How To Take Better Travel Photos Without Getting A Better Camera

You might be browsing through travel photos in magazines or travel blogs and wondering why some pictures turn out so much better than yours. Surely it must be the camera you think – but almost all of what makes a picture good happens after it’s taken. Just like a new car won’t make you a better driver, the fanciest camera in the world won’t give you better photos, not initially anyway.

anil in cairo

That’s not to knock DSLRs or the photographers who wield them like samurai’s do swords, but you’ve got quite a bit of potential in that point-and-shoot or smart phone of yours. Perhaps want to spice up some Madagascar photos for your friends on Facebook, whip up a scrapbook, or take something worthy of hanging on your wall. These are the tools that can help you get there no matter what you’re shooting with.

Don’t Skip This One: You Need To Edit Your Photos [You Want To Improve]

Some people feel that editing photos – especially digital ones – is cheating somehow. Although computers and digital photos have streamlined the editing process, photography has always been a manipulated medium. These days however, instead of darkrooms and developing chemicals, it’s keyboards and mice. There’s nothing to be ashamed of – I mean, Shakespeare didn’t publish his first draft, second, or 5th – and good pictures, like any other art, take time to perfect.

al alam palace muscat omanCropping Isn’t Just For Exes On Facebook

One of the simplest things you can do to make a picture better and easiest function to find in just about any editing software is cropping. As a general rule you want to shoot more in a photo than you actually want. You can always adjust the composition after the fact but adding stuff you didn’t take is impossible.

We tend to focus on getting closer to a subject but many times taking a step back can give you a better photo to work with later. You’ve got the luxury of digital so if you’re not sure what to do, take two pictures. You can always delete the one that’s inferior.

Cropping can help you get rid of washed out sunny skies or a stray camera straps along the edges of your photo. (Vignetting is also a technique that can help overcome those issues. Here’s how to achieve vignetting using a variety of software.) What to crop is certainly the most difficult part about the process but luckily John Thomas Smith has a nifty rule for you to follow.

Use The Rule Of Thirds – Easy To Do Even If You’re Terrible At Math

The word “thirds’ throws many people off (must be those fractions) but it’s a simple photography concept that can improve your pictures at cropping time. (The Rule of Thirds is also a good habit to get into when shooting the pictures as well.) Basically, use your imagination to break up the frame by thirds horizontally and vertically. Then, try to place the important parts of your picture along the lines or at the intersections as shown below.

rule of thirds

Keep in mind this is a raw explanation of a general rule that has a number of variations and isn’t set in stone.

holding kitchen knifeStart Culling The Crap

One of the great advantages of digital is being able to take countless photos you can later choose the best from. That advantage also means you might be taking pictures of any and everything you see, no matter how relevant you actually find it. Not every picture is worth keeping or editing; and all those digital images take space up on your hard drive which might be getting bloated with photos you don’t really care for anyway.

That time consuming process of eliminating pictures that are eerily similar to many others you’ve taken can be shortened using the free Duplicate Image Finder Windows or Duplicate Image Detector for Mac (free to try, $29.95 to buy). Those programs can sift through your pictures files and help you detect and decide which ones to delete for good.

Another added step you can take to save space is to compress your photo folders. It’s a two-click process on Mac (here’s how) and just as simple on Windows.

Auto-Edit On Your Smart Phone

The most popular photo-beautifying app you’ve probably come across lately is Instagram for the iPhone (iPod touch, and iPad). Instagram adds a slightly aged, retro-tinge to your pictures giving them a more interesting look and feel. Android users can check out Pool Party for a similar effect and you can instantly Instagram any image using Photoshop.

big ben london england

ColorFX for Android lets you do neat things like selective coloring (seen in this photo of a soldier in Ankara) and ProHDR (for iOS and Android) can give you pictures with high dynamic range, like this one of the Hoover Dam in the US.

Panorama Amazing Views That Make Dull Photos

Long stretches of beach, mountain views, and sports arenas provide our eyes nice views but don’t often translate well into a standard digital picture. More and more digital cameras are coming with a panoramic modes yet still many aren’t intuitive or very time efficient. Rather, you can take 3-6 slightly-overlapping pictures over a wide angle and use (the free) program Hugin to blend them into a single panoramic. Hugin also does a good job of aligning the pictures for you, which is much easier that having to do it on the back of a digital camera LCD.

valencia f1 race

iPhone users can check out AutoStitch ($1.99); Android users, Photaf 3D (free) can give you similar panoramic results.

cliffs of cappadocia balloonsBackup Your Photos Automatically And Often

The best digital photos in the world won’t do you any good if you lose them to a bad hard drive or drop your laptop off the cliffs of Cappadocia. The simplest way most people already use to some extent is by uploading a few to Facebook (be sure to read their terms of service first though). Picasa Web is a more robust online sharing and photo backup tool (here are 4 more) but ideally you want to automate the process.

There are plentiful ways to get backups done but one surefire way to screw it up and set yourself up for disaster. We’re far enough into the digital age that most of us have lost a file or two to a corrupted drive by now but in case you haven’t, spare yourself the grief. Backup!

Don’t Diss The People Or Yourself

Sometimes the only way to insert more personality into a picture is to put yourself in it. We often want to be the invisible observer, avoiding other people around popular tourist sites yet we tend to look at those photos most when flipping back through an album. Ones with people in them – especially people we know and particularly ourselves. This is a habit I have trouble with as well – not taking pictures of myself at places – but gets to be secondhand nature with brute force practice.

  • The XShot Extender will give you much better angles if you’re traveling solo so your head isn’t always tilted and the background cutoff or non-existant.

Finally, you don’t want to discredit the person taking all of these pictures while you’re traveling – aka. you. Not everything you take will be a masterpiece and it doesn’t have to be, but there’s more talent in those fingers than you could giving yourself credit for. By changing your focus with and without the camera you can vastly improve your travel photos even without professional software.

[kitchen knife photo by: bionicteaching]

Comments - 43 Responses   (Need a pic to show with your comment? Go get a gravatar!)

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail.


Sorted by rating: (Click arrows up or down to to vote anonymously.)

  1. Sherry Ott says:

    #1 rule…Rule of thirds!! Great advice Anil. Also – I use a panoramic for iphone that’s free called photosynth. Loved it for F1.

    (0)
  2. Great tips but I think I will have my wife come back and use these tips. I am more of the person that carries everything and she does all the photos. Love the idea behind taking the panoramic views.

    (0)
  3. Nikki says:

    Love this! Thanks for these tips…I take way too many solo pics of myself while traveling. I’m bookmarking this now :)

    (0)
  4. Tyler says:

    Great article, Anil. A couple comments on panoramas – more recent iPhones (maybe 4 and above?) have panorama built in to the Photo app. There are guiding lines to follow as you move the camera left to right or bottom to top. Why is this an innovation? Because the traditional stitch method that “stitches” 4 or 5 photos together has a really tough time rendering sky (in particular) properly. Each individual photo has a gradated sky, and that’s tough for the software to stitch together right. But with iPhone’s one-shot moving panorama, it creates much more fluid results.

    Unfortunately on Facebook, photos tend to get cropped or framed as roughly square. Meaning that at a glance on a Facebook wall, you can’t see how cool that panorama actually looks until you click on it.

    One more comment – on point-and-shoot’s, there are often some nice effects that can be applied as you shoot (not just post). So for instance, on Canons, you can go into SCN mode, and use miniaturization (tilt-shift) or boost the colors on an otherwise cloudy day. Fun stuff.

    Couldn’t agree more: take lots of photos, practice, clean ‘em up as you go, share the best.

    (0)
    • Anil Polat says:

      Thank you Tyler and appreciate you pointing out the Panorama app (available on iPhone 4S and above).

      I still don’t know why Facebook treats photos like it’s 1998 Netscape. It seems like they really want to begin highlighting images but one step forward – two steps back. (And then kicking privacy down the stairs altogether.)

      (0)
  5. Let's TRAVEL says:

    Hi Anil!
    Thanks for your post! It’s very important for me. Now i can take a better photos :)

    (0)
  6. Valary says:

    Great tips and I couldn’t agree more. On a recent trip I shot both with my DSLR and my Android phone and can honestly say that I got some of my favorite shots on the phone. Part of it may be that I was more selective with the phone than the camera where I’m used to shooting dozens of frames of the same image for later culling.

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      Thank you Valary; that’s understandable. I too tend to take many less photos with my phone so when I do snap one, I think more about it. On my other camera there’s a lot of editing going on where I only end up using an average of about 15% of the photos I take :)

      (0)
  7. Anil, great tips. These are ones that I just discovered myself and feel like it really has helped my photos. The two biggest ones for me are the rule of thirds and the editing. You can really make some outstanding photos if you use photo editing. Not every photo does turn out great but simple techniques and some editing make them look so much better!

    I am learning new tricks all the time and learned a lot from this one as well!

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      Editing is the key and I’m not sure about you but I resisted it when I went digital years back. Not doing it is sort of like publishing your first draft of an article which is a writer’s bad dream!

      (0)
  8. Deniz says:

    “Cropping Isn’t Just For Exes On Facebook” — that header made me laugh. :)) great tips! and looking at your pictures, you definitely know what you’re talking about!

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      :D It was fun to write…and thanks for the photo love, something I neglected on this site for too long time. Rekindling my passion for photography and like it even more now that it’s yet another extension of computers in my life :)

      (0)
  9. Federico says:

    If you have any version of Photoshop you can also get the work of aligning the shots for a panorama picture automatically: click Archive>Automate>Photomerge . You then select the pics you want for the panorama, click OK, and voila, you’re done! (if you have different light conditions select Advanced Blending)

    (0)
  10. Natalie says:

    Barbara- It is going to take me an hour as well. I have opened up all the recommended products and reading as well! Thanks Anil – Great write up

    (0)
  11. Cat says:

    I recently downloaded pudding camera, a Korean app, onto my Android. I did it just for taking new pictures around the city I live in, but it proved to be a Godsend when my favorite point-and-shoot fell out of my purse and into a puddle. It’s free, but in Korean, so it takes some fiddling.

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      Just checked it out, looks versatile and must be very intuitive assuming it didn’t take long to work your way around it (also assuming you don’t speak Korean ;)

      (0)
  12. Great tips, I especially like the warning against the temptation to shoot panorama shots – every one I have taken is on the junk heap.

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      That feature on many digital cameras (though not usuallu smart phones) isn’t always smooth, especially when dealing with LCD glare on a bright day.

      (0)
  13. It took me an hour to get thru this post because I kept stopping to download stuff and try things you suggested…:-)

    (0)
  14. Betsey says:

    Hi Anil,

    I’m having lots of fun with the free version of iMajiCam on my iPhone 4. It has 3 groups of effects (30+ total) and you can pick from more than one group to layer effects. The Kaleido is very fun for interesting views. Another free app is PopBooth that makes use of the iPhone 4’s facing camera, which could be very good to encourage pictures of one’s self? :-) To get the strip of 4 pics without paying for anything, I’ve e-mailed the photostrip to myself and used multiple screen captures to get a “picture” with two strips in one photo. I’ve yet to print one of these out, so not sure of final results yet.

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Betsey, wonderful tips and download suggestions, especially PopBooth to get us into the habit of not forgetting (or neglecting) to take photos of ourselves!

      (0)
  15. Erica says:

    Considering that I’ve had the same old camera since the summer of 2006, the title to this post really appealed to me. I’ve used the cropping and audo-editing features A LOT in the past. Using the rule of thirds rarely fails to make a photo more pleasing to the eye. Not too fond of panoramas though. For backup I partly use Flickr.

    By the way, I just read this and thought of you http://www.jetsetfarryn.com/post/8482867531#notes Something to look forward to.

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      I had a camera I was happy with but unfortunately when that got stolen, I had to make due with an inadequate replacement for about a year. Now finally happy and don’t plan on upgrading for quite a while as well. There’s more room to grow on the editing side of things :)

      …and I’m am there once it opens! I can’t wait. So cool it’s in Jordan too – I’m guessing because the king is such a huge fan :)

      (0)
  16. Priyank says:

    What I have learned over the years (omg I sound old) is that the timing and the situation is more important than the object itself. For example, people have taken millions of pictures of the Taj Mahal, I’m not so excited about adding to the clutter. But more often than not, travelling presents us with unique situations, so I try to capture them as much as I can. Guess what, a DSLR (although I travel with one) doesn’t give you that opportunity, so my next suggestion to take better travel photos is to take a point and shoot camera. Finally, I agree with you, I love looking at old albums and my favorite pictures are the ones that have me in them. I have to get some brute force tips from you. :)

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      haha, I catch myself saying that too sometimes! Excellent point though and I agree it’s more about everything around the camera than the camera itself in many cases.

      (0)
  17. Jessica says:

    this is really helpful! I’m always looking for ways to perfect my smart phone taking skills, as sometimes those best photo opportunities come along when you’ve left the nice camera at home. I’ll look into some of the apps you mentioned, they sound great!

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      The cameras on phones are getting better and better, many of them can compete with current point and shoots in good light situations now :)

      (0)
  18. great tips Anil, I always like the rule of third, as it always produce great composition. One thing to add, I always like to take pics by squatting down, and tilt the angle a bit to the left or right, it came out great too, even with my iphone cam :)

    (0)
  19. Anis Salvesen says:

    I have bookmarked this as one of my new favorite “tips” posts. I can definitely do more culling the crap and will check out Pool Party and Photaf 3D. Thanks for the tips!
    Love the tip on practicing being in your own photos. When I spent a summer in Berlin, I had a Spanish friend who was very good at that. Literally the first phrase (okay, maybe the second after “Where is the bathroom?”) she learned was “Können Sie bitte ein Foto von uns machen?” She would meet the coolest people just asking them to take photos. I’ll have to take a page from her book – that and try the XShot Extender. Thanks for the tips!

    (0)
    • Anil P. says:

      Thank you very much Anis, I appreciate that very much. I’m working on getting in more pictures and somehow having the Xshot Extender has made me more inclined to do so and the photos turn out better as well. Though I like your friend’s approach, a good way to get social while traveling!

      (0)