11 Travel Photography tips to avoid disappointments / by Neil Alexander

How many times have you visited somewhere, a place you’ll only ever likely go once in your lifetime only to return home to discover that your photographs fall a long way short of your expectations? Making mistakes is only human but if it’s a trip of a lifetime or an event that you’re never going to see again, these 10 tips will hopefully minimise the chance of you wanting to launch your camera out of the nearest window in frustration…. hopefully…

The Arc de Triomphe and the moon - this image was simply a lucky strike. The clouds just happened to part and reveal the moon as I was about to leave.

1. Plan ahead

Prior to a trip, I’ll begin planning, possibly weeks in advance. There are so many tools available to us now with the advent of the internet and the surge in social media sharing. Previously it required good old fashioned maps, a compass, books, local newspapers and asking as many people as you could. And then a whole lot of luck. Now you can use Flickr, 500px, Google Maps and Street View, along with a whole host of iPad apps such as Stuck on Earth, The Photographer’s Ephermeris and even the National Geographic to plan. Work out where you want to be and when and then write it all down. Use a tool like Evernote so you’ve an electronic list you can carry in your pocket and amend. Plan thoroughly and revisit your plans just before you leave - don’t run the risk of finding out about a great spot you missed. 
Bear in mind sunrise and sunset times and also that if you’re heading to major tourist destinations that they can often get very busy very early. I remember arriving at Angkor Wat at about 6am only to find that there were already hundreds of people there waiting for the sun to rise.

Traeth Bychan in Anglesey. Using The Photographer's Ephemeris I knew exactly where and when the sun would rise over the beach. Then it was simply a case of praying for the clouds to part.

2. Have a plan B (and C and D)

Make sure that your plans are flexible, and have alternates. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve headed for a well known landmark, camera in hand only to find it clad in scaffolding or barricaded off for some event or other. Try to overfill your day as inevitably some locations just won’t come off. It also helps if you can try to prioritise your list. Things will undoubtedly crop up along the way that you hadn’t planned on so you’ll find yourself having to scratch things from your list.

3. Have a little patience.

You might spot a great shot but the conditions aren’t quite right; maybe it’s a street shot that needs a couple of tourists in the frame, or a coloured building that you think would work better if there were are complimentary coloured car in the frame. Stop and wait. Be practical though, don’t wait all day but at least wait a good few minutes to see what happens. Surprising things often happen if you just stop and watch. 
It also pays to spend a little time trying to make the best photographs you can. Don’t make 100 mediocre images when what you really want are 5 or 10 great photographs. Having said that, never be satisfied with your initial offerings and as the pros say: “Work the scene”. Try different angles, perspectives and distances. Pay attention to the light and the details. Only when you feel that you’ve completely exhausted the scene should you move on.

Fisherman inspecting boats in Malta

4. Don’t be lazy

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, sunrise and sunset provide the best light to make any photograph. If you’re travelling to London in December then sunrise can be as late as 7:45am, but if you are up on the Isle of Skye in June the sun can be up as early as 4:30am. Be there, and be there with plenty of time in hand. Unless you’re dedicated enough to be camping on the doorstep of the location you want to shoot, give yourself plenty of time to get there and get set up, especially if you haven’t physically visited the location before and aren’t sure exactly what to expect. Not only will you vastly increase the chance of making a great image but the chances are that there’ll be far fewer tourists around to get in your way.

5. Include people

Try not to be afraid of asking someone if you can take their picture. What’s the worst that can happen? They say “No”, so move on. The first 2 or 3 times can be hard, but by the time you’ve done it 100 times it becomes second nature. Also recognise that people don’t necessarily need to be the subject of a photograph but often having faces and bodies in an image can add an element of scale and often makes it easier for the viewer to identify with the picture.  

A Roman centurion on his way to the Easter parade in Zejtun, Malta with his boys

6. Check the ol’ LCD

It’s there for a reason, and it’s not to check your hair in the reflection. Use it to zoom in and make sure that you’ve captured a tack sharp image before moving on. Learn to use the histogram so that you have a balanced exposure. Blowing out the highlights is all too easy to do, especially if you’re shooting a street scene and incorporating the sky.

7. Keep your gear clean and dry

Sensor dust and dirty filters are all things that are going to make you cuss when you get back to your computer. Most times they are fixable, but not always. The narrower your aperture or longer your exposure, the worse things will seem. I’ve come back with some frames that look like someone spat crisp crumbs all over the frame, and then had to spend hours and hours trying to clean them up. I could have saved myself all that time, effort and swearing simply by taking a few seconds to clean the filters before I put them on. These are always much more apparent if you’ve got blanket blue skies in the frame - be very careful!
Staying in a hotel? Pop the complimentary shower cap into your pocket. They can be invaluable for keeping you shooting when that light rain starts. Granted they won’t keep you shooting in a downpour, but unless you’re particularly dedicated or extremely hardy, you’ll have run for cover already. If there’s a breeze and it’s raining, avoid shooting into the wind. You’ll get spots of rain all over the front of your lens that you may not see on the LCD, but trust me, they’ll ruin your photograph. 

La Fromagerie, Rue Bayen, Paris. I stumbled across a street market whilst looking for breakfast one morning. Had I not been geotagging at the time, I'd have had no idea where I had taken this image once I got back home.

8. Geo Tag or at least take notes

I used to carry a little notebook around with me to make notes of what I was shooting, but I would continually forget to make notes, lose my pencil or simply think that I would remember when I got home. I never did. Now I swear by geotagging. By using an app like GeoTag Photos for the iPhone and a cataloging program like Adobe Lightroom, you can easily add all your photos to a map automatically placing them at the exact spot you made them. Then Google becomes your best friend as you look up names and details of the locations. For me, not only is it a huge timesaver, but it means that should I get a request for photographs of a specific region, I simply have to bring up the map view in Lightroom and zoom in to see what I have. If you’re lucky enough to have a camera that does this all for you as some of the more modern point and shoots do (iPhone included), then lucky you!

Lightroom tracklog showing geotagged images from a trip to Paris 

9. Have your wits about you.

Unfortunately, thieves and pickpockets abound especially at the big tourist draws. Put your wallet, phone and used memory cards in inside pockets. Don’t use your exterior coat pockets or jeans back pockets for anything that you are not prepared to lose. It may be uncomfortable shoving your iPhone into the tight front pocket of your trousers but it’s highly unlikely that anyone would be able to snatch it without you noticing.

10. Wear decent shoes.

This is probably one of the most important, yet most overlooked aspects of travel photography. You’re going to be doing a lot of walking and if there is the slightest chance that your feet may end up giving you grief, pack a spare pair of shoes. For my most recent trip to Paris, I wanted to travel as light as I possibly could. I wasn’t prepared to waste time at the luggage carousel waiting for a checked bag to appear so I only had the sneakers that were on my feet. By the evening of Day two, my feet were in such a state that I actually avoided making photographs that I should have made. My mood plummeted and I hobbled around feeling very miserable and uncomfortable. On the morning of Day three I had to completely reevaluate my plans for the day to factor in as little walking as possible and missed visiting several of the places I had wanted to go to.

The little hamlet of Duirnish in the Highlands of Scotland, where Highland cattle freely wander the streets

11. Try to travel as light as possible.

There’s nothing worse than trying to wade through busy crowds with a huge backpack. Weigh up the likelihood that you’ll use each and every piece of kit. If you’ve a raft of different zoom lenses, remember that the best zoom you have is at the end of your legs. Obviously some kind of tripod is essential. In fact it’s the very first thing I pack, anywhere I go but do you really need the fisheye, the wide angle, the mid-range zoom and the telephoto? The chances are that you’ll just use whatever lens you put on your camera first. Trying to change lenses in the middle of a crowd can be challenging to say the least. All that’ll happen is your back will start to hurt with all the extra weight and you’ll miss key shots as you faff around inside your camera bag. Or even worse, walking around with one of those lovely looking white Canon L lenses is like carrying a neon sign over your head saying “Mug me”. 

We will always make mistakes, it’s inevitable but with a little thought and planning hopefully you won’t have to learn the hard way as I have done. You’ll stay safe, comfortable and more importantly get all of the photographs you’d planned.