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How to Instantly Improve Your Travel Photography

How to Instantly Improve Your Travel Photography

By Vera Holroyd, guest contributor/Passports and Spice

When people compliment me on my travel photos, they often ask me which camera I used. The assumption that a particular brand or type of camera helps produce better pictures always makes me smile. Unless you are a professional photographer, learning how to instantly improve your travel photography is a lot less about the equipment. It’s a lot more about the photographer, which is… YOU! This is good news or bad news, depending on how you choose to view it.

I’m here to tell you that many people don’t realize they can easily improve their travel photos with just a little bit of thought and effort. This includes being more mindful about how you take your pictures, learning a few practical tips and the willingness to simply practice.

Full disclosure: other than a photography class I took about twenty years ago, I have no formal training or a degree in photography. I do, however, have many years of taking travel and vacation photos and several years of travel blogging under my belt. Both have equipped me with experience and many practical lessons, which I enjoy sharing with fellow travel and photography fans.

An example of photography’s two-thirds rule, explained below. (photo by Vera Holroyd)

How to Instantly Improve Your Travel Photography

Here are some of my favorite basic travel photography tips. These can help anyone instantly improve their travel photography:

Use the camera that works for you

Let’s start with going back to that camera question. The best camera is the one you feel most comfortable using. A DSLR with a wide range of lenses is a wonderful tool.  It’s a fun thing to learn or even master if you have time and enjoy doing it. However, if the set-up is too intimidating or time consuming for you to learn or if the camera is too cumbersome to lug around or even take out of that fancy camera bag you invested in, you won’t be shooting with it much. A smaller size point-and-shoot camera or your smart phone camera might be a better, more practical solution.

I usually bring all three camera types (my DSLR, my smaller point-and-shoot camera and my smart phone camera) on my travels. But in reality, I end up using my iPhone for most of my travel photography. Yes, most of that time the answer to the camera question mentioned above is “my iPhone”.

Because of its practicality, my smart phone camera works best for me. So instead of buying a new DSLR with more advanced functions (my current one is a few years old), I chose to invest in a newer version of the iPhone. It has a lot of space to hold all my pictures and videos. I also purchased several photography apps to help me optimize the pictures I take. I try to learn from other people’s smart phone photos too. I continuously read up on different tips and tricks for iPhone photography and put them to work through practice.

Getting up early to get the best shot is sometimes worth it! (photo by Vera Holroyd)

Be a more mindful photographer

Professional travel photographers scout locations weeks ahead of their trips. They study light conditions, hire props or models, and camp out for hours or even days to get that winning shot. I’m obviously not going to suggest you do that, but a little planning can go a long way.

As a travel blogger, I try to bring my stories to life with great photos. After a few circumstances early on where “I wished I had taken that shot” or realized “I forgot to take a picture of that”, I now try to think ahead. I ask myself what pictures will help me tell the best visual story so that I can share my experiences with my audiences. And while I’m traveling, I am now also more mindful about how I’m capturing the essence of a certain destination or a culture or how I’m framing my photos. Over the years, simply being more deliberate with my photo taking has made me a much better photographer.

I’ve heard many times that we should put our cameras away and just focus on our travel and experiences . I understand where these comments are coming from. But with the right approach, your camera can help you become a more mindful, present traveler and notice things or details that might otherwise be overlooked.

Get on Instagram

One way to easily plan some of your travel photography ahead of your travels – while also having fun and getting excited about your trip – is to browse Instagram. I often use this social media platform as inspiration for my future travels, as well as a tool to up my travel photography and I know I’m not alone.

Before my trips, I do a quick research by using geolocation or hashtags (#beanchicago, #tokyolife, #parisjtaime) to see what other people are posting for a particular destination or attraction. This sometimes helps me uncover cool spots that might not have been mentioned in travel guides or other people’s blogs. It also gives me ideas on how to photograph a certain location or attraction. Sometimes I copy somebody else’s approach (no shame here) or come up with a fresh idea after seeing a photo from a fellow ‘grammer. Following a number of travel photographers and fellow travel bloggers has definitely taught me a thing or two about travel photography and inspired me to try new approaches.

My family posing on the “Pink Street” in Lisbon which I discovered on Instagram. (photo by Vera Holroyd)

Take a lot of pictures

There is a reason professional photographers take a gazillion photos. Not every picture turns out great even if you are a professional. This is especially the case when shooting moving subjects or people. Subtle things can make a big difference, and there is really no cost to doing this. In the world of digital photography, it is super easy to review your pictures, select those you like the most and simply delete the rest. Just don’t be one of those people who take the very same shot twenty times. Which brings me to my next point…

Experiment with composition

It is easy to improve your composition simply by taking several different shots. You will almost always end up with a better photo after some experimentation. Take that first shot straight on, but then change your angle. Shoot up from holding the camera low or down from moving it up. Perhaps move your subject. Zoom in closer or move further back to get a wider angle. Try to include new elements to give your photos more layers and depth. For example, position flowers or tree branches in the foreground when you take landscape photos. This is one of the most fun aspects of photography, so allow yourself to simply play and practice, practice and practice. Over time, you will start to notice that you are intuitively framing your pictures better.

Lake Bled in Slovenia after a winter snow fall. The tree branches add a nice layer and depth to the composition. (photo by Vera Holroyd)

The rule of thirds

If there is one photography rule you should pay attention to, it is the rule of thirds. I won’t go all technical on you, but basically this classic photography compositional rule suggests dividing the image into thirds, vertically and horizontally. Then you place the key subject(s) to one of those sides, ideally where the lines intersect. Why? It makes the composition more balanced and the pictures more interesting, whether you are shooting landscapes, city scenes or people. Most cameras and smart phones display a “grid” on the screen for this very purpose.

Rule of thirds, applied loosely… (photo by Vera Holroyd)

I never obsess about the rule of thirds, but I do follow it loosely. Recently I reviewed a bunch of old travel pics for one of my travel photography classes and realized that a large number of my pictures actually follow this rule. Maybe I don’t consciously think about it while I’m shooting. I probably just started to automatically frame my photos in a way that incorporates this principle. See, didn’t I tell you? Practice, practice, practice… until it comes to you naturally!

Minimize the noise

Many people don’t realize that removing “extra” items from your frame instantly makes your picture better because it is cleaner. Others feel embarrassed to be high maintenance about “cleaning up” the frame. Do it! It totally makes a difference! Tell your son to hide the water bottle he is holding behind his back. Move the backpack resting in front of the family out of the frame. Get rid of the dirty crumpled napkin from the table shot you are about to take… unless these items help you tell a story. (In this case, by all means, keep them in the frame.)

Look for ways to make your pictures visually arresting

Great photos are interesting, unusual or capture things that others might overlook. Look for bold colors, contrasts, patterns, special shapes, repetition. These elements often help capture the uniqueness of a destination or the spirit of a certain culture. This is one example where photography can definitely help you become a more present and observant traveler.

These sake barrels by the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo made for a fun photo which conveys the Japanese culture. (photo by Vera Holroyd)

Shooting main tourist attractions

Since we are talking about travel photography, chances are you will be, at least at some point, taking pictures of popular tourist attractions. I have two pieces of advice here:

First, popular tourist attractions are normally mobbed with tourists holding selfie sticks or worse. They jump into your view just as you have framed your shot perfectly. To get around this, get there early or stay late to beat the crowds. You will have a cleaner shot and usually also the best light.

Second, try not to take just another Eiffel Tower photo. Of course, a picture with your family in front of the tower is unique and special. But other than that, look for a unique, different angle or framing opportunities. Instagram can be a great inspiration here!

The usually crowded Bean. You cannot erase the crowds if you are there in the middle of the day, but I tried to play with composition and framing to make it more interesting. (Photo by Vera Holroyd)

Relaxed people are better subjects

When it comes to photographing people, there are two types of photos: candid and posed. Most people love candid shots because they convey genuine emotions and feelings. I do too, but posed photos can also have elements of spontaneity. My favorite tool to achieve this is super simple: engage with the subject. When I’m photographing people, I always talk to them. Be it strangers (I obviously ask for permission first), fellow travelers who ask me to take their photo, or my own family. This usually helps to relax them and takes their focus away from the lens. If I want them to smile or laugh in spontaneous way, I crack a joke or (with my own kids) tickle them lightly. It works like a charm.

The author, Vera Holroyd, in the hill country of Bogota, Colombia, looking for interesting photo subjects.

Smart phone dos and don’t

A large majority of us use our smart phones for travel photography these days. Here are some quick and basic smart phone photography tips everybody should know. They might seem like no-brainers, but so many people compromise their photos by ignoring them:

  1. Make sure the lens is clean. We carry them in our pockets, place them on dirty surfaces and often touch the lens inadvertently with sweaty or greasy fingers. All of this can result in less than crisp photos from our smart phones. Make a habit of wiping your phone lens periodically even if you have to use your T-shirt.
  2. Steady your phone. Ever notice that smartphones often make us sloppier picture takers? Your teens will never listen because it is so uncool, but you should really hold your smart phone like you would a camera, with two hands. This will steady it (which results in sharper images) and help improve your frame (all the stuff I talked about above).
  3. Make sure you are focusing on the right thing. Yes, there is auto-focus, but it’s not always reliable, especially when there is a lot going on in your frame. Make sure you tap on the subject or area you want to highlight.
  4. Avoid zooming in. This always results in less crisp or even blurry images! If you are far away from your subject, move closer. If this is not possible or until smart phones become better in this regard, I prefer cropping my image after I take a photo (versus zooming in while taking it).
  5. Do get close. Again, no zooming in, but don’t be afraid to get very close to your subject (flower, leaf, butterfly, even a snowflake). Most newer smart phones allow you to capture extraordinary details, but it’s still your job to notice them in the first place (wink).
  6. Don’t use your flash! Really, don’t do it! It always produces harsh, washed out or out-right crappy images. Move your subject to an area with more light or add light if possible. (Ask your travel companion to shine their own phone over that sexy plate of pasta in a dimly lit restaurant in Italy, for example.)


Vera Holroyd is a Chicago-based travel writer and photographer. She enjoys traveling to the far ends of the earth with her family, cooking extraordinary meals and salsa dancing. She is also a full time Chief Mom Officer to her two teens.







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Tips for Navigating the Aruba Airport

Tips for Navigating the Aruba Airport

*Our visit to Aruba was hosted by the Aruba Tourism Bureau, and we are grateful for the experience. As always, the content and thoughts expressed here are our own.

Our family just returned from the gorgeous Caribbean island of Aruba, and we loved it there. Since we had never been here before, we didn’t know how easy or difficult navigating the Aruba Airport would be. I googled “tips for navigating the Aruba airport” and since nothing helpful came up, I’m writing this now so others can find their way easily.

Everything about Aruba is friendly and laid back. The beaches are postcard pretty, the people are so nice and welcoming, and the ocean is the bluest, aquamarinest, turquoisest I have ever seen. When you get off the plane upon arrival at Aruba’s Queen Beatrix International Airport, you feel immediately lulled into a relaxed state and slower pace. We call it “Island Time” because everything slows down, including your need to care.

Queen Beatrix International Airport departures entrance

The departures area of the Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba is quite colorful. (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

In order to help maximize your enjoyment of this beautiful destination, let’s get you prepared for navigating the Aruba Airport when you arrive (easy!), and when you leave (not as easy, but still not bad if you leave enough time).

Tips for Navigating the Aruba Airport

It’s a small airport with one runway and eight gates, so the walks aren’t long and it’s very clean and spacious. There are a few things you’ll want to know as you deplane and prepare for customs, and when you are departing and fumbling with your passport and papers.

Delta Airlines at Aruba airport

Arriving into Aruba Airport was a breeze for us! (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

Arrival at Aruba Airport

Granted, we arrived after 9 pm when most flights had long ago deplaned all their passengers. As it turns out, arriving that late does have some advantages. As we walked directly off the plane and into baggage claim, we saw there were just three baggage carousels. Since I am a veteran over-packer, we had checked bags to accommodate my need for wardrobe options. But if you can carry-on, even better.

inside Aruba Airport

The new buildings and terminals at Aruba Airport are really quite stunning, full of colorful art and design. (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

Tips on Arrival at Aruba Airport:

  1. The bathrooms are super clean if you have to go. You will have some time to kill before your bags arrive (remember, Island Time), so might as well!
  2. You will need that customs form they gave you on the plane, so keep it handy with your passport.
  3. After claiming your bags, you will go through local customs. This took us just a few short minutes. Our passports were stamped, the customs form was torn in half, and the remaining half was handed back to us with our passports.
  4. It’s important to remember this remaining half of your customs form. You will need it when you leave, and you absolutely won’t want to go through the long and laborious process of getting a new one if you lost it.
  5. Taxis will be waiting outside to the left, with a fairly long queue during daytime hours. At the front, an attendant will ask your destination and then give you a slip to hand the taxi driver. This slip will tell you the exact fare you will pay upon arrival. Fares vary according to destination. We stayed at the wonderful Tamarijn All-Inclusive Resort in the Low-Rise Hotels area, and the fare was $29 US. The High-Rise Hotels area is farther away, so expect a higher fare if headed there.
  6. If renting a car, all the rental agencies are just across the street via a short crosswalk from baggage claim. The rental cars are right there waiting, and our whole process was quick and easy.
  7. If you are driving, the navigation is a little tricky. GoogleMaps did not work for us here, but Waze worked great. There are all sorts of little quirks and odd turns on the roadways that will keep you alert!
Aruba Airport architecture

Colorful architecture and friendly buildings greet travelers at the Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba. (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

Departure from Aruba Airport

Our hotel suggested we arrive at the airport three hours before our flight – which we have NEVER done anywhere in the world. Maybe our family likes to live on the edge, but it has never been a problem. In Aruba, we understand now why they recommend this. Knowing it was a small airport, we planned to arrive two hours beforehand. We all have Platinum Priority boarding on American Airlines, as well as Global Entry passes to breeze through US customs. Boy are we sure glad we did, because the entire process took us 1.5 hours before reaching the gate area.

American Airlines at Aruba Airport

We flew American Airlines to Aruba, and thank goodness we had Priority status! (photo from Aruba Tourism Bureau)

Tips on Departure from Aruba Airport:

  1. When they say to arrive three hours before your flight, they mean it. The lines were very long.
  2. Luckily we had Priority boarding access on American Airlines, which diverted us to a far shorter line to check in at the counter with our bags. It still took about 20 minutes to reach the counter, with two agents working the Priority line of maybe 10 people deep. Three agents were working the regular line, which had at least 75 people waiting.
  3. Keep your passport handy, because you will need to show it A LOT. We counted eight separate stations where we were asked for our passports. Check-in at the counter was #1.
  4. Once checked in, you proceed to Aruba customs to depart. Outside this area, a man seated at a desk asked to see our passports and boarding papers (#2).
  5. Inside this same area, a woman tending the very short line asked to see our passports again (#3). She directed us to automatic kiosks.
  6. At these kiosks, we stood on the little feet symbols on the floor, scanned our passports (#4) and posed for our photos to be taken by the machine. The gates opened, and we were approved by Aruba customs to leave the country.
  7. From there, you will go through security with all your carry-ons, etc. No TSA Pre-Check line, so shoes come off and laptops out.
  8. Then you are ushered into a large room with two baggage carousels, where you will reclaim your luggage that you just checked at the original counter.
  9. With your luggage, you will then go through US Customs. There is a huge benefit to doing it here, rather than the long lines we typically experience on US soil. We were especially happy, because our connecting flight was only 55 minutes from the time our first flight landed. There would have been no time to go through customs, security, and make our gate in time.
  10. If you have Global Entry, now is the time it will pay off. There is a separate line inside the door to the right, and no one was waiting here. We flashed our Global Entry cards and passports for the guard to check (#5) and proceeded to the kiosks. This whole process took just minutes.
  11. The line to present our papers to the US Customs agent was very short – versus the line with no Global Entry, which was very long. We presented our passports and papers for approval (#6) and passed through the gates.
  12. Important: This is where you will need to present those little slips of paper from your original Aruban customs form.
  13. Leaving this building, we rechecked our bags by placing them on the correct conveyor belt. There are two belts, so don’t confuse which airline you are flying or your bags will end up gawd knows where.
  14. Then we stood in another line to show our passports to the door attendants again (#7). This line was waiting to go through security again – shoes off, laptops out.
  15. Once through this second security checkpoint, we were finally within the gate area. This area is very clean and has nice shops, duty–free, and a few restaurants. Not sure why someone would want to eat sushi in an airport, but hey. Lots of other food choices.
  16. We proceeded directly to the gate, with barely enough time to visit the restroom before boarding. As we boarded, of course we were asked to show our passports one last time (#8).

Although this might seem like a long, exaggerated list of departure rituals, it went smoothly and easily. And people in Aruba are so nice! No grumpy guards or surly customs agents. Since we were so relaxed from our beautiful vacation on the island, we were remarkably calm throughout the process.

Our advice? Allow for the three hours to avoid that inevitable stress and impatience we can sometimes feel when waiting in lines at airports. Better safe than sorry in this case!






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Kicking Off Summer with StitchFix Men

Kicking Off Summer with StitchFix Men

*We are happy to work with StitchFix as sponsors of this post, and as usual the sentiments expressed here are ours and ours alone.

I’ve always thought of myself as style conscious and a good dresser, but as life gets busier and more complicated I rarely have time to shop anymore. What with raising two teens, playing chauffeur to their activities, keeping the house in somewhat working order and holding down a job, I’m barely able to get dressed in the morning, let alone stylishly. That’s why I’m kicking off summer with StitchFix Men, because – GO FIGURE! – they have an entire men’s service.

StitchFix Men delivers fashion to my door

Unpacking my delivery from StitchFix Men, and then packing it right back up into our luggage.

Kicking Off Summer with StitchFix Men

When I was introduced to the nice folks at StitchFix, I was surprised to learn they also have a men’s service. We have a bunch of women friends that regularly use StitchFix and love it, but none of our guy friends ever mentioned it. Who knew? They have a ton of guys’ stuff, and when I scanned through the brands and clothing examples I realized they could be a great solution to my shopping dilemma.

StitchFix Men delivery is a hit

When our delivery from StitchFix arrived, I was so happy to open it and find these cool items.

They had me at Original Penguin, Rag & Bone and Ben Sherman, which we already have stocked in our closet and are comfortable with the look and fit of their clothes. This made us feel good about trusting them to find us some really good stuff.

WIN A SUMMER VACATION WITH STITCHFIX! Check out this chance to win one of 10 getaways anywhere in the continental U.S., with a bunch of new vacation clothes thrown in. (Not just for men only!)

No Time for the Mall

The shopping mall used to be our playground. Before kids, Triton and I would sometimes just go to the mall without any real reason. We would wander aimlessly through the stores and shops, sometimes buying a bunch of things and sometime a little – but always something. But these days, the mall has become a pseudo babysitter for teen girls. We drop them off in gangs, where they roam wildly in giggling herds until we swing back to pick them up. As I grow older (ahem) I have less and less appetite for being around all that.

Combined with lack of time, and the mall has become a distant memory reserved for a few choice times when I need a retail fix.

StitchFix Men at the Cat Therapy Cafe in Santa Barbara

Visiting the Cat Therapy Cafe in Santa Barbara, I was the best dressed person there!

Enjoying a Personal Shopper

I used to think having a Personal Shopper was for rich people. (Didn’t Kim Kardashian basically get her start this way?) It seemed so nice to think that someone would know me well enough to understand what I like and just bring me stuff to consider. I could just sit in a chair and say “yes” or “no” like some baller. Thinking that was out of my range, I ran around trying to match things to the best of my abilities.

Here’s another cool thing about our StitchFix experience: you are assigned a personal shopper who does it all for you. Our personal stylist is Tiffany, and she worked from some simple questions I answered to find us some great fashion matches. She sent me five things and I said “yes” to all of them. This made kicking off summer with StitchFix Men a more easier thing to continue.

StitchFix Men swimtrunks

I was even outfitted with cool new clothes for the beach, including these awesome swim trunks.

Permission to Move Outside your Comfort Zone

Don’t know about you guys, but when I decide to make a bolder fashion statement outside of my comfort zone it freaks me out. I second guess myself the whole time: Should I buy it? Should I not buy it? Even when I do decide to buy the thing, the whole time I am wearing it I constantly wonder if I’ve overdone it or am out of my fashion league.

Your StitchFix personal shopper may send me things she knows will work for me, and I would never have had the balls to pick out for myself. Somehow with her permission and the comfort in knowing the pieces actually do look good together, I pulled it off without anxious overthinking.

StitchFix Men at the taco shop

I look like a male model eating a taco. (Well at least the taco part.)

Stress-Free Vacation Packing

Because life is hectic, I rarely have time to pack my bags until the night before we are leaving. And making things worse, we invariably have an early morning flight scheduled. Packing amounts to a frenzy of pulling things out of drawers and off hangers, tossing them around to try and make things match. At night. After a long day at work/school. This is almost always a recipe for forgotten items or worse yet, unmatched clothes because I forgot something that matches something else. In these circumstances, I’ve taken up room in my luggage and carted around a bunch of stuff I will end up not wearing.

Sound familiar?

Kicking off summer with StitchFix Men makes the process makes vacation packing a whole lot easier. I already know what to pack and what goes together because my personal stylist already told you so! These outfits were even chosen and sent to me BECAUSE THEY MATCH and can be recombined with other items in all kinds of ways. Tiffany even sent me a note telling me what to wear together, and what we could grab from our our closet to augment the outfits. Brilliant.

Win A Summer Vacation with StitchFix

Check out this chance to win one of 10 getaways anywhere in the continental U.S., with a bunch of new vacation clothes thrown in. (Not just for men only!)

SUP in Santa Barbara

A stand up paddle board lesson on the calm waters of Santa Barbara Bay (photo taken from Stearns Wharf.)

Next Order Already on the Way

No joking, I am so happy with shipment and choices I received from StitchFix that I’ve already scheduled the next Fix. It’s on the way to me now in advance of our trip to Playa del Carmen later this month. I’ll keep you posted on how that package turns out.

Bottom line: StitchFix Men is totally worth it, and I’m sold. Now what to do with all that time I just gained back???

The view from the Hilton Santa Barbara Resort was pretty darn good, just across from the beach and a walk or bike ride to pretty much anything.