10 Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos

10 Tips for Taking Better Travel Photos

You don’t need expensive equipment or professional lessons to take beautiful photos of your family trips.


By Vera H.

Let’s start with a disclaimer: I have no formal degree in photography, and, truth be told, I have forgotten much of the information covered in a photography class I took two decades ago in an effort to become a better photographer. I do, however, have a ton of passion for photography, especially when it comes to travel, and I’ve learned many useful lessons during my years spent capturing various travel adventures.

While I’m not discounting professional equipment and knowledge of photography, I believe that improving your travel photos comes down to possessing these three qualities: (1) an eye for framing a great scene, (2) the presence to notice and capture small details or unexpected moments and (3) the willingness to simply practice. Instead of covering different camera types, shutter speeds and apertures, I’m providing some practical tips to help you easily take great vacation photos.

1. Take Plenty of Shots
You might be disappointed if you thought this first tip would be a huge revelation, but in all seriousness, I think this is one of the most important approaches to getting better photos. Professional photographers take hundreds of shots of the same scene because they know that some of those photos won’t be great, especially if the subject is in motion, the lighting conditions are challenging or the scene is difficult to frame. I am not suggesting that you take the same photo five times, but that you take five slight variations: Step back or try getting closer, point the camera in a slightly different angle or wait until the person in the background moves away.

I find this approach especially important when taking pictures of people. I always take three to five consecutive shots because a slight variation in expressions can often make a big difference in a photo. In the age of digital photography, you can easily delete bad or unwanted shots from your camera, smart phone or computer.

2. Work with the Camera That Works for You
A digital SLR camera is a wonderful tool for capturing your travels, but you need to spend time learning all the features and practice using it. People often assume that buying a great camera will effortlessly yield great photos. While a sophisticated camera with a wide range of lenses can definitely give you better results than a smart phone camera, if you find this setup too intimidating or too cumbersome, you won’t shoot with it much. Your smart phone camera might be a better, more practical solution for you to document your travels.

Despite owning a few “good” cameras, these days I often find myself taking pictures with my iPhone simply because it is convenient to carry, easy to whip out of my bag to capture unexpected sights, and allows me to easily share our travel adventures with friends and family. Modern smart phone cameras can produce quality photos, and many people underestimate their abilities and range of features.

I usually bring three cameras on our travels: my DSLR (takes great pictures but is bulky), a pocketsize digital camera (takes nice pictures and is convenient to carry, but has less functionality) and my iPhone (I mentioned its benefits above). This covers me for all situations I might encounter.

3. Avoid Common Smart Phone Camera Mistakes
If you find yourself using your smart phone camera a lot, here are five things that can make a big difference in your photos:

  • Make sure your lens is clean. This might sound silly, but because we carry our smart phones in our pockets, purse or hands, the lens can easily collect smudges, which will impact the quality of your photos.
  • Steady your phone. It is unfortunate how many people end up with less-than-sharp photos simply because they did not bother holding their phone firmly. Hold the smart phone like you would a camera, rather than with one hand, and press the shutter button with your index finger.
  • Tap to focus. Most smart phone cameras usually auto focus, but if you’re trying to capture a subject in motion or a scene with a lot in it, it’s a good idea to lightly tap your screen where you want the camera to focus to ensure optimal results.
  • Never zoom in. You will end up with poor, blurry images. If you want a closer view of your object, zoom in manually by moving closer to it. If the object you are trying to capture is far away, take the photo with a different camera that allows you to zoom in without compromising the image.
  • Avoid using the flash. It almost always makes objects look worse, albeit brighter. Instead, try moving to an area where more light is present or where the light is shining from a better angle. If you’re shooting an object in a dimly lit place (like a restaurant), have another person in your party use the flashlight from their smart phone to brighten your object, ideally from the side or from behind you. This trick has worked well for me time and time again.

4. Minimize the “Noise” in the Frame
Regardless of which camera you are using, your photos will look much better if you take a few seconds to remove unnecessary distractions from the frame. Tell your son to hide the water bottle he is holding behind his back; move the backpack resting in the front of the family outside of the frame; tell your kids to move slightly if you notice the palm tree is “growing out of their heads” when you compose the shot; position the camera so that you cut out the garbage can from your street scene; remove a crumpled napkin or a dirty fork from the picture of your pasta plate. You get the idea.

5. Tell a Visual Story About Your Travels and Destination
Think of your photos as a collage that tells a story about your travel adventures, and then plan your shots accordingly. Some of the best travel photos are not ones that capture famous attractions or vistas, but those that show travel experiences (not just what you saw but what you felt) or that bring a particular destination to life (think street signs, details on buildings, produce markets, local people, menus and so on).

6. Take a Mix of Posed and Candid Shots of Family Members
When capturing our family in vacation photos, I try to make sure we have a mix of posed and candid pictures. For posed photos, don’t be shy about asking strangers to take a picture of your family so that everybody can be in it. Many travelers, not just families, face the same dilemma, so they’ll probably be happy to lend a hand. I always offer to take their picture in return to make both parties happy. Remember my tip about taking multiple photos? Politely ask your “helper” to do the same – most will happily comply.

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The trick with candid shots is to catch your subjects when they are unaware (your kids playing on the beach) or when they are focused on something else (your kids decorating macarons in a French pastry class). Candid shots of the whole family are, of course, much harder, if not impossible, to capture. One option is to hire a professional photographer, especially for special trips. Our family has used Flytographer on several of our vacations, and I felt the cost was entirely worth it. We ended up with some great pictures that ended up being the best souvenirs for those trips.

7. Get Close and Personal
I often take more interesting and unique photos when I get very close to the subject. A striking flower or leaf, colorful pebbles on a beach, a beautifully arranged plate at a restaurant, a hand holding a metro ticket or a child’s face smeared with gelato are all candidates for shots that are even more impactful when taken from very close.

8. Find a Different Perspective
Obviously, you cannot forgo a shot of the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame Cathedral when you are in Paris, but these are expected, obligatory images. If you want a more memorable picture of a famous attraction or landmark, try capturing it from a different angle or perspective. Get a shot of the Eiffel Tower while you are standing directly underneath it or perhaps inside it, climbing up its stairs, to add a new dimension to the visual story of your travels. Or, if you want to capture a total view of the Tower, snap it from other locations in the city, not just those directly in front of it. One of my favorite views of the Eiffel Tower is from the west-facing outdoor exhibit terraces of Centre Pompidou, particularly at sunset.

9. Get off the Beaten Path
Some of my most treasured pictures and, of course, travel experiences, come from wandering off the beaten path or even getting lost. Make sure you have your camera ready – you never know what you might run into. In Barcelona, we found ourselves on side streets, looking for a shortcut to a bus stop on the day the city’s beloved soccer team, FC Barcelona, held a match. Every window and balcony had a Barça team flag flying in the wind, which not only made for some visually great photos but also told the story of one of the city’s deepest passions. In Colombia, we found ourselves stuck on a local road due to a sudden and unexpected closure. Turns out it was their Holy Week procession, which not only gave us a glimpse into a deeply cultural experience but also provided the opportunity to take some fantastic, colorful photos filled with emotion.

10. Don’t Shy Away from Editing
For many people, photo editing tends to be an intimidating topic. I’m not suggesting you purchase an expensive editing program and enroll in a class to master it. Start small. Your pictures can look instantly better with two simple tools that every computer and smart phone have these days: (1) cropping, which removes some of the background “noise” and gives your objects more focus and (2) color enhancing, which makes your pictures look more vibrant and sharper. (Note: The color enhancing feature can sometimes make pictures look too unnatural, so experiment to find the right balance.) If you are ready for the next level in editing, you can play with light, contrast, warmth or different filters. Don’t worry – you can always undo or “revert to original” if you are unhappy with the results.

Wishing you happy travels and tons of fun capturing your vacation memories!

You may also enjoy:

1. Get Amazing Family Vacation Photos with Flytographer

2. How to Capture and Post Your Very Best Vacation Photos

3. Travel Photography: The Best Gear and Apps

4. Tips for Taking Stunning Vacation Photos

Hilton Mom Voyage writers receive free night certificates to use at Hilton Hotels & Resorts worldwide. To learn more, visit our About Us page.

A native of Slovenia, Vera moved to the United States more than 20 years ago after meeting her American husband. A writer for Hilton Mom Voyage, Vera has always loved travel and learning about new places and cultures.

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