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12 Tips for Better Vacation Photos

| Updated Aug 2, 2013

My camera makes me more observant when it's in hand. Plus, I forget the little things, like that pretty boat in the harbor, the nice lady at the museum or the name of that restaurant. So I snap a photo for my memory bank.  I shoot people, buildings, scenery… whatever catches my eye and helps me re-live my journeys.

Even if you only have a cell phone camera, you can take pro photos!  I curated a group show in Kansas City, and one of the best shots was taken with a 3 megapixel cell phone by my friend, Robert Gaines.  Not only that, there’s plenty of downloadable camera software for editing right on your phone. Then you can send great shots instantly to your friends making them envious about where you are!

Here are some very simple, easy to remember and useful tips.


Black Canyon of the Gunnison at sunset. The subject is the cliff face so the horizon is at the top.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison at sunset. The subject is the cliff face so the horizon is at the top.

1. ALWAYS have a camera handy. Whether it’s a fancy Digital SLR, a point and shoot, I Pad or your cell phone.  Keep it in a pocket, purse and within reach in your vehicle. Photo opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I have taken some great shots when I least expected to. PULL OVER! TURN AROUND!  You never know when you’ll be this way again!

2. Turn off the engine if shooting from your vehicle. Even the slightest vibration can cause blurry shots.  Roll your window up partially and use it to stabilize your camera. Shoot from the side (window down!)- angle your vehicle if you have to, shooting through the front window is almost never good.

3. Stabilize. Use a tripod or monopod (or one of those little bitty ones for your point and shoot). Tripods are all prices and weights. If you don’t have one, use a tree, wall or anything you can to prevent camera shake which cause blur, especially in low light situations when your shutter speed is slow. This is true even when shooting in “AUTO” mode.

 4. Rule of Thirds.  A tic tac toe grid of nine spaces may be in your viewfinder. Or use an imaginary one. Place the subject of your photo in one of the 4 intersections of those lines.  If you are shooting a head, place the eyes in one of those spots, usually one of the upper two. Or a single object like a leaf, or the sun in a sunset.  The horizon should be along one of the horizontal lines. (Of course, rules can be broken such as shooting reflections in water where you might place the horizon in the middle.) A single person should be on the right or left vertical with eyes on one of the upper intersected lines. Compositionally, subjects that are off center are more pleasing to the viewer.  Placing your subject dead center, which is our default, is static and uninteresting. Shoot things like flowers or fruit in 1's, 3's or 5's.  Odd numbers are more visually and mentally pleasing.

 5. Room to move or look. When photographing a bird flying, something moving like a kid cycling or someone looking somewhere other than directly into the camera, place them to the side and give them room to look into, cycle into or move into.

Broken rule! The horizon is almost in the middle, but works with the support cables and shadows.
Broken rule! The horizon is almost in the middle, but works with the support cables and shadows.
The subject, Elk, is in the lower left intersection with space on the right for it to move into. Horizon is on lower horizontal line.
The subject, Elk, is in the lower left intersection with space on the right for it to move into. Horizon is on lower horizontal line. No need to zoom in, this shows him in his natural environment. photo from Flicker.

6. Simple is better.  Don’t put a whole lot of stuff in your shot. Think about what your subject is and move around or zoom in if you need to. Shooting the red fishing shack? Get the background trash out, or whatever's distracting. You don’t always need the whole building (subject)- try shooting part of it, like the front door with a window.  Plus, we know what Fred looks like already, and we believe you were actually on your trip so don’t have him in front of every thing you shoot.  While Fred is a very nice looking and personable man, is Fred your subject or is it the Grand Canyon?  Choose one subject.  For example, if it's a city scene- are you emphasizing skyline, people, traffic?

 7. Portraits. Closer is better for portraiture. We don’t need to see what shoes everyone is wearing. Move closer and get just the shoulders or waists on up. Make sure the eyes are on the upper horizontal line or at an intersection. Candid shots are often better, too!  Always focus on the eyes of people and animals.  For landscapes, including people can give a sense of scale.

8. Golden Hours. For out door, especially nature shots, the golden hours are just after dawn and just before dusk when the light is softer and more pleasing. Shadows are more dramatic. This is a good time for any subject, as the light is more complimentary.  Set the alarm in the morning and eat dinner earlier or later!  Don’t forget that this is the best time to see wildlife.  It is also the busiest time for insects so bring spray!

This cowboy's head is in upper right intersection and he has room to look. This would feel uncomfortable were he on the left.
This candid cowboy's head is in upper right intersection where he has room to look. This would feel uncomfortable were he on the left. The buckle was important so I moved out a bit.

9. Bring extra batteries and memory card. I have missed wonderful shots because my card was full or my camera died.  Major head slap.  Also,back up your shots externally as soon as you can or you'll be head slapping again, even harder.  If it is cold keep spare batteries warm in your pocket as cold temps can drain them quickly.

10. Read your manual. Keep it handy and read one instruction a day or week and practice. Don't try to learn it all at once- it's too overwhelming. This is what all of the expensive workshops will tell you. That is how to figure out what that button will do, also help you fine tune your photography. There are many books, online videos and workshops to help you in whichever manner you learn best for more advanced techniques. I went to Rocky Mountain School of Photography for 2 weeks and learned a ton. I also grab short seminars when I can and have a few books.

11. Practice, and take lots of shots! With Digital, you can shoot like crazy then delete, but don’t do it until after you see them on the computer! Also, with all the software out there, some of the shots you think aren’t so great, can be salvaged in Photoshop or whatever software you use. Play with different angles by moving closer, farther, tilting, sides, under and over. Angles and diagonal lines are good. Get creative!

12. Lastly, don’t forget to put your camera down and watch those birds, the windsurfers or your kids’ play! Don’t miss the big picture. Enjoy your trip!

Mike Wendland

Published on 2013-08-02

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

13 Responses to “12 Tips for Better Vacation Photos”

July 17, 2014at7:19 pm, Jo Ann Willis said:

Sister Penney said that’s pretty, me to…

July 15, 2014at8:33 pm, Angi Schmitt said:

Very beautiful

July 15, 2014at8:28 pm, Darla Burgess Douglas said:

Where is this? Gorgeous!

July 15, 2014at7:25 pm, David Booher said:

Love your shot

August 05, 2013at2:50 pm, Mary Kay said:

Great photography tips – these are the very same ones I learned in a Digital Photography class last fall. I’m a big photo takes – I want to have those memories last forever!

August 02, 2013at9:22 pm, angie o'malley said:

Thanx for the tips. I am going to dig out my camera and manual…

August 02, 2013at8:07 pm, shari groendyk said:

Laura, you gave us some wonderful tips here, thanks! Think I need to focus more on the rule of thirds and the 4 intersection points …

August 02, 2013at12:15 pm, Jane Ginter said:

Hey Laura! Great to read about your adventures. I think we share a lot of similarities. My husband and I bought our 2010 Roadtrek Agile SS in February, 2011 and he died in March, 2011. He had cancer for three years, but died of respiratory failure. I am using the Roadtrek by myself now. I am also a birder. I grew up in Southern California and have lived in Alaska for 28 years. I’d love to touch base with you! Send me an email at ginteralaska AT

August 02, 2013at10:23 am, Becky Selzer said:

Love the article and, hopefully, I can incorporate some of these tips when I take photos. I have heard most of this before, but i like the visuals and the hints. Keep writing and know that it’s good stuff!!

August 02, 2013at9:59 am, Maureen said:

Thanks Laura. Most of my great pictures have happened mostly by accident so I love these tips.

August 02, 2013at8:21 am, Laura HughesPostema said:

Great post, especially the last tip! I’ll be practicing. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of photography with us.

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