South America Photography: 8 Essential Tips

With its array of jaw-dropping landscapes, stunning architecture and striking wildlife, South America is one of the world’s most photogenic destinations – make the most of your trip & learn from the experts

If you’re planning a multi-country tour through South America, you’ll soon enough start to wonder what kind of camera gear you should bring along. Should you be splurging on a brand new, state-of-the-art DSLR…or will your brand-new i-phone do the trick? Is it even safe to lug around an expensive camera, anyway?!

How about some photography tips for South America then?

Given that South America is a unique and wildly varied continent, we thought to gather the best tried-and-tested photography tips to help you best plan your upcoming trip. Know what to expect and what you should be packing and we think your future photographic treasures will be all but secured.

Happy snapping!

1. Which camera is best to take to South America?

(hint: it’s not the one you buy at the airport’s duty-free)

All seasoned photographers agree that the best camera to take anywhere in the world is the one you know how to use. This shouldn’t restrict you to a point-and-shoot compact camera, however, as there will still be plenty of time to get acquainted with your gear before you travel. Buying a super-duper DSLR at the airport on your way to South America is most probably not a good idea. If you do want to purchase a new camera specifically for your trip, best to do that well in advance. Taking a short photography course/workshop to acquaint yourself with all the different features is also a great idea if you’re not that experienced.

Do keep in mind that a whole range of photography workshop tours are run in some of the most prominent destinations in South America, currently in the Atacama, the Galapagos, the Amazon and the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru, although we can easily organise a day-out with an experienced photographer in any of the major cities. Simply let us know if you’d love some hands-on help during your trip and we’ll do our best to cater to your wishes.

Machu Pichu

Machu Pichu. Photo: Shutterstock

2. So, is a DSLR all I need in South America?

Fancy-pants cameras deliver fancy-pants shots, that’s true, but that’s not to say they are always ideal. Sometimes they are cumbersome, heavy or just too visible to keep you safe (more on that later) and, sometimes, they are a little overkill. Say you’re out for a dinner and tango show in Buenos Aires with your travel group and you just want to take some happy snaps to remember the evening…do you really need that 400mm zoom? Probably not. A compact point and shoot camera is actually a brilliant choice of back-up, perfect for those ‘memorable moments’ (as opposed to memorable places) and ideal if they neatly fit in your jacket pocket. Do note that in many instances, a good-quality phone camera will also work a treat.

Given the sheer array of magnificent landscapes to photograph in South America, our experts say ‘leave the big guns for the Andes, Machu Picchu, the Amazon and the Galapagos’ and, instead, never leave your hotel without your compact camera.

And we’d agree.

The neighbourhood of La Boca in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The neighbourhood of La Boca in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo: Shutterstock

3. Bring spares galore and never turn your camera off when wildlife spotting

Experienced wildlife photographers always pack a lifetime’s worth of spare batteries and SD cards when on a mission, knowing they will take infinitely more photos than they could ever imagine. You’ll probably do the same so pack plenty of spares. Moreover, a clever tip is to never turn your camera off when on a wildlife-walking excursion: this will keep you and your gear always at the ready.

The vivid colours of a toucan

The vivid colours of a toucan make for an excellent image. Photo: Shutterstock

4. Don’t forget the wide-angle lens and the 400mm zoom

Most camera bodies come with a 50mm zoom and for most people, this is more than enough. Yet when it comes to South America photography, you’ll have a hard time capturing the grandiosity of the landscape (or the magnificence of the wildlife) without a wide-angle lens (for the former) and a 400mm zoom for the latter. The Galapagos, funnily enough, don’t actually require a zoom: this is the one place where you can literally be face to face with the wildlife, it is THAT amazing. Other than here, however, you’re guaranteed a very close encounter and if you’re serious about stunning close-ups – in places where your feet just can’t get you close enough – then a zoom is the way to go.

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile.

Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile. Photo: Shutterstock

5. What are the most photogenic destinations in South America?

We may be biased here but we think the whole of South America is a photographer’s dream although we realise there are a few very special places that hold a photographer’s particular interest. The wildlife hubs of the Galapagos, the Pantanal and the Amazon rainforest spring to mind immediately, as they should: These boast some of the most distinctive landscapes (and creatures) on earth and all three can easily turn a mere amateur photographer into a National Geographic-worthy professional. These are the kinds of places where you really need to keep your photography in check, lest you experience the entire visit only through your viewfinder.

Check out the National Geographic’s best tips for photography in the Galapagos

Galapagos Tortoise on the island of Santa Cruz, the Galapagos, Ecuador.

Galapagos Tortoise on the island of Santa Cruz, the Galapagos, Ecuador. Photo: Shutterstock

For exquisite hues spanning every colour of the rainbow, we’d rate the Bolivian Altiplano one of the most arresting destinations all, the multi-hued lagoons and valleys inspiring poets since time immemorial. Late-summer trips to Patagonia and, specifically, Tierra del Fuego, also serve up an astonishing array of colours, a special treat that mid-Summer visitors simply don’t experience.

Altiplano plateau in Bolivia

Altiplano plateau in Bolivia. Photo: Shutterstock

Salar Uyuni, the enormous Salt Flats of Bolivia, is undoubtedly the poster-child for South America photography, whether you visit during the dry season (for the cracked surface effect) or during the rains when the entire plateau looks like a magical mirror.

The magic mirror effect at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The magic mirror effect at Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo: Shutterstock

For cultural photography, you really can’t go past the high Andes, be they in Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador: this is where you’ll find some of the most traditional inhabitants in the whole continent, gorgeous locals still donning their traditional garb every day and, more often than not, happy to pose for a pic.

The traditional clothes of Huancayo, Peru.

The traditional clothes of Huancayo, Peru. Photo: Shutterstock

Read more about our favourite photography destinations in South America

6. Mind the elements!

Even if you don’t mind the extremes in temperatures you can experience on a South America journey, your camera gear might feel very differently so it helps to keep everything insulated in padded bags. We’ve had full camera batteries depleted in a single hour at -20C in Patagonia (those autumn colours though!) and lenses that sweated (yes, literally) during rainy season in the jungles of the Amazon. A lot of travelling around also means a lot more packing and unpacking of gear and wilderness destinations in particular usually mean a lot of dust and dirt flying about. Be extra-vigilant about ‘the health’ of your camera and you won’t find your equipment giving up on you at the most inopportune moment. Oh, and since you’re being vigilant, don’t forget to pack your battery charger once the battery is full: this is inarguably the #1 left-behind item in South American hotels!

Patagonia's dramatic weather makes for an excellent subject

Patagonia’s dramatic weather makes for an excellent subject. Photo: Shutterstock

7. Is it safe to bring an expensive camera to South America?

(Safety in big cities – know when (and when not) to take your camera along)

From the Rio de Janeiro slums to the poorest corners of La Paz: some of the least favourable destinations in South America’s largest cities can oftentimes be the most photogenic. For safety’s sake, however, you really need to judge each situation carefully and, when in doubt, leave your big camera behind. Some say that South American capitals are the reason smartphone cameras were invented – there really isn’t a more opportune situation to keep your photography inconspicuous.  To be honest, this holds true for just about every major city in the world though, does it not? Walking around with an enormous CANON around your neck and a guide-book in one hand is akin to waving a red-flag for pick-pocketers. One just doesn’t.

Having said this, the ‘no big camera rule’ mostly applies to independent sightseeing tours and in some places only: this is something you won’t want to do if you’re walking around on your own through the city centre of Rio, for example, but it’s totally safe to whip out the camera atop Corcovado to take scenic shots.

Heading off on an organised sightseeing tour can mitigate a lot of the pick-pocketing risks but do know that, in a few cases, this doesn’t help all that much. Take the Rio Carnival, for example, a crazy night when millions of revellers are out dancing and partying: no guide in the world can keep an eye on everyone, all the time. So leave the big camera behind and, instead, take a pocket camera only.

Crowd of tourists on top of the Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The crowd on top of the Corcovado mountain, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Shutterstock

8. Photos of local life can be more inspiring than photos of landmarks

Some of South America’s most astonishing cathedrals and historical landmarks can certainly be breathtaking but nothing compares to capturing a snippet of local life, be it a seller at a local colourful farmer’s market, a yawning llama or a group of explorers trudging through the mud in the Amazon. Sometimes, these candid shots can stir the soul a lot more than a photo of a well-known landmark.

A local in Cartagena de Indias, Columbia

A local in Cartagena de Indias, Columbia. Photo: Shutterstock

For so many people, a tour of South America is a lifelong dream and getting everything ‘just right’ is a major priority. Need some help? See our selection of South America tour ideas and contact us for more personalised advice on photography specific excursions, cruises and tours.

Author: Laura Pattara

“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”