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  • Writer's pictureCait

How to take Insta-worthy vacay photos (even if you’re not a professional photographer)

It’s easy to scroll through Instagram and think that everybody is a professional photographer. Everybody has gotten so good at taking drool-worthy travel photos, it feels like you need to take professional lessons and purchase expensive equipment just to keep up.

But before you run out and buy every gadget and gizmo on the market, take a moment to read these easy tips on taking your own beautiful photos on your next trip. Even if you just implement a couple of these practices, you’re sure to see an improvement in your travel photography!

Learn Basic Composition

I wish I could share this tip with any unsuspecting stranger who is asked to take someone’s photo on vacation.

If you do absolutely nothing else, employ some basic photography 101 to drastically improve your composition.

Composition relates to the visual appeal of your photos and the way the elements in the frame are composed. On my first ever “big” trip, I literally watched videos on YouTube to learn how to compose shots. Take a look at the rule of thirds, how to utilize negative space, and cropping your shots appropriately.

It’s all about lighting

Lighting is probably the number one element that can impact the appeal of your photos.

If you are planning a photo shoot, aim for what photographers refer to as “golden hour”—the time in the morning or in the evening when the sun is closer to the horizon. This ensures a softer glow instead of the harsh shadows created by midday sun (there’s even a website that tells you when to expect golden hour wherever you are located).

If you are out and about (as you are while traveling), try to find shaded areas while outside. If you are taking photos inside, natural lighting is always best, so try to find a window. And always make sure your source of light is behind the photographer and not the subject, otherwise you will get an underexposed (dark) subject.

But we all know that sometimes dark foregrounds can’t be avoided. I always touch up the exposure (lighting) of my photos with editing (more on that later).

Creative vantage points

One of the frustrating aspects of travel photography is that there are probably millions of photos of the Eiffel Tower that all look the same. If you plop yourself down right in the center and shoot a landmark straight on, there isn’t much to create interest in the photo (except you, if you’re in it, of course!).

But part of the fun of photography is exercising your creativity and training your eye to see things differently. It actually can affect your whole way of looking at the world!

Look for creative ways to see the world—maybe a charming street is even more intriguing if you see it framed from a window. Place something between you and your subject to create a feeling of mystery—like swaying flowers partially obscuring a windmill.

Or, sometimes, it’s just as simple as changing your vantage point. Try looking at a subject from below to make it appear grander or even above!

Get comfortable directing others

Sometimes I actually want to be in my photos. So, I had to get comfortable directing others. If you’ve ever handed your camera to someone and hoped for the best, you know how terrible some of these photos can turn out.

Before asking someone to take my photo, I’ll actually frame the shot myself. I’ll find the place I want the person to stand, how far in I want the photo zoomed (not recommended on a phone) and then I’ll snap a photo to show them. At that point, I just pray and hope for the best that they don’t move all over the place.

Other options to compose your own shots include getting a tripod and a camera with a timer or wi-fi capability so you can release the shutter yourself.

Edit with pre-sets

It used to be my shameful little secret that I would edit a lot of my photos with “actions” in Photoshop Elements. But these days, everybody seems to use pre-sets (and every Instagrammer seems to have their own to sell!).

Pre-sets are essentially just a fancier term for “filters.” They can usually be purchased through Etsy or creators’ websites. Download Lightroom Mobile (it’s free) on your phone to use them. Or, if you are using a DSLR, you can download Photoshop Elements. It has a lot of the same functions as the full Photoshop, but you can make a one-time purchase (instead of having to pay a monthly subscription to the Creative Cloud suite for full blown PS). Plus, as a hobbyist photographer, Photoshop Elements is a powerful enough tool for me, personally.

It’s helpful to understand some of the basic functions of editing so you can adjust the pre-set (or “actions,” if you are using PSE) to your taste.

Try playing around with curves or levels for lighting. Most of the time, just getting the lighting right can make the biggest difference.

Some of the pre-sets I use are from Flip Flop Wanderers and Boss Babe Pre-sets. (Brilliant Babe is one of my most used, shown below.)

If all else fails, hire a photographer

If you are on the trip of a lifetime, it can be a worthwhile investment to make sure you capture the moment.

There are tons of photography services specifically for travel, these days. If you search experiences on Airbnb, you will find tons of photographers for hire all over the world. Just make sure you really compare their portfolios to make sure you know what you are getting.

When searching for a private guided tour, ask whether the guide will take photos for you, as well. Guides usually know the importance of photography and may actually be a decent photographer, themselves!


The most important thing to remember while traveling is to enjoy the moment and create actual memories instead of composing staged ones. However, I understand the desire to preserve those moments for a lifetime. Photography is an art and you will see your skills continue to get better over time if you practice these techniques outlined above.

Have fun and happy shooting!

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