“Instead of looking at it, he photographs it.”
In 1975, long before before digital cameras and smartphones, Walker Percy argued that the way we approach the world as tourists interferes with our ability to actually see the things we’re traveling to see. We’re either disappointed that the sight we’re seeing doesn’t match up with what we’ve imagined or we’re so busy taking photographs of the Grand Canyon that we forget to actually see the Grand Canyon.
If you’re struggling to put down the camera and just enjoy your vacation, you’re not alone. Our phones are an extension of our arms, which is why it’s estimated that in 2017, humans will have taken an astonishing 1.3 trillion photos.
Vacation can make the problems of our constantly-photographed world even harder, because suddenly we have to re-learn a lot of the things we unconsciously do at home. We have to adjust for different light and cranky kids, all without our go-to garage door for easy poses. However, with a little practice, you can develop a photography style that complements your vacation instead of intrudes upon it.
Stop taking photos at your eye level
One trick to taking great photographs on vacation is to tuck a slim photography book into your luggage. Henry Carroll’s “Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs” is an excellent choice, offering simple advice with stunning examples, all in just 128 pages. Parents could be especially helped by Carroll’s discussion of photography yoga. “Good photographers,” Carroll writes, “are contortionists. They’re the ones hunching, squatting, and bending over backwards. They’re the ones constantly down on the ground and climbing on benches.”
When it comes to photographing young children, go low. If you must take the photo of them beaming in front of the entrance to the Magic Kingdom (although I’ll advise against this below), sit or kneel while you’re doing it. When you take photos of kids from your height, you’re seeing the world from your perspective. When you crouch down to take a photo, whether it’s meeting their favorite character or hiding under a hotel room coffee table, you’re seeing the world from their perspective. This advice holds for the teenagers now towering over you, too. Hop on an ottoman or bench to see the world at their level.
Capture your kid’s view of vacation
When you think of vacation, you think of sweeping architecture, stunning vistas, iconic landmarks, or delicious dinners that you neither have to prepare nor clean up after. You might not be dreaming of hotel rooms, especially if you’ll be sharing them with multiple children.
Still, think about your own early experiences of hotels, when you went tearing through the room to explore the tiny soaps and branded stationery. When you were nervous about the noise of the strange toilet or shower. When you ate gummy bears out of a wine glass because that was the only cup around. When you got to fill an ice bucket or use a vending machine or ask for a map at the front desk, all without supervision.
A hotel room can be a magical space. The first thing you should unpack there is your camera so that you can capture your kids’ experience exploring it.
Enlist a tiny photographer
Doing photography yoga and viewing vacation from your kid’s perspective will help you notice things that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. You can do even more of this if you just hand your camera to your tiny photographer.
When confronted with an adult, subjects freeze in “cheese” face. When confronted with an adorable six-year-old, they respond with a range of emotions, from smiling surprise to thinly-veiled panic about the expensive equipment he’s swinging around. By nature of their height and lowered self-awareness, kids also tend to notice things that adults don’t, making them natural photographers.
Watch out for tree hats
When you’re on vacation, the things you’re taking photographs of should take as much priority as the people you’re posing in front of them. We tend to forget that fact once there are three kids miraculously mugging for the camera, but we do that at our peril. That cypress tree would be much more beautiful if it wasn’t appearing to spring forth from your husband’s head.
That’s part of why the typical in-front-of-a-famous-building photo is so often disappointing. If you’re just stopping by to get that quick shot, you’re not thinking about the interaction between your family and the scenery.
Consider skipping that photo. Instead, step back and watch your family interacting with it. Take pictures of kids entertaining themselves while waiting in line. Get low and focus on their feet racing to a favorite destination. Focus your camera on whatever the kids are looking at while ignoring the thing they’re actually supposed to be looking at.
Follow leading lines
Instead of just taking pictures of your family in front of the scenery, make the scenery the actual image. Carroll (and pretty much every other photographer on earth) will tell you to look for “leading lines,” those handrails or streets or trees that, when photographed, help draw your eye in a particular direction.
Go for blur
If you have a portrait setting built into your phone, you know that you get all sorts of lovely shots of your children with a blurred background. The background, however, is sort of the point of vacation, isn’t it? For vacation, use the reverse thinking and capture your running, jumping children as blurs against the crystal-clear backdrop of your vacation.
Watch the light
It can be really hard to focus on the light when you’re struggling to keep your child from running into the road adjacent to the lovely outdoor cafe where she’s not eating the dinner you’ve ordered for her. Still, if you can focus on the light, it can make a huge impact on your vacation photos.
The good news for parents with young children is that, even if you’re traveling to a different time zone, your kids are going to sleep on their usual schedule. That means you’ll have more opportunities to play with sunrise or sunset. Have the camera ready in the hotel room so that you can catch pajama-clad kids exploring the hotel lobby.
Avoid tourist trap photo opportunities
Taking photos of famous buildings and artwork doesn’t just lead to bad photos, it may make you less likely to remember your vacation, according to Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University. Henkel studied museum patrons who were instructed to either photograph or observe items in a museum. She found that participants were better at recalling the details of the items they observed than the items they photographed.
Does this mean that, if your goal is to make memories on family vacation, you should stop taking photos? Henkel says no. Participants who were asked to focus on a specific part of an artwork – who had to zoom in or focus or otherwise consciously change the way they were taking photos – did not experience a recall difference. Henkel’s work suggests that if you’re taking time to compose your shot and focus less on capturing the “whole picture” and instead on some interesting detail, you’ll have both a more interesting memento – a good photograph – and a better memory of the event.
Therefore, don’t take a picture of the big items on your itinerary. Instead of the Grand Canyon, take a picture of a person taking a picture of a person taking pictures of the Grand Canyon. Instead of the ubiquitous holding-up-the-Tower-of-Pisa photo, take a picture of the photo-bombers. The focus on specific details may produce a more interesting shot and, if Henkel’s results are correct, will help you better remember your vacation.
If you must take pictures of every famous landmark on your route, consider leaving the people out of it and opting for a more creative element. Pose the beloved stuffed animal your child insisted on bringing to each new stop. Pose the coffee cups you’ve been holding each morning. It doesn’t really matter what the object is, as long as it helps you tell the story of your trip.
Before you go, practice with a water bottle
Before you hop in the car or board a plane, take a little time to practice with your camera, whether it’s your phone or a fancy DSLR. A water bottle is a great choice for practicing the above tips. Unlike a human subject, it won’t move. It reflects light. It’s easily transportable. It won’t start to look uncomfortable if you take too long setting up your shot.
Practice each of the tips with your water bottle until you feel comfortable. For example, put the bottle on a table and take a picture from your chest height. Then get on the floor and take the photo from the water bottle’s height. Notice the difference? Now move the bottle near a window and practice taking pictures from every angle. What happens when you shoot right into the window? What happens when you shoot perpendicular to it?
Once you return: delete, delete, delete
Even before you left for vacation, you probably suffered from the same storage problem most parents have.
After vacation, it’s worth spending the time to curate your trip. Be brutal. Aim for one photo per landmark per person, with allowances for truly interesting series of shots. Deleting all but the best photos will leave you with memories that you can easily turn to when you need a virtual vacation.