Snapshots to Photographs - Avoid Ugly Babies in Your Vacation Shots

May 01, 2012

Do you fear your friends and family when they come back from a trip? Is it the one time they print all their pictures and head over to Archiver’s to make an album? Does that make you feel like you’re in a Seinfeld episode, wracking your brain for adjectives so you don’t call their “baby” ugly?  Of course, there are some beautiful vacation albums. I wonder about the thought that goes into snapping those pictures compared to the effort to place all the embellishments around them. Do the pictures highlight the sights and sounds and culture of the place?

For your next trip, you will not bore your victims, I mean friends – you won’t produce an ugly baby.  You could avoid it by not taking pictures but it’s a big trip so you plan to dig your dslr out of the back of the closet. True, last time you discovered the battery was dead and you couldn’t find the charger. Fortunately, your wife (didn’t Roseanne Barr say only someone with a vagina can find things?) found it in that pocket you never use.  On the second day, you found yourself fiddling with the controls when the “wow” happened so most of your photos were people turning away from you.

This next trip, prepare and be aware of your audience. Think about whether you want your photographs to tell the story of your trip. Maybe you want a special shot to enlarge and hang on the wall.  Will you print them 4 x 6 and put them in an album or post them online in Flickr or Facebook? Your point-n-shoot may be just fine 70-80% of the time. Are you looking for landscape or wildlife shots? You may want your dslr for a little more flexibility.

You can do a chronological recording that may be fun – a photo of what you pack, folded neatly before the trip and a photo of the pile of laundry by the washing machine could be the bookends of your story, with shots of the airport gate signs showing where you are going or the road sign of the mileage to your destination sprinkled through your pictures of kids and spouse and landmarks.  If you are flying, you might try for a shot of the city as you come in for a landing but the wing may be in your way. Make sure your camera is focused on the ground and not the window grime.

Don’t forget to make pictures of the local people, doing their jobs.  If you want local “color” that describes the culture you will probably find it in the people more than the buildings and landscape.  However, don’t forget to ask them – usually a wave and pointing to your camera is all you need to get a nod.  If they refuse or turn away, move on and ask someone else.  You may find it is easier if you ask them to take a picture of you and your companions and then ask for a picture of them.


I suggest you make a “shot” list for your trip.  Think about three layers for your photographs – establish the context with a foundation shot, bring your viewer closer with some mid-level shots, and discover some details with a close up. For example, you might bring in a wide view of the Grand Canyon, a shot of the steep cliff on the edge of the trail you walked down, and a shot of the bush you hid behind when you dealt with the effects of drinking too much coffee that morning.  Be sure to include any landmarks that represent the area, like the Magic Castle in Disney World or the Eifel Tower in Paris, or a special activity that defines the place, like horse racing in Kentucky or dancing a tango in Argentina.  Here is an example with 3 shots of Chicago landmark buildings, the skyline, the Museum of Science & Industry, and a lion from the 1893 World's Fair that stands in front of the Art Institute.

Chicago Skyline


Museum of Science & Industry


Art Institute Lion

Now that you have your shot list, what sort of camera gear do you need?  Now, stop.  Don’t go online and buy some new camera thing.  You should use the stuff you know best and it won’t be some new camera or lens unless you are planning pretty far in advance.  Even so, you should think about how many shots you may take with that new thing.  If you may only take 5% of your shots with that item then it may not be worth the cost or the weight to lug it around.

If you are going to Yellowstone, will you want pictures of the mountains and landscape, the wildlife and birds, the people standing there, or all of those things? Are you going to a city like Washington DC and will you want pictures inside the Smithsonian, the White House, or a church, as well as outside?  Will your camera handle all of those things?  Maybe you will want a long lens for catching some of the wolves off in the distance and a wide angle lens for a shot of Yellowstone falls. Of course, you can crop a shot down to make it look closer if you don’t have a long lens.  Do you need a flash?  What if the place doesn’t allow flash photography – do you know how to set your camera to take pictures in low light?

Once you decide on your basic shot list and the camera gear you need, spend some time practicing with that gear.  Travel photography is basically photojournalism, which involves catching emotions and events as they happen.  You rarely get a chance to ask the dancers to reenact a hula and you sure don’t want to pay to go to another luau so you can try your picture again. Know how your camera works so you don’t have to guess about how to get a shot.  Don’t forget basics like memory cards and batteries.  Do you want to carry a second battery so you are prepared if it runs down?  How many pictures can you store on your memory card?  Will you take any videos?  Those often chew through memory cards very quickly. 

You have arranged your shot list, organized your camera and accessories, and practiced with your gear.  You should have a bag to carry it while you are traveling and possibly while you are walking around.  I prefer a backpack over a standard camera bag so I don’t have a bag labeled “expensive camera, please grab it and run” when I go through airport security or sit down in a restaurant.  If you are so inclined, there are a number of companies that sell backpacks with extra padding for camera gear.  Personally, I like Lowepro and Gura Gear bags.  Think Tank makes some good camera bags, too.

You get to Hawaii or Yellowstone or New Orleans or Aruba and one day it rains. My advice – take your camera and the shower cap from the hotel bathroom or a hand towel to cover it. Some of the best days for photographs are cloudy and rainy. Bright sunlight makes for harsh shadows and tough photographs. Rain brings out colors in vegetation, cleans the streets, and improves the contrast in your shots.  I have sometimes hosed down an area of our garden in order to get that “after the rain” effect for photos. One thing is certain if you don’t have your camera, you will miss some of those people shots that define the culture of a place on your list.

Here are a few suggestions for the gear to take on your trip.  The basics:

  • Camera.  If you take a DSLR, I suspect you will have a standard zoom lens of about 17-85mm (consumer DSLR) or 24-105mm (pro DSLR)
  • Memory cards for about 200 to 250 shots per day and a video (if you use that feature)
  • Charger and a spare camera battery
  • Lens cloth and cleaner – this is probably the most important accessory you can bring, in case you do get caught in the rain.
  • Gallon sized plastic freezer bags and rubber bands to protect your camera in the rain.
  • Backpack. 

Some extras you may want:

  • Wide angle zoom lens for landscape or architecture, such as a 10-22mm (consumer DSLR) or 16-35mm (pro DSLR)
  • Telephoto zoom lens for long distance people shots or wild life, such as a 70-300mm.
  • Flash unit and spare batteries
  • Polarizing filters for your lenses, to reduce glare on sunny days
  • Camera rest, such as a mini tripod, bean bag (empty – you can fill it with rice, beans, or sand when you get there), monopod, or tripod
  • Binoculars, for wildlife or sports.  There are a lot of mini-sized, good quality binoculars available and you can see better with them than through your telephoto lens.
  • Spare camera – this is for photo fanatics and those Monk-like people among us who worry that their camera may break while on their trip of a life time.

You may have noticed that I prefer zoom lenses over “prime” or fixed length lenses for travel. Be careful to get good quality zooms but they offer flexibility and speed for photojournalism that is difficult to match by moving closer or farther from your subject with your feet.

Once you are back, you will probably have a lot of pictures to look through. The key here is to edit your collection to the best and most interesting shots and keep your viewers from rolling their eyes. The first thing to do is delete the blurred and badly exposed shots. Check that one you took from the plane window to see if it is blotchy from shooting through the window grime and dump it if it is not clear. Once you’ve gotten rid of the unsalvageble shots, rank your pictures from 1 to 5. In the end you should choose no more than 15 to 20 pictures to represent your week to your friends and family.  Even if you think you have other good shots, you should only show off your very best. Remember, every baby is cute but not every baby is pretty or handsome. The true test of whether your pictures are well received is going to happen when you go on a subsequent trip and people ask to see your photos. If you burn their hand on the hot stove, they won’t want to do it again.

Have a great time on your trip and let me know where I can see your photographs.

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