8 more advanced tips for taking better travel photos

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 eight 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.

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 one 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.) 

Lighthouse on the coast of Oregon

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 three 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. 

File early illustration
A wet dog shakes off water at a slow shutter speed

A slow shutter speed trades some sharpness in exchange for capturing the sensation of movement as this dog dries off.

A dog chasing a ball, shot at a high shutter speed

A fast shutter speed freezes this game of fetch, revealing details such as water and grass spinning off the ball.

File early illustration
Illustration of narrow depth of field

This photo was taken with an aperture of f/5.6, creating a shallow depth of field with a blurred background.

Illustration of wide depth of field

This photo was taken with an aperture of f/36, creating a deep depth of field with a sharp background.

File early illustration
The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument from far away

This photo was taken during the day with an ISO of 250.

The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument from closer up

This photo was taken at night with an ISO of 3200.

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. 

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. 

A fountain statue at Peterhof in Russia

A fast shutter speed "freezes" the water spouting from this fountain in Peterhof, Russia, heightening the drama.

A fountain at Hemisfair Park in San Antonio, Texas

A slow shutter speed transforms the water flowing down this fountain in San Antonio into a smooth, continuous veil.

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 one 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.

Russian nesting dolls

A wide aperture of f/4 creates a shallow depth of field that elegantly plucks one nesting doll from a crowd.

Columns of the Ancient Agora in Athens

A narrow aperture of f/11 creates a deep depth of field, bringing many columns of the Agora in Athens into focus.

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 Great Sphinx of Giza photographed with a longer focal length

Standing farther from the Great Sphinx of Giza and using a moderate zoom flattens the distance between the Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre, despite the pyramid being about 2,000 feet behind the Sphinx.

The Great Sphinx of Giza photographed with a shorter focal length

Shooting closer to the Sphinx with a shorter zoom stretches out the apparent distance to the pyramid, giving the Sphinx more depth. The head is the same size as in the first photo, but the paws appear much larger and the pyramid much smaller.

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 one 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 one 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 sun sets behind a shed in Bali, Indonesia

HDR can include the finer details of the shed in a shadow, even though it's being backlit by the sun. Without HDR, the shed would be a black silhouette.

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 one of our photo tips.
The Duomo in Florence

Obscuring the dome of Florence's Duomo as if the viewer has just sighted it on foot creates a sense of anticipation.

Colosseum reflected in puddle in Rome, Italy

Looking away from the obvious shot reveals a surprising new way to look at a well-known landmark.

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Practice what you've learned on a Seine river cruise
Picture all the photos you could take on a cruise in France complete with an evening stroll through Paris, a charming bike ride along the Seine, an emotive light show at Rouen's Gothic cathedral. That's what U by Uniworld offers on its Northern France at a Glance river cruise. U focuses on a new generation of active travelers, with a stylish look and feel and itineraries focusing on longer stays in each destination. Plus, AAA members receive a $100 per stateroom shipboard credit.1

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