view counter

Take the Best Pictures Ever

Bay Weekly’s vacation photo tips
Try placing your subject small within the frame of the photograph to show both your subject and the amazing location.

Your trip is booked? Check.

Travel and accommodations paid for? Double check.

Ready to use your camera or phone to take some awesome photographs? Maybe …

Whether you’re making your annual sojourn to the beach, maybe Assateague Island, my favorite … your trip of a lifetime to a classic European city … or visiting a local park, you, yes you, have the ability to record your vacation with memorable photographs. To take your photography to the next level, whether for fun or if it’s your career, you need to practice like you’re an athlete and also be willing to try something new.

I’ve used that conviction in shooting all over the world, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Serengeti, from remote tropical islands to our own Assateague Island, in stories for images and articles in Nature Photo­grapher, Earth Island Journal, National Parks Traveler, Africa Geographic and many others. In this business, I am constantly working to make my images different from the last. My editors want to see something new, and while that does not happen every time, that is the goal I am constantly striving for. I never stop practicing and I never stop learning.   

Unlike me, you do not need to own the latest fancy dSLR camera. Professional — and usually expensive — gear does enable a photographer to capture memorable vacation scenes, but it also can give rise to issues of weight and portability. Heavy equipment costs at the airport (especially with international travel), and it can weigh on the mind. With too much gear and too many lenses, you can get so caught up with what piece of equipment to use that you miss what’s there before wide-open eyes. 

For vacation photos, we want a camera that is quick to grab, simple to use and light enough to bring with you wherever vacation takes you.

Smart phones give us just that: cameras that fit in our pockets and are capable of taking quality images. If you want something a tad more sophisticated, there are a variety of point-and-shoot cameras that are lightweight, portable and deliver top-notch image quality.

Now what you need is some tips to help make your vacation images new and exciting.


1. Learn your gear and practice using it before your vacation.

Before you take your first step on your vacation, you must be familiar with how to use your camera. The best way to do that is to practice at home. Make sure you know what the buttons do and where they are. Know how your camera works in low light. Become familiar with all its features so that using them becomes second nature.

I recently met a photographer who had just returned from his first trip to Africa with photographs that didn’t satisfy him. He had rented gear in hopes of getting up-close pictures of wildlife. The first time he used this gear was on his dream vacation. Because he never had time to learn the gear and practice with it, his images suffered.

2. Use the Rule of Thirds to improve composition.

Your subject doesn’t have to be in the center of the frame. Using only center framing can give you sterile, almost boring, photographs. To take your compositional skills to the next level, use the Rule of Thirds.

Imagine a tic-tac-toe board over the frame of your photograph. Now try to place your subject off center by aligning it on the left or right lines of the tic-tac-toe board. 

Look at the image of a woman bird-watching in East Africa. Placing her off-center and to the left allows the viewer to look farther into the scene. To the right of her we see the great African baobab trees, which invite you to further investigate the scene. What is she looking at? Has she spotted anything? If I had placed her in the center of the photograph, this additional part of the composition would have been lost, and ultimately, I’d have made a less interesting of a photograph. 

3. Place your subject small in the frame.

We like beautiful scenery in our vacation destinations. So why in these sublime locations do so many of us take pictures of our companions that are no different than a high school portrait? Try placing your subject small within the frame of the photograph to show both your subject and the amazing location.

4. Photograph a familiar scene with a new angle.

Everyone has seen a photo of the Eiffel Tower, just as everyone has seen a picture of a bison in Yellowstone National Park. How can you photograph the familiar in a new way?

Go low, go high, photograph with a wide-angle lens, or show more detail by photographing with a telephoto lens. Experiment with where you place yourself to take the photograph, and try to capture the scene in a way you’ve never seen before.

On a recent trip to Rome, I wanted to photograph the Vatican in a way that didn’t look like the average postcard. So I waited until night when the outside fountains are illuminated and placed the Vatican in the background of my image, purposely not focusing on it. You can still tell it is the Vatican, but it is different.

5. Have fun. 

Photography is an art that is accessible to most people and can allow you to unleash your creativity in ways you never imagined. If you stress yourself out about taking memorable photographs, you will not make ­memorable photographs.

Wrapping It Up

These tips I’ve shared work with all subjects, human and animal. However, as predominately a wildlife and conservation photographer, I can tell you that wildlife keeps different hours than you might. If you want to photograph wildlife, you need to wake up early and stay out late as that is when wildlife is most active.

Whether you photograph an animal or your best friend on your vacation, respect your subject. Do not be pushy with you companions, and do not put stress on an animal for both your safety and the animals’.

Finally, I’m sharing tips, not gospel. Use my advice in a way that works best for you. Slow down, take your time, enjoy your vacation — and take photographs when you want to. The point of vacation is to unwind, relax and to have fun.

Good luck, and happy picture-taking!