Creative Tips to Help Strengthen Your Travel Photography


1) Chasing light

I’m really not a morning person but, on travel shoots, I always force myself to wake up with or before the sun. Photography is all about light, so it's important to capture the most beautiful light possible. What also makes shooting in the early morning more preferable than the late afternoon is there are often fewer people and tourists. I found this to be especially true at Machu Picchu and Belvedere lookout, in Moorea. My assistant and I had heard about this lookout on top of Belvedere Mountain, in Moorea, and for this image, went to see it to take photos in the afternoon. The light, however, was all wrong; the sun glaring right into the camera and washing everything out. The sun rose at 6:00 a.m., and our hotel was in Tahiti, so we were on the first ferry over at 6:00 the next morning to get this shot. Once I’ve scheduled my important landscape shots for when the lighting is right, I schedule shooting food and interiors in the middle of the day when the light is harsh outside, but fine for interior shots.


2) Capture a person in the shot

Whether it's finding a photogenic local, animal, or someone traveling with you, what can elevate a generic postcard-perfect photo is adding a person for context or scale. Sometimes a place is very grand and majestic, but it's not translating in a picture. If you add a person to the image you can, all of a sudden, get a better sense of the scale of the place.

3) Tell a story through objects

On a shoot in Todos Santos, Mexico, I discovered a colorful game called Loteria, which is Mexican Bingo. I knew I wanted to use that in a photo so, at lunch one day, I fell in love with the surface of the table where we were eating and added my room key, Polaroids I had snapped, and a margarita—capturing the feeling of Mexico in a less expected way.


4) Portraits

Portraits of local people can often tell more about a place than a landscape.  It’s so important to be respectful and take the time to make your subject relax before taking a photo. Once, when shooting in a monastery in Cambodia, I met a monk I wanted to photograph, but did not feel it respectful or professional to just rush up and ask him for a shot. I decided to spend some time there first; I removed my shoes, received a water blessing, and gave an offering before asking the monk if he would mind if I took his photo. His face and compassionate eyes told of a deep and complicated history of life in Cambodia. The people of Belize are incredibly warm and friendly. After shooting a sailing trip through the islands there I gathered our captains for this photo, who were very proud to show the lobsters they had just speared. I’m glad I waited until a few days into our trip to do their portrait, because by then we had a nice rapport.

5) Cropping

Everyone takes the same pictures at Machu Picchu, trying to get the whole site into one shot. But in this shot, I focused on a smaller section to show how green and graphic the stone work and architecture of the Incas was.

6) Take the path less traveled

In Siem Reap, we were told you have to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. “We” ended up being me and a few thousand other tourists, with their cameras already set up at 4:00 a.m. That day turned out to be cloudy and the whole thing was a bust. The next day we decided to go to Ta Prohm (where scenes from the film Tomb Raider were shot) at sunrise because we heard that the tourists usually start arriving there around 9:00 a.m. It's not a legendary one to see at sunrise, but we had it almost all to ourselves, with almost no other tourists getting in my photos.

7) Keep it simple

My kit is, honestly, very simple. I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III, and the lens I use the most on travel jobs is the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L lens. I also love the 50mm for portraits, as well as the 70-200mm f/2.8L for wildlife. I still shoot some film and for that I use a Pentax 67II. 

I’m a big fan of polarizers, and like this one from Hoya that doesn’t cause any vignetting. Also, for waterfalls, it’s great to have a neutral density filter (2 stops or 3 stops) and a tripod. I also shoot on a two-second self timer to reduce any camera shake.


Jessica Sample is based in her native Los Angeles. From an early age, she traversed the world with her family to far-flung places like Bhutan, Africa, and Indonesia. Before coming home to California, she was previously the Deputy Photo Editor at Travel + Leisure, in New York, and a frequent photographer for the magazine. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Art Semiotics from Brown University, and has studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and the International Center of Photography. Her clients include Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveller UK, National Geographic Traveler, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Coastal Living, GQ, Lonny, Sunset, The Wall Street Journal, Endless Vacation, C Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, LA Confidential, Santa Barbara Magazine, Hemispheres, and Delta’s Sky Magazine. Sample was recognized as one of PDN’s “30 Photographers to Watch” in 2013.

Photo by Beth Garrabrant




Good logical stuff to remember!  Some of these places you may never see again.  Thanks!

Great article!  We just got back from spending 5 weeks in Switzerland (I grew up there, so it was more going "home").  I had a few personal projects planned for which I brought other gear.  However, the 24-70mm was on my lens about 85% of the time, the other times I had a lensbaby and a 100 mm macro. I didn't have that luxury of planning around light (it was a family vacation with kids) except for 2 days. It would have made quite a few of the images even better. And since we visit many of the same spots every time, I've tried to go "off the beaten path" and shake up the same subject with different angles and depth of field. 


Seems to me-very heavey equipement.Shall prefare lighter-like sony a7!!

Great article, I'm off to Turkey in a few days and as always deciding on what lenses to take with my Canon 5D Mk3. Three lenses make my backpack too heavy - what do I leave at home, the 13-35 f2.8, the 24-70mm f2.8 or the 70-200mm f2.8?

Excellent entry.  Helpful suggestions. The waterfall image is especially fine. 


A lot of my photography is done in the sub-tropical rainforests of Eastern Australia, where I live. My problem is light, it doesn't penetrate the canopy. Looking at the waterfall in this article it appears to have been shot into the light so the fall would have been in shadow. (A situation which I am familiar with).  I wondered what technique the writer, who lives the sort of life I dream of, used to overcome this problem. (Or was the shaft of light added in PP?)

Thanks for the feedback Eric,I spoke to Jessica and she described the scene as shaded but bright enough and even illumination and that the shaft of light came over the falls as you see it and was not added in post. All the best down-under. It's true, Jessica has a dream job but shooting in sub-tropical rainforests of Eastern Australia sounds pretty good to me, as I sit on th ecorner of 35th and 9th Ave! 

Nice set of tips. I would like to add just one more – when you travel and take pictures of places, always double check the locations names. Otherwise, your captions might be misleading.

That Angor temple (where scenes from the film Tomb Raider were shot) is actually Ta Prom, not Angor Thom. Angor Thom is not a temple; it is a rather big walled city, which contains several temples. Ta Prom lays outside Angor Thom to the east.

Thank you for the clarification Leonid. 

This was among the very best travel photography tips I've read. THANKS for sharing!

Though I use two bodies, my kit is the identical for traveling the world, inlcuding the filters.

Thank you Ms. Sample! It's nice to see that you show respect to people of different cultures when traveling and photographing. I'm an ex-pat living in China and all too often I run into Americans who will completely fail to show respect but instead flaunt their arrogance. When you show respect you always get it back, often turning into a memorable photo.

Very well written. Informative, lucid and useful.  I will share this for sure!