Here are our top tips for taking great vacation photos, including photography equipment recommendations and a guide to focusing on key types of travel photos. Whether you’re a professional photographer with thousands of dollars of equipment or a hobbyist iPhoneographer, these vacation photo tips will help you improve your photography!
5. Bring the Right Gear.
Before you can even capture the photos, you need to have the gear in hand to enable you to take the shots. This tip applies to casual vacationers as much as it does pros packing multiple bags full of gear. Vacations present unique circumstances from your average day of taking photos in the park, and thus require different planning.
If you’re serious about photography, you might spend years purchasing the perfect lens that will work best for your style of shooting. I have spent years refining my camera bag for a photography style that best captures the magic of Walt Disney World and Disneyland. You can see what, exactly, is in my camera bag here (along with my recommendations for what items to–and not to–purchase). Be warned, as I am not one to shoot “light,” so looking at that page might result in a heavy (but awesome) bag full of gear! If you’d rather travel light, you can find my recommendations for that below.
However, there are other things that can be easy to overlook. It’s essential to carry spare camera batteries (or at least bring a charger with you, so you can charge up if your battery runs low) so you don’t miss those special moments. Even if you can go weeks without charging your camera at home, you might find yourself using it a lot more than normal on vacation, and with the low price of spare batteries, why not just invest a few bucks to give yourself extra piece of mind? This applies even if you’re just using your camera phone to take vacation photos. A lot of popular vacation destinations (Disney especially!) can be a drain on batteries. you don’t want to find yourself with a dead phone before the fireworks. An external phone battery pack is pretty cheap, and good “insurance”!
Similarly, extra memory cards are really important. Some people recommend only carrying one really large card and keeping it in your camera at all times so you don’t lose it, but what if the card becomes corrupted? Worse yet, what if you lose the camera?! Not only have you lost an expensive piece of electronics, but you’ve lost all of those captured-memories. Rather than carrying one large card, I recommend carrying a few 8GB memory cards (don’t cheap out on cards–cheap ones don’t perform as well and are more prone to fail) and transferring your photos to your computer (oh yeah, I also recommend taking that!) after each day of your trip.
The next question is a tough one for some people to answer: do you bring a big DSLR to capture the best photos possible, or do you travel light with a small point and shoot? I really can’t answer that question for you. You have to weigh what’s more important to you: traveling light or having the best possible photos. For me, the answer is easy, but it differs for everyone. I always recommend taking the best camera gear. If you do opt to go light, this is even more important. I highly recommend taking the best point & shoot camera you can. Right now, I think the creme de la creme is the Canon PowerShot S95.
If you do choose a DSLR, which lenses do you take? Again, this comes down to traveling light versus having the best possible photos. And again, I take so much gear that I may resemble a sherpa or pack-mule on vacation. It doesn’t bother me. If you want to go light, I recommend an all-in-one vacation lens like the Nikon 18-200mm VR, Canon 18-200mm IS, or the Tamron 18-270mm VC. If you don’t think you need that much “zoom,” a lens like the 18-55mm kit lens or a 17-50mm F/2.8 is a great choice! If you want to take photos once the sun goes down, a travel tripod or some type of camera-stabilizing device like a Gorillapod is pretty important.
4. Capture the Details
This is important, and something I think some people overlook. It’s also a great way to get shots that the average tourist wouldn’t take. For example, at Disney, most people get basic landscape shots of Cinderella Castle, Sleeping Beauty Castle, or Spaceship Earth.
By contrast, how many people get shots of the Sword in the Stone behind the Castle, light fixtures in the World Showcase, or directional signs? These type of shots can really set your photos apart from the average tourist’s, and give you unique (free!) souvenirs to take home. Disney is rife with these kind of details thanks to the hard work of the Imagineers, but you can really find details just like this at any vacation destination in the world. Remember, the devil is in the details! (In a good way!)
My biggest tip for this type is to take these photos at “un-important” times. I’m a firm believer in experiencing your vacation in person rather than through a viewfinder, but I also like to take a lot of photos. This makes for a tough balance. So, I take a lot of photos while we’re waiting in lines or while other members of my party are using the restroom or otherwise busy. The less intrusive photography is on the rest of your trip, the better.
3. Establish the Scene
If you’re photography-minded like I am, this may seem like pointing out the obvious. A lot of us naturally gravitate towards the beautiful sunset photos of beautiful landscapes. For those of us who don’t do this, though, (some people instead might focus on the details too much) it’s important to remember to stop and take some “big picture” shots.
In film, these shots are referred to as “establishing shots.” Before a lot of scenes, there is a quick view of the location of the scene to give the viewer a frame of reference. Likewise, in photo-sharing, it’s good to establish the scene before you start focusing on the details. Your Facebook friends/subscribers may love seeing those 34 Mickey waffle photos you took at the Crystal Palace, but they may also wonder where the heck you ate so many Mickey Mouse waffles! Let them know by starting out with a nice shot of the gorgeous exterior of the Crystal Palace.
It’s important to remember to capture establishing shots of a variety of scenes, not just those breathtaking landscapes. This was a hard one for me to learn, but over the last year, I’ve made an effort to focus on the less-obvious landscape shots. I’ve learned this since starting this blog, as I’ve found that I often need a lot of “un-spectacular” photos for our Disney Dining Reviews and other assorted posts. Instead of just beautiful shots of the Castle and other icons, I have started taking landscape photos of ice cream stands and other places we visit throughout the day. I’ve found that, in retrospect, these shots are the ones that instantly transport me back to that moment in time from our vacation more than any other landscape photos.
2. Get in the Shot!
This is a really tough one for a lot of photographers. In fact, I think a lot of people become the designated vacation photographer specifically so they won’t have to be in the photos. No matter how shy, self-conscious, etc., you are, GET IN THE PHOTOS!
Seriously. It may not interest you, or you may not want photos of yourself right now, but what about in 2, 5, or 10 years?
This is especially true for parents vacationing with small children. Mom or dad may choose to be the designated photographer and not care that they’re in the photos, but what happens once your kids are older, and want to look through those old family albums? “Why did only mom/dad come on this vacation with us? WHERE’S OUR OTHER PARENT?!!?” Rather than induce hysteria into your children in the future because they think you didn’t love them enough to come on the vacation with them, “prove” you were there by getting in at least a few photos.
If you’re worried about handing your expensive camera off to a stranger (don’t be–people are mostly good!), carry an inexpensive point and shoot that you don’t mind handing off, or carry a GorillaPod that you can set up with the self timer. Or, just turn the camera on yourself with an outstretched arm!
Trust me, your family will appreciate you being in the shots.
1. Focus on the Moments.
It’s good to have a few posed photos (I know we take more than that each trip!), but it’s also really important to capture photos during those candid special moments when people least expect it. I’m not suggesting that you surprise photo bomb old Uncle Orville while he’s picking his nose. Rather, I’m saying that candid photos and photos without everyone properly posed and smiling ear-to-ear are often some of the best shots.
For me, Sarah makes this easy when we’re at Disney because she stares longingly into space and daydreams about being a Disney princess at various times during the day. She gets a lot of shots of me this way, too. Well, except I’m dreaming about being Figment rather than being a princess.
If the people in your party are human beings, it should be fairly easy to capture their emotions at various times on your trips. If you’re having trouble finding the right moments to capture this type of shot, there are things you can do to distract your family from looking at the camera.
These are the shots you’ll cherish for years, more-so than any “say cheese” posed shot.
One thing that will help you better achieve all of these goals is to do a little advance planning. I’m not suggesting you plan your trip down to every step you’ll take while in the parks, but if you have a general idea of what you’re doing, where you’re dining, etc., you can then do some advance research for photography. Go on Flickr or Google Image Search and see what others have captured in the restaurants, attractions, etc., that you’ll be experiencing. When I proposed to Sarah, I went so far as watching a YouTube video of the fireworks show multiple times so I had the timing down for the proposal! You don’t need to go to that extreme, but a little research might put you in a position to capture better photos!
Hopefully these tips will help you take better vacation photos–let us know if you have any other tips in the comments! I look forward to seeing your best vacation shots on the various social media websites!
For actual Walt Disney World trip planning tips and comprehensive advice beyond these quick and random tips, make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide. For planning a trip to Disneyland Resort, check out our Disneyland Trip Planning Guide.
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What are your tips for better photos at Disney? If you have any other comments or questions, please feel free to post those, too.