8 Rules for Amazing Travel Photography

8 Rules for Amazing Travel Photography

You’re somewhere amazing – exotic, breathtaking, or just unique – and you know you want to capture it in a beautiful way. But how? Here are 8 simple rules on taking pictures you’ll love forever from one of my favorite pro photographers. Enjoy!

Hello there! I’m Marlena, a Los Angeles based photographer who has, of course, also been bitten by the travel bug. Today I am thrilled to help out fellow travelers by sharing some of my photography tips with you. Let me start by saying that I’ve experienced the ups and downs of shooting travel photos myself – from shooting waaaay too many photos to reviewing my photos later and thinking, “what was the point of this picture?” I’m sure you have all been there and are nodding along with me! Whether you are still at that stage or are rapidly improving, these tips will give your photos that extra boost the next time you’re out capturing your adventures.

Now, let’s get you on your way!


jiufen, taiwan by marlenapearl.com1 | Think before you shoot

This is probably the single most important thing you can do when trying to capture meaningful travel photos. A lot of times we will snap a photo just to “get it”. Then when we get home and share our photos with relatives, there’s always the whole speech of, “it didn’t really look like that, but it kind of did… you had to be there.” Let’s try to nip that concept in the bud.

Before you take a photo, think: how do you want to remember this moment? Why do you want to take the photo in the first place?

Let’s take the photo above for example. I took this photo in the mountain village of Jiufen, Taiwan. I wanted to remember the small alleyways lined with buildings and lanterns. It was a very dark and rainy day, but I thought the added cherry blossoms (out of focus in the foreground at the top) would be a nice touch of color.

Before you lift your camera and snap, take in everything that is happening around you. What is it that you want to capture? Adding in this extra step will give your photos a purpose and so much more meaning than just a snapshot.

switzerland by marlenapearl.com

2 | Look for leading lines

Noticing leading lines becomes instinctual once you train your eye to look for them. Leading lines are any lines in nature, architecture, etc that lead your eye to a focal point or another element. If you’ve never been taught (by yourself or a teacher) the basics of photography composition, I highly recommend you do some reading. This information is so readily available at your fingertips online and will really help elevate your travel photography. Do some research on the rule of thirds, vanishing points, and color theory. The latter principles will give you a foundation in understanding photography composition and can be very powerful when used in conjunction with leading lines.

In the photo above the leading lines from the dock force your eye out onto the water and the mountains in the distance. When I stood there looking out on the view, I wanted to make sure I captured its expansiveness and how infinite it seemed. The dock draws your eye out and causes the viewer to feel that endlessness. Imagine this photo without the dock. It would have been a bit bland, right?

the louvre by marlenapearl.com

3 | Utilize depth

Depth is definitely something that is often overlooked unless you’ve trained your eye to see it. However, if used correctly it can give your photo that much more umph. The key factors to depth are: foreground, middle ground, and background. Most frequently, the middle ground will be the main subject you’re interested in photographing. So think – what is between you and your subject that could be incorporated into your frame? And what is behind your subject that might make a great background?

The photo above was taking at the iconic Louvre Museum in Paris, France. I wanted to photograph the Louvre from a different perspective than I was used to seeing. The windows inside the museum provide some stunning views of the museum itself, so I decided to take advantage of that. For the foreground, I incorporated the railing of the window as a beautiful decorative element. For the middle ground (and my main focus), I choose the museum and the people scattered about in the front area. And for the background, I used the opposite wing of the museum.

In this particular example, the foreground is what really sold this image as being 3D. Without the foreground element of the window railing the image probably would have looked very 2-dimensional and not as engaging.

chiang kai shek memorial by marlenapearl.com

4 | Utilize Focus

Focus, like depth, is another element to consider. Focus is a way of telling your viewer exactly what they should be looking at or what they should see first. The focal point of your photo should be the main thing or subject you want your audience to see. If you are photographing a wide shot of a street you will probably want everything in focus. On the flip side, if you’re shooting a local in the middle of a street you may choose to make him your focal point and let the area behind him fall out of focus. This will also help minimize distractions in the background and allow your viewers to look straight at his face rather than something happening off in the distance.

The ability to control your “depth of field” – how much is in focus versus how much is out of focus – varies depending upon the device you are using to take your photographs with and what mode you are in. The most basic way to control your depth of field on any device is simply by getting closer to your subject.

In the photo above I happened to be in Taiwan during the cherry blossom season. The purple and white building in the background belongs to the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei – a very famous structure in the city. The main focus for the viewer is the cherry blossoms, but I subtly let the viewer know this photo was taken in Taipei by incorporating the iconic roofline in the background. However, without the use of focus, the cherry blossoms would be competing for your attention against the ornate roof. Imagine how “busy” this photo might look if everything were in focus.

jiufen, taiwan by marlenapearl.com

5 | It’s all in the details

Sometimes when we’re out traveling we forget about the details. We see them with our eyes and think we will remember them precisely how they are in that wide shot we’ve taken. But when we get back to the hustle and bustle of regular life and look back on our photos we seem to have forgotten the details of that thing we loved so much. I think we’ve all been there and done that!

Another thing I almost always forget to do is photograph my food and drink. I know that seems crazy what with the insta-fad of food flat-lays occurring in our social media society, but I honestly forget to take a photo whenever I am devouring a local delicacy.

The photo above is from a stunning teahouse I experienced in Taiwan. I took an abundance of photos from far away, but the lanterns were one of my favorite parts of the decorations, so I made sure to capture a close-up shot of them for my memory.

P.S: for extra umph, incorporate depth and focus into your detail shots!


6 | Always be ready

I know it sounds cheesy, but luck plays a great role in travel photography. We all have itineraries, budgets, and of course lack of control over the weather that might prevent us from getting that ideal shot we may have wanted. However, if you always make sure you are “at the ready” to take a photo you have a greater chance of capturing something amazing. How many times have you seen a great photo, but didn’t take it because you weren’t ready? I know that happens to me all the time! Here are two foolproof ways to always be at the ready:

  1. Keep your camera out or handy. Don’t stuff it deep in your backpack. The easier it is to pull out and shoot the more you will be inclined to take a photo.
  2. Keep an eye out on your surroundings and not just the sights. Is a local doing something interesting? Is there a unique car rolling down the street?

In the photo above, I noticed this tree-lined path as a naturally photogenic spot. Within moments of noticing the path, a girl with a beautiful umbrella passed me and continued down the path. My camera was already hanging on my shoulder, so I whipped it up to my eye immediately and shot. It was a lucky moment, but I was ready for it!

For safety reasons, please research the country you will be visiting for tips on how to best carry your belongings. In some countries it is not safe to walk around with your camera out, so please take note of this before traveling.

zion narrows by marlenapearl.com

7 | Photograph people / the locals

Nine times out of ten people will make your photo better. Attractions are one thing, but it’s really people, their experiences, and/or their culture that make a place. Photos without people often feel empty.

If you’re taking a close-up shot of a specific person you should ask them if it’s okay before doing so. Sometimes locals may not want to be photographed. Or, if you’re a bit shy like me, you may be too nervous to ask if you can take their photo. That’s okay! Personally, I feel as though some of the best photos are from afar when no one was aware you were even taking the photo. People act more natural when they don’t know they’re on camera. If you’re taking a photo of a street, wait for a local to walk through. Chances are your audience will connect more with the photo of a local than a photo of an empty street.

The photo above was taken on my hike through The Narrows at Zion National Park in Utah. The hike is quite a strenuous fete and most visitors don’t understand the intensity of it until they experience it – I certainly didn’t! The canyon was mind-blowingly stunning, no doubt about it. But my photos that juxtapose how small and fragile humans are in comparison to the almighty canyon were the ones I received the greatest reaction from. Personally, these are the photos I have found myself connecting with the most after the adrenaline of the experience died down.

antelope canyon by marlenapearl.com

8 | “The best camera is the one that’s with you”

You may have heard this saying before and it’s absolutely true. A few years back photographer Chase Jarvis wrote a book with this title. Sometimes we get bogged down by technology and think we can’t take beautiful photographs due to our lack of a “great camera”. But the truth is that your “great camera” is the camera that’s with you. Whether I’m shooting with my Canon 5D mark ii or my iPhone, my best photos are with whatever camera I had with me in the moment.

Now what are you waiting for? Get out and start practicing 🙂 You can follow along with my own personal travels on instagram @marlenapearlphoto. If you have any questions or you just want to make a new friend, feel free to get in touch on social media or my website.

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Happy travels! – Marlena