What Kind Of A Travel Photographer Are You?

Filed Under: Travel

When traveling, I take a very different approach towards photography than most people. I meticulously photograph every aspect of my flights and hotels, and then when I actually sightsee I leave my Sony RX100 camera behind.

Of course that’s simply because I primarily write trip reports about airlines and hotels, so documenting those experiences is my priority. I’ll often take 300-400 pictures per flight, and then narrow it down to ~20% of those to include in trip reports.

When I am actually sightseeing, I quite value not constantly taking pictures, but rather just being able to take things in. For me that’s relaxing, and makes me feel like I’m not “working” (not that I mind my “work” one bit, but everyone needs to unwind once in a while).

So I’ll almost never walk around with my camera while sightseeing, for a variety of reasons:

  • iPhones take great pictures nowadays, so I don’t see much marginal value to lugging around camera equipment (all the pictures I posted of St. Petersburg have been taken with my iPhone)
  • I tend to think cameras put a bit of a target on your back when traveling; if you are just using your phone, it’s a bit easier to blend in
  • Having a camera with me makes me feel like I have to photograph everything as a means of justifying taking with me

Of course I expect others will feel differently about this, but that’s just my perspective.

We took a touristy river cruise in St. Petersburg this morning (more for the views, rather than the narration), and I was fascinated by the different photography techniques people used. You had people using point-and-shoot cameras, professional cameras, and phone cameras.


What blew my mind is how many hundreds (if not thousands) of pictures some people were taking. Yes, St. Petersburg is a stunning city, but I also figure someone with a fancy camera likely has at least somewhat of an “eye” for photography, and knows when they’re seeing something picture worthy. Some people seemed to be snapping so many pictures that I wondered if they even saw what was going on, or if they were just planning on going back and looking at it later.

I get some people are either amateur or professional photographers, so totally get why they may have been taking so many pictures. But for the average person…

I’m by no means claiming that my strategy is right, but personally I use my iPhone and maybe take an average of 15-20 pictures per day if sightseeing. I don’t stop every six seconds to take picture, but rather only take them if there’s something truly amazing.

What’s your approach to travel photography? Do you use a phone, professional camera, or point-and-shoot camera? How many pictures do you usually take per day?

  1. Recently, I was fortunate to attend a presentation by Annie Liebowitz. And moreover, I was lucky to be seated at her table for the dinner.

    She said that one of the questions she is asked most frequently is “What kind of camera should I get?”

    And she tells everyone that — unless they are a photography hobbyist and really want a real camera — the cameras on cell phones are so advanced these days, the average tourist needs nothing more than that. She even said she recommends using the money that would be paid towards a camera towards an added adventure on a trip.

  2. As a travel photographer, your comment Ben about taking so many pictures rings true, though it doesn’t match the photo you chose for this post. More often than not, I’m taking only ‘candid’ shots of my family or ‘context’ shots of people during the day, during sightseeing. This won’t be tons and tons of photos.

    On the other hand, when I’m out with my son at sunrise or just before sunset (golden hour times), or at night, I’m specifically looking at particular (or multiple) angles and particular places looking for a particular shot. In those scenarios, I’ll take many more photos and select the better shots.

    Much of the time, however, I enjoy experiencing the culture, watching people, looking for interesting editorial shots (like a picture of Jesus hanging outside of a Communist party office), and focused on the sites and their historical significance.

  3. When I travel with my family it is all about the memories we will make for spending every second together and take the most of it. My older son is now 10 and I deeply regret I didn’t have an iPhone like I have it today to have way more pictures and videos of him growing up. Those times will never come back. Thus, when travelling with my family for vacation I take as many pictures as I can. In a recent trip to Europe I took over 2,000 pictures in 15 days. Yes, some are repetitive but at least I made sure to capture the moments we thought were worth. I have a nice DSLR camera that is a pain to carry and an iPhone. I thought about just bringing the iPhone with me on our last trip but I am glad I brought both. The iPhone is really good but on low light situations and long zoom it is not great. I used the DSLR inside museums, etc… and the iPhone for quicker shots while walking on the streets and where I didn’t feel taking the big camera. As for “having a target in your back” I would definitely be careful where you take your camera but when among other hundreds of tourists in Europe carrying their big cameras I felt very safe having mine with me. Worst case scenario it is just a camera and if someone decides to take from me so be it. I won’t risk my life over it.

  4. OMG, 300-400 pictures per flight?!?!?! Wow, I call that some serious dedication. You really need to get a life… 😉

  5. I have switched between cameras, my phone and now back to a camera. Before the iPhone I used to keep a pocket camera with me to take pictures but now with the iPhone it doesn’t make sense to take a picture, forget what you took a picture of and then transfer it to a laptop then upload online to share or whatever.

    I just finished a safari trip in Tanzania and purchased a nice camera with wifi for the trip. This allowed me to not have to deal with transferring pictures to a laptop if I didn’t want that extra step. It also delivered pictures I could never have taken with just an iPhone camera.

    I don’t see myself wanting to lug around a camera everywhere I go. For trips where I want better pictures I will take the big camera and when the iPhone fits the bill so be it.

  6. Another lie: you don’t use ~20% of your photos if you take 300-400 photos per flight (as you’ve written above). That would mean 60-80 photos per trip report which is just plain incorrect.

  7. I lug so much equipment around my back hurts… for me its fun though. I set up a time lapse with a camera slider, a TB3, and two tripods using a 3d camera. The result was really great, minus the camera’s image quality and that few people use 3d as a medium.

  8. Go on a real safari in Africa…that will get you to hang your mind about pictures. That trip was the turning point for me, and I took about 12k over the 6 weeks I was there. Now, per week we are in the 500 range, more if it is nature, (Svalbard had my heart last year). Pictures areally fun, and flying 85k miles a year means many many photos.

  9. I always carry my iPhone and I also take my RX100. While my iPhone 6s takes great photos, I believe the RX100 takes better photos, especially in low light and distances requiring zoom capability. And it easily fits in my very tiny cross body bag. I average about 50 photos per day while site seeing. I really noticed a big quality jump after I started using the RX100. The added quality is worth it to me.

  10. What kind of travel photographer am I? The kind that takes pictures of oddities and lifestyle differences – things that only I might notice. A hard-to-use toilet. The pebble that found its way into my feijoada and nearly broke my teeth. Tourists posing for photos in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue, hubristically aping His cruciform stance. The gummy bear that smuggled its way into the package of gummy worms I impulse-bought at the airport. And I use my iPhone. Travel light.

    @Andrew I can see the value of nature photography to capture live moments (a lion yawning, a yak taking a dump, etc.) but as far as art and architecture goes … well, the Charles Bridge has looked the way it’s looked for hundreds of years, and better photogs than me have captured it in all its glory and thrown it on Google Images. When I’m there, I prefer my eyes.

  11. I pretty much want photos only if my husband and daughters are in them. Beautiful, historic church? I am not going to care that much if I have the pic unless my family is in the shot. They stand near the beautiful doors or windows. I switch between my Sony (zoom and special lighting) and iPhone.

    I can say for sure the most annoying thing of all are people holding up their iPads to take pictures. They might as well be holding up a cookie sheet. They block views of others and, when at a Disney World parade or fireworks, I wonder how many people actually ever go back and watch what they captured? It’s on YouTube people.

  12. My trips tend to be photography focused. So I shoot quite a bit. But I can certainly vouch for the fact that just because some one has a “professional camera” (whatever that means) doesn’t mean they a) have an eye for photography or b) necessarily know what they’re doing. I see lots of really bad photography online every day. Lots of people think that they will automatically get better pictures if they spend a lot of money on gear.

    A 3 or 4 week trip will usually yield somewhere around 2500-3000 pictures for me. Lots of things are series or shots of the same things from slightly different angles or settings though. But it depends on the place and how exotic or picturesque it happens to be.

  13. I understand not wanting to take photos when you are not working.

    I was a professional photographer for part of my life and only used film (3,000 shots per week). I got a digital camera but I could never connect with it. I now use my iPhone for photos and videos. People are amazed the photos and video are from a phone. Even feature films can be shot with an iPhone if you get a good external sound system and keep everything well lit.

    I believe the camera does not matter. It’s 100% the result of the photographer. Keeping a low profile results in great people shots.

  14. The need for conservation of photographs is non-existent since digital photography, as long as you’ve got storage space. I rarely use my old film SLR any longer, but having grown up on that camera I definitely have a different eye for composition. I tend to not take many pictures as a result but those that I do take I try to actually compose. This morning, for example, I was on the golf course with my brother-in-law. I knew I wanted to take a picture for him. I looked ahead on the holes we were playing, scheming to find the best angle for the way the sun was hitting us and to get a nice shot of him across the lake toward the mts. Rather than blindly taking a thousand shots and hoping I’d find one good one I built up to the moment and found the perfect spot. This doesn’t mean that taking a thousand pictures is a bad thing but half the fun of photography is finding the right shot and building that situation.

    Back when I took a lot of sports photos I’d make sure to position myself where I’d be most likely to get a good shot, I usually had ~70 exposures that had to last me the entire event. I usually pushed the film speed due to low light, so I knew some of those 70 wouldn’t work. I made sure I had an understanding of where the action usually happened, say in a football game if the play ran to the near side I knew to wait for the defender to be up on the ball handler so I’d get an action shot. And talk about excitement when I’d develop the film, not knowing exactly what I had gotten and to find I’d gotten a good shot out of the 70.

    Find a passion for photography and build better habits rather than just increasing the number of shots you take!

  15. My husband is a photographer, but when we’re on family vacation, the best pictures of us as a family having fun are iPhone selfies of the two of us (or the three of us if our son is in the picture).

    I travel with an iPhone and a Sony a6000; I use the Sony for action photography (like whale watching), because I can shoot 11fps, with more control than I can with the iPhone.

  16. A real camera is more reliable. There’s a chance your phone poops out. Ive had hot days where the phone got so hot the camera didn’t work.

    So I learned that having the phone isn’t a guarantee I’ll get the shot.

    So I factor that when deciding to bring the DSLR or not.

    I have the Canon SL1, the smallest DSLR in the world.

  17. Umm, no on the assumption that fancy cameras equates to skill. The number of times I see people taking pictures of the great outdoors (landscapes, buildings, night sky) in low light or darkness with their flash on auto….

  18. I can’t use a cell phone camera. Its essentially a point and shoot. nothing wrong with it but ergonomically its very hard for me to grip a cell phone camera. The screen is also too small. I need a viewfinder. Without one I find (especially with my bad eyes) that I cannot accurately gauge if my shot is sharp enough. On a small screen it always looks fine. Even on my camera’s lcd screen this happens but when I review it in my viewfinder I’ll know I made a mistake. I don’t touch my camera until I reached my destination most of the time unless the airport is unique. If I find a nice situation to shoot I will literally stay there for an hour and shoot several hundred shots. I generally return home after a 2 week trip with thousands of photos which will take me weeks to sort. But even if I take 1,000 shots and only get 2 that I really like its worth it. I look back at some of my photos that I took up to 20 years ago ( film !!!) and they make me happy. But I always have to remind myself that I’m on a trip and I need to enjoy sites with my own eyes rather than the camera.

  19. Before I talk about my travel photography, although phones can take nice snapshots when lighting and weather is good, they cannot replace or create an image as good as a dslr with a decent photographer behind the viewfinder. Let’s talk simple common sense. If the Iphone could do the same thing as a dslr, then Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Leica, Panasonic, Sony, etc. would all be out of the photography business. Now, what I do is take my best equipment with me. I take a Nikon dslr, an 18-300mm zoom lens, a 50mm lens, and I will soon add a wide angle lens. Until I get a super lightweight ultra sturdy compact tripod, I leave that home. Is that equipment heavy? Yes, it is. Do I look like a tourist? Yes. But that’s what I am, and so what? My concern is to capture unusual sights of places far away that I can use to remember my visits. I rarely put my wife in a picture, unless I need something to show size of scale. I see her every day. I prefer to shoot picturesque architecture, landscapes and street scenes. Medieval villages in Europe are some of my favorite subjects. Museums also offer possibilities. No selfies. Selfie sticks are the scourge of the travel photographer. While in the Louvre one day the place was overrun with tiny tourists thrashing those damned things around. They were like a bunch of swarming gnats. Occasionally I will try to capture a candid portrait, but those are hard to come by. That’s when that long zoom lens is handy. I captured a few pix of armed soldiers in Milan & Paris that way. On a weeklong trip to Europe I will shoot maybe 350-400 pix, weeding out the losers as I go. I feel that if you are shooting thousands of photos you probably are not seeing much on your trip. PS – Lately I started shooting food.

  20. Hate to break it to you, but your pictures of St. Petersburg aren’t exactly a good example of the iPhone’s true capabilities. Additionally, the benefits of a DSLR in the right person’s hands can make your shots of St. Petersburg look like child’s play.

    I haul around a Canon 60D with a lens or two plus a tripod during most of my travels. It’s a way of self-expression and I personally enjoy processing photos through Lightroom and Photoshop.

  21. I’m a fairly serious hobby photographer and a big part of why I travel is to take photographs. I combine all my hobbies with photography, besides being fun it sometimes turns into paid work.

    I shoot a fuji mirrorless camera as it is so much smaller and lighter then my old professional Nikon body. It also attracts less attention.

    BTW, my wife and I are on a 6 month trip in Asia right now. We’ll end up having taken over 50 free nights in hotels plus lots of free flights thanks to our points. Not to mention many lounge visits. Our travel has become so much more comfortable thanks to your blog’s info!

    I’ve been posting one photo a day from the trip on Instagram: instagram.com/ericpaulphotos/

  22. I’ll have professional kit with me, but also a high quality, pocketable point and shoot. I’ll leave the “big stuff” behind whenever it would interfere with experiencing the destination, but also take photos that I’ll print big and hang on the wall (and if you aren’t doing that…leave the pro gear behind and go light).

  23. I just started to get into photography mainly to document my travel experiences. I picked up the Sony A5100 and I have to say the quality is way better than any phone camera. To me it is totally worth the expensive for a nice camera. Yes, phones are still good and I use mine to capture my meal or simple if I don’t feel like bringing my camera. But if you want truly great pictures and the ability to do more advanced shooting a camera is needed.

    As for the amount of pictures, my now wife and I just finished up our 24 day honeymoon to Punta Cana, Italy, and Croatia and only took ~2500 photos total between our camera and phones. I don’t think that is too many pictures as many of the places we went to were to sightsee.

    On the other hand many people we saw went overboard. With everyone and their mothers carrying a camera and taking nonstop photos. To each his own I suppose

  24. Lucky:

    In your blog report, you mentioned seeing people photograph in many different ways. You didn’t mention (nor did anyone else) the truly despicable accessory that has been way too common for tourists: the selfie stick where you don’t even get to look directly at what you are trying to capture.
    My hubby and I spent a month in Venice in a palazzo on the grand canal (sorry for the humble brag) and we would see water taxis full of tourists holding selfie sticks recording their journey up and down the grand Canal. Truly bizarre


  25. When I travel I try and take as few pictures as possible (using my iPhone 6s+). I visited Japan this spring for the cherry blossom festival and couldn’t help thinking of this Banksy work in Park City, UT http://www.flotography.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/03252011_banksy.jpg while visiting the amazing shrines in Kyoto. People disregarded signs prohibiting photography at shrines just to take a selfie. It feels like we are almost at the point that it matters more to take a photo to tell people we went somewhere rather than actually absorbing the beauty, spirit and culture of the location.

  26. When I was at the Sistine Chapel, a special place for the Christian faith, the rules are very strict. NO PHOTOGRAPHY. But of course every once in a while some butthead American takes a selfie, to make matters worse, with the f%^&*ing flash on. Screw the fact that this priceless work by Michelangelo is light sensitive, and is thousands of years old. Goddammit I NEED that selfie for Facepuke. After visiting Europe I understand where the term “Ugly American” comes from.

  27. For the casual traveler cell phone cameras are indeed much more sensible than a DSLR. If you want something more the best form factor in terms of size of bodies and in particular the size of lenses are Micro Four Thirds cameras system cameras (Olympus and Panasonic). The Panasonic GM5 is amazing for travel as everyone will think you are using a point-and-shoot but actually have a quality sensor inside that will outperform the RX100 for example.

    Sony A series and Fuji lenses will be much bigger and heavier and will bog you down during travel. But Fuji or Sony’s are of course a better choice than a DSLR.

  28. I guess it’s all a question of destination, first visits or repeat visit and … weather conditions.
    iPhone is OK most of the time but not inside or by bad light. So I travel most of the time with a Nikon D90 and of course my iPhone.

    With all due respect but 300-400 in a plane and 15-20 in St Petersburg?!
    A glass of Champagne is a glass of Champagne, same for the nuts, olives or even Filet Mignon

  29. I’m not big on taking a lot of photos. Most people take too many and no one wants to see 1,000s of photos of your trip. I can see taking multiple pictures of something and then deleting all but the best one. And where are you going to store all these photos? Almost all media will die one day either from wear/tear (hard drives) or from being replaced by another technology.

    With film you had to pay for each photo so people were more selective, now with digital people go crazy taking photos that most people won’t ever see. It isn’t terrible but not really necessary.

    But if it makes you happy go for it, you only live once (I think!).

  30. I hate when folks aren’t in the moment and just take photo after photo after photo. However, I do bring a camera (point and shoot that takes quite decent photos) as it’s a hobby of mine. Depends on where I’m at as to # of photos. I probably should take more because I kick myself later–this one wasn’t lined up properly, etc. but I want to enjoy what I’m seeing.

  31. @Shirley – The photo editing software on your PC will allow you to straighten your photos and make minor adjustments. Good Luck!!

  32. My significant other and I are editors for NatGeo so we always bring six full-frame DSLR camera bodies with at least 15 various lenses, filters, lighting, batteries, etc. on all expeditions. The only addition I make when traveling to extremely cold environs (< -30 F) is to bring portable warmers since photography equipment and the cold do not work. However, we rarely take excessive pictures. I would say that we probably spend an hour to multiple weeks (in case of wildlife photograph in isolated places) preparing for that one winning pic. There are many times when we go on an expedition and not take a single image; somethings are just to be observed and enjoyed rather than imaged.

  33. I shoot quite a lot, you can see them at insta / chrhunterphoto . I love shooting while I am out and about on a trip. Rome, London, Miami, Paris, San Juan, Milan, New York, Sao Paulo!

  34. I just spent a week in France with a bunch of food photographers, many which are actually working making real money. It was really interesting to see how they work. They don’t take 300 pictures per trip – they still use their DSLRs and their iphones/androids, but they spend time focusing, framing and composing instead of randomly shooting whatever they see. They do a lot of post processing before putting up their content as well – even their photos from their cameras, but it gave me a lot to think about.

    I also took a DSLR for the first time in a long time and I loved looking through the view finder to frame shots. I wish I used it more so that I could buy a full frame camera, but my 500 buck nikon with some pretty decent lenses will have to do for now.

  35. @nazilam: the content of an image is the most important followed by having fun. Beyond that, the technology just gives some minor improvements. Pick up a cheap old fashion film body to play with – I found that it helps photographers in my courses to develop that intuition for the shot. Don’t get caught up on expensive bodies since they are not necessary. The bodies that I use cost a lot mainly for their durability – i.e. I once dropped a body over 500 feet while climbing up a mountain face. Upon retrieval, it was still working although the lense was destroyed.

  36. We Americans seem to be the most unpolite when it is about taking pictures. Majority standing up and keep on standing… No matter what… on a Ferry… on a boat tour… all the time. So the educated sitting people (also respecting the basic safety regulations)… have no chance to see anything at all. I mean, how rude can you be? Sometimes I’m wondering why we do not stand up in cinemas and theaters…

  37. I recently completed a coast to coast trip of USA. Before starting I was wondering I should buy a DSLR for the trip or at least borrow one from a friend. Then I decided I would take pictures with my iPhone 5S in the first two weeks (I was spending that time with my sister in Orlando) and then upgrade my phone to SE (13 mp against 8 mp for 5S) if my pictures do not reach my expectation.

    When I took some pictures and posted in Facebook I found them of reasonable quality. Since I would not be making big prints for any of them, I continued with my phone.

    During my visits to Chicago, New York and San Francisco, most of my pictures were of the skyscrapers. Other than that I spent my time taking in the views than on taking pictures. I missed a few opportunities of a reverse rainbow and a shadow of my plane on a small cloud below, because I was not ready with my camera.

    Finally there should be a balance between pictures and enjoying the trip.

  38. I travel mostly for business, so iPhone and RX100 have become permanent items in my carry-on bag. I will carry my DSLR when I know I want to explore more at the locations. For example, Rome, Venice, Florence, Safari, Istanbul. When vacationing with family and kids, iPhone and Rx100 are more than enough.

    I read about the latest Huawai Phone has Leica lens and may consider getting one to replace my IPhone (wifi problem since updating to IOS 6.x) to see how far cell phone photography has advanced.

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