How To Capture Your Own Stunning Travel Photos – Part 1

Author: Joel Wolfson

Tips and Techniques from Joel Wolfson
Part 1 of 2

In my last article I covered the equipment side of travel photography including how to get your gear to your destination and back safely along with the images.

Now I’d like to share some shooting tips and techniques I’ve developed from years of taking travel photos.

It was Sunday morning and I saw several children sprinkling flower petals in the street of this Italian seaside village as part of an annual tradition. I found a great vantage point hiding in a doorway and waited for the man to sit down. As soon as he looked down the street I snapped the shutter. His gaze, along with the strong diagonals in the foreground helps the viewer continue down the pathway.

One of the biggest challenges of taking travel photos is the fact that we are usually limited on time in any one place. We don’t often don’t have the luxury of ideal lighting, good weather, or the right conditions.

There are a number of ways to increase your rate of successful images in light of these challenges. I’ve also included lots of tips in the captions below the photos.

Good planning

Whether you prefer to be spontaneous or you are a meticulous planner, learning something about the region you’re going to will help your photography during your travels. If you are attending a well planned photography workshop then you will have far more time to concentrate on your images without having to worry about finding locations, navigating in unfamiliar territory, or even waste time trying to find good lodging, meals, etc. If traveling on your own, having done some research ahead of time can help quite a bit.

Why are You Shooting That?

My goal with every image is to tell a story or convey an emotion or try to show the viewer what it was like to be there. If you make this your goal with every shot you come back with a much higher percentage of great photos. Think about what compelled you to bring the camera to your eye in the first place and do what you can to convey that.

New Gear for Your Trip

We often use a big trip as a motivation to buy that new camera, lens or tripod. If you’re going to do this, do it long before you go and become thoroughly familiar with it until using it is second nature. Do all this prior to departing for your trip. Otherwise it may prove to be more of a hindrance than a help in coming back with great images. This is particularly true of a new camera. If you don’t have the time then hold off on the purchase- your success rate will be higher with equipment you know well.

It’s All About Light

For this photograph in Tuscany I scouted a great vantage point near my hotel when I arrived and went there for sunrise the next morning. Because I was there for several days I was able to go out on a number of mornings to get just the right combination of morning mist and sweet light.

Let’s first consider the type or quality of light. “Sweet light” is that magical warm golden light when the sun is coming up or setting. Almost everything looks better in sweet light.

Even though you may only be in a particular area for a day or two, scout around and find an interesting location in your area whether it’s a landscape, architecture, town market or something else. Take a look around for possibilities on angles, lenses you might use, etc. You may even get some great shots during this process but the idea is to find out if your subject will be lit to make use of that golden light of sunrise or sunset.

Bring a compass or use an app on your iPhone to figure out where the light will be that evening or the next morning. Remember that if you’re not willing to get up before the sun you’ll miss half your potential opportunities for sweet light.

Also try to plan your days around simply being out and about early and late to increase your chances of being able to use sweet light.You may not be able to do this every day of your trip but if you make a point of it, you will more than likely come back with some some shots you love.

Technology can help too. I use the LightTrac app on my iPhone that tells me where the sun is at any given time of day and date for any location in the world.

This is a garden in an old estate and one of the locations we go to on our Villages of Tuscany Photo Workshop. We arrived late in the day for the nice light. Here I took advantage of that special sweet light one gets in Tuscany, combined with using the exaggerated perspective of an ultra wide angle lens and making use of diagonals to lead the viewer through my frame. This is also an example of side lighting (see Direction of Light) below.

Direction of Light

Every great photographer pays attention to the direction of light. Ask yourself where the direction of light is relative to your subject. Side light? Front light? Back light? Is it the best for my subject or should I change my orientation and change that direction of light? Do these grape vines look best lit from the front or should I move around and kneel down below them with light coming through?

As a rule, front lighting is the least interesting, side lighting is more interesting and back light is the most interesting (and challenging) of all. We generally need frontal lighting for landscapes so this is why we seek the best type/quality of light which is around sunrise or sunset.

One of the reasons I love to conduct photo workshops in Tuscany and Provence is that those two places have a special quality of light that has attracted many of the greatest artists in the world for centuries. Essentially there is a lot of extra sweet light in the afternoon- much earlier in the day than you would see it in most other parts. A little hard to describe so I’d just recommend going there yourself!

The Italian village on the Sea (left) is an example of front lighting, For the Tuscan church image (middle) I used light from the side coming through an open door and the vineyard in Le Marche, Italy (right) shows my use of back lighting.

What About Midday Light?

Although we’re thankful for sunny days when we travel, if you take away the golden light hours, most of the day is full of boring flat light with harsh shadows. There are still plenty of opportunities for capturing great photos.

If shooting a broad scene, look for some nice clouds in the sky and wait for them to move so you can frame them for a nice composition. If there are no clouds then try to use that vast area of blue as negative space to accentuate your main subject.

Along with this, look for a different perspective and/or vantage point. Try different lenses and think about other ways of augmenting the image with something as simple as using a different aspect ratio/format such as a panorama, vertical or square. If there’s nice contrast, tone or texture in the scene think about using black and white, and even try extreme or different angles or lenses. It can’t hurt to think about and try several different treatments of the same subject. It sharpens your visualization skills so you can see a final image in your mind’s eye as second nature.

I found a vantage point where I used a fisheye lens and the corner overhang of a building as a frame to mimic the shape of the piazza (main square). The solid blue sky provides negative space to make the tall clock tower stand out. Combined with repetition of shapes and forms it makes for an interesting photo even in midday sun.


This is an area of Tuscany where I love to take my workshop participants. It’s called the Crete Senesi and always has wonderful opportunities for photos, any time of day. Although shot before optimal time of day the lower clouds mimic the shape of rolling hills. The upper clouds with dark sky provide a nice frame and by using black and white the texture, forms, and contrast are accentuated without the distraction of color.

If the sky isn’t that interesting you can always look for a subject and composition where you minimize or eliminate the sky.

Both of these images I captured midday. By looking around and paying attention to the light I made use of the architecture and got spot lighting in these scenes. I also used other elements such as the plants and color and texture of the walls to create more compelling photos.

Another idea is to go the opposite way from a broad scene and shoot smaller parts of a scene, perhaps architectural details or close-up shots.

In the middle of the day I was checking a seaside town for our Villages of Sicily Photo Workshop. There weren’t really any good opportunities for broad village scenes so I focused on the colorful paint used on the homes and building with this architectural snippet. I just made use of rectangles and color.

I was checking out a winery and vineyard for my Sicily workshop. It was mid afternoon and due to the lackluster sky and background I chose to tell the story of the vineyard at harvest time with a small detail shot of just one bunch of grapes on the vines.

If you don’t like the light outside go inside. You can shoot inside a church or cool little shop or create a portrait of someone inside.

This church is very popular and always full of people. Rather than get frustrated by the swarms of people I went to a less crowded area where people were lighting candles. I put my camera on top of a pew to keep it steady for a long exposure. With the 5 second exposure I created a sense of motion and told a little story while showing the beautiful interior.

If it’s Stormy or Overcast – Be Patient and Ready
Stormy days can be great for landscapes or broad scenes because you can get some really dramatic skies or even rainbows. Just be prepared for inclement weather with a raincoat and a way to keep your camera dry. Be patient because when there are stormy skies you might get some great spot lighting or a bright scene against a dark background.

Città di Siena
The sun only broke through the stormy sky for a moment- but simply by being observant and ready my wife captured this dramatic image of Siena in Tuscany.

Another stormy day, this time in Scotland. I was walking in the woods to avoid some of the rain but kept poking my head out to look at the sky, knowing these conditions could produce a rainbow. I not only got a rainbow but was able to frame a castle in the background illuminated by the momentary sunshine.

Don’t figure the day is a bust if it’s just plain gray, overcast or raining. It provides another type or quality of light: diffuse light. That’s a great time to get some moody shots, eliminate harsh shadows, or shoot photos of people.

I embraced the rainy day by trying to capture the mood of the wet empty streets with a sole pedestrian braving the rain under his umbrella. Using black and white helps emphasize the grayness.

In this part of my two part series on travel photography I’ve offered some tips and techniques I’ve learned and used over the years to deal with different lighting conditions and weather we inevitably encounter while traveling.

Part 2 will look at shooting at night, markets and food, thinking outside of the box, and photographing people.

You can see an expanded version of this article on my blog with different photos, more tips in the captions, and a new section on composition.

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Traveling for Photography

by Joel Wolfson

When you go on a major trip with photography in mind, just deciding what gear to bring and getting to your destination and back with all of it can be as much of a challenge as shooting great photos once you are there! Over the years I’ve done a number of travel photography presentations. Here are answers to some of the most practical questions I’ve received about the strategies of traveling for photography.

What to Bring and Using Checklists

What gear should I take with me? And…If you had to choose just one lens, what would it be?

The short answer is to travel as light as possible. My strategy is to take the minimum gear I think I will need in a case I take on the plane with me. I can fit everything I need for a long trip in my ThinkTank Airstream bag which will fit overhead or under the seat, even on many small commuter planes.

The premise is that I will choose a portion of that gear to take with me when I head out each day. I have several different setups I use but I always have a camera with me. On the overseas workshops I conduct, we always have a driver with the vehicle so it is possible to take an array of gear with you and just use what you need at each stop that day and leave the rest in the van with the driver. If you don’t have that luxury or don’t feel leaving gear in your car will be safe then just take what you are willing to carry on your person. Here are examples of my kits. Naturally you want to tailor these to your own needs.

1. When I want to have maximum coverage of situations:

  • DSLR body with walkabout lens such as 24-120 f4.0 zoom (24-105 or even 24-70 is fine too- just depends on the brand of camera and lenses available)
  • 70-300 f4.0-5.6 zoom for telephoto needs
  • 18-35 f3.5-4.5 wide angle zoom for ultra wide needs (on some occasions I might bring my 14mm f2.8 if I think I will really need it)
  • Travel tripod (I use a Gitzo Traveler which is a compact fold-up carbon fiber tripod because it is both lightweight and sturdy- downside is they are expensive)
  • Bag, case, or sling pack: Most of this gear fits in a small shoulder bag but the tripod requires a separate case or to be strapped to the shoulder bag. Alternatively if I want to carry everything in one pack and might be out all day walking with my gear I’ll use my Kata sling pack which has a tripod holder on it and compartment for some water, raincoat, protein bars, and a hat.

2. My favorite lightweight rigs, two of which include “that one lens”:

  • DSLR with a 28-300 f3.5-5.6 zoom (great for street shooting and will cover almost any situation) OR
  • ILC (Interchangeable Lens Compact/Mirrorless) with 28-280mm (equivalent) lens. I use a system called Micro 4/3 that has a vast array of camera bodies and lenses available and is lightweight and small. OR
  • ILC with 24-80mm 2.8, 90-400mm f4-5.6, 14-28mm f4.0 Because my ILC system is so compact and light, all of this fits in to a very small shoulder bag.

3. Bare minimum options:

  • DSLR body with walkabout zoom such as 24-120mm f4.0 OR
  • ILC body with walkabout zoom such as 24-80mm 2.8 OR
  • iPhone. I’m not kidding. The images can’t be enlarged much and the quality is so-so but there are tons of great apps for creative use of this ultra compact camera that we almost always have with us (or equivalent if you have another smartphone). Because I always have my iPhone with me I will sometimes shoot first on my pro cameras and then do another version on the iPhone to make it easy to send in a message or quickly post online. Although some of my cameras allow me to transfer images wirelessly it is sometimes still faster to just shoot a variation on my iPhone.

Do you use checklists?

Absolutely yes. I am a huge fan of checklists and consider them essential. For travel I have checklists for camera gear, my non-camera items that I need to pack such as clothing, and travel essentials that I carry with me like passport, important phone numbers, etc., and another list for all the things I need to do prior to my trip such as get travel insurance, automatic bill paying, research which of my credit cards have best foreign exchange rates and fees, etc.  I keep them on my computer and update them before every trip.

Packing and Flying With Your Gear

Should I check my gear or carry it on board?

I don’t ever recommend putting cameras, lenses or other gear in your checked bags. The only possible exception is a tripod. Although TSA allows you to carry on a tripod I generally pack my tripod in my checked bag because security agents sometimes get a little freaked out by them and if my bag were delayed or lost I could get by with the compact/tabletop tripod I pack in my carry-on case. If I am going to be in a remote location where I am not likely to find a replacement tripod then I may find a way to carry it on.

Do you have any tips for packing gear?

My rule of thumb is to carry on the plane with me any gear that can’t be easily replaced at my destination in case my checked luggage is delayed or lost. This means all cameras and lenses. Although you might consider things like your camera batteries and chargers extra weight they can be the hardest things to replace, depending where you are traveling. Find a way to fit them in your carry-on bag. Make sure your transport/carry-on camera case meets the latest airline size requirements.

What concerns are there with foreign airlines?

On many of my trips I have to fly foreign airlines which means totally different security and carry-on requirements. This can happen even if you’ve booked your tickets through a U.S. Airline because they have a foreign partner and you check in on your return from a foreign country. It is common to have weight restrictions that are impossible to adhere to with camera gear such as the 5 kilo (11 lbs) carry-on limit I’ve encountered in Europe. Some don’t have an option to pay extra for the excess weight and force you to check that expensive fragile gear that will ultimately be tossed around by the baggage gorillas or maybe even stolen.

My solution? I take a camera vest with me and put it on before I walk up to the check-in counter. I put lenses and other gear in the myriad of large pockets on the vest to bring my carry-on bag down to the weight limit. I make sure I have checked all the size and weight restrictions before I leave the U.S. including weighing my bags with a scale so I know exactly what gear to put in my vest. I put the bulkiest stuff in pockets of the vest that aren’t readily visible to the check-in agent just to be on the safe side. Once the agent has checked you in and weighed your carry-on bag you can often just repack your carry-on (out of view of the ticket counter) and before you go through security. If you think your bag might get weighed again at security then you can just keep the vest on. They will of course ask you to take it off at security and at that point you can carefully put the vest in a security tray to go through the x-ray and repack your carry-on bag later.

Once You Are There

Do you speak (insert language here)?

Although being proficient in the native language of the country to which you are traveling would certainly come in handy, it’s not a necessity. But what is a necessity is to learn at least a few basic phrases, be respectful and smile. As a minimum learn how to say things like “hello”, “please”, “thank you”, and “sorry I don’t speak XXXXX, do you speak English?” in the native language of the countries you visit. You’ll find that just by using a few words people are much more amenable to helping you or having their picture taken. One of the most useful phrases is simply “May I?” By pointing to your camera and saying “Posso?” in Italy or “Puis-je?” in France (you get the idea) you are able to ask permission to shoot a photo of someone or their home or shop, etc. In some countries it may also help keep you out of trouble. Using this phrase in Italy I learned

that one is not allowed to shoot photos of the police. In some cases they let me shoot photos of them anyway. Either way the locals appreciate being asked, as you or I would.

Do you do backups when you are traveling?

Yes. Here is my shooting workflow: When I get back to my hotel I download all my photos to my computer (I use a Macbook Air for traveling which is very small and light). Then I back everything up to a portable external drive. Now I have two copies of each image- one set on my laptop’s main drive and one set on my external drive.

As an extra precaution I copy yet another backup set to a high capacity SD card. I then mail the SD card back to my studio. This last step is for less likely but not impossible scenarios: Such as laptop and external drive being stolen from the hotel or during travel or one of those items being stolen and the other drive fails or becomes corrupted. Another important precaution, especially if you only make one backup, is to keep your laptop and backups in separate places to decrease the likelihood of both being stolen. If you are traveling with someone, have them carry the backup.

There are many other scenarios for backups: You can bring double the number of cards for your camera and simply not reuse them (you still want to download them to your laptop, tablet or phone.) Some cameras have wireless transmission and you can send copies to your phone or tablet though this is a bit cumbersome. If you have enough storage in the cloud you can back up that way too- just allow enough time, like overnight to do it.

Remember that some of these scenarios require wi-fi or cell signal which you may or may not have depending upon where you travel and stay. If you are traveling to remote locations that may not have electricity you can use a battery powered hard drive for backups.

Before posting/publishing your images: Edit, edit, edit.

The key to successful presentation of your images when posting them during your trip or upon your return is to remember that less is more. Only show your very best images and be your own worst critic. It’s tempting to show others every place you went and everything you did. If you can distill it down to a handful of great images that give a feel for the greatest experiences, you’ll leave your audience wanting more rather than yawning.

Naturally there are many more things to consider and all of these questions are about practical non-shooting aspects of traveling with photography as a primary goal. Hope this helps!

You can see an expanded version of this article on my blog with my complete gear list, discussions of prime lenses vs zooms, and model and property releases

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