How You Can Be A Better Travel Photographer

Part 1: What to Buy, What Settings to Use, and When

Rob Gibbs is an Australian travel photographer who runs the photography website Beaches Images and has been shooting what he sees for 40 years. I have asked him to compile a useful guide for those interested in taking better photos of their trips, and being a nice guy he said yes. This is not a diploma course, but Rob’ll pass on some knowledge and tips that he’s absorbed from the past 40 years of mistakes and successes operating a camera. 

Photography is a unique blend of science and art.  If you are artistic I hope this will help you to grasp some of the more technical aspects, and if you are a more analytical person, you may need to bone up in the creative areas of subject matter and composition.  The word ‘photography’ literally means light drawing.  This is extremely important to remember.  Think of the image sensor in your camera as a canvas to capture the wondrous things you will encounter in your travels!

Tree on Norfolk Island, Australia
Creative use of the wide angle and rule of thirds, Norfolk Island. Photo: Rob Gibbs

1. Buying a Camera

Most compact digitals these days produce great images and can be picked up for very reasonable prices. The most important thing with this type of camera is to get one with a decent “optical” zoom – as much as you can afford.  Ignore any “digital” zoom rating – you can do this later with your software.   Try to get a compact that has manual override, or failing that, one that has lots of different program modes.  It’s hard to go past the Canon G16 or Sony Cybershot range. If you can afford it, waterproof compacts have come way down in price over the past few years and are an excellent travel option.

Compact System Cameras (CSCs) like the Nikon 1, Canon M and Leicas are a more expensive way to go, but give you SLR quality in a much smaller package.

If you can afford the weight and space, Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras (DSLRs) are the way to go. You’ll get unrivalled quality and clarity of image. All my best photos are taken with my Nikon D800, while Matt (the rest of the photos on this site) swears by his Canon EOS 6D, which also comes with GPS and WiFi, making it awesome for travelling. But we both got by in the past with entry level SLRs, such as the Canon EOS Rebel range or the Nikon D5300.

 These might be weightier options, but we have to suffer a little sometimes for our art! However, this article has relevance to all types of cameras.  Also remember that the camera on your Smartphone may be a pretty decent backup option depending on the circumstances.

 2. Buying a Lens

Get a digital compact with at least an in-built 5x optical zoom lens.  With the CSCs you will need to get a couple of lenses ranging from wide angle to telephoto. 

With the SLRs, it is now possible to have a great zoom range from wide to telephoto in the one lens.  This makes for a much more convenient travel experience and reduces the risk of the dreaded ‘dust bunnies’ visiting your image sensor  when changing from short to long lenses and vice versa.  All major companies produce fantastic general purpose zooms these days.  The Canon and Nikon 18-200mm/18-300mm for DX cameras or 28-300mm for full frame digitals are a great choice. They are fine for wide angle compositions, portrait photography and zooming in on any wildlife that you might encounter.  300mm equates to 17x optical zoom when comparing to the zoom ratios on the compact digitals! 

In my travels I have encountered tourist/photographers lugging giant telephotos out of deep canyons where they would probably only have needed a wide angle or their standard lens.  These guys always seemed to be wearing those sleeveless photography jackets full of gadgets.  Don’t take away too many lenses…they become are a burden, in regards to both security and logistics….you won’t need your 800mm zoom unless you are an avid bird photographer or are photographing lions in Africa.

El Capitan at 28mm, Yosemite NP, USA
El Capitan at 28mm Yosemite NP, showing 300mm zoom area in red. Photo: Rob Gibbs
El Capitan Cliff face at 300mm, Yosemite NP, USA
El Capitan Cliff face at 300mm – the orange dot is a tent. Photo: Rob Gibbs

3. Accessories?

It is important to have a filter on the front of your lens.  A skylight or UV filter will protect your lens from scratches and dust.  The original colour correction purpose of these lenses is probably now redundant, but they are cheap insurance against damage.  When travelling, I generally have a circular polarising filter attached…it also protects the lens, and doesn’t have to be ‘tuned in’ all the time, but more about polarisers soon.                                                                                                                                             

There are arguments for and against tripods.  If you have unlimited space, take one.  If you intend just to photograph some streetscapes or buildings by night, you can probably get by without one.   If you are travelling light, pack a mini tripod such as a Gorillapod or other clamp type product.  A bean or rice bag is an excellent and lightweight camera stabilisation improvisation – even your backpack will work if you are desperate!  When using a DSLR, I can normally get an excellent result by raising the ISO, opening the aperture and bracing myself using available architecture such as a rail or a tree when in the wilds.   You will definitely need a tripod if you intend capturing fireworks, recording car trails through a cityscape or those impressive star trail type photographs. 

DSLRs these days, especially full-frame models, are producing much better photos at the higher ISOs that you might use at night time. Vibration reduction (VR) technology also lets you take much better photos in situations of low light where you have slower shutter speeds.  My advice is, that  once you have your shot in mind, take lots of images, as the VR results are hit and miss and it may not work every time, also you may not have held the camera quite still enough…and digital film is cheap!              

Fireworks with 5 Second Exposure
Fireworks – a tripod is a must, at least a 5 second exposure. Photo: Rob Gibbs
Time exposure, Pulteney Bridge, Bath UK
Time exposure, Pulteney Bridge, Bath UK, camera self timer and resting on backpack. Photo: Rob Gibbs

 A cable release is also a good addition if you intend doing long exposures, however most compacts, CSCs and DSLRs have electronic shutter release systems with time delays.  These are very handy to learn how to use and you can probably leave your cable release or remote control at home.

Storage media is very important.  Get a good quality card with plenty of storage.  As I mentioned above, digital film is cheap cheap cheap!  So don’t skimp here and also have a backup plan with USB sticks or similar in case of theft or disaster.

Having a dedicated camera/laptop bag is also a great idea if you are carrying both these items.  In your bag you should have some basic cleaning gear and a couple of extra batteries.

 4. And so what about Filters?

Except for Circular Polarising (PL) filters and Neutral Density (ND), most photographic filters have been usurped by post-production programs where any contrast or colour balance issues can be fixed (more about post-production and how to use it in Part 2).

I am always using my Circular Polarising filter (PL).  If you are photographing trees, rocks, water or anything that is reflecting stray light a PL filter is essential. You will be surprised how much stray reflections are present in your average scene.  Polarisers will also bring out the sky in your images, but banding can sometimes occur when using a polariser with a wide angle lens.  Using a Polariser is just a matter of twisting the filter which sits in front of the lens and observing the colours and reflections.  When the filter is ‘tuned in’ the colours will warm and reflections will be reduced.

ND filters are a translucent grey and just let less light into the camera.  These can be handy when you want to get the moving water in  the waterfall, but it is a bright day and your camera won’t allow shutter speeds slow enough to capture the movement without overexposing the scene.  Graduated ND (GND) filters are half neutral density and half clear, and are handy for photographing sunrises or sunsets so that the bright part of the scene is not overexposed.

Arches National Park, Utah, with circular polariser
The polariser giving us the true rock colour. Arches National Park, Utah. Photo: Rob Gibbs
Kelly's Falls, Royal National Park, Sydney
Polarising Filter and post-processing. Kelly’s Falls, Royal National Park, Sydney. Photo: Rob Gibbs
Kelly's Falls, No Polariser, Royal National Park, Sydney
Taken just after the image adjacent, no polarising filter, same post- processing, Kelly’s Falls, Royal National Park, Sydney. Photo: Rob Gibbs

5. How Cameras Work: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO

In their most basic form, cameras are a black box with a hole and some type of recording medium.  Your photograph is the result of light from your composition entering the lens and being projected onto the recording medium, in this case an electronic image sensor…think digital film….

To get acceptable images, the correct amount of light, the exposure,  is imperative.  You can adjust the exposure in three ways:

1)   By controlling the size of the lens aperture;  

2)   By controlling the shutter speed;  and

3)   By changing the sensitivity (ISO) of the image sensor. 

These concepts are the basic fundamentals of photography science, but it is essential that you know the interrelation of these values and how to tweak them if you want GREAT photos.

Aperture is measured in f-stops, such as f8, f11, f16.  The higher the f-stop number, the smaller the aperture and the less light coming into the camera.  When going down the f-stop scale, from higher numbers to lower numbers, each full ‘stop’ allows in double the amount of light.  For example f11 lets in double the amount of light as f16.  Smaller apertures increase the depth of field. Depth of field  is the region of the image in focus (between foreground and background). Larger apertures will decrease it, so you can blur the background.

The Lakes, UK
Rule of thirds and large depth of field, The Lakes, UK. Photo: Rob Gibbs

Shutter speed or exposure time is measured in fractions of a second or full seconds, such as 1/125, 1/250, 1/500. It is important to note that each step on the shutter speed scale is a doubling or halving of the time the light is let into the camera.  Movement (or blur) within your image increases with longer exposure time.

The sensitivity of the sensor is measured in ISO, such as ISO100, ISO200, ISO400. In the old days, the higher the ISO, the more sensitive the film, ie the more quickly it reacted to light entering the camera. You’d choose film with an ISO based on the scene you wanted to shoot. Nowdays in the digital world, the ISO refers to the sensitivity setting of the sensor and can be changed for each photo.  Again you will notice that these measures double as we go up the sensitivity scale.   One step up the sensitivity scale is equivalent to twice as much light entering the camera.  At higher ISOs (useful for shooting at night) more ‘noise’ is introduced into the image, while at lower ISO the image is very clear and may look good in large format.

Jellyfish at Monterey Aquarium, California
High ISO does not necessarily mean poor quality. Jellyfish at Monterey Aquarium, California. Photo: Rob Gibbs

 6. Taking These Concepts Travelling

How can we use these concepts with travel photography?  The camera settings (f8, 1/250, ISO400) and (f16, 1/125, ISO800) are equivalent exposures, so both images will be exposed with the same brightness but your final result will look different. By having a good knowledge of the above principles, you can dramatically change the look of your photograph but still have perfectly exposed images. So here are some examples.

To capture the movement of water over a waterfall or in a creek, we need to use a slower shutter speed, say under 1/30th of a second, and consequently we need a smaller aperture to let less light in and/or a lower ISO.  You could also reduce the amount of light coming into the camera with a neutral density (ND) filter. 

Killarney National Park, Ireland
Killarney National Park Ireland- longer exposure with camera braced against a tree. Photo: Rob Gibbs

To capture a splash, or a bird or squirrel moving at high speed, we need a faster shutter speed with a wider aperture and/or higher ISO. 

Seagull Bathing, Pacific Coast Hwy, California, USA
Capturing the action with a fast shutter speed, seagull bathing, Pacific Coast Hwy, California. Photo: Rob Gibbs

To get your foreground and background sharp in a landscape, market or street scene, we need a smaller aperture, say f16 which means we will need slower shutter speed.  The slower shutter speed can also add some drama with the movement of the people in the scene being recorded on your final image. 

Conversely we would use a larger aperture, say f4, and a faster shutter speed, for a portrait of the old lady selling goods at the market with the super gnarled face and a creamy blurred background.

Old Boat Lady, Floating Markets, Thailand
Old boat lady, Floating Markets, Thailand, cropped to about 80mm. Photo: Rob Gibbs

7. Go Manual, Man

The reason I have told you all the background ‘science’ is so you won’t just set your camera on its Auto or Programme settings and blast away.  You will always get a better result using the camera in Manual or “Aperture Mode”. 

I tend to use Aperture Mode most of the time.  Generally my camera is set on Aperture Mode and f8. This is a good standby aperture for anything that might need a quick snap.  I will then change the aperture with regard to how I want my final image to look.The camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed (and ISO on some models). 

If your camera has a depth of field preview button, this is invaluable. You can see the focus aspects of your final image, in the viewfinder before snapping, or you can just take a photo and check the result and adjust the settings, remembering if you want more depth of field you need a smaller aperture and less depth of field a larger aperture.  If using a compact with lots of program modes, use one suitable for the circumstance or try a few different ones.

Rob is happy to answer any questions you might have regarding your travel photos. If you’re in the market for a camera or any new gear, purchasing from the links on this page will get you the best deal and help support this website. Meanwhile, check out Part 2: The Art and Technology of Modern Photography, where we’ll get more arty and discuss metering, composition, post-production and presenting your work!


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