If you’re packing your bags and heading on spring break in the next few weeks, you’ll no doubt be capturing some photos of your adventures. Thanks to advances in smart phone technology, amateur photographers are able to get better pictures than ever before. And while I believe there’s no replacement for the real deal — a good old-fashioned camera — both options bring great potential for vacation photography and capturing memorable moments.

I recently attended a Nikon School photography class on landscape and travel photography. Led by professional photographers Bob Pearson and Reed Hoffman, the class covered some more technical aspects of photography, but the duo also reinforced some simple ideas that are easy to execute and that yield great results.

We followed up with Bob after the class to get some specifics that can help guide your vacation photography. As you pack your suitcase — and your camera — keep these pointers in mind, and you’ll have vacation photos you’ll treasure forever!

Put the camera down.

Yes, interesting advice coming from a pro photographer, but Bob advises you don’t shoot every single second of your vacation. “Finding the essence of the location and capturing the important and impressive moments will produce the most memorable photos,” he says. “In other words, don’t spend all of your time snapping the shutter. Get to know the locals, the food and the sights, and photograph the moments that you cherish the most.”

Go for the gold.

Many of us in the South tend to migrate toward the beach for spring break, which means you can pretty much imagine the standard pics that will start springing up on Facebook: Kids making sandcastles, perfectly painted toes in the sand, cocktails on the beach, and the all-important surf-side sunset. If you want your beach pics to really sing? “Try to be out early in the morning or later in the afternoon to take advantage of what we call the ‘golden hours,’” Bob offers. “Early morning and late afternoon light is always warmer, more directional and not as harsh as mid-day light, especially if you are traveling to locations closer to the equator.” Additionally cloudy days, while not the ideal beach weather, are great for photographing for the same reason — the lighting isn’t as harsh.

The golden hour is magical for photography, offering a warm, golden light to your images.

Composition is key.

In the workshop I attended, Reed shared a photograph of a beautiful mountainside. He asked if anyone saw anything interesting about the photo. No one responded as they’re wasn’t anything particularly striking. Then he shared another shot that had zoomed in on this fabulous mountain goat that was hanging out on the side of the mountain — it was way too small to see in the first photo he showed us, but when we all saw what was intended to be the focal point of the photo, the class collectively swooned over this amazing creature. “Make sure you are relaying to viewers what you see without having to tell them,” Reed offered. “If you have to tell someone what’s great about the photo, it’s probably not that great of a photo.” That said, frame up your shot so that it’s capturing what you find so beautiful about it in the first place. And remember the rule of thirds, which in a nutshell can be described as picturing a nine-square grid on your image. Place the subject of your photo at either the one third or two thirds mark, horizontally or vertically, i.e. NOT centered, and it will create a more compelling shot.

vacation photography

This pelican mugged for the camera at the harbor in Key West.

vacation photography

Throw a grid over it, and you can see it’s perfectly lined up one-third of the way in the frame.

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This shot was taken during a break from horseback riding on a visit to Cataloochee Ranch.

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Again, throw a grid over the image, and you can see how the pair of riders taking a seat on the bench are oriented at the one-third mark of the frame. This approach draws viewers into the composition of the photo versus just having them stare at the center of the frame.

Choose your subject.

“Choosing the subject of an image is always the hardest part of photography,” says Bob, adding that a common mistake many photographers make is that they just start snapping photos without identifying the subject … “what attracted them to that scene in the first place and how to make the subject stand out.” Avoid this pitfall by identifying the subject and assessing how best to photograph it. “Focus on that subject, then look at how the light and background are affecting the subject,” Bob offers. “Do you need to get closer? Is the background distracting? Does the light enhance your subject?” Use a discerning eye and ask yourself these questions, and your photographs will no doubt reflect that more thoughtful approach.

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The way the tree frames the top and side of the image as well as the pathway leading up to the chapel both help draw your eye to the chapel itself, i.e. the intended subject of the photograph.

Select the right camera setting.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, if you’re using a DSLR camera, understand the camera and its (many!) settings. “DSLR cameras are very sophisticated these days, and camera metering systems and processors do a great job,” Bob says. “When someone asks for a one-size-fits-all setting (and I have gotten that question many times!), I usually tell them there is only one setting that fits: auto. Many people don’t like that answer, but in auto mode, the camera does all the adjustments for exposure and color balance. So for an amateur photographer, it is a great setting because you are not spending all your time thinking about settings.”

If you do want to tinker with some of the more advanced options, changing to a different exposure mode gives you more control over the shutter and aperture, which, in turn, affects the way your photographs look. “These changes also require more attention from the photographer to ensure proper exposures,” Bob adds, so beginners, proceed with caution.

Enjoy your travels, and we hope you capture beautiful photos and make lasting memories!

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