How You Can Be A Better Travel Photographer

Part 2: The Art and Technology of Modern Photography

Rob Gibbs is an Australian travel photographer, wedding photographer and former police forensics photographer who has been shooting what he sees for 40 years. Last week in Part 1, he discussed buying a camera and using aperture, shutter speed and ISO to shoot better travel photos. This week, we’re going to dive into the art of photography- metering, composition,  post-production, and presenting your work.

Monument Valley Panorama, USA
Monument Valley Panorama after post processing- this is how it looked! Photo: Rob Gibbs

1. A Word About Metering

Have you ever noticed that sometimes your photographs taken in the snow are a bit blue/grey and dull looking??  This is because they are underexposed.  It is important to know how an in-built light meter works so that you can trick it when necessary.

The meter is comparing what you see in the viewfinder with an ‘average’ scene.  Apparently if we got all the colours and tones in an average scene and mixed them together, we would have a shade that is 18 percent grey.  The light meters in all cameras work on this calibration, but sometimes we need to override the light meter.  We need to do this where the scene is generally darker or lighter than the average, for example a black horse against a black wall, or a white rabbit in the snow or beach scenes with white sand.  You need to know what is happening with the camera so that you can adjust the light meter settings.

The light meter is looking at the snow and going, “WOW this is bright!…I better shut down the aperture so it looks like green pastures and blue skies (18 percent grey)”. As a result your photos are under-exposed.  There is a little button near the shutter on a DSLR labelled “+/-“, this can also be found on compacts, generally on the toggle with the flash adjustments.  You need to adjust the light meter using this button.  With the snow scene, this might mean +1.5 f-stops to correct the underexposure.

Conversely, the black horse is being overexposed and made to look grey, so we need to underexpose a little in that case.  It is handy to know that roads, bushland and grass are also about 18 percent grey, so you can also just meter from these and recompose.

Most cameras have three different modes for reading the exposure.  Spot, centre weighted and matrix metering.   Spot metering measures a small area in the very centre of the image in your viewfinder.  Centre weighted measures a larger area in the centre, and matrix measures many points throughout the image.  For travel images, especially landscapes, matrix is preferable.  Spot metering is handy when doing portraiture as you can get a pretty reliable results metering off skin, and a white or black shirt could throw your matrix meter reading out completely.

If the scene is difficult to meter, perhaps bracket a set of three images by over/under exposing by one f-stop.  Sunset photos are difficult to photograph- try spot metering in an area mid way between the brightest and darkest area, or underexpose by 2 stops and review your image.

Whitby Abbey, UK
Creative vignetting (see post-processing section below). Whitby Abbey, UK. Photo: Rob Gibbs

2. Focusing and White Balance

Most cameras allow you to set the focus mode.  Most professionals just use centre spot single focus mode.  In this mode you put your focus point on your subject and when focus is achieved the lens locks at that distance, you then can recompose and take the photograph.  Unless you are taking photos of the bulls running at you in Pamplona, or you’re at the football, you won’t need continuous focus mode.  Continuous and other ‘intelligent’ focus modes are dangerous with travel photography.  If you are getting a lot of photos where your background is sharp and your subject is fuzzy, you may have your camera unwittingly set on ‘continuous’ focus mode.

I use Auto White Balance, but you could try other settings such as “Shade” if it’s late in the day or overcast, or “Tungsten” if you are indoors.  Unless you get this really wrong, you should be able to fix anything in post production. More on that later.

I generally take photos using the highest quality of jpeg file.  If you intend to do something special or you are worried about your exposures, perhaps use RAW format which is what is known as a ‘digital negative’.  The trouble with RAW is that these files are huge.  The RAW files on my camera are 30MB which is bigger than my first computer’s hard drive back in 1992!  Conversely if you intend to just look at your images on your iPad or print them at 6×4 inches then medium size jpeg files should be sufficient.  Bigger files take much longer to upload and longer for screen refresh when viewing, but as I keep saying, digital film is cheap, and you can resize your images to smaller versions later.

A little on the action of depressing the shutter…..squeeze it slowly but firmly.  Always have the camera firmly braced.  Ensure that your shutter speed is not too slow.  If in doubt review your photo and zoom right in to see what is sharp.  Always use two hands when using any camera, especially a compact or smartphone camera.

3. Composing Beautiful Images

Now we come to the art!  Composition is extremely important so your photos do not look ‘humdrum’ or ‘run of the mill’.  Some people are lucky enough to just  have composition as an ‘add-on’ in their brain, others must learn it.  I like to say that photography is like tennis:

If you don’t move your feet, you won’t make a good shot!

You need to walk around and look at your subject from different aspects, drop to your knees, lay down on the ground. Put the camera at an angle, raise it above your head and shoot downwards, put it on the ground on self-timer and shoot upwards.   Find and use available landscape or objects for added interest.  Different zoom settings and framing can also change the look of a photograph dramatically.  If you don’t have the composition gene, I would suggest you look at some travel blogs and try to copy what the good photographers are doing, but here are some tips.

Compose your shot so that you have something of interest in the foreground.

Pacific Coast Highway California, USA
Something in the foreground gives added interest. Pacific Coast Highway California. Photo: Rob Gibbs

Look for ‘quirky’ compositions.

Yetis (Bison) in Yellowstone, USA
Doesn’t get much more quirky! Yetis (actually bison) in Yellowstone. Photo: Rob Gibbs

Filling the frame can make a bland photo something to behold…there is nothing worse than that tiny subject surrounded by nothingness.

Stourhead Gardens UK
Fill the Frame with interest, Stourhead Gardens UK. Photo: Rob Gibbs


Another great composition tip is the Rule of thirds…this can give you fantastic results. The rule of thirds states that things look aesthetically pleasing when they are positioned one-third or two-thirds of the way into the image, rather than centred.

Tree on Norfolk Island, Australia
Creative use of the wide angle and rule of thirds, Norfolk Island. Photo: Rob Gibbs
Rule of thirds.  Bison and geyser in Yellowstone, USA
Rule of thirds. Bison and geyser in Yellowstone. Photo: Rob Gibbs


Cropping your photo differently to your 2 x 3 standard DSLR frame ratio can also look great.  This is done in post production of your images, but it is better if you have some concept of your finished result when taking the original image.  I often use 1 x 1, 1 x 2 and 1 x 3 ratios.  Take a series of overlapping vertical images that you can stitch later into a panorama…some cameras have an auto panorama setting that is completed ‘in camera.’

Mariposa Grove Sequioas, Yosemite before post processing
Mariposa Grove Sequioas, Yosemite before post processing. Photo: Rob Gibbs
Mariposa Grove Sequioas, Yosemite, USA
Mariposa Grove Sequioas, Yosemite, 2 x 1 crop and post processing. Photo: Rob Gibbs


 Subject matter should not be a problem on your big trip, but look for interesting patterns, colours and shapes.  If using a wide angle lens get very close to the subject, this can create some artistic distortion and a different look.

Dead Cow, Norfolk Island, Australia
Creative use of the wide angle lens, and the rule of thirds, Norfolk Island, Australia. Photo: Rob Gibbs.

In some circumstances the Time of Day that you take your image, is crucial.  Professional photographers talk about ‘The Golden Hours’.   This is the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, the time when the light is particularly fetching for photography.  This is especially important with landscapes.  If you intend making a serious effort to capture some major attraction, check out some photos on the web to find when it is at its best.   I often use Google Earth to plan my trip direction through National Parks when I am only there for a short time.  Also speak to locals who will be able to tell you when a certain feature might look best.

For example, I have been to Yosemite National Park several times, and each time was fantastic but none were quite as good as during the Spring thaw when the waterfalls were thundering.  Night photos of festivals or dancing look great when leaving the shutter open for a second or so and using the ‘slow flash’ or ‘back flash’ feature, effectively catching perhaps a second of movement and also sharp area of focus when the flash goes off.  Remember you are ‘Drawing with light’…standard flash photos generally look very boring!

The Golden Hour, Bryce Canyon, Utah, USA
The golden hour, Bryce Canyon, Utah. Photo: Rob Gibbs
Slow Flash, Bangle seller, Thailand
Slow Flash. Bangle seller, Thailand. Photo: Rob Gibbs.

4. Use Backup!

My nephew recently lost two cameras on a trip to Thailand.  One was stolen from his hostel, the second he lost when his white water raft tipped over….sadly he has no photographs of what sounded like a great trip.

Always have a plan for backing up your work, whether travelling or not.  Disasters do happen.  Hard drives will crash, it is just a matter of when.  A Dropbox, iCloud or similar account that you can upload to is a great idea if travelling in areas where you have internet access.  Even keeping your card out of your camera and on your person might be a good idea if you are leaving your camera in a dodgy area and have no backups.

5. Post-Production

First rule of post-production is cull cull cull!   Just keep your best images.  Generally I get rid of more than half of my photos!

Should you ‘fix up’ your photos?  Hell yes!  Don’t let people tell you that you shouldn’t fiddle with your images too much.  Back in the day, the guy at the photo lab who always did the good job with the printing of your negative film travel pics was adjusting the exposure, increasing the contrast and punching up the colours.  Professionals dodged and burned the time away in their darkrooms making their fantastic landscapes.  Digital images straight from the camera are generally very flat, I have heard that Nikon deliberately underexpose by 1/3 of an f-stop.

Get some decent software. Many photographers (including Matt, who runs this site) swear by Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for organising, editing and RAW converting images. I use ACDSee Pro, which is great. I also use  Adobe Photoshop Elements for doing Panoramas and anything special.  The guy walking out of the valley with the giant lens probably has the full Adobe Photoshop Suite for his photography post production, but it’s not usually necessary- even the Picasa freeware available from Google is very good.  Learn how to use the histograms, as in the example below.  Just pinching the end sliders toward the bell curve makes a big difference.

Learn how adjust the white balance.  Learn how to do localised exposure and colour adjustments and subtle vignettes.  Just go ahead and make your image as spectacular as you remember it being when you were there.  Be artistic and produce some punchy black and white.

Monument Valley Panorama, No Post Processing
Monument Valley Panorama after stitching and prior to post processing. Photo: Rob Gibbs
Monument Valley Panorama, USA
Monument Valley Panorama after post processing- this is how it looked! Photo: Rob Gibbs


Unprocessed Image, Nova Scotia, Canada
Unprocessed image, the photograph is very dull and lifeless. Nova Scotia, Canada. Photo: Rob Gibbs
Processed image, Nova Scotia, Canada
Processed image. The histogram has been ‘pinched’ at the ends creating more contrast and punch. Nova Scotia, Canada. Photo: Rob Gibbs

6. Presenting Your Work

Please do not just store your images on a computer waiting for the hard drive to pass away.  Back it all up!  Make a slide show.  Get the best images printed and put them in a photo album.  Get some canvasses made for the wall.  My preferred option is a hard cover coffee table book. Blurb make great quality, durable photo books on beautiful paper with high quality printing, and currently have 25% off for all new customers until the end of May. If you’re an Apple fan, they also do great quality photobooks which can be created direct from Aperture or iPhoto. Another company I recommend is an Australian company called Momento.  They use Global Book software which is very easy to use and the finished product is again high quality.  It might cost you $100 or $150 for a 100 page coffee table book, but you have it forever and it is not much compared to what you have outlaid on your trip.

Coffee Table Travel Photo Book
An example of what can be done with a travel photobook

Using the links on this site to purchase products will get you the best deal and also help keep Confiscated Toothpaste free. Did you know you can also purchase prints or cards of any of the images on this website, including Rob’s images? Just use the links under any image you like! In the meantime, you can ask Rob any questions below, or check out more of Rob’s photos at Beaches Images.


Cover Art: Fragments of the Earth

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