In our visually driven society, we’re expected to come back from our trips with Instagram-worthy evidence. It seems sacrilegious to take a vacation and not document it.
But if photography isn’t your strong suit and you still want to capture memories, fear not. We interviewed professional photographers to figure out how to improve your travel snaps without quitting your day job to go to art school. Here are their tips.
1. If you’re buying a camera, go mirrorless
When it comes to investing in a good travel camera, a heavy-duty DSLR might come to mind as the best pick. But some photographers argue otherwise. They recommend you ditch the bulk and opt for a mirrorless camera instead.
“Across the board, mirrorless cameras are taking off,” says photographer Liz Barclay, who shoots food, fashion and celebrities like Martin Scorsese and Pharrell. “Mirrorless cameras are just more compact. They have super high image quality [and] full-range sensor, so it’s great.”
In 2008, mirrorless cameras debuted and took the photo world by storm. Most traditional digital cameras have a mirror that pops up to let light get into its sensor, reflecting the image into its viewfinder. Because there’s no mirror involved in this newer design, the cameras are much smaller than a standard DSLR. If you’re a traveler looking to fly under the radar and not draw attention to a big, expensive piece of technology, mirrorless cameras are for you.
Barclay’s beginners’ picks for mirrorless cameras include the Sony Alpha a6000, the Canon G1X Mark III, Fujifilm X-T100 or the Leica TL digital camera.
For American artist, photographer, and author Nancy Borowick, the Sony Alpha 9 is her dream camera for a lot of reasons.
“The dynamic range, the highlight and shadow recovery, the speed, the silent shutter mode. All of it,” Borowick says. “Sony is really good in low light, which is important. The low light capabilities on that camera are amazing.”
The mirrorless Alpha 9 is a good option for travelers who want the interchangeable lens capabilities of a DSLR. As far as lenses go, Borowick attaches a small 35mm 2.8. The Sony Alpha a6500 also offers lens flexibility and comes at a lower price point than the Alpha 9. An even less expensive option that’s particularly good for someone who doesn’t want to worry about lenses is the Sony RX10 IV, a mirrorless option that features a high-quality zoom.
Fujifilm is another popular brand for mirrorless cameras approved by the pros.
“I have faith in these little Fuji cameras lately, because they’re just easy to use and work with, and they have a very similar feel and layout of a film camera,” says photographer David Alvarado, who focuses on shooting travel, editorial and portrait photography. “They’re pretty straightforward and direct.”
Alvadaro’s go-to is the Fujifilm X-Pro2, a small and mighty camera he’s used for print editorial work over the past four years.
Before you lock down any decision, take a trip to your local camera store and give a few brands you’re considering a try.
2. But maybe don’t buy a camera at all
Washington Post staff photojournalist Salwan Georges doesn’t recommend buying any camera for your vacation.
“The best camera is the one you have on you. Only use the iPhone,” Georges says. “Why do people take pictures? To share. Having [your] camera on your phone makes life so much easier.”
Istanbul-based photojournalist Danielle Villasana is another iPhone-for-travel-photos evangelist.
“It’s not the camera, but the eye,” she says. “For a novice traveler, be open to your cellphone. Cellphones are easy, portable, lightweight, inconspicuous. I shoot a lot on my phone [iPhone 6s]. Nowadays, you can edit from your phone, you can do all sorts of processing on your pictures, and, of course, publish directly without your computer.”
3. Purchase or download additional gear
Once you’ve snapped your pictures on a smartphone or separate camera, our experts recommended touching them up with editing apps.
“I edit in Adobe Lightroom, which is an amazing platform and quite affordable” for the expanded service, said travel photographer and writer Annapurna Mellor, who runs Roam Magazine, in an email. “It’s easy to learn, and your skills on Lightroom can grow with you as you develop as a photographer. Apps like VSCO and the Lightroom app can also be great if you want to add a quick glow to your travel images before posting them on Instagram.” Both of those phone apps are free.
If upping the exposure on your dark photos in editing apps isn’t enough, you may want to buy a portable light to avoid dark photos in the first place. Borowick’s pick is the Yongnuo YN600 variable-color LED light, which is super lightweight.
But don’t just direct the light at the subject of your picture.
“It’s better to point it at the ceiling, rather than at the person,” says award-winning photojournalist Annie Tritt, whose work has appeared in outlets including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. “If you point it up to the ceiling, it’s going to fill up more space.”
For transporting your camera and additional gear like an LED light, professional photographers are fans of backpacks and shoulder bags from the brand Lowepro. While you’re stocking your Lowepro, make sure to purchase additional memory cards for your camera so you don’t have to worry about taking too many pictures. A lot of the aforementioned cameras are equipped with WiFi capabilities, but if you’re in a spot without service, you don’t want to rely on it for storage. Make sure you pack spare batteries, too – don’t skimp on the essentials.
4. Master these moves in the field
You’ve decided on your gear, downloaded appropriate apps, and you’re out in the field ready to shoot the vibrant world on your trips. Now it’s time to think about the composition of your shot.
When photographing a person, Tritt recommends taking in the entire scene. If the setting is clean, it comes together as a better photograph. Her other best practices include paying attention to color, considering the depth of field (what’s close and far away) and photographing things that delight you — not what’s going to get a lot of “likes” on Instagram.
The time matters a lot to photographers as well — the light changes throughout the day, and so will the outcome of your photos. According to the professionals, morning light is typically the best; afternoon light runs the risk of being the worst, although it can all depend on your personal aesthetic.
“I take the afternoon off because the lighting sucks,” Georges says. “Midday, sit at a cafe and wait for the light to be nice. Go into these markets. You’ll see this amazing light coming through a window or a door or a roof.”
No matter the hour, keep moving to make the most out of your photo options. Photographers know that photography is a physical art. Alvarado urges people to shoot everything and try to find new angles as they go. Villasana is an advocate for interacting with your environment. Instead of sneakily taking photos of locals, try to engage them in conversation and then ask to take their picture.
“Become a part of what’s going on around you,” Villasana says. “The point of traveling is to learn about new places and people. If you’re always just photographing as an outsider, or far away because you’re too shy to get close, that translates in the photography.”
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get outdoors news sent straight to your inbox.