Above me, my subject squawked and flitted from branch to branch. I tracked him with my camera lens, hoping he’d perch for a moment, but he flicked his tail and flew to another tree. I missed the shot.

Thankfully, this wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime African safari. It was a once-in-a-morning foray onto my deck, and my photographic quarry was a male Steller’s jay: a common bird around my home near Lake Tahoe. I’d have another chance for that shot before lunch. And by practicing wildlife photography, someday I’ll be ready for that safari.

Our travel plans might be blurry, but our travel photos don’t have to be. Picture this: While the pandemic has confined us at home, we can still prepare for our next trip by developing our photography skills whether we use a smartphone or advanced camera. Landscapes, people and animals can sharpen our eye from our living room or balcony. We can find inspiration, learn technique and cultivate storytelling ability.

Get inspired

“Don’t be afraid to emulate someone who inspires you,” photographer, storyteller and adventurer Chris Burkard told me. Those special someones might, like Burkard, have wanderlust-stoking Instagram portfolios or be tucked into photography books. New York camera store Adorama recommends portraiture, adventure, food and national parks titles — perfect material for discovering what subjects make our shutter finger itch.

Alan Ross, master photographer and Ansel Adams’ former assistant, teaches workshops at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park and runs live virtual coaching sessions. He recommended finding inspiration to nurture your style. “Feel comfortable with your own vision,” he said. “Everyone has their own way of seeing the world, and that’s OK.”

Find your focus

In the Instagram Age, everyone who totes a smartphone also carries the capacity to communicate about the places they care about.

“Photography is storytelling, and now more than ever, storytelling is how we connect with people,” Burkard said. “We’ve never longed more to have that human connection, and shared human experience is one of the best gifts we can offer each other.”

To him, your voice is as important as your camera. Boost photography-adjacent writing skills by describing your images beyond what people already see. He advised photographers to enliven their favorite 50 to 100 images from their travels by writing captions that describe what made each experience meaningful.

Go to school

Because of the pandemic boom in podcasts, online tutorials and classes, there’s more access to education than ever. Throughout May, Nikon School’s 10 photography courses are free; its macro video prompted me to prowl around my yard capturing charismatic pine cones.

The Museum of Modern Art’s photography curator teaches Coursera’s free 15-hour “Seeing Through Photographs” class. Free to audit, the course has a syllabus so packed it gave me university-level excitement and nerves.

CreativeLive’s “Travel Photography” virtual studio class walks students through gear, technique and composition. And for outdoor adventurers, Academy Award-winning filmmaker and photographer Jimmy Chin teaches a master class.

Join a community

Prefer shared learning experiences? Try an online group, photographer and educator Colby Brown recommended. His nonprofit organization, the Giving Lens, runs workshops that support local communities around the world.

“They can be based on mutual respect and great opportunities for learning and honest feedback,” he said.

Whether an open Facebook group or a private Instagram or WhatsApp chat, these close-knit collaborations allow budding shutterbugs to encourage each other, ask questions and workshop images.

Learn your equipment

Freelance photographer, editor and educator Krista Rossow recommended something that many travelers overlook: cracking open the camera’s manual and learning its buttons and dials. Once you can adjust them without hesitation, you won’t miss the perfect shot while you’re fiddling.

“It’s easy to sit in front of a computer and listen to tutorials, but you have to translate your knowledge into actual photo creation,” Rossow said. “Eventually, handling the camera becomes muscle memory.”

To polish travel snaps, go beyond the magic wand. Adobe Photoshop Elements provides simple desktop tools, and Adobe Lightroom Photo Editor gives mobile users a suite of enhancements. Built-in smartphone time-lapse, slow-motion and panoramic settings can spur creativity.

It’s not necessary to upgrade your gear. “The equipment has almost nothing to do with the quality of your images,” Ross said. Even old, basic cameras can outperform flashy new models in confident hands.

Give yourself assignments

Every photographer I interviewed agreed: Give yourself assignments to hone your skills. New Yorkcamera megastore B&H Photo’s trove of ideas includes everything from building tabletop studios to taking pet safaris. And those inspirational photographers you’ve found? Imitate their work at home.

Ross suggested making 15 photos in 30 minutes without duplication. “This forces you to really see things,” he said. “If you take those pictures in different lighting and they’re nice, you’re going to be happy when you go to Iceland and photograph ponies.”

Experiment with aperture and shutter speed, pick a theme such as light or texture or cultivate skill sets such as depth of field or night photography. Many of us can even practice portraits, Rossow said. “If you can ask your roommate or family member, you’ll have an easier time asking to photograph people in foreign destinations where there are different languages and cultures.”

Or develop your narrative know-how. Brown recommended creating photo essays, which teach how to structure multiple images into a story.

“Take a picture from your window every day to show how life evolves,” Burkard advised. “If your window is your perspective of the world, how interesting can you make it? Assignments like this can be an incredible test of where you can find creativity when creativity is limited.”


Rossow emphasized consistent practice, a new opportunity for people who might otherwise be scrolling through Netflix. “Everyone can photograph, but it takes a lot of practice to take our skills to the next level,” she said.

Improvement usually happens along a subtle curve, not with a drastic jump or epiphany. “Sometimes it takes looking back on your images to realize how your abilities and style have changed,” she said.

Step outside your comfort zone to grow, Brown suggested. Try the spaghetti-on-the-wall approach to find your interests, strengths and weaknesses. “Even at home or in your backyard, you can find beauty and expand your creative boundaries,” he said.

The most important advice for practicing? Stay home. Now is not the time to visit public spaces. You can unintentionally violate social distance rules if you’re fussing with buttons instead of monitoring your proximity to others. And remember to clean your equipment, including your smartphone.

Plan your adventures

“When I’m teaching photographers, the biggest mistake I see is that people arrive in a foreign destination thinking that they can automatically make great pictures,” Rossow said. Instead, the more you can learn about the location, the better.

Before Rossow goes on assignment, she researches places she wants to photograph, how the light changes through the day and what photos have already been taken so that she can discover new perspectives to shoot. Even now, you can begin planning your next trip and daydreaming about using your new skills.

Ross underscored the joy of travel photography. “Ansel Adams said, ‘There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept,’ in response to people who spent more time worrying about his technical advice than making a creative image,” he recalled. “Relax, enjoy making photos and don’t worry too much about the technical stuff.”

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