I love photography. I've loved it since I was little. I did photography projects in 4-H and took every class I could in high school (back in the days of the "dark room!" I owned a portrait studio for ten years. As you can imagine, in that time I’ve had many a discussion about cameras. What cameras to use in my studio, what cameras my clients should get, what camera to take scuba diving, what camera to give my kids . . . on and on we could go. In that nine years the world has seen a lot of photographic advances as well. You could get bogged down with the choices even if you are not a professional photographer.
A wise and much more experienced photographer and I once said to me, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” I’ve repeated this advice many times since he said it. It’s true. It really is. How do I know it’s true? Let me tell you a story. Several years ago my family took a trip to Thailand. When we got to the airport I was alarmed to discover that my camera bag was not in the car. Yes. I packed an entire rolling bag of camera gear for a family vacation. That’s what photographers do. We take all the lenses, we take back up cameras, we plan for each scenario.
I’m not going to lie. I panicked. There was not time to go home to get it so I didn’t have any choice. My husband looked at me and said, “You are a professional photographer! You’ve got your iPhone. You’ve got this. Plus now you don't have to walk around with that heavy, obnoxious camera all the time and you can pay more attention to what we are doing.” On the one hand I was pleased that he trusted my skill enough to capture our family memories on an iPhone but it also hit me hard that maybe, just maybe in trying to put every moment of every vacation on “film” I wasn’t fully present in the vacation.
It would be a total lie if I didn’t tell you I LOVED the freedom of that iPhone on that trip. From there on out, I was hooked. Since then, with one exception, I’ve not taken a “real” camera on any trip with my family. Are there things I can’t capture without a huge zoom lens? Sure! But, for me, the payoff is better than what I might miss. I want to encourage you too to be a minimalist in your vacation photography. Take small gear, get the right shots, and be present in your vacation - not stuck behind a camera.
At the end of the day, good photography boils down to two things: light and composition. If you know a little about both of these things you will drastically improve your snapshots and portraits- whether created on an iPhone or the latest, greatest $20K camera body.
Light casts shadows and we don’t want shadows on our faces. Use the light to your advantage. Shoot people pictures especially in the morning and late afternoon before the light is high in the sky causing raccoon eyes. If you have to shoot in the middle of the day find shade: large trees, overhangs on buildings, tall buildings, etc. Put your subject in the shade and look at their face. Is the light even? Then go for it. If not, try to move them a bit. Also, put the sun behind your subjects. Is the light too bright in the background? Did you know you can adjust this on an iPhone? Simply tap your finger where you want the camera to read the light. Tap on a dark face to lighten it, for example. Want more creative control? There are lots of apps that give you the functionality of full SLR cameras. Camera+ is one of them. I’m all about simplicity so nine times out of ten I use the native iPhone camera.
Now that you’ve got your people in the shade, let’s talk about composition. When I teach basic photography classes to middle schoolers I focus on three things with composition. Get closer. Try different vantage points. And the rule of thirds. Thinking about these three things will make huge changes in your photography right off the bat.
Get in closer. Unless specifically want the background: Cinderella’s Castle or the Grand Canyon, for example, as part of the image, you will almost always benefit from a little zoom - either with your feet of with your camera. In the biz we call it filling the frame. Don’t be afraid to get up close. Are you a scrapbooker? Here’s your chance to shine . . . take a series of photos of different distances and closeups of details. You’ve just created a picture story. Our pictures should always tell a story.
Here are some examples of getting in closer to tell a story from a trip I took with my boys to Perth, Western Australia and Rottnest Island. Show the scene but move in to show some detail and expression too! Notice my children have over the top expression.
Try different vantage points. I tell my students to walk around their subjects and to get high and get low. Ok. I know you are thinking your kids aren’t going to stand still while you walk around them taking a lot of images. That’s fair. And they probably will run away if you lay down on the ground to look up at them through your iPhone. That’s also fair. BUT! If you think about the angles as you setting up the shot you will be more apt to be creative and capture a variety of different types of images through out the day that tell the whole story of your vacation. Sneak a sweet picture of your son and daughter holding hands in front of you. Get a close up of your favorite Mickey Mouse dessert. And, by all means, if you are visiting the leaning tower of Pisa, get on the ground and get your kids pushing that thing back up.
Rule of thirds. I admit this is photographer speak. But it’s an easy concept to understand and use to improve your every day photography. Imagine your viewfinder (or iPhone screen) divided into 9 sections. Actually, you don’t have to imagine, you can enable a grid on your phone that acts as a reminder to shift your images just a bit to maximize their visual impact. (Settings > Photos & Camera > Grid) By putting your subject slightly offset from the center you create a stronger image.
Sticking with our Australian theme, here is an example of using the rule of thirds. Instead of putting Griffin and I in the center of the frame we are offset. This adds interest and let's the careful viewer see a lighthouse in the background.
You know how to use the light to your advantage. You know a few tricks to up your game with composition. What about color! There are a few apps that I love to use on my iPhone to just amp up the color a little bit. One is called Mextures. It’s my favorite. It lets me play with layers of color that enhance the scene. If you want something even simpler, don’t forget if you open your photo on your iPhone you can make lots of adjustments right inside the photo itself - just hit the edit button and play around a bit.
Whether you take you're a iPhone on vacation as a camera by choice or by accident I think you will find that with a few small changes to the way you capture your photographic memories not only will you have better pictures but you will also have more time to be there and enjoy the moment with your family, not stuck behind a camera. As Jim Elliot once said, “Wherever you are - be all there.”
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I often get asked "How much cash should I take? and How much should I tip?" The truth is that tipping customs around the world are very different than they are in the United States. It pays to do a little homework so you know the local standards before you travel. One of my favorite travel partners recently released this guide to tipping in Europe. It answers all of your questions.
Traveling out of the country can be scary enough with language barriers, but if you or a loved one has a life threatening food allergy it can be even scarier. There are times when the best choice is to stay closer to home or choose countries where the native language is English. But, with the right preparation you can successfully explore our entire world and keep safe with allergies. We've done it many times and you can too! Here are my favorite tips for keeping safe during travel:
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time we lived in Indonesia (as you do) and one day my friend told me how much she admired that I picked up and traveled with my kids and ditched my husband when he had to work. This caught me off because I didn’t really think it was a big deal. (Big) Daddy has limited vacation time, (Fabulous) Mommy has places to see and things about the world to teach my kids so we just go. I didn’t know that this wasn’t something that some other moms just regularly did. As we chatted over coffee and paint (what fabulous wall art we created) we hatched a plan to pack up our collective six kids and go! We figured we’d do a long weekend in Bali. Something easy to break her in.
Fast forward a bit and Big Daddy tells me he’s just got to go home and visit the family cottage in Canada. He needs some R&R. No problem I say, I’m going to China, what should we do with the kids? We sat our three boys down and gave them the choice: Cottage in Canada with Daddy or China!!!!! with Mommy. Two came with me and one went with Daddy.
Ok. So now I’m going to China with two thirds of my offspring. I called my friend and gave her my best pitch. Sure, we’d never been there. Sure, we didn’t speak a word of Mandarin. Sure, it wasn’t a weekend in Bali but if we were really going to show our kids #GirlPower then ten days in China was surely the way to go.
So off we went. It was a dazzling few days and I can’t wait to go back. I was smitten. What was this country that spent 200 years building a big wall to keep their enemies out? The patience, the planning, I was seriously fascinated.
And the people! In China I never saw a person sitting idly by. People were reading or dancing or practicing a martial art, or playing a game, or laughing with friends. I’ve come to learn that you can understand the ethos of a culture by just sitting back and watching her people.
There was not nearly enough time to do all that we wanted to do but we did hit the hot spots. And as an added bonus we got to visit a childhood friend who lived there at the time. I count the days in my dreams until I get to go back. What a wonderful place. Truly.
The Great Wall. It's probably totally cliche but it's really breathtaking. Even when you know from textbooks that it is the only manmade structure on earth visible in space and even when you know it took 200 years to build in the days before power, even when some parts of it are so crowded with people you can hardly breathe, even, even, even . . . it's really a site to behold.
Right near Beijing you can do the touristy thing and ride the toboggans at Mutianyu. If you don't have much time to explore this is probably your option. Just be prepared for throngs of people.
If you have the time it's well worth heading out of the city a few hours to see some of the more remote parts of the wall. Some of these parts you literally just get to see. It's really hard to appreciate the enormity of the thing with photos but I tried.
Heading back to the city there is plenty to see and do. More than you could ever experience in a vacation, for sure!
A favorite highlight for the adventurous eater is the night markets. I will admit right here that I was pretty glad to be a lifelong vegetarian so I didn't have to eat some of this stuff!
There is going to have to be a Beijing Part II post to cover even more of the highlights but let me leave you with a few pictures of the locals just enjoying life! If China is on your bucket list I'm ready to start helping you plan!
Happy travels, friends! -Suzanne