Note: This is the first in a series of five articles based on a talk given by Mitch Bach and Alan Armijo from TripSchool at the 2017 IATDG conference in Dallas. All the images here are from Unsplash.com, a great resource for free, royalty-free images.

Travelers have always reflected on their trips through photos, but now photography (almost always with smartphones) has become probably the single most pervasive element of the on-tour experience. Facebook and Instagram are endless scrolls of images, many from trips. And yet: so many guests (and tour directors!) take lousy photos. It’s so easy to simply hold the camera up in front of your eyes, and just click.

Great photos can help make a great trip, for you and your guests.

Why do good photos matter?

  • Teaching good photography skills changes the visual memory guests have of their trip. Every night they sit in their hotel rooms or spend hours on long coach rides scrolling through their photos. The better their photos, the better their perceived experience of the journey!
  • Guests are appreciative, especially when they look back on their trip. On tour, I’ll show students and adults alike good photo examples using printed, laminated examples to help them see what I’m talking about. And then I’ll hold a photo contest to challenge them to get out there and apply their skills in a fun way (more on that in the next post!).
  • The best photos guests take of the trip can be pooled together, shared, printed and used in all sorts of creative ways for everyone’s enjoyment. There’ll be a whole post coming soon on that topic, too.
  • Good photos help market you! Instagram and Facebook photo posts of your trips draw people into the world you create as a tour leader. Why not make that world look as good as possible?

So let’s take a look at some principles for taking better photos. Once you’ve mastered these principles, you can share the tips with guests to make everyone’s pics more interesting.  You don’t need to be a photographer to teach good photo-taking skills on tour!

Avoid the “point and shoot” reflex. And: if you’re using a smartphone camera, don’t use the zoom!

These are the two most common problems, and a perfect recipe for a boring, grainy photo. The zoom on a phone is digital; it’s not actually getting closer to the object, it’s just making the image’s pixels larger. Zoom in too much, and the image is grainy. Either get closer, or figure out a way to place the object in a unique position in the frame to make it more interesting (e.g. along the left or right side, instead of the center).

What a boring photo. Everyone takes this shot.

Zooming in just creates a pixelated photo.

An interesting photo offers a unique or different perspective on the scene.

Look at the way each of these photos of the Statue captures something unique, by using light, weather, angle and framing to make us change our normal idea of what the Statue looks like.

Now here’s an interesting angle.

Any sort of weather can make a familiar object suddenly feel mysterious or different.

Don’t be afraid to make the main focus of the scene a dark shadow; its dark silhouette is more alluring than a well-lit statue.

Give your photo both foreground and background.

Look at the scene, and ask yourself: can I put something close the camera that frames the background action in an interesting way? The more visual “interest” you can create in a photo, the better. Likewise: don’t put the main subject directly in the center of the shot. As the legendary Fashion editor Diana Vreeland says, the eye must travel. Make the viewer look around the photo to understand what’s going on.

The man is the subject, set off to the side, and in the background. The motorcycle creates visual interest in the foreground.

The foreground fence here works as a framing device, putting the viewer in the position of the crowd, and not in the action itself.

Here the foreground is the subject, but the photographer made sure something interesting was also happening in the background.

Think of a unique way to offer a new perspective.

In these examples you’ll see that the photographer has pointed the camera in a way to show a normal scene from a new angle or perspective.

Looking at a mundane subject through the reflection of a puddle or a window is a great way to make the boring come alive.

Get down even lower than you normally would to give the viewer a sense of the scale of huge buildings.

Here, the road becomes more intimidating by offering the perspective of a bug or animal low to the ground. (Don’t get run over.)

A person always spices up a photo, if you use them creatively.

Avoid the usual “Look, I’m smiling at the camera!” people shots. Avoid the selfie! At this point everyone’s Facebook feed is 90% smiling friends on vacation. You can stand out by using people more creatively. Instead of just sharing yourself in a scene, think about ways to make the photo invite the viewer to feel part of the scene, like the examples below.

The feet place the viewer in the scene, feeling on the edge of this massive waterfall.

The person creates a sense of drama and mystery here. They’re not facing the camera, but they add everything to the scene.

I feel part of this wedding; by photographing from the back you place the viewer in the middle of the party.

Create drama with shadow.

Don’t just flood every scene you take with light and flash! Look at what the sun’s doing, and notice shadows that might make an interesting contrast. Especially when taking black and white photos.

The dark rocks frame the sunset in a unique way.

Shadows cast odd and wonderful angles that can make a scene pop.

In black and white photos, the image’s effectiveness hinges on figuring out what the light and dark areas of the image are expressing. Here a simple street scene is transformed with strong lines.

Patterns and textures can be interesting in themselves.

Notice angles, texture, and the way lines intersect in an image, and emphasize them.

The arrangement of colors, lines and texture make a compelling image out of something really boring!

Ugly shipping containers become a rich and colorful texture when framed and shot head-on.

Otherwise normal-looking ceilings can take on interesting shapes when the camera is angled oddly.

Now go get creative!

The best way to get a feel for what great travelers are doing with photography is to explore Instagram. This page has a good starter list of people to follow. On Instagram you can also search for hashtags like #travelphotography to get inspired by what millions around the world are doing. Otherwise, the next time you pick up a travel magazine like Afar, National Geographic Traveler, pay attention to what the photographers are doing, and how they’re using the tricks I mentioned!