Five Tips for Better Vacation Photos

Vermont barn

Taking advantage of dramatic late afternoon lighting during a trip to Vermont.

Even if you’re not that in to photography, being on vacation is bound to bring the shutterbug out in you. Here are five tips for capturing beautiful images on your next trip.

1. Keep the horizon straight

OK, I have to admit, this is my biggest photography pet peeve. It’s so easy to fix and makes a huge difference! When you’re composing your picture, make sure the horizon is as straight as possible. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the horizon line is, especially if there are objects, like buildings, trees, or mountains, obscuring its natural line. Ask yourself which element within your picture should be straight and concentrate on aligning that with the guidelines on your camera’s view finder or by eyeballing it. You could also edit with the straightening tool after you take the photo, but keep in mind that when you straighten a photo it also crops out part of the picture. My advice is to keep the horizon as straight as possible before you take the photo to minimize the amount of straightening (and thus, cropping) you’ll have to do later.

Fisherman's Wharf at Monterey Bay

In this photo, the horizon is clearly not straight, resulting in an image that doesn’t look quite right.

Monterey Bay Fishermans Wharf

Keeping the horizon line straight makes for a much more visually appealing photo.

2. Go out at the crack of dawn

There’s nothing like flat, mid-afternoon lighting to make an interesting landscape look totally boring. Photographing during the “magic hours” around sunrise and sunset, when the lighting is soft and dramatic, almost always results in spectacular images. For this reason, I make it a point when I’m traveling to wake up at the crack of dawn and go out with my camera at least once. Not only will your photographs benefit from beautiful lighting, but you’ll also be up before the crowds, when it’s quiet and peaceful. Early morning is also an ideal time for capturing interesting images of the locals going about their regular activities to start the day.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is beautiful any time of day, but for this picture I woke up before sunrise to drive into the park and capture the early morning light (and avoid the crowds!)

 

New Orleans

New Orleans is a photographer’s playground, and it’s even more fun when you venture out at dawn when no one is around. On this morning, I got lucky as fog had rolled in, giving the Natchez Steamboat on the Mississippi River an eerie feel.

 

Pisca, Peru

In towns and cities, it’s nice to get up early and take pictures of the empty streets just starting to wake up with a trickle of locals. I took this from the balcony of our hotel in the small town of Pisac in the Sacred Valley of Peru around 6am. In a few  hours the plaza would be filled with market stalls and people.

3. Find an interesting or unique composition

The Eiffel Tower. Taj Mahal. Golden Gate Bridge. Ankor Wat. There must be a million pictures of these amazing landmarks, and for good reason. They are awesome! If you don’t want your picture to look like every other one though, try these strategies for creating a more interesting composition. Discovering a unique perspective for your subject might require that you move around a bit, but sometimes it doesn’t take much – just a shuffle to the side or a lower vantage point could make all the difference.

Add flowers to the foreground. 

Predjama Castle, Slovenia

Predjama Castle in southern Slovenia is stunning on its own, but add some colorful flowers to the foreground and you’ve got a winner.

Add other objects to the foreground.

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Carmel Beach in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, is renowned for its gorgeous sunsets. I wanted to capture the sun as it dipped behind the horizon, but didn’t want it to look like just any other sunset. I walked around the beach until I found this strand of seaweed to add contrast and interest to the composition.

Look for juxtapositions.

Zion National Park

As part of an early-morning excursion inside Zion National Park, I stopped at the side of the road to take a picture of the burnt orange cliffs. I hadn’t planned to include the stop sign, but liked how the bright red popped against the landscape.

 

Golden Gate Bridge

I live outside of San Francisco, so already have millions of pictures of this iconic bridge, usually showing its entire span. For a more creative take, I positioned just one tower of the bridge in the background behind a building. It’s not the type of picture you’d expect of this world-famous landmark, and the late-day sun illuminating it while the building remains in the shade creates an added dimension of interest.

Frame your picture.

New York City Central Park

Using branches to frame your picture is a good strategy for eliminating too much sky, especially if the sky is grey or doesn’t have many clouds. You have to be careful though with your positioning to make sure the branches don’t “collide” too much with the subject of your photo (in this case the skyline) or each other.

 

San Francisco Lands End

This isn’t the greatest photo, but it demonstrates how you can use natural rock formations (in this case, a cave I was walking through in San Francisco at Land’s End) to create a frame.

 

Loews Hotel Philadelphia

You can’t go wrong with a city skyline at sunset, but it’s even better when framed within window panes. For this shot, taken from the top of the Loews Hotel in Philadelphia, I had to position myself carefully so the buildings didn’t collide with the vertical lines of the window frame.

4. Resist the pose.

Who doesn’t want great pictures of family and friends while they’re on vacation? No one. And so, the endless posing begins – lining up the family smack in front of “random tourist attraction X”, everyone straight as soldiers looking directly into the camera and smiling (if you’re lucky.) These pictures are fine, but try mixing it up a bit. Experiment with different types of poses, like a human pyramid or having everyone look off in different directions. Better yet, skip the pose altogether. Not many people like doing this anyway, especially kids. Instead, try taking candid pictures of your travel companions simply enjoying each other or the sights around them. Looking back over your photo album, you’ll be happy you were able to capture these authentic, and ultimately more rewarding, moments.

Girls in Cape Cod

Since my teenage daughters always resist having their photo taken, I generally resort to sneaking in candids with my telephoto lens. I love this picture, taken on Cape Cod, because it reminds me of how much fun they had together on that trip.

 

Zion National Park

Even though I couldn’t fit the entire rock face at Zion National Park into my frame, you can tell how grand its scale is by the look on my daughters’ faces as they gaze upward.

If you must pose . . . 

Machu Picchu Peru

When you’re visiting a place as spectacular as Machu Picchu, the posed group photo is a must. BUT, make sure you’re not blocking the object, in this case the citadel of Machu Picchu!

5. Pay Attention to the Details

Vacations tend to inspire big, expansive landscapes and dramatic city skylines. These are great, but it’s nice to discover the little things too. Turn your attention, and your lens, closer in to focus on the interesting details around you — colorful doorways, bold clothing, street art, whatever strikes you as interesting. By adding these shots to your vacation portfolio, you’ll have a more complete and colorful memory of your experience.

Inti Raymi Festival, Cusco Peru

During the Inti Raymi Festival, which is celebrated every year on June 24 in the Sacred Valley of Peru, people don colorful costumes. With my telephoto lens, I was able to snap this picture showing the intricate designs and bold colors of some of the hats worn by locals.

 

Water fountain in Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden has many beautiful fountains and buildings. In this example, I couldn’t figure out a way to get a good picture of this entire fountain because it was so tall. So I took one picture from way back and then this close up to capture and remember more of the the fountain’s detail.

 

IMG_0532

When you’re traveling, be on the lookout for colorful doors. If there are interesting objects in front of them (bicycles, flower pots, dogs, etc.), it’s a bonus!

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