Taking Great Travel Shots—Some Advice for Beginners From the Pros

Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

We ask the experts to weigh in on getting the perfect shot.

What travel lover hasn’t dreamed of being a travel photographer, jetting off to foreign lands, meeting interesting people, and taking epic Instagram pics along the way? The reality is that most of us will need a great deal more training and experience to take anything close to a “professional quality” photo, but that doesn’t mean we can't learn a few tricks of the trade from experienced photographers who have lived in, shot, and explored some of the most fascinating places in the world.

For some serious advice, we reached out to experts at the International Center for Photography (ICP), the Annenberg School of Photography, Canon, and our network of talented photographers for a few tips on taking professional-quality shots.

What’s the best camera for beginners?

“The best camera in the world is the one that’s with you. I encourage my students to use their phones to master the basic fundamentals of lighting, subject, and composition before deciding if it makes sense to invest in a dedicated camera. I recently spent three weeks hiking in the Andes and the camera I reached for the most wasn’t my expensive mirrorless—it was my iPhone. Dedicated cameras from Sony, Canon, Nikon etc. absolutely have a place, but it doesn’t make sense to buy a Tesla before you’ve learned how to drive.”—Portrait photographer, commercial video director, and ICP Instructor Clint Weldon


Leisa Tyler/Getty Images

Are there any tricks for getting great portraits?

“Stay away from mixed lighting and fluorescents. Window light, when available, is a great starting point. Bring your subject as close to the window as possible to get a nice, diffused look. When you’re photographing people, simplicity is best so that the viewer can focus on the subject. I recommend framing out anything that may be distracting, looking for simple backgrounds and trying to avoid situations with competitive lighting—one light source is best. If you are cropping above the waist, make sure your subject either has their hands in the frame or that they are cropped near the elbow so they don’t look like they’ve lost their hands. Depth of field often plays a large role in how people look at a portrait, and I find that my portraits are more successful when I shoot at a wide aperture, anywhere from f/1.2 to f5/6 - to reduce the competitive information you may have in the background.”—Tara Rice, photographer, CNN Parts Unknown, Airbnb, Roads & Kingdoms

What is the key to taking a great travel photograph?

“Notice everything and take the photo! It’s easy to pass things by. Excuses like ‘it probably only looked cool from the highway,” or “we don’t need to stop/turn around,” etc., ruin a lot of potentially great photos. When we’re traveling, we become more sensitive to our surroundings, and that’s something that’s very valuable to embrace. Is there a particular sign or building that draws your attention? Shoot it! It’s great to go with some shots in mind, but the beauty of travel is freedom, both in schedule and subject matter.”—Forrest Mankins, adventure travel photographer, Visit Maine, Alberta Tourism, Budweiser


Barry Lewis/Getty Images

How do you get your photos to look spontaneous or relaxed, even when the subjects are not?

“Walk around your subject to find more interesting angles. If your subject is really stiff, have them chat with someone off camera while you shoot a few frames and build up from there. Shoot all the time so you can get some random moments. I really like shooting action as it usually brings something unexpected to the image.”—Finlay MacKay, award-winning photographer and documentarian, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, GQ

How do you make shots memorable if they've already been shot a million times?

“You'll often see that someone else, who may even be right next to you, will get the same ‘take’ but an entirely different expression from a subject. Photography is like telling a story. Your job is to take that normal shot and make it into art. For example, when you think of Times Square in New York, it feels like every corner or shot has been taken, but try a low shot, a high shot—change lenses. By changing lenses, you can get a different shot, something somebody else wouldn’t do. Think outside the box and look for something completely different. Sometimes it will land, sometimes it won’t. As for travel shots, use Google maps, explore apps, before you go. Bring a tripod and ask the locals what to shoot. Everyone nowadays is looking for instant gratification, but you can compose differently using a tripod, especial using long exposures."—Brandon Chin, Technical Representative and Product Educator for Canon USA  


Leonid Faerberg/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Do you have any simple retouching tips?

“Photoshop still relies on a complicated layout that was designed decades ago and is intimidating for most people who are just starting out. I still use it, but lately I’ve been transitioning my workflow away from desktop editing and doing more work on mobile apps. A good tablet and a stylus along with some simple apps like Adobe Lightroom Mobile, Photoshop Fix and/or Snapseed can set you free to experiment creatively. When it comes to people, I use the healing and clone-stamp tools to get rid of blemishes. Photoshop Fix has an amazing portrait tool that allows you to adjust the facial features of a subject after the fact. You can literally turn a frown upside down. Ultimately, you want to stay true to who the person actually is so, however you edit, use a light touch.”—Clint Weldon

What if you have your heart set on going pro?

“There are areas of photography that are relatively easy to break into as you don’t need to be all that good at taking pictures. A basic knowledge of techniques, kit, website SEO and an ability to mimic popular styles is all you need. These areas tend to be the more commercial corners such as travel, weddings, commercial portraiture and landscape, pets, kids and food. The pathway to success in other areas of photography is harder because they are more dependent on developing a distinctive and original artistic voice. It requires the confidence to expose yourself emotionally and creatively and to carve out a living within an area where the economy is less clear-cut or defined. These areas tend to be the less commercial but far more interesting or experimental corners such as fine art, documentary and street photography. But one thing is for sure—no matter the direction, you can’t ‘get into’ photography unless photography ‘gets into’ you.”—Henry Carroll, author of Photographers On Photography (Laurence King Publishing, 2018)