Top Ten Keys to Bitchin' Travel Photography

March 05, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Bill’s Top 10 Keys to Travel Photography

Let me get this out there – I don’t make my living from travel photography.  However, due to my other profession as a corporate pilot I am lucky enough to travel the world on somebody else’s dime.  I’ve been to over 50 countries in the last 10 years, so I’d like to say I’ve picked up a thing or two on shooting (cameras) abroad.  I figure I won’t be able to fly forever, so I make it a point to try and capture the best images I can so I can look at them when I’m in an old-folk's home or use them to bore my grandkids. 

Because I’m not trying to sell my images, my focus is a little different than maybe a professional photographer who is making a living selling his/her craft.  While I am constantly working to improve and grow my skill, I shoot for me.  I shoot what impresses me, I shoot what disgusts me, and I shoot what makes me laugh.  I try to capture the essence and feel of a location so I can revisit through memories, or share with others.

Okay, let’s get started with my list.  I’m making this as easy as I can – no clicking from ad-filled page to ad-filled page to view the list.  It’s all here on this easy-to-read page.


I now shoot with a Canon 5D Mk II, and I have a quiver of lenses to go with it.  I also have external flashes, tripods, and every other piece of photo equipment I can figure out how to justify.  (We don’t reallllly need to make our mortgage payment, just think of all the revenue I could make shooting portraits with that 85mm 1.2L…)  (Just kidding, I just have the f1.8 version…) That camera alone with a couple lenses is pretty heavy.  I don’t always bring the 5D on my trips, usually only if it’s an interesting destination and if I think I’ll have an opportunity to shoot.  If I am dragging the camera along I’ll usually bring my 24-105mm lens and maybe a 50mm 1.8 for some short depth of field stuff.  I have a 17-40 if I really want to go wide, but I really like the 24-105 and that's the lens that pretty much lives on my camera.  No tripod, no flash - they stay at home.  I have a smallish sling bag I can carry the camera and lenses in.  We’re fairly mobile on the road and I usually have a normal sized roller-board suitcase, a Tumi computer bag thing, and my camera bag if I have it along.  It sucks dragging a heavy camera bag along if you don’t have a chance to use it.

Another reason to minimize your bag is the lighter and easier it is to haul, the more likely I am to take it with me wherever I leave the hotel room.  If it’s easy to carry I’ll probably take it with me when we go out to dinner.  This brings me to my next key.


Some of my favorite shots are a result of serendipity.  My favorite of this type of shot is this one where I witnessed a huge scary bird attack a baby deer.  If I didn’t have my camera nobody would believe my story of this amazing encounter.  IF you don't have your "big camera" don't forget you can take decent shots with an iPhone – think of it as a camera and not just a phone/Angry Birds machine. NUMBER 3 – WHEN OUT AND ABOUT, HAVE THE CAMERA OUT OF YOUR BAG, LENS CAP OFF AND READY TO GO. 

I’m usually a bit jet-lagged when I’m abroad.  If I have to rotate my bag around, unzip, pull out my camera, take the lens cap off, put it in my pocket, power up the camera and adjust the settings to take a picture – well, I’m pretty lazy and I wouldn't shoot much.  If it’s loaded and ready to go I shoot everything.


There is a reason you paid too much for a fancy camera.  Mix it up a bit.  Take some short depth-of-field shots.  Set the shutter-speed to 1/20th and work with panning.  Tilt the camera.  Get creative.


We had something in the Navy we called the “6 Ps.”  Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Heck, we had sayings for everything but you get the picture.  Get on the computer with a glass a wine and research where you are going.  Search google images for photos taken in the area.  I’ve always had a “fear of missing out” and if I go somewhere and find out later I missed out seeing something really cool I get pissed. 


Going to Europe?  Try and get a good IN FOCUS image inside a cathedral.  Get some shots of the stained glass windows.  You’ll have to crank the ISO up to a zillion. (You probably don’t have a tripod, and if you did they would beat you with it if you tried to use it inside.)  Good interior shots will add to the flavor of your trip portfolio.  Heck, I even usually take photos of my hotel room.  (Before I rock-star the room that is…)

NUMBER 7 – SHOOT SIGNS, ADVERTISEMENTS, AND LOCAL BEER BOTTLES.  This is probably where I differ from travel photo pros.  It cracks me up to have a photo of a sign that says “Ausfahrt!”  Having photos of local signs, ads and such really give me a feel of the foreign locale.  Why beer bottles?  I consider myself a bit of diplomat when I travel – and what better way to spread goodwill than to sample the local brew?


Zoom in on unique details.  I KNOW you are going to take the shot of the huge cathedral.  Get some fun shots of the gargoyles standing guard overhead.  Don’t forget to LOOK UP.  You’d be amazed what people put on their buildings abroad.


As cool as the pyramids are, as cool as the castle is, as much fun it is to shoot the dragon eating the livestock on the Moors – people make for the most interesting shots.  (That’s my opinion, I’m really into portraiture. )  It can be intimidating to ask somebody if you can take their photo.  (Some would say that is what long zooms are for….) But if you have the camera up and ready you’ll get over the nervousness of shooting strangers.  A smile goes a long way.  If I want a tight shot I’ll smile, hold up the camera and usually the subject will let me take the photo.  Work on getting more and more images featuring people on your travels.


I know you are going to get the often-taken wide shots of the largest piece of cheese or whatever is unique to your location.  I’m not saying don’t take that shot.  Take the shot, and then see what you can do to make it more interesting.  Check out the people looking at the main subject.  Play with perspective.  Get creative. (Obvious shot - now turn around and watch what the people are doing...) And the last…… From the home office in Saugus, CA.

Bonus: Number 11 – BE AWARE.  DON’T GET ARRESTED. 

While I’ve taken the picture of the outside of a Turkish prison, I’ve so far avoided finding myself on the inside of one.  I’m guessing it’s less than ideal.  (To a guy whose idea of camping is staying at a Courtyard Marriott instead of a full-service Marriott – let’s just say I wouldn’t do well in prison.) 

I was a military aviator, and of upmost importance to an aviator is maintaining something we called “Situational Awareness” or SA for short.  Know what’s going on around you.  You are probably carrying several thousand dollars, or Euros, or Pounds, or Bongo Bucks worth of gear that 5 people within a block of you would steal in a heartbeat.  Don’t (openly) take photos of cops, military stuff, or airports.  (I’ve violated all of these, but I’m pretty careful. )

Well, that’s my version of the ubiquitous “Top 10 list.”  I absolutely love to travel, and I love photography.  When I can do both at the same time I’m in hog heaven.  Get out there and take some cool pictures.  Cheers!

Happy shooting!!!


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