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22 Tips on How to Take Great Vacation Photos

When you think of vacations, do you think of fun, excitement and adventure?    When you look at your vacation pictures, do they fill you with those same feelings, or does it seem like there’s something missing.

When others see your vacation photos they should know where you went, what you did, and what it was like there, without you having to tell them.

There are no deep, dark secrets to taking great vacation photos; it’s really about just knowing what to take and knowing how to avoid some of the common mistakes.  The tips below can help you to breathe life into your next vacation pictures.

Tip #1:  Purchase a good camera.

There are many factors to consider when buying a good camera (too many to cover here), but the most important deciding factor, for me, is how fast the camera responds when you push the shutter release.  A good camera will have the ability to focus and snap very quickly.  This is crucial when you have to take a lot of pictures in a row.

Things go by fast, and you don’t want to have to wait for your camera to finish focusing while the action passes you by.  It can mean the difference between having a great picture of the President of the United States, or just having a great story with no picture to back it up.

Tip #2:  Take the proper charger adaptors with you when visiting overseas.

If you travel much, you probably already know that electrical power systems are different in other countries.  Fortunately, digital equipment chargers can be used anywhere, but you need to know what types of outlets you’ll be dealing with, so you can bring the appropriate adaptors.

Sometimes hotels have adapters that you can use for free, but don’t count on it; bring your own.  Since digital equipment uses AC to DC adapters, you will not need a power converter, just the plug adapters.

Tip #3:  Bring two cameras.

It’s always good to bring two cameras with you:  your main camera and an inexpensive digital camera.  If something happens to your primary camera you can use the other one as a backup.  It’s also helpful if the smaller camera uses regular batteries so you don’t have to worry about charging it.

A smaller camera also comes in handy when you want someone to take a picture of you.  Some people may not feel comfortable about handling your big, expensive camera and will decline your request for a picture.  If, on the other hand, you hand them a simple snapshot camera — powered up and ready to go — they’re more likely to help you out.

Tip# 4:  Shoot in high resolution.

Shoot in high resolution (or, at least, reasonably high)  so you can make enlarged crops of your photos or even some nice posters of your best shots.  The disadvantage, of course, is that you will be using up more memory.   But with the new advancements in storage card technology, this should not really be a problem.  Remember:  memory is cheap but memories aren’t.

Tip #5:  Take an establishing shot first.

Each time you go to a new place, take an establishing shot to use as a place marker for your pictures.  This can be a well known landmark like the Statue of Liberty, a cityscape or even a snapshot of a sign with the name of the place on it.

The picture doesn’t have to be one that you plan on using later; it’s just a bookmark to let you know where the pictures that follow were taken, so you don’t have to keep good notes (although, notes are good).  You can even take pictures of travel brochures — the ones you get from the hotel — to help you remember.

Tip #6:  Take action pictures of the local people.

Normally, people only remember to take pictures of the locals when they are dressed in a native costume or in official uniforms.  Don’t forget to take pictures of the locals doing everyday things — show them working, playing and eating.

Try to take candid photos (in public places, of course) so you don’t disturb the action.  When taking pictures up close, try to keep the person from posing.  Have them do something natural, like a baker holding up a loaf of bread or a merchant making a sale to a customer.  This will add a real life quality to your vacation pictures.

Tip #7:  Bring your subject closer to you.

One of the big mistakes in vacation photos is taking a picture of someone in front of a large background and having them stand too far back.  What you end up with is a nice picture of the background with an unrecognizable smudge in the middle (that smudge being your subject).

Shoot the subject from around mid-waist up, or at least close enough to see the face.  The background might come out in a soft focus, depending on how close the subject is standing to the camera, but it will still

look great.

Tip #8:  Don’t zoom in too close on moving objects.

Zooming in too close on a moving picture is a good way to miss a photo opportunity, especially if you are in a crowd.  If you feel you must zoom in, zoom only about half way.  Give yourself some room on both sides of the frame in case the subject moves, or in case someone sticks a camera in front of yours.  You can always zoom up on the subject later when you are editing the picture at home.

Tip #9:  Look before you shoot.

Look at all of the elements in the viewfinder before you shoot and not just the subject.  Make sure your subject doesn’t have any unwanted “antlers” from background trees.  Check for “city dump” signs or rude graffiti on walls in the background.  Some people concentrate so hard on the subject that they sometimes miss these items.

Tip #10:  Don’t delete pictures before you’ve had a chance to look at them.

Unless a picture is so blurry you can’t even make out the subject, or you accidentally took a picture of the ground (believe me it happens), don’t delete bad pictures until you’ve had a chance to look at them in detail.  You may find later that there are elements in the photo that you can blow up and crop into nice pictures.  I’ve had pictures that looked completely dark in the camera preview that I was able to salvage later by correcting the exposure.

Tip #11:  Learn to be a leaner and leave the tripod at home.

For me tripods are more of a hassle then they are worth (and are often not allowed places that you need them the most, like museums, for instance).  Get into the habit of using your surroundings to steady your camera.  Lean against a wall or prop your arms up on a railing to brace your camera.  This will give you more mobility when you really need it.

Tip #12:  Take family pictures in natural activities and poses.

Instead of constantly asking your friends or family to pose for pictures, take snapshots of them during activities on the trip.  Photograph them window shopping, buying food or just goofing off.  Avoid the urge to take a lot of posed shots — especially large family pictures where you have to stop everyone from having fun, just for the sake of your picture.  Take, maybe, one or two per destination, then give it a rest. Rather than putting your family through many photography poses, catch them in natural activities. Your family will thank you for it.

Tip #13:  Take pictures of store and shop windows.

Let’s face it, people love to shop, and what better way to take your friends “window shopping” than through pictures.  Take plenty of pictures of store windows, ice cream shops, clothing store displays, and let them see what they missed.

Tip #14:  Take pictures of whatever strikes you.

Don’t pass up a photo opportunity  just because you might think it won’t make a good travel photo.  Interesting graffiti, funny pets and strange plants, all make great additions to your travel photos and add a third dimension to your albums.  My rule is, if it makes you smile, snap a picture.

Tip #15:  Take lots of pictures.

With memory being so cheap now-a-days, there’s really no reason not to take a lot of pictures.  In the photo biz the rule is:  the more the merrier.  That way, when you’re going through your pictures later, you will have plenty of stuff to chose from and you can discard the junk you don’t need.

Tip #16:  Be aware of your surroundings; don’t let traffic invade your pictures.

When framing through the viewfinder, try not to lose touch with your surroundings.  It is possible to concentrate on framing your picture and still be aware enough to see the truck that’s about to pass through your scene, or the group of tourists heading in your direction.

Tip #17:  Take pictures of menus and maps.

Maps and menus make interesting subjects for vacation photos.   Vacationers are usually so focused on location shots and family pictures that they forget these little gems.  You never know, you might get lost somewhere and that picture of the metro map you took earlier may help you to get home.

Tip #18:  Check focus of pictures by zooming in closely and inspecting them.

After taking pictures of buildings or other locations that contain a lot of detail, preview the picture under full zoom.  Make sure the details are in focus and the exposure is right.  If they appear fuzzy or grainy then redo the picture.

Tip #19:  Take different views of common places.

This may sound obvious to some, but I’ve see enough vacation pictures with the same postcard view of the Eiffel tower, to make me think that it bears repeating.  After you have taken your “token” photo, try to get different angles of it.  Using the Eiffel tower as an example; try to get under it, get up close and personal; let people know that you actually visited it and didn’t just get a picture of it when you were passing by.

The different perspectives will help people to get a feel of what it was really like to be there and not just feel like an outsider looking in.  If they only wanted to see a typical postcard view they could just buy one.

Tip #20:  Don’t just stand there — Shoot.

“Time waits for no man” and it certainly won’t wait for you to shoot.  Try not to spend a lot of time framing your picture and trying to get it perfect, especially in a crowd.  It should only take seconds to get a good picture even when your surrounded by people.

One time while shooting in China,  I was being pushed by four Chinese ladies (in football formation) while trying to get a picture of the interior of one of the ancient temples.  I held my ground, got my frame and clicked.  If I had tried to get the “perfect” picture they would have easily won out and I would have ended up with nothing.

If your are ever in doubt about the framing, expand the field, take the shot, and crop the picture later.  As long as it is in focus and the exposure is correct, you should be able to correct any compositional problems when you edit.

Tip #21:  Don’t take pictures through an airplane window using a flash.

OK, I know I’m getting a little specific with this one, but I see this all the time and it drives me crazy.  If you insist on taking a picture from a plane window at night, don’t use a flash.

I often wonder if people really think that they are going to light up the entire city of Berlin from two miles up. The best you can hope for with a flash, is a brightly lit picture of the window.  Shooting pictures from a plane is challenging enough, don’t make it impossible.

Tip #22:  Carefully search your pictures for other pictures.

When you get back from you trip, look carefully through all of your photos for “hidden” pictures.  Enlarge each photo and search for things you might have captured unintentionally that you can crop and make into new pictures.

You might find an interesting detail of a building that would make a nice picture, or maybe you happened to catch an action scene of some children playing.  These “bonus” pictures can often add hundreds of extra memories to your album.

By Ron Chatham