8 more advanced tips for taking better travel photos

Woman using her phone to take a photo at night

Let's say you already know some basic photography techniques. 

You obey the rule of thirds, zoom with your feet, and know when golden and blue hours are. (If not, check out our guide to 10 easy ways to take better travel photos.) What do you need to know to keep improving? Here are 8 tips for mastering your equipment and taking shots in challenging scenarios.

Safety first: Getting the perfect selfie isn't worth your life. People die each year pursuing photos on cliff edges, busy streets, rooftops, and other unsafe locations. Never put yourself in danger for a photo.

Smartphone with snap-on camera lenses

1. Give your smartphone camera more range with apps & lenses

Modern smartphone cameras are very good at basic travel photography right out of the box, but at the cost of customizability. Most have 1 non-zooming lens and automatically calculate exposure and focus, taking control out of your hands. Have you ever taken sunset silhouette pictures with a smartphone? Clicking around without aim, trying to find the right exposure, isn't great technique. Smartphone apps like Camera +, ProCam, DSLR Camera, and many others let you control your shot, which is especially useful in situations where automatic settings perform poorly.

For even more control, check out clip-on smartphone lenses. These affordable accessories come in zoom, wide-angle, fish-eye, and other lens types without the expense and weight of similar DSLR lenses. (But don't expect DSLR quality.) 

2. Understand how exposure works

Taking blurry or dimly lit photos is frustrating, more so when you can't figure out how to fix it. The problem usually lies in the camera's attempts to calculate the proper exposure.

Exposure describes the amount of light that a camera lets in when the shutter opens to take a picture. It's governed by 3 things: shutter speed (how long the shutter is open), aperture (how wide the shutter opens), and ISO (how sensitive the film or digital sensor is to light). Opening the shutter wider or longer lets more light in, leading to a brighter photo, and vice versa. Raising the ISO makes the camera more sensitive to light, producing a brighter image, and vice versa.

Familiarize yourself with how to control each of these, and experiment with how your camera behaves in different amounts of light (especially low-light situations) to practice making manual corrections on the fly. 

A chart explaining shutter speed
A wet dog shakes off water at a slow shutter speed A dog chasing a ball, shot at a high shutter speed
A chart explaining aperture
Illustration of narrow depth of field Illustration of wide depth of field
A chart explaining ISO
Image of a crosswalk button taken at a low aperture Image of a crosswalk button taken at a high aperture

3. Mind your ISO setting

It's frustrating to take what you think are great daytime shots, only to discover that they're washed out because your ISO was too high. Auto ISO can prevent these headaches, but your camera may not pick the best ISO in every situation. If you're manually adjusting your ISO, don't forget to change it as your environment changes. 

Generally, an ISO of 400 is appropriate for outdoor photography on a cloudy day. Brighter lighting calls for a lower ISO (100-200) whereas darker places need higher ISOs (800+). Older cameras will show increasingly more noise above 400, while more modern ones can often shoot at ISOs in the thousands before noise is a problem. 

A fountain statue at Peterhof in Russia A fountain at Hemisfair Park in San Antonio, Texas

4. Use shutter speed to blur or freeze the moment

For most shots, shutter speed is about capturing the right amount of light—a fast shutter speed when there's lots of light, and a slower one when there isn't. But shutter speed can also make an artistic contribution by freezing or blurring objects in motion. 

Russian nesting dolls Columns of the Ancient Agora in Athens

5. Select your depth of field to determine the subject

Every photo has a field in which subjects are in sharp focus. Depending on the aperture, this field can be deep enough to include many dispersed subjects, shallow enough to incude only 1 subject, or somewhere in between. The wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. 

When shooting in a mode other than manual or aperture-priority, your camera will select an aperture setting based on the amount of available light, not your intended depth of field. If your camera isn't highlighting or blurring your subjects as you want, take control of the aperture.

The Great Sphinx of Giza photographed with a longer focal length The Great Sphinx of Giza photographed with a shorter focal length

6. Understand how zooming affects composition

Zooming, which is often used to get closer-up shots of far-away subjects, has another use. The amount of "zoom" a lens has depends on its focal length (more focal length meaning more zoom). An 18-135 mm zoom lens can zoom in closer than an 18-55 mm zoom lens. (There are also fixed focal length lenses that cannot zoom; the standard iPhone camera is one of these.) "Zooming in" means you're increasing the focal length, and "zooming out" means you're decreasing it.

Focal length has another effect on composition: the longer the focal length, the flatter the composition. Zooming in compresses subjects, making them look closer to you and closer together. Similarly, shorter focal lengths (zooming out) exaggerate the distance between subjects. At close range, subjects may even appear to be "leaping out" of the shot. 

The sun sets behind a shed in Bali, Indonesia

7. Experiment with HDR

HDR stands for "high dynamic range," a photo technique that captures a wide range of light and dark. Standard photos based on 1 exposure have a relatively narrow "dynamic range," meaning that if confronted with a scene with high contrast between light and dark elements, such as a brightly lit building against a night sky, the camera doesn't fully capture the varied lighting. HDR photos offer a solution: By instantly taking multiple photos at different exposures and combining them, the camera can produce a single image that fully captures the differently lit elements.

HDR is best used only in situations that call for it—if a shot doesn't have a lot of contrast, HDR won't add anything. And because it takes multiple exposures, HDR doesn't work well on moving subjects. Even in some situations, such as dramatic sunsets, the dark silhouettes of non-HDR photos may be a more striking artistic choice. But in the right spot, HDR can help capture what your eye is seeing in the moment and let you bring home a show-stopping photo.

The Duomo in Florence Colosseum reflected in puddle in Rome, Italy

8. Find a new angle on a familiar sight

It's easy to point your camera at the Eiffel Tower and take an ordinary shot—center it in the frame and snap, and you've got an unremarkable photo that everyone who's been to Paris has taken, too. To mix things up, seek other perspectives:

  • Artfully obscure some of the subject; less can be more.
  • Look for reflections of the subject in water or glass. 
  • Zoom in on finer details you don't see in typical shots.
  • Use the foreground interest technique described in part 1 of our photo tips.

Practice what you've learned on a AAA vacation

Imagine taking photos on a tour of Stonehenge, a Galápagos wildlife expedition, or a trip through the badlands of Utah. Explore our adventures across the globe, and for even more experiences, contact a AAA Travel Advisor by requesting assistance online or visiting a branch.

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