January 17, 2023

Take Better Photographs on Your Next Vacation

By Laura Merz
Take Better Photographs on Your Next Vacation

We’ve all done it - come to the end of a vacation and realize the only good photo of the family on the trip has everyone squinting into the sun to look at the camera and lets be honest: It’s not going to make it on your wall.

I like to make a yearly scrapbook of adventures our family has taken, and I am always trying to improve my photos to have a more editorial feel. I want to show the behind the scenes and the real experience of the trip, not just the “smile and say cheese” photos.

So today I want to walk you through how I get great behind the scenes images to bring the memories of vacation alive whether its through a photo book, printed photograph, or just your instagram!

( Side note, I love Mixbook for making my albums. It’s easy to use and comes out looking so professional. Not an ad - I just really like them! )

It’s not difficult to take better photographs when you pack outfits that photograph well, have an idea of what backgrounds you’ll have available tot you, and learn just a few tips and tricks with your phone or camera.


Let’s break it down.


Your Clothes will Make or Break your Photos

One of the most glaring issues in photographs is words or graphics on a t-shirt that spoil the visual of the image. At best, it pulls your eyes away from those lovely faces and experiences you’re trying to capture. At worst, a wrinkle in the fabric can create rude words or awkward visual out of an otherwise innocent graphic. This goes for kids and adults shirts!

So to give your vacation photos an instant boost, pack clothes that avoid graphics. Solids, stripes, and florals are classic and tend to photograph well.

Solid colors and bold stripes are easy to incorporate into most backgrounds for photographs, and you can always dress them up with accessories. For kids, solids are great too because if a shirt or pants get spoiled, you can just often change one article of clothing without having to pull out a whole new outfit.

Choose colors that will compliment - or stand out from - the environment you’re going to. If you’re going to a sandy desert place, bright white and reds can bring a classic vibe to your photos. At the beach, softer pastels will feel more natural than harsh black and saturated tones.

When you pack with intention, it will make it easier later to take advantage of unscripted moments to photograph and still create a beautiful image.



Know where you are going


This probably sounds silly, because most of us know exactly where we *want* to go. But doing a bit of research ahead of time can help you be prepared for those candid photos.


If you’re going to the beach, find out where the sun sets and at what time. There are free resources online to help with this, or an app like PhotoPills (paid) can show you exactly where in the sky the sun will set. Or you can just watch the first night and see for yourself! Why is this important? If the sun is setting over a blank stretch of beach, you could plan to create a wide sweeping landscape image with your kids running after crabs. So you’ve planned for spontaneity! However if the sun is going to set behind a pier, now you’ve got an interesting visual anchor for your photo - how will you incorporate that? Will you have your spouse and kids sit on the pier and create a sunset silhouette? A little observation and light planning can help you to know what to look for you so you can capture the moments as the happen throughout the trip.

If you’re going a more crowded destination, say Disney World, Tuscan cities, or the Eiffel Tower, you’ll need to think through ways to find those candid moments without the crowds. I knew in Italy we’d have plenty of side streets and church steps where the kids could run around - I waited for those moments to get photographs instead of trying to force smiles in front of crowded iconic buildings. The candid moments have a more authentic feel and bring me immediately back to the moment.

If I were going to Disney World, rather than trying to get that photograph of everyone standing in front of the castle (an image that tends to look cluttered and touristy), I would plan to find a side path that has a view of the castle in the distance, perhaps with a beautiful garden to fill the middle ground behind my subject. This would be a great moment for one of those adorable mickey-shaped ice creams…and a great unscripted photo moment.


Find a “clean” background


No, I’m no talking about keeping rubbish bins out of your photos. Look for backgrounds without a lot of distracting elements, but at the same time incorporate bits of the trip. Avoid shooting toward a crowd where the people behind your subject are going to pull focus away from the image.


You can also look for interesting patterns to create a background - a series of columns, an interesting pathway, these can all become useful tools to give a sense of place to those fun little moments throughout your trip.


In Portugal, a country known for their tiles, I saw a beautiful bench with a blue tiled wall which created a great background for a portrait of my daughter. As you can see she’s wearing patterned pants - I hadn’t planned for photos that day (it was pouring rain!) But because they’re fairly neutral it doesn’t disrupt the image too much. This photograph happened in the moment without a plan - and they often do! But I knew what to look for, and in the end came home with this beautiful image that we have framed in our home.



Using the Rule of Thirds


Ok, you know your basic outfit plan, and what backgrounds you’re going to encounter. Now lets chat about creating a strong image - even if all you’re using is a phone!


If you’ve spent any time at all reading about creating a strong photograph, you’ve probably read about the rule of thirds. This is the concept of dividing your photograph into three equal pieces across, and up and down to make a grid of nine squares. By placing your subject on one of those intersecting points, your image becomes more interesting than placing the subject dead center.


By placing the visual “weight” of the image in the bottom third, for example, you can change the whole feel of the image itself even if you’re in the same exact place. It’s something to play with so that your photo features your kids and the background - rather than a huge swath of grass or sidewalk.


If you’re having trouble visualizing the grid, or you just like a reminder, most phones have the option to turn on the grid in your camera app so you actually see it as you’re composing your photograph.




Look for Even Light


Photography is all about light - and I’ll cover this more in the future - but just looking for even lighting can make or break your photos! We’ve all seen those photographs where the subjects are squinting into the sun or worse, the faces are all dark with shadow while the scenery is beautiful behind.


Capturing your photographs in the early morning or late afternoon (avoiding the mid-day sun) is the easiest way to find this light. Overcast days also help. But what to do if you find yourself in the middle of the day with a perfect photo opportunity?


You can look for shade, which will help diffuse the light, preferably away from any trees that could cause strange shadows on the face. But you can also try shooting directly into the sun, exposing for your subject.

 Child climbing on fallen tree branches

To do this, position your subject with their face away from the sun. Then, using your phone or camera, ensure that focus and exposure are on the subject - just tap the phone screen or hold your shutter button half way down. This forces the camera to see your subject as the most important part of the photograph, exposing the light for them instead of the background. Practice with it, and you’ll start to get a feel for it - shooting into direct light definitely takes practice!



The most important way to get a better photo


The most important thing you can do when looking to create a spectacular vacation photo is to just watch and be quiet. I have to resist that urge to have my kids look at the camera - I know that if I just watch them, I can capture them in the moment and it’ll be a more authentic image. Seeing them in their element - watching them communicate with one another or interact with their environment - these are the kind of photographs that stand the test of time.


Yes, we all want that family shot looking at the camera. But after you’ve captured that image, let go of the urge to say “smile.” Just choose small moments throughout your trip to capture, watch for backgrounds and actions that call out to you, and you’ll start to see your photographs become more artistic and less forced.

Two children watch a crab through a windowpane.


It’s not hard to improve your vacation photos when you pack outfits that photograph well, anticipate your locations, and practice a few photography tips. If you try this on your next trip, let me know or tag me on instagram @developing.adventure.

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