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10 Tips for Taking Your Best Ever Vacation Photos

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Read Time: 11 min

Summer is here and already fleeting. If you haven't already, it's time to squeeze that vacation in before the kids go back to school. Not only do vacations provide you and your family a much needed break from reality, they'll also serve up some of the best photo opportunities you'll see all year. Below we'll take a look at some quick tips to help you capture some of your best images ever while traveling!

1. Take a Step Back

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As you're traveling, one of your primary goals as a photographer is to take in the sights. You're likely to encounter many breathtaking views that you'll want to remember just as they were through your eyes.

What this means on a practical level is that you should pack your wide angle lens. If you've been meaning to pick one up, right before a vacation is the perfect time. When you've got a beautiful view in front of you, that fancy $1,200 zoom lens can kill it. Instead you'll want something that can grab as much of the landscape as possible.

If you've got the budget, a good 10-22mm would be an excellent place to start. If you're looking for something a little more affordable, consider a cheap 35mm prime. These are small and lightweight and should do a fairly decent job of really stretching your field of view.

If you won't be able to bring a wide angle lens, try some panoramic sequences that you can piece together in Photoshop later. Even if you're not a computer wiz, Photoshop does an excellent job of automating this process.

2. Don't Forget the Faces

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When you're out traveling to new and exciting locations with your wide angle lens, it's really easy to get sidetracked and forget about the most important part: the people that came with you.

The single best way to re-experience the events and emotions of your vacation years after is through the faces of the family and friends who were there. It's well worth it to miss the shot of Mickey Mouse walking by if you can instead capture the expression on your three year old's face as it happens.

Scenery shots are great, but these are the photos that will make you both laugh and cry twenty years from now. So be sure to take tons of them!

If you want great face shots like the one above, use a lens that can get fairly close and make sure your aperture is wide open. This will give you that nice blurry background that highlights faces so well. Just make sure your focusing technique is solid. With wide apertures, always focus on the eyes (or eyelashes!) as they're the most important part of the composition.

For shots like these, I can't recommend a 50mm f/1.4 enough. These lenses are extremely affordable and will make it seem effortless to take professional quality images.

3. Get the Details

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When you're somewhere you've never been before, capturing the tiniest details has a way of making the trip seem that much more magical when you're showing the pictures off to your friends and family. Even if it's something almost anyone could find right in their own back yard.

Obviously, flowers and bugs and a great place to start, but don't stop there. Capture the weave of the hammock on the beach, the grain in the bamboo flooring in your bungalow, and the tiniest bubbles in the wake of the tide.

Macro photography is all about displaying the beauty in the mundane. Any moment that impacted you on your vacation can be represented metaphorically through the things around you that you touched and experienced at the time.

Unfortunately, many lenses won't allow you to focus close enough to your subject to take a decent macro. If you want to go all out, you should look at a dedicated macro lens like Canon's 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro.

4. Watch for Wildlife

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Everyone loves a good creature shot. One of the neatest part of traveling somewhere new can be seeing various living things that you would never see back home. Don't hesitate to venture from the beaten path and explore any areas where mother nature still has the upper hand.

Capturing shots like the one above is sure to earn you some photography respect points with your peers and is a great way to end up on the "interesting" section on Flickr. Just watch out for anything with teeth!

The best way to capture anything that might potentially run away from you (or eat you) is definitely with a zoom lens. Most wild animals will be long gone before you get close enough to get a good shot with anything else so be sure to bring the biggest lens you own if you think there will be potential for some photos like these. Ideally you'll want something that can hit up around 200-300mm.

5. Capture the Illusion

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This one particularly applies to theme parks, zoos and other attractions. When you're taking pictures at these locations, watch how you crop the photos. Anything you can do to hide "the man behind the curtain" so to speak will help the believability of the image.

What I mean by this is to crop out any fences, walls, signs, tourists, lights, etc. that make it obvious that the giant dinosaur you're shooting is part of an exhibit. For instance, the picture above would've been much less engaging if other rides could be seen poking through the greenery in the background.

As another example, when you come home from the zoo you can either have 300 images that look like a day at the zoo or 300 images that look like you went on an epic African safari. It's all in the cropping.

Sometimes it's hard to manage this, especially if you're trying to capture an image without people while standing in a crowded place. As a trick, try taking multiple photos from the same vantage point as the people are moving around. Hopefully you'll be able to combine the empty space in each picture to create the image you want. Is that cheating? Yes. Does anyone have to know about it? Nope.

6. Learn to Shoot in the Dark

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While on vacation, you have much less control over lighting situations than you would on your home turf with access to all your equipment. Whether you're camping in the woods at night or watching the Aladdin show at Disneyland, the lights will go out and there will still be plenty of photographs you don't want to miss.

This can be extremely difficult if you lack the proper tools and training. For starters, familiarize yourself with long exposure shots. If you've got room, pack the tripod, if not, look for a nice flat surface to set your camera down while it goes about the business of collecting light.

Obviously, if there is any sort of movement involved, long exposures aren't going to work. In this case you'll need a good low light lens (something with a wide aperture) and perhaps a Gary Fong flash diffuser. Camera-mounted flashes tend to produce really harsh lighting that will simply ruin your photos. Diffusing this light allows you to take advantage of the additional lighting without all the ugly side effects.

7. Avoid the Cliché

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As you visit new and exciting places, resist the urge to just throw people in front of something and snap a picture; or at the very least, just don't stop there. As a photographer you should consider yourself an artist and should therefore aspire to present content in a unique manner that reflects your specific style.

A couple of gigs of photos of your family plastering fake smiles on their faces while posing rigidly in front of monuments is nice, but nowhere near the potential of what you could be bringing home. Try instead to create clever poses and compositions that you won't see in the photo libraries of everyone who has ever been to that place.

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As an example, consider the photo above. Rather than merely standing and smiling in front of the train, some thought was given on how to create something fun and unique. Never be afraid to try something silly or unconventional. Worst case scenario: it doesn't work and you have to take another photo.

8. Life is Fast - Watch Your Shutter Speed

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Whether it's from a bus ride through the Italian countryside or your kids running around on the beach, vacations are filled with motion. Not giving serious consideration to your shutter speed can turn your collection of photos into a major disappointment.

Never assume that just because the photo looks perfect on your tiny preview screen that it won't have any blurring when you see it full size. Instead, keep that shutter speed as fast as you can get it in these situation (unless of course you're going for intentional blur).

Even if what you're shooting isn't really moving, remember that you and your camera are. To avoid camera shake, try to stay above 1/60th-1/80 sec, and if you are shooting movement, make it much higher. To illustrate, the image above was shot at 1/80 sec and the image below at a whopping 1/8000 sec.

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This could've easily been a blurry mess in a bathing suit but the photographer was keen enough to know that the motion (and probably the sunlight) required a fast shutter.

9. Give Everyone a Camera!

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Just because you're the photographer in the family doesn't mean you should have all the fun! In fact, being the guy everyone has to constantly pull along because you stopped yet again to take a photo is a good way to ensure your family goes without you next time!

Giving everyone a camera is a great way to really integrate photography into the trip and help ensure your kids don't get bored looking at mountains when they'd rather be riding roller coasters. It's also gentle nudge towards something that could turn into a lifelong passion.

It doesn't have to be anything expensive, anything from a simple $10 drugstore flash and trash to something in the $100-200 range will get the job done. You'll be surprised at how many really great shots will result when you give a kid a camera. Just don't be upset when you realize your six year old takes better photos than you!

10. Get a Good Camera Bag

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Almost all of the advice given above requires lots of equipment: lenses, flashes, extra camera, etc. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that you go out and spend $10,000 on equipment before your vacation, I'm merely making suggestions so you can decide what's most important for you and pack/purchase accordingly.

If you've already got all of the equipment you need, the serious question then becomes, do you really want to bring it along? However, what sounds like a ton of extra baggage can actually be compacted to a single bag. Modern camera bags are ingeniously designed to hold a lot of equipment in a very small space and can easily be slung over your shoulder for the walk through the airport.

If you've been getting by with a plain old duffle bag thus far, it's time to step up and get something that is built to properly protect your gear. If you're clueless as to where to start, check out Tamrac. They have a lot of really affordable bags that are perfect for carting around all your precious cargo.

Bonus Tip: Bring Lots of Storage

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This tip is for newer photographers and I simply can't stress it enough. If you're going to be seeing your trip through a viewfinder, you'll want to take tons of photos. My advice is to shoot lots and sort later. I'm constantly telling my wife to stop deleting so many pictures in the camera. It's much better to wait to make that call until you're seeing the photo on a large computer screen.

To accomplish this, you're going to need memory and lots of it; especially if you're shooting in RAW (and you should be). Fortunately, storage has gotten quite cheap lately and it's not a big deal to go out and grab a 4-8GB card once every few months to build a good stockpile.

I can tell you from experience that it's much better to carry around a bunch of smaller cards than it is to use one huge card. I recently bought a 32 GB card thinking it was the best decision I could possibly make as I could avoid the hassle of switching. Then when that card failed in the middle of a wedding shoot I was utterly screwed.

Memory cards will fail and it can be quite devastating to lose all your photos when it happens. Having those images spread out over multiple cards means that if one fails on you, all that's lost is a small portion of the overall shoot, leaving you less likely to curse uncontrollably when it happens.

If you don't have several cards, just make sure to pack your laptop and download frequently while you're on your trip.

Share Your Best Vacation Photos and Tips!

Now that you've read our tips for shooting the best ever vacation photos, share yours below. Also leave a link to any vacation photos you're particularly proud of taking.

The Phototuts+ readers have been truly awesome at sharing their work in the past, and you should know that we love to read through the comments and see all the your photos and expert advice. Keep up the good work!

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