If you want to capture stunning travel photography, you must master composition.
A thoughtful composition is a key ingredient in every great travel image – so if you can learn to create beautiful compositions, you’ll be well on your way to shooting gorgeous photos of far-flung cities, landscapes, and more.
In this article, I share with you my top eight travel photography composition tips, from the basics to more advanced techniques that’ll help you refine your skills.
Bottom line: Whether you’re a beginner looking to capture beautiful travel photos or an intermediate shooter looking to really dive into travel photography composition, this article shares everything you need.
Let’s jump right in.
1. Use frames to emphasize architectural subjects
One of the great things about towns and cities are the beautiful buildings and structures they feature, many of which sport interesting pillars and arches.
Fortunately, as a travel photographer, you can use such elements to capture beautiful frame-within-a-frame compositions. In other words, you can position one subject within another, just like this:
The result is gorgeous because the “frame” directs the viewer’s eye toward the main subject, plus it provides interesting context and contrast. The frame can also provide scale (or even produce a fun false sense of scale, where the frame looks much larger than the subject, as in the image above).
So when you find a building you would like to photograph, look around for potential frames. Note that you don’t always need to frame one building within another. You can frame a building within itself, or you can capture a building framed by trees, bridges, car windows, etc.
2. Use symmetry to create balance
Travel photography composition techniques are often excellent tools for shooting familiar subjects in different ways. One of my favorite techniques is symmetry, where you find a point of reflection and mirror half of the image across the composition.
Symmetry can work well for many travel-related subjects because there are reflective surfaces everywhere, but I highly recommend you look for interesting structures near water. This might be a beautiful building overlooking a pond, though you can also create amazing results with puddles, car hood reflections, and handholdable mirrors.
When you include symmetry in a composition, the shot will often contain good balance and a feeling of harmony (and reflective symmetry in a body of water also lends a sense of calm and peace to the shot).
3. Look for leading lines to draw in the viewer
As the name suggests, leading lines help guide the viewer’s eye through the frame, generally from the bottom of the composition toward the main subject in the middle or top (though leading lines can also move horizontally or diagonally across the frame). Leading lines also add a sense of movement, or dynamism, to a composition, which is always a good thing!
Often, when traveling, you’ll come upon footpaths or cobblestone roads, and these look amazing as leading lines. Simply position the path at the bottom of your composition, and watch as it draws the viewer straight into the frame.
(For extra oomph, try getting down low with a wide-angle lens; this will magnify the leading lines to great effect.)
Really, you can find leading lines pretty much everywhere, as long as you take the time to stop and look! Rivers winding toward mountains, light trails winding toward buildings, jetties heading out to sea – every travel destination has a few, and if you can search them out, they’ll guarantee a beautiful image or two.
4. Get up high for a unique view
Every travel photographer should follow this tip at least once during their trip:
Get up high and shoot down.
It’s easy to get obsessed with the subjects right in front of our faces, but if you can get above the city or landscape, you’ll often find plenty of interesting elements: building spires, lakes winding their way down to the sea, and more.
Even if your trek up high doesn’t reveal any new subjects, an elevated position can help you think about familiar subjects in new ways, plus the aesthetics bird’s-eye-view photos just look interesting and can help draw the viewer into the frame and toward your subject.
5. Use the rule of thirds for travel landscapes
Yes, the rule of thirds is a fundamental compositional guideline that gets discussed to death, but have you tried it in your photos? I mean, really tried it?
You see, the rule of thirds urges you to position key elements a third of the way into the frame, and I found that it works beautifully for travel landscape shots. Simply put the horizon in the top-third position, and you get a beautifully balanced, dynamic image:
Of course, if you’re faced with a dramatic sky with interesting clouds, you might try the opposite: place the horizon on the bottom-third position, which will emphasize the sky and deemphasize the foreground. This can look stunning, especially when the sky is dark and moody or during a colorful sunset.
(If you’re not sure whether you should place the horizon along the top-third or bottom-third line, don’t fret. Simply try both and see which you prefer!)
6. Place your subject dead-center in the composition
In the previous section, I discussed the value of putting key elements a third of the way into the frame. But sometimes it’s good to break rules, and one of the most effective ways to create unique and striking travel compositions is by placing your subject centrally in the frame.
When a person or object is placed dead center, the viewer will be instantly drawn to the subject. And they’ll immediately understand the main theme and story of the image, thanks to the lack of distractions.
If you’re feeling especially adventurous, take this further; combine some leading lines with your centrally positioned subject to add perspective, dynamism, and energy. For example, you might shoot a road that leads to a car or mountain in the middle of the frame.
7. Add an interesting foreground element
Foreground elements look great in travel photos, especially when using wide-angle lenses.
Why? Because they add depth to the scene. They show the viewer the area right beneath the photographer’s feet…
…before sweeping the viewer out into the more distant ocean, city, or mountains.
Travel photographers use this technique all the time in seascape and cityscape shots; they find a nice foreground element, like a rock on the beach or a bridge by the water, they position it in the foreground, and let it suck the viewer straight into the shot.
So when you’re next out with your camera and wide-angle lens, look for a nice foreground element to add to the shot – a tree, some flowers, a rock, a streetlight, or even just ripples in the sand. Position it in the bottom third of the composition (see the rule of thirds, discussed above!), then watch as an ordinary image becomes extraordinary.
8. Use shapes and patterns
Shapes and patterns exist everywhere, and an easy way to create travel images with more impact is to identify and use these features.
Here, I’m really talking about becoming more abstract in your travel compositions. Don’t just photograph your subject; instead, look for interesting shapes and patterns that make up your subject, then compose with them in mind.
When capturing a compelling tree, for example, most travel photographers will simply shoot the whole tree – but you can elevate your image by framing some patterns in the leaves or roots. Other examples of travel themes and subjects you can shoot with interesting shapes and patterns include water, architectural details, and even food.
Pro tip: While you can always photograph these elements with a wide-angle lens, it often helps to go longer (i.e., use a focal length beyond 50mm or so). For especially unique shots, consider using a macro lens.
Travel photography composition tips: final words
The way you compose your travel shots will majorly impact the final image. By using some of the tips mentioned above – such as framing your subject, finding leading lines, and going more abstract – your shots will instantly improve.
So have fun, and do what you can to explore your different compositional options!
Now over to you:
Which of these travel composition techniques do you plan to use? Do you have any favorite techniques of your own? Share your thoughts in the comments below!