Taking vacation photos your friends will want to see doesn’t require fancy equipment or a lot of technical know-how. Being present, knowing what interests you (and being open to surprises), along with a little bit of easy-to-learn skill is all you need to take interesting photos on your travels. Best of all, you can start today! This is my love letter from one amateur photographer to another.

Vacation photos your friends will want to see

Endless streams of vacation photos, especially in our era, can elicit eye rolls and groans, but you can take interesting vacation photos (most of) your friends will want to see with a little bit of thought and basic skills, using nothing more than your cellphone. I’m not a particularly skilled photographer, but I have a good eye, and my friends, unless they’re just humoring me, love my travel photos.

To me, an interesting photo is part philosophy, and part technical know-how. From one amateur to another, here’s what I’ve learned. And you can start practicing today.

Fond memories of slideshows of vacation photos

My Pop-Pop was a shutterbug, and a good one. He and my Nana traveled a lot when I was a girl, and visits almost always featured a slide show. I always looked forward to them, and the whirl of the fan, click of the Kodak Carousel, and the chemical smell remind me of my Pop-Pop. Alaska, the Soviet Union, European cities, the American West, Pop-Pop almost always had something to show us. He’d tell us about his trip, but I mostly just sat in the dark, looking at the photos on the screen. Afterwards, I’d sometimes get to look at the slides, little rectangles that looked like framed stained glass.

Thankfully, we don’t need a ton of gear to get interesting vacation photos—just a cellphone and our attention

Pop-Pop’s setup was complicated—he had a bulky camera with lots of lenses and flashes and tripods (he took photos of us, too, when he visited), not to mention his slides and slideshow equipment. I can only imagine what it was like for my Nana, waiting for Pop-Pop to set things up.

Today we don’t need anything so complicated to capture photos our loved ones will love to see. Though truly great photography often requires “real” camera equipment, we can still capture memorable images with our phones. I only got a real camera last year, so any travel photography you see here was shot on a cell phone camera.

Learning to See

A philosophical approach to interesting vacation photos

Teach ourselves to see

I’m not a great photographer, but I do have a good eye. Learning how to see, and having the patience to look, I think, is the key to getting something that won’t bore your loved ones. And have something that you’ll not leave buried in your phone, never to look at again. 

Be present

If we’re not paying attention, we aren’t going to see, and, if we do not see, we will not capture. Look around. I don’t mean stopping in the middle of a busy sidewalk—let’s not be that guy. I mean being open to what’s around us. Sometimes that does mean letting a crowd go by, or stepping off to the side. Especially if we’re traveling someplace we’re unlikely to visit again, we may as well appreciate it while we’re here.

How does the light hit that building? What does that sign say? Check out that door? Isn’t that strange and wonderful? Look at the manhole cover.

What catches your eye?

Know what interests or amuses you

We all have things that draw our attention, some of them amusing to us. I love catching birds on statutes. For the most part, the statues themselves don’t really interest me, but the birds on them? Crack me up. I like little details on buildings. Different pavers. Signs. Flowers. Street art.

I love things that are not perfect.

Gorgeous old architecture. Crumbling architecture. Rooflines that we don’t have the US. Trams. I love trams. And old compact cars. And churches.

Things I like

Be open to surprises

But I’m also on the lookout for things that surprise me. Truth be told, people don’t really interest that much me when I’m taking photos. Except sometimes they fascinate me. I try to be open to that, too.

Keep an eye out for the unusual

You don’t need the perfect shot of something everyone has seen before. I like to try and take those, but they tend not to be the most interesting ones from my trips.

What did you see when you encountered a landmark? What interested you? Why? Maybe the light hit a corner just right. Maybe you just looked up, gobsmacked. Maybe your particular view had an interesting framing. The sky could be a perfect color. Snap a photo of that.

People who've caught my eye

You don’t need to be in every picture

A conversation I had in college still sticks with me, and it was about the role of photography and how it affects our memories. This friend’s memories looked like photos with him in them—in his memories, he saw himself, posing in front of his life.

It absolutely blew my mind, because my memories—I’d talked about seeing the Tall Ships in 1976, remembering being on my dad’s shoulders, seeing the tops of people’s heads, the hot sun on my body, and my tanned left arm pointing at the “Big Boats! BIG BOATS, DADDY!” (I was not quite three). That, jumbled together with the beer mugs my parents had commemorating the event that we kept in the freezer and sometimes got to have a treat in a “frosty glass.”

My friend had seen the same thing, but he remembered himself, standing in a photo with his parents.

The philosophical discussion about the role of photography in shaping culture is a topic for another time, but the point is that in being present and capturing a moment in time likely doesn’t involve posing in front of a landmark.

This isn’t to say that selfies aren’t fun—some selfies are genuinely interesting, and lord knows a certain style of selfie can get you oodles of likes on Instagram. The same goes for posed photos in interesting surroundings. A lot of times, though, a gagillion selfies or poses in front of things can get a little old. I’d really rather be there with you, seeing what you saw. Snap the selfie, pose in front of something, if this is what you want, but I encourage you to take a few shots without you in them.

Practical tips for taking vacation photos your friends want to see

Keep your phone handy

This is obvious, but make sure that your phone is actually handy. This doesn’t mean being careless with it, and certainly don’t put it down anywhere (I’m serious. It’s in your hand, or it’s stored. No exceptions unless you’re at your lodgings or genuinely all alone). But you want to be able to grab it when you see something interesting, and that isn’t going to happen if it’s in the bottom of your bag.

Lighting

If there’s something that you really want to capture a good photo of and that’s the reason why you’re going there, remember that midday sun is not photography’s friend. Try to save those shots for early in the morning or later in the day. Otherwise, though, have at it. With a little bit of moving around to try and get a good angle (or editing), you can likely get something your friends will want to see.

On the lighting note, make sure you turn off your flash, except in rare circumstances. It’s not your friend.

Avoid zoom

If at all possible, avoid the zoom on camera phones. It’s not very good, for the most part. Even with good phone cameras, I’ve only rarely had a zoom photo look decent.

Especially in busy areas, be patient

Sometimes you just have to wait for people to get out of the way, and, unless you’re trying to capture a sunset or other fleeting moment, who cares. Better to let the aggressive weirdos get their selfie than to miss your shot. Or maybe just incorporate them into it.

Make a little effort with the framing

Now that you’ve seen something, use your phone screen to frame the shot. The rule of thirds is a simple one, and easily incorporated into your photography. Don’t feel trapped by it—sometimes centering makes perfect sense—but at least being aware of it will help you to frame up something worth seeing.

Your phone likely has a grid that you can enable. That can help, especially when you’re first starting out.

There’s always editing, which I recommend doing, but making an effort to get the shot right pays dividends. Maybe take a couple of shots of some things.

Editing

Take time to edit your photos. I tend to do this when I get back to my lodgings, or sometimes the next morning. Pick a few photos, and, either using your phones software, Instagram’s, or, better yet Lightroom (note: you’re likely going to need the paid service ~$4.99/month and worth every penny if you’re going to take this seriously). Straighten things out, crop, and adjust lighting and apply filters. It takes almost no time at all (make a preset for yourself in Lightroom with settings you find yourself using frequently), and your photos are going to be that much better.

And, most important of all: don’t forget to enjoy your vacation!

One of the things that really comes through in good vacation photos to me is how interested the photographer is in what they’re seeing. And getting interested means actually experiencing it. So, snap away. But actually make sure that you just stop to look, too. Unless someone’s paying you for your images, you don’t owe anyone anything. Your friends are still going to love you.

Now, get out there and practice!

Go take a walk, preferably in a place that you don’t go all that often, so things look fresh. Walk with your eyes and mind open to possibilities. What interests you? Experiment with your phone’s settings, learn Lightroom.

You know all those Sundry Wonders posts I do? That’s me, being a tourist in my neighborhood. It’s how I keep in practice. What works for you? I’d love to see your photos! If we’re not connected already, please follow me on Instagram (@wonderandsundry), and I’ll follow you back!

What are your tips for taking better vacation photos? Let me know in the comments!

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