Five Film Pros on Taking Trip Photos that Last

We quizzed top cinematographers and editors on screen-worthy tips to make your vacation photos and videos ones worth saving.

Words by Jane Borden
Illustrations by Ryan Johnson

Find yourself stuck with hundreds of vacation photos and videos featuring bad lighting and the same old boring composition? Fret no more! From layering to editing to the magic rule of thirds, use these top tips from industry pros to take better vacation photos and videos on your next trip.

Shoot Movies Worth Sharing

Rather than filming one wide shot, break the scene into a sequence of perspectives. Say you’re taking a video of a monkey. Open on a close- up of a banana. Next, tilt the camera up to show the monkey’s face as he peels the banana. Finally, pan away to his monkey pals watching enviously. “Not only does the video have a beginning, middle, and end, but you’re telling the audience where to look and when,” explains New York City-based cinematographer and camera operator Barbie Leung. “That’s how you impart your point of view.”

Composition Matters

Pros turn to these basic photography principles to create more dynamic images.

Rule of thirds

Divide the frame into thirds, vertically and horizontally, and you’ll get a grid of nine boxes with four points around the center. “Position the subject on one of those four points,” Leung says, “and the most mundane thing is interesting.”

Layers

“Include a focal point on all three planes — foreground, mid-ground, and background­ — to add depth, pulling the viewer into a 3-D space,” says Leung.

Point of view

Beware of 5'7"-itis. We tend to take a photo from whatever height we are, says Los Angeles-based cinematographer and digital-imaging technician Lonny Danler who’s worked on films like Beautiful Boy and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Consider alternate perspectives: “With children, I’m often down low, since that’s where the story is.”

Shoot in Any Light

During magic hour

The 45 to 60 minutes before sunset or after sunrise are sought after by filmmakers. The light is beautiful and golden, and it’s hard to take a bad photo.

At midday

Cinematographers rarely shoot when the sun is at its highest; light is harsh and shadows are strong. To avoid blowing out your subjects’ faces, have them turn at an angle or stand in shade.

When it’s overcast

Like a lampshade for the planet’s biggest bulb, clouds are almost always welcomed by filmmakers, because the result is a highly detailed photo. Using a smartphone and the image is dim? Tap the subject, then raise the sun icon to open the exposure.

Up Your Editing Game

Rule number one: Skip the built-in smartphone filters, recommends Chris Carson, an editor in North Carolina who’s worked on Chi-Town, 2016 and 2018 Olympics promos, and various commercial projects. “They often make images look unnatural.” Still, all those editing features can be overwhelming. And while there’s no one magic formula for every single photo (and it’s always a good idea to compare the original and edited version to make sure you didn’t overdo it), Carson offers the simplified step-by-step below to make your photos pop. “That’s the point of editing manually versus using preset filters,” he says. “You can tailor the effects for each image.”

1. Rotate and crop.

“Always rotate the image so the horizon line is straight — it drives me crazy when it’s crooked,” Carson says. Next, crop out clutter, like a messy counter or telephone wires. You could also use the cropping tool to shift a focal point so it appears on one of the four grid points (see “Rule of thirds”).

2. Adjust the brightness.

On some shots, you may not need to do this at all, but for a photo taken in an average amount of light, Carson usually takes it up to 30 or 40 on Instagram editor (or 4 to 5 ticks on the iPhone editor) so that all the details of the subject are clearly visible.

3. Pump up the contrast.

Use this tool, which darkens the darks and lightens the lights, to create a richer photograph. Typically, Carson increases the contrast to 30 or 40 on Instagram editor (or 4 to 5 ticks on the iPhone editor), or as much as possible without the blacks getting muddy or the whites blowing out.

4. Fine-tune the saturation.

You’ll make the photo’s colors more vibrant. Just be sure to use this tool sparingly; go too far and things will quickly start to look fake. For a pic with an average amount of light, Carson only boosts it up 5 or 10 on Instagram editor (or 1 or 2 on the iPhone).

Tell a Story with Photos

Three clever, creative ways to document vacation adventures:

Do a before, during, and after.

This builds a linear narrative. “Say you’re scuba diving. Take the suiting-up pics, then a few underwater, and finally shots of the collection you found on the ocean floor,” says New York City-based editor and producer Amy Peters who’s worked on Love & Hip-Hop and Queer Eye.

Juxtapose opposites.

Snap the same lighthouse at morning and at night. Or contrast a happy moment (first footsteps on the sand) with a bad one (the aftermath of a jellyfish sting).

Go macro, then micro.

“Set the scene and add close-ups,” says editor Amy Peters. Get a wide shot of a tiki bar, then zoom in on a cocktail dripping with condensation. “The resulting feeling is, I am there.”

For videos, turn your phone sideways

Always record movies in landscape mode, says Peters. “That’s how you receive the world — the ratio of 16 to 9 mimics our eyesight by including the peripheral area. Videos shot this way feel natural and inclusive.”

Be Respectful When Filming Strangers

One person’s authentic photo is another person’s private life. To document locals with courtesy, the most straightforward approach, of course, is to ask permission. (And always check with the parents of children.) You may choose to buy something from an artisan to show good intentions. If you don’t want to interrupt the moment you’re trying to capture, eye contact goes a long way: “Smile and make a little gesture. Often, they will appreciate that you’re interacting with them on a human level,” says Leung. But the easiest thing is to avoid faces altogether. Photograph people facing away from the camera, go wide and get the expanse of a street so individuals are blurred, or shoot really tight, says cinematographer and camera operator Luisa Mendoza, who has worked on The Power of Harmony and The Parkland Doctors. “I might zoom in on someone’s hands working on pottery.”

About the author: Jane Borden is an author, journalist, and screenwriter. She lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Quartz for thoughts on the media and on Instagram for L.A. life.