Making Good Scenic Photographs While Traveling

by William Lulow

We’ve all gone on vacation with our cameras before! We have also documented our various trips by having someone take a snapshot of us in front of the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon or other famous landmark. But what differentiates these “snaps” from really good scenic photographs is the subject of this article.

When we travel, especially on holiday, we don’t often have the time to stay in one place very long. And yet, that’s what’s really needed to come up with truly great scenic images. On a recent trip to Chicago, I decided to stop in a city I have passed through many times, but never really got to see. Pittsburgh, PA sits at the confluence of two of America’s great rivers, the Allegany and the Monongahela. At Pittsburgh, these rivers combine to form the Ohio River, so, I wanted to make an image that told that story. I found out that there is a vantage point above the city that overlooks all three rivers. It is called the Duquesne Incline. It climbs a hill across from the city and affords us this view:


Now, when you’re traveling and not stopping in one place for very long, you can’t wait for the weather to change. Luckily, the day we stopped happened to be beautiful! I decided to make a panoramic shot that captured all three rivers:


This was made by stitching two shots together in Photoshop. The trick to doing these kinds of images is that the photographs have to overlap slightly and they have to be taken on basically the same axis. The best way to do this is to put the camera on a tripod, make note of the edges of both frames and swing the camera on its horizontal axis so that the whole scene is covered. This allows the program to align the pixels properly so that you get a seamlessly stitched image.

This was a stop on an otherwise busy day of traveling. Doing one’s research so that you know where to stop and what kind of image you want to make is the key to doing so successfully! I have spoken before about a photographer I met who has the luxury of visiting one spot and sitting there for a couple of weeks until the weather and the lighting is just right for making the kinds of images he makes. When we travel, we don’t always have such a luxury.

One of the tricks I use to make more dramatic images when I travel is to use filters. I often use a graduated neutral density filter which darkens the sky by adding more contrast to it, while keeping the foreground normal. This is what the filter looks like:

Neutral Density Filter (Graduated)

You will need to buy a filter holder that you can attach to your lens which accommodates these large filters.

Here’s another example of what it can do for a normal image:


Here, you can see that the sky is much more contrasty than the foreground. Another little trick I like to use is to shoot a bright, blue sky with a red filter in MONOCHROME mode. Since red is the opposite of blue on the RGB color spectrum, it will block a good deal of the blue light thus darkening the sky in a B&W photograph. This usually yields dramatic photographs like this:


So, a couple of filters are always in my camera bag when I travel because I’m never in one place long enough to wait for conditions to change, but still interested in making stunning images!

Here are some basic pointers about photographing while on vacation:

  1. Do some homework about places you haven’t been. Find special vantage points you can get to.
  2. Carry some filters in your bag to help with clouds, sun, buildings, etc.
  3. Think about shooting in B&W (monochrome) mode.
  4. Carry a small tripod.
  5. Shoot scenes with your wide angle lens.
  6. Ask someone to take snapshots of you and your family with your camera phone. If you get a good one, you can always bring it into Photoshop later to make prints or to work on.
  7. I sometimes carry small pouches on my belt instead of a camera bag. I can put lenses or other items in them and not have the burden of taking my whole kit or carrying a backpack.

These tips might just help you improve the quality of your vacation photographs!