How to take a great travel photo, step by step

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One of the major themes of The Travelling Boomer is the photographs featured here each week. But now and then someone asks me how I get these shots: is it just luck, or is it the cameras I use? Well, luck always plays a part, and having a good camera is a big help. But the truth is, if you want to take a great travel photograph, you have to put a little thought into it, followed up by some good execution. In this post, I’ll show you exactly what I mean, step by step, using the shot you see at the top of this post.

I wouldn’t claim that this shot, which I’ve posted before, is a great travel photo. But it’s one of my favourites of the past few years. And it’s a good example of how a little planning and some persistence can result in a photo you could hang on the wall. (Note: you can click on the picture to see it in its full dimensions.)

Eiffel Tower at nightI took this photo two years ago when I was in Paris for my Viking Cities of Lights cruise. On my last night in town, I decided to try and capture a classic view of Paris, from one of its iconic bridges. I chose the Alexandre III Bridge because it gave a great view of the Eiffel Tower. And I knew that in the evening, every hour on the hour, the tower sparkled and sent out a beam of light into the night sky.

I had dinner in the floating restaurant under the bridge, and afterwards, I walked upstairs and stood in the crowd to watch the show. I first tried shooting from the end of the bridge overlooking the river. That produced some decent shots, but they weren’t what I was looking for. So I moved up onto the bridge, and as the crowd thinned, I found what I wanted.

The centrepiece of the shot was the Eiffel Tower, but I needed to get it while it was still sparkling. And timing it just right would allow me to capture one of the beams of light against the sky. In order to get the photo exposed properly, I raised the camera’s ISO to 1600; with older cameras this could create grainy-looking noise, but the Nikon D5500 DSLR I was using could handle it easily. Even with the high ISO, I needed a shutter speed of 1/20th of a second — just fast enough to keep the shot sharp. (Note: if you are using a point-and-shoot camera, try using the Night Landscape mode, or experiment with the manual settings.)

Paris Bridge crop riverSo I had the Eiffel Tower. But I wanted to put it in context: there are thousands of photos out there showing the tower in every kind of light. To make a more meaningful shot, I needed to show it in its setting, shining over beautiful downtown Paris and the Seine. So I included a glimpse of the river scene below, with the light shining off the water. The reflections came from the lights on the bridge down river, but they look as if they might have come from the tower itself. It would have been even better if I’d been able to catch one of the bâteau-mouche tour boats cruising by, but you can’t have everything.

Now I had the Eiffel Tower shining over the Seine. But I wanted to add another level of context. That meant putting the bridge itself into the picture. Why? For two reasons: first, it acted as a frame for the tower and the river, adding drama to the picture; this is one of my favourite techniques, as I’ve written before. And second, it put the viewer right beside me, standing on the bridge looking over this timeless view of Paris at its most beautiful.

Paris bridge detail

The scene was complete. Rather than just snapping a shot of the Eiffel Tower sparkling, I had built a complex scene, layer by layer: the tower, the night sky, the river scene and the bridge. This is how news photographers compose their shots, trying to combine all the elements of the story in one dramatic scene. And over the years I’ve found it works just as well for travel shots. You want your photos to look good, of course — but you also want them to depict the place you’re visiting, and recreate the experience you had there.

Still, the job wasn’t quite done. Standing there on the bridge, dodging the other tourists, I took more than 15 different versions of the photo — including and excluding the ornate sculpture of the river nymphs to my right, and positioning the Eiffel Tower in different places, to see which angle looked best. Here’s a second version of the shot:

Paris bridge with sculpture

And a third:

Paris bridge with whole sculpture

In the end, of course, it comes down to editing. Combing through the different shots, I chose the version at the top, though I do like these two as well. Then, I opened the file in my editing software, cropped it, lightened the shadows  a bit, and increased the contrast to make the photo pop off the screen. A little sharpening, and it was done.

So when someone asks me if getting a good travel photo is all about luck, I smile. If everyone knew how to do it, what would travel photographers do for a living?

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

3 Comments

  1. hi Paul beautiful pictures of Paris. Like the first one best. it really shines the way the blue light ray comes off the eiffel tower.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Dennis — I kind of like the one with the statue, but the first one has cleaner lines. Just shows how many different looks you can put on the same picture.

  2. Hey Paul, Good photography tips as always! Looking forward to semeeting you in our own, New York City next week! Going to watching you carefully to pick up on more “how-to”s as you explore Manhattan. Cannot wait to see you here!

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