Have you ever found yourself wishing you knew how to take better travel photos? Do you enjoy travel photography but you want to “up your game” a bit? Well, then…we have the advice you need! This post is the first in a four-week series loaded with our top travel photography tips for beginners. We’re starting this series with our top five equipment-related tips for beginning travel photographers.
Top Travel Photography Tips for Beginners – The Series
Our four part series covers the top travel photography tips for beginners – everything you’ll need to know from the time you’ve selected your first travel photography camera until you’re back home and sharing your images. The series will be organized into four parts:
- Travel Photography Equipment Tips for Beginners (this post)
- Preparation for Your Trip
- While On Your Trip
- After Your Trip
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Travel Photography Equipment Tips For Beginners
You can’t take great travel photos without making the best possible use of your equipment. To help you get your equipment right, here are our top five travel photography tips for beginners on equipment:
1. Pick the Right Camera
This topic was covered in my recent post on picking the the best camera for beginning travel photographers. For purposes of this post, we’ll summarize the types of cameras you can choose from:
- Full frame cameras: A “full frame” camera is one where the sensor is the same size as a 35mm film frame. Full frame cameras tend to be higher-end equipment and can be packed with lots of features. This is the type of camera most often used by professionals, so you know you can do a lot with them. That said, the learning curve can be steep.
- Crop-frame cameras: A “crop-frame” (or APS-C) camera has a smaller sensor than a full frame camera, and so generally tend to be smaller and lighter cameras. Due to the principles of optical physics, a crop-frame camera gives your lenses a longer effective focal length than they would have on a full frame camera. A 300mm lens on a full frame camera would have an effective length of approximately 420mm with a crop-frame camera. This means you will be able to more effectively capture birds and wildlife that are farther away from you.
- Micro 4/3rds cameras: These cameras have a smaller sensor than the APS-C format. The cameras also use electronic viewfinder (EVF) technology. This allows manufacturers to create smaller and lighter cameras because they do not use prism technology like full- or crop-frame digital SLRs. Image quality for M4/3 cameras is equivalent to that of APS-C sensors, and in some cases are even better.
2. Know your camera
This is always at the top of my list of travel photography tips for beginners: know your equipment.
When I started in travel photography, I can’t tell you the number of “once in a lifetime” shots I ended up missing. Why? Simple – I was fiddling around with my camera trying to figure out what I wanted it to do. I also missed many shots because I expected the camera to capture an image in the same way I saw it with my own eyes (spoiler alert: it won’t). The more I practiced, the more automatic my photography became.
To use an analogy – think of a professional musician. You never see them struggling with their instrument or with how to hit a certain note. They’re focused on the quality and the emotion of the music, not the mechanics of making the notes come out. It’s the same way with a great photographer – the better you know your equipment, the easier it is for you to focus (no pun intended) on capturing a great image.
You should start by familiarizing yourself with all the settings available on your camera. You probably won’t need to use them all, but it’s essential to know what you do and don’t need. I’ve found the manual that comes with the camera to be a great help in discovering the features you have and what you can do with them. Since I purchased my first DSLR, I’ve read through the manuals, marked them up and added sticky notes on pages with key information.
Learning is good, but beginning travel photographers also need to think about putting that learning into practice. I once heard the suggestion that new photographers should practice using their cameras until they can set the dials and buttons without pulling the camera away from their face. If your camera uses a touch-screen for all its functions this advice may not be practical but the principle applies. Keep scrolling through the menus and functions until it becomes second nature to change your settings.
3. Check Before You Shoot
Before doing any travel photography, it’s always a good idea to check a few key settings on your camera. Before you go on any trip, practice checking to make sure everything is set up correctly. Doing so will help ensure that you don’t have any surprises when you’re out in the field, or trying to squeeze off a quick shot. Some things to verify before you start shooting:
- Date and Time: I’m very finicky about making sure the time and date are correct in the metadata of my photos. There are also some good technical and organizational benefits to having the time set correctly. That’s outside the scope of this post…but trust me, you’ll want to have it set correctly. I’ve had several occasions where I’m outside my home timezone and have done a bunch of shooting, only to find out after the fact that I left my camera set on my home time zone. It can generally be fixed after the fact, but why not get it right the first time?
- Shooting Mode: I generally shoot in something called “aperture preferred” mode. This means I choose the aperture opening (or the f-stop) – the setting that determines how much light is coming through the lens. The camera then sets the shutter speed automatically. If I’m doing a different type of photography – maybe fast action, or low light, etc. – I may want to change the shooting mode. You can read all about shooting modes in your camera manual, but it’s always a good idea to ensure you’ve got the right mode (and settings for that mode) before doing any shoot.
- ISO: Many digital cameras allow you to choose the ISO setting, which determines how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to incoming light. Higher ISO numbers allow you to capture more light, which is good for low-light conditions. However, there’s a trade-off: higher ISO settings can mean a lower-quality image. Higher ISO settings typically produce more “grain” in the photo – unnatural looking dots in the photo that affect the overall image. You generally want to set ISO as low as possible given the conditions. I try to keep it around 1000 or lower, but some photographers prefer to stick in the 200-400 range.
- Battery level: This may seem obvious, but it’s not. You should always check to see that your camera has a fully charged battery and that you have at least one spare with you. I’ve had some shooting sessions cut short by a half-charged battery with no backup, and it’s really frustrating when you miss a good shot. If you’re using a mirrorless camera or a camera with an EVF (electronic view finder), keep in mind that these cameras generally have lower battery life. If you fall into this category, get in the habit of carrying two or three spare batteries.
- Memory cards: Again, it should be obvious…but it’s worth checking. Make sure you have a card in your camera before you go out, or you’re not going to be able to shoot anything! When we traveled to Africa I took a card wallet that held 20 cards, and I filled it with 32GB cards. I didn’t have a computer with me on that trip, so I had no backup if I ran out of cards. That may have been overkill, but it’s good to have at least one or two spare cards with you. I was doing a shoot at the San Francisco Botanical Garden a few years ago, and my card failed after only 10 shots. And I had no other cards. Let me tell you…I was NOT a happy camper that day.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice
So…now you know your camera’s settings, and you’ve checked that your camera is charged and ready to go. You think you’re ready to go on that trip and begin shooting National Geographic-quality photos?
Hang on…not so fast.
The best way to achieve competency in anything – including photography – is to practice the art until it becomes second nature. Let’s say you’re taking a trip to a far-off destination to shoot wildlife or birds. Go to a local zoo or a nature park and photograph similar types of animals. It takes a different motion and sense of timing to photograph a bird, versus a land animal, versus a flower or a plant.
Get out and practice a lot (I mean…it’s digital, so the exposures are free!). Shoot from a variety of different angles: stand up high on a bench or a stool. Get low to the ground. Practice approaching animals slowly and quietly as to not spook them. Know whether you’re shooting something that will stay stationary or will move quickly, and practice shooting both scenarios.
The bottom line: the more you practice and sharpen your photography skills at home, the more confident you’ll feel when shooting on your trip. Your results will be better, too.
5. Use A Tripod
In addition to practicing with your camera, get into the practice of using a tripod. In fact, a tripod is one piece of travel photography equipment that every beginning travel photographer should carry with them. Unless you’re shooting fast-moving action, I find it’s generally always a good idea to use a tripod. Here are a few of my top reasons why:
- It’s indispensable for long exposure shots. A good rule of thumb is that if the bottom number of your shutter speed is larger than the focal length of your lens, you’ll probably have a hard time getting a sharp image because of camera shake. So if you’re shooting at 1/50th of a second with a 300mm lens, you’re almost certain to get a blurry image.
- It’s great for panoramic shots. A tripod ensures that the multiple exposures you’ll shoot for a panorama are lined up properly. This means you lose less of your total image when cropping.
- It’s also great for multiple exposures. There are times when you might want to shoot the same scene more than once, changing your exposure for the lighter and darker parts of the image. Using a tripod ensures all your images will be pin-sharp and will line up perfectly.
- It can help support a weighty lens. I used to shoot with a Sigma 150-500mm lens. I loved that lens, except for the fact that it weighed about 6 lbs. Doesn’t sound like much, but it gets heavy quick on a long day of shooting. Using it on a tripod with a lens support means I can just think about my shot, and not have to worry about my arm getting fatigued while holding it.
- Finally, it forces you to slow down. I think this is one of my favorite things about using a tripod. Because I have to mount the camera and adjust the tripod just so, I have to think through my shot. It’s pretty easy as a beginning travel photographer to grab the camera and squeeze off a bunch of shots all at once – but shooting with a tripod takes time, and ultimately helps me capture better images.
Look for a tripod that’s sturdy enough to hold the weight of your camera plus your heaviest lens. If size is at a premium in your luggage or carry-on bag, look for a travel tripod. These fold up smaller than conventional tripods and will fit into almost any suitcase or carry on bag.
Top Tips for Beginning Travel Photographers: What’s Coming Next Week?
Now that you’ve mastered your photographic equipment, it’s time to start preparing for your trip. In Part II of this series, we’ll talk about the best practices and tips on preparing for your trip.