Photography shooting tips

Photo shooting tips, Italy, Italy (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

12 travel photography tips for capturing great shots on the road

Here are some guidelines for getting the pictures you want.

Shoot the details

Any postcard stand can provide you with facade pictures, panoramas, and aerial shots. You’re the only one who can concentrate on the minute details that enthrall you. 

Focus on the hideous devil in a Last Judgment painting, laundry hanging from the windows, the figures on a Romanesque column capital, the cracks in the cobblestoned street.

Frame the shot

Make it interesting: Take the picture through an open window or archway or flanked by a pair of ancient columns.

Get a church facade reflected in a puddle.

If you can’t quite get the whole thing in a shot, give it up and zoom in for a detail instead.

Check your backgrounds

Nothing spoils a medieval or bucolic scene like a TV antenna, telephone poles, or tourists milling in the background.

Grab the best light

The light of early morning and late afternoon works magic on any scene, bringing out depth, deepening shadows, and warming up colors. The harsh noonday sun makes for notoriously boring pictures.

Get the sun behind you

Try to get any light source at your back or glancing in from the side if you’re going for special shadow and light effects.

One of the only times it's effective to let the light come right at you is to shoot a sun setting or rising directly behind a column or statue—a marvelous effect.

You know what you (and your family) look like

Explorers used to plant their county’s flag to claim a new territory. These days we conquer by selfie and plant the waving family. It’s nice to take a Colosseum selfie, or snap a picture of your husband in front of the Leaning Tower, but you don’t need to prove you were there at every single stop. 

Plus, it’s more fun to get candid, action shots of the family riding the train, going on a picnic, contemplating the art in the Uffizi, whatever. Show that you traveled in and interacted with Italy, not just that you knew how to smile and wave.

Look for the unusual in the everyday

What sums up a country or culture? Half the things you’ll remember most about any trip won’t be the attractions but rather the sights and oddities of daily life over there.

Go ahead, take pictures of old men playing cards, funny little European cars, busy vegetable markets, weird street signs, or a sheep jam on a country road.

Candid shots of people can be great, but may get some people mad. Be discreet and diplomatic.

Ask permission

It's a bit embarrassing, and it may often spoil the un-posed shot you want, but it is only polite to ask someone before taking their picture whenever possible. In some cases, people get outright mad if they catch you photographing them on the sly, whether it's a cultural thing or they're just plain shy and/or mean. Always ask. 

And if you're worried they will turn rigid and pose for you, take a shot of two of the pose, then wait around until they get bored with you just standing there and go back to hanging the laundry, playing cricket, or whatever it was that drew you to them in the first place. Then you can get the shot you wanted.

Don’t be a flasher

I have a good rule for the camera flash option: Don’t use it.

Flashes are the most overrated and least understood of camera features. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the flash effects cheapen most shots, so either read up on flash techniques in a photo book or consider using it rarely, if at all. Here are a few general guidelines: 

  1. If you take a flash photo of anything behind glass, you’ll end up with a fuzzy image of the subject (the camera usually auto-focuses on the glass, not the subject you’re trying to capture) further obscured by a bright, white star-like image that covers a quarter of the picture. That’s the flash reflecting off the glass. 
  2. By filling in shadows with a bright, uniform light, flashes always flatten a picture out, which 99% of the time is an effect you do not want. 
  3. Do not take flash photos of artwork. Flashes destroy paintings and frescoes, doing more damage than leaving a painting out under the sun for many days. Flash photos would make the Michelangelo paintings your grandchildren see pale, faded images of themselves. Also, if I see you doing it, I will yell at you in public. Seriously. I do it all the time. 

Just about the only time I ever use a flash is if I’m trying to take a night shot, in which case I use the option most pocket cameras now have of a “night flash.” This option basically first exposes the low light of the background by leaving the camera shutter open for a few seconds (you have to be very still—ideally, prop the camera on something and don’t touch it), after which it flashes so that the people or object in the foreground pops out of the image in a bright pool of light. If you use just flash by itself at night, the subject will be washed-out and bright, but the background pitch black.


The perfect shot might not come out until the sun moves from behind that cloud or an un-photogenic tour bus pulls away.

On the other hand, don’t let a good opportunity slip away. If a shot is good but you think you should wait, take one picture immediately, and then stick around to see if it gets better.

Get close

Unless you’re shooting a countryside landscape, try to get within 10 feet of most subjects. Fill up the frame. Keep shots dynamic.

(And for landscapes, try to get something in the foreground at the corner or side of the frame to make the depth pop.)

Find a new angle

Choose any angle that will get you a picture different from everybody’s else’s. Remember: you can turn that camera on its end; take some shots vertical, others horizontal.

Eye-level is boring. Climb a tree, squat down, stand on a bench, hold the camera high above your head and point it in the general direction, or lie flat out on the ground.

I do it all the time, and while I get funny looks, it makes for some great shots.

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Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).


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