5 Travel Photography Tips from a National Geographic Photographer

Award-winning, global travel photographer Susan Seubert has agreed to give us a few preparation photography tips for taking beautiful photos while traveling the world.

Susan is a National Geographic Photography Expert and in addition to shooting for National Geographic Traveler Magazine, she works for The New York Times, Time Magazine and Smithsonian Magazine among others.

Susan also exhibits her personal travel photography work with various galleries around the United States and abroad.

Though Susan is a US-based travel photographer, she is rarely home, recently shooting stories in Norway, Quebec, Mexico, Hawaii and Oregon. And, this week, Susan is embarking on a 4-week trip photographing Switzerland and Greece.

Here are Susan’s favorite travel photography tips for anyone who shares a love for travel and capturing beautiful photos while traveling.

1. Do your travel research ahead of time

How to take great travel photos

For travel specific photography, I feel the most important thing is preparation via online travel research.

Just as you spend hours, online, searching for the best hotels and restaurants, you should know the best spots for picture taking. It’s great to wander, but knowing the best vantage points for shooting is very important.

In between trips, I’m constantly reading guidebooks, doing Google image searches, contacting locals for insider info – all of this is extremely important to make a good picture story. I’m always looking for hidden gems.

2. Dress for success

travel photography tips

A typical day for me might include a sunrise shoot on the top of a mountain, hiking and horseback riding, followed immediately by shooting dinner at a world famous, four diamond restaurant. Throw in extreme temperatures, for good measure, and it’s a challenge to dress for the job.

Who wants to waste time going back to the hotel to change?

I cannot stress enough about the importance of having good travel clothes, whether you’re a man or woman! Patagonia, ExOfficio, Athleta, Prana, Mountain Hardwear and Columbia Sportswear are my go-to companies for good looking, functional clothes with sun protection.

Also, cargo skirts are the best for traveling. I have 3 skirts by Royal Robbins that are THE BEST for air travel.

Pockets keep all the necessary things, like passport, wallet, iPhone, boarding passes, currency, Kleenex, and Advil on you while keeping your hands free for cameras. I can go from the North Pole to Maui with no problem with this clothing setup.

I’ve written 2 blogs about what I wear. Check them out here and here.

3. Technical Tips for lenses

National Geographic photographer

The question I get most often is, “What lens should I bring?”

I tend to be a bit of a heavy packer, but I never regret taking too much gear (with the exception of having to carry it all!).

I usually travel with two, full frame, camera bodies. One is fitted with a 24-105mm and a second with a 70-200mm. This allows me the ability to shoot just about anything at any time.

The 24-105 is the lens I use most; I tend to shoot at about 35mm for most subjects.

If you need to shoot a wide shot, 24mm is about as wide as anyone would want to be – more than that and the image begins to be distorted.

At 105mm, generally, you are still close enough to communicate with your subject or compress space a bit. I also like the Image Stabilization that these two lenses have. This feature allows me to shoot at slower shutter speeds and in lower light.

With these lenses, I can shoot the sand dunes of Baja, Mexico, a portrait of an internationally acclaimed chef or the interior of an Indian Saree Shop and everything in-between!

I encourage people to invest in glass. The life of a lens is going to far outlast the life of a camera these days, and the sharpness and contrast of good lenses can really make a difference in the quality of your images.

4. Put down the long lens and introduce yourself

Taking travel photo tips

One of the most memorable people I photographed, on assignment for National Geographic Traveler magazine, was Richard Ho’opi’i.

For this “Undiscovered Maui” assignment, my editor asked me to photograph a small village in one of the more remote areas of Maui.

In Hawaii it’s often tricky to get away from the obvious tourist attractions, but the culture is even more difficult to understand because of it’s long and complicated history.

If you have enough time to get to know a community, then the doors will open to some of the most gracious people on the planet. My assistant and I had been going to this small village for many days, taking baby steps to try and gain the trust of the people.

We were interested in photographing the interior of a small church, so we were pointed in the direction of the deacon, who turned out to be Mr. Ho’opi’i. We met him when he was caring for his pigs, and spent quite a bit of time talking to him and it slowly dawned on me who he was – a living slack key guitar legend!

He took us to the church and brought his ukulele with him. We got a private concert and some amazing photos and a lasting relationship with one of Hawaii’s living treasures. It was because we had spent so much time talking with people in the community, that I ended up having all manner of access to people and their cultural practices.

5. Always engage with your subject

Travel photo tips

It’s important to not photograph someone far away with a long lens without first getting to know them a little bit first.

Don’t be afraid to walk up and ask people to take their picture. Smile and be friendly, but also take their needs into consideration. Always be sensitive to cultural issues and try to spend some time with your subject.

Most people I approach on the street or beach, or wherever, are happy and flattered to have their image made. Don’t forget to give them information about yourself and offer to send them a copy for their personal use!

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How do you prepare to ensure you take great photographs while traveling?

25 thoughts on “5 Travel Photography Tips from a National Geographic Photographer”

  1. I really appreciate these tips. I have been working on improving my photography while traveling and usually feel intimidated to engage with people/subjects especially if I’m just out exploring. This has made me feel more comfortable about just asking if I could take their photo. Also I’ve been using a 50mm lens and a 135mm, and I do always end up leaving one in my hotel room, but usually regret it because sometimes you know that the 50 mm would have been an awesome lens to use at one point/vice versa. Is the first photo of the coast from the Pacific NW? It looks a lot like it could be Oregon or Northern California!

    1. Hi Susan! Yes, the first picture is from the Pacific Northwest, near Hug Point. It was one of those typical Oregon days with lots of fog and drizzle, then changing to sunshine.

  2. Susie Wellendorf

    Great tips, especially around getting to know your subject before shooting. I have a 5D Mark II and I’ve considered the 24-150 over my 24-70 to save in weight. I worry I’d miss the 2.8 aperture. What are your thoughts? Have you considered any of the mirror-less cameras to lighten your load?

    Thanks for sharing your tips!

    1. HI Susie! I used to carry the 24-70mm, but it was prior to them adding image stabilization. (I shoot all Canon cameras) I found that it was very heavy for a zoom lens. Instead, I now pack a 50mm 1.2 for those low light situations. I have started to use a few of the mirror-less cameras, but have found that they just don’t hold up in the performance area… yet. They tend to buffer heavily in burst mode and to invest in a kit is almost as much as a DSLR. A lot of them are now getting bigger (!) so I have yet to be swayed, but I’d love to lighten my load! If they get to the performance level of my Canon 5D Mark IIIs, then I’ll probably switch.

    2. Well Susie i must admit that i used to use the 24-105 and find it to be not sharp enough, i also missed the 2.8 and thus moved to the 24-70 F/2.8, IMO much sharper, greate Boka and 10 times better overall….heavier too…:-)

  3. “Put down the long lens and introduce yourself” – I’m guilty of not doing this enough. I want to write about someone then I go out of my way to talk to them because I know I’ll get a better story, but if I just want a photo I tend just to stand back, even though of course the same applies for the image. I need to stop thinking like that. Great tips!

  4. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling

    Thanks for these tips Susan! I’m particularly intrigued by the cargo skirts – I didn’t even know there was such a thing! But it makes so much sense and I can see how you could really dress them up for a nicer occasion (such as dinner out) which would save the hassle of changing back at the hotel, like you said.

    And I also like what you said about engaging with your subject. Everybody has a story that people want to hear, and photos are just one more way of storytelling.

  5. I always seem to find the right locations and subjects when I’ve left my camera at home!

    Within the technical tips it may also be worth a quick mention on full frame verses a cropped sensor. Unfortunately I don’t have a full frame and so a 24mm just isn’t wide enough on many occasions (being equivalent to ~38mm).

  6. I LOVE that picture with the goat! I’m pretty good at getting people to let their guard down, but it helps that I’m willing to be really goofy when taking pictures, and when people see that I do that, they start to do it too.

    – Ava
    beck daily

  7. Wonderful advice and great to remind people to put down the camera interact with people whom you are taking pictures with. We get wrapped up in wanting to take a phenomenal photo and forget to talk to the person in front of the camera.

  8. This is great advice. Your advice on relating to people, taking notes etc. really needs to be said. It is something that really assists new men in photography like myself approach situations and be effective in getting good photographs and treating those we are photographing with respect. – Thank you.

  9. Admirable photos with great tips. I especially enjoyed with technical tips. Sometimes you need advices about buying right lenses. So, I will be thinking about buying these mentioned zoom lenses.

  10. Great Tips! having always seen national geographic photos! Thanks for clarifying the wide angle lens angle! i was stuck between 24mm and higher!
    I found the tips about clothing great too, i travel Europe a lot and the weather is not always predictable in the winter months.

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