Travel

How 7 Travel Photographers Get Their Perfect Shot

Northern Lights
The aurora borealis in Norway. | David Clapp/The Image Bank/Getty Images
The aurora borealis in Norway. | David Clapp/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Travel photography is tricky. If you’re off adventuring somewhere new and fabulous, you probably don’t want to be spending your trip editing and sorting through images in your hotel room. On the other hand, you also don’t want to wait to do that until you come home, only to find -- after you’ve already left --  that your photos suck. You want the best quality images, sure, but you also don’t want to take away from the time you spend, you know, actually doing stuff.

Want to know how to shoot like the pros? We asked seven seasoned travel photographers to share with us how they get their perfect shots. Each of them spoke with us separately, but you’ll find their answers have a lot in common. Responses have been lightly edited and condensed.

The Gritti Palace, Venice.

Kirsten Alana

@kirstenalana
Home base: Los Angeles
Favorite camera: For me, my favorite camera depends on the situation. My go-to is the Sony A7 RII full-frame, but with the lenses and everything, it tends to be a little heavy. For something lighter, I prefer bodies by Fuji or Olympus. Those have been loaned to me by brands; the Sony is the one I bought myself.

Favorite photo-editing apps: Definitely when I’m traveling and need to share images as I’m taking them, I love Adobe Lightroom. There’s a desktop and mobile version, so I can actually sync what I’m doing on my desktop in Lightroom to edit on my iPhone or iPad -- it’s really becoming my go-to. The VSCO app is good, too.

Favorite gear to bring on the road: The Sony and the 24-70 lens, that’s my standard. It’s just a really solid go-to, and you can probably do 75% or more of what you need to do as a travel photographer with that simple setup, except for maybe long-range shots or portraits.

Favorite tips and tricks: The whole suite of Adobe Lightroom programs, that to me has been the biggest game-changer in terms of keeping editing quick and being able to do it at home and on the go. Both Apple and Adobe have their haters, but for me that partnership works really seamlessly. God bless them for coming up with that.

Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada.

Jeff Bartlett

@photojbartlett
Home base: Alberta, Canada
Favorite camera: I recently upgraded to the Sony A7R III and it’s incredible. It's a substantial upgrade from the A7 RII, which I hadn't really expected. It finally matches the performance -- for FPS, battery life, and auto-focus speed -- that I missed since switching away from DSLRs.

Having said that, I am a firm believer that we often use our gear as a crutch. Any digital camera purchased in the last 5 years offers great quality, especially because most images are now used digitally rather than in print. Rather than invest in new camera gear, I always suggest new photographers invest in their portfolio. Spend $2500 on a new camera and you've got a shiny new camera. Spend $2500 on three weeks abroad and you'll have dozens of portfolio images that might catch a client's eye.

Favorite photo-editing apps: I'm a huge fan of Adobe Lightroom Classic and do nearly 90% of my editing with it. The new Range Mask feature lets me do some really great adjustments similar to luminosity masks, without jumping to Photoshop. I also still love to edit on my phone, using Snapseed. It's a pretty intuitive app and can work when I need to save time or edit on the road.

Favorite gear to bring on the road: I've started carrying too much gear, but my go-to travel setup is just two lenses: 16-35 and 70-200. I think having the ability to shoot wide and shoot telephoto is important and I rarely shoot in the middle focal lengths between 35-70. I also always carry a tripod and a ND filter. I just love long exposure work and couldn't imagine traveling without these tools.

Favorite tips and tricks: It's easy to fall behind on the road, so I think it's critical to carve out time each day to at least import images into Lightroom, sort them into collections, and cull the bad images. Staying organized means that when you have a few hours on a train across Europe or you're sitting in an airport in Central Asia, you can pull out your laptop and immediately start editing your best images rather than sorting through an unorganized collection. When you do have the chance to edit, try to sit somewhere with even light. I always sit well away from windows, just for this reason.

Pete Halvorsen

@petehalvorsen
Home base: Los Angeles
Favorite camera: I switched over to the Leica systems four years ago and haven’t looked back. With the amount of traveling I was doing and the size of the cameras/lenses I had been carrying, I needed a change. Leica’s size and sharpness gave me the ability to streamline my workflow and not “look like a tourist photographer” while traveling in other countries. There is also a gravitas to shooting with a Leica -- historic photographers paved the way -- so shooting from them allows for a feeling of importance every time you raise it to your eye.   

While traveling through and airport, bus, train or just walking through a city, the ability to have your camera ready at all times is essential to capturing the moment. Sometimes that’s your point-and-shoot, sometimes it’s your mobile phone. The old adage that the best camera is the one that you have on you rings especially true for travel photographers.

My favorite Leica is the Q, a 28mm lens that’s wide enough to shoot landscapes and close enough to comfortably cover street/portraits.

Favorite photo-editing apps: Thanks to data becoming faster and cheaper, utilizing WiFi to upload while on the road has also given me the ability to edit raw images via Adobe Lightroom Mobile, which will sync with my laptop.
But in terms of good strong phone editing apps with good UI I would recommend Snapseed, Darkroom, and Retouch as three that I dial up on a regular basis for quick tweaks before sharing.

Favorite gear to bring on the road: A six-foot threaded USB cable will change your life. And on some assignments I’ll bring extra USBs and power strips, plus at least one phone case charger and battery brick.

Unless I’m spending time in the deep backcountry, I like to save space and carry smaller tripods (like Joby) that have grip arms, which give you the ability to wrap them on trees or fences and still get stability. An optional “mobile phone” adaptor is a great way to mount your phone on the tripod and capture video/steady photos while traveling. And no matter the camera system you carry, it’s always good to have a variety of focal lengths. Depending on the assignment I’ll carry some form of these three DSLR lenses:

16-35 or a 21mm for wide angles, landscapes, and architecture
28/35 or 50 for street photography and portraits
70-200, 135mm, or 90-280mm telephoto lenses for the ability to reach out and capture new perspectives on far-away places

Favorite tips and tricks: Get out of the hotel room! I only sleep between 4-5 hours a night when traveling. The adventure is out there, but you need to go find it. You’ll be much happier when you get home going through the images you captured because you decided to not sleep in. I also love to edit in restaurants or bars or cafes; to be surrounded by the energy that you’re capturing translates into the images you take and the way you edit.

Good things also happen when you’re out and about meeting the locals. I can’t tell you how many times I have been given great tips on places to shoot -- or eat -- just because I made the effort to start a conversation and be in the public eye.

Back up images daily. If the hotel has strong wifi, I’ll upload raw images to Amazon Photos (unlimited storage if you’re a Prime user) overnight. Otherwise, I usually have three backups to protect the images I shot: the SD Card where the image was captured, a copy on an external hard drive, then another version saved on my iPad or Laptop.

One of my most important tips while traveling is ABC: Always Be Charging.

Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Charissa Fay

@charissa_fay
Home base: New York City
Favorite camera: For work, I shoot with a Nikon D750. For personal travel, I bring a Sony A7RII mirrorless camera because it's very compact and light. At the top of my purchase list for this year is the amazing new Nikon Z7 mirrorless camera, to replace the Sony and also to serve as a backup to my Nikon D750.

Favorite photo-editing apps: I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to edit my DSLR work images on a computer and Snapseed and VSCO to edit iPhone images for Instagram. For iPhone photos, Perspective is also helpful for straightening lines, and Retouch for erasing blemishes.

Favorite gear to bring on the road: My go-to travel lens is a Nikon 24-70mm/f2.8 because it's extremely versatile and can cover almost any situation, especially in low light. I also love a fast, compact 50mm lens for shooting street scenes at dusk or shooting food. For camera bags, my Billingham Hadley Pro has traveled with me around the world. And of course, spare memory cards, batteries, and lens wipes are a must!

Favorite tips and tricks: Do some research to familiarize yourself with the destination, but get off the beaten path -- get lost, wander down side streets, ask locals for their favorite places. To get shots without the crowds, go out at sunrise and you'll have the place almost all to yourself. And definitely strategize about what locations you want to hit at sunset. To create a full travel story, try to shoot a mix of landscapes/cityscapes, portraits, food, interiors and architecture, and small details to convey the feel of a place. Try not to be too obsessed with documenting the trip -- make sure you take time to absorb the experience and the moment.
 

Rhiannon Taylor

@rhitaylor
Home base: Melbourne
Favorite camera: My travel camera is a Canon 5D Mark IV. It’s reliable and has almost become a part of me. I instinctively know how to use it, and I think that’s the most important thing when shooting.

Favorite photo-editing apps: I use Photoshop and Lightroom, but on my phone VSCO is great for small adjustments.

Favorite gear to bring on the road: I always travel with two camera bodies, and several lenses for food photography, interiors, and travel. But sometimes I’ll bring my drone if I’m going somewhere spectacular for a different perspective.

Favorite tips and tricks:
Wait for the light. Be patient and let the shot reveal itself to you!
 

Side Cut Metropark, Ohio.

Eric Ward

@littlecoal
Home base: Toledo, Ohio
Favorite camera: My favorite cameras when I travel are my Sony A7 RIII and Sony A7 III, along with the Sony RX100V, which is a great compact camera for any travel vlog.

Favorite photo-editing apps: Lightroom Mobile is a great photo editing app for the phone, but Snapseed and VSCO are two of my other favorites if I'm away from my laptop.

Favorite gear to bring on the road: For lenses that I'm not leaving home without, they would be my Sony 16-35 f2.8 and my Sony 24-70 f2.8. Other essentials would be my Mavic Pro drone, a nice compact travel tripod, extra batteries and memory cards, as well as a headlamp and gum. You always have to have gum.

Favorite tips and tricks: Whenever I'm traveling I try to remind myself to capture more than just the landscape of the location. No matter what type of photography you lean towards, I would encourage you to push yourself while on the road to capture a sense of the region through the scenery and the people you encounter, as well as those you may be traveling with. Ultimately, don't forget that you're traveling to experience something new, so be sure to put the camera down as well and simply take in the moments around you. Believe me, those beautiful images that you end up capturing will hold greater value to you if they are reminders of the amazing experiences you had while on the road.
 

Clearwater Beach, Florida.

Smita Jacob

@hoggerandco

Home base: Toronto

Favorite camera: I shoot with primarily Nikons (the Nikon D750, D700) and the Mavic Pro Platinum drone. I also like the Canon Powershot D10 waterproof camera.

Favorite photo-editing apps: Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC. On the iPhone, I like using Snapseed and VSCO.

Favorite gear to bring on the road: I usually have the 24-120mm or the 50mm on my camera, and the Mavic Pro Platinum. I sometimes bring the Nikon SB910 flash and a small travel tripod.

Favorite tips and tricks: Try to take in and enjoy the scenery for a moment, and then shoot photos of what makes you feel happiest. It's easy to miss the experience when you're waiting for the perfect sunset or that very specific Instagrammable moment, but try not to constantly be in that head space. Try to enjoy the location, too. It's easy to get lost behind the lens! I hardly ever edit on the spot but do all my editing afterwards -- either back at the hotel or back home after the trip.

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Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.