Five Terrible Tourist Photos and How You Can do Better


Written by Ed Graham, a traveller, writer, and photographer living in Chicago. He loves cold beer, cold weather, and warm people, and he’s been passionately taking pictures for over a decade. For more travel and photography tips, check out Ed’s website, The Polar Route.

There are tons of supposed hard and fast rules to better pictures. The Rule of Thirds, composition rules, cropping rules and on and on. It’s enough to make me want to leave my camera at home entirely.

Nobody likes rules, and inevitably these “rules” always carry the subtext that they can be bent or broken when needed. So what good are they?

The following tips have nothing to do with rules; they’re simple lessons I’ve learned from years of taking thousands of bad travel pictures (and a few good ones, too). I promise that you too will start taking better travel pictures by incorporating these into your own photographic routine.

Terrible Tourist Photo #1: The Mona Lisa

Solution: Take fewer pictures.

The Mona Lisa - Travel photography tips

It’s hard to keep your camera holstered when the throngs of other tourists around you are constantly shooting, but taking less pictures will help you take better pictures.

Too many tourists mindlessly snap away taking what I call the “Yeah I’ve Been There” photos. These photos evoke only memories, not feelings, and they’ll bore the hell out of anyone you show them to.

The Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris is a perfect example. Hardly anybody really looks at the Mona Lisa. Instead, tourists usually view the painting through their cameras’ LCD screens and viewfinders, and proceed to fill their memory cards with something they’d be better off wikipediaing if they really wanted to see a picture of it. Better to actually look at the darn thing, enjoy the moment, and walk away.

Taking fewer photos helps you see more. The best tourist photos evoke more than memories, they evoke feelings. Search for the rare captures, the ones that scream, “this is what it feels like to be here”. Personally, I’d rather take one good picture per day than go home with 1000 Mona Lisas.

Istanbul - Travel photography tips

When I look at this photo, I feel like I’m in Istanbul again.

Terrible Tourist Photo #2: A Picture of Nothing

Solution: Know your subject.

Central Park - Travel photography tips

What’s this a picture of?

Is the above shot a picture of the grass, the water, the trees, or the buildings? It’s hard to tell because no emphasis is given to any part of the picture. These days when I realise this, I put the camera down and don’t bother with the picture.

Photos need a subject, whether it’s people, buildings, light, shadows, shapes, or colours. Ask yourself what you’re taking a picture of before you snap. If you can’t answer the question, don’t take the picture. If you can, try to find the best way to emphasise your subject before you shoot.

Xitang  - Travel photography tips

Ahh, that’s better. This time we have a real subject and a clear focus. The use of black and white emphasises the subject further. Shot in Xitang, China.

Terrible Tourist Photo #3: It’s Missing Something!

Solution: Anticipate.

Sri Lanka - Travel photography tips

This scene from Sri Lanka has potential, but it’s disorganised and it’s missing that special pop.

See an otherwise quality scene that’s missing that special something? It’s not just about photographing whatis there, it’s also about anticipating what could be there.

Could the light be better, could something incredible happen? The best travel photos are rarely a result of luck but rather the result of planning and anticipation.

Sri Lanka better - Travel photography tips

I thought it’d be better to have someone crossing the center of the tracks to add to the feel. I also reframed the shot to add emphasis to the subject.

Terrible Tourist Photo #4: Moving Too Quickly

Solution: Patience!

Istanbul light - Travel photography tips

I really liked the light in this scene in Istanbul. This was my first capture from that scene, and it turned out dramatic as I expected, but the subject isn’t so great.

What good is anticipation and planning if you don’t have the patience to wait for it? Travel photographs hardly ever need to be rushed, so give yourself the time you need to make a good picture.

I loved the light in the scene above, but my first photo failed to capture the full feel of the moment. It only took a few minutes of standing in the same place to find a scene that worked much better photographically.

Istanbul light better - Travel photography tips

The lines, shadows, and people work a lot better in this one.

Terrible Tourist Photo #5: The “I’ll Photoshop it Later” Picture

Solution: Create good pictures. Worry about good editing later.

Vladivostok - Travel photography tips

A pretty mediocre shot in Vladivostok, Russia. No amount of editing will get the bad out of this picture.

Everyone edits pictures. Before digital cameras were invented, film photographers everywhere were dodging and burning in the darkroom to their heart’s content. To make the most of their editing they had to get the exposure dead on, and the same is true today.

Digital editing, Instagram, and HDR are not a substitute for good pictures; instead they help good pictures get better. The best finished photos always begin as good photographs.

For more on really nailing your exposures with a digital camera, see here: Your Camera is Hungry.

Vladivostok edited - Travel photography tips

Same spot, shot several minutes later and with much better framing. Editing helped me achieve the look I wanted, but the shot began as a good exposure of an interesting scene

And One More Tip

Look to others for inspiration.

I love looking at other peoples’ photos! The internet is a great resource for inspiration, and I always check out my destination online before I get there.

My trips tend to be short, with only a few days spent in each new city. With such limited time it’s hard to know what to look for. So I look to others for ideas of what works, what doesn’t, and for what I can do differently in my own photographic style.

Before I travelled to Shanghai, I knew The Bund would be a good place to photograph at sunrise. So when I woke up jetlagged at some horrible hour of the morning, I grabbed my camera and headed that way because I was inspired by the shots I saw here: Shanghai on Flickr. I ended up with some of my best travel photos; totally original, and totally inspired by the beautiful works of others.

Thanks for reading and remember to keep taking pictures, just not too many (see bad photo #1!)

Shanghai - Travel photography tips

Shanghai, inspired by Flickr

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Thanks to Hamed Saber for the image off Flickr. Please note that all images were used under the Creative Commons license at the time of posting.

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