The Fine Art Of Travel Photography

travel photography
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How does a photographer transcend the “I was here” imagery that’s often associated with travel photography and create fine-art images of places near and far? From the dozens of workshops I’ve taught on the subject, as well as talking with—and carefully studying the work of—many of the great globetrotting lensmen and lenswomen in the field, I’ve developed a methodology that, when applied, should yield impressive and, at times, spectacular results.

Big-Picture Thinking

I see a common failing with many beginning travel photographers. They’re so focused on the fascinating subjects before them that they forget about the basic rules of composition that make for a great photo. Look at the whole frame and use the space effectively. Ask yourself, “If I were painting this scene, what would I include? What would I exclude?” Treat the camera sensor you’re about to expose as your canvas. Thinking in these terms can take you to an elevated creative space. Also, don’t become too planted in the place you happen to be standing when you come across a photographic opportunity. I’m constantly astral-projecting—envisioning how a shot from an alternate angle will look—as I’m exploring a particular photographic scenario. If there’s potential from that location, that’s where I’ll walk, climb, and at times, crawl to.

Depth Of Field

I often shoot in aperture-priority mode so I can be acutely aware of what I’ll have in focus, and just as importantly, what will be out of focus. You can lead the viewer through your image by careful control of the ƒ-stop. Creating a “bokeh” by shooting with a minimal depth of field can be dramatic for close-up portraits, whereas a maximum depth of field can create its own unique perspectives, especially for dramatic architectural shots and landscapes.

travel photography
DEPTH OF FIELD: Bonito, Brazil. Shooting at a maximum depth of field can create unique perspectives, especially for stunning architectural shots and landscapes.

It’s important to remember that when you look through a DSLR, you’re seeing the lens at its widest aperture, which translates as its shallowest depth of field. This lets in the maximum amount of light to provide a bright viewfinder image and facilitates faster auto and manual focus. But when you depress the shutter, and the lens goes to a smaller selected ƒ-stop, those palm trees that were soft in the distance suddenly appear to be growing out of the heads of your subjects like antennas. Most cameras have depth-of-field preview buttons to see what your stopped-down lens will render in focus, but with enough practice and awareness, that knowledge will become second nature.

Time Of Day

Early morning and late afternoon have always been the favorite times for professional photographers to shoot. It’s not just the warm Kelvin temperatures that create an inviting mood. It’s also the experience of documenting a town coming to life or transitioning to the night. Also, shadows created at those times of day are more pleasing on the eye than those created from the harsh overhead light of midday. That doesn’t mean that cameras should be put away in the vicinity of high noon. The middle hours of the day are a great time to photograph people in open shade or to explore museums and other interior locations.


When traveling, especially in group situations, it’s not always possible to be at the right place at the right time in terms of ideal ambient light. The use of a flash can reduce or eliminate harsh shadows under the eyes, often referred to as “raccoon eyes.” Because most flashes fire at a cooler, i.e., bluer, color temperature than the prevailing ambient light, I usually have a slight warming gel over my flash head in the morning or afternoon to create a correct color balance.

Also, I often hold my flash at arm’s length and trigger it with a remote flash system. This further helps to create a more natural and realistic scene by making the shadows drop down behind the subject. In addition, I’ll often put a Gary Fong Lightsphere Diffusion Dome over the flash head to soften the light with a minimal loss of power. Additional flashes can be added and triggered remotely for all types of creative possibilities.

Shooting Contre-Jour

Rather than saying backlit, I like the French expression contre-jour, which translates as “against the day.” Shooting with the sun behind the subject eliminates harsh shadows and keeps people from squinting. In-camera meters can get thrown off by contre-jour situations and underexpose the scene, so it’s important to know how to utilize the camera’s exposure lock and exposure compensation controls. This technique requires a lens shade and at times a hand to help block the direct light hitting the lens. Without a shade, a lens flare can occur or, at the very least, a flattening or dulling of the colors in the scene will result. I’ve begged students for years in workshops to use this simple piece of plastic or rubber. Why take an expensive piece of glass and reduce it down to the quality of a throwaway camera?

travel photography
SHOOTING CONTRE-JOUR: Yazd, Iran. Shooting with the sun behind the subject eliminates harsh shadows. In-camera meters can get thrown off by contre-jour situations and underexpose the scene, so it’s important to know how to utilize the camera’s exposure lock and exposure compensation controls.

Natural Frames

Natural frames can create a 3-D feel in our 2-D medium. Architectural elements and flora, in particular, can be utilized in the foreground to lead the viewer into a given scene.


Creative silhouettes can be produced at any time of day by finding a camera position that puts the subject against a bright background and adjusting the exposure controls. It’s vital to have a strong contrast between the background and the object or subject you’re trying to silhouette. If I’m including people in the silhouette, I’ll wait until their back is to the camera or they’re in profile to avoid the ominous look of a shadowy character moving toward the camera.

travel photography
SILHOUETTES: Mandalay, Myanmar. Dramatic silhouettes can be shot at any time of the day, but there must be a strong contrast between your background and your subject.

Environmental Portraits

Portraits of people in their environment, whether it’s a sheepherder with his flock or an artist in her atelier, add an important human element to any travel story. Pros tend to use medium to wider lenses for environmental portraiture, with the goal of creating an image that transmits emotional content and engagement with their subject.

When doing this type of photograph, I direct the person to achieve the best angle (for example, move left, right, back, forward, etc.) and to make sure the elements of his or her environment that I want to include aren’t being blocked or too out of focus to be recognizable. I talk to the person as a dentist talks to his or her patients, in other words, saying things that can be acknowledged without the need to verbally respond past a simple grunt. Engaging in an active conversation with your subject should be done before or after a photo shoot—not during—unless you want the person to be caught in all sorts of awkward mouth positions. It’s better to share a quiet human moment one on one and let the camera peer into the window of his or her soul.

Night Exposures

The legendary LIFE magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt was asked, after returning from an assignment in Paris, what he did in the City of Lights at night. Eisenstaedt response was “Expose longer.”

Eisenstaedt misinterpreted the question, but was right on with the answer, photographically speaking. Many cities thrive at night and bring a completely different dimension to the travel experience. For cityscapes and architecture, use a low ISO, lock down the camera on a sturdy tripod, lock up the mirror of an SLR and use a cable release. This is especially important on exposures between 1/15 of a second to one or two seconds when the mirror on an SLR hasn’t had the time to settle down and will cause camera shake. Mirrorless camera users can use a cable release or their timer.

Working In Low Light

When photographing people in low-light or nighttime situations, I use either a flash or a higher ISO with “fast” lenses. All my lenses, including zooms, are able to open to at least an ƒ/2.8 aperture. This allows for shooting in low-light situations without the need to go to such a high ISO that the resulting image is full of noise.

travel photography
LOW LIGHT: Agra, India. When shooting in low light or at night, use a flash or higher ISO with lenses that open to at least ƒ/2.8. In this way, you’ll avoid an image full of noise.

Before picking up your flash at night, see if you might be better served by capturing the scene in front of you with a high ISO and a fast lens such as an ƒ/2.8 or wider. Many pros are carrying around their old 50mm ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/1.2 specifically for this purpose.

Shooting without flash is often required when photographing live performances and in museums. A lot of work usually goes into the lighting of these venues, and the use of fast lenses can capture the feeling of what the person in charge of lighting was trying to create.

Try Macro For Details

Detail shots using a macro lens or close-up filters can bring you up close and personal into a whole other world. For those who don’t want to invest in a macro or simply want to save space, a set of close-up, or diopter, filters can be added to your camera bag. If you go that route, carry a couple of step-up and step-down rings so you can use one set of diopters with any lens.

The Travel Photography Essay

Creating pictures that tell a story has been the mainstay of travel magazines since their inception. Travel editors have a mantra that must be taken to heart before approaching a publication with an idea: “A location is not a story.” Look for stories that give the viewer an inside look into a culture by focusing on a person, a ritual, an aspect of history—the list is endless.

The best photo essays often are those that come from a personal interest, so search “inside” before you go outside looking for ideas. Even if you’re not pitching an article, thinking in this way will make your personal PowerPoint or slideshow much more compelling for your viewers.

Presenting Your Travel Photography

Your work isn’t complete until the images from the trip are put in a form that you and others can appreciate. For me, the ultimate expression is a printed book. In recent years, a number of companies such as Blurb have made it both feasible and affordable to produce personal photography books of high quality in a short amount of time. These books can act as a portfolio piece or just a great way to share your experiences with others.

To make sure your once-in-a-lifetime travel shots are the best they can be, you’ll want to use a tripod when possible. It’s especially important for night and low-light exposures. I work with Really Right Stuff carbon-fiber tripods and entrust a variety of Tamrac camera bags to safely transport my equipment. For easy underwater and POV action shots, I bring along a GoPro in addition to my Nikon cameras and lenses. I also carry a B+W polarizer and neutral-density filter.

In addition to numerous editorial and commercial assignments, Mark Edward Harris’ books include “Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work,” “The Way of the Japanese Bath,” “Wanderlust,” “Inside Iran,” “South Korea” and “North Korea” (winner of the IPA Book of the Year). His latest book, “The Travel Photo Essay: Describing a Journey Through Images” (Focal Press), will be released in the fall of 2017. The recipient of numerous awards, Harris teaches travel photography workshops at Samy’s Camera EDU, The Los Angeles Center of Photography, Santa Fe Photographic Workshops and Uniworld’s Floating Photo Workshop with Mark Edward Harris. Visit and follow Mark on Instagram @MarkEdwardHarrisPhoto.

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