5 top composition tips for taking great holiday photos

Have you ever thought about why your holiday photos don’t do justice to a place or capture its essence, that they seem to be just snapshots?

As humans, we visually process scenes using a multitude of perspectives whilst the camera is limited to a single view and that distinction means pointing and shooting is often not enough.

One of the biggest limitations in a lot of photography is the composition. Taking the next step on from initially seeing a subject that interests you to finessing all the elements through thoughtful framing, can make a huge difference to the final look.

Digital camera technology has improved immensely over the past 15 years and high quality images are possible with phones as well as DSLR cameras. Recording detail and vibrant colours is now an integral part of image-making but the composition and approach to colour is still down to you as a photographer. So with taking better holiday photos in mind here are my 5 tips for composition.

Framing on location

The curse of many holidays photos is a flat scene with no dynamic compositional elements. Instead of including everything in the image, identify your main subjects and include no more than three. Now move your position and use your zoom to arrange these, so they link and connect to form a graphical shape such as a triangle, or a clear split between left and right. You should also try to include layers of depth including foreground and background subjects. Getting closer to your first subject will develop this and create angles to better arrange your subjects across the frame.

Keeping an eye on the background

Often what’s behind a main subject such as a street scene can be distracting. Both using the telephoto setting on your camera (zooming in) and getting closer to your first subject will reduce the impact of background interference by reducing its sharpness. You can further refine this by moving your position to eliminate the larger objects from your composition. Smartphones invariably bring all subjects into clear view so you will need to get much closer to your foreground subject when using these or with the newer phones add a tele attachment.

Reducing colours in the scene

Having too many vibrant colours in your photo can unbalance a composition. Bright colours in less important elements draw attention away from main subjects. Instead think about set-ups to include no more than two colours. The sky is often one major distractor so why not think about eliminating it entirely from your frame. Simplifying the image using just two will mean your photographs are compositionally stronger and share more in common with the fine-art photography set.

Adopting a genre for your shooting style

Creating standout photos from holiday locations means thinking outside the box. One way is to approach everything with the mindset of a photojournalist shooting on location. In this case include photographing from low positions looking up, rather than from a more typical standing height. You will also want to include foreground elements at the edges of your frame such as trees or walls, but focusing on your main subject behind. Both of these will help to create a realistic, edgy feel in your images. You can further develop this by arranging your main subjects to fill the empty spaces in the scene and thereby incorporating great compositional balance.

The edges of your frame

With less powerful subjects within your scene and more ‘soft’ targets, you’ll need to think more carefully about all areas of your composition including the edges. This is especially true with general scenes including sky and close-up images of single objects where you don’t want unnecessary details intruding. So, before clicking the shutter, take a last scan around the viewfinder edges and check if there are distracting elements in your photo or objects which have been cut in half that you should exclude.

Darren Lewey is the Founder of Images in the Sun. Images in the Sun is a photography workshop provider offering specialist photography holidays and tours of Morocco.

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Comments (16)

  1. Lydia Haigh says:

    One thing that always surprises me is that people take hundreds of photos on their phone and leave it there.

    When I’m travelling g I usually try to sit down for 10 minutes and do some editing. Most phones now have quite good editing software. It’s not just about improving your pictures it’s about learning too. Often, later in the day, I’ll get a chance to take similar pictures but get it right first time after my editing experience.

  2. Jack says:

    Some great examples here, fantastic photos, to back up your points.

    • Darren Lewey says:

      Many thanks Jack, the important thing is that the photos encourage new ways of approaching subjects.

  3. Darren Lewey says:

    Hi Lydia

    You raise a good point. Photos are made and not taken so review, editing and reflection is an important and enjoyable part of the process.

  4. Mark Foster says:

    Is the one of the camel supposed to be an example of how not to do it? I honestly can’t quite make up my mind. Whilst the building is striking, for me it is a little distracting.

  5. Darren Lewey says:

    Hi Mark

    That image is more of a documentary approach so not a romantic photo of a camel on a dune. The camel is surrounded by new builds so for the framing it’s important to let the camel have it’s own space within one of the walls and not overlapping the window. It’s just being aware of background.

  6. Ida Taylor says:

    The only photography tip I know and always remember is the rule of thirds. I’ve always tried to follow that when capturing photos. I don’t always succeed as I’m not very good at photography at all. And I always get frustrated when I can’t capture exactly what I am seeing. And now I know it’s because we view in different perspectives while the camera lens doesn’t. I’m wondering though if these tips can be applied to a regular smartphone camera. It’s what everyone else carries around with them when traveling. I haven’t carried a separate camera in years!

    • Darren Lewey says:

      Hi Ida

      The rule of thirds is useful to have in your toolkit but there are also many other ways of arranging your frame. Smartphones can now use tele adaptors which get around the historical problem of the wide angle ‘look’, allowing one to zoom in and isolate a subject. Still using the screen on smartphones in sunny conditions can be problematic due to reflections.

  7. Shubham Jindal says:

    Recently, i have purchased DSLR Camera and i was searching for the photography tips. you have provided the great knowledge about taking the photos.

    • Darren Lewey says:

      Many thanks Shubham, if you go to the Images In The Sun home page, you’ll find more links to tips and tutorials via my ‘learning website’.

  8. Cal says:

    That last picture… I would have just tilted the camera down ever so slightly.

    This would do two things:

    1. allow us to see the full reflection, rather than chopping a little of it off,

    and 2. would have moved the horizon slightly so that it obeyed the rule of thirds.

    Would you agree?

    • Darren Lewey says:

      Hi Cal

      You raise a good point. Conventions and rules can work very well in the right set-up. In the ‘street’ genre domain, the thirds, straight horizons and space around the subject are less a requirement. In landscapes I would argue that those approaches are more necessary. In this case the full reflection isn’t needed. Sometimes we don’t need to show everything. It can be more interesting if we don’t. I do think that there’s too much space around the subject, so a crop from the top right would work, reducing the amount of sky and raising the horizon as you suggest.

  9. Naim says:

    Amazing tips Darren. I have been doing photography for a few days. I hope your wonderful tips will further enhance my skills. I learned many things from your post. keep going.

  10. Darren Lewey says:

    Many thanks Naim. Well there’s a fair bit to learn but there’s no rush. For example You can read up on your camera controls via the website link on the home page of Images in the Sun.

  11. Sandra Maguire says:

    The one of the boy playing with the ball is my favourite but I can’t help feeling it would be better still if the camera was tilted down just a little more. That way we’d be able to see the boy’s reflection a little better (without the head being chopped off) and the horizon would be obeying the rule of thirds a little better. Just my thoughts – I know these things are subjective.

  12. Darren Lewey says:

    Hi Sandra

    Many thanks for the feedback. I think it depends where one is at with the neat and ordered approach to composition or the offbeat. Both are valid. I think in the boy’s case, a shot with his reflected head would be good to have as a comparison. In general it also depends on whether an image sits in a series where all the photos have a similar approach to framing. In that case composition make more sense in context.

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