15 Tips for Taking Great Vacation Photos

A photo pro with five grandchildren shares his advice for capturing memorable vacation images.

By Gary Haynes

You’re back from vacation with pictures — lots of pictures. If those photos are so compelling that your friends, relatives, and neighbors are already eager to stop by to see them, skip this article.

But for the rest of us, some simple and practical tips can, on your next trip, improve those photos so that they become a great addition to your family albums, and everybody who sees them will be amazed.

1. Shoot like Steven Spielberg. You want to "tell the story" of your holiday instead of just taking a bunch of random snapshots. Spielberg prepares elaborate storyboards envisioning his movies beforehand. Give some thought to vacation-photo possibilities ahead of time. Your photos show how well you "see" and distill a memorable trip into a prized album. If you're headed to some well-known destination, read books or look on the internet for photos others have taken and consider your approach.

2. Compose your shots. Every time you look through that viewfinder or LCD monitor, before you shoot, scan the scene shown. See what you're including, and excluding. Take your time to compose, and only then, shoot. Take several photos of the same people or scene. Especially if you have grandchildren in the frame, no two photos will be the same. With children, get the camera down to their level. Try different angles, and make an effort to shoot close-ups, medium shots, and general views that show where you are and what everyone is doing. Better to shoot every possible picture in every situation than to fret later about the shot that "got away."

3. Start at home. Photograph family members packing bags in the last-minute frenzy, lining up at the airport, and waiting at the gate. Try the ticket counter and message board with your flight listed, with one of the grandchildren hovering nearby. Shoot a close-up of your tickets, or have the grandchildren hold them up close to their faces (posed is okay). Such photos establish when you begin your trip.

4. Give each grandchild a camera. You'll be surprised at the photos they'll get. Don't over-supervise; let them use their imaginations. A side benefit will be pictures proving that you were there, too, since you are customarily the one behind the camera. Several digital models cost less than $20. One-use cameras are $8 or less.

5. Always carry your camera. You can't record a memorable moment if you don't have a camera handy, ready to grab surprising photo opportunities. Make photos of the grandchildren in the places you stay, exterior and interior, the lobby, and restaurants. Take photos in and of your room; show the view from your window, good or bad. Signs, especially foreign ones, add a nice touch.

6. Fill the frame. Your feet are valuable photo tools. In almost every case, use them to move closer to the subject. You don't need expanses of sky or foreground unless there is something in the sky or the foreground to look at.

7. Clear the frame. Make certain that there are no distractions in the background like a smokestack, a pipe, or a tree limb that seems to be sticking out of someone's head. Move a bit to solve such problems.

8. Balance the frame. If you're taking close-ups of the grandchildren, the photo is going to be more interesting if they're not dead center. Compose with them to the left or right and then fill the rest of the frame with information about where you are.

9. Get vertical. People will try to back up almost into Belgium to get the Eiffel Tower into their horizontal photo, when by twisting the camera to shoot vertically, they can get a relative in the foreground and the landmark. If you shoot vertically and get down low enough, you can include almost all of the Eiffel Tower without leaving France.

10. Don’t pose too many vacation pictures. You aren't trying to duplicate the pristine "postcard" photos for sale nearby. Frame your view of the Coliseum or Cinderella's Castle, and only then worry about family in the foreground close to the camera (10 feet is too far away). Encourage everybody to "do their thing" and not mug for the camera.

11. Try to avoid using a flash. When it's dark indoors or outdoors at night, don't be afraid to take photos without a flash. (If that sounds scary, experiment by shooting low-light situations before you leave home.) Use "faster" (ISO 800 or higher) film for night shots and interiors, or use your digital camera's higher "film speed" rating. The flash on your camera lights up anything immediately in front of you to a distance of no more than five feet, and that's all, generally resulting in terrible pictures.

12. Always be aware of your light. Daytime photos outdoors will be better if you remain keenly aware of the way the light falls on the scene, and turn it to your advantage. In full sun, the light should be coming from behind you or from the side. Prime "photogenic" sunlight is at its warm best during the couple of hours after sunrise and before sunset. During those hours your subjects won't squint as much. Also, keep shooting even if the sky turns gloomy or dark, or if it starts to rain or snow.

13. Don’t be self-conscious when taking pictures in public places. Concentrate on what you're seeing in the frame and the light, and getting great pictures, not what strangers may be thinking. Nobody is going to critique your technique when you show your photos.

14. Catch the quiet moments. Grandchildren just "chilling out" during vacation make for good pictures when they are oblivious to the camera. Capture them inspecting their new Goofy autograph, or lying on the hotel-room floor writing in a journal. Adults too often try to stage-manage and rush things while ignoring great photos of their young subjects doing something interesting on their own.

15. Pass the camera to someone else. The designated photographer is frequently absent from the vacation photos. Ask another adult in your party to take some shots that include you with your grandchildren. If you see other families, volunteer to take photos of them together so they can return the favor.

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