Text and photos by Villiers Steyn

This is Part III (Read Part I and Part II) of a series of blog posts in which I share with you some of my most valuable travel photography tips.

I hope these ten tips inspire you to capture fresh, creative photos on your next trip.

1. Show where you stay

Travel photography is all about telling a story and I believe that a very important part of that story is capturing where you stay. It could be a hotel room in New York, a beach bungalow in Zanzibar or a houseboat on Lake Kariba. The challenge is to not simply take a snapshot of your accommodation, but to make it look as amazing as it was to stay in it. We camp a lot when we travel and I love taking photos of our campsites at night. This specific one was in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park. To ensure the dramatic lighting, I placed a yellow light under the thatch gazebo and ‘painted’ the tall tree on the right with a white light. The orange fire provided additional light in the bottom right corner.

Campsite under the stars

(Photographed with a tripod in Manual Mode (M), 30 sec, f/4, ISO 1600)

2. Look for the small things

It’s so easy to get caught up in the big things: fancy cars, tall buildings, famous actors and, of course, the Big Five. But there’s so much more to photograph than the obvious. Make an effort to look past all the big things and search for the little gems that most people overlook – small creatures like this red velvet mite, miniature flowers, shells on a beach, or design details on doors, windows and other structures. Remember that macro lenses, which have comparatively small minimum focus distances, work better than long zoom lenses for these kinds of shots.

Red Velvet Mite Macro

3. Use natural frames

Why do we frame paintings and pictures? Because it looks better! Well, if you know what to look for, you will get the chance to use natural frames out in the field every now and again. Take this photo for example: Elephant calves have a tendency to hang around their mothers’ legs, so I anticipated this opportunity and was ready to take the shot when it finally presented itself. Natural frames can be formed by almost anything – branches, windows, holes in rocks, etc, so always be on the lookout for them.

Elephant Calf

4. Photograph waterfalls

Most amateur travel photographers get excited about photographing waterfalls. The challenge is to create photos where the water looks smooth and white like in this example. To achieve this effect you need to follow a few simple steps:

1) Make sure you’re photographing a waterfall in low light conditions – either in a forest or another dense area, or at twilight.

2) place your camera on a tripod and use the timer or a remote trigger.

3) Switch to Manual Mode and use a large f-value (f/11 or higher) and a slow shutter speed (usually between 2 and 6 seconds, depending on the light). You can choose a low ISO (100 or 200).

Tip: Play around with the shutter speed value. The longer the shutter stays open, the whiter and blurrier the water will appear.

Waterfall Motion Blur

5. Freeze some action

Everybody loves a good action photo, but finding opportunities to freeze moving things or people can sometimes be tricky. And when it finally does happen, it’s often over before you can choose the correct camera settings. The trick is to anticipate movement or action before it happens, to get into the right position early enough and to choose settings that will give you a sporting chance of freezing the movement. If you think you might encounter action, switch to Aperture Priority (A/Av) and choose a relatively high ISO (800 or 1600) on DSLR’s that are less than two years old. Then choose a low f-value (f/4 or f/5.6 if your lens allows you to go that low). The combination of the high ISO and low f-value will result in a fast shutter speed, which in turn helps you to freeze the action. Realistically, you need a shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec to freeze action. The faster the subject moves, the faster your shutter speed needs to be.

Owl Take Off

6. Try panning

Instead of freezing the action you can also try to capture the motion by taking a panning shot. Panning is a technique used for creative photos where the subject seems ‘frozen’ and the background looks blurry or streaked. Switch to Shutter Priority (S/Tv) and choose a shutter speed of 1/30 sec to start with. When your subject (which could be an animal, car, person, etc) moves past you, follow them through your viewfinder as you smoothly pan with them and take the photo without stopping the movement of your arms. For it to work, your hands and the camera have to be moving while you’re taking the photo. Play around with the shutter speed values by making them slightly faster and slightly slower until the results look pleasing. Panning shots are not easy, so don’t expect to get perfect results right from the start…

TOP TIP: If you’re struggling to freeze action in low light because you can’t get a fast enough shutter speed, try panning shots instead.


Gemsbok Motion Blur

7. Use a flash during daytime

Many amateur photographers make the mistake of only using their camera flashes at night. The purpose of a flash is to light up dark areas in your frame and that includes shadows and silhouettes that form during the day. Take this photo of a group of students: Because I took the photo into the sun, their bodies would have been silhouetted had I not used a flash to light them up. The silhouette photo could have looked very dramatic, but I wanted to capture their faces and the colour of their clothes, which was made possible by activating the flash.

Group Shot

8. Focus further back

Instinctively we tend to focus on subjects in the foreground. The closest flower, lion, athlete or car is usually the one that we point our focus point(s) towards. If you look carefully, though, you’ll often find that the closest subject is not necessarily the most striking model or object in your frame. Something behind it may be more eye-catching and therefore deserves more attention. Reduce the amount of active focus points on your camera (ideally you should choose a single active focus point) and aim for the most striking subject behind the obvious foreground subjects. Look out for bright colours or people and animals that are looking right into the camera, like the springbok in this example.


9.Take a panorama shot

Sometimes a single photo of a spectacular scene just can’t do it justice. In order to capture it in all its glory, you need to take a panorama shot. Smartphones, which can take incredibly high quality photos these days, make it easy to quickly snap a pano-shot in the field, but if you really want to do it properly, you need to take a series of photos and then stitch them together afterwards in a program like Photoshop or Lightroom. Ideally, you should take the series of photos in Manual Mode (M) so that their exposures are identical, and remember to overlap at least 15% or so on either side of each photo – this allows the computer programs to successfully stitch the photos together. Also hold your camera vertically instead of horizontally when you take the photos, allowing you to capture more of the foreground and sky.

(Read about how to Shoot and Process Panorama’s)

Buffalo Pano

10. Turn to the trees

I love photographing trees! There’s stunning texture on their bark, their leaves look great in backlight, you can use them to emphasise scale… There are just so many ways to make them look beautiful. One way is to swop your long zoom lens for a wide-angle lens and stand right next to the tree. Now look up and anchor the trunk of the tree on the bottom left or right hand corner. Use Exposure Compensation to overexpose the photo enough to see detail in the bark and, if the angle is right, place the sun right on the edge of the tree trunk to form a ‘star’. This should ideally be done in Manual Mode (M) by choosing a large f-value (f/22) and a corresponding shutter speed that exposes the desired amount of bark.