Eight travel photo tips (and a bonus)

Eiffel Rorschach
A different view of the Eiffel Tower, taken from below and looking up at one corner of the gorgeous structure.

Planning a summer vacation?
Summer travel season + time with family = lots of opportunities for photography. I offer below a list of tips for upping your game to help you get even better photos from your once-in-a-lifetime vacation. This is not a list for the pros; these are tips for folks who take a camera with them when they travel, and that is everyone, because your phone has a great little camera in it that you already use a lot. There’s also a bonus tip for those who really want to go for it. The most important tip: have a fun vacation!

  1. Buy the postcard. This is always my #1 piece of advice about vacation photography. Always. Here’s why: You know those nice postcards with great pictures of the Statue of Liberty at night or the Grand Canyon without tour buses? The person who took that perfect photo was paid for the work, may have had a ride in a helicopter (or owned a drone), had help removing people, cars and other unwanted stuff from the scene, and was able to make many photographs over a period of time, in a variety of weather, in order to achieve that postcard-perfect image. You probably have none of those things, so give yourself a break and buy the card, because this actually frees you up for everything else I have on my list.
  2. Say hello. If you’re traveling to a place where you don’t speak the language, make the effort to learn a few basics, like hello, please, thank you, and I’m sorry. Those four things will improve your trip dramatically. And while we’re at it…
  3. Ask permission. I see people make this mistake all the time, most often at open-air markets, where everyone has a camera and they’re all angling for a great photo of the colorful displays. The vendors try to be patient, but imagine how invasive it would feel to constantly experience tourists with cameras pointed at you. Whole worlds will open up for you if you simply say hello, then point to the camera or phone and ask if it’s OK to make a photo. I promise that you are likely to be the only one to ask, and the vendor will be happily astounded. Besides, it’s a polite and respectful way of interacting with people.
  4. Use your feet to get closer instead of using the zoom feature. On a smartphone, the zoom feature actually utilizes technology that cuts out part of the picture and then enlarges the pixels that remain. This means lower overall resolution, which in turn means a lower-quality photograph. If you can’t get any closer, and you must make the photograph, then plan to crop later instead of using the zoom now. You’ll get better photographs.
  5. Don’t hold the phone/camera out at arm’s length. The device is much less steady like this, especially if you had that morning espresso, and that in turn creates blurry photographs. Hold the camera closer to your body; you can even add support with the other hand. If you need more help being steady, hold your breath while you snap the photo, or better yet, lean against something stable.
  6. Be aware of backlighting and the sun. How many times have you made a picture of your sweetheart with a great sunset in the background? And how many times was your sweetie a silhouette? Yeah. When you’re making a photograph, try to be aware of where the light is coming from, especially when making pictures of people. For most photographic situations, sunshine is your enemy; in addition to those silhouettes, it also creates harsh shadows and tends to wash out color. A cloudy day usually produces better photographs of both people and landmarks, and colors will be more saturated.
  7. Look behind you. Your attention may be riveted by the Eiffel Tower, but you might just find a treasure hidden in plain view if you simply turn around. Look up, look down, look behind you. There are zillions of photographs of that tower, but many new gems to be found if you take a moment to really look at the amazing structure and the other people who are there with you.
  8. Try taking pictures of signs and other printed words. Almost all of us can read, especially those of you who are reading this blog! And almost everywhere you go, there are things to read. Why not photograph them? They help tell the story of your trip, by filling in names of places you visited, or the street where your hotel was, or that great restaurant you found.


Photo Set
Left: if you’re taking a beach vacation, maybe your favorite fish shack has a funky and colorful hand-painted sign. Right: where else but Florence can you find a parking garage named in honor of Dante?
Photo Set
Left: I like to take pictures of the directional signs on roads, because it’s a fun way to remember what else was around a place I visited. Bonus points for including your car! Right: the red octagonal stop sign is nearly universal around the world, but many places use their own language, such as Malaysian. It may not strike you at the time, but photos like this will bring back memories and add richness to your scrapbook.
Photo Set
The Rabbit Ears Motel in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, has a great old neon sign with a pink rabbit. Left: a typical night view showing the full sign. Center: a close-up of the rabbit and part of the name. Right: having some fun with those bunny ears!


And now for the bonus photo tip
These days, we have access to a variety of things to do with our photographs. I know many people who produce a printed book as a souvenir of their trip, others who make beautiful scrapbooks, and still others who make an annual calendar. One way to spice up any printed piece is to include one or two themed collections of photographs taken during the course of your trip. Huh?

What I mean by this is to make many photographs of similar objects, and thus to build a small collection of your own. The most typical example I can think of is pictures of doors and windows. I make them myself; they’re intriguing and they say much about the culture you’re visiting. Last year, I was in Siena, Italy, for the crazy medieval horse race called the Palio. I didn’t think about it ahead of time, but once I got there, I decided to make a collection of pictures of horses.

You may not know what it is until you arrive and start making photos, but something will catch your eye or fire up your imagination. Perhaps you’ll take a picture of each morning’s breakfast pastry. Maybe you’ll be inspired by all the sand castles you see on the beach. It could be that your family selects a pose, and then you take pictures of each other striking that pose in different locales. The world is your oyster, and at the end of your trip, you might discover that you have a fine collection of photographs of something that is a unique expression of your trip.


Photo Set
This example of a collection is to be found on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. The shops have wonderful old wooden shutters, which in turn have fabulous iron hinges. Some of the hinges are old, some are newer, and most are in a lily design, in honor of the red lily that is the symbol of Florence.


Photo Set
Wooden window shutters need a way to stay open, and the device for that is called a shutter dog (French: arrêt de volet, meaning shutter stop). There are special shutter dogs, many of them in human form, and here in France these are called arrêt bergère or tête de bergère. They are shutter shepherds, and they make a dandy photo collection.


Photo Set
The Palio horse race in Siena, Italy, where the horse is more important than the jockey. Top row, left to right: stenciled street art of a horse; a horse on an Etruscan tomb; a weather vane in a coppersmith’s shop. Bottom: the day after the race I was lucky to get a surprise view of the winning horse, out for a stroll with his groom.



Cool Blue
The blue-tiled courtyard of the Grande Mosquée de Paris, where one can relax and sip refreshing mint tea.


About those chairs
I’ve just finished a little project refinishing some vintage chairs, and there was plenty of time for thought during all that sanding and painting.

At one point I realized that I seem to have a thing for chairs. The truth is that I do like to photograph them, especially French bistro chairs that must have so many stories to tell. But it’s more than that.

The first time I bought a house, in California in 1991, I had very few pieces of furniture. One purchase I made was two wooden chairs from a local store that specialized in unfinished furniture. I came up with a design, selected paint colors, and set about painting those chairs. It was painstaking, because I’m a bit of a perfectionist about these things, so the project took a long time. But it was done with love, and I adored the results. Those chairs went to Colorado with my husband and me when we moved in 2000.

When we moved into the house we’d built, we found ourselves a new chair project. This time, we had a dining table we really liked but no chairs for it. We found a company online that specialized in making unfinished furniture, then selected colors. We were looking for more of a colored stain than an opaque paint, and it took some trial and error to get the results we wanted. And we mixed things up, putting different colors on different parts of the chairs. We had six chairs, three colors, and a bit of a math problem as we matched chair parts to paint colors. It was absolutely not random, and just a wee bit crazy-making.

I started on my latest project with no thought at all of the previous chair projects, not even thinking of those other projects until I was nearly finished with this one. The other difference was that these chairs are old, made of metal, and came to me with layers of ancient paint. I had some things to learn, including how not to sand the skin off my fingers (sandpaper for metal is kind of intense).

The project was drawing to a close, and I was applying the last coat of white paint to the slats of the chairs. In a playful mood, I selected ZZTop to keep me company. And I am here to say that it was remarkably satisfying to brush on that paint to the sound of “Cheap Sunglasses.” I do believe that I may just think of cheap sunglasses whenever my glance falls upon these chairs.

Photo Set
Upper left: one of the chairs when I brought it home. Lower left: after sanding down the surface (I didn’t remove all the paint). Right: one of the finished chairs in my kitchen.



Parting Shot
It’s always great to find humor, especially with travel photography. A friend and I were headed to a mountainous region of large granite formations, and we arrived at the same time that rain clouds began to lower. Thus this pullout for a panoramic view was, well, less than desired, but made a funny photograph.

Grey Pano
On a mountain road, an opportunity for a panoramic view of the hills and valleys below. Or not.


2 thoughts on “Eight travel photo tips (and a bonus)”

  1. As always, your blog is full of interesting and educational information. It also serves as an inspiration for those who are wanting to get new and fresh ideas to spur their creative soul. Thank you, Lynne, for the work you put into these writings and your beautiful imagery!


    1. And thank YOU, Karen, for being a great teacher and friend, for teaching me to speak with my soul (with both camera and pen), and for supporting creativity in all its messy wonderfulness.


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