Expert Tips for Better Vacation Pictures

Do you remember that big project at work you were so stressed about two years ago, or that exam you stayed up all night studying for? Probably not. However, you probably do remember how much fun you had on your last vacation. We all love looking back at our vacation pictures because they preserve some of our happiest, most precious moments. Let’s explore a few ways to take vacation pictures that you’ll treasure for years to come.

Showcase your environment

If you see a beautiful scene on vacation, you usually want to get close to it before taking pictures. However, capturing the scene from a distance can create stronger images.

I discovered the largest waterfall I’ve ever seen while on vacation in Iceland. I couldn’t wait to get close to the edge and start taking pictures. I got in line and waited with fellow picture-taking enthusiasts. When I was finally at the edge, I could feel the power of the waterfall under my feet as the water rushed by, but the pictures didn’t show the scale of the waterfall or have the impact that I felt while standing there. I walked up the hill, and discovered that that pictures I took from that vantage point were much stronger.

It’s easy to get caught up in the feeling of being in a stunning location, but capturing that feeling with your camera may require shooting from a different place than you’d expect. Remember to pull back and show more of your environment. Also, include people in your images when photographing large landmarks, as this will help to show the landmark’s size.

Add unique, local elements

Sunset is a beautiful time of day everywhere in the world. I remember being in Jamaica and enjoying gorgeous sunsets night after night, but when I looked at my sunset pictures, they seemed very similar to those I took in Los Angeles. I discovered that including something that helped to show where I was made for better sunset pictures. For example, when I walked back from the edge of the Jamaican beach and included a local fisherman’s silhouette along with some leaves on a tree, it helped frame my sunset and give it context. With this small change, my standard sunset became a Jamaican sunset.

To create images like this, expose for the sun, not the person. In auto mode, aim your camera toward the sun to get an exposure reading. Let’s say the sunset reading in auto mode is f/16 at 1/125th. Switch your camera mode to manual and set it to f/16 at 1/125th. Now frame your pictures, making sure to include elements unique to the location.

Consider the time of day

On a trip to the Death Valley sand dunes one year, I fell in love with the patterns created by the sun as sunset approached. The contrast of dark and light mixed with the shapes of the dunes was stunning. As you take pictures, look for shapes during the early morning and late afternoon hours, and use the contrast of light and dark to make better vacation pictures. To make your pictures even stronger, include your family and friends off in the distance, so that your landscapes become more personal and impactful.

Mix natural and man-made objects

When you’re in a beautiful location, your first impulse is likely to pull out your camera. However, if you pause and look for ways to include different elements of the scene together, you can make interesting and memorable pictures.

I was blown away by the endless sea of cherry blossoms I saw while visiting Kyoto, Japan. It was like a scene straight out of an Akira Kurosawa movie. As I walked around, I noticed a cherry blossom tree next to a gold buddha. I knew that having a bold man-made object next to a powerful natural element makes for great pictures. The next time you find a great man-made landmark, look for seasonal flowers, trees, or other things that give your pictures a special look. Consider using different angles as well, like shooting up.

Capture moments

Having pictures of yourself on vacation is a great thing, but remember to change it up with pictures of locals or something from your favorite meal. Look for moments that describe the place you’re visiting—maybe it’s a funny thing that happened, or just a moment of happiness you experienced while walking around a new place.

I had one of the most amazing cups of coffee ever in Sweden, and had to take a picture to remember that moment. Later, as I walked around Stockholm, I saw a local merchant daydreaming and snapped a photo. Years later, I can still remember both of those times like they were yesterday. Enjoy your summer travels, and remember to have fun taking pictures.

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Matthew Jordan Smith

Matthew Jordan Smith is a celebrity, fashion & beauty photographer based in Los Angeles, California. Some of his clients include Revlon, Pantene, Olay and his celebrity subjects include Oprah, Carlos Slim and the President of Iceland. He is a Nikon Ambassador and host of the podcast Master Your Lens.