10 easy ways to take better travel photos

Taking a photo is a great way to share your adventures with friends and family, but capturing images you'll be proud to share takes more than pointing and shooting. It's not all about the camera, either—many great travel albums have been shot on a smartphone. For better pictures (and the bragging rights that come with them on social media) no matter what type of camera you're using, keep these simple steps and principles in mind. 

SAFETY FIRST: Getting the perfect selfie isn't worth your life. People die each year pursuing photos at cliff edges, busy streets, rooftops, and other unsafe locations; never put yourself in danger for a photo. 

1. Obey the rule of thirds

When taking a photo, resist the instinct to put your subject in the middle of the frame. Instead, imagine two horizontal and two vertical lines across the image, creating nine equally sized sections, as shown below. Put your subject off-center at one of the four spots where the lines intersect. This creates a more balanced and appealing image that naturally leads the viewer's eye around. If there are multiple subjects, try placing them at different intersections.

Lighthouse on the coast of Oregon

2. Zoom with your feet

Taking "drive-by" photos of what you happen to see from wherever you happen to be when you see it, no matter how far away or poorly framed, is an easy rut to fall into, especially if you have to stay with a larger group of travelers. It's also a recipe for extremely boring photos. A powerful zoom lens can simulate getting closer to your subject, but it can also become a crutch that limits the variety of your images. For the best photos, take the time to get close and try out different angles and compositions. You might find a shot you didn't even know was possible.

The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument from far away

This photo was taken on a smartphone while crossing the street. The subject is far away, and the foreground buses and pedestrians are distracting. Zooming in wouldn't solve these problems.

The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument from closer up

This photo was taken on the same smartphone later that day, after walking up to the monument. The buses and people are out of sight, and the composition is more interesting.

3. Emphasize people 

It's a common mistake: You photograph someone in front of the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum, but they're framed so tiny against the background that it's hard to tell they're the focus of the picture. Don't be afraid to have the person take up as much or more of the shot as the monument, or even to have the background out of focus. Everyone knows what the Colosseum looks like—a human subject is far more interesting.

Woman with a croissant in front of the Eiffel Tower

The woman in this photo appears about the same size as the Eiffel Tower and is clearly the real subject because she's in focus.

4. Pay attention to your composition

Knowing a compellingly composed photo when you see one is easy—your eyes are led naturally into and around the image. Composing your own photo from scratch is trickier. Sometimes the best shots are stumbled on by accident, but while you wait for serendipity to strike, there are a couple techniques that can reliably produce eye-catching pictures.

  • Leading line composition technique: This method is easiest to apply for landscapes. As the name suggests, a leading line leads viewers unconsciously from one point in a photo to another, and in the process establishes the main subject of the photo and gives it depth.
Pier on a blue sea in Thailand

The eye naturally follows the rope handrail and pier toward the gazebo and, eventually, the clouds and horizon.

Greek columns at the Agora in Athens

These Greek columns in Athens are vertical, but the two leading lines are horizontal, created by the columns' bases and fluting.

  • Foreground interest technique: Items in the foreground can put your subject in context, especially for shots of wide open spaces that might otherwise lack a visual anchor. Including a statue in front of a larger building can guide the eye into the scene; including your shoes in a shot from the top of a mountain gives viewers a taste of the adventure.
Angel statue in front of the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome

The statue looking toward the Castel Sant'Angelo directs the viewer there as well and adds drama to a photo that might otherwise be a boring far-off exterior shot.

Camping in the mountains in Bulgaria

Framing the mountains with a tent and hiking shoes anchors a photo where the main subject (the peaks) is very far away. It also tells a story.

5. Know where your light is

The way your subject is lit is key to a good photo. Light coming from behind you will light your subject more brightly, bringing out more detail and "true to life" color; light coming from in front of you will leave your subject in shadow and create a silhouette effect. 

Both situations can create great photos with the right technique. When photographing people, you'll almost always want the sun behind you and in front of them—you want to be able to see their face, after all. When capturing buildings or other sights, the choice is yours. Do you want to bring out all the color and fine details? Shoot with the sun behind you. Want a dramatic silhouette? Shoot with the sun in front, and experiment with obscuring it behind the subject versus having it shining directly into the camera. Be aware that the light's position dictates how much you should expose your subject. If it's back-lit, trying to fully expose it will lead to a poor photo. 

The Parthenon in Athens lit from the front

Around midday, the sun's light brings out the true color of the Parthenon, casting small shadows on the columns that give them more definition in this straightforward photo.

The Parthenon in Athens lit from behind

As the sun crosses to the other side, there are opportunities for less detailed but more dramatic shots. Reducing the exposure leaves the temple in shadow but captures the sun's rays.

6. Know when your light is, too

If there's a particular building or sight you want to capture, consider the best time of day to do so. For example, the main facade of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican faces east. That means it will be most directly illuminated from the beginning through the midpoint of the day, if you want to do close-up or detailed shots. As the sun moves west in the late afternoon and evening, there are better opportunities for dramatic sunset and silhouette shots, but less light to get the fine details. 

The direction of the sun's lighting isn't the only thing that changes over time. The hour of light before the sun sets is famously known as the "golden hour," as the light takes on a warm character and makes subjects glow. After the sun sets, there's also a "blue hour" during twilight when indirect sunlight makes it possible to take great night shots. Know what's coming and use it to your advantage.

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome during the golden hour

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, shot during the "golden hour."

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome during the blue hour

Another shot from the same spot during the "blue hour."

7. Keep your subject clean 

Make sure there is clean space around your subject so it can stand out. You can do this with negative space, such as shooting a statue against the background of a blue sky. If a noisy background can't be avoided, see if you can blur it with a narrow depth of field by shooting up close with a wide aperture. If you're posting photos to social media, negative space especially helps your photo stand out to people scrolling through their feeds.

Statue on the Charles Bridge in Prague

The statue is the clear focus of this photo; most subjects don't need this much space, but it makes for a dramatic shot.

Angel statue in Genoa

There's a busy background behind this angel statue, but a wide aperture is blurring it and helping the angel stand out.

8. Break the rules if the opportunity presents itself

Ultimately, whether a photo works is judged by the eye, not a rulebook. For example, the rule of thirds says to avoid centering your subject, but travelers often come across symmetrical scenes, such as long corridors or railroad tracks. Symmetrical shots balance subjects and empty space (such as the sky) or leading lines to create an arresting tableau. Don't be afraid to experiment with these and other framings—it doesn't cost anything to take one more digital photo.

Symmetrical photo of Elektrozavodskaya metro station in Moscow

The long central corridors of Metro stations in Moscow often work perfectly for symmetrically composed shots.

9. Use social media filters sparingly

Photo filters can add extra pop to the best parts of a good shot, but they can't make a bad photo good, and overusing the same ones can make your albums bland. Playing with filters to see what your options are is always good (and fun), but make sure they're actually adding something before you give up that #NoFilter realness.

10. Put together a social media flat lay

A sure winner on social media is the flat lay, which is an overhead shot of objects laid out on a table or floor. To put together your own, set down objects near a window with lots of natural light and compose them in a way that tells a story. It can be as complex or as simple as you like, even just a table with a cappuccino on it with the caption, "My breakfast in Florence."

Flat lay of travel items

A flat lay tells a story about where you are and what you're doing in a format that's popular on social media.

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Check out 8 additional advanced travel photo tips
This guide above covers mostly non-technical advice. If you're looking to better understand how your camera works and how to leverage things like shutter speed, aperture, and focal length to get the perfect shot, read our list of eight more advanced tips. 
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Practice what you've learned on a Seine river cruise
Picture all the photos you could take on a cruise in France complete with an evening stroll through Paris, a charming bike ride along the Seine, an emotive light show at Rouen's Gothic cathedral. That's what U by Uniworld offers on its Northern France at a Glance river cruise. U focuses on a new generation of active travelers, with a stylish look and feel and itineraries focusing on longer stays in each destination. Plus, AAA members receive a $100 per stateroom shipboard credit.1

Choose the best camera for you

There's not one correct choice for what camera to take on your travels—the best fit depends on how much you want to spend, how big of a camera you want to carry around, and what kinds of photos you want to take. 

Smartphone

THE ARGUMENT FOR: Modern smartphone cameras can take great photos in the right circumstances. If you want something extremely light and convenient, well-suited for close-up photos, museums, and daytime outdoor shots, you probably already have it in your pocket. It'll also be very easy to share your shots directly to social media.

 

BUT KEEP IN MIND: Smartphones' very small image sensors struggle in low-light situations, and most have no optical zoom, instead offering "digital zoom" that leads to grainy images. If you want to take artsily framed shots, pictures of distant landscapes, or night shots, a smartphone may leave you frustrated. 

Smartphone with camera

Point-and-shoot

THE ARGUMENT FOR: Digital point-and-shoot cameras sit in a sweet spot, offering a good mix of real optical zoom, decent low-light performance, and some manual control while remaining simple, taking great photos in "Auto" mode, and being light enough to carry all day. This is your choice if you're looking for a lot of bang for your buck.

 

BUT KEEP IN MIND: All point-and-shoots make tradeoffs between size, capability, and price. A budget-oriented one, for example, may not quite have the low-light performance you want for a night on the town, but a pricier model may pack a bulky super-zoom lens you can't slip into your pocket. Make sure to find the balance that's right for you. 

Point-and-shoot digital camera

Digital SLR (DSLR)

THE ARGUMENT FOR: Digital single-lens reflex cameras, or DSLRs, offer the biggest sensors and the most capabilities, perfect for experienced shutterbugs who want more control or casual photographers who simply want the best image quality. They're compatible with a variety of lenses, including impressive all-in-one zoom lenses perfect for travel.

 

BUT KEEP IN MIND: DSLRs are heavy; it can literally be a pain in the neck to carry one around for days. They're relatively pricey (though entry-level models are competitive with fancier point-and-shoots). They're also conspicuous, a drawback for travel: You may attract attention from thieves, or museum officials who think you're a professional and want a "photo fee."

DSLR camera
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1Maximum $100 onboard credit per stateroom based on double occupancy. Single travelers receive $50 onboard credit. Onboard credit is nonrefundable, nontransferable and has no cash value and expires at the end of that voyage. Onboard Credit may not be applied to cruise fare or Taxes, Fees and Port Expenses.

 

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