Even 30 years ago, being subjected to a friend’s holiday photos was deemed a punishment. “Slide Night” was probably not something to look forward to, and a photo book full of not-that-good and not-that-interesting snaps is about as much fun. Today, if we take the time, we can take better photos (if we use the right camera) in more interesting places (with the right support gear) and present the photos in new and interesting ways to many, many more people. Let’s break it all down.
Today’s phones can take great photos. There’s even a dedicated contest for iPhone photography, which has seen some stunning entries. However, the main thing you gain with more professional gear is the ability to deal with difficult situations. The iPhone wins on convenience and weight—perfect for capturing moments—but it can’t zoom, it can’t capture with the fidelity of a DSLR, it doesn’t have the dynamic range or the resolution, it can’t capture RAW, it’s not great in low light… you know the score.
If you want to take a stunning photograph rather than just capture a moment, you’ll need a better camera. Depending on how fussy you want to be, that may mean a DSLR of some kind, a higher-end mirrorless, or a higher-end compact. My personal sweet spot for great photos in a light body is an EOS-M, but it’s not the best at focusing and my favorite lens isn’t that light. My Panasonic G7 focuses nearly instantly, does burst shooting like a champ and is much lighter, but the stills aren’t quite as good as I’d like. You may have different preferences and draw an entirely different conclusion, but make sure you’re not killing yourself by carrying overly heavy gear. If you can’t carry it all day, it’s too much.
If you do take an interchangeable lens camera, don’t take all your lenses. If you’re outside all day, it just needs to be sharp, not terrific in low light. One great purchase is a travel lens with a long zoom; it’s all you’ll need during the day. If you have a low-light lens, leave it in the hotel room and swap it in for night-time photo walks.
After all that, you may still end up taking shots on your iPhone, when you couldn’t take your best camera. And that’s OK too—there are plenty of apps available to give you more control when you need it, or to finesse the shots afterwards. Nobody expects to see a DSLR on a waterslide. I reviewed ProCam here and still use it myself.
If you want to shoot good video as well as good stills, a travel tripod is a great idea. I took two in the suitcase, but only at most one with me each trip. One is a Manfrotto gun-grip tripod that’s quick to set up on uneven surfaces, but can still go quite high. The other is a Gorillapod clone that’s good to have in an emergency or on the beach, and is small and light enough to fit on the edge of the bag.
Speaking of bags, get the smallest and lightest bag that can hold everything you want to carry. I’ve settled on a tiny Lowepro backpack that’s configurable, and holds my EOS M (stills), my Panasonic G7 (tripod-based 4K video) as well as my SwiftCam gimbal for my iPhone (smooth handheld video). A tripod and water bottle can fit on the sides.
Besides the obvious spare batteries, if you’re going anywhere wet, you might have to fall back on a waterproof case for an iPhone and simply do the best you can. I picked up a Dri-Dock case on this holiday, and it captured a whole lot more of my white water rafting trip than I’d have been able to do without it. After sealing the phone inside, you can still use the touchscreen (with slightly reduced sensitivity) and shoot photos, video or slo-mo video with the camera tethered around your neck.
Smooth gimbal phone video can capture what the street feels like without distracting shakes—not perfect, but much better than naked handheld.
All the right gear and the best supports in the right bag won’t do a thing if you don’t get out there and take good shots. Of course, that takes time, so if you’re on holiday with family, be sure to give yourself space to explore on your own. Go for a walk by yourself, further than the kids want to. Spend time setting up that tripod to capture that fountain while they enjoy the café. Use a gimbal to smoothly capture the world around you while you walk down the street. And yes, take care to correctly frame and expose that iPhone shot of your awesome meal.
You can use whatever photo management tool you wish to manage and process your images, but the most important thing is going to be rating the best shots. In Photos, just press . (period, full stop) to “heart” a shot, or in Lightroom, use ] to increase the rating. The best shots can be further tweaked any way you like: bring out shadow detail, saturation, correct exposure, blur out unwanted details. Spend as much time as you wish.
Finally, don’t just email a few people a few photos—you can do better. You could:
However much effort you take with your own photos, your travelling companions will likely take simple snaps on their phones—and that’s just fine. Some of them will be great, but most will just be a quick reminder of that part of the holiday, not an image to cherish. Snaps aren’t inherently bad, but they aren’t necessarily the photos you want to share. Great photos, photos worth sharing, can sometimes be a product of luck, but more often are born from time and persistence. If you enjoy taking photos, a new environment full of new subjects is a great place to be, so don’t waste a chance to make the most of it. Get out there!