How to Photograph a Vacation
You don’t have to overdo it to capture the right narrative for your adventure
So, you’re going on vacation. You don’t need to let the desire to document it get in the way of enjoying it — the key is in having a shooting strategy that ensures the story gets told while not overdoing it with a camera up to your face all the time. I’ve been the family photographer on many many trips and I think I have a fine-tuned approach that can fit easily into any adventure you’re going on.
Packing and Using
You know the plaguing questions — you’re trying to figure out which camera to bring, which lens, or lenses. How many SD cards, batteries, filters, etc. You’ve got more equipment than you can possibly take with you, so how to decide on paring down?
My recommendation — this isn’t going to be easy — one camera, one lens. Yes, it’s a compromise but it almost always yields you better results for a multitude of reasons. The biggest one is that it won’t sit in a camera bag, that destroyer of quick opportunistic shooting — with apologies to all those great manufacturers of camera bags, backpacks and inserts. And the second reason is that you won’t be stuck thinking about camera equipment, which is really not where your mind should be during vacation anyway. Be on vacation. And when the moment strikes, grab the camera and shoot. And then get back to enjoying yourself, friends or family.
I go through the same machinations nearly every time I start packing. And I’ve done it every way possible. I always get as good a set of images from a single camera with a 35mm lens on it as I do bringing a wide angle and a 50mm. In fact, my best photographed trips have all been with a 35mm. My top choices would be a 35mm prime lens, when using my Leica or Nikon. And a 10–24mm, when using my Fujifilm XT2. The 24–70 is also a fine choice for any trip, if zoom is your thing.
Bring three SD cards, an extra battery and a charger — and don’t download the images while you’re vacationing. If you want to post during your trip, do it from your mobile shots, take screen grabs of the back of the camera’s screen, or send yourself one or two a day from the camera, if it has that capability. The camera is simply a tool to document the moment and then put away and get back to being in the moment — and that includes your nights, too. Relax and let the weight of the world disappear, don’t let the draw to download photos, edit and post them interrupt your good vibes. It’s too much work for a vacation.
But let’s get to foreign lands…
The Establishing Shot
It’s the oldest trick in storytelling — establish where you are by setting the mood, describing the scene and painting a picture of this new place.
Contrary to what you might think, an establishing shot does not need to be an extremely wide angle landscape shot (though that can be quite nice, of course) — that’s more a movie-making trick where you start with a wide city shot. Or maybe the old pan down from the sky maneuver. Yours does not need to work so hard.
All you need to do to establish that you are on vacation is get something in your new environment that catches your eye and looks different than where you’re from. Or maybe a similar scene with a distinctly foreign twist. In the image above with the girls eating ice cream, the entire family had just landed in London. My son and I were walking to the house, dragging our suitcases along with us as a grade school let out. The girls were engaging in an age-old post-school activity, but their fancier and more classic school clothing gave it a distinctly London flair. Grabbing it immediately set the tone of where we were.
Likewise, on a recent trip to Hawaii during rainy season, it was impossible not to notice the abundance of rainbows in the sky. Sometimes double rainbows or complete colorful sky arcs that seemed to stretch out over the entire island. That’s just not something you see where I live, so it was a natural to get an environmental shot with a rainbow that immediately established that we’re in Hawaii. I’ll always be glad to have this shot as part of my memory of our trip.
These kinds of establishing shots are not about specific locations or about people. They can be (and often are) anywhere. They are things that quickly read as “of this place.” And you’ll be glad you have them when you look back on the trip and want to dream of those days and time there. It immediately tells you you’re in a different land.
Find the Essential
As is common with vacations, you’re on the street a lot. Though I’m tempted, I try not to shoot every single person I see. I really pick my moments and try to make sure that what I’m shooting is always iconically representative of where I am. I call this, Essentialism. Essentialism is the practice of having everything you need and nothing you don’t. It’s my philosophy of photography, in general, but it really comes into play when I’m out of town. I want to capture people as they are in that environment, but I want it isolated somehow, so that you really feel that person/people and what they are doing. Just that and nothing else.
Look for ways to isolate people who are emblematic of the place you are in. You’ll capture more of the essence of where you are through that one image of that one person than you will with a hundred random shots of strangers intermixed with others. All of my best shots of people I see while abroad fit this description.
Isolating people often means changing your view. Usually, there is a crowded angle and a less-crowded angle. I always choose the less-crowded one, limiting the amount of visual noise and giving the shot a calm understated-ness. This allows the people I shoot and their activities to stand out.
However, I do look for activities that are interesting. I rarely shoot people sitting and doing nothing. I look for stuff going on. People in the midst of playing or going somewhere. It’s normal life, but it’s life. This seems to create more interest in the image and captures a place in motion. Which in my opinion is the best way to capture a place.
Getting Unique Shots
When you’re traveling, you’re shooting a lot of sites that people shoot all the time. And, if you’re going to popular places, you’re also shooting in places where it’s crowded. I have a few techniques that help me get images that don’t look like the usual tourist shots.
Because I like movement and the sense of a city in motion (especially when I’m in a fast-moving city), I’ll steady the camera on the ground, or on a bridge and do a longer exposure shot. These are anywhere from a half second to one and a half to three seconds. For long exposures at night with moving cars, I’ll go as long as 6 seconds. Long exposure images add dynamic movement and eliminate distractions — even sometimes removing crowds — to artistically express a vibe of a city in motion. Simple and effective.
Isolate By Tilting Up.
Often, everything you need to convey about a city can be understood by showing less. As a matter of habit, I will always try a shot of a city where I tilt up slightly to minimize the foreground elements that might be distracting.
Find Details By Looking Down
The old adage is to keep your head up if you want to know what’s going on, but I’ve made a lot of great discoveries by staring down while I walk. Details are down there. Discarded things. Things that have withstood weather and trampling. These details tell great stories. If I may, consider the details offered up by this Salinger passage:
Off hand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was the Chief’s girl, Mary Hudson.
A great story is told through the details you didn’t expect to know about. Odd artifacts seen only by the author. And it’s the same in photography. Look around for the details around you that tell a different kind of story — yours.
Take a Photo Day
I realize this contradicts the earlier decree to simply enjoy your vacation and not think too hard about photography. However, for some of us, doing photography is just a part of enjoying being in a foreign land. If you’re like me, you might also find yourself taking a day where photography actually is your purpose. And perhaps, like me, you feel there are few things that get you as intimate with a place as that activity. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you embark on that solo journey, try to take the opportunity to do something out of your comfort zone. Once in Romania, I stopped the car I was in and rushed up a hill after a young shepherd who I had no ability to speak to. I think it’s among the best shots I’ve taken.
And, in fact, I see many people who take a similar outlook at my Los Angeles Night Photography Experience I lead. People who feel they can really get to know a place by exploring it with a camera.
The Family Candid
It’s your vacation, no one else’s. So, a good amount of your images should star you and your family. My suggestion is to, as much as possible, get people during the little moments.
The image at the top of this article is an example of my favorite kind of family shot on vacation. I’m catching them in the midst of interacting. It feels like a special moment.
Not all shots need to be epic and perfect. Remember, though the social media feed and family vacation slide show is fun, these images are 99% for your own memory of your trip. That moment outside the restaurant, waiting on a picnic basket of fried chicken to take to a park in Montreal with family… that memory fades completely without the shot to remember it by. The “who was there” and “how old were you when” and “how were people feeling” is all wrapped up in your image. So, remember to tell the story of the little moments you shared with your family, for posterity. Because that’s really what it’s about.
And then get the epic shot, too.
It Comes Down To Six
You’ll take hundreds (if not thousands) of photos — it just always happens. But in the long run, your trip is going to come down to about 6 key images. Why 6? Because our time is limited and we rarely spend more than two minutes reminiscing on anything. And we don’t often look at any given image for more than twenty seconds. Twenty seconds times 6 is two minutes.
And while you can’t predict what your images will be — that’s the craziness of life — you can keep a bit of a running tally in your head. Six is a manageable number, so while you are shooting away, be thinking of whether you feel you’ve got your six.
I have an entire Instagram feed I recently started that is dedicated to culling down to 6 images of anything I shoot. I find it to be good practice for traveling with the intention of capturing it in six images.
As an aside, I looked back over my photos from various trips to write this article and I was struck by something. While the family and I are really good about getting to the destinations that matter in any location we visit, those attractions only seem to make up about 1/3 of my top six. By and large, it’s the moments and things discovered along the way to and from the big attractions that seem to stick out. Something to think about as you travel along — you’re capturing your life abroad. Things pop up. As a photographer, your ability to be attuned to those things as they happen and think to capture them are what will make your particular set of photos special. And define you as a photographer.
The Extra Mile
When I travel, I’m acutely aware that I may never see this part of the world again and I feel compelled to get the most out of my abilities as an image-gatherer. So, while I don’t want to spend my whole vacation thinking like a movie director, I do prepare myself for getting incredible-looking footage while I’m on a trip, so that when I get back I have excellent raw materials to make something cool, if I want to. This takes a bit of extra effort, or investment, but if you’re set on capturing your journey in the best possible way (and what is more important, really, than great memories of our travels?), then here’s a few things you might be glad you did:
Take Video Clips
I know, you’re a photographer, not a filmmaker. But your eye for things that look good and are well-framed is exactly the kind of gift that makes video great, too. And it’s not that hard anymore to hit the record button on whatever camera you’re carrying these days. So, after you’ve perfectly framed that shot, run off a few clips of video in the same spot. Simple little :15 snippets of family talking, looking at things, laughing. Those are all usable pieces of film that you can easily stitch into something interesting. The fact that you figured out the best angle to compose it is most of the work of video, too. Maximize your results by adding video to your stills.
Bring a Drone
A drone is an incredible tool for capturing things you never could have without it. And the footage looks so good, people will marvel at what you were able to get. In the end, mixing in some high-flying images with your family fun is exactly the kind of mix that gives a sense of completeness to your trip. A DJI Mavic Pro fits easily into a suitcase and will yield very high quality images. And you can get smaller and cheaper drones these days, too.
100% of the time I travel now, I look up Instagrammers — and even reach out to them to see if they want to hang — they can be great guides and I’ve made tons of new friends doing it. Your like-interests in photography and adventure will immediately break the ice. But even if you never get to hang with them, their curated images of great locations can act as a guide to where some spectacular shots are — and even some great ways to shoot them.
Make a Movie
Putting all of this into play with a video offers up some variation on the old vacation slide show. Here’s a little something I put together from our recent trip to Hawaii. I’m no pro editor or anything, but having this video for the years to come will be a great way to look back on some of the highlights, quickly.
I hope you enjoyed the article. But even more, I wish safe and beautiful travels for you and your family, wherever life takes you.