Five things I’ve learned about travel photography

My camera and I travelled almost 30,000 kilometres (or 18,750 miles, but that doesn’t sound nearly as impressive) across China last year. We returned with over 10,000 photographs documenting all those kilometres – some of which are decorating this website, while others are doing a sterling job of slowing down my laptop – but all of them bring back crisp, fresh memories from each trip.

I still have many things to learn and improve, but I’d like to share what I’ve learned about travel photography thus far, for your amusement and edification. Enjoy!

1. Take your camera. And your charger. And a spare battery. Or two.
In May 2010 I led one of the most interesting journeys of my tour-guiding career – we enjoyed two weeks of beautiful weather, met many wonderful people and went to a load of places I haven’t been back to since. And I left my camera charger at home.

The road to Yading

The road to Yading © Jo James

I had enough battery for twenty photos, so I eked the remaining power out, rationing it for the most photo-worthy moments. I was doing relatively well, until we reached Yading. Yading (亚丁, Yǎdīng) is a national park in southwest Sichuan. The park centres on three holy mountains, all named after Buddhist boddhisattvas, which are ranged along the sides of a forested valley, through which runs a white-blue glacial stream. My self-control disappeared, and my camera battery along with it – on day four of a two-week trip.

The Yading Valley

The Yading Valley © Zoe Li – enough said!

So, don’t laugh: remember your charger! I also recommend taking a spare battery with you, because the moment your battery light starts blinking will be the moment that something interesting happens. Been there too.

2. Learn how to use said camera.
Hands up everyone who doesn’t really know how to use their DSLR? Don’t be shy! I’ve been on lots of trips with lots of camera wielding guests, and I can categorically state that you are not alone. When I got my first DSLR camera, I complained for months that there was something wrong with it, as all the photographs came out with a blue tinge. Eventually, some kind soul explained the concept of white balance to me, and – ta da! – the camera was fixed.

Paparazzi, Jianshui

Bamboo, camera, action! Jianshui © Jo James

To anyone who just mentally raised their hands: Learn the basics before you go, and your photographs will improve immediately and substantially. There are many excellent resources out there that can help (like this one), but for what it’s worth, I suggest at least: working out how to use your camera’s aperture priority mode (which I use all the time), and learning how to adjust the ISO and the white balance, and that might just be enough to get you going…

3. Cameras are not eyes.
When we look at a scene, our eyes focus on one thing at a time (unless we’ve been on the baijiu). A camera doesn’t have this ability, which is one reason why photographs often don’t look as good as real life. The photo below is an excellent example of this – what on earth was I looking at? I was clearly too excited by this monastery festival to think about photography. Dancing monks always have that effect on me…

Lhagong Monastery, Sichuan

Lhagong Monastery, Sichuan © Jo James

You, the photographer, need to work out how to highlight the most interesting thing in the scene. Can you set it off against a contrasting background? Can you blur out the background detail? How can you simplify whatever is in front of you for the viewer? Perhaps there’s a small detail or part of the scene that would be more evocative than showing everything?

Monastery outside Lhagong, Sichuan

Ah… that’s better… © Jo James

4. It’s all about light.
It’s possible to take a good photo in bad light, but it’s easier to take a great photo if the light is on your side. Midday light is generally considered to be ‘bad’ light, as it makes everything look flat and boring – throw some golden late afternoon sun and a few deep shadows onto the same scene, and you’ll see a magical transformation.

Yuanyang Rice Terraces, Yunnan

Nice paddies. © Jo James

5. Don’t be scared of people.
Taking portraits of strangers is a bit of a tricky area. Do you ask permission and risk rejection? Or take the photograph first, and ask for for forgiveness after? Or should you take your longest lens and hide out in a teahouse, taking candid portraits of any photogenic people who walk past?

Photographers and onlooker, Yunnan

What are they looking at? © Jo James

As someone who once spent a morning hiding in a dumpling shop in Xishuangbanna waiting and missing the best of the market outside, I can tell you not to bother with the third approach. Waste of time, although you can get through a goodly amount of dumplings this way…

Other people will disagree, but I almost always ask permission before I take a photograph of someone. The reason is simple: as an incredibly tall woman, I frequently have my photo taken by incredulous strangers in China. If someone doesn’t ask and tries to take a sneaky photo anyway, I don’t like it. If they ask, I usually say yes and strike a pose. People may say no and they may strike a pose, neither of which may be desirable, but at least you’ve respected their wishes. And I think that that’s more important than a photograph.


On my first long backpacking trip, I refused to take a camera with me, arguing that I would be taking the photographs primarily to show off about all the exotic places I’d been to – and I felt strongly that I would be more engaged in my journey without a camera. Clearly, I’ve changed my mind about that in the fifteen years since, but sometimes I do find myself taking photos mindlessly, snapping away without taking the time to see and enjoy my destination properly, driven by an ill-defined desire to capture the beauty and novelty of a place. At these moments I would do well to remember my idealistic backpacker self, to put my camera away and occasionally walk out into noise and colour of the world without it…

Aini Lady, Yunnan

Lost in thought © Jo James

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