What I Learned About Travel Photography

I do not pretend to be one of those professional travel photographers, always jetting off to some remote location. In reality, few of us fit that description. Instead, I am the "average Joe", a wife and mother who also likes to take photographs. Travel photography for such as I is a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, I want to take excellent photographs, but on the other, my family is there (with myself included) to have a good time.

Over the years of traveling with my family in tow, I have learned a few things about travel photography. Call them "common sense tips", if you will. These are those unplanned events, which really disrupt an otherwise "good" trip. I have found that a little planning for the unplanned goes a long way towards truly enjoying myself and still taking fine photographs.

Common Sense #1 - You will always have too much gear

Begin by releasing yourself of any stress you may have at achieving perfection. We'd all like to get there someday, but seldom do. No matter how well you try to consolidate your gear, no matter how much of it you leave at home, at some point you will realize you don't know where to put it all. I ultimately find myself asking, "WHY did I bring this?"

Oh, I mean well. I start out with full intention of using all the "tools of the trade". But eventually, out of sheer weariness, I give up. Often, I argue with myself, "Do I HAVE to take that out AGAIN?" and then seriously debate whether or not I can handhold the camera and avoid unfolding my tripod.

Here's another fact about photo gear, especially on extended trips. The filter you really need is always misplaced. I know my bag of gear becomes more and more disorganized as the days progress. The one thing I am looking for falls to be buried underneath everything else where I can't possibly get to it. It is in knowing ahead of time that this WILL happen that I brings the most relief.

Common Sense Tip #2 - Your settings will be wrong

Let's say it together, "I will mess up." Now, don't you feel better?

At some point, you will take a series of photographs, leave the location (never to return), and then realize you left the ISO on 800. I try to remember to check my settings before I take a shot, but inevitably I forget. Comfort yourself. This is part of being normal. Take a deep breath, kick yourself, and then get over it. At those moments, we are at our most human, and there is nothing wrong with that.

I like to embrace my errors. In fact, I glean more knowledge from viewing what I did wrong than I do while patting myself on the back. Don't get me wrong. I like success, but all those 'I-should-haves' become a real advantage when you seriously look at them.

Common Sense Tip #3 - They will always walk ahead of you

Stop trying to keep up with the crowd. People without a camera will always walk away and leave you standing there alone. It is a fact that taking photographs consumes time, whether the people with you realize that or not (and usually they don't).

Travel photography is all about multi-tasking. Tell yourself that your true skill is your ability to take the shot while not losing track of your companions. After all, they aren't doing half of what you are or toting all that gear, yet they will still want to look at your photographs once you return home.


Common Sense Tip #4 - The perfect moment will come and they will be hungry

Remember? You are traveling with people without cameras. At some time, they will want to eat and it WILL be at that most important moment. This is especially true if you have young children. Children whine (and some adults). Learn how to say, "In a minute," and then ignore them. The strongest part of parenthood is entering the "I-can't-hear-you-anymore" zone.

Alternatively, knowing this will happen to you, prepare yourself in advance and bring a selection of snack foods. I distinctly remember one road trip where all that saved our sanity was a box of flavored crackers.

Common Sense Tip #5 - The perfect moment will come and someone will ask questions.

This tip is a twist on tip #4. This is the guy who comes up behind you only to ask where you are from or what gear you are using. Suddenly, you realize you must be friendly and talk. A friend of mine remarked on this issue. There she was photographing some rare birds, when someone chose to approach and ask her what she was photographing. Needless to say, the birds flew off.

Go ahead and sigh. We, as photographers, do not like our concentration interrupted. We prefer total absorption in that perfect moment. Tourists worldwide do not know this. Part of traveling is staying patient and remaining polite with strangers. Be willing to miss the occasional shot for the simple sake of protecting your reputation as a nice person.


Common Sense Tip #6 - Someone will take your spot

This brings me to my next observation. Someone WILL take your spot. This happened to me on my last trip. In my case, it was a man with a HOG of a camera (which made me feel really small and insignificant in comparison. He even had someone to tote his gear for him.) However, this someone comes in a variety of human forms. It could be the "home photographer" (who obviously doesn't know what he is doing) or the dreaded unsupervised child. (Where DO parents dissolve off to?)

It is important at this moment of frustration to make a choice. Decide whether you (a) want to wait it out for that location or (b) fall back to tip #3 and get behind your group again. Part of photography is in the "oh well" moments when you are left with only your memory of the location. I always say my best photographs are in my mind.

Common Sense Tip #7 - Someone will now think you are a portrait photographer

This someone usually isn't in your family. Your family tends to know you photograph bugs and flowers. Instead, it is a passing acquaintance who, after viewing your recent travel photographs, decides you must come photograph their birthday party. And yes, it sounds really lame when you say, "I don't take pictures of people." You now sound like a recluse who doesn't get out.


Now, please realize these tips are presented "tongue in cheek". My ultimate goal in writing them down, besides the humor and the fact you know I am right, is to relieve you of any feeling that things will go perfectly. I have found that it is the errors on a trip, the mistakes you didn't account for, that make for the best stories. After all, if everything always went perfectly, what would there be to talk about? Knowing that, take the time to be human. Move past the difficulties and enjoy your travels for what they really are - memories created with people you love.


Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.