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How to Take Vacation Photos That Don't Suck

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Just because you are on vacation doesn’t mean your creative mind has to be. We are all guilty of getting a bit lazy on our vacations. For the most part, this is fine. We all need rest, but it often leads to regret. Perhaps we leave our camera back in the room on the day when you come across the most amazing scene. Maybe we shoot too quickly, and only realize we wish we had a photo of something after we get back home. In this tutorial, I'll tell you my approach so I'm always happy with my vacation photos.

Choose the Right Equipment

There are two lenses I feel like I need in all scenarios: a wide lens, such as a 16mm or 24mm, and a "normal" lens, such as a 50mm which can also be used as a portrait lens.

Even as a professional, I don’t want to bring my professional gear with me. For one, it’s heavy and bulky, and two, if it gets stolen it would make that vacation the worst vacation ever.

My vacation camera is more than a point and shoot that has manual mode, it’s actually an increasingly popular mirrorless camera. I use the Sony-NEX series. I have the 5R which is now discontinued as a newer model has replaced it. These compact cameras are very similar to a DSLR, but without the mirror.

It has a great sensor and the images are incredibly impressive. All the travel images I share in this article is taken by the mirrorless camera, so you can judge for yourself if you think it’s worth having a second set of equipment just for daily captures or vacations.

The lenses are also compact, very affordable, roughly starting at $250 and lightweight. A mirrorless camera body can run you $500+ depending on its features and some come with a kit lens. The kit lens is also very versatile and quite good, not terrible like some DSLR kit lenses. This is my travel kit.

A Sony NEX-5R 50mm f18 16mm f28 and kit lens 18-55mmA Sony NEX-5R 50mm f18 16mm f28 and kit lens 18-55mmA Sony NEX-5R 50mm f18 16mm f28 and kit lens 18-55mm
A Sony NEX-5R, 50mm f/1.8, 16mm f/2.8, and kit lens 18-55mm.

There is a flash that comes with the camera as well and this all fits my purse. It’s wonderful because I am still able to get great quality images while on vacation without hurting my back. I don’t want to look like a tourist with a camera bag that screams come steal my expensive equipment. I’m pretty sure the total weight is under 2 lbs.

However, if you still insist on taking your professional gear with you overseas, contact your insurance company to see what additional fees you may need to pay to have it covered should anything happens. This is important for peace of mind. Typically, it’s around $100 for the year for international insurance coverage.

Be Conscious of Documenting the Journey

Just as you would visually tell the story of the day of a wedding as the day unfolds, you should do the same with your vacation and be a storyteller. Take the time to capture the small details that make your vacation unique. This can include a lot of different imagery.



For some travelers, food is a highlight of their vacation experience. Don’t be afraid to document how beautiful, delectable, or interesting your meals are. I don't suggest posting every meal on social media, as that's become a bit cliché, but for your personal collection or an album, you'll be happy to have them.

Road or Paths


Don’t forget the crazy stairs you had to walk, or the bridge you wanted to tell people about when you return home. If it’s a fun story on how you arrived, document as you go. There's that old adage that the traveling is more about the journey than the destination. Keep that in mind when you're shooting.


It might take a few extra minutes capturing things along the way as everyone in the party is blocks ahead of you, but they will thank you for documenting it later.



Because I’m a portrait photographer, I love having people in my shots. Sometimes just capturing locals in their environment can make a frame look so personable.


Don’t forget to capture your hotel room before you mess it up. Some bed and breakfasts are very interesting due to old character and you won’t remember it as vividly if you don't take a few quick photos of the small details.




Getting shots of the city during a downpour or seeing how locals deal with snow can be really fun.

 I also find that taking details, even the dew on tall grass after the mist and rain of Irish weather, can bring back the smell of a place long after I've left.

Panoramic Shots


If your camera doesn’t have a panoramic function, take a few shots while panning the camera and stitch them together in a photo editing software. They really give you a sense of place.

Storytelling Shots


Documenting the experience can also mean that when buying a custom made creation from a local artisan off the streets of Galway to also snap a photo to share back home of not only the creation, but who made it. If you buy a piece of jewelry on the streets somewhere, turn around and take a quick photo.

Take Time to Do a Formal Photoshoot

I was really glad to travel with a girlfriend who didn’t mind taking photos and being my subject. As a portrait photographer, sometimes I feel like if I only had a model or any person around it would complete my landscape photo.

Every morning as we traveled we took the time to take some portraits around the Ireland castle grounds, or the streets in the city. Knowing that we would be doing this, we tried to plan outfits that didn’t make us look like tourist and instead packed clothing that would make the photos a bit more fun should we stop anywhere for a little photo shoot.


Look for beautiful grounds, or a spot that's one of a kind.  Take your friend or family member and take the time to compose several great shots. You’ll be so glad you did. Instead of framing selfies, or typical portraits standing by monuments, you’d be surprised at how many more framable moments from your vacation you will have.

I also remind your subjects they don’t always have to be looking at you or facing you to get a great portrait.


Do Something Repetitive

My girlfriend had this thing she had to do while she’s on vacation. It was jumping in front of places, primarily monuments. It was absolutely hilarious to watch her do it in front of strangers, crowded tourists spots, but I loved that she did. It took the typical shots you'd see from a vacation and put spin on them. It would be a great tradition to start with your kids.


This reminds me of Philippe Halsman's Jumps series. Halsman was a prolific portrait and celebrity photographer in the U.S. after fleeing Europe during World War II (with the help of Albert Einstein of all of people). He spent the next 30 years redefining what a portrait could be. Beginning in the 1950s, he would ask every important person he photographed to jump for him. He got everyone from Richard Nixon, Audrey Hepburn and even the Duke and Duchess of Windor to jump for him. It was fun then, and it's still fun today!


Obviously, you don't have to jump. You could do a pose, or learn a bit of sign language or do something else memorable in front of special places.

Step It Up on Your Next Vacation

Sometimes integrating our passion for photography into the social and family situations during a vacation is hard. Are we annoying everyone with too many photos? I am missing out because I really want good shots? Should I be shooting more, this is a vacation after all? I deserve a break, too, right?

By doing a bit planning, and being intentional, we can get photos that are memorable and noteworthy, but that also don't get in the way of our relaxation or recreation.

So, next time you get to take a trip, step it up. Work to get some shots that really mean something. Break the cycle of crappy vacation photos!

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