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Making Your Vacation Portraits Pop!

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This post is part of a series called Environmental Portraiture: How to Go Beyond the Ordinary.
A In-Depth Walkthrough of a Family Portrait Shoot
How to Make Better Portraits Using the Secret of Open Shade

It’s holiday season, and what better time to take your camera out and about to capture not only those scenic holiday destinations, but the people that you’re sharing them with. Here are a few top tips on how to take eye catching and engaging vacation portraits.


Maximizing Proximity

Now that might sound like a very technical heading, but actually, it has a very personal sentiment. Usually on a portrait shoot, you have to take time to get to know your subject, get them at ease and relaxed enough to give you the poses and expressions that you’re looking for, which can often feel like a lot of hard work.

The difference on holiday is that you’re surrounded by family and friends, who you hopefully already know extremely well! This should mean they’re at ease with you having your camera out and shoving it in their faces every now and then without getting annoyed or you having to direct them. Take advantage of this proximity.


Photo by etrenard

Natural and Relaxed

Documentary photographers take months or even years to assimilate themselves into a group of people in order to achieve natural portraits and you’ve got it there on a plate waiting for you! As you know the likely subjects well, you won’t have to work too hard directing them and getting them to look into the camera.

Being on holiday, they should be fairly relaxed and in an easygoing frame of mind, so getting natural portrait shots should be relatively easy.


Photo by Zach Houston

Reportage Work

Keep your camera with you at all times. This might sound like a chore, but it’ll certainly be worth it for the reportage photographic opportunities that will offer themselves up to you. Don’t just get it out of the bag for a visit or big day out.

Even when you’re on the beach or by the pool, there’ll be great chances to snap the people you’re with when they’re joking and having fun together. These are also likely to be the times when people play up to the camera and give you those poses that are full of life!


Photo by Zach Houston

Getting it Right with Light

As with any portrait shoot, it’s essential to use the available light to your best advantage. This is even more important when on vacation as I’m presuming you won’t be taking your lighting rig with you!

As always, the golden hours will offer the best portrait light, the early morning light as the sun rises and then the warm glow of the evening light through to twilight. That’s not to say that you won’t be able to take nice portraits at other times of the day, but be aware of the very harsh bright light during the middle of the day. Also, be careful not to overexposure your images.


Photo by Josef Seibel

Utilizing Depth of Field

I often like to employ a shallow depth of field for portrait shoots as it eliminates the background, but when on vacation, this can be quite an important element. Using a deep depth of field will show where you are and give context to the shot.

But as always, there may well be strong visual distractions around. These may take some crafty composition to avoid, but at times, you may just need to open up that aperture.

It’s also a nice idea to work with fairly neutral backdrops. Brick or whitewashed walls are great. This will also help further down the line when you want to use these portrait shots in your portfolio as you’re ensuring that it doesn’t look quite so much like a vacation shot, but a glorious, relaxed and sunlit portrait shot!


Photo by Simon Bray

Lens Selection

When you’re on vacation, you don’t want to be carrying around lots of gear and heavy lenses, so travel simply and choose your lenses carefully. I’d maybe go for a fixed focal length prime lens, which is very light, inexpensive and offers the wide aperture to give you the shallow depth of field and plenty of light.

You could also take a mid range telephoto lens, maybe something that zooms into around 80 to 100mm as you’ll then be able to flatten out the features at full zoom rather than using the wide end of the lens which will bulge the features of your subject.

There's also a reason that many of the first auto focus point-and-shoot cameras that came about in the 1970s and 80s were equipped with 35mm lenses. They make for a great in-between piece of kit. Much like a 50mm, photos can appear wide angle when you stand back and more "normal" when you're close.


Photo by Martina

Include the Local People

As enjoyable and simple as it is to photography your family and friends, there’s a whole world of people out there for you to photograph! This is a great chance to capture the people and lifestyles of your vacation destination and can not only be a great reminder of the place, but also a great chance to take some exciting and engaging portraits that you’d otherwise never get to take when at home.

Travel portraits are a slightly different discipline to vacation portraits, so not all the tips I’ve mentioned here previously apply and it may well be worth reading up a bit. A couple of key points though, ensure you ask politely and preferably in their native language. In some countries, subjects expect payment. This is fine, just a few coins will be sufficient.


Photo by wwarby

Involve the Local Area

In a very similar fashion, putting the portraits you’re taking into context can be extremely beneficial for preserving memories of the trips and visits during your vacation. Simply getting subjects to stand near outstanding natural or historic features is a common past time for most travel photographers. So try and think creatively and artistically about how you can incorporate them. For this you’ll need a deeper depth of field as I mentioned earlier.


Photo by Dielis

Now It’s Your Turn!

Everyone loves taking their camera on holiday, but it’s important that you don’t go into holiday photographer mode! The inclination can be to just relax and snap happy without thinking too much about it, but vacations offer so many great opportunities for irresistible portraits, so be sure to engage your mind when you’ve got your camera out.

Make use of the different type of light that your destination offers in comparison to your usual locations and think creatively about the use of depth of field and composition especially. You'll come away with a variety of portraits to be proud of!

And finally, remember that you're on holiday, too. Put down the camera and enjoy yourself and let your friends and family enjoy you. Don't miss good opportunities, but make sure all your holiday memories aren't framed through a viewfinder.


Photo by B Rosen
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