Amateur Travel Photography: 12 Tips for Getting That Perfect Shot

First, don't invest in a crazy expensive camera. The rest is really about framing and positioning your photo subjects so they turn out sharp, clear, and well-composed. Here is a closer look:Read More

Travel photography can make for great nostalgia trips – if the photos are good. (Source: Pixabay / SplitShire)

The best trips always require some kind of visual documentation, which is why we travelers make an effort to snap photos along the way. After all, this is how we hold on to the great memories of far-flung adventures and new experiences. But not all photos are created equal; to be sure your travel photography is top-notch, follow these 12 simple tips.

1: Don’t buy an expensive camera.

Here’s the truth: Most of us like the idea of taking top-notch photos with an expensive DSLR, but the reality is, we’ll use it once and then bury it in the closet. Not really worth the $1,000+ price tag, is it? Instead of going all in on a professional camera, buy a smartphone with a multi-lens camera (most recent iPhone and Android phones have these) or a high-quality point-and-shoot camera. While these can also be quite pricey, it’s easy to find one for under $300. Plus, they produce high-resolution images and include easy-to-use settings for different scenarios like night-time shots and portraits. The best part: They require no external lenses or other accessories. Literally just point and shoot.

(If you’re still committed to that expensive camera, consider these top camera options.)

2: Make sure you’re allowed to take pictures.

In most cases when you’re on the road, you won’t have to ask permission to take photos of your surroundings. There are exceptions, however; museum exhibits are generally off-limits, as are areas in countries with stricter social laws like the UAE and settings where photography flashes would dangerously distract someone. Always keep an eye out for signage indicating that photography is prohibited. If you are in doubt, ask a local – or rely on a mental snapshot.

3: Avoid taking pictures of people’s faces – unless you know them.

In the professional travel photography world, taking pictures of people gets sticky very quickly. In many cases, you need their permission and/or a signed waiver. If you’re just a casual tourist, this is less of an issue as you won’t be publishing your photos on highly-trafficked sites. Just the same, it’s impolite to take pictures of people without their consent. Avoid it if you can. If you can’t, try to capture their backs or sides only so they’re less identifiable. (Note: This doesn’t apply to friends and family, though it never hurts to give them a chance to excuse themselves from your photo op.)

Portrait shots should be well framed with the subject centered and portrait mode on. (Source: Pixabay / MoosGruen)
Portrait shots should be well-framed with the subject centered and portrait mode on. (Source: Pixabay / MoosGruen)

4: Use portrait mode only for close-up shots of people.

When you are specifically targeting those you know, portrait mode is the perfect setting. iPhones and Androids both have this feature, which sets the camera lens to focus on the individual in the foreground and blur out the background. To make this effective, however, you need to be fairly close to the subject. Don’t rely on zoom – still a fuzzy mess in most mid-range cameras and smartphones. Instead, make sure their figure takes up at least 2/3 of the frame at a natural distance.

5: Don’t shoot into the light.

You’ve likely experienced this faux pas before. When you shoot into the light – either an artificial one, like a lamp, or the sun – the camera lens absorbs that light and washes out the photo. To preclude this disaster, take photos of objects and people that are facing the light. If it’s still too bright, find a shaded spot (like under a tree or away from lamps) where ambient light is still sufficient for good exposure but doesn’t overwhelm the subject of your photo.

6: Find a focal point in an area with high contrast.

Looking back on our old travel photos, we noticed something interesting: In an effort to capture multiple key objects in a single photograph, we lost all focus. Nothing stood out as unique. Not only that, but many of them blended into their surroundings, practically disappearing altogether.

Don’t make the same mistake we did. Pick one clear subject and frame it in such a way that the surrounding colors and textures contrast. This contrast doesn’t have to be sharp, but just enough so that your single focus stands out in the frame.

Contrast and the rule of thirds help your photos stand out. (Source: iStock / akpakp)
Contrast and the rule of thirds help your photos stand out. (Source: iStock / akpakp)

7: Use the rule of thirds.

It’s basic, but it works. For amateur photographers still getting used to the art of travel photography, it’s important to remember that our brains naturally divide photos into thirds – both horizontally and vertically. Framing your photos with this in mind can make your final shots more appealing. For example, if you’re taking a picture of the horizon, position the horizon line 1/3 of the way up from the bottom, leaving the top 2/3 for the sun, trees, mountains, and sky.

8: Find natural “leading lines.”

This tip is key in nature photography but also works well for architecture. The idea is simple: Find visible lines that converge at a single point and either position yourself at the point of convergence or opposite that point so you can see the lines come together.

Imagine this in a mountain scene: Various paths coming from all directions leading up the slopes of a mountain to the peak. Or, consider it in the context of Old-World architecture: long, narrow Biblical reliefs on the side of a cathedral leading up to the spires at the top.

9: Avoid using a flash if at all possible.

It’s controversial, but we’ll say it anyway: Avoid flash. An experienced photographer can make good use of a flash, but only when paired with the right shutter speed, ISO and F-stop settings, and other variables. As these will likely not be accessible to you – or you may just not know how to use them – avoid using a flash. That said…

10: Use high ISO and long shutter speeds (if available) for nighttime shots.

For those with mid-range cameras that have ISO and shutter speed settings, it might be worth experimenting with high ISO and long shutter speeds during nighttime shoots. These will make it easier to capture all available light and render clean photos. No guarantees – especially with lower-tier cameras – but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Avoid nighttime photos unless you have a higher-end camera. If you want to give it a go, check your ISO and shutter speed. (Source: Pixabay / Free-Photos)
Avoid nighttime photos unless you have a higher-end camera. If you want to give it a go, check your ISO and shutter speed. (Source: Pixabay / Free-Photos)

11: Use lower F-stops for crisp, close-up shots.

Even if you don’t have ISO settings, you likely have some kind of F-stop setting. (iPhones and Androids typically come with these now, and photo apps make ample use of them.) If you want to take incredible food shots, for instance, use a lower F-stop; this will focus the lens on foreground objects and blur out what falls behind them. Make sure your dish is well lit and not affected by shadows – a common problem with amateur food photography.

12: Take at least three shots of every scene.

If you’re set on getting the very best photos of your adventure, we recommend taking at least three shots of every scene. That may seem like a lot, but in this day and age, camera storage makes this eminently possible. And sure, you’ll have to sift through them all after the fact to find the best shots, but better that then you end up with one sorry-looking photo of a very important moment on your trip.