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How to take travel photographs like a professional

11 October 2017

Internationally renowned National Geographic Creative photographer Nigel Hicks shares his insider tips.

Ilfracombe, dusk
All photographs © Nigel Hicks

It should be straightforward to take a few really good travel or holiday photos, shouldn’t it? After all, you just stand in front of a scene, point the camera and press the shutter. So why is it that the resulting photos so often don't do justice to the place, people or event?

The problem is, photography isn't quite so straightforward. Whether you’re in a vibrant market, peaceful woodland or looking across a fabulous mountain scene, you have it all around you in three dimensions, filled with all sorts of sights, sounds and noises. Take a picture and suddenly you've thrown away all those non-visual stimuli and are left with just the sight. And even that has been reduced to a flat two-dimensional representation of just a portion of the scene, trapped within a tight, restrictive frame.

So to create any great photograph you need an arsenal of techniques to compensate. These tips should help, setting you on your way to creating some memorable travel images.


Take your time

Generally speaking, the aim of photography is to capture something timeless that seizes the feeling, mood and beauty (or indeed ugliness!) of a scene. So, whenever possible, don't just rush up to a bustling town square, stunning vista or whatever it may be, and point the camera and click. Think about how you want to arrange things in the frame, what your own position should be, where you want the light and so on. Wander around in front of the scene until you find the best perspective. It’s difficult to generalise where this might be – it could be above the scene, at your standing height or low down. Experiment!

Interesting foreground, Maldives

Focus on one main element

Keep the image compositions simple, with a single strong subject. Choose something prominent – or something that you can make prominent. The subject has to dominate the frame, though probably not fill it and, for aesthetic reasons, having it slightly off-centre is generally more effective. Nothing else should compete for attention: everything else has to fall away from conscious view, perhaps because it’s blurred or a uniform simple colour, such as a wall, a blue sky or a calm sea.

Alternatively, use foreground objects to direct the viewer's eye to your subject. Something such as a triangular rock pointing towards it, or a road or a meandering stream leading in its direction, will do the trick. At the very least, foreground items should be interesting, such as an unusual tree, the pattern of coloured paving slabs in a piazza or well-designed flower beds. Dull expanses of blank grass, tangled brambles or brown bracken just don't cut it.


Don’t always go for the obvious

Bear in mind that the best compositions are not always the most predictable and/or the most famous views. Often they come from hidden gems within a scene or happen to come together in a graphic, geometric form – such as shapes created by reflections, the way shadows fall across a wall or the structure of a boat.

Remove the clutter

Train yourself to see what is actually in front of you, not what you wish you were looking at. The camera will record everything it sees. So, in particular, watch out for overhead cables, TV aerials, parked cars, rubbish, yellow lines and so on. Generally, you won't want to include these in your images, so try to create compositions that frame them out.

Rainbow, Scorhill

Light is crucial

Different kinds of light can make a huge difference to your image. For example, it is difficult to produce top-quality photos when the sun is high overhead in the middle of the day: scenes will generally look washed-out and have a rather blue hue. It is much better to photograph when the sun is low in the sky, during the first or last couple of hours of the day. You’ll get good strong shadows that help to create a sense of three dimensions and the rich orange or reddish light gives a nice warm feel. Sunset or sunrise are, of course, popular times, but consider photographing at dawn or dusk, when the sun is below the horizon. Your subject will be softly lit and there may well be some attractive colours in the sky.

If the sun is shining roughly from behind you and straight onto your subject, it will illuminate it evenly and make it easy to photograph. But the drawback is that the subject may look flat due to the lack of shadow. If this is an issue, photograph your subject with the sun side on. This gives good illumination and, at the same time, creates some shadows, for a sense of shape and three dimensions.

'Back-lighting' – shooting straight into the light – is technically the hardest to pull off, due to flare in the lens. This is the territory of the silhouette, where your subject is all about outline, with few or no details visible. Make sure your subject has an interesting shape, such as a church spire, a tree or a statue.

It is best to photograph when the sun is low in the sky, during the first or last couple of hours of the day.

Jiming overcast day

Don’t be afraid of dull days

If you select your subject matter carefully, cloudy days can be very productive. Wide landscapes rarely work under a cloudy sky. All that grey, coupled with a monotone landscape (particularly if you're photographing the sea) just looks flat, lifeless and frankly depressing. However, if you're able to minimise the amount of sky visible – or block it out altogether – a shot can work really well. 

Photography in woodland or of fast-moving white water is often better in the softer light of a cloudy sky. Strong sunlight results in bright highlights and deep shadows that create a chaotic pattern among the trees; on moving water it burns out all the detail so that the water looks completely white. Other subjects that can be photographed well in cloudy weather, with more detail visible than in bright sunlight, include landscapes, buildings and street scenes. People are often better photographed in at least lightly hazy conditions, as the softer light will be gentler on their features.


Create energy with diagonal lines

It is common to photograph a lively scene, such as a busy market, racing traffic or coastline surf, only to find that the resulting images are flat and lifeless. To create some energy, introduce strong diagonals: not a mass of jumbled criss-crossing lines, but instead some coordinated ones – parallel diagonals or converging lines that may meet at some point in the perceived distance. You can exaggerate diagonals by using a wide-angle lens or camera setting. They also create the illusion of three dimensions and depth.

The best way to put the sense of movement into a photo when you're shooting moving water is to use a very slow shutter speed (from say a tenth of a second to several seconds) to blur the water's movement.

Make your final checks

Before you press the shutter, ask yourself two things. First, if you're using a hand-held camera, is the shutter speed fast enough to prevent camera shake? It’s impossible to hold a camera perfectly still, so if you’re shooting with a slow shutter speed, use a tripod or the photos will be blurred. Second, make sure that the camera actually focuses on your main subject, not some other part of the scene in front of or behind it. More photos are ruined by failure to check these two factors than almost anything else.

What’s the best equipment?

A lot of people use phone cameras these days and many of them are actually quite good for general snaps, provided the light is decent. But anyone wanting more control needs a camera where it is possible to manually override every setting.

The simplest and cheapest cameras that meet this need are bridge cameras and those at the upper end of the highly portable compact range. Both come with a fixed zoom lens and are relatively straightforward to use. As their name suggests, bridge cameras’ abilities span the gap between the compacts and the next level up: generally they have a greater range of exposure controls (allowing for more versatility), as well as larger sensors and better image processing, resulting in larger and higher-quality images. A good compact camera costs around £200 to £700. Bridge cameras range from about £500 up to £1,600 or more.

At the next level up, cameras with interchangeable lenses won't appeal to everyone, as you have to carry around more kit. The advantage is that they have greater optical quality and allow you to photograph small details one minute, a busy market the next. Mirrorless cameras are among some of the most advanced cameras available, yet still easy and lightweight to carry around. But top of the tree are the digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLR), those big, expensive-looking bits of equipment you see the professionals hauling around. 

They are the ultimate in image quality, versatility and power. With a single camera body and a set of lenses it is possible to shoot just about every type of subject on earth – from tiny organisms to sport, mountain ranges and the shyest wildlife – to top publishing standards.

Mirrorless cameras and the cheapest DSLRs start from about £700 up to £2,500, if you get a set of three or four lenses with different capabilities. Top-level equipment costs £2,000-£5,000 for the camera body alone, with lenses up to £8,000 each!

Mirrorless cameras are among some of the most advanced cameras available, yet still easy and lightweight to carry around.

About Nigel Hicks

Devon-based Nigel Hicks is a fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography and contributes to prestigious publishing organisation National Geographic Creative. His latest book is Wild Southwest: the Landscapes and Wildlife of Southwest England.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.