Want to learn how to capture special memories with your vacation pictures? Here are our photography tips and tricks for how to take better pictures on vacation!
Alex and I recently took a trip to Italy, Croatia and Spain, and man what special memories we made with our 1 year old son Larson! I don’t know if you’re like us, but when we travel we don’t buy a lot of souvenirs: instead our souvenirs are the photos we bring home! When you take a special vacation, it’s even more special to have photos that capture the essence of the trip. And believe me, that’s no easy task! For years we’ve been struggling to figure out how to take better pictures on vacation. If you’re looking to up your game in capturing special memories in your travel photography, we’ve got some photography tips and tricks for you! Below we’ll cover both smartphone photography and how to take awesome pictures using a DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Related: How to Plan a Travel Wardrobe — this post contains links to my dresses, hat, and shoes if you’re interested!
1) Plan your photography gear
Smartphone cameras (including recent iPhones) have become really amazing over the past several years. Alex and I have Google Pixel 2 smartphones. and the camera in it is downright terrific at taking photos! If you’re a casual photographer, these days you might be able to get away with using only a phone for all of your vacation pictures. However, if you want to be able to take really stunning photos with a lot of precision and have more control in the editing process, it’s still worth bringing a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Here’s what Alex and I brought on our 3 week trip to Italy, Spain and Croatia:
- Smartphone: Google Pixel 2 XL camera. Alex and I each had our phones, and we use the stock camera app on the Google Pixel 2 camera. See Number 8 below for what we use for editing!
- Sony a7R iii mirrorless camera with a 24-70mm lens. This is the camera we use professionally for our food photography. The lens is a fantastic all-around lens for awesome pictures of food, people, and travel.
- Atlas backpack. This backpack worked as a dual-purpose diaper and camera bag. It’s durable, stylish, and perfect for day trips.
Since the Sony camera is pretty large and bulky, it can sometimes be difficult logistically in restaurant settings or when you’re at the beach. So we used this approach: on a day-to-day basis during our travels, we carried the Sony mirrorless camera in our backpack and pulled it out when something really caught our eye. For more informal hangouts and in restaurants, we used our phones for fun snapshots of food and memories of our friends and family on the go. The photo below is from our Google Pixel 2 camera; you can see that even though it’s smartphone photography, the quality is excellent! The remainder of the photos in this post are Sony A7R iii pictures.
A shot I captured of Tellaro, Italy with my Google Pixel 2 XL smartphone(while Alex was taking the first photo in this post!). My other secret to this photo is Number 4!
2) Research locations on Google and Instagram nearby places.
Before we landed in each city in our travels, we researched the city on Google Images and Instagram “Places” search to see if any pictures really struck us. Usually, the most obvious places with a crowd of tourists taking pictures do not make the most interesting vacation photos. Take a few hours to research before you travel and you might find some really unique locations.
Me and Larson in Frigiliana, Spain. Alex found this day trip using Google photos
3) Explore and enjoy a new spot before photographing it.
It’s hard to not whip out the camera and starting clicking as soon as you see a spectacular site on your travels! However, we’ve found that if you pause, walk through and enjoy a space, and then thoughtfully spend some time on photos that your photos will really shine. When we discovered the hidden beach in Cartagena, Spain, we wanted to take photos every 10 feet. The water, the cliffs, the sky — everything looked glorious! But Alex forced me to just enjoy the views and keep on walking for a while. Of course like always, he was right! Just around the corner was the most fantastic little cove (below). I’m so glad that we enjoyed the walk and saved our memory card space until we had scoped the full area.
This cove in Cartagena, Spain was worth waiting for. You’ll also notice we’re demonstrating secret Number 5.
4) Shoot in early morning or during golden hour.
Most of the time on vacation, we have this pattern: we wake up a little later than usual, go out during the worst of the mid-day heat, find something to eat in the evening, and then crash in bed exhausted. There are two reasons why this schedule is terrible for travel photos. First, mid-day overhead sun is not ideal for photos. Colors become washed out, shadows overpower your pictures, and everyone looks sweaty and tired. During the early morning or golden hour, the sun lowers and makes for much more vibrant photos. This is especially true in the Mediterranean: taking a photo of the water during the day makes it look desaturated and completely uninteresting. If you wait until 7:00 pm, the true blue and green glimmer of the water really pops.
The second reason why midday is terrible for travel photos is that all the tourists are out during the day! If you take travel photos during the morning or golden hour, you flip schedules with all of the other tourists. On these off times, you’ll find popular plazas nearly empty and beaches all to yourself. So, we recommend getting out of bed and seeing the world as early as you can, returning for a siesta and some food in the afternoon, and then exploring in the early evening. You won’t regret it! It might be our best tip for how to take better photos on vacation.
Alex and I went on a golden hour shoot in Sibenik, Croatia: you can see how the light illuminates the buildings and brings in a rosy, golden color. When is golden hour? It’s about 1 hour to an hour and a half before sunset.
Me at a golden hour shoot with Alex in Tellaro, Italy. The same shot at noon would have been washed out and have lots of shadows.
Sometimes your travel schedule might not allow for perfect timing! This photo of Cinque Terre was shot at midday when the light was completely direct. It turned out okay, but we had to up the saturation in editing to make the colors pop. We would have preferred the soft colors of golden hour (like Tellaro above), but we were there on a day trip and couldn’t arrange it!
5) Put people in the shot and capture candid moments.
Rather than line the family up and demand that everyone say cheese, we like capturing the beauty of the setting with people in a more candid setup. For example, the shot of the white town in Spain above (Frigiliana) is a wide shot that shows mostly the scenery, with me and Larson strolling up the street. Alex captured the essence of the town at the same time as showing us there, without it feeling too “set up”. Of course, taking this kind of shot does require some re-enactment at times. Sometimes, Alex would direct me and Larson to walk down the street often during our trip, or simply stop and look up at the buildings! The way that candid poses help to capture the moment is something we prefer to a cheesy family photo — though we did capture a few of those too (including sillie smartphone selfies)! See the examples below.
Larson and I looking up in awe at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
At the Alhambra in Granada: instead of a cheesy front-facing photo, we chose to do a more contemplative gaze into the distance
This one was awkward to shoot, but in Sibenik, Croatia Alex made me run towards the camera to get some motion in the shot (it was also at golden hour! see Number 4)
This pose was perfect for capturing my awe at this white village in Spain (Frigiliana)
A completely candid moment at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain (it was crawling with tourists, so patience was necessary!)
6) Be careful not to distort your picture!
This one is especially true for improving your smartphone photography. With the super-wide angle lenses on smartphones, it’s really easy to make buildings look all wonky and distorted. You want to keep the smartphone facing straight and not angled up. This is especially hard in cities where you want to capture entire monuments or buildings. Our recommendation? Back up a little bit, maybe across the street, so that you can keep the phone straight and then crop the image later. We did this in the picture below. We were able to capture the streetlight and yellow building without distorting, and then crop in a bit to focus your eye to these later on. This tip is also true for mirrorless and DSLR cameras, but it’s especially important for smartphone photography.
7) Edit, edit, edit.
Here’s a “secret” for you: we never save or share photos straight off of the camera. We’ve spent years honing our editing skills, both on our phones and on our computers. Many times, the unedited raw images from your phone or camera will not match the colors you saw. That’s what editing is for! Don’t feel shy about bumping the colors of pictures to match what your eye saw (or even to match the color of blue through your sunglasses!). Most digital pictures need some clean up before they are ready to go.
The Sony A7R iii mirrorless camera that we use is able to transfer photos to our phones wirelessly. This was great for our trip, and meant that we could transfer photos for both back-up and editing. For editing photos on our phones, we use the free app Snapseed. Typically we use the Tune feature to adjust the Brightness, Contrast, Highlights, and Saturation to what looks good to our eye (I also use the Curves feature — let us know if you’re interested in more info on that!). On our computer, we use the new Lightroom CC to edit our photos. We occasionally use a preset filter from VSCO or other apps on our photos, but typically we try to achieve a look we want without purchased presets.
The sea in Malaga, Spain looked positively gray before this edit.
8) Practice, practice, practice.
The last in our photography tips and tricks for how to take better pictures on vacation is this: PRACTICE! The best part about digital travel photography is that doesn’t really cost any extra to take more pictures. The more you practice taking travel photos, the more you’ll get comfortable with lighting, angles, and camera settings. Traveling is the perfect place to hone your skills and fall in love with the craft of photography. We use the Google Photos app on our smartphones. It provides free, unlimited storage for all of our photos, so we didn’t have to worry about running out of space (as long as we could find decent Wifi!). We took thousands of travel photos on the road and then chose our absolute favorites when we got home.
One day we took our Sony mirrorless camera to the beach in Tellaro, Italy and Alex got this fantastic motion shot
A door at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain — with door photos it’s imperative to stand as straight on as possible (Number 6)
A hidden beach in Tellaro, Italy
A rare restaurant DSLR picture: we brought out the big guns for the paella in Barcelona! Since it feels awkward whipping out a huge camera at a restaurant, we prefer using smartphone photography for food
What else do you want to know?
More travel posts
Here are more posts from our trip to Italy, Croatia and Spain!
About the Authors
Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.
Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.