When you put in the time, effort, and money to travel somewhere, it’s only natural to want to take better photos and document the experience in order to relive it down the road (and—let’s be honest—it’s fun to show off a little on Instagram). But not all photos are created equal. Here’s how to preserve memories in a high-quality way and make your photos stand out from the pack.
Embrace the “rule of thirds”
This classic photography maxim maintains that the most aesthetically pleasing photos are derived by splitting an image into nine equally sized squares and then positioning the subject(s) of the photo where any two lines cross each other. Check out these great examples to understand how you can use this guideline for virtually any photo.
Incorporate people, places, and things
This great tip from the Independent Traveler can be applied anywhere, whether you’re eating local in Oahu or braving the cold at an ice hotel. The concept is simple: Just make sure most of the photos you take incorporate a person, a place of interest, and a unique object. This will make your photos much more dynamic, more interesting, and more memorable than yet another beige shot of the family in front of the Eiffel Tower. Your best friend doing a cartwheel beside a red umbrella in front of Paris’ Musée du Vin? Perfect.
Pay attention to lighting
Don’t take photos facing directly into the sun—your picture will be mostly shadow (no matter how gorgeous the view looked in real life). In general, try to avoid taking pictures between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., since the midday sun casts a harsh light on everything and creates pesky shadows. You’ll find the best light in the morning and around sunset. In general, pay attention to where light is coming from and stage your shot accordingly. And don’t be afraid of bad weather—even rainy or overcast days can produce amazing photos.
Stage the foreground, midground, and background
Well-known travel writer Nomadic Matt has a strategy for avoiding the disappointment of realizing that your picture of a stunning mountain or city skyline doesn’t look nearly as impressive as the scene did in real life. The solution? Creating a sense of scale. Try to incorporate items into the foreground, midground, and background of the shot so that it appears three-dimensional. For example, try using a colorful bus as foreground for a shot of an unusual building.
Take great selfies
Yes, there is an art to selfie-taking. Especially when traveling, the best selfies ncorporate things that are specific to the place where you’re taking the photo (e.g. the waves at Miami Beach), feature place-based activities (e.g. climbing the Matterhorn), and experiment with different angles. Try tilting your head, angling your shoulders toward or away from the camera, or focusing on a body part other than your face (like your tired feet after a long day of exploring).
Do some research
Before traveling anywhere, do some research online to learn a bit about the region’s culture, landscape, and iconic sites so you can start thinking about the photos you’d like to take. Take things a step further by doing an image search of those locales so you can see how other people have photographed them and develop your own unique take.
Include local signage
Incorporate local store signs, newspapers, street signs, or signage at farmers’ markets into your photos to instantly convey a sense of place. Bonus points for funny (mis-)translations.
Learn your camera’s shortcuts
Any traveler knows that amazing or unexpected experiences can happen in an instant. Be prepared to capture any moment by keeping your camera handy and knowing its photo shortcuts (or knowing your phone’s camera shortcuts).
Don’t get caught up in evaluation
Digital cameras and smartphones make it all too easy to start critiquing photos the moment they’re taken, which can cause you to miss a great shot. Avoid the temptation to peek and stay focused on the moment you’re trying to capture. There’ll be time to evaluate the photos back at the hotel.
It can be tempting to sneak pictures of locals because they convey an immediate sense of place. But remember that you’re looking at human beings, and being a respectful tourist is important. Before taking anyone’s photo, make sure you have his or her permission to do so. Then offer thanks (and maybe even compensation) for their willingness to help out.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind while hunting for travel photo ops? Stay open-minded and adventurous. If you want an unusual or exciting photo, it helps to do unusual or exciting things. Go exploring, try new foods or activities, and step off the beaten (tourist) path. If you’re doing amazing things, amazing photos will follow. Once you find your cheap flight on Hipmunk, your only a plane ride away from snapping epic photos.