8 photo editing techniques to take your travel photos to the next level
Fairly new to photography and not sure how to use editing to take your travel photos to the next level? I’ve put together a list of the 8 travel photo editing techniques that I use the most often to enhance my images. While I have nothing against them, I personally don’t use anyone else’s Photoshop actions or Lightroom presets (these are blanket editing styles that can be automatically applied like a filter, and then tweaked). However, if you’re a beginner to travel photo editing techniques, I really encourage you to make the effort to understand the ins and outs of the editing software, even if you do choose to buy presets. You’ll always be reliant on other people’s styles and expertise, otherwise!
For software, I use Lightroom and Photoshop as part of Adobe Creative Cloud. Though there are plenty of other alternatives available, I highly recommend this suite for its ease of use and the wealth of information and guidance out there, since it’s by far the most frequently used amongst professional photographers. The below travel photo editing techniques are based on my Adobe experience, but any decent alternative will be able to provide the same functions.
Disclaimer: in a bid to stay in Google’s good books, I’ve had to greatly reduce the quality of my photo uploads across the whole blog. Just pretend these are all sharp AF. I promise you my exports are bangin’.
How do my travel photos differ from other photography styles?
The way I edit travel photos versus my portrait or events sessions does differ, as my main aim is to showcase a location or something of cultural interest, using people who are enjoying or interacting with just to allow viewers to place themselves in that situation. In portraiture and events, my mission is to highlight the beauty or personality of the people themselves as my main subject, and capture natural micro-moments with a much lesser consideration for the background (though beautiful settings do of course help!).
When shooting travel photos, I’m very likely to be using a wide lens such as my Canon 24mm 2.8 to get more of the scene into the shot, and I’ve seen a lot of photographers travelling with the very popular 35mm or even the crazy-versatile 24-70mm if they feeling like ruining their holiday having to constantly worry about owning the most expensive lens in their hostel (these are all for Canon but there are alternatives for all brands out there). You can get wider angles, such as a 10-20mm, but honestly I feel like at that point the distortion is a little too much for my liking, and you’ll start to see walls and trees at the edge of your images curving. Go too wide, and it starts to look like a GoPro.
In contrast, for events and portraiture I’m far more prone to picking up something like a 50mm and using a wide aperture (low-numbered F stop) to create the blurred background effect called ‘bokeh’. Bokeh can be beautiful, and it makes your photos look instantly more professional, but it’s not often appropriate for most travel photos, where you want to capture the essence of the place you’re in.
Do you shoot Raw?
You should! Raw files store a ton more information than regular JPEGs, which means you can push the editing to new limits without losing as much detail or ruining the quality of the final image. They come out looking a little duller straight off the camera, but once you’ve mastered editing you’ll realise how much better your final images can be.
All DSLR cameras should have the feature to shoot in JPEG or in raw (these file names are .CR2 for Canon cameras, .NEF for Nikon and ARW for Sony). If you’re nervous about switching, most DSLRs will give you the option to save both a raw and JPEG file of each shot you take.
Note that raw files cannot be opened in any old editing software – investing in Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop or other professional-level software such as Affinity will allow you to open raw files and take advantage of all the extra information they store.
Raw files are also a lot bigger in size so you’ll want to get yourself a shockproof hard-drive to store them in while travelling.
So, what you’ve all been scrolling for…
8 editing techniques to take your travel photos to the next level
1. Radial filtering
Definitely the easiest of these 8 travel photo editing techniques. Inverting the mask of and then turning up the exposure and highlights of a radial filter is a nice way to mimic a strong light source (whether from the sun or an artificial light). It’s subtle, but can add a bit of magic to your travel photos. I wouldn’t recommend doing it in every travel photo you edit, though! I like to use a high feathering to make the light look more natural. If you want to go the extra mile, you can purchase light flare overlays to use in Photoshop, which can add a lot drama to the effect.
2. Graduated filtering
This is another basic tool that I recommend using to change the exposure in one or two opposite corners of the image. It adds that little bit more depth to a photo which draws the eye to the focal point and gets rid of any flatness or uneasy feeling that something is missing (I can’t be the only one this happens to?). Super simple, just place your grids and shift the exposure slider. Below, I’ve used a darkened graduated filter on the bottom right and a lighter one on the top left. I feel it has more oomf to it now.
3. Colour grading
Colour grading is where your personal style can really start to shine. Have a real think about the kinds of travel photos you like to see; have a closer look at some of them and try to spot the colours that the photographer has enhanced, and which they have desaturated. Rather than whacking the saturation up on every colour, picking just two or three closely related colours to enhance (e.g. orange and red) whilst pulling focus away from the others can have a really big impact. Colour grading is done using the HSL tool, which has three sliders in it:
Hue: allows you to change the shade of a certain colour. Turning blues slightly turquoise is a very popular slide. Saturation: turns up or down the impact that a colour has in the image. Desaturating yellows and greens has been on-trend for a few years now. Luminance: controls how light or dark the selected colour is. Lots of travel photographers darken (and desaturate) the oranges to give their bloggers a tan that no blonde Western European could naturally achieve, but I prefer to have my oranges lighter to give people a bit of a glow.
Remember, everything in moderation! You don’t want your images to look over-processed, nor do you want the scenes depicted to become inaccurate and misleading.
4. Tone curve
The tone curve is often neglected by newbies to travel photo editing just because it looks way more complicated than it is, but making a few tweaks can make a big difference to your photos. It’s a really easy way to start building your own travel photo edit style if all your photos have the same tone curve. It takes some time to hone in on your styles so have a play with marking some points along the curve and then shifting them around ever so slightly.
If you’ve ever wondered how travel photographers get that classic matte, almost faded look, they’re usually using the tone curve to do what is called ‘crushing the blacks’. To achieve this travel photo editing technique, mark a point near the bottom left of the tone curve, without moving it anywhere for now. Then pick up the very end of the line, exactly where it meets the left-hand corner, and drag it upwards along the Y axis.
I Iike to keep my tone curve adjustments subtle, but you can see how adding it can just make the image pop a little more:
5. Brush Adjustments
This is a travel photo editing technique that is perfect for correcting any colour or exposure imperfections, or for highlighting/pulling focus away from certain parts of the image (such as a person who’s stood just a little too in the shadows and needs to ‘pop’ a bit more). Simply use the brush to draw on the part of the photo you want to edit, then use the sliders as necessary. Here, I used it to dehaze and add clarity to the mountains behind my subject:
6. Spot removal
As the old saying goes, not all humans are blemishes, but most humans are blemishes. It’s no secret that travel photographers fight tooth and nail to capture locations without crowds in them. This usually means waking up at stupid o’clock to start snapping at dawn, but I’m not about that life so I’ve used my normal waking hours wisely to pick up mad skillz in spot removal instead.
The spot removal tool allows you to select an area of your image to remove, then either replace it with a cloned selection from another part of the same image, or heal it, in which the software takes the texture of the healing selection whilst assessing the edges of the removed selection to invent what it thinks the colours within the area should be. Pay attention to how much you’re feathering the selection, and make sure to account for patterns like the lines of paving. This travel photo editing technique is also super handy for cleaning up the spots made by dust and dirt that may have found its way onto your lens – very common when you’re on the road!
This is an in-camera function that takes 2 or more shots immediately after each other, automatically changing the shutter speed to allow different exposures. In a dark room with a very bright scene coming in through a window, for example, it’s an easy way to capture detail in both lighting settings, without blowing out the skies or making the inside scene too dark and grainy to be used. Set your camera to shoot HDR (not all DSLRs do this, mind you, but you can always take a couple of differently-exposed shots manually), then when you upload into Lightroom, select the images and click Photo Merge: HDR. Now, you do have to be extremely still for this to work, and the camera needs to be in a stable position like on a tripod or the next best thing (usually a precariously-balanced tower of books, in my case).
I personally don’t use the HDR technique very often as most of my shots are taken outside, but travel bloggers who showcase hotels with amazing views are big fans. While not the best quality (let’s be honest, it’s crap), I put this example together this morning to demonstrate the underexposed, overexposed, merged raw and edited image. I’ve really channelled my inner blogger here and smiled down upon my framed map of Colombia. Yes, of course you can buy it here in several different colours; I’m a blogger, don’t you know.
8. Composites (PS)
My favourite. This is the travel photo editing technique that takes the most skill to master, but practice enough and you’ll be able to do it in your sleep. The art of being able to cut and paste parts of one photo into another is particularly helpful for travel couples who don’t want to lug too much gear around. I’ve detailed how to do it and given a few examples of my previous composites in my ‘How I take couple travel photos without a tripod‘ post.
Bringing these travel photo editing techniques together
Now, it’s rare that I use every single one of the above travel photo editing techniques in one image, but I usually use at least 5. In the below travel photo edit, I’ve used a radial filter to create a sun, then used the spot removal to make sure the light coming through the roof slats are accurate for that new light source, and taken out the decking, too. I’ve composited Andy into the shot, then applied my usual tone curve and colour grading (I have them saved as my own preset). I grabbed the adjustment brush to even out the smoothness of my skin after raising the shadows so much (which often creates lots of messy grain). HDR would have been a handy thing to use here, but not possible with a moving swing. This image edit did take a long time to finalise, but goddamnit I do love to waste my own time.
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