How to Take Better Summer Vacation Photos

BlogHer Original Post

I get a lot of questions about photography. Sometimes I even get asked for photography advice, which is fun because I still feel like a total newbie myself. When BlogHer asked me to write a post on photographing summery things, I thought perfect! Let's show the world what I don't know!

Just kidding, I do know a few things -- very few -- but I'm happy to pass them along. So get your cameras ready, because it's time to talk about photographing your summer travel/vacation/outdoor adventures.


Morning over the desert, Phoenix
Phoenix morning, summer 2010

First, and this is the most important of all the free advice I'll hand out today: Tell everyone you're traveling with to not be afraid of your camera. I always give people a general disclaimer that goes along these lines: I like photographs. I am a photographer. You are with me and you are my friend, therefore you will be a subject. Get used to it. If I point the camera in your direction, it's because I see something interesting, so keep doing whatever you're doing. Don't duck or hide or freeze up. It's a picture, not a public speaking event -– nervousness is not necessary. In return, I promise you that I will delete any photos that are really unflattering, and I promise not to put bad pictures of you up on Facebook or on my blog.

That usually helps loosen up your travel partners. I mean, let's be honest, everyone likes good pictures of themselves after they're already taken. You have to be willing to have a few bad snaps taken in order to get the good ones.

All right, now that you're traveling with a group of people that are miraculously not afraid of photos anymore (now that you've given them a Rudy-worthy pep talk), let's move on to the mechanics.

First, let's talk about light. When traveling in the summer, you'll get lots of great light from the sun, because you'll be taking the bulk of your pictures outside. If you learn to work with it and really think about the angle of the light, you can take some really incredible photos with great lighting. But forgetting to think about where the light is coming from is the number one culprit behind bad travel photos, indigestion and shark attacks. All right, I may have exaggerated. It's the number two culprit.

Jokes aside, light matters. If you're talking about portrait photography, you have a little more discretion over where you place your subject. Scoot over here, tilt your head a little to the right, that sort of thing. But travel photos? You can't exactly ask the Taj Mahal to take a few steps to the left. You have to work with what you're given, whether it's blazing sun or a sudden downpour, and you might only have a few minutes to take the shot. Waiting out the weather isn't always an option. So here's what to do:

If the sky is cloudy, that's great news. Nice, pretty, even light. Clouds can be great subject matter in themselves, and if it's a dreary day, I always try to include as much sky as possible in my photos.


Cádiz Province-166.jpg Cloudy day in Amman, Jordan Cape Cod-035.jpg
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If it's sunny out, that's great news, too. You can get the warm, cheerful, classic summer look on a bright day. Don't be afraid of backlighting, either, because with it you can make interesting, dramatic images. If you're taking a photo into the sun, makes sure that you're exposing it for the darker parts of the image.

If you don't have an SLR but you rock a point-and-shoot digital camera, here's where you get comfortable with your custom camera modes. Most cameras these days have a little dial you can rotate to take pictures of the sunset, or action shots, or even feeding monkeys underwater on a Tuesday. Use them, and I think you'll be surprised at how it affects the quality of your snapshots.

Some sunny day shots, for your consideration:


Portugal-042-2.jpg untitled shoot-281.jpg   El Palo-048.jpg

The worst thing about traveling in the summer is that everyone else also travels in the summer. Sometimes it's annoying to be trying to take a picture of a beautiful landscape or cool local scene when you can't seem to get a shot without all the tourists swarming around. It's just how life goes sometimes. I say embrace it. Make lemonade and all that. Some of my favorite pictures have been ones where I stopped looking for the distilled shot that perfectly captures the architectural or scenic beauty, and I started looking for interesting people to include. In each one of the following pictures, I was initially kind of annoyed because there were random people "ruining" my shot. And now the thing I like most about these photos are the people. Go figure.


Cádiz Province-255.jpg Cádiz Province-279-Edit.jpg Madrid-027.jpg

So, there you have it. The basics of good vacation photography: Tell your friends (or kids or husband or sister-in-law or whoever) to stop being afraid of the camera, watch the direction and quality of the available light, and embrace random people in your photos. It might not be poetry, but those are my tips for today.

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