Improve Your Travel Photos

Learn how to capture iconic images on your next vacation.

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Photography has always been part of my travel experiences. Regardless of the camera I owned, I always loved taking photos of every country I travelled to.

Besides studying photography in high school, much of what I’ve learnt about photography has been from taking photos in extreme conditions. I have also studied multiple books like the Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Photography, completed online courses from National Geographic, MasterClass with Annie Leibovitz and browsed multiple photography magazines, but being out on the road, taking photos in a variety of conditions is the best way to learn, for anyone.

Whilst creating the Travelosophy podcast episode #17 about travel photography, it was certainly tricky trying to summarise 30+ years of photography into a single podcast episode. So this post is all the photos I mentioned in the podcast, along with a summary of what I spoke about.

The above image could be improved upon, but it’s still iconic and in one image sums up Vietnam. Every trip should include at least one image, that defines the destination, that you could print and frame on a wall, and look at it everyday, and remember everything about your trip. That is what travel photography is to me, not just a selfie to prove I went somewhere, it’s about telling a story, evoking memories and sharing with others, what I’ve experienced.

First the technical aspects of photography. Capturing an image requires three elements to line up:

  • Aperture
  • Shutterspeed
  • ISO

Aperture sets how much light, is allowed into the camera, whilst the shutter is open, which affects how much of the image is in focus. Think of it like an eyelid. When your eyelid is half open, objects far away will be blurry. When it’s fully open, everything (near and far) will be in focus. Also pupils go big in low light, pupils go tiny in bright light, exactly like the aperture settings you’ll need on your camera.

Aperture settings vary depending on your lens capability and range in numbers from 1.4 (best for low light) up to 22 (best for bright light). A typical landscape scene in average daytime lighting could use an aperture setting of between 8-10.

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is measured in seconds or part thereof e.g. 1/100, 1/200, 1,2 or 3 seconds etc. Quicker speeds for daytime, slower speeds for night time and for any special effects like blurred movement.

ISO increases the amount of light in your photo, without using a flash. An ISO setting of 100 is best for daytime photos on a sunny day, 200 is best for a cloudy day, and over 1000 is best for dark shadows or low light photography.

A great photo is a combination of all three settings being in sync, however even in auto settings, often the camera doesn’t quite get it right because it’s making a judgement call. However you can use this auto information as a guide.

An easy way to learn the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO is to set the camera to auto, take a photo, and note down what the settings were. Then switch the camera to manual, adjust the settings one or two notches from what the camera chose, and see how it affects your photo. 

Though at the end of the day, personal preference does plays a part of what makes a photo ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  What may be pleasing to the eye to you, may not be to others, however as a generalisation, the better the photo, the more people will agree that it’s a great photo but it all goes back to the single question you should always ask yourself:

“Would this photo look incredible, printed and framed on a wall, and could I continue looking at it, for months or years to come.”
If the answer is yes, then it’s a great photo.

If the answer is no, then think about what you could do to enhance the photo?

  • Can you come back later in different lighting?
  • Perhaps change your stance or angle
  • Get lower to the ground or higher up?
  • Will adding or removing people make it better?
  • Maybe you need to adjust your camera aperture settings to include richer colours and more detail.

There’s many conditions that change a photo. Always ask ‘could I look at this image everyday and still like it? If not, what can I change to make it that way?’

The above image was taken in the Philippines and was a careful combination of patience, standing still in the water so as not to cause ripples and having the settings for the sunset, correct before taking the shot. I’d already taken the photo of the sunset, but it was missing something, it felt empty. The kids added an element of texture but also a key point of interest. I saw them running down the beach and so got ready, to take the shot, as they spread out in the frame. Each silhouette tells a different story. Sometimes a photo needs people to bring it to life.

Rickshaw in Delhi. Image by Jade Jackson

The above image isn’t perfect, but the wooden doors and shutters provide an interesting detail, and the blues of the rickshaw and upper shutters contrast nicely against the wall. Lastly, the shadows of multiple electricity wires shout ‘India’ with it’s crazy chaos. The first few shots I took of other people going past, were too dark in the foreground, so I increased the ISO to provide more even lighting throughout. The rickshaw wasn’t going fast enough to create a blur but taking the image as a portrait meant the rickshaw filled the lower part of the frame. You can almost feel the warmth from the afternoon sun, which is enhanced by the colour of the wall.

This photo is especially magical because the trees are no longer there. I took it in Cape Palliser, in New Zealand. I was driving, and had a split second to decide to stop to take the photo. I’m so glad I did. I returned to the same spot in 2018 and the trees were gone. Only the pointed rock remained. This is also a classic photo of contrasting colours, blue and orange clash but at the same time, work well together. The wild leaves of the cabbage tree remind me of a tree in a Dr Seuss book. Purchase a copy of this image from my shop.

Learning to use a camera is only a small part of being a travel photographer. Recognising a scene worth shooting is a skill that can’t be taught with a manual, however it is something that can be learned. By at first mimicking other photographers, learning through trial and error (much easier with digital), and lastly by planning the aspects of the photo you can control.

Recommended reading:

The book series Read This Book If You Want To…. Take Great Photographs, Take Great Photographs of Places, and Take Great Photographs of People are useful as a quick reference guide, and also showcase famous photos, and different aspects of photography. In it, they mention the tech specs, talk about lighting angles, framing and colour. They highlight what is good about each photo, and what makes it a standout shot. Basically it gives you a whole bunch of images to mimick whilst teaching you the visuals you need to recognise, until you start to see images pop out yourself. There’s also the ironic Read This If You Want To Be Instagram Famous

The photo above was taken from a clifftop looking down. The gradual darkening of the water and the rocks automatically directs your eyes up the photo, then you’re surprised with a boat. When taking portrait orientated scenery or ‘landscape’ shots, make sure there is something of interest in each section of the photo—bottom, middle and top. The lack of sky, means you fall into the image and the waves become a pattern. Purchase this image from my shop.

In the image above, you can see how portrait orientated scenery shots, can in some cases be more alluring. The cliff and little splash of light in the bottom of the image directs the eyes to the next part, which is the darker green trees before leading to the Blue haze the Blue Mountains are famous for. In order to capture the colours, an aperture of around 16 was used. Lastly the clouds keep us orientated and help provide a contrast to the blue haze. Purchase this image from my shop.

Speaking of clouds, I didn’t go into much detail about them in the podcast episode, but clouds can greatly enhance your photo. Not only do they provide filtered light, so there is less shadows, but colours can appear brighter, against a grey/white background of clouds. Also a solid cloud, can add texture to an otherwise bland sky. I despise shooting under blue skies because every photo looks the same. Plus harsh sunlight provides unnecessary glare. Without clouds, sunrises and sunsets lack the dramatic colours, splashed across the sky. For more about clouds, I’ve written an entire blog post about them—here which also includes a podcast episode I recorded about clouds.

Monks in Laos. Image by Jade Jackson.

The above image of monks required getting down low, like I was actually lying in the middle of the road. It was taken years ago but I still love this shot. Mainly because no one else has replicated it. It’s got contrasting colours, a subject that drags your eyes across the image, it’s both controversial (because feet are unholy) but equally it gives you the sense that there are lots of monks, which was the effect I was trying to create. It was taken during the collecting of the alms, which happens every morning. I wanted to show them lined up, but was more in awe of the mass of orange. Overall that is what is stands out in the shot. It tells a story, but also tells you nothing. This works well as part of a story of images.

Man lit at night by his cellphone. Image by Jade Jackson

Night photography was always my weakest area so I learnt to better capture images at night (but without using a flash). By increasing the ISO to 3200 there’s enough detail you can see the buildings, lit only by distant streetlights however, the subjects face is clearly seen, lit only by the light of his cellphone. The window behind looks like a jail cell, which provides more light, texture and intrigue to the image. It’s not an award winning photo, but I was happy that I managed to enhance my skills, to capture a moment, that was previously unattainable.

Woman walking at night. Image by Jade Jackson.

In another image at night in China, at first glance, it’s not much to look at, but only when you delve deeper do you notice the pink flowers in the tree, the bicycle on the left, the windows of different shapes. The only light was from the streetlight off the photo but again by upping the ISO there’s enough light to make the photo work, without a flash which would have startled the woman and changed the scene. Purchase this image from my shop.

Kids playing in Laos. Image by Jade Jackson.

In the image of kids behind a gate, again the gate looks somewhat like a jail, but the kids weren’t framed by the red gate, until they saw my camera, so this was an instance of ‘the camera set up the shot’. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, be ready.

House by the sea, Wales. Image by Jade Jackson.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find the original image, however, this is the posted and laminated version I have up in my room. I converted it to black and white, I was on a bus hence why the grass is blurred, but it helps make the house stand out. A good example of three elements to fill a frame – dark grass with the house, ocean with rough waves, and finally sky with grey clouds. It’s not straight lines but each leads into the next.

Italian Bakery in New York. Image by Jade Jackson.

This image tells a story to me because I remember standing on the opposite street corner, whilst Jennifer (a close friend who recently died) waited patiently for me to take the photo, even though she was cold, hungry and tired. So often what goes on behind the lens, is as much the story as what is happening in-front of the lens. This photo was utilising the light from the street lights, from inside the bakery and from the reflection of the snow to create enough light to see the scene. It’s a tad dark, but that’s okay, because it draws attention to the Bakery making it warm and inviting and highlights the woman about to enter.

Lombok sunset. Image by Jade Jackson.

A common problem in tropical climates is condensation on your lens, if you have recently been in an air-conditioned hotel room. You can get fog inserts (designed for Go Pro) and wedge them in your lens cap. It helps but doesn’t fix it. You can warm up your camera before taking any photos, by carrying it around in the warm air or you can take the shot regardless because the sun was setting and you didn’t want to miss it. The result was this, the condensation provided enough of a filter so I ended up with the beautiful light cross and orange haze which filled the frame.

When it comes to rain, fog or mist you should be jumping at the opportunity to take photos. I’ve written an entire post about photographing mist which includes the above image. Set against a foggy sky, I was able to capture the details of the fern leaves, without too much shade or glare. Plus as black and white, it looks like a piece of art.

Pandas, China. Image by Jade Jackson.

Lastly when it comes to editing, don’t forget to use the album features to only include the best of the best photos when it comes time to show your friends. Three photos of pandas is more than enough, despite me taking over 600 images.

To learn more about the Apple Photos editing features, head to your nearest Apple Store and sign up for one of their free workshops. They also offer iPhone photography workshops including landscapes, people and colour. Regardless of whether you’re using a phone or SLR camera, they may help to improve your photography skills. Check out Today at Apple (change the location) for workshops in your neighbourhood.

I remember trying to explain to a friend how when I travel, I have photography days and I have break days. Of course it’s often the break days where you see the most, but being a photographer, you need to think like a photographer. Something akin to I guess being an artist and seeing beauty wherever you go. Likewise sometimes music can help set the mood. When I was in Italy, I loved wandering, taking photos whilst listening to Opera music. Download millions of tracks, free for three months with Apple Music.

So if you want to both improve your technical ability, and also capture unique original photos, go out in the conditions that other photographers would be packing up their gear in. Go out in in extreme conditions like poor lighting, wet weather, fog or night and use what you can to capture what you see. Keep playing with the ISO, the shutter speed and aperture settings until you get the shot. You’ll learn the direct correlation between light and dark, between manual and auto focus and how iso and shutter speed can make the shot, regardless of what light you have to play with. Don’t rely on flash at first, remember all light is light to a camera, whether that be a streetlight, the moon, a cell phone screen or a neon billboard. Light can also be reflected off metal or wet surfaces like tar.

I have plenty more photos which you can find in my online shop or in my portfolio of travel images from a recent trip to China. Alternatively I also wrote a post about the stories behind the photos. It’s not just a photo, it’s the story of my life.

If you wish to share your travel photos you can tag me on instagram (I know) @jadekinsjackson or feel free to contact me.

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If you’d like a free Blue Mountains image from my shop, simply fill out your details below and you’ll receive a free digital download, ready to print and frame, valued at $35.

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