How to Instantly Improve Your Travel Photography - 2 Dads with Baggage

How to Instantly Improve Your Travel Photography

By Vera Holroyd, guest contributor/Passports and Spice

When people compliment me on my travel photos, they often ask me which camera I used. The assumption that a particular brand or type of camera helps produce better pictures always makes me smile. Unless you are a professional photographer, learning how to instantly improve your travel photography is a lot less about the equipment. It’s a lot more about the photographer, which is… YOU! This is good news or bad news, depending on how you choose to view it.

I’m here to tell you that many people don’t realize they can easily improve their travel photos with just a little bit of thought and effort. This includes being more mindful about how you take your pictures, learning a few practical tips and the willingness to simply practice.

Full disclosure: other than a photography class I took about twenty years ago, I have no formal training or a degree in photography. I do, however, have many years of taking travel and vacation photos and several years of travel blogging under my belt. Both have equipped me with experience and many practical lessons, which I enjoy sharing with fellow travel and photography fans.

An example of photography’s two-thirds rule, explained below. (photo by Vera Holroyd)

How to Instantly Improve Your Travel Photography

Here are some of my favorite basic travel photography tips. These can help anyone instantly improve their travel photography:

Use the camera that works for you

Let’s start with going back to that camera question. The best camera is the one you feel most comfortable using. A DSLR with a wide range of lenses is a wonderful tool.  It’s a fun thing to learn or even master if you have time and enjoy doing it. However, if the set-up is too intimidating or time consuming for you to learn or if the camera is too cumbersome to lug around or even take out of that fancy camera bag you invested in, you won’t be shooting with it much. A smaller size point-and-shoot camera or your smart phone camera might be a better, more practical solution.

I usually bring all three camera types (my DSLR, my smaller point-and-shoot camera and my smart phone camera) on my travels. But in reality, I end up using my iPhone for most of my travel photography. Yes, most of that time the answer to the camera question mentioned above is “my iPhone”.

Because of its practicality, my smart phone camera works best for me. So instead of buying a new DSLR with more advanced functions (my current one is a few years old), I chose to invest in a newer version of the iPhone. It has a lot of space to hold all my pictures and videos. I also purchased several photography apps to help me optimize the pictures I take. I try to learn from other people’s smart phone photos too. I continuously read up on different tips and tricks for iPhone photography and put them to work through practice.

Getting up early to get the best shot is sometimes worth it! (photo by Vera Holroyd)

Be a more mindful photographer

Professional travel photographers scout locations weeks ahead of their trips. They study light conditions, hire props or models, and camp out for hours or even days to get that winning shot. I’m obviously not going to suggest you do that, but a little planning can go a long way.

As a travel blogger, I try to bring my stories to life with great photos. After a few circumstances early on where “I wished I had taken that shot” or realized “I forgot to take a picture of that”, I now try to think ahead. I ask myself what pictures will help me tell the best visual story so that I can share my experiences with my audiences. And while I’m traveling, I am now also more mindful about how I’m capturing the essence of a certain destination or a culture or how I’m framing my photos. Over the years, simply being more deliberate with my photo taking has made me a much better photographer.

I’ve heard many times that we should put our cameras away and just focus on our travel and experiences . I understand where these comments are coming from. But with the right approach, your camera can help you become a more mindful, present traveler and notice things or details that might otherwise be overlooked.

Get on Instagram

One way to easily plan some of your travel photography ahead of your travels – while also having fun and getting excited about your trip – is to browse Instagram. I often use this social media platform as inspiration for my future travels, as well as a tool to up my travel photography and I know I’m not alone.

Before my trips, I do a quick research by using geolocation or hashtags (#beanchicago, #tokyolife, #parisjtaime) to see what other people are posting for a particular destination or attraction. This sometimes helps me uncover cool spots that might not have been mentioned in travel guides or other people’s blogs. It also gives me ideas on how to photograph a certain location or attraction. Sometimes I copy somebody else’s approach (no shame here) or come up with a fresh idea after seeing a photo from a fellow ‘grammer. Following a number of travel photographers and fellow travel bloggers has definitely taught me a thing or two about travel photography and inspired me to try new approaches.

My family posing on the “Pink Street” in Lisbon which I discovered on Instagram. (photo by Vera Holroyd)

Take a lot of pictures

There is a reason professional photographers take a gazillion photos. Not every picture turns out great even if you are a professional. This is especially the case when shooting moving subjects or people. Subtle things can make a big difference, and there is really no cost to doing this. In the world of digital photography, it is super easy to review your pictures, select those you like the most and simply delete the rest. Just don’t be one of those people who take the very same shot twenty times. Which brings me to my next point…

Experiment with composition

It is easy to improve your composition simply by taking several different shots. You will almost always end up with a better photo after some experimentation. Take that first shot straight on, but then change your angle. Shoot up from holding the camera low or down from moving it up. Perhaps move your subject. Zoom in closer or move further back to get a wider angle. Try to include new elements to give your photos more layers and depth. For example, position flowers or tree branches in the foreground when you take landscape photos. This is one of the most fun aspects of photography, so allow yourself to simply play and practice, practice and practice. Over time, you will start to notice that you are intuitively framing your pictures better.

Lake Bled in Slovenia after a winter snow fall. The tree branches add a nice layer and depth to the composition. (photo by Vera Holroyd)

The rule of thirds

If there is one photography rule you should pay attention to, it is the rule of thirds. I won’t go all technical on you, but basically this classic photography compositional rule suggests dividing the image into thirds, vertically and horizontally. Then you place the key subject(s) to one of those sides, ideally where the lines intersect. Why? It makes the composition more balanced and the pictures more interesting, whether you are shooting landscapes, city scenes or people. Most cameras and smart phones display a “grid” on the screen for this very purpose.

Rule of thirds, applied loosely… (photo by Vera Holroyd)

I never obsess about the rule of thirds, but I do follow it loosely. Recently I reviewed a bunch of old travel pics for one of my travel photography classes and realized that a large number of my pictures actually follow this rule. Maybe I don’t consciously think about it while I’m shooting. I probably just started to automatically frame my photos in a way that incorporates this principle. See, didn’t I tell you? Practice, practice, practice… until it comes to you naturally!

Minimize the noise

Many people don’t realize that removing “extra” items from your frame instantly makes your picture better because it is cleaner. Others feel embarrassed to be high maintenance about “cleaning up” the frame. Do it! It totally makes a difference! Tell your son to hide the water bottle he is holding behind his back. Move the backpack resting in front of the family out of the frame. Get rid of the dirty crumpled napkin from the table shot you are about to take… unless these items help you tell a story. (In this case, by all means, keep them in the frame.)

Look for ways to make your pictures visually arresting

Great photos are interesting, unusual or capture things that others might overlook. Look for bold colors, contrasts, patterns, special shapes, repetition. These elements often help capture the uniqueness of a destination or the spirit of a certain culture. This is one example where photography can definitely help you become a more present and observant traveler.

These sake barrels by the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo made for a fun photo which conveys the Japanese culture. (photo by Vera Holroyd)

Shooting main tourist attractions

Since we are talking about travel photography, chances are you will be, at least at some point, taking pictures of popular tourist attractions. I have two pieces of advice here:

First, popular tourist attractions are normally mobbed with tourists holding selfie sticks or worse. They jump into your view just as you have framed your shot perfectly. To get around this, get there early or stay late to beat the crowds. You will have a cleaner shot and usually also the best light.

Second, try not to take just another Eiffel Tower photo. Of course, a picture with your family in front of the tower is unique and special. But other than that, look for a unique, different angle or framing opportunities. Instagram can be a great inspiration here!

The usually crowded Bean. You cannot erase the crowds if you are there in the middle of the day, but I tried to play with composition and framing to make it more interesting. (Photo by Vera Holroyd)

Relaxed people are better subjects

When it comes to photographing people, there are two types of photos: candid and posed. Most people love candid shots because they convey genuine emotions and feelings. I do too, but posed photos can also have elements of spontaneity. My favorite tool to achieve this is super simple: engage with the subject. When I’m photographing people, I always talk to them. Be it strangers (I obviously ask for permission first), fellow travelers who ask me to take their photo, or my own family. This usually helps to relax them and takes their focus away from the lens. If I want them to smile or laugh in spontaneous way, I crack a joke or (with my own kids) tickle them lightly. It works like a charm.

The author, Vera Holroyd, in the hill country of Bogota, Colombia, looking for interesting photo subjects.

Smart phone dos and don’t

A large majority of us use our smart phones for travel photography these days. Here are some quick and basic smart phone photography tips everybody should know. They might seem like no-brainers, but so many people compromise their photos by ignoring them:

  1. Make sure the lens is clean. We carry them in our pockets, place them on dirty surfaces and often touch the lens inadvertently with sweaty or greasy fingers. All of this can result in less than crisp photos from our smart phones. Make a habit of wiping your phone lens periodically even if you have to use your T-shirt.
  2. Steady your phone. Ever notice that smartphones often make us sloppier picture takers? Your teens will never listen because it is so uncool, but you should really hold your smart phone like you would a camera, with two hands. This will steady it (which results in sharper images) and help improve your frame (all the stuff I talked about above).
  3. Make sure you are focusing on the right thing. Yes, there is auto-focus, but it’s not always reliable, especially when there is a lot going on in your frame. Make sure you tap on the subject or area you want to highlight.
  4. Avoid zooming in. This always results in less crisp or even blurry images! If you are far away from your subject, move closer. If this is not possible or until smart phones become better in this regard, I prefer cropping my image after I take a photo (versus zooming in while taking it).
  5. Do get close. Again, no zooming in, but don’t be afraid to get very close to your subject (flower, leaf, butterfly, even a snowflake). Most newer smart phones allow you to capture extraordinary details, but it’s still your job to notice them in the first place (wink).
  6. Don’t use your flash! Really, don’t do it! It always produces harsh, washed out or out-right crappy images. Move your subject to an area with more light or add light if possible. (Ask your travel companion to shine their own phone over that sexy plate of pasta in a dimly lit restaurant in Italy, for example.)


Vera Holroyd is a Chicago-based travel writer and photographer. She enjoys traveling to the far ends of the earth with her family, cooking extraordinary meals and salsa dancing. She is also a full time Chief Mom Officer to her two teens.

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