How to take better travel photos

A group of elders make decisions for their village. (©Kevin Kuster)

How to Take Better Travel Photos (According to Instagram Pros)

By Jamie Lowe on 03/31/16, updated 04/11/16
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Instagram is rife with selfies and documentation of daily living, but dig deep and you'll find some of the world's best photographers posting their work.

Those pros make it look easy, but know this: They're not just flipping out an old iPhone, launching the app, taking the photo and posting it immediately. With filters, angles, lighting and other factors to consider, taking the perfect travel pictures can get tricky, and behind the scenes, many of these photographers are turning to high-end cameras for their signature shots. With that in mind, we asked some of the top travel photographers and Instagram VIPs to share tips and tricks on how to take better travel photos.

Photography Advice: The Nuts and Bolts

“This is the best time in the world ever for photography,” said Kevin Kuster, co-founder of the #JJ photo-sharing community on Instagram. He has been a pro photographer for national brands and names, including Playboy, and for personal endeavors like the Watts of Love nonprofit. “It’s a Renaissance period right now. Day in and day out you can connect with people making amazing photographs and putting them out.”

Kuster said one of the best ways to grow as a photographer is to “figure out your visual styles” and then follow and study other photographers with similar styles.

Professional fashion and design photographer Arthy Baheerathan (@patchesandflash and arthyreally.com) said the one thing to keep in mind is lighting. 

“The most important thing … is light,” said Baheerathan. “I usually find that dim or artificial lighting is really visible when shooting with a phone. You get that weird glare that you can’t get rid of. Shooting during the day or finding a good light source really helps.”

Instagram travel photography tips

Isaac Arjonilla, our own director of photography here at Where, chimed in on some basic photography tips to add.

“As you’re composing your photos, make sure that the frame is clean,” said Arjonilla. “Which is to say there’s not a lamp post awkwardly coming into frame or sprouting from one of your subjects. Bonus points if you’re using the rule of thirds to frame your images.”

When in the rush of taking gorgeous photos after gleaning advice, it's easy to get caught up in the dark side of posting photos to social media.

“Don’t post pictures to get a huge following,” said Kuster. “Share even if no one was looking. That way you’ll stay motivated to keep doing it. You’re trying please an audience of one: you. Everyone has their own unique story to tell.”

Related: 10 Instagrammers to Inspire Your Wanderlust in 2016

Travel Photography Nuances

Lugging around a full-size camera with an array of lenses, glass filters and extra batteries can be toilsome during a time that weight can be pricey when it comes to travel—we’re looking at you, checked-luggage costs. While the pro photographers will generally be carrying a DSLR, the word on the street is that mobile photography can be king if you know what to do and how to get a great shot.

“I find in terms of travel photography—use your phone,” said Kuster. “Blend in. That’s what travel is all about. When you put a big DSLR in front of your eye, people become intimidated. But if you just have a phone they’re more comfortable.”

Instagram photo tips

Sometimes, practical advice can go a long way, too. Shalane Koelewijn (@flyingfashionblogger) said one thing most smartphone photographers overlook is actually the simplest thing to correct. 

“If you want to stick to your phone for taking photos, make sure your lens is clean,” said Koelewijn. “Your pictures will be much brighter if you wipe your lens before you start shooting.”

But even if you take all this advice into consideration, sometimes the first take—or what you pre-planned—isn’t always the best. Katie Goldie (@goldiehawn) has an outdoors-themed Instagram profile, and has a basic strategy.

“Honestly, if it looks pretty, capture it,” said Goldie. “Most of my pictures are cultivated in my head beforehand but some of my best ones just happen. I go through pictures later and see what makes the cut for my Instagram feed.” 

Arjonilla advocates safe travel and photography experiences through personal awareness.

“Regardless of where I go, I always think of the environment I will be in, what the weather is and what I will be shooting,” said Arjonilla. “Be safe when taking photos. Practice common sense and keep yourself and your gear safe during your travels.” 

How to take better travel photos

Getting the Right Stuff: Photography Apps

While taking photos on a phone and camera seem like the way to go, the photographers also raved about some tried-and-true camera apps and their favorite post-processing apps.

VSCO: This app is a favorite for its “wide selection of filters and editing tools” and came recommended by Baheerathan and Koelewijn. Koelewijn said she uses filter F2 or, in the free version of the app, the filters HB1 and HB2 as she likes her photos to be “bright and colorful.” (VSCO app on iOS and Android)

Snapseed: Kuster says the app is unbelievable, calling it one of his “go-to apps” since he is not a fan of heavy filters. Elise Sterck (@roundtheworldgirl) said she likes the app for “basic touch-ups.” Mario Rigby (@crossingafrica) says Snapseed is one of the apps he swears by for stellar shots. (Snapseed app on iOS and Android)

Instagram itself: Sometimes kicking it back to the basics doesn’t hurt. Katie, the other half of the @patchesandflash duo, said “the editing tools on Instagram have really improved over the last few years” and that she doesn’t really use much else to edit her photos. Rigby advises using the in-app editor for video uploads, too.

iPhone camera app: Arjonilla said he uses the “native iPhone app to take his photos, since it lets you take the images full-frame and not constrained to a square crop.”

Honorable photography app mentions included Filterstorm, Hipstamatic, Camera+ and Afterlight.