There are many rules of photography that we photographers may forget on vacation. When we are tired, dehydrated, and weighted down by water bottles and camera gear, we think differently, and move differently.
I’ve traveled to over 19 countries and countless destinations with my kids. Whether I’m feeling travel-tired or travel-inspired, here’s what I try to remind myself: capture a sense of place, as well as a beautiful face.
Here are 10 simple tips to bringing the face forward in vacation photos.
- No.01Step Out
Ask your subject to stand well in front of the sign. It’s a little counter-intuitive, but it works better to get several feet away from the point of interest you want to highlight. The face fills more of the frame, with the sign in the background.
This works with sculptures and buildings, too. Ask people to stand well in front of a large object or sign, rather than right on it, or just underneath it.
On the left, the family stood where they normally would, right underneath the sign. On the right, I asked them to step several feet in front of it. Their faces fill more of the frame, and the name of the destination is still clear.
Think of the photo sitting on a desk. Would you print it as a 5×7, or would the faces be too small? Would co-workers stop to look at it?
What if you used that photo in a slideshow or retrospective years from now. Can you tell where you were, and also find a story written on the faces?
The larger the object, the farther you want to draw people away from it. This avoids the people-as-tiny-dots scenario, and lets faces take up more space in the frame.
- No.02Step In
When the wide-angle lens is on, it’s important to step close to the subject to get good face shots, too.
Rather than try to photograph the entire coliseum in Efes, Turkey, I chose to let the rows of seats form leading lines to the subject’s face.
Filling a good part of the frame with the face means the image has more lasting value. It’s more likely to get printed and shared.
- No.03Rule of Thirds
Following the rule of thirds helps to let a sign or landscape get attention, while highlighting a lovely face.
On the top is what a tourist took of me. This is a typical “we are here” shot. Notice how the tourist put me dead center.
On the bottom my son’s face falls on the left third, while the vast landscape of Joshua Tree National Park is still apparent in the rest of the frame. Plus I’ve given him a tight face shot, rather than full-body.
- No.04Get High
Photographing from a high vantage point is a great way to show off a city, landscape, or ancient site, and still let the person fill a good portion of the frame.
Try photographing from the top of a coliseum, sports arena, tower, cliff, or mountain and show off a wide scene (or an entire city) while still featuring a prominent face.
- No.05Get Low
It’s easy to tower over kids, especially when we are carrying a heavy backpack full of water bottles (and heavy lenses). But it’s important to crouch down for better angles.
On the left is a typical parent shot, towering over the kids. The photo on the right is taken on bended knee (probably with the backpack off).
This also illustrates the “lie in wait” technique. Get low, get in front of the action, and wait for the subject to come to you.
- No.06Lie in Wait
Rather than chasing a fast-moving subject, sometimes it’s better to plant yourself strategically, and let the action come to you.
- No.07Get in Front
Often the photographer lingers shooting and ends up at the back of the group, snapping photos of the sites. As the group moves on, it’s easy to end up with photos of backsides, or no photos of people at all.
From the front of the group, though, it’s easy to turn and shoot the group moving towards you. Getting good people shots happens more often from the front of the group.
- No.08Grab a Hat
Hats are so important to good health in travel. Hats and water bottles, hats and water bottles—prominent in the story of so many vacations. On our better hat days, I’m glad I took time to shop and bought hats that I like in photos. It was worth it.
Hats often shield harsh shadows during full-sun hours, highlighting the face. Plus a hat can help us see a person in a new way. If you’re going to wear one anyway, might as well make it deliberate and photo-worthy.
- No.09Separate the Purpose
Sometimes it’s good to let face shots be face shots, and let landscapes be landscapes. Each has its own value.
People generally want a break from being photographed. They shouldn’t feel pressure to be in every image. Taking a moment to focus on a landscape or important marker by itself means I plague people less.
I’m happy to focus on faces again, and people are more willing to be photographed, when the time comes.
- No.10Get In
Be sure to get yourself in photos. How many times have I photographed an entire day or even an entire trip, and failed to get in any of the photos? This is one I have to remind myself often. When I manage it, I’m grateful to myself and anyone who assists.
I don’t ask myself to make every vacation photo a wall-worthy art piece. My focus is on the experience, and the shots are secondary. Sometimes I feel I’m doing great just to keep going and keep my sanity in tact. When I make the effort to take better vacation photos, though, I’m glad I did.
As we’re packing, I’m conscious of our wardrobe and the way it will photograph—even the hats. During the trip I try to shoot a sense of locale, and still celebrate each expressive face.
No matter what kind of photos we take on vacation, let’s congratulate ourselves. Photos or no photos, kudos to us for getting out and experiencing the world, and for giving our kids (and other traveling companions) the gift of ourselves on vacation.