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.

However, the real answer is that my equipment has very, very little to do with why that photograph is beautiful. Good vacation pictures start at being able to simply compose a shot.

Want to learn more about photo equipment – here’s what I carry…

See my complete list of favorite Travel Photography Gear

What is Composition?

It all starts with composition, which is basically 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 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!

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?

You want to take better vacation pictures, then follow these simple rules of composition.

Do Not Center Your Subject

This is my one tip I try to tell every person taking a picture – don’t put your subject in the center of the 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.

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

Lines and Curves

The 2nd easiest thing you can do to improve your vacation photography is ensuring you compose a shot for leading lines. Once again, this is all about how to showcase the subject of your picture. Maybe your subject is a person, a building, a boat, or a mountain. Your subject can be anything, but 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, the 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 he image.

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 lading lines

A hiking path in PEI Canada leads your eye through the picture

leadign lines photography

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

take better vacation pictures leading lines

The Antarctica clouds form lines that lead into the subject…the ship.


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.

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


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. A good start is to go slow and look for reflections as taking a reflection picture 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.

reflections better photography

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


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. You should 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.

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.

If you follow these 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. Just remember – these are all things you need to do BEFORE you click the shutter button.

Follow my Travels.

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