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7 Common Travel Photography Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

Woman taking photos of a hilly landscape.

Every budding photographer makes a blunder here and there. Here are seven common travel photography mistakes you should avoid.

Traveling to a new place is one of the most exciting ways to push yourself and your photography. You can go on dedicated photo trips or just bring your camera along on your vacations. Travel, however, is expensive so, if you’re planning to take photos, you should put a bit of thought into it. You don’t want to spend a lot of money on a trip and not have any images you’re proud to show for it. Let’s look at some of the most common travel photography mistakes and, more importantly, how you can avoid them.

Not Doing Your Research Before Your Trip

Boys playing in a tide pool.
Harry Guinness / LifeSavvy

The secret to natural, impromptu travel photos is lots of planning. Almost every great travel shot starts at home. You can’t expect to stumble on the most amazing things wandering around a new city for the first time.

Since time and money are often the biggest limitations on travel photography, it’s worth it to put in a few hours of research before you go. Work out what kind of shots you want to get, where you can get them, what time will work best, and when you’ll have the opportunity. If you can, develop a shot list. That way, you’re ready to start shooting as soon as you arrive.

And, if you do stumble on an incredible situation as you wander, so much the better. But you’ll also have a few sure shots in the can.

Shooting the Same Photos as Everyone Else

Similar photos of the Eiffel Tower.
Hey, look at all these really different photos of the Eiffel Tower!

When you research a trip, you’ll see the kind of photos most people are taking of that location. You’ll find out what the famous landmarks are and how they’re being shot.

And then you can do something different.

There’s nothing wrong with shooting the same thing as everyone else, but there’s little point in taking a photo that’s available from 100 photographers on stock photo sites. Instead, see what’s been done and try to do something different. You can work from a different angle, use a different composition, or shoot something else entirely. Force yourself to be more creative.

Starting Too Late (or Stopping Too Early)

Sunrise over a harbor break wall.
Harry Guinness / LifeSavvy

Great photography happens at unsociable hours. The best times for travel photography are the hours around sunrise and sunset. Nighttime brings interesting changes to a place that a lot of people don’t capture because they’re in bed or a bar.

If you want to take better travel photos, get up earlier and shoot before dawn. Rearrange your dinner plans so you can shoot for the hour or two around sunset. Then, after dinner, get back out there and see what things look like at midnight. The great lighting during sunrise and sunset will dramatically improve your work.

Moving Too Fast

Sunrise over a harbor with a boat returning home.
I waited for the boat to enter the frame. The shot without it was a bit boring. Harry Guinness / LifeSavvy

Travel photography is an exercise in patience. Often, it’s a matter of finding a good scene or background, and then waiting for something to happen. Maybe an interesting local will walk through the frame, or the light will change, or something else unexpected will happen. The best travel photographers tend to stake out a spot and work it lots of different ways.

Don’t just take a single photo and think you’re done with a particular scene. Be patient. Be slow. Take one photo and wait; see if anything else catches your eye or how things change over the next few minutes. The slower you move, the better your photography will be.

If you can, avoid taking photos while hanging around with nonphotographers. You’ll never slow down enough because you’ll be worried about boring your friends or family. If you’re on vacation, take one full evening to go off by yourself and get some serious photography time in rather than snatching a few minutes here and there.

Bringing Too Much Gear

A Canon camera with a long lens sitting on a table on a train.
My go-to setup. Harry Guinness / LifeSavvy

You don’t need much gear to get great travel shots; your camera and a single, multipurpose lens are enough. Either go with a decent prime lens, like a 24mm or 35mm, or a useful zoom lens, like an 18-55mm, 24-70mm, or 16-35mm. Sure, you might miss a few photo opportunities because you don’t have a long telephoto lens, but you won’t miss any because you’re busy changing lenses. Also, it’s much easier to carry and look after a lightweight photo set up rather than every piece of kit you own.

Only Shooting with a DSLR

Just because you have your DSLR or mirrorless camera with you, don’t ignore your smartphone. The cameras in modern phones are great and can even shoot RAW images.

Smartphones have a couple of advantages worth considering. They’re small, light, and you always have it with you. They’re also more discreet, so you can often capture shots with your phone you wouldn’t be able to with your DSLR, like, say, in a cathedral. And they’re super-fast to use; if anything interesting happens, you can whip your phone out in no time.

Shooting in Auto Mode

An Italian man in a shop standing in front of a shelf of trinkets and glass figurines.
Harry Guinness / LifeSavvy

Like any other kind of photography, you can’t keep your camera in automatic mode and expect to get great travel photos. You need to control what’s happening. If you still shoot in auto, take a few hours to learn how to control your camera before your next trip.

To help you, check out our guide on becoming an expert with your camera. You might also give my article on the camera settings you should use for street and travel photography over on How-To Geek a read.

I never travel anywhere without my camera. It’s always a big part of my trip. Don’t make the same mistakes I did at the beginning—all the tips above were learned the hard way.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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