, take a deep breath, look around you slowly, and draw in the whole scene. Give yourself time to get out of “photo mode” and truly smell, hear, see, and feel the place where you are. Often times, you’ll find that putting the camera down actually gives you more inspiration. By stepping away from behind the camera, you often get a better ability to distinguish between a potentially average photograph and a truly incredible one.
About the Author:
Pano K has been a photographer for 20 years and is dedicating to helping beginners master both the art and science of photography. His photography can be viewed on Instagram.