One of the challenges travelers face is balancing the joy of the journey with the desire to capture the moments. Part of the experience of travel is deciding what camera fits the situation, when to use it, and how to take great pictures. For many travelers these acts are part of the journey, but for others it’s a necessary task.
Our Travel Photography Guide details the pragmatic aspects of taking pictures and videos on the go following our Travel Photography Cycle:
This cycle applies to gear, software, and techniques. For example, the first step is to determine your needs, then buy the right camera kit. Next, learn how to use it by reading the manuals and practicing until you’re comfortable with the important functions. Make sure you pack the right gear for your journey and keep it with you. Once in the wild, capture your memories using the techniques you’ve mastered. Back at base camp, transfer the files to your storage device or computer. After your trip select and edit the photographs that best tell the story. Winnow these down even more and share via email, the Web, and prints. Finally, archive your raw and edited files for safe keeping.
This guide will take you through each step, link to gear we like, and conclude with a list of resources for further learning.
With so many travel variables it’s impossible for one camera to fulfill every need. Phone-based cameras are good enough for everyday shots. A point-and-shoot is sufficient for a night out with old friends, but a once-in-a-lifetime vacation demands the best camera in the arsenal. Don’t buy the newest, most expensive DSLR if you have no desire to lug it around, or if you have a history of acquiring complicated gadgets and not learning how to use them.
Following are the most common camera types. Not all travelers will use one from each category, but it’s important to identify the categories that best match your needs.
Phone-based. We firmly believes in the old saw that “the best camera is the one you have,” hence the volume of iPhone photos when powerful DSLRs are available (the iPhone is the most popular camera on Flickr). For many travelers cameraphone pictures and videos are “good enough,” mostly because the device is always at hand. Not much advance planning is needed, although you should consider the camera capabilities when purchasing a phone. Many of the newer smartphones include cameras that are nearly as powerful as point-and-shoots, although low-light environments challenge all but the best cameraphones. With numerous available apps, GPS, and instant upload capabilities, one could argue that cameraphones are better travel companions than point-and-shoots.
Point-and-shoot. If you don’t have a high-quality 5+ megapixel cameraphone with a flash and HD video capabilities, an ultrathin point-and-shoot should be always at hand. Why ultrathin? Because if it’s too thick for your pocket or handbag, you won’t carry it. We believe sales in this category will gradually fall as consumers rely more on their cameraphones.
DSLR. For those once-in-a-lifetime vacations, important family photos, and other situations where quality is of the utmost importance, a digital single-lens reflex camera is your best bet. Many examples in this class take gorgeous photos, so more important than the actual body is the ease of use; once again, if you typically don’t take the time to master your gadgets, stick with an entry-level DSLR (like the Nikon D3100 we recently reviewed). If you will take the time to master and commit to carrying it, get the best you can afford (we love the Nikon D7000 16.2MP DX-Format CMOS Digital SLR). Make sure to leave room in your budget for accessories.
Camcorder. Even though nearly every smartphone, point-and-shoot, and DSLR can take video, often in HD, dedicated camcorders are superior for many situations. Any event in which sound is important demands an external microphone, and these typically aren’t supported on smartphones or still cameras. If you invest in a camcorder, also buy shotgun and lavaliere microphones. And a tripod. Watching shaky video with crappy sound on a 65″ 1080p television is excruciating, so if video is important to you do it right (post processing is especially important with video).
We’re old-school, preferring camcorders that record to DV tapes, although we will make the switch to a flash-memory camcorder soon. Tapes are inexpensive, widely available, much easier to pack than the laptop and/or external hard drive required to download video from a drive-based camera, and are useful for archiving both raw video and finished projects). Alas, DV-based systems are increasing difficult to find. We like the Canon VIXIA HV40 HD HDV Camcorder w/10x Optical Zoom, although, as mentioned above, we are gradually accepting flash-based camcorders like the Canon VIXIA HF S200 Full HD Flash Memory Camcorder, as they typically use the same SDHC memory cards as DSLRs. We love the convenience of sharing media across devices, so carrying a DSLR and camcorder that record to SDHC cards is a great strategy.
New gear won’t help much if you don’t take time to learn how to use it, especially with camera manufacturers differentiating their products by packing in more functions. Advances in features have not been matched by better user interfaces, lending even more importance to reading the manuals and understanding the devices before embarking on your trip.
Manuals can be pretty dry reading, so check out online message boards and YouTube for practical hints. Local photography clubs are great resources, too.
TTR suggests you take your new gear out for a few dry runs to work out any kinks. Do the settings work as expected? How fast do the batteries run down? Can you quickly set up the tripod? Is one lens sufficient?
You should also investigate the photography limitations of your intended destination. Many museums forbid backpacks, but a small sling might be OK. Similarly, flashes may not be allowedn, so a better indoor low-light lens is helpful (we love the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor lens for our Nikon DSLRs).
When you have a drawer full of accessories it’s tempting to pack everything for a trip. Sure, the DSLR has an integrated flash, but you just might need the big external unit. And two additional lenses. Or the shotgun mic and tripod for your camcorder. But the more you pack the heavier your bag, and the less likely you are to carry it. TTR recommends packing at a minimum extra batteries and storage cards, but beyond that it’s entirely dependent on the activity.
For day trips and even longer journeys we like the Lowepro Fastpack 200 (read our review), or Lowepro Rover AW II when rain threatens. For quick jaunts to town or shorter walks from the campsite, a smaller bag such as the Lowepro SlingShot 102 AW is perfect. Regardless, always use a packlist, and note what was used and what items you needed but didn’t have, and update the list accordingly. We use different lists for specific locations, trip lengths, climates, and anticipated shots. (For more on the power of lists read The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande.)
Finally, after all your preparation, you get to have fun with your gear. This is your chance to apply the learnings and employ the techniques. Before you can take pictures, though, you must bring your camera. This is an obvious point, but often travelers pack too much gear to comfortably carry, so they leave the backpack behind. Or the camera is stowed away deep inside the pack, making it difficult to quickly extricate. So pack light and have your camera close at hand.
TTR can’t replicate the content of thousands of photography guides, but we can share a few suggestions:
- Get up early to take advantage of the “magic hour” when the sun’s rays are long and the light warm. Noon-time sun casts harsh shadows; sunrise and sunset light is ideal for most subjects.
- Remember the rule of thirds when framing your shots. It doesn’t apply 100% of the time, but using it will help avoid those awkward, amateurish subject-centered shots.
- Use the flash at appropriate times, especially the fill flash when shooting in direct sunlight. Also remember the range of your flash — 15 feet is a good estimate.
- Limit the number of “people in front of monument” shots. In order to capture the entire monument the person is typically small, and likely unhappy about the pose. Separate the two subjects, taking more shots of people and fewer of buildings and such.
- Make sure your traveling companion knows how to use the equipment, too, so you’re in your photo albums.
If you have sufficient memory cards you can wait until you return home before transferring images from the cards to your computer. Otherwise, you may need to bring your computer on the trip, or use an intermediate device like a portable hard drive. TTR travels light, preferring the first method so there’s no need to lug a computer (and power supply, proper cables, etc.). Focus on taking great pictures during the trip, saving the grunt work for after.
There are a few ways to transfer files from your camera to a computer:
- Remove memory card from camera, insert into card reader in computer, and copy files over (be sure to copy, not move, in case there are problems during the transfer).
- Connect camera to computer via cable, typically USB. Again, copy the photos rather than move them.
Regardless of the method, once you’ve verified the images have successfully made it from the camera to the computer, use the camera’s format function to format each card, one by one. Usually this cleans the card better than deleting files using the computer.
The photographer’s work is far from over when the shutter is released. Digital photography and videography result in more photos and clips to sort through, edit, and share. As Mrs. TTR has realized, it can take some time to work through hundreds or even thousands of photos, pick the best ones that fit the narrative, and touch them up. Modern tools make the job easier, but that power often translates into more work as we tweak every setting and attempt to improve every picture.
For photos TTR recommends Google’s free Picasa software, which makes it simple to edit, manage, and share pictures. Picasa easily performs the most common edits, such as removing red eye, covering blemishes, cropping, fixing colors, and the like.
Videos require more time, a faster computer, and generally more skill to make the cuts, mix down the audio, and render projects in the appropriate formats. While Windows Live Movie Maker is sufficient for simple projects, and iMovie (part of the iLife suite) and Final Cut Express handy Mac programs, we like Sony Vegas Movie Studio HD and Adobe Premiere Elements. We recommend you spend time in online forums dedicated to your camera/camcorder type to learn which applications work best; for example, Picasa generally needs a few months after a major camera release to support proprietary RAW formats (e.g., Nikon’s NEF). Regardless of which application you purchase, spend time learning the workflow; those accustomed to Adobe Premiere can be flummoxed by Sony Vegas.
Social Media Sites
By this point you’ve selected and edited the best photos from your trip and are ready to share them with the world, or at least those who want to see them. Social media sites like Facebook are obvious choices, but most don’t make it easy for viewers to order prints, a priority for many parents and grandparents. These sites generally don’t allow you to upload full-resolution images.
Photo Sharing Sites
There are scores of dedicated photo sharing sites that enable viewers to order prints, photobooks, and merchandise. We suggest you choose one that does not require a visitor to create an account to see photos. TTR likes Google’s PicasaWeb. Bear in mind that many sites delete photos after a period of account inactivity, so read the fine print before spending a lot of time uploading files.
Video is a different beast, with most photo sharing sites supporting it to a limited extent. YouTube is always an option, as is Dropbox for large files that viewers might wish to download. When researching services pay attention to HD support if that’s important to you, but take care not to post enormous files rendered at 1080P if the site automatically down-converts to, say, 720P.
Despite the ease of using social networking and photo sharing sites, some still like good old email. Modern multi-megapixel cameras create large files which can clog up email servers. With so many people accessing their messages from smartphones, email is even less convenient as a viewing medium. TTR suggests you not share photos through email unless you need to send one to two pictures to a specific person.
Don’t be seduced by the low cost of dedicated photo printers. When you factor in the expense of the ink cartridges — especially those that combine multiple colors in one — photographs from these printers typically cost 2-3 times more than professional prints ordered online. They are convenient, though, so if you buy one make sure it uses one cartridge per color, handles the paper sizes you want (many only output 4×6 prints), and does not require manufacturer-specific paper. We suggest you eschew photos-only printers in favor of all-in-ones with flat-bed scanners, as we end up using the scanner more than the printer. Also, color laser printer prices have dropped dramatically in the last few years, so these units are worth a look.
Less-expensive, generally higher-quality prints can be ordered through a number of online services. We happen to like Walmart’s service, as it’s inexpensive and convenient, although others offer more print options. Since features and options change regularly, be sure to review the big players if you’ve not done so in a while.
The final step is to securely store your pictures and videos. As mentioned above, social networking and photo sharing sites aren’t guaranteed to keep your files forever, and most don’t allow you to upload full-resolution images or highest-quality video.
At the very minimum you should back up important files on your home computer. TTR keeps three backup hard drives in rotation, with one in the docking station constantly backing up files, one in a fire-resistant safe, and one in a secure off-site location. These drives are rotated every two weeks, so in the event of a disaster the most data that could be lost is two weeks worth. We recommend you select a backup application that works constantly in the background, rather than one you must manually start.
Online backup solutions are plentiful, too. As cloud-based services grow in features and popularity, many users forgo local back-up strategies in favor of online-only. We believe the two methods work together, with local backup for all files and online backup for frequently-used data files. Since providers, features, and prices change frequently we can’t make a recommendation at this time. Be sure to read the fine print, though, and test backing up and restoring files before pre-paying for service.
With so many good options for cameras, camcorders, and editing software, TTR can’t pick the inarguable best of each. But we can, however, share our three maxims of excellent travel photography/videography:
- Commit to carry and use your camera
- Learn how to use your gear
- Dedicate time after your trip to select, touch up, and share your best shots
At the end of the cycle review your notes from each step. Is there a piece of equipment or software application that would result in even better images? Then start back at step one and buy the right gear, and continue the cycle of constantly improving your skills and making lifelong memories.
For information on the art and science and travel photography, TTR recommends the National Geographic Ultimate Field Guide to Travel Photography, which not only introduces readers to the fundamentals of digital travel photography, but provides perspectives from several National Geographic photographers on how to tell a story with pictures. Readers learn not just what these professionals see, but what they think, and how they shape narratives.