How to take vacation photos

For many hobbyist photographers, vacations are one of the best times to get out and take pictures.  It is one of the few times when you have plenty of free time in an interesting new location with friends or family members who want to be in lots of photos.  But despite this, many people arrange their vacation in such a way as to make it nearly impossible to capture great photos.  A little bit of pre-vacation planning can go a long way to improving your chances of vacation photography success without upsetting your non-photographer friends.

Be mindful of your travel companions

The first consideration when planning your vacation is to consider how your photo obsession is going to affect any friends or family members who are on vacation with you.  While you may look forward to carrying around a camera bag, extra lenses, a tripod, a reflector set and several flashes, your significant other may not be quite as amused.  It's hard to get great vacation photos if everyone is mad at your for slowing them down waiting for you to unpack and repack gear.  Carefully planning which gear you bring can help avoid this issue.

For vacation, minimalism is the key.  If you have piles of gear in your collection, don't bring it all!

Here's a suggested list of what you really need:

  • One DSLR camera body

  • One or two lenses specifically picked to cover the types of situations you will encounter

  • Essential lens filters (circular polarizer, UV filter, and maybe an ND filter)

  • One flash (if you typically use flash)

  • A flash sync cable and/or remote trigger

  • A compact bag to hold these items - preferably "backpack" style

  • Extra CF or SD cards and batteries

  • One pocket-sized camera for the times when a DSLR really just isn't appropriate

This set of gear will work fine in most situations without weighing you down or making you look like you are on a National Geographic expedition.  Obviously you will want to adjust this list based on your specific needs.  For example, you will need an underwater camera casing and lights if you are doing underwater photography.  If you are going on an African photo safari, then ignore this list completely and bring everything you own.  But otherwise, put some real thought into what gear you take and leave everything that isn't essential at home.

Try to choose a camera bag that doesn't look too much like a camera bag.  If you can find something that looks like a small normal backpack with straps, it will prevent you from looking too much like a tourist and reduce the chances that you will draw unwanted attention.  Having straps also helps keep both of your arms free so that you don't have to constantly ask your travel companions to hold gear or bags for you.  Make sure the bag you choose is something that you can carry on a plane.  You never want to check your camera gear on a plane if you can avoid it.

Learn about your destination

Before you go on your trip, try to learn as much about specific tourist sites you are going to visit.  First, look up your destination on wikitravel.org to get tips on other nearby attractions you may want to visit.  You may find ideas for other nearby sites that you want to add to your travel plans.

After you have decided on the attractions that you want to visit, search for the name of the attractions on flickr.  Then on the flickr search results, click the "Interesting" sort option.  That will show you the best photos taken in that the area.

I searched for "Taj Mahal" and clicked the "Interesting" option on the results to see the best of the best photos for the area.

Browse through a few pages of the best photos to get ideas for your own photos.  You may see lots of ideas that you never considered.  There is no better way to be creatively inspired then to see what thousands of others have already done so that you can build on their ideas and come up with a fresh take.

Time the light

The next critical step in planning is to consider how you are going to spend your days on vacation and try to plan your activities around the best times to take photos.  This is the area where most people mess up and it is the single most important thing you can do to improve your vacation photos!

As you will recall from our previous articles, certain times of day are much better for taking photos than others.  Photos taken outdoors around sunrise and sunset will look much better than photos taken at noon because the lighting will be much better.  Despite this, most people plan their vacation activities for the late morning and early afternoon when light is the worst!

Shameless plug: If you are looking for a handy way to track what time of day is best for taking photos, check out our PhotoForecast application for the iPhone and for Android phones.  It will tell you exactly when the sun will be in the best spot for taking photos for your exact location.  Best of all, it's always with you in your pocket!

If you are going to Mexico to tour Mayan ruins, your natural inclination will be to get up in the morning, have breakfast, travel to the ruins, take photos, and then leave by the afternoon.  However, that puts you on location from about 10am to 2pm - the absolute worst times to take photos!  Instead, try to plan your activities so that you will be at your most interesting photography sites in the early morning or late afternoon/early evening.  You get much better light while you avoid the daytime crowds.

Taking pictures near sunrise or sunset will make a huge difference in the quality of the photo. Think of the setting sun as a studio light source and find an angle where it illuminates the scene in an interesting way.

Instead of scheduling your tours for the middle of the day, use that time to visit indoor museums or just sit on the beach.  Try to plan anything that you want to photograph for the very early morning or late afternoon.  If you plan things skillfully, your travel companions won't notice a different but you will be in the right place at the right time to get the best photos possible.

Learn to deal with varied natural light

Photographers have a whole bag of tricks to work with bad outdoor light.  If you are shooting in direct sunlight, you can use a large diffuser to block the sun over your subject.  If the subject is back lit, you can use a reflector to bounce light on the subject or you can use a fill flash.  The list goes on and on.  The problem with all those solutions is they require extra gear and extra helpers to hold that gear.  You don't want to have to deal with that on vacation.

You probably can't get away with having your significant other hold reflectors while you are on vacation.  Leave the reflector at home.

If you are stuck with bad lighting despite your best planning, try shooting from different directions and in different areas until you find somewhere that the lighting is acceptable.  For example, a pocket of shade on the side of a building may provide a great place for photographing people.  Put them in the shade to cut down on the harsh overhead sunlight.

Use bad weather to your advantage

Sometimes your vacation will be spoiled by rain.  But instead of canceling your tours, push ahead and go anyway.  Rain often brings clouds which act like a giant soft box.  The clouds soften and diffuse the light.  That makes it much easier to take outdoor photos in the middle of the day without harsh shadows.

Overcast weather is great for portraits or even landscapes. Rainstorms can be interesting, too.

As long as you avoid truly dangerous weather like lightning and tornadoes, dramatic weather can lead to some great photo results.

Find a unique vantage point

If you are going to a popular tourist location on your vacation, chances are that every other tourist will also have a camera.  If you want to produce something unique and interesting, you need to go where the other tourists aren't going.  This requires creativity and a willingness to try unconventional things.

You don't have to rent a helicopter to get this shot. This was taken from the top level of a tour boat.

Look at your surroundings and consider everything as a possible vantage point.  If you see a potential shot but have no way to get into position, consider enlisting the help of the locals.  In many areas, you can hire a water taxi for a few dollars.  Consider hiring one to take you out for your photograph even if you aren't going anywhere.  As long as the driver gets paid, he won't care where you are going.

Hiring a water taxi for a few dollars was all it took to get a shot from this vantage point.

Don't be afraid to be bold.  Even if you feel self-conscious while taking pictures, most people won't give you a second look.  Don't be a afraid to walk into a hotel, ride the elevator to the top floor, and take a picture if it gets you a better shot.  See a parking deck that overlooks an interesting location?  Just walk up the stairs, take your shot from the top, and leave quietly.  As long as you aren't bothering anyone, it is unlikely that anyone will bother you.

Don't try to hide reality

Many photographers instinctively try to capture "postcard photos" that show a tourist location in a "perfect" way.  This usually means making sure there are no stray tourists and ugly buildings are in your shot.  But guess what?  You can buy a postcard in the closest shop for less than a dollar.  Instead of trying to recreate those synthetic shots, embrace the true feeling of the location.  Try to capture the actual feel of the place you are visiting.  If there is a large crowd, capture the crowd.  That is part of the story.

This is a great shot, but millions of people have this shot.  Don't stop here.  Try to find a unique situation to shoot that incorporates the crowd of people.

In fact, you can go a step further.  Instead of avoiding the crowd and trying to hide it, look for interesting situations.  Below is a photo of tourists waiting to get shoe covers that are required before entering the Taj Mahal.  It was an all-out yelling match for shoe booties.  This shot tells a real story as opposed to being just another boring shot of a white building.

The fight for shoe booties at the Taj Mahal

Play Around

After you get all the shots that you want, try playing with some new techniques.  Here is a fun technique to try on your vacation.

Panoramic Photos

One really fun way to share the experience of "being there" is to take panoramic photos.  This involves taking several photos while spinning in place and then stitching them together into one large photo when you get back to a computer.

It's always fun to try a few panoramic shots.  Try combining them with other techniques like black and white.

The process is really easy:

  1. Use manual mode on your camera and adjust the exposure on your camera to match the light outside.  Using manual mode will keep the exposure consistent between each photo and will make it easier to get a smooth-looking result.

  2. Tilt your camera on the side like your are taking a portrait.  This is counter-intuitive, but it will give you more vertical coverage in your final panorama.

  3. Take a photo of the scene in font of you.

  4. Rotate to the left (making sure you overlap about 20% of the area of your first photo) and take another picture.

  5. Continue turning and taking pictures until you cover the whole area you want to photograph.

  6. Back at your computer, export the series of photos into a folder.

  7. Use the "File"->"Automate"->"Photomerge" menu option in Photoshop CS3 or CS4 to open the series of photos.  It will automatically put them all together for you!

  8. Crop the final photo to cut off the rough edges and show off your photo!

Creating panoramic photos is totally automated in Photoshop CS3 and newer. Open Photomerge, select the individual photos, and then click ok.  Photoshop handles the rest!

Travel in your own backyard

Don't forget that you don't have to wait until your next vacation to take great outdoor photos of interesting places.  No matter where you live, there's bound to be an interesting place that you've never explored.  Look online for parks and attractions that you have never visited.  You might find something amazing close to home!

Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, CA.  Many people who live in San Diego have never visited here.

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