You’ve finally made it.  You’re standing in the place you’ve dreamed of visiting for so long and it’s just as surreal as you imagined.

You hear the sounds of the waves breaking against the shore, taste the salt in the air, feel the light tug of your hair blowing in the sea breeze.  The sun is setting, leaving trails of pink and blue cotton candy in its wake.  You pull out your phone, determined to capture the perfection in this moment.

You snap away, only to realise later that your attempt at capturing perfection actually resulted in photos as disappointing as those Friends reunion rumours that ALWAYS prove to be false (seriously, why do people always get my hopes up about that?!).

Sound familiar?  If so, read on for some helpful travel photography tips for all you beginners out there!

1. Look for the Light

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: Use side light to interestingly illuminate a subject, like the sun hitting the side of this mountain during sunset.

Beautiful side light coming in during sunset along the Oregon coast. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

Ask any photographer what they believe to be the most important elements of a photograph and I promise most will put light at the top of their list.

Light is the single most important element of a photograph.  I mean, obviously, if there’s no light, you can’t take a photo, but more specifically, it’s light that creates interest and drama in a photo.

As much as possible, try to find interesting light when taking a photo.  Look for light that is coming from the side or from behind your subject.  Look for soft light instead of harsh sunlight.

Look for interesting shadows that can compliment the environment.  Look for light that is creating something interesting or beautiful.  Incorporating interesting light will definitely help you step up your travel photo game.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: The sun backlighting these islands in Hawaii is a perfect use of interesting light.

Dramatic backlighting during sunrise over The Moaks off of the shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

2. Consider Composition

[kom-puh-zish-uh n] -noun
def:  the organisation or grouping of the different parts of a work of art so as to achieve a unified whole

The composition of a photo is one of the most significant aspects of every photo and is responsible for evoking emotion, awe, curiosity, etc.  In photography, composition is simply what elements a photographer chooses to include in a photo and how they arrange those chosen elements.  When deciding how to compose your photo, take into consideration the following:

a) The Rule of Thirds

Imagine that your photo has a tic-tac-toe board running through it, with two horizontal and two vertical lines.  The 4 different points at which the vertical and horizontal lines intersect are located 1/3 from the left or right side and 1/3 from the top or bottom.  These intersections represent the area in a photo that is most comfortable and enjoyable for a viewer.  (Yes, there has, in fact, been scientific analysis about the comfortability of viewing photos.)

When composing your photograph, try to put your main subject (whether that’s a human or an object) at or near one of those intersections.  Then, fill the rest of the frame with an awesome environment, and BAM!  You’ve nailed the Rule of Thirds.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: A good example of the rule of thirds. The subject is positioned in the top right intersection of the invisible tic-tac-toe board.

Rule of Thirds. Notice the subject is placed near the intersection of the invisible tic-tac-toe board. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

Note:  Just like all other rules, the Rule of Thirds can totally be broken.  There is something awesome about a perfectly centred subject as long as there is something equally awesome surrounding the subject.  Sometimes being bad is oh so good.

b) Leading Lines

Imagine the last time you saw someone point at something.  Did you look at what the person was pointing at? I’m gonna guess you took a peek.

This is exactly what leading lines are.  When composing a photo, look for lines that you could use to point to your subject.  This takes some practice, but eventually, you’ll begin seeing lines everywhere.  Think walls, stairs, tree branches, streets, sloping mountains, even shadows.  Anything that acts as a line in nature is a perfect photographic element.  Once you find those lines, place your subject in an area where the lines lead to it, and you’ve once again nailed another rule of composition.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: The lines of the train, tracks, and shops are leading the viewer's eye to the mountains.

Lines: train, tracks, shacks. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

c) Angles

Before taking a photo, consider all of the angles from which you could shoot.  Would that plate of food look amazing from above?  Would that baby elephant look even more adorable if you kneeled down to its level?  How about that creek you’re wading through…would it look larger if you positioned your camera just above water level?  Take a couple shots from different angles and see what you like best.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: I lowered myself to just above water level in order to make the foreground interesting. I also incorporated lines here with the rocks leading to the subject.

By lowering myself to just above the water, I made a more interesting foreground, resulting in a more interesting image.  Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

3. Silhouette It

This is one of my absolute favorite things to do, especially when there is a good sunset going down.  Silhouetting a subject simply means that you’re turning your subject into a dark (usually black) outline in order to focus attention on a lighter background.  For non-photographers, this is the best way to photograph someone in front of a sunset AND allow the natural colours of the sunset to come through.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: These pine trees along the ridge of the mountain are silhouetted against the sunset.

Silhouette of pine trees along the Oregon coast during sunset. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

If you’re using a cell phone, simply touch the background on your screen in order to tell the camera to expose for the sunset instead of the subject.  Be sure that your flash is set to “Off” so that the flash doesn’t ruin the silhouette.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: The palm trees, people, and docks are all silhouetted against this gorgeous sunset on a Puerto Rican beach.

Silhouette of palm trees along Crash Boat Beach in Puerto Rico. Taken with my iPhone.

Pro-tip:  When silhouetting a human, it’s most effective to photograph them from the side so that you see their profile.  If photographing from the front or back, be sure they are standing with their feet slightly apart and arms away from their body so they don’t look like a big black blob.  Separation and outlines are important to silhouettes!

4. Use Humans

Travel photography doesn’t have to be just landscapes and food shots!

Including people in your travel photos is totally cool, and according to Instagram, super popular!  Human subjects add some interest to a photo and can actually compliment a landscape.  You can also add a person in order to create a sense of scale if you’re photographing something that has a size that doesn’t translate well in photographs (think ruins or trees…things that vary in size).

Also, by adding a person, you’re allowing viewers to have a more personal connection with a location.  They can imagine themselves in that very spot doing whatever it is the person in the photo is doing.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: This human was used to show the scale of this mountain ridge as it meets the sky.

Climbing mountains in Puerto Rico. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

Pro-tip:  Avoid posing.  If including a person in a travel photo, have them immersed in the environment rather than hand-on-hip-duck-face-selfie pose.  Photographing someone on the beach?  Have them running into the water or laying in the sand.  Photographing someone in a restaurant?  Have them take a drink or cut their food.  Interacting with the environment allows for a more authentic viewing experience.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: Rather than having her posed and smiling, I photographed her running around on the beach.

A little frolic along Piha Beach, New Zealand. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

5. Scour the Streets

This may be the one time in my life when I encourage someone to be a creep.  This photography trick, called street photography, is a little creepy and a lot awesome.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: These cave divers took a little break while swimming in Cueva del Indio, Puerto Rico. They were sitting in the perfect light, so I HAD to photograph them.

Spying on some cave divers in Cueva del Indio, Puerto Rico. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

Street photography is essentially photographing people living, working, or moving within an environment.  Now, don’t actually be a creep and look into people’s windows.  Instead, photograph people interacting around you.  See a couple sitting in the most beautiful park in Paris?  Snap it!  Spot a little old lady selling her crafts on the side of the street?  Photograph it!

These are the photos that are going to help you remember the intimate workings of that particular location.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: Image of two women taking a break for lunch next to their vending cart on the streets of Cuzco, Peru.

Ladies lunching in between customers in Cuzco, Peru. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

6. Don’t Forget the Details

Don’t become so focused on the bigger picture (see what I did there?!) that you forget about the little details that make up the beauty of an area.  Slow down, look closer, and capture the small things.  Some of my very favourite photos from my travels are actually detail photos!

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: Closeup image of sea grass with drops of fresh morning dew.

Morning dew on seagrass along the Oregon Coast. I got up early to photograph sunrise and was one of the only people on the beach. I love looking at this photo and remembering that morning. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

7. Authenticity

The most affective and effective photos are those that tell a story.

Be sure that you’re capturing stories within your photos so that you can represent a location in the most authentic way possible.  You may even want to take notes while you’re photographing so that when you return home to tell your story (via voice OR fingers), your words will be authentic, descriptive, and emotive.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: Image of a sugar cane juice maker handing me his final product after letting me photograph the process of creating the juice.

I photographed this man processing sugar cane into juice. This series of photos documenting his work on the side of the street in rural Puerto Rico shows what life is like for many in the area. Photo copyright by Erica Kay Photography.

8. Remember Why You Came

Why are you here?  What inspired you to book this trip?  Don’t get so caught up in the excitement of a new place and a new hobby (photography, duh!) that you forget the reasons why this trip exists in the first place.  When exploring and photographing, remember those reasons and capture the physical reminders of those reasons.

Just like some of my detail photos, some of the most memorable photos I’ve taken while traveling aren’t necessarily the gorgeous sunset or the to-die-for architecture, but rather the little reminders of the things that made me have such wanderlust for a certain area.

Travel Photography Tips for Non-Photographers: Image of Machu Picchu emerging from early morning clouds and mist.

Machu Picchu is why I went to Peru. I’d been dreaming of this view for 12 years before finally making the trek. Photo copyright of Erica Kay Photography.

9. Don’t Forget to Edit

Photographers and non-photographers alike should ALWAYS do a bit of doctoring before sending pictures into the virtual world.  Most cameras today take great photos, but none take perfect photos.  Here are a few basic tips to keep in mind when editing your photos.

All of these tips can be implemented using advanced editing software like Photoshop and Lightroom or basic apps like VSCO and Litely.

  • Brighten shadows so that there isn’t too much darkness in your photos.
  • Bring down highlights so that that isn’t too much brightness in your photos.
  • Adjust your overall exposure to make sure the whole image isn’t too dark or too bright.
  • Don’t oversaturate your colors.  A little added saturation is ok, but don’t go overboard.
  • Pay attention to your color temperature.  Does your photo look unnaturally cool (blue) or warm (yellow)?  If so, use the temperature adjustment to balance that out.
  • Get the perfect amount of contrast.  Too much contrast leaves a photo looking fake and over-processed and too little contrast leaves it washed out.

10. Shoot!

Now, get out from behind your screen, go out into the world, and shoot some images! The sooner you start, the sooner your photography will improve.

What did you think of this beginner guide to travel photography? What are your favourite travel photography tips?