How to Take Travel Photos You'll Be Proud to Show Off Back Home

Travel Photography
Photo: Sam Spicer/Getty Images

You've spent days flying, driving, ferrying, boarding trains, or maybe even a combination of all of these modes of transportation to reach your destination. And now you're finally here, the place you've always dreamt about, told friends about, and bragged to your coworkers about, so of course you want to capture it in all its glory on your smartphone or your fancy digital camera. But when you do, you realize the images simply don't do it justice and you're stuck with nothing to show for your journey of a lifetime.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, travel photography can be not only easy, but fun. All you have to do is listen to the experts.

On a recent excursion to Havana, Cuba, we were lucky enough to spend a little time amongst some of the best in the travel photography business, including Renan Ozturk, a photographer for the likes of National Geographic and athlete with North Face; Elisabeth Brentano, a California-based photographer who spent nearly a decade in newsrooms around Los Angeles before trading it in to live on the road in search of the perfect landscape shot; and Chelsea Yamase, a Kauai-based adventurer and photographer whose photos will make you want to learn to free dive right this second.

Here's are their best travel photography tips that anyone from beginners to experts will appreciate.

Renan Ozturk: Chase the light

"My biggest travel photography tip is something really simple, which is just to shoot in the good light," Ozturk said, explaining that good light can be found during "sunset or sunrise. It also extends into the pre-sunrise and post-sunset."

To Ozturk, timing truly is everything when it comes to both taking photos and enjoying your time while adventuring around the globe.

"Stay out a little longer than most people," he said. "That will give you better photos and will help you beat the crowd for your food and your photos."

Lastly, the photographer and documentarian suggested would-be travel photographers learn how to use a few editing apps, like Lightroom Mobile. "It's really going to make a big difference," Ozturk said.

Chelsea Yamase: Snap the candid shots

"I think the best photos evoke a sense of place and let you get lost in a particular moment; vacation photos are no exception," Yamaze said. "The three rules I use: lighting, composition, and connection."

It's clear with one glimpse at Yamase's wildly popular Instagram account that she abides by these rules religiously, which helps her followers feel like they are traveling right alongside her as she free dives in Hawaii or camps under the stars at Yellowstone.

And like Ozturk, Yamase believes that getting up early truly pays off.

"In general, shoot in morning or evening light, tropical ocean scenes can sometimes look nice midday when the color of the water is the most vibrant," she said, adding that spending just a few extra moments walking around an area will help you set up the perfect snap.

"Get low or high, and take a few from each spot. A breeze, a slight change of angle or posture can make a big difference," Yamase said. "You can always go back through and delete the ones you don't like."

And beyond the technical, Yamase explained that the "connection" is the most important part of taking any photograph.

"What does it feel like to be here and how can I portray that emotion," Yamase asks herself while clicking down on her camera's shutter. "I see so many vacation photos where couples or families stand in front of a viewpoint, all pose and smile. Totally nothing wrong with those (they make great Christmas cards) but beyond showing that 'Hey we all made it here!,' there isn't much of a story."

Instead, she suggested people try to move and interact with the environment around them, which she said "will be inherently more interesting."

Yamase noted that often the best photos take real moments ("maybe your friend blissfully laying on the beach") and refine them just a touch. She suggested directing your subject to move a certain way ("perhaps asking her to lay 15 feet away where the sand is undisturbed and you can get the water just touching her toes") to help you not only capture a beautiful image, but also capture the feeling of that very moment.

"Overall, I've been in some of the most beautiful places in the world and my favorite photos are always the one I have the most connection with," Yamase said. "The candid, awkward, inspiring, excited moments you can't really plan for. So keep that camera out and don't be afraid to snap candid captures along the way."

Elisabeth Brentano: Talk to locals

"If you want to come home with a truly memorable photo, treat it like a piece of art and take your time," Brentano said.

Like Yamase, Brentano said it's crucial you take a few minutes to walk around an area to find the perfect composition. "Don't be afraid to come back again and try for better light, if you have that option," she said.

Brentano explained that when you're not rushed, you have time to think and try new things with your photography. "You can still shoot the same spots as everyone else, but try to put your own creative spin on it, whether you're shooting or editing."

Brentano added that searching for a unique foreground element, like flowers or rocks, will add impressive depth to your photo. Moreover, she said, don't be afraid to do a bit of research or ask around with the locals about amazing sunrise and sunset spots. "Your efforts will almost always be rewarded," she said.

And if you want a photo of yourself but there is no one around to help, be sure to master the art of the tripod selfie. "You can easily set a 10-second timer on most cameras, and don't be afraid to give it a few tries — I'm certainly not a one-take wonder."

For more advice on taking the perfect vacation snapshot check out our guide to photographing sunsets here.

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