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A Pro’s Quick 5-Step Guide to Travel Photography

My alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. Determination masked my sleepiness. My goal was simple: to photograph the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine near Kyoto, Japan without any people. The early bird gets the photo.

For the past seven years, I have roamed the world working as a freelance photographer and running photo trips in Asia. The secret to travel photography is getting up painfully early. The reward is silence, photos with clean backgrounds and a glimpse of the real culture.

Whether you are shooting with an iPhone 6 or a DSLR, these tips will help polish your photography skills for your next adventure.

1. Strong Composition

The quality of a photograph is directly related to the composition. Focus on filling the frame to only include essential elements and crop out distractions. Create depth, perspective, scale and balance with your camera angle. Use leading lines to guide the eye around the frame. In the photo above, I used the curve of the stairs to grab the viewer’s attention and lead their eye through the image from bottom to top. If the composition isn’t quite right, I wait for something to complete it. In the image below from Bells Beach, Australia, a surfer walked into my frame and strengthened the composition.

Bells Beach, Australia

2. Clean Backgrounds

Let’s be honest: no one looks good with a tree branch sticking out of the side of their head. Power lines, trees, and street lamps are notorious for sabotaging the best of photos. The easiest way to improve your photography is to avoid distracting background elements by changing your position or moving your subject. Shooting from a lower angle and using a wide aperture (read: shortening the depth of field) will also help crop out or blur any distractions. Exclude any bright colors from the image that draw attention away from the subject.

3. Chase the Light

When you find a location you want to photograph, go back multiple times during the day to document the changing light. Pay close attention to the quality and direction of both natural and artificial light. Haze, mist and fog act as a filter, which can mute colors and reduce contrast. Hold your hand into the light to determine the direction and type of shadows. This allows you to choose your angle and position your subject appropriately. Avoid portraits in harsh mid-day light because it produces dark, unflattering shadows under the eye.

The best time of day for photography is known as the “Magic Hour”—thirty minutes before and after sunrise/sunset when light is softer and more dynamic. The best sunset photos are usually before or after a storm when haze/clouds add a dramatic effect to the sky.

4. Notice People and Details

Inle Lake, Burma

Photographing strangers is easier than you think. Simply start a conversation. People love to talk about themselves. Consider putting away your camera and ask to come back later to take a photograph. In unfamiliar cultures, research local customs and taboos. Learn the basic words for “hello” and “thank you.” If you want to take a photo, point to your camera, smile and give a thumbs up sign. Their reaction will be your answer. Remember if someone says no, they are saying no to the camera and not to you. Do not take it personally.

For portraits, focus on the eyes or interesting features. Avoid fake smiles and anticipate behavior. Include details that reveal insight to the subject. A great example is the photo above from a market in Inle Lake in Burma. I walked by an older man having tea, quickly snapped two frames over his shoulder of his hands and kept walking.

5. Shoot from the Hip

My favorite thing to do when I travel is to wander the streets with my camera capturing candid shots of everyday life—children walking to school, a fruit vendor stacking mangos, street domino games. I still shoot the famous spots, but I was trained as a photojournalist and find daily life to be the most fascinating. Street photography is a booming trend in the photo world. It has become a method of understanding and documenting culture. It is based on instinct and preparation. When you see a moment, you must react quickly to capture it before it disappears.

McLeod Ganj, India

Shooting from the hip is a great way to change the perspective of a photo. It’s very effective for capturing quiet moments from a unique angle like the image I took above of a women at a market in McLeod Ganj, India.

I simply keep my camera at my side with the exposure manually set for the ambient light with a shutter speed of at least 1/250. With an iPhone, it’s very simple. I open my camera app, hold my iPhone horizontally at hip level and use my thumb to press the volume up button, which acts as a shutter release on all iPhones. I also pause for a second when I take an image to make sure the camera has time to focus.

Above all, the most important rule of travel photography is persistence and patience. Have fun and be creative!

Anna Mazurek is a travel photographer and writer based in Austin, Texas. Follow her adventures and travel advice at TravellikeAnna.com and Instagram.