How much time do you put into getting really good vacation photos? Is that even possible considering 'vacation photos' is pretty much synonymous with 'snap shots' in most minds? I'm always stressing about this issue..worrying if I'll get back home in front of the PC and think, "oh man, these are just like every other photo anyone could have taken with a decent camera phone!"
All it takes is a bit of thought (or in some cases a bit of patience) to elevate your photographs from average or worse to something you can be a bit proud of. I ended up lugging around lots of kgs more than needed and came back with acceptable shots, but nothing special. Might as well bring along a good quality digital compact like the Canon G10.
Below I will show you the thought processes I use to go from bland, boring holiday shots to "at-least-a-bit-more-interesting" photographs without spending too much time or bringing too much kit.
Foreground interest and context: The image below is a perfectly acceptable photo that accurately describes what is to be seen in El Cañon Sumidero which is a must see! It's well exposed, composed decently (if a bit too much in the center) and is pin sharp (trust me haha). But it's just like every other touristy snap shot you've ever seen (or taken).. to me, that's really boring.
Then I thought, "ok, what can I insert to make it more interesting?" and I thought of foreground and context. At first I simply added a part of the bow of the boat to show how we were in a boat. Boring. Then I remembered J and his cool hat. This immediately made the photo more interesting (to me) as it added some scale and changed things up by my choosing a narrow DoF so that the canyon felt more distant.. and by exposing on his bright hat, it darkened the sky as well. Still, not a zinger, but much better than that above! And it adds the conversation piece about the actual boat cruise we took through the canyon...
Creative use of flash and/or shutter speed: Below are two shots from Salsa night in the town square in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. I started shooting without flash because what little light there was had a nice tone and resulted in either me using a higher ISO than I wanted and/or unacceptable motion blur. I turned on the flash, and though the images were better in terms of the subjects being well lit, and sharper (with a hint of motion blur), they still felt as if they were a bit stale, and typical. Plus I didn't like the camera operator in the top right and the harsh shadows my flash cast!
I decided to combine the two and use a longer shutter speed with flash. This allows you to create a more dynamic image with motion, while still having some parts frozen sharp by the flash so as to be not too abstract (ie blurry). To do this, you do need to know how to ensure your have a longer shutter speed despite the flash (ie learn to use Aperture or Shutter Priority modes). Though this particular shot isn't quite what I wanted, it does illustrate the point how you preserve ambient light while still having the subjects well lit. I'm probably going to re-process this image and make it a bit more 'warm' .. but I still helps the point I am making (hopefully!).
Context and story: Mexico is full of mountains, and in this case, volcanoes. This is a good enough shot, especially shot from a moving car on a highway. But it's just that, a photo of a mountain.. nice sky, but still. Says nothing. Yaaawn.
The below image, on the other hand, says more. The mountains are less impressive, but the colors are much better, the clouds add to the image, and most importantly, it tells a story..or at least describes the context the image was taken in. If you know Mexico City, this is reflective of both the traffic at 530am, and how the city spreads to all areas of the valley it is in. This allows you to talk about more than just "cool mountain" when showing others this image.
Tweak the brain AKA, The "huh?" factor™: Sometimes images are not so much good for the image itself, but for the story it tells. Below is one of the many images I took as I entered cities/towns both so I could tell a story, but also remember the sequence of this story in 10 years time. And this image does it's job perfectly, despite it being a boring image in any artsy way.
The alternative, below, is in terms of composition almost exactly the same. All I did here was cross-process the image and added a bit of vignetting to punch it up a bit. No big differences, but just enough for your mind to think "huh.. why is this different?" For the page where I learned how to manually cross process my images, click here. Otherwise, Lightroom has lots of presets you can find online if you're interested.
Compare and contrast the subject: The church below, in San Cristobal, is really cool lit at night, and there's nothing really wrong with this image. It's just not how I envisioned San Cristobal.
Almost the exact same image, the below photo is a good example of how having two average photos showing something in a different light (pun intended) is better than having only one average photo. Plus the combination of the two tells a story about how busy that area is at all times of the day.
Avoid the cheese: Ah, the classic conundrum: How do you make the necessary "we were here" photos a bit more interesting without doing something over-the-top cheesey or crazy. One thing that I like to do to start with, as I did below, was to use a shallow depth of field blurring the subject in the background (in this case the falls at Agua Azul) so that the background subject is still obvious but makes it look a bit more than a standard snapshot with everything in focus and flash blasted into their faces. Also it focuses the image on you, who just happen to be in a cool place.
The wall below presented a perfect opportunity in Tlacotalpan (near Veracruz which just happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Go there. Period.
Anyone would see this wall (and the building it was part of) and say, "f'ing cool!" and probably snap a pretty ordinary shot of a pretty ordinary wall/building despite the color. I thought, "cool place for portraits!!" and it's also a perfect opening to talk about Tlacotalpan and all the really cool, amazing colors that are found throughout the town! So, good and different photo and good conversation piece! I call that a "twofer"... two for the price of one. No cheesey smiles. No cute couple hugs. Cool people, cool wall. End of story.
Same concept. No cheesey "I've been here" touristy smiles/poses. Just hot chick with cool contrasting dress that goes great against this flamboyantly green wall. To me that's a formula for a great image! Helps to have hot models at your disposal. But this would work even for you Marcus! ;)
Scale and context (again): Though we've talked about context, these last two images are a good example of how adding some scale helps define the image.. This is, again, in Tlacotalpan. Sooo many good photos from there. Anyway, this was down some little side street and the window is completely out of place, so naturally I took a photo of it. But can you tell just how out of place it is? You can guess, but you can't really tell. Hmm.. we need some scale!
Enter Mr. Scale. Now I think you get it and the importance of scale. What the hell were they thinking when they created this tiny little window .3 meters off the ground? Yes, Mexicans aren't that tall in general, but really!?
In the end, it's quite simple really. Think outside the box (ie avoid cheesey cliche photos) and focus on story, context, scale, perspective when taking even the most basic of photos and you're likely to walk away with images you'll be happy with for a long time and ones where the others who have to sit through your 1000 photo slide might actually enjoy! Good luck.