Tips for Better Travel Photos / by Joshua Cook

Your travel pictures are often the number one souvenirs you bring home from any vacation, so you want them to look as good as they can. That doesn’t mean go splurge on a $1000 DSLR camera, though. While those are nice, you don’t need them and you’re likely better off without one. A little know-how can improve your travel photos tenfold and not drain a cent from your vacation budget. Here are a few easy tips for transforming OK travel snapshots into great travel photography.

This is possibly the most basic and most helpful rule of aesthetics. Rarely is it a good choice to put the subject of your photograph in the middle of the frame. Instead, imagine a Tic-Tac-Toe board in your viewfinder. Some digital cameras will even generate this virtual grid for you.

Now try to align your subject along one of the lines of that grid. If it’s a person or building, use one of the vertical lines. If you’re taking a picture of a sunset or horizon, use one of the horizontal lines. Try this with every photo you take and then start to experiment.

For example, imagine you’re taking a photo of your loved one on the beach at sunset. Align their body with the left vertical line and their eyes with the upper horizontal line. Now frame the rest of the shot so that the ocean horizon aligns with the lower horizontal line and the setting sun aligns with the right vertical line. If you just practice this one skill, you’re guaranteed to bring back better photos every time.

Your 5’2″ sweetheart might be the cutest thing this side of the Atlantic, but if you’re 6’6″ there’s a fair chance your photos of them are less than flattering. That shortcoming goes both ways too. Try to get the camera not he same level as your subject's eyes if you’re taking a snapshot of them, especially if it’s a close one!

Play around with perspective in other situations too. See what happens when you take your next photo with the camera nearly sitting on the ground. Trying to squeeze the entire Leaning Tower Of Pisa into frame? A good close-up of one small section may be much more engaging.

Your subject is only one small part of what makes a great travel photo. Look closely at what’s behind them. You want the structures, shapes, colors and activities to compliment your subject. In this photo below, rather than take my one-hundredth photo of Mt. Fuji, I focused closely on a mountaintop flower right in front of me. Note that you can still see all the clouds and mountain ranges leading up to Mt. Fuji in the background.

Impossible to get a wide shot of your significant other on the Great Wall of China without seeing the hordes of tired, sweaty tourists all around them? Try a close up. Or better yet frame a shot that includes another portion of the wall winding its way to the horizon and forget about the section you’re standing on.

This is a tricky subject and there are a lot of opinions out there. However, when it comes down to it the best travel camera is the one you have with you. Want to pack around your heavy DSLR all day? Great. Only have your iPhone? Well, then that's going to be your best travel camera that day.

Another good rule of thumb is that your travel camera should not be so expensive or unique that you'll want to cry when it's broken, stolen or accidentally left in a hotel room when you race out to catch the last ferry to the mainland. Here are a few more specific tips:

  • Higher megapixels don't necessarily mean higher quality. The lens and/or optics are often more important than the megapixel count for most users. I've seen 5mp clickers with nice optics easily outdo 16mp competitors. On the professional side, several manufacturers have been returning to 12mp sensors on their high end cameras. If you want to bridge the divide between a point-and-shot and high-end DSLR, there are a lot of lightweight, mirror less camera systems on the market right now too.
  • Consider the zoom. Telephoto options are really nice, but they use more power and tend to freeze up and die when they come close to sand. Camera's without a zoom lens are often more durable for travel, but also offer less flexibility.
  • Size is key. It should be small and convenient enough for you to have with you all the time. A lot of my travel photos ended up being taken with an iPhone because I got tired of packing my DSLR around.
  • And consider the tourist look. Nothing says tourist like trotting around town all day with a big DSLR and comfortable shoes. A smaller camera that slips into your pocket also lets you blend in and experience more of your destination as a local would.

I hope these simple tips for better travel photography help out on your next vacation. Please share some of the wonderful travel photos you bring back!