That’s #soRustic: How to Take Amazing Travel Photos
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That’s #soRustic: How to Take Amazing Travel Photos

Nearly all our students traveling this summer will want to capture some photos of their journey. Fortunately, today’s phones are remarkably good at capturing crisp travel images that lack age-old photography problems like blurriness.

Still, there’s some level of knowledge required to take incredible photos that you’ll want to share. Throughout the summer, Rustic Pathways will be rewarding efforts to capture these perfect shots by running a photo contest. Winners will be announced weekly with a grand prize winner chosen at the end of summer.

To get in the running, here are some photo tips that can help students take the best photos of memorable travel moments.

The Basics

Elements required to take a great photo include good lighting and framing. It also takes some patience to find a visual moment that stands out. When you’re ready to take a shot, here are some considerations:

Portrait or Landscape?

The first question may be which way you want to turn the camera or phone. Portrait or vertical photos are often used when trying to capture a single person or something simple, like a flower.

Cell phones, like the iPhone, have a portrait setting that makes it easier to take such images. It displays easy options to change the lighting, including natural, studio and contour light. Other features available in the portrait setting include the option to blur the background. This can be done by selecting the image in the upper right hand corner that looks like an f and then adjusting the depth accordingly.

Landscape or horizontal photos often are best for photos of scenery, groups of people and wider action shots. These wider images from the Pura Vida program capture joy amid a busy service scene and postcard-perfect scenery in northern Costa Rica.

Where is the Sun?

In most pictures, particularly posed photos of people, the sun shouldn’t be behind the people you are capturing or behind you if you’re taking a selfie. Exceptions may include if you want something in silhouette like this photo from Rustic’s Surf and Service program in Costa Rica.

Or this image from the Moroccan Wanderer program:

Sahara sunset

It’s also more challenging to take photos when the sun is directly overhead since subjects often look better in soft light. But don’t let that stop you from trying it if something interesting is happening mid-day.


While it’s great to get some posed shots, don’t forget to get some pictures of people or animals doing interesting things. Action shots make people feel like they’re there and can paint a story about your trip.

Lots of Takes

It can require a number of tries to get just the right shot, especially when taking pictures of people. The right facial expression makes all the difference, so keep clicking. That way you can discard shots where someone’s eyes are closed or their look isn’t quite right. Generally the hardest time to take photos may be when people are eating. No one wants a shot with food hanging out of their mouth!

A shot like the one below requires lots of takes. In this moment, multiple positives were captured – a student smiling and looking forward while successfully catching a wave!

Keep It Simple

Often focusing a shot on a single subject is easier and more effective than trying to capture everything in a scene. Pick the most interesting aspect of a scene in your view and try to capture it.

Look for Unflattering Things

At some point you are bound to take a photo where you realize there was something odd in the shot you missed. Common mistakes include shots where the background behind a person makes it look like a plant is coming out of their head. Look for things that may wreck your shot.

Avoid Blurriness

Despite today’s technology, blurry photos sometimes still happen. Frequent causes are bad lighting and movement. Lighting is most challenging at night and in some indoor spaces. Fortunately, it’s much less likely to be a problem outdoors during the day.

Some phones have night setting modes, which makes things much easier. In other cameras and phones, you can adjust the exposure settings to help with darker spaces. You also can use phone apps to adjust the shutter speed. (High ISO for exposure and low shutter speed).

For movement, most teens have mastered the art of holding a phone steady while taking a photo. If that’s a problem, the timer option can be used so both hands are on the camera when the shot is taken. If the subject is moving quickly, you can use an app to adjust shutter speed.

Also, if using an iPhone camera, you can touch the screen where you want the camera to focus. A yellow box appears on the screen when you do this. It’s telling you what the camera is prioritizing in the shot

Framing considerations

A photo can be crisp and clear but still not be the best. The key to capturing attention-drawing photos is good framing. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Head room

This is a common consideration for videographers who are capturing interviews with people, but it also applies to photography. When you’re taking posed photos of people, in many cases you want to frame the shot so there’s a little room above people’s heads, but not too much. It’s usually not great to cut people’s heads out of the frame.

Exceptions include super close up photos, which can be dramatic if the person has an interesting facial expression. Another exception may be if you’re trying to capture the scenery behind people. In some cases, this can give a dramatic effect as well with a person seeming small amid a vast landscape.

This photo from the Intro to Community Service program in Fiji has good headroom. Along with an effective blurring of the background.

In this shot from Mongolia, tons of headroom make people seem small in a vast landscape.

Off Center Shots

In some cases, putting your subject off-center rather than in the middle works really well. In photography, you may hear about the rule of thirds. When using this you put your subject in one third and keep the other two thirds mainly open. This can make a shot more compelling. To see thirds, you actually can turn on a grid on some phone cameras. Otherwise you can just eyeball it.


Look for moments where you can capture images that look more 3-D than 2-D. This includes shots with some elements or people closer to the camera and some that are farther away.

Working together in the Dominican Republic

Use of lines

Lines draw people’s attention. There are cases where you can use them to create a dramatic photo. Examples include this photo from Moroccan Wanderer where the lines in the sand lead to the people in the shot.

This photo from Andes to Amazon makes good use of the lines in the boats and the river. As a bonus, it features reflections in the water and a compelling use of sun rays.

Get a different perspective

There’s a reason why photographers sometimes look like acrobats getting at different angles to take shots. Sometimes taking a shot from a different perspective makes an image more powerful or interesting.

An example is this photo from the Hanoi to Ha Long program that was taken by a photographer standing close to these buildings and looking up.

Tran Quoc Pagoda in Hanoi, Vietnam

Picture Framing

There are spots where you can use elements in a landscape to add borders to your shot that are almost like a picture frame. This can include trees or parts of buildings, such as the photo below for the Mediterranean Paradise program.

Breathing Room

Negative or relatively empty space often makes a photo more riveting. Here are two photos utilizing that for the Turtle Conservation Project in Costa Rica and the Culture and the Crater program in Tanzania.

Rustic’s winning photo last year from Tristan Grosam used a lot of stark empty space to draw focus to how small the climbers are compared to the glacier.

Before You Go

Before you leave for your trip, it’s a good idea to get to know all the settings available on your phone, camera, or photo app. There are a surprising number of options available that can help you take great photos.

You also can check out all the details of our photo contest. They can be found here. Likewise, you can follow Rustic’s Instagram account to see what photos other students are submitting.  We’re looking forward to seeing all your great photos!


About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer