10 Easy Tips to Make Your Vacation Photos Really Pop

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A unique shot of the Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland

Since the invention of photography, taking pictures has been a staple of almost every vacation ever taken.  We have all been on a trip and seen something that we really wish we could share with others when we get home.  Taking pictures is a great way in which we can do that.  And with digital cameras and camera phones, it is getting easier-and-easier to do.

At one time or another, most of us have also likely gotten home, taken a look at the pictures we were really excited about, only to find them underwhelming.  It’s something that has happened to all of us.  However, there are some quick an easy tips that you can follow to make sure that it is less likely to happen to you again.  Follow these steps and you have a much better chance of taking pictures that will really WOW people when you get home.

Research Places to Photograph Before You Go

For every absolutely stunning photograph you see that was captured spontaneously, there are dozens that were taken after careful research and planning. Never shy away from taking impromptu pictures of things that catch your eye, but if you want to increase the number of beautiful pictures you take, it helps to be prepared before you travel.

Before you take your trip, do a little research on the locations you will be visiting. We will typically do a Google search on the locations, and then look at the pictures in the search results. Look for great locations to take shots, and pay attention to the details of the pictures. For instance, what time of day the shots were taken, whether people were included in the shots, etc.

We also like to use Instagram and Pinterest to do a little research on our destinations. They are great tools to see what other people have photographed at these locations and how they composed their shots. Doing this research ahead of time can give you some great ideas on where and how to take pictures when you arrive.

Know Your Camera

We are firm believers that the photographer makes the shot, not the equipment. We have seen some absolutely stunning photographs taken by nothing more than a camera phone. You don’t need to have an expensive DSLR to take great pictures, but you really do need to understand how to best use the equipment you have.

Whether you are using your phone, a point-and-shoot camera, or the latest-and-greatest DSLR, knowing how to use the equipment you have can mean the difference between a great shot and a blurry mess. Before you go on your trip, take some time to acquaint yourself with your camera. Get to know its strengths and its limitations. Learn how to use the different settings the camera has.

There is nothing worse than missing a great shot because you couldn’t take the picture quick enough or it was blurry, over-exposed, or under-exposed because you weren’t comfortable with the camera. Whenever we get new equipment, we like to take it out around our home and take pictures in different settings and in different light so that we become very comfortable with using it. It’s an easy way to get some practice and build your comfort level with the camera.

Use the Golden Hours

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Photographs taken during the Golden Hours seem to glow in ways that pictures taken in the strong sun during the day do not.

There is no better way to make your pictures appear more magical than to take them during the golden hours of the day.  One of the most important elements of photography is light, and there is no better light to take a photograph than during the Golden Hours.  The light is soft and the pictures just seem to pop even more than they would if taken during the day.

The Golden Hours refer to the hour just after sunrise and the hour just before sunset, when the sun is just beginning to rise or set. Everyone loves a great sunrise and sunset because they are beautiful by themselves, but the Golden Hours are about more than that. Photographs taken during the Golden Hours seem to glow in ways that pictures taken in the strong sun during the day do not.

If you want to get some really magical shots on your trip, make sure you get up before the sun rises to be in position to take your shots during the Golden Hour after sunrise, or make sure you stay out late enough to be in position to get some shots during the Golden Hour just before sunset. This means you will need to do some planning, but it will be well worth it when you see how your photos turn out. If you aren’t sure when the Golden Hours will occur where you are traveling, there is a Golden Hour Calculator online that can help you out.

Talk to the People You Meet

Tanzania-41

We stopped at a Masaai village while in Tanzania and got to know more about their customs and the way they live.  This led to some very inspiring photo opportunities.

A great way to find great places and things to photograph is to talk to the locals when you travel. No amount of research will give you the knowledge and insight that someone who is intimately familiar with a location can give you. On top of that, you will probably learn something about the area and the people who live there.

If you are staying at a hotel or hostel, take some time to talk to the staff about the area. Find out where they would recommend that you visit and when. Some of the cooler photographs that we have taken we were able to take because we got some great recommendations from locals.

When we were in Tanzania, we stopped by a Masaai village to purchase some of the jewelry and carvings that they make and got to know some more about how they live. We ended up asking them if we could take some photographs of their ceremonial dances and they happily obliged. They were even nice enough to let us take some portrait shots. It was one of the most genuinely cool experiences of our trip.

Use Leading Lines

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By using natural lines in the composition of your photographs, you create a visual journey for the viewer that helps their eyes move from one part of your picture to another.

Another really great way to make your pictures pop is to use leading lines in the composition of your photographs. By using natural lines in the composition of your photographs, you create a visual journey for the viewer that helps their eyes move from one part of your picture to another. In a way, you are telling a story with your picture without having to use any words.

The leading lines can be a road meandering off into the distance, a railroad track heading into a tunnel, or the lines in a stain glass window you are photographing. In the last example, you are using lines to keep the viewers attention on the window, whereas with the road and tracks you are drawing their attention from one part of the picture to another.

Regardless of how you use leading lines, their use can make your photographs more visually appealing. Though you shouldn’t feel as though every picture you take needs to use leading lines, get into the habit of keeping your eye out for ways in which you can use natural lines in the composition of your shots. It takes some practice, but it is well worth it.

Follow the Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds involves breaking the landscape or subject you are photographing up into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, and then placing the interesting subject matter you are photographing along the intersecting lines.

Another easy rule in the composition of photographs that can make your pictures more visually appealing is called the Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds involves breaking the landscape or subject you are photographing up into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, and then placing the interesting subject matter you are photographing along the intersecting lines.

By following the Rule of Thirds, you will naturally make your photographs more balanced and visually appealing. A common mistake that beginning photographers often make is to put the main focal point of their composition in the middle of the picture. Studies have shown that is less visually appealing than placing the subject slightly to the left or right of center. See for yourself. Which of the following pictures do you find more visually appealing?

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In this shot, the elephant is in the center of the photo.  This is one of the most common photo mistakes people make because it is less visually appealing.

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In this shot, we use the Rule of Thirds. The elephant is positioned in the third horizontal section of the photo, which is more visually appealing.

Bring a Tripod With You

One of the biggest obstacles to taking quality pictures is keeping the camera still when you are taking a picture. Camera shake, or the slight movement of the camera while you are taking a picture, can leave a picture blurry and out of focus. Even the steadiest of hands is susceptible to camera shake, especially in low light.

If you are using a DLSR and you are familiar with and comfortable shooting in manual mode, you can also adjust the shutter speed to eliminate the effect movement can have on your images. A faster shutter speed will allow you to freeze movement in your photographs. However, if you are going to use a faster shutter speed, you will also need a wider aperture or higher ISO setting to even out the exposure. We won’t go too in-depth with these concepts in this article, but in case you aren’t familiar with them we have included some basic explanations of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for you below.

Shutter Speed

Controls how fast the shutter on your camera opens and shuts when taking a picture. The quicker the shutter speed, the less likely movement in your pictures will appear blurry.

Aperture

How far open the eye of your lens is when taking a picture. The higher the aperture, the further open the lens gets when taking a picture. The wider the eye of the lens opens, the more light gets exposed to the sensor. The aperture also controls the depth of field in your images. The higher the aperture, the smaller the depth of field.

If you use a very high aperture when taking a photograph, the result will be a bokeh effect (where the part of the image you focused on is in focus, and either the foreground or background is purposely out of focus). This is often used in portrait photography.

ISO

The ISO is the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor to light. The lower the ISO, the less sensitive the sensor is to light and the finer the grain of your image. Higher ISO settings can make up for lower light exposure, but too high of a setting can result in grainy images.

Camera Cheat Sheet

This cheat sheet can be used to understand the effect of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings when shooting in Manual Mode.

If you aren’t using a DSLR, or are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with shooting in manual mode, don’t fret. An easy way to eliminate camera shake in your photographs is to use a tripod when taking pictures. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to use a tripod for every shot that you take, but if you plan on taking shots in low light or with a slow shutter speed, it is pretty essential.

Take Notes or Turn on GPS

There is nothing more frustrating than taking some really cool pictures, only to get back home and not remember what the picture is of. In some cases, this won’t be an issue because you took a picture of something you are very familiar with. However, chances are, you will look back at your pictures several years later and there will be more than a few pictures that you aren’t quite sure about.

An easy way to eliminate the doubt is to take good notes on what you are photographing. Bring a small notebook that you can use as a photo journal, and then spend 10-15 minutes each night documenting what you did and what you photographed.

If your camera equipment permits, an even easier way of documenting where your pictures were taken and what they are of is to turn on your camera’s GPS. If you are using your phone to take pictures, you likely don’t need to worry about turning the GPS on. However, if you are using a DSLR you may need to turn this functionality on if your camera has this functionality. If your DSLR does not have built-in GPS, there are GPS units you can buy to attach to your camera. Just make sure you don’t leave the GPS on when you aren’t using your camera is it will likely drain your batteries.

An easy way to use the GPS tagging on your photos to keep track of where your pictures where taken is to use Adobe Lightroom’s built-in map feature to display the location of all of your images. This feature has saved us more than a few times with some pictures we forgot the details on.

Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom’s built-in map functionality can be very useful in reviewing where you took certain photos on your trip.

Keep White Balance in Mind

A rather easy, but often overlooked, way to make sure that you pictures really pop is to pay close attention to the white balance you use. White balance is your camera’s mechanism of adjusting the colors in your image so that your picture looks more natural. If you take a picture with the improper white balance, the colors can look off instead of looking like what you saw when you took the picture.

Most cameras allow you to adjust the white balance before you start taking pictures. Typical white balance settings include Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash, and Custom. Just match the white balance setting to the conditions where you are taking pictures.

In case you forget to adjust the white balance before taking pictures, many post editing software packages, including Adobe Lightroom, allow you to adjust the white balance after the fact. Take a look at the example pictures below for a good example of how using the proper white balance setting can make your pictures look much more natural.

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A photo taken at Redwood National Park without regard to the proper white balance setting.

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For this shot, we set the white balance to the “Shade” setting because it was so dark in the forest.  The result is a more vibrant image that reflects what we actually saw in terms of colors.

 

Be Creative

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When taking pictures on your trip, the most important thing is to be creative.  In this shot we took in Sonoma Valley, we used this vase of flowers in the foreground to make the photo of the vineyard more visually appealing.

The most important thing you can do to make sure you take some fantastic photos when you travel is to remember to use your imagination. Be creative when you are composing your photos. Find some interesting things to put in the foreground of your shots, use people in your shots to show scale, or adjust your perspective (by getting low to the ground or finding a high vantage point). These are just some of the ways in which you can get creative with your pictures.

Above all else, have fun. We travel so that we can find fulfillment, and taking pictures is a great way to document the fun we have. So make sure you have some fun when taking pictures. It will show in the results.

About Josh Hewitt

Avid traveler and photographer who loves to see new places, meet new people, and experience new things. There is so much this world can teach us, we just need to explore!
This entry was posted in Photography, Recommendations, Travel Advice and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to 10 Easy Tips to Make Your Vacation Photos Really Pop

  1. LuAnn says:

    Great post Josh. Lots of good information in this one. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome tips! I recently took a picture during the golden hour and didn’t realize until I saw your post why it turned out so good.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. excellent tips. thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I regret to advise that I am a ‘point and shoot’ gal! I just can’t be bothered to lug a large camera and multiple lenses when I travel, especially when I am on walking tours. I seem to be able to capture some good shots every now and then. What are your thoughts on the various automatic settings on point and shoot cameras? I really like the one that intensifies the colours in the view finder, although sometimes I think that may be cheating. Thanks for all the tips and tricks, Mel

    Liked by 1 person

    • Josh Hewitt says:

      I am a firm believer that it is the person taking the pictures, not the type of camera, that makes a great shot. So don’t worry, a point-and-shoot is just fine 😀

      I am guessing your camera has settings similar to: Landscape, Portrait, Action, etc… If you are shooting moving objects, definitely use the action setting. It will speed up the shutter and reduce motion blur. In low light, definitely use a flash as it will be the only way to stop blur. I would also look into your camera’s white balance settings. This is the best way to liven up shots. If it’s shady over overcast, make sure you shoot with the white balance set to Cloudy or Shade. Hope that helps 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. Shagun Gupta says:

    Those are great tips! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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