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Why is it so hard to take good photos while on vacation? Here’s what I do

Why is it so hard to take good photos while on vacation? Here’s what I do

If you have a normal day job, it might be tough to make enough time to visit everywhere on your landscape photography list. You might only be able to get away on vacation once, or maybe twice a year. And quite often those trips are taken when you’re with at least one other person. From my past experience, they’re not usually as stoked to sit at the perfect location for a couple of hours while you wait for the golden hour. 

If you can only go on vacation once or twice per year, you’ll get the best landscape photographs through careful location planning. Give yourself a  couple of days to take the photo in case the weather doesn’t pan out. And communicate what you need with your travel partner as much in advance as possible. 

In North America, it can be difficult to get time off work to travel, especially during peak seasons when you may be competing with other workers trying to relax. And sometimes these trips can take a long time to plan and make just perfect. If you or someone you’re traveling with is an obsessive planner, be sure to give them as much notice as possible about the photographs that you want to take. Otherwise, it may end up being a missed opportunity. 

Wide-angle view looking out from the inside of a cave
You can’t find this image on the side of the road. There are many times when you’ll have to plan, and work to get the photos you want while on vacation.

Don’t expect to find good locations on the side of the road

I have to start this article here because many new photographers I know think that they’ll be able to just stop and take photos whenever. Sometimes that’s true, where there are amazing scenes just out your car window. But for the most part, you’re going to come home with uninspiring photographs. 

The weather can work out like that. But often the best light won’t coincide with your dinner plans, or the roads you’re traveling. And there’s nothing worse than seeing the perfect opportunity while you’re on a train, or in a rush to get to the next place. 

I used to travel like this. I’d bring along all of my heavy gear and lug it around with me hoping to get the exciting shots that would help me build a following, and maybe make enough money to plan another trip. But that just never happened. To get those shots, you have to be intentional with your photography. 

Las Vegas Strip Photography
This may be Las Vegas, but taking this photo didn’t feel like much of a vacation.

Research the best places to take photos before you buy a ticket

If getting the photos are the most important part of your vacation, make sure you can get the shot before you buy a plane ticket. There are many photographs that can only happen a couple of times per year. Scenes like having the sun touch the underside of the Mesa Arch, or the fiery waterfall off Yosemite only happens once or twice a year! 

So planning is the fundamental key to taking great landscape photographs. The best place to start is on services like Instagram, 500px, or even Google images. If you search by location, these services will show you the most popular photography spots, as these are the ones that rise to the top of the search results. 

Once you find a good location, start reading up on blogs, or even some travel books to find unique places around it, and information on the best time of year to get those photographs. 

If you find a photo on Instagram that you really like, but that doesn’t have a location on it, you can always try doing a reverse image search. Take a screenshot of the photograph on your phone or computer, and then head over to Images.Google.com. Using the camera icon on the right side of the search bar, upload the photo to search by image. 

Hint: you can use this same technique to see if your image has been stolen. Check out this article to learn more about how to protect your images.

Once you’ve found the place you’d like to go and some more conditions around it, there’s one more step before booking your flight. 

An aerial photograph of Vancouver, Canada
This photo required a lot of planning to get right. I had to know exactly where the sun would be, what time of day, and the exact location that I wanted the photograph in. Luckily with free tools on the Internet, planning a photo like this is easier than ever before.

Find out what conditions you need to get the shot

The weather plays a huge role in photography, and it’s really difficult to plan for. But there are a few tips to make sure you’re going to get the most out of this vacation, and one of them is knowing how the weather is going to cooperate. 

Most people don’t go to Northern Canada in the winter. There are a few crazy ones that travel to remote regions to see how deep the snow can get, but those are few and far between. Just the same, it’s ill-advised to go to Hawaii during the rainy season — even if the tickets are half the price. Good luck getting photographs if you have to keep your camera safe in a plastic bag. And what if there’s a flower that only blooms at a certain time of year, like the lavender fields in France? 

The secret here is to make sure that the weather patterns are going to be conducive to photography. It’s going to be a wasted opportunity if you can’t get the shot. 

The easiest way to check is to look the place up on Google. There are thousands of blog that are dedicated to specific, popular regions in the world. And they’ll give you the best advice on what to do and where to go to get the most for your money. 

Okay, SOME photos can be taken on the side of the road on vacation.

Communicate, plan, execute 

This is a big one. Everyone has different needs and desires out of vacations. And most people don’t take vacations alone, because it can be confusing, or even dangerous to be in a new country. So if you’re traveling with someone, make sure they know far in advance that you want to take this photograph.

A good example is if you’re going to Iceland or Canada to take a Northern Lights Photograph. These phenomena are fairly rare, and cannot be planned for. You have be ready when they strike, or you may not get another chance.  

If the shot can only happen on two or three days of the year, make sure you don’t make any non-cancellable plans on those days. That way, if the weather doesn’t appear to be working out on day, you’ll be able to go the next day when conditions are perfect. This also lets the other person know that they should make plans for themselves on that day if they don’t want to spend extra time getting to this scene with you. The last thing you need is to be rushed when that perfect light could be coming out any minute. 

The earlier you start communicating these needs with your travel partner, the easier it’s going to be for them. I’ve had friends in the past who I vaguely said I want to do this, and they vaguely agreed. When we got there, our plans turned out to be completely different, and I ended up giving up the photo I wanted to take for their plan. It’s an okay thing to happen every now and then, but if this is the main reason you decided to go somewhere, you should be sure you’ll be able to get the shot. 

What kind of vacations are not suitable for photography?

Most vacations will allow you to get some great photographs. But the kind of vacations that are not conducive to photography are the ones where everything is planned for you. You could be in the greatest location on Earth, but it’ll be hard to get those stunning landscape photographs if your vacation is centered around lounging on the deck or the beach. There’s nothing wrong with spending days doing this. You’re only on vacation so often, so you have to have some time to relax!

Cruise vacations are not good for landscape photography. In most cases, you’re only away from the cruise ship for a day at a time. It’s enough time to visit the shops and contribute to the local economy, but it’s not enough time to rent a car, go to the top of a mountain and wait for a gorgeous sunset. As well, cruise ships don’t give you any flexibility in terms of the weather. 

By all means, bring your landscape photography equipment with you on a cruise. Chances are you’ll see some amazing sights and capture fantastic photographs. But to get the best shots, you’re going to need the ability to plan which days you’re able to go out. 

How do I keep learning more about landscape photography?

The Photography Transformational MasterclassOver the last couple of years, I’ve written a lot of articles about the best practices for landscape photography. Especially geared towards new users. These articles are immensely helpful and have given advice to thousands of new photographers who have gone on to take professional photographs. 

But recently, I also developed photography courses where I share secrets that some of the highest-ranking photographers don’t want you to see. One of them is my 4-step system for creating fine-art landscape photographs. These are the steps that I’ve used to take the photos that have won me the most awards, and pushed my career to the next level! You can learn more about this in my free online web class, and take home some extra guides, too!

Tim Shields

Tim Shields is the founder of Photography Academy, the author of The Photo Cookbook, and the creator of the Photography Transformation 4-Step System. He holds the designation of Master Photographer in Fine Art from Master Photographers International.