Vacation Pix That Pop!

By Julie H. Ferguson

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Mist obscured the horizon and diffused the sunlight making it challenging to capture the seal with a long lens off the southern coast of the Isle of Arran. All photos courtesy of Photos by Pharos

I’m lying on my stomach balancing Bella, my Nikon, on a rock. The mist and sun creates too-bright a backdrop as I try to capture an image of a seal with my longest lens. First try comes out as a silhouette. “Change to spot metering,” says my instructor. “And focus on the eye. Stop breathing!”

Six hours into a photography workshop on the Isle of Arran in the Hebrides and I’m tiring. My husband and I are Jackie Newman’s (Arran in Focus) only students, and we’ve photographed sea and sky, golden glens, cloudscapes, portraits and wildlife.

“Okay, time for tea in my studio,” announces Jackie. “We’ll take a look at your photos on my hi-definition screen and critique them.”

My heart lurches — we’ve all experienced the discovery that our photos aren’t as good they looked on the camera screen. I’ve been disappointed countless times by fuzzy focus, wonky horizons, and underexposed faces. What makes it worse is you often can’t go back and retake the shot.
I photograph with my phone, a point-and-shoot, and a big digital camera with interchangeable lenses (dSLR). All three can take photos that are good enough for print, which proves that mistakes are never the camera’s, but the photographer’s.

Two land/seascapes taken almost from the same place show the value of patience. Next day, I climbed down to the beach at low tide (R) and got low for some foreground interest and lead lines.

Here are some tips that will improve your vacation photos.
Jackie told us, “Give your camera a chance”
• Learn the manual and travel with it.

• Set your camera to the highest quality image that it allows. E.g. JPG FINE
• Shoot outside during the best light — before 10am and after 4pm in summer. At midday, shadows are deep and obscure detail. People squint when facing the sun, too, and sunlight causes unsightly shadows underneath noses and hat brims.
• Don’t rush; consider each shot.
• Check where the light is shining from. If it’s behind your subjects, they’ll turn out underexposed (too dark) or silhouetted. Try moving them into bright shade or put yourself into a position that shifts the light to one side. If not possible, your camera can make allowances — see next section.
• Get off “Auto” and experiment with the “P” mode (program).
• Use people or objects to give scale to your landscapes, spaces and buildings. “Often landscapes just need some foreground,” Jackie reminds me. “Get low and focus about one third into the scene.” Higher can work too.
• Shoot lots, using different angles and settings. Walk around, move in and out, kneel, lie down.

Basics that prevent common mistakes:

* Fuzzy focus is the most widespread error:
* Many things cause this but the main reason is camera shake. As we hold phones and point-and-shoots at arm’s length, just breathing or pushing the shutter will cause shake. The solution is to wedge them on something. I also attach a pocket tripod to my point-and-shoot that gives me a firmer grip.
* A big camera suffers shake because of weight and long lenses, although you can push it hard against your eyebrow when using the viewfinder. If unable to wedge it, I hold my arms tight to my chest; if I’m lower, I’ll secure an elbow on my knee. I may increase the shutter speed, or use a tripod. (More ideas:,
* Make sure you allow time for your camera to focus after you’ve pressed the shutter halfway down (beeps when done) or tap the phone screen over the focal point.
* When shooting images of people or wildlife, focus on the nearest eye.

Point-and-shoots and phones do not have viewfinders, so I attach my pocket tripod to improve stability and prevent camera shake. With its ball and socket head, adjustable leg angles, and extendable legs, it is 10 to 22cms tall and a very useful addition to your bag. (Around $20.00)

Wonky horizons and buildings leaning to one side are the second most frequent mistake: if your camera screen or viewfinder doesn’t have a grid superimposed, use its vertical or horizontal sides to line up.

Returning to backlit subjects: they tend to be dark (underexposed), because the camera exposes for the brightness behind, especially with bright sky or sea. You have two options:
* For phones and point-and-shoots, use fill flash — turn on your built-in flash and fire. Check if the image is too bright; if so, step back. This also works well in very poor light and for night portraits. It’s a lifesaver.
* If your camera allows spot metering, turn it on and focus on the object or tap the phone screen over the same spot. The background may be washed out, but the subject will look better.

Using your built-in flash inside often results in weird shadows around people and objects. The best solution is to move your subject(s) well away from anything behind them, especially windows. Then there is red eye, caused by the flash reflecting off the retina, and bright reflections on eye glasses. Take the shot from the side and ask them to remove glasses. But these problems are often unavoidable. If red eye mars a photo, it can be fixed using photo software — Picasa is free and easy, and can fix it.

I failed to change my settings and line up on the first try (upper) and the camera exposed for the sky and sea, not the face. When I re-focused and metered with a single spot on the face (lower), the camera exposed my bestie correctly. (Sunglasses should have been removed.)

Poor composition ruins many a good shot.
* The rule of thirds shows you where to place the point of interest in your image; many cameras provide the grid of two vertical and two horizontal lines on your screen or viewfinder. Where two intersect is the sweet spot for your subject.
* Lead lines draw a viewer to your focal point. Look for a fence, a curving lane, or an elephant’s trunk. There may be several lines or only one.
* Make sure there is space for your subject to look or move into within the frame.

Finally, some wisdom:
Don’t take a new camera on a major vacation without reading the manual and practising lots! I recall two safari participants who spent their time figuring out their new dSLRs on a game drive. By the time they had it sorted out, the tour was over.

Memory cards:
* Cards can corrupt image data if not formatted often. Every night, reformat the card in the camera after downloading your images. If you can’t do this, use a new card every day.
* Don’t leave full memory cards in your camera. One young friend of mine left two full 32GB cards in his that was stolen at the end of his European tour. He lost every photo. Ouch!

Back up your vacation images:
* to a laptop or a tablet every night. If no Internet is available for web/cloud storage, then back them up onto a big USB drive and carry it on your person. If you don’t, and your device is dropped or stolen, your pix are

In December the light was dismal for this shot (upper), but I wanted to keep the foliage behind the subject dark. Fill flash (lower) using the built-in unit not only made the person stand out, but added catchlights in her eyes that animate any portrait. Note that she is not centred, so she has room to look to her right.

* Separate your backups when travelling — there is absolutely no value in having them in the same bag if it gets pinched. I even put my camera and laptop into different bags. Yes, I’m paranoid — but I’ve lost images this way!

I relished Jackie’s photography workshop on the second day of a month-long vacation. It proved an outstanding and fun way to improve my skills — the 300 shots I took exceeded my expectations. I learned to think each one through, employ new techniques, and instil good habits, ensuring my subsequent holiday images turned out well. I recommend a hands-on, customized workshop to anyone who wants to learn the basics or up your game, if you are an avid photographer.

Photography workshops:

Many destinations offer them, so use Google and get references from previous customers. Ours in the Hebrides was from Suitable for all levels and cameras, the owner Jackie Newman takes a maximum of four on location for variable length sessions at reasonable cost.

Best website:

My favourite is The Digital Photography School at Whether you are new to photography or experienced, you will find guidance here through an excellent search mechanism — from “How do I force my flash to fire in daylight?” to “What settings are needed for a helicopter shoot in the Grand Canyon?”

Photo software:

Google’s Picasa is the simplest to use and is free at Not only can you fix red eye and wonky horizons with little more than a click, it automatically catalogues images on your hard drive, and you can create albums/slideshows to send to your loved ones.




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Showing 1 to 4 of 4 comments.

Thank you, Peter. Much appreciated.

Posted by Julie H. Ferguson | July 6, 2015 Report Violation

Good tips, especially about not leaving memory cards in your camera when travelling. It takes time and patience sometimes to get a great shot and sometimes it is that quick snap that captures the rare and unusual.

Posted by Peter Barber | June 10, 2015 Report Violation

Thank you, Irene, for your kind words. Much appreciated.

Posted by Julie H. Ferguson | May 13, 2015 Report Violation

Valuable information Julie! Thanks for sharing your expertise.

Posted by Irene Butler | May 6, 2015 Report Violation

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