As a young married couple, and then later as a young family with kids, when we traveled around with one set of in-laws, photographer grandpa routinely stopped everyone every few dozen feet to pose in front of some iconic (and sometimes not so iconic) landmark: a sign, a statue, some vista or other. Apparently he had done this all his life, and the family albums are full of pictures of his family posed resignedly in front of canyon vistas and roadside signs.
It was always a big production - "STOP! Everyone, right here!" Then out with the light meter (yes, he used a light meter!), some measured composition, and then a half dozen photos, before we could all walk on again, waiting for the next bellowed "STOP!"
Today, we deeply miss traveling with this wonderful, big hearted man, as long - very long! - as those family trips could be. He was a wonderful photographer in every other respect, and we have boxes of slides and shelves of photo albums to prove it.
However, with today's easy to use but sophisticated camera equipment, from cell phone cameras to automatic DSLRs, there are some simple rules of thumb you can use to compose great travel shots that don't take a lot of time out of your traveling, and result in some truly memorable images that will bring back the story of your journey years after you've taken it.
Step 1: Put Some Joy in It!
Sure, you can just pose in front of something - in this case the St. Louis Art Museum. Or you can celebrate being there. I laugh every time I see the second photo, and I remember warmly the experience of touring around Forest Park in St. Lous.
Step 2: Capture Moments Instead of Posing Them
Especially with kids, who tend to get "cheesy" when they see a camera aimed in their direction, try to quietly capture moments that move you. I have always loved the one of our three kids walking hand in hand along the beach - I remember the beach, I remember who we were with, and I remember how lovely it was.
Same for the shot when they're much older - no longer holding hands to walk the beach, but together in contemplation of it. Similarly, the photo of our son, at about 10 years old, casting a rod, brings back memories as well.
So don't ruin the moment , for you or your subjects, by asking everyone to turn around - you know what they look like. Just quietly snap the photo.
Step 3: Find Points of Reference
The two shots here are of a massive thunderstorm approaching - and without the sign in the second photo, I might not remember where, because I take a lot of thunderstorm photos. Putting the Escanaba Fairgrounds sign in the lower left corner and angling up to get that tumultuous sky places the image in a particular point in time that I won't forget.
In the same way, using a dash mounted GPS unit to identify a unique location that might otherwise present a pretty average image, like the Natchez Trace, which looks, in a photo, just like any other small tree lined road, helps identify it as a very special tree-lined road.
Step 4: Use Signs to Your Advantage
Carefully - just photographing signs, historical or otherwise, can potentially make for pretty boring images. You're probably not going to read all those historical signs you photograph. However, using them to place historical sites can be pretty helpful, as with the Indian mound and the Lake Michigan lighthouse.
And some signs, like the one in front of the Miami Beach hotel, are just art in themselves, not only placing the image in context, but creating a nice stand alone photo in the process.
Step 5: Remember Where You Stayed
Not suggesting you take a photo of every hotel you stay at, but some lodgings make special memories all by themselves, like this fish camp we stayed at in Michigan. Capturing the view out the window of these special places, also helps bring the memory full circle.
(See also Framed: The Art of Window Photography)
Step 6: Take the Bad With the Good
Sometimes, trips that don't go quite as planned are worth remembering, too. A failed camping trip that necessitated borrowing a tarp from a camping neighbor in an RV when torrential rains ended our trip early, also made for photos that make us laugh when we see them today.
Sometimes we forget to photograph the imperfect, even though those moments have a special place, too.
Step 7: Put Selfies in Context
The selfie has become an indelible part of our photographic experience now, so you might as well take decent ones. Not claiming to be the selfie expert here, by any means, but for the purposes of documenting trips, consider placing yourself off-center, to get the most of the background image, or positioned so that what makes the space you're taking your selfie in unique or special, appears in the photo.
Also, learn to smile normally for your selfies - haven't gotten the hang of that one myself. I'm usually too busy trying to look at the image to make sure I've got everything I want in it. I personally don't take many of these (for reasons that are probably obvious) but I think composition is important here, too.
Step 8: Make the Most of Iconic Images
Some things are just always identified with an area - you can look at any photo of the Grand Canyon and know you're looking at the Grand Canyon. Make the most of iconic images by taking just a few shots - there's tons of them out there already, right? So take a couple that you like and move on. No need to fill your camera card with dozens of beach photos in Miami Beach, or long shots of the Lake Michigan.
In this case, I took a few, but ditched most in favor of the lifeguard shack and umbrellas on Miami Beach and the early morning mist rising over an obscure little corner of Lake Michigan.
You don't want to miss the obvious shots, but make them count in your album.
Step 9: Composing Memories That Matter
It's so easy to take photos everywhere, all the time, to the point where we have so many, they lose meaning and context. Taking the time to compose thoughtful photos when we travel, will take us back to the places we remember warmly and enjoyed most, with the people who really matter to us, and will make both your travel and your everyday photos carry more meaning and value to you and those you photograph.