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Ten tips for better vacation photos

School’s out, the bags are packed and you are headed out for a delightful summer vacation with friends and family. When you pull out your camera, remember these simple tips to help ensure that no one will be yawning and snoozing through your vacation photos when you return home.

1. The Golden Hours

Plan your photo shoot for early morning or late afternoon light because the light during those couple of hours surrounding dawn and dusk produces softer shadows, and less harsh contrast in your scene. “Golden hour” light is much more flattering and magical. Set that alarm and rise early to catch the first rays of light, and stay up for the golden light at the end of the day. When at all possible, avoid the bright, glaring light of midday and midafternoon.

A sunset time view of the many boat docks found at Lake of the Ozarks, in central Missouri. The late day shot timing helps to decrease the amount of glare found on the water during afternoon.

2. Stay in the shade.

Since it isn’t always possible to photograph only during the golden hours, and many vacation activities take place in the harsh midday sun, move your subjects to the shade whenever possible. Place people in a shaded area—such as under a shady tree or rocky outcropping—or utilize a doorway or the shadow of building. Your subjects will be spared having their faces captured with that pained “the-sun-is-burning-out-my-retinas” expression.

3. Fill it with flash.

When shooting in lower-light situations or in the shade, it’s a good idea to snap a few using flash. Whether you are using a simple point-and-shoot or a DSLR, check your camera manual for how to best use the “fill flash” option. While it may seem counterproductive to use flash in bright sunlight, it helps to soften the shadows, and decrease the harsh contrast between bright and shadowed. Fill flash can also help you avoid ending up with just a silhouette when you are faced with strong backlighting.

Fill flash helped to bring our tour guide out of the cool, deep shadows on the cabin’s porch.

4. Compose creatively!

Use a few tricks of composition to add interest to your photos and avoid the “mom-and-dad-in-front-of-the-mountain” phenomenon that makes everyone’s vacation photos look so similar. Start with the classic, time-honored rule of thirds. Envision a tic-tac-toe board on your viewfinder and place something of interest at one or more of the line intersections. Many of today’s cameras have the option of overlaying your viewfinder or LCD screen with a grid that makes this infinitely easier. Consider framing your subject with the arch of a unique doorway, or an interesting opening in the landscape, such as the canopy or overhanging branches of tree, a rock formation, or a view through the weeds or trees. Use what you find in the area to frame your photo’s subject and you will have much greater sense of place in the finished product.

The trees form a frame around the road that leads to the Seven Springs Winery, in Linn Creek, Missouri. It’s important to include part of the journey as well as the destination in vacation photos.

5. It’s a matter of perspective.

Shake things up a little and shoot from different angles—get down low, set your camera on the ground, look up, look down, move to the side, get close, step back. Climb that staircase, tree or cliff wall, to get the shot from above or from an alternate view than what the rest of the tourists are seeing. These shots from different perspective will add interest to your final album or slideshow.

Climbing to a high vantage point enabled me to grab a bird’s-eye view of a popular cove and its attractions at Lake of the Ozarks, in central Missouri.

6. Details, Details, Details

Include images of the small details. If you pause to take a closer look, or say to your traveling companions, “Oh my, look at this!” by all means photograph it. Things such as signs, displays, architectural elements, plants, animals, and food all make great close-detail shots that will help you remember the fantastic time you had while away.

Although a breakfast like this is not easily forgotten, these types of small details will help to tell your vacation story.

7. It’s all about action.

Utilize a fast shutter speed or the sports mode on your camera to freeze the action. If your camera allows for “burst mode” shooting, use that as well to capture an entire sequence of the action. Use it freely—memory cards are cheap, and while you may have only two or three usable images in a series of 10 or 12, burst mode will allow you capture those precious two or three. If possible, use a zoom lens or a longer focal length to capture your travel companions at play when they are at their most exuberant. If you are a little away from the action, “spying” via your camera, your subjects will soon cease to notice that you are snapping away, and the resulting candid images may just end up being your favorites.

What better to represent a fun day on “The Lake” than an action shot of some water fun!

8. Stop hiding behind the camera!

Photographers are notorious for avoiding having themselves appear in a photo. Your vacation adventure is not the time to be shy. Many times have I returned from an especially interesting trip to discover that there is not a single photo that includes me. It’s as if I were never there. There are several ways to ensure that you are indeed in a few of the memorable scenes you encounter. Utilize the self timer on your camera, a remote shutter release, or simply ask someone nearby if they would mind snapping your picture. A tripod can make including yourself in an image an easier task, but don’t forget that any sturdy, stable surface can be used in lieu of a tripod in a pinch. The very versatile Gorilla Pod-style tripod is handy tool to have in the vacation camera bag. Its small size and flexibility make it easy to use in settings that would prove challenging to a standard tripod.

9. Home at last!

Upon returning home, carefully cull, sort and label your photos. I say “carefully” because what on the surface may make you say “Oh, ick . . . What a crummy shot!” may also be the shot that makes you smile about a particular part of your excursion. These are memories, not editorial work. A casual, slightly out-of-focus, or poorly lit snapshot image may be the best capture of a particular event. Save it!

10. Share your fun! Next on the list after returning home is sharing—after all, we want to show everyone what a great time we had. One of my favorite services to use is Smilebox. It makes creating any number of products from you photos a snap. From slideshows, to books, to prints, along with an easy way to generate the needed code for social media sites, websites, and blogs, Smilebox is my go-to application these days for creating and sharing.

Check out my Smilebox slideshow.

Most of all, enjoy, play and have fun! Try new things, experiment with the tips above and shoot . . . shoot . . . shoot. Go wide, get close. Pose the family and friends, capture candids, be silly and have fun! It is your vacation too! These are the images that will show off your unique vacation experience and help tell the story of your grand adventures. Most of all, don’t let yourself become so caught up in documenting every moment of your vacation that you miss the experience. Happy shooting!

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