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Top Tips for Travel Photographers

by Rick Sammon, July 2008 (updated June 2010)


So you want to be a travel photographer? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve been a travel photographer for 20 years, ever since I left my suit-and-tie/shined shoes job as a VP/Group Supervisor at a NYC advertising agency.

Since then, I have traveled to almost 100 countries documenting fascinating cultures, incredible wildlife and exotic locations. What fun, even though on some trips I had to take malaria medicine (which gives you strange dreams), get shots for typhoid and yellow fever, and get hepatitis A and B booster shots. In addition, on most trips I had to take Imodium. The worst deal was being seasick.

Speaking of being seasick, do you know that there are two stages to being seasick? In stage one, you feel as though you are going to die. In stage two, you wish you were dead. Been there, thought that.

All things considered, being a travel photographer is a great job. I would not trade it for the world. (If you see me on a trip, remind me that I said that when I am in stage two of being seasick.)

Okay, onto some serious stuff.

In this article, I’d like to share with you some of my best tips for travel photography. I’ll also share with you some of my favorite photographs, includes the initial photograph for this article that I took of some Mongolian soldiers during a festival in that fascinating country in 2007. Here goes. Have fun!

Dress for Success

What’s wrong with this picture (Image 1) that I took in Exeter National Park, South Africa? As I am sure you noticed that the woman in pink is not dressed for a photo safari, where green, tan and brown colored clothes are recommend to provide some camouflage from wildlife. What’s more, the woman is wearing sneakers, which don’t protect your feet from sharp thorns that can poke through the soles of soft shoes. (Our safari guide is trying to remove a thorn from her sneaker.)

If you go on a safari, dress for success and for protection from the animals. Photo vests and jackets not only make us look like professional travel photographers, but they are practical. All those pockets are great for giving us fast access to photo accessories, such as filters, memory cards, a flash unit and even lenses.

Sign ‘em Up

A signed model release is required if you plan to use a photograph of a person for commercial purposes. The release has to say that the person gives you the right to use the picture for commercial purposes. It should have space for the person to print his or her name, be signed by the person and include the date.

Someday I hope to sell this picture of a woman (Image 2) who I photographed in Marrow Bone, Texas. Good thing I have a release.

Get a Good Guide

Guides and translators are most helpful when traveling into foreign counties. Not only can they actually save you time in searching for a particular photograph, but they also may be able to help you see places and people you normally would not have the opportunity to see. If you don’t arrange a guide through a travel agent, you can usually get one through your lodge or hotel.

Without a guide, this picture of a Huli Wigman (Image 3) would have been hard to get, and the location would have been hard to find.

A good guide is worth what is often the least expensive part of a trip.

Field Setup—Digital Photos on the Go

I travel with a laptop, a card reader and a backup drive or drives (Image 4). Image processing programs (Photoshop and/or Aperture/Lightroom) are loaded on the laptop, complete with the latest RAW Plug-in or application update so that RAW files can be opened. That’s an important point. If you have a new camera and don’t have the latest RAW Plug-in or application update, you may not be able to open your RAW files. That has happened to a few of my workshop participants, who were not happy campers as a result.

When traveling, pack an AC power strip so that you can charge your computer and camera battery at the same time. When visiting a foreign country, make sure you have the correct power adapter plug, which you can find at electronic stores.

If you want more digital photo on the go info, check out my book, Rick Sammon’s Complete Guide to Digital Photography.


Text ©2008 Rick Sammon. Photos ©2008 Rick Sammon.

Article revised June 2010.

Readers' Comments


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Rolf Hicker , August 21, 2008; 05:34 P.M.

Hello Rick,

very nice and interesting article. I believe it will help many people to improve their travel photography.

I'm a pro travel photographer for almost 20 years too. Your tips are great, maybe one thing I would recommend especially for new travel photographers is to plan a trip before they leave.

As much as we hate to plan a trip, mostly because we want to be as flexible as possible, it is a must.
We just been on the road for 2 years (yes, you heard right, 2 years without a break or a home), while we did Canada across and a lot of Europe we could very clearly see... as better planned as more successful our pictures were.

Make notes before you leave home what you 100% sure want to photograph. Start planning around those shots, find out what else is close by. Travel photography is not only about the greatest and most beautiful shots - it should be seen as a coverage of a certain place so don't pack your camera away only because the light is not perfect.

I thought this may is another tip for good and successful travel photography.
If you interested in some of my travel pictures... take a look at my website Cheers Rolf

Michael Seewald , August 22, 2008; 05:16 A.M.

Another 20+ year veteran here...

Here is one picked for POW on this site made just that way 'Baker of Asilah, Morocco'.

Good job. I'd add one thing, don't be afraid to shoot people. I knew a guy in China that would try and take shots of the monks on the sly. I kept telling him to just go up and ask if he could shoot them, the images would come out so much stronger with getting that 'eye contact' as shown above in Rick's article. He was too shy at first, but I would keep going up and asking the folks for him, just to show him 95% of them would say ok! I would make small talk first, showing them I was human, many spoke a bit of English. At least say hello in their language; they love that as most tourists don't even learn that!!?

Sometimes I could not communicate except for a smile and to point to them and then the camera. They would mostly shake their head yes, sometimes no but mostly yes, and I'd get the shot. The above pic of the baker was made just that way, he did not speak a lick of English, nor me Arabic. Shot with a Hasselblad medium format camera, available light w/ tripod, no flash.

GEORGE OSBORNE , August 22, 2008; 05:37 A.M.

Hi Rick

Great article. I was fortunate to meet you at the workshops you did earlier this year at St Augustine and Jacksonville. Your comments on light and hightlights was one of the best tips I've had, no more overexposed images.

George Osborne

Carl Chick , August 22, 2008; 11:34 A.M.

Terrific article. Huge tips. Printing and sticking in the bag now.

alireza sedaghati , August 22, 2008; 01:23 P.M.

very very beautiful ,profound,and high quality

Peter Norvig , August 22, 2008; 03:27 P.M.

Helpful article, thank you. One typo: many of us would love a Canon 100-400mm f/4 IS lens, but we have to make do with the f4.5-5.6.

Ashley Davis , August 23, 2008; 02:00 A.M.

Thanks Rick , good article and some great tips - now if I can only come to grips with photoshop I will be a happy traveller. I found Photoshop incredibly confusing and have aboandoned it in favour of Microsoft Image Suite 2006 which I find far simpler to use with all the facilities as well - appreciate any comments. Ash Davis

Thomas Durkin , September 04, 2008; 08:10 A.M.

great tips! this must have taken a good while to write, thanks a lot

Jeff Tangen , September 08, 2008; 10:15 P.M.

Ok, so if someone wants to leave their shirt & tie job and do this, or in my case in a few years I can do an early retirement from my day job, how is this endeavour funded? Are travel photog's working for an agency that is already contracted to buy your photos, or are you on your own and hope someone likes them enough to purchase once in a while?

Great article by the way, thank you.

Kim Walker , September 10, 2008; 04:26 P.M.


Embera woman with a kinkajou, Embera Puru village, Panama

Rick, great tips! I agree that hiring local guides is key to getting shots you'd never have access to otherwise. I'm forever trying to figure out ways to get off the beaten path on the photo tours that we lead. Most guide books don't offer information about arranging authentic cultural opportunities (which is the highlight of travel for me). I recommend contacting the tourist board and searching the Internet for private local guides for hire, then making your requests known!

A couple more tips: Pretend you're on a magazine assignment. To illustrate a travel article you'll need establishing shots (wide angle 14-35mm, ie: woman walking through a forest), storytelling scenes (mid range 28-70mm, ie: woman digging a hole), and close-up details (70-200mm, ie: scorpion on the end of the bamboo stick). A variety of shots will help capture the true essence of a given destination.

Try to include people in your pictures as much as possible. Even in landscapes. Adding a person into the frame not only provides a sense of scale but a flavor of the surrounding culture. Just smile, gesture toward your camera for permission and click away. People are usually flattered when you ask.

Be familiar with your equipment! Capturing those fleeting moments--actions or emotions--depend on knowing how to change your f/stop and shutter speed without fumbling over the controls. It also allows you more freedom to play and produce more creative photography.

Henry Richardson , September 30, 2008; 03:25 P.M.

Very nice article with some good tips. I am wondering how you manage to get signed model releases from people on the street, people in less developed places like much of Africa, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, etc. and with people who can't read English (or sometimes can't read at all)?

Maros marecek , November 21, 2008; 05:18 P.M.

jus a big WOW to all of you :-) great stories and pics too. I just can not wait for thous bleedin 20 years of experience to fly by :-) MaroŇ°

Keith Aldrich , November 24, 2008; 10:16 P.M.

I second Henry's question.

Are signed model releases required for articles/documentaries, or just for commercial use and advertising?

Rick Sammon , January 02, 2009; 01:55 P.M.

hi all

thank you all for sharing such wonderful images!!

happy new year! rick

Mathieu Landry , January 13, 2009; 11:24 A.M.

Good article with some useful tips.

Concerning the hiring of a guide, I'd add to get some recommendations if possible before hiring. If you hire blindly, you may be slightly disappointed. My gf and I just got back from a one month trip in Vietnam and Cambodia. We had 4 different guides for different legs of the trip. While it was not specifically a photographic trip, I could see a wide range of proficiency in knowing the "best photographic opportunities". I still got great shots mostly everywhere I went, but the guide in Cambodia was really the greatest; he took us around Angkor and we were always discovering places under different interesting angles (along with the classic cliches) and also often with the best lighting conditions because of the way he had planned our itinerary. I would often see tourists start tailing us when they were curious why we were shooting in a certain spot.

Also, I would like to mention that the Canon EFS 17-55 IS f2.8 lens is a real traveling workhorse. I bought it before the trip and I also had a 135 f2 in my bag that I used at certain moments, but most of the shots came from the EFS and I'm really satisfied of the shots I got. If you have a style like mine with minimal or no tripod usage (more a documentary style), then I would highly recommend this lens for your traveling purposes. Its IS + big aperture, useful range, size and weight makes it very ideal for most traveling situations IMO. On the flip-side, I always know which shots were taken with the 135 L lens. The colors and bokeh are simply amazing. So, while zooms seem to be the preference of the author, I would argue that a combination of one strong zoom with 1-2 strategically chosen primes is a better way to go.

Mat

Subhashish Dasgupta , April 27, 2009; 07:42 A.M.

Hi...I am not a professional photographer and just started photography as a 'serious hobby' on my DSLR a month or so ago.

My question is whether one really needs a Polarizer for landscape photography or is the effect something that can be done even in any image editing software?

I on holiday in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, next month and would like to decide whether I absolutely need to buy a polarising filter or not. Cheers

Alice Vu , January 28, 2010; 08:14 A.M.

thanks for a nice posting!For those who would like to avoid the perhaps lengthening visa procedures with their local Vietnam's Embassies, the service of Vietnam Visa-On-Arrival is available for help. It is legitimated and supported by the Vietnamese Immigration Department. We recommend that you choose visa upon arrival, as picking up visa at the Vietnam int'l airport is quite simple, easy, no additional charges and no fail. http://www.visaforvietnam.org

adriana szwako , April 15, 2010; 03:37 P.M.

thank you very much for this article. I am not a veteran at all on phtotfraphy and this was very very helpful. Thanks for taking the time and initiative to share!


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