How Do Solo Travelers Get Such Good Pictures?

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Yes, we travel to explore other cultures and to intelligently answer life’s pressing questions, like “Who has the best coffee — Costa Rica or Indonesia?” (The question is moot; the winner is Vietnam.) But we also travel to see the jaw-dropping beauty that’s everywhere…except Manila. And one of the benefits of being a post-2008 traveler is that we have a camera with us at all times. Thanks Obama! As gorgeous as our travel pics are, nobody wants to go home with no record of themselves at the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal.

Eiffel Tower

But traveling alone is more popular than ever. I’ve been taking international trips solo since no one would go to Toronto with me in 2007. Their loss, Eh? But I have good pictures of myself all over the world. And with these solo travel tips, you can to.

Take Better Selfies — Ditch the Selfie Camera.

Smartphone selfie cameras suck. Unless you have an LG V10, which I saw a lot of in Asia, don’t expect great pictures from the front-facing camera. Yes it’s awkward, but if you use the rear-facing camera, you’ll get better resolution. The trouble is, you can’t see what you’t taking a picture of. This takes practice, but the end result is worth it. I took this grainy picture with the selfie camera, and I will regret it till the day I die. Exaggerating. A little.

Águeda, Portugal Street Art

Update: I recently upgraded (slightly) to a Nikon Coolpix digital camera to get better zoom and lowlight pics than my iPhone 5s can handle. There’s no learning curve like there is with a DSLR, and it’s waaay cheaper.

Take multiple shots.

Burst is best. Just press down the shutter longer. If the camera’s on timer, you get a burst of shots too. Getting more pictures to chose from is never a bad thing. I have a disorder where I always blink precisely when my picture is being taken. The burst is my friend.

Use a tripod and timer.

Since I only have an iPhone, I use a GorillaPod for Smartphones. I have this thing with me always. Always. I can get a tripod selfie anywhere the spirit moves me.

I haven’t bought a bluetooth remote yet, so I sometimes just use the camera timer on my phone. But I also have the 3-2-1 Camera app. It has a multi shot setting that helps get a variety of pictures timed several seconds apart. I haven’t tried too many different apps, but this one works fine. It just takes pictures in a wider format with a poorer resolution than the built-in camera.


Black Solo Traveler Ubud, Bali

Recruit someone to tag along. Or to lead the way.

I stay in hostels because I’m cheap and because when I stay in a traditional hotel, there’s a 99% chance I’ll curl up in the bed all day watching Conan O’Brien clips on Youtube. Most of the friends I made on the road were hostelmates who invited me to hang out with them or vice versa. Cris, the manager of an awesome cabin hostel in El Nido, the Philippines, took this picture of me on my iPhone after we hiked to the waterfall.  He also took the picture from my home page. He understood my drive to win Instagram. I think we’re soulmates.

Solo travel waterfall

Read about my hits and misses making friends around the world here. 

Ask a stranger to take your picture.

I know right now you’re thinking “No way!” but hear me out. Just offer to take someone else’s picture first (like a couple who wants their picture taken together) then ask them to return the favor. You’d think theft would be the biggest worry, but the real problem will be clueless picture takers. You’ll have to be specific about what you want in the photo. I had a man in Budapest take a picture of me in front of the gorgeous Hungarian Parliament building with absolutely zero of the building visible. It’s all asphalt and feet.  The lady who took this for me was acting as her own art director while her husband took pictures of her. I knew she’d see my sunset silhouette vision.

Seminyak, Bali Sunset Silhouette

Pre-plan shots.

I’m a Pinterest trip planner. Before I go to a new city, I search for pictures of that place on Pinterest and Instagram. That’s how I found out about the umbrella street art in Águeda, Portugal. And the Blackbird State Forest just 10 minutes from where I live in Delaware. Pick out some places ahead of time and add them to your itinerary.

Taal Volcano with a Crate Lake Selfie

Pack pretty things.

Yes, packing light means coordinating colors to minimize the number of pieces you’ll want to take. But those pieces don’t have to be all beige and gray. I traveled for one year with a carry-on sized roller bag and a small backpack. And not one piece of drab clothing. So in my pictures, I look like myself and not like an arctic expeditioner. Pack that thing that you love to wear. And wear it. Your camera will thank you.

Chaing Mai Temple

My carry-on-only packing tip is to use packing cubes. Compress your clothing, take a smaller bag, save on baggage fees. Use the money you saved on travel souvenirs…like more clothes!

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Go at the right time of day.

Tweet: Golden Hour ain't just when the Leprechauns take their naps. Sunrise and sunset lighting gives you the prettiest selfies. @vaycariousIt ain’t just called Golden Hour because  that’s when the Leprechauns take their naps. Sunlight around sunrise and sunset will give you the prettiest selfies.

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I know how hard it is to look exquisitely ethereal after you’ve taken a ten-hour overnight bus ride over the Queazy Canyon. Let good lighting be your cheat.

Blackbird State Forest, Smyrna, Delaware

See my favourite sunrise photos from around the world here.

Follow me on Instagram @Vaycarious.

Selfie obsession is totally acceptable there.

Alright Travel Buddy, you’re ready to master photos for one on your next solo vacation. Now book  your trip and get the best selfies on Instagram. Or maybe the second best. 🙂

Happy shooting!

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33 Comments Add yours

  1. Ivan Jose says:

    Aw, why not Manila? Anyway, there are still many awesome places in the Philippines that you could visit.

    1. Haha! I didn’t enjoy Manila AT ALL. But the islands were the most beautiful islands I’ve ever been to. Palawan and Camotes and Panglao were just gorgeous, Ivan. I’m still Team Philippines, just as long as I can skip Manila.

      1. Ivan Jose says:

        I have to agree with you on that. I am from Manila but there is always a constant urge to escape. Haha. The destinations that you mentioned are some of the best. Try Cebu, Davao and Biliran, too.

  2. These are great suggestions! I mastered the air of a camera selfie before the selfie stick, when I was still in high school. I went through the self stick phase and hated it. I also went through a phase of being absolutely terrified to ask people to take more than one picture when they took such shitty pictures the first time, then I got over it because I want my damn picture. We bought a tripod (my husband did without my knowledge) and its the wrong kind – too big, too heavy, and too bulky, so we never use it. I want to invest in a small, light weight one. #CityTripping

    1. “I want my damn picture.” My life’s guiding principle.

      The Gorillapod’s small, but not the sturdiest. There’s always a trade-off. That being said, it’s gotten me some great pictures all over the world.

  3. Great tips! I always get nervous about asking others to take my photo as it’s hard for them to see the view just as you do. When I was at Machu Picchu with a friend, the person who took our photo cut off the whole view and just zoomed in on us, haha! Needless to say, we asked another passer by to take another one 😉

    1. Haha! Not everybody gets it, but every now and then you’ll stumble upon someone with a hidden talent for photography who’ll make your day!

  4. I need to master the art of taking my own pictures!! I think the angle of the one with the umbrellas is great… I can never seem to take good selfies of me and something above me. Sometimes it works out when you ask someone to take your picture. I just look for another person with a nice camera! Because then it means that they are probably good photographers if they have invested in a nice camera :).
    P.S. Following you on Instagram now!

    1. Thanks Anna! The umbrella pic took at least 3 tries. Don’t give up. haha.

  5. vanbrune says:

    That’s why both my DSLR and compact camera have flippable screens – you can take selfies and still have a good quality picture 😉 But bringing a tripod and timer also helps if you want to take those really “professional” shots 😀

    1. You’re all set for the perfect pics! One day I’ll graduate to a grown up camera. 🙂

  6. bettyl - NZ says:

    I’m sure that, if I got the courage to take my first solo trip, I’d be fine traveling alone, but that was never the case. I admire those like you who do. As for asking strangers to take your photo, we’ve done that many times with no problems.

    1. The real danger of traveling solo is that you might never want anyone else to go with you ever again. 🙂 Being the Queen of your own vacation is addictive. lol.

  7. Great photos! Before smartphones, I would look at the teeny tiny reflection of me in the camera lens to line up my shot. I’ll admit that it’s a bit of an (ungrateful) pet peeve when someone takes a photo of me, and I fill the frame with nothing about where I am. I am still kicking myself that I didn’t check the photo that we took in Cambodia at Ta Prohm. It’s a lovely photo of my family… except that you can’t tell that we’re at Ta Prohm, that famous temple where the tree roots are wrapped around the building.

    1. Ugh! That’s the worst, Michele. Sound like cause for another visit. lol.

  8. Molly says:

    Yes to all of this… self portraits are the best

    Mollyxxx

  9. ladyfi says:

    What beautiful and creative shots!

    1. Thanks LadyFi! Cambodia’s beautiful. 🙂

  10. shewentwear says:

    These are some great tips!!! I suck at selfies abroad when traveling solo. Haha.

    1. Thanks! I’ve taken more selfies than should be humanly possible. 🙂 Practice does make perfect so keep snapping pics.

  11. Sharon says:

    This is a great article with lots of info! I’m not often traveling alone, but sometimes my travel buddy isn’t around (I like to get up early and my husband and daughter like to sleep in). So these tips are helpful for anyone! Love your website!

  12. Hilary says:

    Ha ha! I love this post! It’s always a bummer when after I take someone’s photo to the best of my ability and then they return the favor by cutting out the subject and my feet! UGH! My big problem, is that often it’s my husband taking the bad photo. LOL!

  13. Danny says:

    These are all great tips, and as a fellow solo traveler, I’ve certainly had those times when I’ve wanted to get that perfect picture of me in front of the Eiffel Tower or leaning on the Pyramids. One of my tips is to keep a lookout for other solo travelers and ask them to take your picture. I find it much easier to approach other people who are traveling alone, often because they’re in a similar situation and are also on the lookout for the perfect ad hoc photographer!

  14. kimssojourn says:

    These are all great tips. I always just ferret out an individual to take my pictures when I travel. I will look into that tripod for my next adventure.

  15. Great tips and great photos. Yes, asking a total stranger to take your photo generally works – especially if you offer to take their photo first.

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