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How to Photograph Your Vacation Like a Pro

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

Whether you’re taking your new DSLR, your smartphone, or a disposable point and shoot, a camera of some kind is almost definitely on your packing list. Below are some thoughts on how to make the most of whatever camera you bring along in two parts- general principles for being a great tourist photographer and how to tell the story of your trip.


1. Understand Your Camera’s Limitations and Embrace Them

Unless you are taking a massive camera bag full of gear, don’t expect to get a prime shot in every situation. Most vacation days, I take my camera body and one favorite all-purpose lens (not a zoom lens). It’s easier on my back and less distracting both to me and everyone around me. I won’t have all the options that I would with all my gear but that’s okay. If I know I’m in a situation where I can’t get the shot I’d love, I either put my camera away or just grab a quick snapshot and then stow it so I can take it all in.

The important thing though is to know what your camera can and can’t do well. Embrace it for what it is rather than what you wish it were.

Negev Desert- it would have been great to have a long lens at the moment, but my standard lens did the job fine and it’s still a favorite memory

There are many times that my big camera just isn’t getting the photo that I’d love, which is when I pull out my iPhone. Sometimes I know that no matter what, I’m not going to get the shot and that’s okay so I don’t even bother. If you don’t often take photos in your day to day life, practice ahead of time with whatever camera you plan on bringing in different lighting conditions.

2. Be Thoughtful

To be honest I don’t care if I look a little like a tourist. I am on vacation. I am not from where I’m visiting and I’m not going to spend my whole time trying to look like I belong. (…I mean I’m not wearing Hawaiian print shirts, but I’m also not going to pretend my very American looking self isn’t a tourist). However, it’s a high priority that I don’t become a selfish tourist. 

My camera (and phone) go in my bag until I’m sure I’m in a position where I can take photos without drawing too much attention to myself. I’m not going to push in front of a crowd to grab the shot or stand in the middle of a street and I try not to get distracted while taking a photo and lose the people I’m with.

No matter what, photos are a bonus, not the end-all be-all of your vacation.

Be courteous to the people you’re traveling with and to the local residents. If you’re not sure if taking a photo is okay either ask or put your camera away.

Birds generally don’t like their photo being taken. But they're just birds so it's okay ;)

In places that are marked with “no photography” PUT YOUR CAMERA AWAY. In places that are quiet and contemplative or educational that don’t have a sign, put your camera away until you’re sure it won’t be disruptive and be sure your flash is off pretty much all the time everywhere.

Always be asking yourself, would it be better for my camera to be put away?

3. Be Friendly

It rarely hurts to be kind and friendly. I’m not saying you should get suckered into situations or put yourself in a place of vulnerability because you’re too kind, but being courteous to shop owners, gracious to waitstaff, and thoughtful to everyone you meet makes a difference. Not just because it’s the right thing to do (which it is, so you should anyway) but because you never know what neat opportunity is around the corner.

When you genuinely take care of other people, they often return the favor. I’ve received free coffee and tea from hotel staff, had fun conversations with waitresses who recommend the next best place to visit in town, and gotten to photograph things that would otherwise have been closed off to me all because the highest priority was always people and not photos. Treating other people how you would want to be treated pays off with new acquaintances and experiences.

After we had already made a purchase, a super generous shop owner let us take a few photos in his hanging lamp store.


1. Take photos like you’re telling a story.

Often you only start taking pictures once you get to your destination. Start thinking about the story you are telling from the moment you leave the house. Take photos in the car, at the airport, in the plane. Traveling is totally part of the vacation you’re taking and usually a really interesting part at that.

As you’re taking photos, imagine you’re going to show them as a slideshow to a friend later (but definitely don’t unless they ask.)- they aren’t seeing everything you are so give them context. Someday you’ll forget and the photos you have of small details won’t make sense and the photos you have of big general locations won’t be as meaningful without the details.

To Tell the Story, Photograph: People, Places, & Details

• Places

It could seem obvious, but take photos of the places you’re at. You may think it will make you look like a tourist and y’know what, you’re right. But so is EVERYONE ELSE. Take a quick standard shot (it doesn’t have to be perfect, just clear) and then if you still want to have your camera out, look for ways to give it context. Whether it’s your coffee with the Eiffel Tower in the distance or the focus on little flowers with Swiss architecture in the background.

Take photos of your hotel room, of the restaurant you got breakfast at every day, of the little pier you sat on while you watched the sunset on the lake, not just the sunset.

• People

Photograph people! But mostly the people you’re traveling with. Use them to give context, a unique perspective, and human warmth to the setting. They are equally part of the experience and story you’re telling.

Eden, Vermont

If you’re wanting to take a photo of a stranger’s face be absolutely sure it’s okay. A lot of people are very comfortable with their photo being taken, but you don’t want to get on the wrong side of that situation. Treat every situation as though no one wants their photo taken.

• Details

The little things really make a difference. Be the person taking photos of their food, of their coffee, of the colorful tiles on the buildings of the little plant growing out of the sidewalk. Appreciate every unique thing. It’s part of the joy of photography.

The details tell the story just as much as the big things do.

2. Find your personal project for the trip

I’m always passionate about photographing animals (in particular cats because they just don’t care), plants, and architectural details on trips. They’re things that I can find at home but have subtle differences elsewhere. Telling the story of the trip through cats is 1. kind of humorous and 2. can give context to an otherwise boring scene

Find your passion and follow that for the trip. It could be the hands of people doing things throughout your visit, the interesting pieces of art in unusual places, your shoes in different places, a little miniature you bring along and photograph at every interval, everything you eat, interesting chairs, whatever. My personal project photos are often my favorite from trips because they’re 100% just for me. I know no one else would find them as interesting as I do, not even people who traveled with me.

3. Put your camera away

Just do it. I’ve had nearly full days where I haven’t even pulled my camera out and activities that don’t have a single photo. Don’t let your camera hold you back from really enjoying the moment. If you’re worried about it getting wet, getting sandy, getting lost, dropped, or taken, just leave it. For real. You’ll remember the day just fine :)

Moscow traffic 1/10, Moscow skies 10/10

4. Print your photos

When it’s all over, take the time to organize and compile your photos (and maybe your travel buddy’s too) and print them out. Prints are good, albums are great. It’s so much more fun to look through an album of images than flip through your phone.

Most importantly, remember that you’re taking photos for yourself to hold onto memories. It isn’t about proving your creativity or showing other people how amazing your trip was or any other extraneous reasons. Let yourself enjoy your vacation (even if it means photographing cats the whole time!)


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