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Here's How To Take Travel Photos That Actually Look Professional

Your photos > everyone else's.

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Anyone can hold up their phone and snap a picture on vacation — but taking a good picture is what actually counts. And it can be tricky.

Where should you stand to get the best angle? Flash or no flash? How do you actually snap a beach photo without it looking like one big sky-and-water cliché?

I checked in with travel photographer and teacher Laurence Norah, who runs the photography blog Finding the Universe and teaches a new online travel photography class at Super Star Blogging, for some definitive answers. Whether you're shooting with an iPhone or a more advanced DSLR camera, the overall key is to know ~exactly~ what to do when you're shooting typical scenes and subjects. Follow these rules!

1. When you're at the beach:

"Beaches are best at sunset and sunrise, when the light is easier to work with," says Norah. His tip: "Avoid shooting during the middle of the day, because the overhead light is harsh and difficult to work with." Also, to avoid the clichéd sand-and-sky shot, look for something interesting to focus your image on, he advises.


2. When you're in the snow:

Laurence Norah

Point blank, snow is tricky. If you shoot snow without adjusting any camera settings, you will simply get a big whitewashed cloud. That's because of the camera's built-in "exposure meter," which calculates the exposure (the amount of light shown in the photo) for any given scene. These meters are programmed to expose every image the same way, which is usually fine — but it's a problem when it comes to snow. "Snow really messes with your camera's exposure meter, because it's so bright," explains Norah.

The fix? "Use your camera's exposure compensation and set it at +1," he says. If you're using an iPhone only, you can make this adjustment on an editing app such as VSCO. (You can actually shoot through the app's camera, or make the adjustment when you edit your photo after you've taken it through the iPhone camera — that's your call.) Finally, look for great colors to offset the snow. "People wearing bright clothes, especially if they're against a blue sky and white landscape, are always a good bet."

3. When it's rainy and/or overcast:

Laurence Norah

The big lesson: Don't put your camera away because it's raining or grey, emphasizes Norah. "Find fun reflections and colorful subjects (umbrellas are always good!), and use the lighting to your advantage," he says. "Moody skies can make for a great shot!"

4. When you're hiking:

"Hikes are a great place to bring people into your landscape shots," says Norah. That's because they can add a sense of scale, and really tell a story; it's much easier to understand how tall a mountain is when you see it in comparison to a human. (Or, as in Norah's photo above, a foot.)

"Use natural features, like roads, as leading lines to draw your viewer into the scene, and then use colorful hiking gear to contrast with the scenery," he continues.

5. When you're out at night:

Put bluntly, night photography is super hard to master without proper equipment. Good gear can really make the difference here, says Norah. "A fast lens and a camera with a great sensor can go a long way. That's because a fast lens lets more light in, due to the fact that it has a wider opening in the lens, i.e. the aperture," he explains. And when you have more light, it's easier to document the darkness.

If you only have an iPhone, try to stabilize it as much as possible, so it has a better chance of picking up light. "And if nothing else, try to find any light around — like a street light — and position it so it falls directly on your subjects," says Norah.


6. When you're around (or in) the water:

Gone are the days of buying underwater cameras from CVS. Now, there's a ton of gear out there to help you take really awesome photos underwater. "Start with a waterproof camera case (like this one), or spring for a bigger investment, like a GoPro — they're great underwater cameras," says Norah. He recommends the GoPro Hero 4 Silver, if you can afford it. "The touchscreen makes it a lot easier to see what's going on compared to previous models, and the image quality is excellent for both video and photos," he says.

"And perhaps most importantly, get yourself up close and personal with the action," he says. (Water shots aren't as good when they're taken at a wide angle.)

7. The streets:

Street photography is all about searching for the best, most telling moments and scenes, and then freezing them with your camera, says Norah. "Markets and streets are very good places to start. Don't forget to look up as well; there's a lot going on above our eyes!"

8. Interiors of rooms:

Laurence Norah

Shooting indoors can be tricky, because if there isn't enough natural light, your shot can easily turn out too dark. The fix: "Shoot on a tripod if you can," advises Norah. Keeping your camera steady in low-light situations is key because your camera is using a slower shutter speed, which lets in more light — but the problem with this speed is that if the camera moves while the lens is still letting in light, everything will come out blurry.

If you don't have a tripod, just balance your camera or phone on a flat surface, like a table, to keep it steady. "Some photographers even travel with a small, hand-sized bean bag for stabilizing their camera in situations like this," says Norah. Also, if you happen to have a wide-angle lens, or even a fisheye lens, this is a great place to use it, in order to fit everything into your frame, he says.


9. Your friends:

Laurence Norah

Be sneaky! "By this, I mean, go for the candid, natural shots of your friends just being themselves, rather than posing for you," says Norah. You'll get more natural shots this way, and really capture their personalities, he says.

10. People you don't know (think National Geographic shots):

Laurence Norah

If you see someone in the street and really want to take their photo, get to know them a bit first by chatting with them. Then, ask for permission to take their photograph. "Be sure to shoot them in an environment where they are comfortable, and their surroundings help tell a story," says Norah. "And don't be afraid to get close with your camera if they're comfortable with you doing so!"

11. Moving things, like fire or athletes at a sporting event:

Taking pictures of moving objects — i.e., action photography — is hard, but definitely possible. It helps if you have a DSLR camera. If you do, the key is to learn how to set it up so you can control the shutter speed. "Controlling the shutter speeds lets you control time itself, either freezing the action with a high shutter speed, or showing something in motion with a low shutter speed," he says.

If you only have an iPhone, all is not lost. "Since iOS 8, you have been able to manually change shutter speed on the iPhone, but you need a third-party camera app that lets you control shutter speed, like VSCO. Download that app, and learn how to control shutter speed there. Then, you can take full control and get those action shots."

12. Animals:

Laurence Norah

Get down to their level for the most interesting animal shots, says Norah. "Shoot them in their natural habitat, being playful. And then focus on their eyes; they tell the story."


13. Food:

Many food Instagrammers simply hold their phone right above the food table, and snap a birds-eye-view shot. That's one way to do it, but if you want to take your food photos to the next level, the secret is to also find really good light. "Natural light is best, but if you can't find it, be creative with what you have available. Napkins make nice reflectors," he says.

Next, be sure to use a wide aperture lens. "iPhones are actually fixed at wide apertures already, so the iPhone is pretty good for food photography. The only problem is lack of light, so my advice again is to find locations with better light, or to shine additional light sources onto the food to illuminate it better," says Norah. Otherwise, if you have a DSLR, wide aperture lenses allow for a shallower "depth of field" effect, which means that basically only the food is in focus, and the images in front of and behind the shot are out of focus. This makes the food look even more appealing.

14. Landscapes:

The difference between a good landscape shot and a bad one is the difference between night and day — literally. "Shooting at the right time of day is paramount. Magic hour, which is the hour closest to sunrise and sunset, makes for the best shots," says Norah.

Composition is important, too. "Don't just focus on the big picture. Remember to have a clearly defined subject, and have elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the shot," he says. In other words, layer it up.

15. Seascapes:

Laurence Norah

"Seascapes are all about those incredible blues of the ocean," says Norah. His advice: Try to find a vantage point that will let you capture those, as well as something interesting in the foreground that contrasts the colors of the sea and sky.

For more travel inspiration, follow Laurence Norah (@lozula) on Instagram here, or sign up for his online travel photography class here.