How to take better travel photos, even with your phone

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What if I told you that the secret to taking great travel photos wasn’t all about the tech you use?

A huge part of photography is all about composition – or what you’re actually capturing with your camera. It’s the difference between pointing your camera at what is in front of you and snapping, and taking a few seconds to consider what part of the view in front of you that you’d like in your shot.

Improving your composition costs nothing. You can take better travel photos without investing in a fancy camera, editing apps or clever accessories. Best of all, you can practice any time – then put your new skills to use when you’re away.

Whilst I’ve used some great cameras in the past, I actually take most of my photos using my phone. It’s not even anything special – it’s a Samsung S7 at present. There’s a couple of reasons why. I genuinely believe it’s possible to take photos you’ll love with a phone. You won’t be able to take the most technical shots, but it has one huge advantage. It’s almost always with you. And being in the moment, not faffing with kit, gives you the best chance to take memorable pictures.

Learning how to compose great shots, and maximise the features that your camera or phone offers you the best chance at taking travel photos you’ll look back on and love. It’s also the best way to hone your skills before taking the plunge with a more sophisticated camera.

Here are my simple suggestions for fabulous photos.

Craig Cwareli near Fan-y-Big in the Brecon Beacons, Wales | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
Reflections in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

Set your phone up for success

It’s true that not all phones are created equal. And neither are cameras. But there is one thing that’s universal to all of them – there’s an optimum set-up for success.

If you want to start taking great shots, do a few simple checks. Clean the lens on the back of your phone (a lens cleaning cloth designed for glasses is ideal, be sure not to use any cleaning fluids or water). Then open the camera app up and look at the settings. Make sure you’ve opted for the highest resolution, and turn on a feature commonly known as Grid Lines. This will make a few faint lines appear on the screen whenever you’re using the camera that will help you to line things up and balance your photos.

Use the rule of thirds

If you’ve ever studied art, you might have heard of this one.

In short, there’s something really visually appealing about a focal point placed one-third of the way across the photo, rather than in the centre. It softens the image and makes it more interesting.

Take a look at this photo taken in the Brecon Beacons last year. Whilst it looked OK with the cairn in the centre of the shot, I much prefer the version below, with it framed slightly to the left of centre.

Cairn at the top of Carn Pica in the Brecon Beacons, South Wales | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Or look for symmetry

There is an exception to the rule of thirds, and that’s when you can capture striking symmetry in a picture. Symmetrical shots can work really well if you’re photographing street scenes or architecture. To make it work best, you’ll want to look for cues in the image that accentuate the effect.

In this shot of me on a bridge, there’s much more than a figure in the centre. The shape of the bridge guides your eye towards the centre point, making the figure stand out, and making it clear that this is the focus of the shot.

Girl on wooden footbridge in Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Unusual angles are great

It’s easy enough to take photos with the horizon in the distance. But to really shake things up, think about the angle that you’re shooting from.

Looking up, down or sideways can give your pictures a fresh perspective. And you might surprise yourself at how many opportunities there are to take really interesting photos like this when you’re travelling. Checking out an interesting building? Look up! Ceilings can be beautiful, as many churches and other religious buildings can attest to. They’re also uncluttered by crowds, signs and other distractions that can make taking a good shot more difficult. Hilltops, towers, high windows and even terraces can be fantastic for aerial shots – without a drone. Just look down (taking great care of course).

I captured this photo from our second-floor bedroom window in Santiago de Compostela last year. It’s a thousand times more interesting looking down than if I’d been at street level. As always, part of the success is the luck of spotting something you’d like to photograph, but in this case, it was a perfect example of a time when I just grabbed my phone and would not have had time to set up a more complicated shot.

Fall in love with the golden hour

The golden hour is the holy grail of travel photographers. In other words, the golden hour is a term used to describe the first hour of daylight in the morning and last hour of light in the evening. It’s the time when you’ll see sunrises and sunsets, and when the light is generally softer and prettier (for want of a better way to put it). You can avoid glare on water and white surfaces, and capture colours you wouldn’t otherwise see.

Whilst taking photos at this time of day doesn’t guarantee perfection, it’s a good time to head out with your phone or camera regardless. Mornings, in particular, are often quieter and this is when I take most of my city pictures as there are fewer people around so you can focus on the architecture. Evenings are understandably busier, but undeniably beautiful, especially on a summer’s day.

Sunrise at Lake Bohinj, Slovenia | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
Lake Bohinj, Slovenia, at dawn

On a similar note, avoid the midday sun

All keen photographers will tell you this one. And it’s especially true in busy destinations when they’ll be more hustle and bustle at this time.

But let’s be realistic for a moment. We’re not just away for the photography. Being out at midday is unavoidable for most of us and we might still want to capture memories of what we’re up to.

If you do want to take photos at this time of day, try to make sure the sun is behind you. Another tactic to try is standing in the shade whilst taking a photo of somewhere brightly lit. It doesn’t always work, but can help with the colour balance and is still better than standing in full sun.

Pogleska Cerkev is a cave close to Lake Bled that has been inhabited since prehistoric times. It offers fantastic views across the landscape | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
Slovenian countryside near Lake Bled viewed from the entrance to a cave

Add interest in the foreground

I love a landscape photo as much as the next person. But if you’d like your shots to stand out, adding interest in the foreground is a good way to do so.

Instagram is a fantastic source of inspiration when it comes to adding interest. There’s no limit to what you can photograph, although personally, I like to look for natural-looking details rather than using props to create this effect (I’m not a huge fan of the recent trend for carrying bouquets of flowers or colourful foods around to add incongruous interest in insta-snaps). Changing the angle you shoot from to capture flowers or vegetation in the foreground works beautifully, as can capturing people in photos. If cycling is your thing, why not shoot your bike in the foreground? Or capture your feet if you’re running or walking?

Here’s a photo I took in Amsterdam earlier this year. And yes, I’ll admit it’s a little cliched but I rather like it. After a while, I started to feel that a lot of the pictures I’d taken of the canals were blurring into one. I spotted this planter of tulips by the roadside and knelt down behind to get the flowers in the foreground and beautiful townhouses behind. It’s not the most outstanding street scene in the city of canals, but for me, it sums up our spring-time visit perfectly.

Tulips in front of townhouses and canals in Asterdam's old centre | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Or, look for natural frames

Looking for another way to make landscapes stand out? Keep an eye out for natural frames. In short, anything in the foreground that ‘frames’ the landscape beyond.

This could be overhanging vegetation, a view captured through a window or doorway, or even something sculptural. The world is your oyster, and it’s something fun to look out for.

Sometimes it’s the frame that makes the photo. Take this shot looking over the Hampshire countryside towards the cathedral city of Winchester. It was a bit of a grey day, and I was struggling to capture something as a souvenir of the long-distance walk we were tramping. As I popped inside the monument to read a plaque on the wall I looked behind me, as saw the view through the archway – a perfect frame. It gives the photo context and interest, and the white walls help to make the vivid green landscape beyond really pop.

Don’t forget to capture details

Landscapes and street scenes tell a thousand stories. But so do the little details you only start to spot when you really get to know a place.

Things I love to capture? Street signs, old shop signs, beautiful doors. Quirky architectural details on buildings. I love the photo below, taken in the old streets of Carcassonne in southern France. It picks out old, hand-painted shop signage and a more modern French street sign, celebrating the life of a member of the French Resistance during the Second World War. Generations of history captured on one small stretch of wall.

A beginners guide to Carcassonne, France | Old shop signage in the bastide town of Carcassonne, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Take travel photos that tell a story

Or the story of your adventure. Photograph tickets, signposts, departure boards, timetables, menus and other items that tell the tale of what you’re doing and where you’re going.

They won’t be the most beautiful, or most memorable. But they serve as fantastic reminders of your journey and make it easier to share with others.

And in a digital world where we’re less likely hold on to paper stubs or purchase old-fashioned souvenirs, they’re a wonderful (and easier to pack) alternative.

I’ve taken to grabbing photos of ski lift passes whilst I’m out and about. It’s a fun way to link what I’ve been up to with where I’ve been.

Learn some basic photo-editing

You can spend years learning how to edit photos. In fact, it’s one of those tasks that’s never done, your knowledge and the tools available are constantly evolving.

Whilst I’m not personally a fan of heavily-edited travel photos, there are a few simple skills that I’d recommend to everyone that will make the world of a difference to your pictures. Using these tools will produce better results than using a filter as you can tailor results. And the honest truth is, you don’t need to invest in expensive software. There are some great free apps out there that can do basic editing really well. I use A Color Story (available for both Apple and Android) and love how easy it is to use.

Once you’re confident using apps, you might want to graduate to Photoshop or Lightroom (personally I love Photoshop Elements) for even more options.

Straighten tool. Horizon a little wonky? That window not quite level? It’ll make your photo look a little ‘off’. Two seconds with the straighten tool and you’ll get your picture back on level footing.

Crop tool. ‘Cropping’ a photo is essentially cutting it down to size. You can use it in hundreds of ways to improve your shots – experimentation is key here. Crop your photo to a square for instagram, or change the orientation from landscape to portrait. Use the tool to chop out some background and focus on a central detail. Shift the focal point left or right to make the rule of thirds work for you. The options are limitless.

Adjust brightness. Photo a little too dark? Use the brightness tool to lighten things up. It won’t adjust the colour, just the luminosity. It can look a little artificial if used heavy-handedly, but used judiciously it makes a huge difference.

Adjust contrast. Photo looking a little flat or bleached out? Adjusting the contrast deepens shadows and brightens light areas. It can add more definition and also be used to reveal more detail in darker photos.

Adjust temperature. This tool (usually a slider), subtly adjusts the amount of yellow and blue in the picture to compensate for different lighting conditions. If your shots have a yellow cast to them (common if you’ve taken photos indoors under artificial light) you can shift slightly to blue making whites crisper and the colours more naturalistic. Equally, reducing the amount of blue in favour of yellow can work in some landscape shots where blue skies and green grass can seem almost monochromatic in bright light.

Reflections on the water at Lake Bled, Slovenia, in the early morning | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Take inspiration from other travel photographers

Nothing will help you to spot great shots more than learning from great photographers. Looking at the work of others will fuel your imagination and give you ideas you’d never otherwise have thought of.

Follow travel bloggers and landscape photographers on instagram. Indulge in a copy of National Geographic or Wanderlust every once in a while. Seek out photography blogs online for tips and ideas.

Not only will the work of others give you real-life inspiration for your travel photos, hopefully it’ll inspire you to get out and take more shots. And whether you take them at home or away, the more photos you take (and practice editing) the more your skills and confidence will grow. Don’t wait to arrive in a new destination to test out your photography – you can start today.

Instagram is great inspiration for travel photos

So that’s a wrap. Eleven tips anyone can try when taking travel photos. But I’d love to know – what’s your best advice for taking great photos away from home? Share below in the comments or in the Facebook group.

Find me online at: Facebook | Instagram | Pinterest

How to take better travel photos, even with your phone | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
  • Stuart Forster
    Posted at 18:50h, 22 August Reply

    Above all: practice, practice, practice! It’s also important to be self critical of results.

    • Alice
      Posted at 21:30h, 22 August Reply

      Stuart, you’re absolutely right! Keep practising, try new techniques and ideas and enjoy the process. It takes time, but it’s so very worthwhile.

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