Photo Tips for Summer Vacation

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Cool Shots on Hot Days
Summer holidays are the perfect time to snap away at family members, friends, seascapes, cityscapes, landscapes… Here are a few tips to help you take better photographs, whether you're using a DSLR, a point-and-shoot, or the camera built into your smartphone.

The Composition

The rule of thirds is the cardinal rule of photography. It divides the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically, and the aim is to get the main part of the image on one of the cross points.

The rules are, of course, meant to be broken, but there is no doubt that in the majority of cases a photo that is slightly off-centre is more interesting. To achieve this, sometimes it’s enough to simply take a step to the side before snapping at your subject.

The Light

The mantra that photographers never stop repeating, as important as (or more important than?) the rule of the thirds, is that the best light is at dawn or dusk, while the noon light is the worst. Aim to have the light coming from the side, instead of directly in front or behind your subject.

Of course, sometime you will want to break this rule and snap away in the harsh mid-day light to convey a sense of intense heat. Even though natural light is the best, you’d do well to resort to the fill-flash option when taking photos of people with the sun behind, or against a bright background. Without the flash, their faces will remain in a shade (this is one of the most common mistakes in vacation photos).  Flash is also good to use on a beach, to neutralise the glare from water.

The Horizon

The rule here is: avoid placing the horizon line in the middle of your picture. Break this rule only when you want to convey the feeling of a placid and calm ambiance.

However, more often that not, centred horizon will make your picture static and uneventful, while positioning the horizon line in either upper or lower part gives the picture dynamic energy.

The placement of the horizon also indicates to the viewer what the subject is. A high horizon line directs the viewer’s eyes down towards the earth or sea and is usually found in the pictures of cliffs or stormy seas. A low horizon line lifts the viewer’s eyes towards the sky and is often used to indicate a plain or to focus the viewer’s eye on an interesting cloud formation.

When contemplating a scene you want to photograph, move your camera to raise and lower the horizon line. When the image you see in the viewfinder matches the feeling you have, you have found the right place for the horizon.

Wherever you decide to place your horizon, make sure you’re holding your camera level, so that, for example, the line where the sea meets the sky is straight (a slanted sea line is another common mistake in vacation photos).

The Subject

This is the most important component of your photo. Your photo needs to have a central point of interest. In other word, your viewers need to know what they are looking at in the photo. Everything else should be tailored so that you show off your subject matter just so, the way you want to.

Landmarks. The worst thing about summer vacations is that… everybody’s on vacation, swarming in front on your camera as you are trying to frame a shot of some landmark. The only way to deal with this nuisance is to visit the site at the crack of dawn, or to incorporate the inconsiderate tourists into the composition. We suggest doing both.

Landscapes. Sometimes, you will want to capture a grand view with the widest angle possible. However, the result can be a bland image, with no point of interest. Try to get closer and focus on a detail. It’s also a good idea to have a strong foreground, for example a big boulder or a bright flower. Another trick landscape photographers (and painters) are fond of is to include people, in order to provide scale.

Sunsets and sunrises. These are tricky to photograph, because sun creates flashes of light where you do not want them to be and makes everything appear as a black silhouette. So, unless you are going for the silhouette effect, try to photograph the rising or setting sun without the sun, at that magical time of the day when it is invisible below the horizon.

The sky. It might look enticingly blue to the naked eye, but in the photo it will usually look like a washed-out expanse of nothing at all. So, go for the clouds. If you are taking a picture on a cloudless sunny day, compose it so as to exclude most of the sky.

The people. When taking photos of people, first, make sure you're aware of the background. Your subjects need to have the proper contrast so they don't disappear into the background of your image.

The next thing is not to line up your family and friends in front of a landmark or landscape. Think of telling a story. For example, people admiring a waterfall are more interesting than people standing stiffly in front of a waterfall.

As for kids, get down to their level; bend your knees and put your lens on the same plane as their face. Also, try to get reaction from them, instead of posing them.

And what about you? Only too often, the poor photo-chronologist of a family vacation ends up being absent from all the pictures. Don’t let that happen. You need a photo-proof that you were there too. So, either screw your camera on a tripod and set the timer, or ask a stranger to take the photo. However, choose carefully! Look around for somebody with a decent camera (as opposed to a smartphone camera).

Other subjects. Find beauty in the everyday. Architectural or natural patterns, food markets, moored boats, washing lines (with the washing): all offer wonderful opportunities to capture the colours, textures and excitement of the world around you.

Whatever you do, remember to photograph your subject from a variety of angles. Get close up, get far away, shoot up, shoot down, and do your best to be original. With (a lot of) experimentation and careful selection of the shots worthy of display, you’ll end up with vacation pictures that people will want to look at.



Pack the Right Gear

What you need to pack with you depends on what kind of camera you have. We are going with an entry to mid-level SLR, but some of the accessories form the list below will are obligatory for all kinds of digital cameras.

Spare batteries and charger: Since one of the basic laws of the universe states that your camera will run out of power precisely at the moment when you are getting ready do take that once-in-a-lifetime photo, always have a spare battery on your person. For rechargeable batteries, bring along a charger and an international power adapter, if you are going abroad.

Extra memory cards: Take at least two or three, opting for fairly large ones (about 8GB). You will be taking lots of photos, at the highest quality your camera can muster.

Lens cleaning kit: Dust and dirt mean blurry images, which is why you need to keep your lens clean at all times.

Camera bag: If you are taking lots of lenses, filters and flashes, you’ll need a largish camera bag.

Tripod or monopod: Plan to shoot a lot of photos that require a longer exposure, for example at dusk or in the museums? Take out the tripod you packed, or a monopod. The latter is easier to lug around, and some even double as a walking stick.

Your camera manual: Of course, you mastered at least the basics of your camera before the vacation, but, just in case, take the booklet with you. If you do not, you’re sure to get stuck, unable to undo something you never intended to do (that is another one of the basic laws of the universe).

Insurance policy. You don’t need to take with you, but you do need to check whether your camera and lenses are insured when you travel. Insurance will not recover your precious photos, but it will at least cover your expensive equipment.


After the Shoot

Cropping. Composing the photograph starts at the site of the shoot, but is finalised in front of your computer, with photo editing software. Cropping is the single most important post-shoot intervention. Use it to compose your photo better (remember the rule of the thirds), to cut out odd objects you do not want in the picture, and, of course, to size the image properly for printing, if you’ll be taking your digital file to a photo service (the jumbo size prints are 10 x 15cm).

A word or two of advice: when cropping a portrait, never to cut a person at a joint, for example at the elbow; better do it at mid forearm. And if your subject is looking to one side, or walking in one direction, leave some space in the image for that action.

Touching up: Even basic photo editing software offers loads of possibilities to improve the light levels, colour saturation, colour cast etc. of your photos. Only, take care not to overdo it, or the final result will be most unappealing.

Selecting. Be selective. Very selective. Don’t bore the whole internet world with each and every vacation photo you took. Rather, select twenty or so best ones, and the internet audience will be grateful to you.



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