Does this sound familiar? You go on a trip, take hundreds of photos, then get home and discover…they’re boring. Like photos you’ve seen before, just not as good.
I get it. It’s a big world. There’s a lot to photograph and everyone seems to be a photographer. As of early 2024, 66,000 photos are uploaded to Instagram every minute — that’s about 95 million a day. A single snowflake has a better chance of standing out in a blizzard than one of your travel photos has on Instagram. Not because you’re a bad photographer, but because most people would rather watch cat videos.
So on that bright note, how can you capture unique travel photos that stand a chance of being noticed?
Here are four lessons I’ve learned:
Don’t shoot anything you must stand in line to see
In Sedona, Arizona there is a natural arch known as Devil’s Bridge. People flock there in droves, then wait in line for up to an hour to walk out on the arch and have their photo taken. Why? To prove they were there in case they need an alibi? Odds are, every photo taken there will look the same: a person standing on an arch with red hills behind them. Yawn. I’ve been to dozens of other Sedona locations just as spectacular as Devil’s Bridge with no lineups.
You know where there are no lines? Off the beaten path. Go on a long hike, preferably off-trail. But only if you’re properly equipped and know how to read maps. You don’t want your unique photo to be the one the search and rescue team finds on the camera beside your coyote-ravaged body.
If hiking isn’t your thing, find a different vantage point. Climb to the top of a building and shoot down. Walk down a stairway and shoot from street level. Just don’t wait in line.
Don’t shoot anything that’s on a postcard
Postcard photos are spectacular. That’s why they sell. More than likely, the person who shot the postcard photo waited for just the right light and experimented with dozens of compositions. You can’t match that during a quick run-and-gun photoshoot.
If you do visit famous landmarks — and you should, they’re famous for a reason — find your own, unique point of view. Channel your inner artist and come home with something new.
And if you like the postcard photo, buy the postcard.
Don’t shoot anything a group of people is photographing
Years ago I was caught in a photo scrum in Hawaii, trying to shoot a recently emerged lava lake at Kilauea. All around me, photographers jostled in the dark for tripod space. I had claimed my patch and was getting ready to shoot when THUNK, another photographer parked his tripod right in front of me, completely blocking my view of the volcano. I offered a few choice words and he moved on, claiming he hadn’t seen me. Later I saw my photos were nothing special — just a pool of red-hot liquid rock with no context and no other redeeming features. Certainly nothing to look at twice.
Don’t go through that kind of abuse. Instead, hang back from the group and shoot your own shot. If you see a group photographing something large, shoot a small detail. If the group is shooting closeup photos, back up and shoot the environment. Better yet, wander off and shoot something completely different. Because by definition, shooting what everyone else is shooting won’t result in unique photos.
Don’t shoot in the middle of the day or in good weather
Landscape photographers often say bad weather is good weather. By that, we mean the most dramatic and interesting shots come when weather systems are changing or chaotic. Blue skies look nice on vacation, but make boring photos. Unless they include a UFO landing or something.
Similarly, shooting at midday under sunny skies is almost guaranteed to produce lacklustre photos. Photographer Bryan Peterson calls this “poolside light,” because under those conditions, you’ll find him by the pool, not making photos.
The lesson? Get up early. Stay up late. Go out in marginal weather. Get soft, golden tones in your photos, or big, dramatic clouds. Don’t settle for harsh shadows, washed-out colours and boring blue skies.
These are some lessons I’ve learned. Try them the next time you travel. At the very least, you’ll come home with different photos.