Tours & Trips

Tips for Documenting Your Experience Abroad in Photos

Elaina Giolando

A former management consultant turned nomad, Elaina writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel on topics including internships abroad and gap years.

Gone are the days when your photos and videos simply occupied space on an external hard drive until your basement flooded and swept away memories you never looked back on anyway. With rapid-fire social media, your best photos can actually have a sizable audience of friends, family, and downright strangers if they stumble upon your choice of hashtags.

Here are some of the best tips we've put together on how to capture the essence of your travels abroad -- not only to share your experience, but to be able look back on it years after you've touched back down in your home country.

How to Document Your Time Abroad

Let's start off by talking about equipment. As a long-term traveler (10 years of overseas travel, going on 4 years of non-stop nomadism), I personally travel with a Canon Rebel T4i (DSLR), a Go Pro 4, and an iPhone 7, but I could definitely get away with just the iPhone if I wasn't obsessed with my powerful and versatile 18-200mm zoom lens.

However, what you use to capture your adventures is nowhere near as important as the purposefulness and heart behind the experiences you capture -- and the experiences themselves, of course. I've gotten absolutely incredible photographs over the years, not because of the lens of my DSLR, but because of the subjects I happened to be blessed with and the interesting places I've traveled.

The most important way to make sure you capture your travels the way you want is to be purposeful about it. Make sure you set aside time to document what you're experiencing. Most of the time, I'm traveling slow, so I set aside time to take photos when I first arrive and my first impressions of the place are fresh. Those impressions give me the ability to capture the most unique elements of a new place, the kind of things that strike me as particular to this place are the same things someone looking at my photographs of that place will appreciate: the sombreros the older generations still wear, the crumbling colonial architecture, the cliffs perched over the ocean, the mist that rolls in every morning over the village.

And then I do something else that's very important: I put my camera away. I go out and explore the places I've already documented so I can run around and enjoy it without compromising my in-the-moment experience by trying to set up the perfect shots. Separate out these two aspects of your travels so you take the time to get really good photos and make a special effort to remove any barriers between you and your direct experience of a new place.

Now, when it comes to documenting your experience, that means you need to get in your own photos! Of course traveling with others helps with this because you can all take pictures for each other and swap photos after the trip, but you can still get great shots of yourself in front of those famous world monuments, even if you're flying solo.

If you're on your own, don't be afraid to ask strangers to take your picture. Yes, that means I regularly hand over my $2,000 DSLR or $850 iPhone to Nepalese villagers or fellow tourists on the top of Machu Picchu. It's the only way to get the shot. I'm also especially brazen so I'll ask them to take several shots and even different angles, and nobody seems to mind if I return the favor. If you're shy, you just won't get anything except selfies.

Other Ideas for Capturing Your Travels

The biggest lesson that came out of that last trip for me that helped revolutionize how I document my travels is to take more video! To help remind you to take video, try the "One Second Every Day" app. It prompts you to take a one-second long video every day and splices them together into an incredible video collage whenever you want. Or you can use the iMovie app and easily create short movies from the videos you have on your iPhone. The most important pieces of advice I can give are to stick to shorter clips so it makes editing and actually using these clips a lot easier and more practical, and to go throw yourself into the thick of the action and keep the camera rolling. The time I put my Go Pro on my hip and went through a festival in Nepal talking to everyone was one of the best video clips of my whole 15 months traveling.

Something else I advise is to try to carry an action camera. Having an all-weather, indestructible camera (preferably with a long stick on the end for selfies) that you can take while snorkeling or caving or riding elephants really helps capture more of your experiences. My Go Pro was awesome for capturing motorbike rides through Chiang Mai and color-throwing during the Holi festival in India.

I remember hitchhiking through Laos with a French girl who, whenever something exciting happened, would pull out her Go Pro with a long attached selfie stick and spend a minute talking to the camera about what was going on and then swinging it around for a 30-second capture of what was happening around her. That was when I went out and bought a Go Pro in the next major city and started doing the same. It's a genius way to capture the feeling, the action, the people around me, and what I'm thinking and feeling in that moment.

Lastly, there's something really fun about postcards, which people tend to forget about these days. You might think to send your mom and dad or a couple close friends a postcard, but sending yourself a post card can be really fun to look back on, too. Having something in non-digital format is all the more special.

9 Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos

There's a lot of information on how to take great photos on the web, and I've read most of them, so I'm just going to stick to the 9 key tips I've found most helpful.

1. Take lots of photos -- you only have to keep the good ones.

I'm not a great photographer, I just take a lot of shots. Move around, try it from different angles. When you sit down to sort through them all, the best ones are going to stand out because you have great creative taste. Our aesthetic appetite is innate!

2. The devils in the details.

Colors, texture, facial expressions, the little moments. Zoom in. Stand closer. The details are where the interest lies. In the digital age you don't need each photo to capture the entire scene. Think about how a collection of photos will tell the story of a place. Some will be the wide landscape, some will be the intricate face of an ancient woodcarving.

3. Capture the conditions and the feelings.

Photos, especially your personal travel shots, don't have to be perfect. I love the messy fotos of my motorbike stuck in the mud in Laos in the rain, raindrops on the lens and all, or a quick shot taken by a fellow passenger on the train in India that captures what the train looks like inside. Some photos get to be artistic, some get to be honest.

4. It's all about the lighting!

Honestly, unless it's a silly selfie, don't even bother taking pictures from 11am-3pm in most countries if you want them to be high quality. Go to important monuments in the early morning or a few hours before/during sunset. For all photos, pay attention to where the light is coming from and adjust your subject -- or come back at a different time.

5. Offset and balance.

We need balance for photos to be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. You've probably heard the rule of thirds before, so put the interesting stuff in the first third or last third of the photo.

6. Take action shots.

Go get closer. Get involved. Keep the camera running. Take more pictures in the middle of what's going on. Those will be less perfect, but most exciting!

7. Foreground and background check.

Have you ever taken a beautiful portrait of a local woman, only to look back and see there's a banana tree growing out of her head? Check both the foreground and background when you line up a shot to make sure they complement one another.

8. Spend more time in one spot.

If you're not getting an interesting photo, you're probably not waiting long enough. Sit down, get a coffee, and perch the camera on your lap. Capture all the little moments that live in that one space.

9. Capture the mundane.

What do I mean by the mundane? I mean things you'd never take a picture of at home, but become interesting because of their stark difference in a foreign environment: A trip to the grocery store (in Japan, where everything's unidentifiable), doing laundry (in Moscow, with all the buttons in Russian), a bus stop (in Nigeria, where everyone's asleep in their Sunday best), going to the hospital (anywhere, heaven forbid), or spying someone at the hairdresser (like in India where the barbers wait with a stool and razor on the street corner and buzz their clients in the middle of Mumbai foot traffic).

Tips for Preserving Your Digital Memories

Nothing was scarier than the time I came home from a month in Brazil and couldn't download a single photo because of a corrupted SD card. I eventually remedied the issue, but it was a big enough scare to make me think about how to make sure I not only capture, but preserve, my memories.

I like to start by making sure I buy a phone with a lot of GB and then buy large SD cards for my cameras. Nothing is worse than going to try to capture a photo or video and running out of space. Always carry extra SD cards in case you need to make an on-the-spot switch.

If you have an iPhone, turn on automatic iCloud backup so your photos upload to the cloud whenever you're connected to wifi. I also have a large Dropbox account that costs me about $7/month and I keep 1TB of documents and photos on there on the cloud. I linked my phone to a folder in Dropbox so at least my phone pictures are always backed up. If you're traveling with a laptop, backup your photos at least every week. If not, opt for a USB drive with a lot of space and keep it with your passport. Upload your photos onto the drive every few weeks. Then you can borrow someone's laptop and throw everything on there into your Dropbox. (My external hard drive is one of the 3 essentials that I put in a fanny pack and stash down my pants for every overnight bus ride: passport, debit card, hard drive with photos.)

All of this is way easier than "back in the day" when I was backpacking South America 6 years ago and needed to burn my photos onto a CD every few weeks and then make sure I didn't break or lose the CDs!

Get Out There and Capture Your Experience!

Out of everything we discussed here, the most important thing is to shoot with purpose and with heart. Set aside the time to capture your beautiful surroundings, be patient and wait for the right light and the little moments, and you'll be sure to get great results.

Above all, you have great taste. You know when a photo is good, so you only need to keep experimenting until yours start looking like the ones you admire.