Everyone loves looking at those classic travel photos you see in travel books and brochures — beautiful scenes shot from the best angles, with great lighting and people in perfect poses. But while almost everyone takes photos when they travel, not many return with those wonderful travel-brochure shots. That’s because getting them generally takes more expertise than most people possess.
But don’t despair: there are some classic-looking travel photos you can take, even if you don’t have much photo experience, or an expensive camera. These are shots I take over and over again, in different places all over the world, just because they look good. There are a few technical details to watch for, but mostly, all you need to do is frame the scene properly and shoot.
Here are my five classic travel photos that you can take almost anywhere, and come out looking like a pro. I’ve added a technical detail or two with each one, but nothing too strenuous. However, I do strongly recommend using a photo editor to tweak your shots when you get home, for that real professional look. Windows and Apple computers have built-in editors that do the job handsomely; get to know them, if you haven’t already.
One of the most common travel subjects is a grand building, or a row of buildings, that’s just too wide to shoot head-on unless you have a fish-eye lens. But there’s a shot that allows you to get them in, and make it look good. I call it the wedge. Here’s how to do it: stand at one end of the building, or row of buildings, and use their natural diminishing angles to make a picture that looks like a long triangle. Then, if possible, position something at the point of the wedge so the reader’s eye is drawn to it.
In this shot of the tanners’ district in Strasbourg, France, I’ve included the lamp post as the target. And in the photo of the graffiti wall in Mexico City, the pedestrians came in handy. The photo of Copenhagen’s Nyhavn harbour at the top of this post is another example of this technique.
Technical tip Geometric shots like this can look crooked if all the lines are running at odd angles. In order to avoid this, you need to have one of the principal lines going horizontally across the shot, or close to it. It’s often the curb line on the street, but even a roof line can work. Try framing the shot in different ways until it looks right. And for safety’s sake, don’t frame the shot too tight, so you have enough space to rotate it when you edit your photos.
Over the shoulder
This is a great way to make your “tourist” shots more engaging for your viewers. It’s fine to take a photo of a tourist attraction or a lovely landscape: these can be classic photos in their own right. But you can make them more meaningful by photographing the other onlookers from behind as they look at the scene. Suddenly, it feels as if you’re in the crowd, experiencing the moment right along with them. And you’re photographing the event, rather than just the view.
Here’s two different versions of that shot, from different ends of the earth. The first is from the Greenland fjords on my Arctic cruise in 2016. The second is from Ushuaia, Argentina, from a cruise to the Antarctic back in 2009.
Technical tip There’s no real trick to taking this shot – just remember to step back and take in the scene. However, it helps to move around a little until you can see the attraction well over the onlookers’ shoulders. And look carefully at the people in the crowd; you want them looking, not checking their phones or turning to leave. Why don’t people just pose nicely when you’re photographing them from behind?
Through the doorway
This is one of my favourite shots. Framing a scene through a doorway adds a bit of drama: it makes viewers feel as if they’re looking through the opening themselves, wondering what’s out there. Classical painters used this technique all the time, with both windows and doorways: look for it the next time you’re in an art museum.
This shot works best if you can position a person in the middle of the scene, as I did in this shot from the old town of Cartagena, Colombia. But it can look good with an intriguing object, like the vase in the shot below, from the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. Failing that, even a lovely landscape, or a city streetscape will work.
Technical tip There are some technical challenges with this shot. If you’re inside a room shooting out, the room may be darker than the outside, so you’ll end up with either burned-out highlights or murky shadow areas. You can balance the light conditions by using your flash to brighten the room: some cameras let you decrease the flash output so you don’t overdo it. Or, you can use your camera’s high dynamic range (HDR) mode, if it has one; this uses multiple exposures to even out the highlights and shadows. The final choice is to shoot the photo so the highlights look good, and lighten the shadows later in your photo editing software.
Flowers in front
Once again, it’s fine to just take a photo of a beautiful palace or cathedral. But it’s just a photo of the building, and sometimes it looks a little … ordinary. Or worse, there’s a traffic sign or some other obstacle in front, spoiling the view. It’s amazing how much better the photo can look if you find a flower bed or planter to shoot over. Putting the flowers in the foreground adds colour, breathing life into the scene, while at the same time providing a frame for the shot.
I used the technique in this shot of Château de Chenonceau in France’s Loire Valley. And while this giant flower pot in Tiananmen Square is a show in itself, it also sets off a view of the Forbidden City in the background. These are the kinds of photos you want to hang on the wall.
Technical tip It’s important that both the flowers in the foreground and the subject in the background are in focus. That means you should be using a small aperture. In auto or program mode, the camera will take care of that itself, as long as you’re shooting in good light. However, if the light is low, you’ll need to adjust your camera to make sure the aperture is small enough. For those who usually shoot in auto modes, the easiest way can be to choose the “night landscape” mode or something equivalent, depending on your camera. But hold the camera steady; these modes often choose a very slow shutter speed.
The aristocrats of old liked to build their grandest buildings beside a lake, to create dramatic views as they reflected off the water. In some cases, they even added ponds in front of the building in order to add a reflection that made it look bigger. If you’re photographing these places, don’t ignore the reflections. Frame your shots to take advantage of the repeating patterns they create, and the dream-like feeling the whole scene evokes.
I found this view of the “Taj Mahal” at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen mesmerizing. And even while there was no real reflection, the glow of the Hungarian parliament building off the Danube River in Budapest seems to make the whole scene that much brighter.
Technical tip As with the wedge shot, these photos can look crooked if you don’t get the angles right. Stand directly in front of the building or monument you’re photographing, and line it up with the reflections in the water, Get it all straight and you can create magic; get it crooked and it will bother you every time you look at the shot. And don’t frame too tight, so you can straighten the photo later if you need to — and so you don’t leave out critical details, like the “star” in the Taj Mahal shot.
Those are my five classic travel photos anyone can take. And as I said, you can take them with any kind of camera — even a cell phone. The real trick is not taking the photo: it’s seeing it. If you want to capture great shots, take a careful look at the classic travel photos in the books and brochures. See how the photographers approached the scene in front of them and made it come alive. Once you start doing that, great travel photos will appear in front of you, wherever you go.