Through the Gadling Lens: Tips for choosing which vacation shots to take

As I type this, I’m about half-way through my trip to England. It’s a whirlwind trip of visiting family, seeing long-lost friends, making new acquaintances and cramming in sight-seeing daytrips when I can — not to mention fighting a rampant case of jetlag. But through it all (and as you may well imagine), I’m taking a lot of photographs … which has got me thinking about how I choose the images that I choose to shoot. I mean, why do I take one shot over another? Is there a “right way” to shoot a vacation?

Obviously, the answer to that question is about as varied as the number of people who own cameras: the “right way” differs for each person. And in truth, the way I shoot for my own personal use (that is, to capture as many vivid memories of a trip as possible) is far different from the way I shoot for professional purposes. But I’ve heard time and time again from people who say “my vacation photographs don’t move me as much as my own memories do,” and I think that’s really unfortunate. So I thought I’d share some of the ways that I shoot my vacation, in the hope that perhaps it will trigger something for you.
1. Shoot the iconic shots. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how many times I’ve heard friends say “I tried to shoot a photograph of myself in front of the Eiffel Tower, but I couldn’t get the tower and me in the shot!” First of all, don’t be afraid to shoot from weird angles (get someone to lie down on the ground and shoot up at both you and the tower, for example), but even more obviously, you could always forget about trying to get in the shot — just shoot the icon. Find something your destination is known for, and capture an image of that … just that. Remember, you’re going to be shooting lots of additional images, so it’s okay if some of them don’t include you or your travel buddies. And trust me, even if it seems cliche to you at the time, once you return home you’re going to wish you had that picture of the cable car in San Francisco, or Big Ben in London.

2. Get portraits of your travel companions. Again, this may seem like a given, but understand I’m not just talking about an image of your spouse standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon (although, done right, that would probably make a pretty good shot as well). I’m talking about getting in close and taking an actual portrait of your wife, husband or friends who are with you. I mean, if your holiday is going well, it’s going to show on their faces, you know? They’ll be relaxed, or excited, or thrilled — and nothing triggers great memories like capturing the emotions on their faces. So grab your camera (remembering what focal length lens works for portraits), get close to your companions, and capture their expressions.

And one more thing, while we’re on the subject: when it comes to taking portraits of your kids, particularly when they’re on vacation, it can be damned near impossible to get them to smile sweetly and look into the camera. Don’t let this stop you: just get down on their level, get as close as you can without getting smacked in the face by their flailing hands and feet, and take the shot. You’ll find that your kids just being kids will make far more appealing shots than posed images of them grimacing while shouting “CHEESE!!!”

3. Get portraits of total strangers. This isn’t about walking up to the locals and asking them to pose for a portrait (although if you’re brave enough, by all means do it — just remember to be polite and respectful in your request). For me, one of the easiest ways to get some images of the locals is to take images of buskers: people who entertain on street corners, in subways, or in parks. In fact, I’m always mindful to keep some change in my pockets for just this very reason — and then, armed with my 70-200mm lens, I can take nice, intimate portraits, and thank my subject with the equivalent of a few dollars.

4. Grab images when your travel buddies aren’t paying attention. This is sort of similar to tip #2 above, but different: in this case, you’re still trying to capture expressions and emotions, but this time your subjects have no idea you’re photographing them. In fact, on this particular trip, I’ve managed to capture some great images of my father-in-law and his wife, as well as my brother-in-law and his wife, and in both instances, they had no idea I was taking the shot. But I think both shots the atmosphere at the time I took the image and will certainly be wonderful reminders of how much I love being around them. Happily, they’re pretty pleased with the shots as well:

5. Be inspired by colour and texture. I don’t know about you, but I find some of my most vivid memories occur because of the vibrant colours and unfamiliar textures that a foreign land often has to offer. For this reason, I usually remain on the lookout for images which take my breath away, merely because I’m shocked by the colours: a vivid sunset, bright flowers, or crystalline oceans. If something makes me catch my breath because if its hue, you can pretty much guarantee that I’m going to grab a shot.

6. Shoot in situ. At some point in every vacation, I find that I have some down time: I’m sitting on the beach relaxing, or in a cafe watching the city wake up and start its day, or simply watching the sun set. Invariably, I grab my camera and just shoot what’s right in front of me — it may not be a perfect image, but it’s generally enough to remind me exactly what I was doing when I was really relaxing into my travels.

7. Let what you see frame what you see. I know this makes no sense, but perhaps the following will explain: the other morning, my father-in-law took me into the Forest of Dean so that I could grab some images of the amazing fall foliage that’s currently all over the English countryside. We drove into a public park called Cannop Ponds, and I got out of the car to walk into the forest.

As I was walking through, all of a sudden the branches of the trees parted, and I caught a glimpse of some swans gliding along a small lake. It was breathtaking. Now, I could’ve walked a bit closer and taken a shot of the swans, but really, what was amazing to me was the sudden appearance of these beautiful birds through the branches. And so, I took a photograph, letting the branches frame the shot:

Again, technically not the best shot in the world, but it captures a moment I’ll never forget.

8. When in doubt, don’t choose. Sometimes, when I’m taking a shot, I find myself a bit torn: should I take a photograph of this delicious margarita right in front of me, or the image of my husband and daughter snorkeling off in the distance? Or should I take just one shot of my kid cracking up? In these cases, I just shoot everything, and then let the diptych (or series of shots) tell the story:

9. Every once in a while, give someone else the camera. I’m actually horrible at this: I much prefer to be behind the camera, rather than in front of it. But if I’m honest, sometimes it looks like I never go on vacations with my family! For this reason, I’m trying to teach myself to hand my camera over to my husband, or to whoever else might be traveling with me. It takes an effort not to be self-conscious in front of the camera, but as time passes and I look back on the shots, it’s nice to be able to see how I was enjoying the experience myself.

With that, I’m off to enjoy the rest of my holiday. Please share your tips of how you choose your own images, below. Next week, we’ll answer the age-old question: can point-and-shoots really take as good an image as an SLR? And in the meantime, if you have any questions you’d like to ask, please e-mail me at, and I’ll do my best to answer them in future posts!

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.