An Amateur’s Guide to Better Vacation Photos

You just get back from the most amazing trip and rush to download the hundreds of photos you took only to discover – Meh. I’ve done it. I still do it. Although these days I’m doing it far less often.

Taking great photographs doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, today’s cameras are so user friendly you no longer need to know your ISO from your a-hole to capture awesome images. But while technology has shrunk the photography learning curve from a mountain to a molehill, care and attention is still needed to get the most from your gear.

Here are eight easy tips you can use right now to dramatically improve your travel photos.

Work (for) the light

Canyonlands National Park Landscape

Proper lighting is so important that serious photographers seriously go out of their way for it. As a traveler, your itinerary is more likely dictated by considerations other than photography, but integrating light considerations into your travel plans can make a world of difference in the kind and quality of shots you take home.

Typically, but not always, the best times to take photos are the “golden hours” just before the sun rises or after it sets. The first and last hours of sunlight are generally warmer and more forgiving than the harsh light of mid-day. Shoot during these golden hours and you’re more likely to get a shot that pleases.

Other times of day it is often preferable to shoot with the sun behind you so that your subject is fully illuminated and not severely back lit. That may mean moving to a different location to get the best shot or even coming back at a different time of day. It’s not unusual for me to scout out a location and return at a time when I think the light will be optimal.

Get out of, or into, the shadows

Kentucky Capitol Exterior Detail

Even the best digital camera sensor is no match for the human eye when it comes to rendering scenes with both strong shadows and bright light. Your eye will pick up details that the camera simply blows out. Understanding that what you see is not necessarily the photo you’ll get is the first step in correcting this problem.

It is possible to increase the “dynamic range” of your images with advanced techniques, but for those of us who want to spend more time sightseeing and less time fiddling with camera settings and software, the easiest solution is to frame shots that have more uniform lighting.

When confronted with a landmark that exhibits both glaring highlights and impenetrable shadows choose a shot that focuses on either the bright or dark regions. Instead of just snapping the entire building, go in close and capture some detail.

Try different angles and perspectives

Photograph different perspectives

If your ordinary vacation photo looks all too ordinary, that may be because it was likely shot from nearly the same perspective as everyone else’s – directly in front and about five or six feet off the ground. Instead, try climbing up high or even laying on the ground to capture an uncommon perspective of an otherwise familiar site.

Get low for great photo perspectives

If you’re not getting dirty, you’re not trying hard enough.

Turn around

Look behind you for unique photography opportunities

The best images aren’t always the ones you specifically set out to see. Too often we get fixated on “The Site” and fail to appreciate all the wonderful scenery that surrounds the main attraction. So take a moment, wherever you are, and look to your left and to your right, up and down and especially behind you. The best things aren’t always straight ahead (a lesson that is not only applicable to photography but also to life in general).

This shot could have just as easily been one of a completely ordinary sunrise. After all, we had arranged an early morning tour of Utah’s Monument Valley to see just that. As our group sat facing east to witness the big event, it occurred to me that the more interesting view lay to the west where the morning sun would illuminate these wonderful sandstone formations.

Compose your shot

Compose your photograph

Raising your camera to an interesting scene, snapping away, and hoping for a good photo might be the most common approach to vacation photography, but it is not necessarily the most successful. An extra second or two spent composing your shot can dramatically increase the likelihood the image you create will be memorable.

One of the easiest, most powerful, and widely used composition techniques is called the Rule of Thirds. The basic idea is to draw imaginary horizontal and vertical lines that break your image into thirds and then place your subject along those lines.

Rule of Thirds Composition

What makes this technique so powerful is that the human eye is naturally drawn to the point where these imaginary lines cross. By placing your subject in this location, you create an image that is more accessible to the viewer.

What makes this technique so easy to use is that most cameras today come with a setting to display these lines in the viewfinder. No need to guess, or even really remember. Just follow the lines and snap your shot.

Beware the background

Background composition

You may not realize it, but those things behind your subject are conspiring to destroy your shot. Even though you see your target in perfect focus and sharp relief, once you click the shutter, the camera compresses everything in the frame into a flat, two-dimensional representation that gives equal preference to the things you want to highlight and those you didn’t.

Background Composition

This little guy has a hard time standing out from the mountain behind him

The most common way to deal with that problem is by adjusting your camera’s “depth of field,” but that requires some knowledge of advanced settings and possibly a more expensive camera or lens. A simpler and completely free approach is to reframe your shot to minimize the amount of background distractions.

Use the foreground

Foreground composition

The two-dimensional nature of photographs also tends to flatten landscapes. One trick to give your image more depth is to place an object somewhere in the foreground.

The Grand Canyon, for example, is notoriously tricky to photograph because pictures generally fail to convey how tremendously huge the canyon really is. I tried to correct for that by placing people in the lower left corner which, I think, helps add both depth and scale to the shot.

Patience, Grasshopper

Depth of field

I’m not a grasshopper but I play one on the internet

The most useful tool in any photographer’s camera bag is simple patience. I’ve learned to exercise a bit of it myself and have seen my photography improve as a result. Professional photographers exercise an almost superhuman level of resolve; waiting hours, days, weeks and even longer to get that perfect capture.

Your travel schedule and companions probably won’t allow you as much times as the pros need, but waiting just a little longer for that cloud to pass or person to move can mean the difference between capturing that “Wow” image and one that is just “Meh.”


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23 Comments on “An Amateur’s Guide to Better Vacation Photos”

  1. Animalcouriers October 5, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    superb post and great shots.


  2. nancieteresa October 5, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    Hey there! Thanks for the topic! I have been traveling for a year and a half in Europe and now back in the States. Beautiful photos make a difference! Interestingly enough, I am currently doing a exchange for a few months with a family that teaches folks how to take better pictures in their life. They’re really great and I thought I would share their website… here’s the link Enjoy!


  3. dawntodusk10 October 5, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    a great guide and absolutely beautiful shots!


  4. alligatortoe October 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Great article, thanks for sharing what you’ve learned! 🙂


  5. The Sicilian Housewife October 5, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    This is fantastic advice and really usable, even for the likes of me who are not naturals with a camera. Thank you for this!


  6. A girl has got to eat October 5, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    I loved reading this post – I am on the return journey home now and was tempted to whip out my camera to see how I fared! Thanks for sharing your great tips, I look forward to practising!


    • Brian October 6, 2012 at 8:46 am #

      Practicing is another great tip. By viture of all the travel we do, I probably have 10,000 or more photos under my belt. After awhile you start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Good luck and have fun.


  7. Mazigrace October 5, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Enjoyed the post and will use the techniques that I learned.


  8. world travel family October 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    That is an excellent post, just what I need to improve my photography. Thanks! Alyson


  9. earthriderjudyberman October 5, 2012 at 11:07 pm #

    Thanks for the excellent tips. I have a Canon point and shoot. I just feel discouraged every time I use it to shoot photos of Great Blue Heron, Roseatta Spoonbill and other wild birds in our neighborhood.

    I plan to get a better camera, but I know some of the problems can be resolved just by following your advice.


    • Brian October 6, 2012 at 8:44 am #

      Hi Judy,
      Without seeing the shots or the camera it’s hard to tell what trouble you’re having, but using a tripod can make a world of difference for the long zoom shots typical of most nature photography. Just a thought.



  10. Katariina Partala October 7, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    Wow, thank you for sharing this!! I try to use these tips sometime! 🙂


  11. tiny lessons blog October 7, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    Hi Shannon & Brian – I truly enjoy your blog and have nominated it for an award! Please see the details at Thanks for sharing your journey! Tiny


    • Brian October 9, 2012 at 10:13 am #

      Thank you. We’re honored.


  12. Caitlin October 7, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    Great post! Learned some of this in film school but I sometimes forget to use it in every day photography situations.


  13. f-stop mama October 8, 2012 at 11:18 pm #

    Great tips! And the shot with the leg overhanging really gets me. Wow I can feel the height of this photo with that simple addition.


    • Brian October 9, 2012 at 10:10 am #

      Coming from the “F-Stop Mama”, that means a lot! Thank.


  14. Jane Lurie October 9, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    Brian- well done! Have read these tips many times over the years and you managed to make it engaging and interesting to read accompanied by excellent photo examples. Hit many of these spots this summer. I will enjoy following your blog- thanks!


  15. msdulce October 18, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Thank you- these are such great tips! My favorite may be ‘if you’re not getting dirty, you’re not trying hard enough.’ Love it!


  16. Crista October 23, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    this is a FANTASTIC blog post! I’m going to share it!


    • Brian October 26, 2012 at 9:58 am #

      I’m glad you liked it, and even more delighted that you’ve shared it. Thank you!


  17. Joanna October 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Great tips and great photos (I especially like the one with the birds)! Thank you!


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