How to Take Better Travel Photos - 10 Tips from a Travel Photographer
As with most things, mastering photography takes time, research and a lot of practice. And with almost 100K Instagram followers, one of the most common things I get asked is how to take better travel photos. Here are my 10 best tips and tricks that I've learned over the years on how to take better travel photos:
1. Invest in a real camera (and use it)
Don't get me wrong, phone cameras have come a long way and when I use mine for Instagram stories I'm often impressed. But if you want to up your travel photography game, step one should be to upgrade your equipment.
This doesn't mean you necessarily need to go directly to a dSLR and 10 different lenses. If you're currently using your phone camera, a good starting point would be investing in a mirrorless camera. They're smaller than a dSLR and therefore easier to carry around, usually cheaper so you can worry less about them while traveling, and are a definite improvement over an iPhone. However, if you are in the market for a dSLR and you're sure you'll actually carry it around with you (don't bother otherwise), it will make a world of difference.
I personally own and travel with 2 different cameras - one is mirrorless, one is a dSLR. The mirrorless camera that I use is the Samsung NX500 with the 30mm lens. My dSLR is a Canon 6D and my go-to lens for that is the Canon 35mm f1.4L. If you're looking for a less expensive option, I'd recommend the Canon t6i and the Canon 50mm f/1.8.
Also, I have not tested out the Sony mirrorless system myself yet, but it gets seemingly unanimous reviews. If you are just starting out, you probably want to go with the Sony a6000 or a6300 which are their beginner level cameras. If you are more advanced, you will want to look into the full frame options like the Sony a7 II, the a7R II, etc. There are an almost overwhelming number of options, so use the comparison tool on their site to find the one that best fits your needs. For example, if you don't shoot video you likely don't need one of the more expensive options with 4K video!
If you don't have a "real" camera and you prefer to use your phone instead, that's fine - the rest of the tips below are still applicable to you!
Regardless of which camera you choose, I would suggest getting in the habit of taking it everywhere. I have never once regretted having my camera with me but can name countless times I've regretted leaving it behind (SPArty in Budapest, Music on the Rocks in Positano, etc.).
2. Take the time to edit
Never do I ever post a photo without processing it. Does it take some time? Sure, but it's worth it and arguably the most important piece. Plus once you determine your editing style it gets a lot easier and less time consuming as it becomes more routine. My editing style = bright and colorful.
If you travel with a laptop and don't need to always post in real-time, there's nothing better than Adobe Lightroom. As far as mobile editing goes, these days there are a million different photo editing apps but my main go-to is still vsco.
When processing be sure not to over-edit which will have the opposite effect you want and potentially ruin the photo. Instead of using filters which tend to compromise quality, try the more manual route by tweaking brightness, contrast, temperature, etc. If I do use a filter in vsco I generally use it at level 3 (very minimally). As for the native Instagram filters, I would stay far away.
Whether you're reading this to help with your Instagram feed, your blog, or something else, the main key when it comes to editing is consistency. Come up with a signature style, whatever it may be, and stick with it. Without this your feed/site will look all over the place instead of cohesive and polished.
Some before and after examples of mine, both edited with vsco on my iPhone:
For more info, check out my post below on the 5 best apps for editing your travel photos on the go.
3. Aim to shoot at golden hour
Golden hour for those who do not know is the hour after sunrise and before sunset where the sun/daylight is softer, making it the best time of day to shoot. If you follow me on Instagram I'm sure you know by now that I am a sunrise type of gal and there is nothing I love more than forcing friends to get up at 4am for the sake of a photo shoot ;) Seriously though, get up early - you will not regret it. You'll also avoid the tourists this way!
Of course this does not mean that I suggest you only shoot during those 2 hours of the day. Shoot all day and all night, but pay attention to the lighting and let that help determine what you're capturing. If it's noon and the sun is out in full force, don't take portrait shots where there are huge shadows cast all over the face and the sun is bleaching out the rest.
4. Use the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is a common photography technique used to make photos more balanced and interesting. Imagine placing a tic-tac-toe board over your photo. The spots where the lines cross are where you want to place your subject. I find myself using this technique a lot especially when it's a photo of just one person.
5. Plan ahead
Before you go, research what the city has to offer, and not just in terms of food. Is there a clock tower or something tall that you could shoot down or out from? A hike with must see views? Some kind of outdoor adventure? A park hill with the best sunset view in town? Take the road less traveled whenever possible. While researching where to shoot in Stockholm I discovered that they have amazing subway stations. A 10 minute photo adventure later I had some unique rainbow subway shots!
ps. how tragic is it that Instagram got rid of the photo map feature? That was my main go-to for research!
6. Look to others for inspiration...
I'm sure this probably goes without saying, but follow travelers who inspire you! This should not be restricted solely to the ones with the best photography or who go to only the coolest places. Get out there, connect with people, read the stories they are telling even if their photos aren't flawless. Inspiration is all around! If you need some new inspo check out my list of 20 must follow travel Instagram accounts.
...but use your own eye and be unique
I know, I too posted that Bellagio shot, guilty. But for the most part I do my best to think outside the box and not post photos that you're also seeing on everyone else's feed. Take that plain old Eiffel Tower shot if you must but make sure to also shoot some less cliche ones after.
Everyone has their own unique eye and you will be the most successful when you focus on what you are naturally drawn to instead of what you saw someone else post on Instagram or Pinterest. Look around. Keep your eyes open. Pay attention to the little things. And without a doubt, capture a ton of images. When you're back home looking through them later you'll be so happy you did (and you'll probably see some things you didn't see before).
7. Get in your photos!
So, fun story, I hate being in photos. Actually it's not that, it's that I hate being in photos alone. Because of this I used to basically take only landscape photos which turns out is really boring (sorry). Adding a personal element helps the viewer connect with the subject and imagine themselves at the location, amongst other things.
There are many different ways you can go about this if you are like me and you don't want to be posing in pics fashion blogger style (no offense!). You could try a #followmeto picture, one shot from so far away that you can't see much of the subject anyway (great way to capture your surroundings or show scale), a #gostandthere shot, or my most recent favorite: while looking out at a beautiful view. Of course, if you really don't want to be in the photos you don't have to be - you can shoot your friends or other subjects instead. Either way I would recommend definitely including a human element of some kind.
8. Capture a candid moment
One of the best things about using a dSLR is that you can shoot continuously with basically no lag time, allowing you to capture candid moments more easily. Whenever I hand someone my camera to take a photo of a friend and I, I always tell them to "just take a ton". The end result is more natural, candid moments instead of those horrible fake smiles and stiff poses.
If you're traveling alone or with a friend don't be afraid to ask someone else to take your photo. They won't always turn out the best but sometimes you'll be pleasantly surprised and something is often better than nothing. Make sure to offer to reciprocate for them as well!
Another option is to take them yourself. All of my camera's have wifi which conveniently means that I can control the shutter via an app on my phone. If I'm out of options or somehow end up on the only street in Venice with no foot traffic, I can set my camera on a windowsill (or whatever) and take the shots from the app which also acts as a viewfinder. This has come in handy on more occasion than one and is yet another reason to make getting a wifi enabled camera a priority.
And, if you're real desperate, there's always my sister's favorite: timer mode. :)
9. Get lost and have awesome adventures
As much as I love planning, there is nothing better than grabbing your camera and going. Lose your map, ignore your cell phone, forget your plans, and just wander. Almost all of my favorite pics are ones that I took during some kind of unplanned adventure, like that time we were crazy enough to hop on a boat with a bunch of random boys in Venice. We rode around, drank their champagne, got a free Venice tour, and captured some of my favorite shots of Venice - much better than the ones from the gondola ride later that day. Have a plan but also allow time for the unexpected.
10. Practice, practice, practice (and then practice some more)
I really can't say this one enough. You don't just pick up a camera and become a great photographer overnight. It takes months, years, even decades, and even still you'll always have more to learn. The more you practice the better you will become, I promise. The same goes for editing. I look back on old photos of mine that I want to shake my head at, as I'm sure I will also do with my current photos one year from now, but they serve as a pleasant reminder that if you're passionate about something and you put your heart into it you can do anything you want.
Anything I missed? Let me know in the comments below!