Photography Answers – How to take better vacation photos


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For most amateur photographers, vacations are the best weeks of the year. Its time to put the work pressures and daily grind on the back burner and perhaps travel some place new to capture some great photographs. Of course the downside is the places we go are typically the same places everyone else goes on vacation to the problem is how to come back with something unique and different.

Tip One: Don’t over pack

Sometimes we try to follow the Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” and pack for every conceivable contingency. The problem on vacation is this pile of equipment is just another thing that is going to slow you down. A heavy bag or backpack of equipment is going to get tiresome after a long day of touring around and its just more stuff to worry about. Theft on vacation is a real concern and if you are traveling with a huge bag stuffed with expensive camera equipment, the thieves will spot you from a mile away.

Better to take a serious look at your equipment and decide which lens you will really be using. Maybe a good zoom lens that covers your typical range is better than bringing your whole kit. Bring a tripod if you want to capture long exposure waterfalls or dimly lit night scenes, otherwise if you have a camera capable of low light photography, leave it behind.

Will you be disappointed that you didn’t have a certain lens for a certain situation? Most likely but you’ll end up seeing more and learn to adapt with the equipment you have on hand.

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On my last vacation to Italy we were on a tour so I knew that about half the time I’d be with a group, so I only brought a small camera with a fixed 35 mm equivalent lens. Not only did it free me from heavy equipment but it was less of a target for thieves. I didn’t have to worry about pickpockets going through my backpack when I wasn’t looking. Everything I needed fit in my hand.

For a trip to Florida, staying with my parents, I packed my full frame Canon 6D a few lens as I knew I had a safe spot to store them. On this trip, I had been to the area many times and had a good idea of the types of images I wanted to capture so I pre-planned which lenses to pack.

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Tip Two: Get Up Early, Eat Late

Photography is the art of capturing light on film or digital sensor. The number one reason most people’s vacation photos suck is because they act like they are on vacation. They sleep in and are concerned about dinner reservation more then about capturing the best light of the day. Most tourists are out and about taking photographs during the hours of 10 and 2 – the worst time of the day. All they get is harsh, blaring sunlight.

If you want to get better photographs the key is to get out early and stay out late. Capture the beautiful low light of early morning and the warm low light late in the day. Not only will the light be better but there will be less crowds too. Less people in the shots, less people asking your to take their picture and less gadget hounds coming up to your to talk about the latest camera they bought before vacation.

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Tip Three: Know Your Equipment

Now speaking of new equipment, no doubt camera manufacturers have data on how many people buy new cameras before a major vacation. It must be the number one selling point of camera sales, well that and the birth of a child. Avoid taking a new camera on vacation until you know all about its quirks.

When once in a lifetime shots appear in front of your eyes you want to capture it with reliable equipment that you know backwards and forwards.

Tip Four: Look Behind You

Our brains are wired to look where other people are looking. I mean how many times have you set up a shot only to find someone breathing down your neck wanting to get the same shot? When everyone is looking in the same direction, turn around and look the opposite way. Sometimes the best shot is somewhere else or at least a more interesting shot.

“If the light is great in front of you, you should turn around and see what it is doing behind you.” – Jay Maisel

Tip Five: Move Your Ass

Just don’t stand there in the crowd of tourist under the “Kodak Moment Spot” sign – move your ass! Physically move yourself into a good position to capture YOUR shot. Not what everyone else is shooting. This is where a prime or fixed focal length lens like a 35mm is a great teaching tool. It forces you to move your body into a good position instead of being lazy with a zoom lens and simply zooming around the environment.

“You find that you have to do many things, more than just lift up the camera and shoot, and so you get involved in it in a very physical way. You may find that the picture you want to do can only be made from a certain place, and you’re not there, so you have to physically go there. And that participation may spur you on to work harder on the thing, . . . because in the physical change of position you start seeing a whole different relationship.” – Jay Maisel

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Tip Six: Finding Things to Shoot

There are a couple ways to approach shooting a tourist area. One would be “collecting” all of the familiar spots that everyone has seen and knows well. Some of these of course are almost a requirement – the Eiffel Tower or whatever. Finding some standard shots is as easy as browsing the postcard rack. But challenge yourself to attempt a fresh approach to well worn subjects like theses.

The other approach is to focus on capturing the feeling of a place in the details. Photographing the people and customs that make these places unique. While looking to capture the big and “wow” producing highlights of the trip, don’t forget the little details along the way.

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