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20 simple tips to take better holiday photos

It has probably not escaped any of you that I love photography. My camera is almost always with me when I'm out discovering the world. Hanging from a cross body strap, it dangles on my hip. My dear camera friend, who is now starting to get several years (and thousands of pictures) on his neck. But is the camera really there to take good pictures? I get quite a few questions about photography, so I thought I'd collect some of my tips in this post. High and low. How do you actually take a good picture?

Primarily: The best pictures are taken when you can bring the camera with you, not when you leave it at home. It's better to have a simple mobile camera that you can carry around than a super-advanced camera that weighs a lot and is difficult to use. On some of my weekend trips, I only take my cell phone with me. Yes it's true. My iPhone XS takes incredibly good pictures, completely sufficient for a normal post here on the blog. The mobile images may not be quite enough for mine large photo posts, but for most of us the mobile phone is quite sufficient these days. The mobile cameras also take very good pictures in slightly darker environments, which means that I often photograph food in restaurants in the evening with the mobile phone. However, I would never go out into a national park without my Nikon D800E full frame camera, ND filter and a Gorillapod tripod. But it's mostly because I love to experiment with setting the camera for depth of field, shutter speed and ISO to get the ultimate color reproduction, the right depth of field and the right blur in the water. Feel free to call me a photo geek, I take it as a compliment. 🙂

I have tried to collect some of the things that I always think about when taking pictures. Tips like does not require either expensive equipment or a special camera. Simple tips for better holiday photos - for all of us!

1. The rule of thirds!

photography - the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds on a kookaburra

A common way of photographing is to put the subject in the middle of the picture. In some cases, it may be the right choice, but to get a more interesting subject, you can use the rule of thirds.

The "rule of thirds" is based on the classic mathematical golden ratio. The rule (actually just a guide) is that you divide the image into 9 equal squares and place the subject in one of the intersection points (see below the red dots in the image). The picture often becomes more balanced and more interesting when you don't smack the subject in the middle.

The rule is also good to use to get just enough sky above the horizon, see the picture below from Tuscany.

Horizon and houses according to the rule of thirds

2. Cloudy weather is perfect for portraits!

For many years I sighed heavily when the holiday weather wasn't just sunny with clear blue skies. But from a photography point of view, cloudy weather is actually the best! The sun casts harsh shadows and makes them difficult to photograph in the middle of the day - especially in urban environments. I have actually taken the very best family photos and portraits in cloudy weather. So don't leave your camera at home just because the sun isn't shining. Think of it as a chance to actually capture a perfect picture of the family for next year's Christmas card.

Fisherman in Provence
Man in Hong Kong

3. Dare to go closer and photograph details!

Wedding

Of course, it's good to include a lot in the holiday photos, but the photos that I appreciate the most are usually the photos that show how things really look. A little closer, a little more personal, a little more detailed. I want to be able to remember what the doorknobs in Obidos looked like, almost be able to smell the frangipani in the bowl or highlight the beautiful bridal bouquet in the picture without losing the love in the moment. As a rule, ALWAYS take an extra picture closer than you first thought. Take a few steps forward or use the camera's (optical) zoom. You will soon notice that those photos complement both your vacation photos and your memory.

And you - also take a step or two backwards sometimes! One step can make the whole picture!

NOTE: Don't use the camera's digital zoom - it's probably the most useless feature ever invented. The image will never be better than your biggest optical zoom!

Taman Ayun Temple - Bali

4. Use the existing light!

Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat

I am of the opinion that all natural light is good light – no matter where it comes from! It is always possible to play with nature's play of light and get interesting pictures, even if it requires you to work a little more when you have backlight. I love backlighting and don't mind getting sun cats in the pictures. What is important, however, is to make sure that your focus in the image is in a light-neutral place. If you only photograph straight up and down with the mobile phone, the picture is guaranteed to be too dark. Click on the area you want to be sharp, and the lighting in the mobile adapts to your focus area. The "worst" time to take pictures from a lighting point of view is when the sun is in the middle of the sky, but don't let the fact that it's difficult to get good pictures then stop you. Always better to take one picture too many than one picture too little!

In the images below I have focused on the breakfast basket in the sunrise and on one of the door locks in the temple to keep the detail in the shadows and the feel in the sunlight.

The Imperial Palace in Hue
Rowers at sunset on Lake Bled

5. Think symmetry and lines!

Normandy

I love symmetry and all the patterns that are naturally around us. It could be the symmetry of a suspension bridge on a hiking trail or the symmetry of a flower petal. Once you start looking around you will see lots of interesting shapes that are interesting to photograph. Even a boring place can become a good picture with symmetry and straight lines. However, the hard part is usually finding the perfect place to stand to capture the pattern. If you stand the slightest bit crooked, you lose the effect.

Through Skuleskogen
Chinatown - Singapore

6. Vary angles!

On top of a horse

Frog perspective and bird's eye view – two ways to capture the world in a new way. Most of the time, I take most pictures at eye level 1,60 meters above sea level. Pretty boring perspective in the long run. The unexpected angles are usually the ones that produce the coolest photos. Get in the habit of looking both up and down before you shoot, and you'll see things you didn't notice before. Get down on your knees, lean back or crawl in the sand.

(I must add that you can see me from afar when I walk around a new city – no one looks as much from as many different angles as I do…)

Hong Kong
From below in a temple in Hong Kong
A small hermit crab in frog perspective

7. Consider the background!

When the background is more important than the subject

There are two things to consider when it comes to background: Is the background important to the subject, or is the subject more important than the background?
A nice family picture with disgusting garbage cans in the background will never be a favorite picture, no matter how good the rest of the picture is. Ask the people you are going to photograph to move a little to the background you choose, usually the subject only needs to move a few steps to get a ten times better picture. Take an extra look at the entire picture's content before simply taking the picture!

Pulau Tioman - Malaysia
A bunch of unknown people in the background – not a good picture if you ask me!

8. Do not photograph people in strong backlight!

Our beautiful daughter in the sunset in Sri Lanka - with lightning

Often when we are out and about, other tourists ask me to take a picture of them. Not infrequently, the people stand with their backs to the sun and with the subject behind them. It's probably great for the people not to get the sun in their eyes, but the picture will be terribly bad. The background becomes too bright and the people become jet black. Do you recognize that picture? I've taken quite a few photos like this over the years… If you're going to photograph people in backlight, be sure to turn on the flash on your camera. Then you can get an image like the one below, despite strong backlight. (Or you simply ask that the people turn up a little towards the light, before taking the picture).

NOTE: It is very rare that the flash on a mobile camera can compensate for the strong sunlight. If you are going to photograph someone in backlight with a mobile phone, you need to ask them to turn up a little towards the light.

9. Use natural tripods!

A chair as a tripod in Hoi An

The best subjects often appear in the evenings, but the best photos are rarely taken at night. The reason? It is super difficult to hold the camera/mobile still long enough to get a sharp and bright enough image. I rarely bring a tripod with me in the evenings, but rely on natural tripods around me – tables, chairs, railings, trees, rocks – you name it! Anything that stands stable can be used as a tripod. For both camera and mobile images, I do the same - I lean the camera/hand against the "stand", hold my hand as still as I can and take 10 pictures at a rapid pace. Most of the time, at least one of the ten pictures turns out really well!

Moeraki Boulders - New Zealand
A stone as a stand in New Zealand

10. Take commemorative photos!

Take better vacation photos
A dinner menu in Sestri Levante

This tip bears repeating. With today's digital capabilities, there is no excuse not to photograph everything! Take a picture of the sign with the name of the village you visit - because you will surely have forgotten the name in a year. Take pictures of the food at the amazing restaurant - because you will forget what you ate that was so amazing. Take pictures of menus - because you'll forget why you thought the restaurant was outrageously expensive. And photograph information signs, so you always have facts about the places you visited without having to google. Quite simply – photograph anything of interest! It doesn't have to be fancy or well thought out. Everything will be good holiday pictures!

Little Creatures - Fremantle
The "little" lunch in Fremantle

11. Keep the horizon straight!

Cotton Candy Skies in Monkey Mia

A tip that sounds simple, but can be incredibly difficult. Keep the horizon straight when taking your shot. Sure, it definitely sounds easier than it is in reality, but there are aids. Use the guide lines in the camera to align the image correctly. Yep, the lines you see in the viewfinder have a purpose. 🙂

Fremantle Beach - Australia

12. The blue hour and the golden hour!

Hot air balloons outside Queenstown
A late blue hour in Queenstown

You take the very best pictures in the blue hour (just before the sun rises or just after the sun sets) or the golden hour (just after the sun rises or just before the sun sets). The sky is colored in blue, purple, yellow and pink and the whole world simply becomes a little more beautiful. I always have a hard time being up at sunrise (unless I'm jet-lagged), so I usually go for sunset instead. To put it simply, it's about an hour at sunrise and an hour at sunset that you get the softest and most pastel light.

The Ritz-Carlton-Dubai
The golden hour in Dubai

13. Wait for the perfect moment!

Humpback Whale off Brisbane

If there is a jumping humpback whale, you won't have time to pick up the camera from the bottom of your backpack before the whale has disappeared under the surface again. Have the camera in hand and expect the unexpected! If the whale has jumped once, it will very likely jump again. Take multiple shots of the cowboy with his lasso, not just one. If a group of tourists pass by the beautiful church, wait until they pass by. Do you want to photograph those wonderful hotel pools without people? Do it before you eat breakfast. There are many tricks to capturing the perfect moment, but it requires a little planning.

14. Capture the moment in your family photos!

The family on the move

I admit. I am slightly hypersensitive to pictures where families artificially stand in a row in the middle of the picture with the same smile in every single picture. We have very few such pictures in our family, maybe a little too few? I rather try to capture the moment in my family photos, than line up the perfect family. It may sound unexpected, but I take a lot of family photos. However, it is not something that I share here on the blog. The blog is there to be a bubbly source of inspiration for you, not a family photo album for me. 🙂 I capture the perfect plum in the pool, the ash tan when someone won a board game and the spontaneous dance at midsummer. Captures the feeling when the people don't look into the camera, but just are. So my advice is to take pictures even if the people are not looking straight into the camera and instead capture the moment!

Family
A perfectly normal family picture

15. Focus right!

Rottnest Island - Australia - Quokka
Right or wrong focus? Right I think 🙂

This is really a rhetorical statement - because what is the real focus? Don't rely on the camera to understand what you want in focus - choose what you want in focus yourself by manually marking the subject. For some mobile phones/cameras, you can set whether you want landscape photography (most of the image will be sharp) or portrait (where the person is sharp and the background is blurred). Not sure about the sharpness? Take another picture!

NOTE: A face feels sharp when the eyes are sharp, so don't aim for the nose! 🙂

16. Take lots of pictures!

Happy dolphin in Shark Bay
The same dolphin in many angles…

The best trick to getting good photos is to take a lot of photos. When a dolphin swims by, I don't take one picture, but 50... Practice makes perfect and by taking many pictures you learn how your camera/mobile works best. You can always delete photos, but you can always get back the lost moment to take more photos.

Bottlenose dolphin in Shark Bay

17. Clean the lens!

Dirty lens
Bad picture with dirty lens that gives white streaks at the light source

Do you tend to get "star streaks" on the pictures you take in the evenings? You know, when all the lights in the evening pictures get bright streaks around them? Then it is time to clean the lens of the camera. This may sound trite, but it happens quite often that I come home with dots on the pictures or pictures with star lines because I haven't cleaned the lens. Water splashes on lenses and fingers make greasy marks on the mobile phone lens. Make it a habit to always check the lens before taking your photos. The mobile lens is easy to wipe on a cotton shirt, cleaning the camera lens often requires a little more love.

19. Tell a story

Hot in Thailand

Vacation photos are more fun if they tell a story. As in the picture below. Does anyone not understand that it was very hot in Thailand during that lunch? Or that it was a little hard to walk among all the flies in Kalbarri?

Flies in Kalbarri

19. Don't delete pictures that are "bad"!

Ösvreta farm

What exactly is a bad picture? I have a rule that I always follow. Unless I'm running out of storage space, I basically save all the photos I've taken. Bad as good. The thing is that you don't always know in the moment what a good picture is, the good picture can only appear when you are sitting at home in front of the computer and looking through your pictures. Below you see two pictures that I would probably have deleted immediately if I were to delete "bad" pictures. Pictures that have become wonderful memories.

No focus can sometimes be quite nice

20. Make a quick edit!

Before you post your photos on Instagram or Facebook, at least do an auto-adjustment of the photo in some editing program. It takes three seconds and usually corrects skewed horizons, fixes dark shadows and improves colors. Worth every second. Don't forget to save the images as copies only, so you don't destroy the original!

What program do I use? On the mobile I use Snapseed or Lightroom, on the computer I use Lightroom or Photoshop.

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Those were my best tips for this time. What's your best tip for the best vacation photos? Have I forgotten something? Tell!

Want to read more of my tips? do not forget to like Rucksack on Facebook!

About the blogger

Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.

4 Comments

  • Linda
    7 January, 2020 at 18: 42

    What great tips! And amazing photos you take. Now I feel motivated to photograph even more on spring trips.

    Reply
    • Eva Gyllenberg
      8 January, 2020 at 12: 31

      Thank you, Linda! I don't think you can ever take too many photos! 🙂 Exciting to see what you have planned for trips this spring!

  • Eve/ Live like Eve
    10 January, 2020 at 11: 26

    Super guide! Some things I have done, partly unconsciously, but so many tips to improve!

    Reply
    • Eva Gyllenberg
      11 January, 2020 at 20: 30

      Thank you Eva! Sometimes it's the simple little tips that can make a difference 🙂

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