How to Take Better Vacation Pictures

July 28, 2020   18 Comments »

How to Take Better Vacation Pictures

August 9, 2016 18 Comments »

“That’s a beautiful photo, what camera do you use?” is probably one of the most frequent questions I hear. Of course it’s an innocent question meant with good intentions, however it does make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I try not to roll my eyes, and instead paste on a smile, and answer them nicely about my travel photography gear I use.

One of the main things on everyone’s packing list is a camera. It doesn’t matter if it’s a phone camera, a point-and-shoot, or a DSLR with interchangeable lenses.

What makes a great photo memory of a holiday is how you take the picture, not what you take the picture with.

Advanced technology and post processing/editing is great, but if you don’t have the foundations of what makes up a good picture, then all the technology in the world can’t help it.

What Makes a Travel Photo Beautiful?

Equipment has very, very little to do with why a travel photograph is beautiful. Good vacation pictures start at being able to simply compose a shot.

What Photography Gear do I Carry on a Trip?

See my complete list of favorite travel photography gear
Best Camera Bags for Travel
Safari Photography Gear and Tips

What is Photo Composition?

Composition refers to the process of deciding exactly what you are taking a picture of. Sure, you want to get that picture of Billy and Susie in front of the Eiffel Tower, but if you want a good picture of Billy and Susie then you want to think about composition before you click the shutter button.

Consider what you see through the viewfinder or on your phone screen at the moment before you click the shutter button as your canvas – and just like a painter, you decide what is going to go on the canvas and where it is placed. You can control this by moving your body around to various viewpoints, moving closer, moving away, lying down, standing on something, or turning in circles if you want!

11 Tips to Taking Better Vacation Pictures

I’ve taken thousands and thousands of travel photos. I’ve carried my favorite cameras and lenses to heights of 18,000 ft. It’s  been with me every step of the way to over 65 countries for over 14 years of traveling. At this point I’m qualified to give out a travel photography advice!

I do a lot of candid street photography as well as landscape photography. Both have its challenges when you are on the road and at the mercy of Mother Nature, geography, and human nature. I’m sure that as a traveler, you want to capture what you’re seeing and experiencing, so here are a few tips to get the exceptional pictures you want on your next vacation.

1.  Know What or Who Your Subject of the Photo is

When you shoot a photo you should be thinking about what your goal is…what is it that you are trying to show people – what is the subject – and how can you bring focus to it for the viewer?

Granted, this may seem silly to think about this every time you take a photo, but soon it becomes second nature.   Is Billy and Susie your subject, or is the Eiffel Tower your subject?

2.  Do Not Center Your Subject in the Picture

Now you know who your subject is,  don’t put your subject in the center of the picture! This is the most important tip I try to tell every person taking a picture!  It is the simplest thing you can do to change a picture from ok to great.

The concept in art terms is called Rule of Thirds:
“An image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important composition elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. It is believed that by aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject would.”

Rule of Thirds vacation pictures
You want to put the subject where the lines intersect (at the circles) – like the shed in this picture. Image by Martin Gommel.

This basically means that instead of placing Billy and Susie, or the Eiffel Tower in the center of the photo, you place is in one of the thirds of the photo. Our brain comprehends this as more pleasing.

If this is the only thing that you pick up from this whole article – I consider it a success – it’s just that important!

Examples of the Rule of Thirds in Vacation Photos

You can see the difference for yourself.

takes better vacation pictures
Subject centered – blah…
Rule of thirds vacation pictures
Following the rule of thirds in Mongolia
take better vacation pictures
Japanese pedestrian in the rule of thirds
take better vacation pictures rule of thirds
Thirds applies to any subject, even buildings like Sacre Coeur

There is one exception to the Rule of Thirds, and that’s when you are composing a shot to be purposefully be symmetrical. A shot where everything is exactly symmetrical in the frame can also have a powerful effect. It adds stability to photographs and can give your compositions a sense of calm, peace, and “rightness.”

take better vacation pictures symmetry
The Brooklyn Bridge is in the center, yet it still is in the bottom third

3.  Place the Lines and Curves to Direct the Eye to the Subject

The 2nd easiest thing to improve vacation photography is ensuring composition for ‘leading lines’. Once again, this is all about how to showcase the subject of the picture. Maybe your subject is a person, a building, a boat, or a mountain. Your subject can be anything, but remember tip #1 – you have to know what your subject is before you shoot!

Lines are used to direct the viewers attention to the subject of your photograph. When you first glimpse at a photo, our brain automatically starts to decipher the picture trying to figure out what the picture is of. Without us being aware of it, our brain looks for lines that lead us to the subject of the picture.

These lines can be straight, diagonal, wavy, or any other creative variation. They can be roads, fences, shadows, mountain landscapes, or even the curve of a hat. To be most effective, you should try to create your overall composition so that the lines appear to be moving in or out of a corner(s) of the image.

Examples of Leading Lines

take better photos leading lines
The line in the grass as well as the line from the sidewalk lead your eye directly into the Eiffel Tower (which is in the third of the picture)
take better vacation pictures leading lines
A hiking path in PEI Canada leads your eye through the picture
leading lines composition
A hiking path in Patagonia leads to the peaks
take better vacation pictures
The line of camels and the line in the sand meet at the focal point. Notice the line in the sand goes out of the bottom left corner of the picture
leading lines take better vacation pictures
The Antarctica clouds form lines that lead into the subject…the ship.

4.  Framing the Subject

This is a pretty simple concept because we all know what a frame is – it is something that goes around a picture. Framing in composition is something that frames your main subject to call even more attention to it. This is probably one of the easier composition techniques in photography.

Framing brings more depth to the picture and a better focus on what the main subject is. Plus – it’s a great way to highlight something that is always photographed; it brings a new perspective and interest to the subject.

Examples of Framing Travel Pictures

take better vacation pictures framing
Framing the cathedral in Girona among the iron bridge
take better vacation pictures framing
A new look at the Taj Mahal framed from a nearby temple

5.  Look for Reflections

When you are walking around a destination you often you need to look beyond what you first see. Photography is about going slow and being attentive to light, reflections, and angles.

Capturing a reflection in your travel photo can be a new way to showcase an often-photographed sight or simply ordinary photograph.

Of course you can look for reflections in bodies of water, like lakes, rivers, and streams. But push yourself further and look for reflections in windows, puddles, fountains, and even beverages.

Examples of Reflection Pictures

reflections better photography
Find reflections in bodies of water like the Great Bear Rain Forest

6.  Change The Perspective to Take a Better Picture

Most of us see something we want to photograph, put the camera up to our eye level and click. However photography is about moving; crouching, standing on things, putting your camera on the ground and changing perspectives.

Try to get on the same level as your subject. If you are photographing children (or anything lower to the ground), then crouching is a must to get to their level and interact with them. It helps put them at ease.

Shooting from different angles and levels can make a huge difference between an ok and great picture.

Examples of Changing Perspectives

take better vacation pictures perspective
Photograph people eye to eye, if they are low, then you need to be at their eye level.

Here’s an example of how a picture changes just by getting lower and changing the perspective of standing and shooting.  Also note the leading line and the symmetry of the photo.

better photos perspective
3rd Photo – putting my camera on the ground yields the best picture.

7. Scan Your Frame Before You Click

Before you click the shutter button, take one last look around your frame; especially the corners. Look for pesky power lines and other distractions. There’s nothing worse than trying to get a great shot of the simplicity of village life in remote areas and there are power lines running through your shot! If power lines are in your frame, then go to another vantage point (squat down or stand on something) so you can get a nice clean shot. Right before I shoot I move my eye around the perimeter of my frame to make sure it’s clear – then take the shot.

travel photography tips
Nice! Except for power line in the upper right!

8. Go Wide to Tell the Bigger Story

I know everyone likes to have these super zoom cameras and lenses, but the more powerful photos are the ones where you can see the people relate to their environment.  Your photography will improve by widening your view.

Not only will you get the environment around a person, but by using a wider angle and not relying on the ‘crutch’ of a zoom lens, it will force you to get up closer to your subject. This means that you’ll interact more with your subject and that ALWAYS makes a better picture. If you use an DSLR or mirrorless camera, simply use a wide angle lens for a day and see how your photography improves!

Photography tips
Capture your surroundings with a wider angle

9. Memorize Your Camera

If you are using an DSLR or Mirrorless camera make sure you get to know your main controls by feel BEFORE the trip. Practice while you have the camera up to your eye looking thru the view finder, make sure you can find and switch the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and focal points by feel (without removing the camera from your face to look for the buttons!).

Practice these things before you leave on your trip. Set up a shot and see if you can change all of these things quickly by feel. It may be tough at first, but with practice, you’ll get to know the locations of these buttons and wheels just as you know your shutter button and zoom. Knowing these features will help you to react quickly to the ever changing situations around you while doing travel photography.

travel photography gear and tips
Lenscovers protecting my lens from sea spray and the elements.

10. Be Patient and Wait For the Photo You Want

When you see someone doing something you want to capture, how do you go about asking permission to take their photo and not have them stop what they were doing and pose/grin into the camera? You wait. And wait.

It’s inevitable if you ask someone to take their picture while they are playing an intense game of cards, they will all stop and look at the camera and smile; not quite the shot you were looking for. However take that shot of their cheesy grins and then show it to them…they will all laugh and smile be satisfied. Then they’ll go back to their game of cards. That’s when you can now wait around and get the real shots you want. Your newness will wear off and they will forget you are there and go about their intense game. Now you can start clicking.

street photography tips

If you follow these 6 simple composition rules for your next trip you’ll come back with pictures you are proud to share. It doesn’t matter what camera you use, or what equipment you have, to do any of these simple things.

11. Practice!

The best advice I can give you to take better vacation pictures is to PRACTICE! Take your camera with you everywhere and practice, practice, practice!

Taj Mahal framed through fence
night lighthouse photo

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