How to Take Better Vacation Photos

While we may not all be professionally trained photographers, most people want to take great vacation photos we can post to social media, or send to our jealous friends and family stuck at home. Most of the time, our smartphones and point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones do a pretty good job of autocorrecting our blunders, but where they don’t perform is in poor lighting (either very bright or dark). Here are my top tips for making the best of your iPhoneography.

Issue: Too Dark

Any time you have a foreground that is dark relative to something very bright behind it (see below, or just think of any picture of a sunset you’ve seen with a person’s silhouette in front of it), whatever is in the front will usually be underexposed if not completely burned out!

An example where flash or a little more light in the foreground would have been useful! (Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur)

However, anybody who has tried to put an Instagram filter on a very dark photo knows that trying to brighten an underexposed picture creates unwelcome pixel static (or “noise”) so it is almost always better to get the lighting right when the photo is being taken, rather than trying to salvage it in post-production.

This picture of me at Story nightclub in Miami would have been 100% cuter if I hadn’t had to use an Instagram filter just to make me visible!

While flash is the easiest way to get some light into the picture, it has a bad reputation for focusing on whatever is shiniest in the frame (hello, greasy forehead!) and make eyes look like they’re glowing, so it’s usually best to find other sources of light if they are available. Here are a few ways to make light work for you in a photo.

Direct flash is not my most flattering skin tone for me or my shirt!

1) If you can, turn your target around so they’re facing the light source (for example, with your back to the sun). Light from a large source, far away (e.g. the sun) will be much softer and more “diffused” on the person’s skin than the flash from your phone which is small and very close.

2) If you want to bright background object to be in your photo, as in the example with the Petronas Towers, a separate light source from a side other than where the camera is will be much more flattering to the subject. This could be a lamp, flashlight, or even the light from another person’s iPhone!

Here my face benefited from some indirect light from street lamps in the plaza. If I had walked closer to those lights, you would still get the Eiffel Tower in the picture but my face would be much better lit!

3) If you must use flash, and you really want to get fancy with it, portrait photographers often use a technique called “indirect lighting” which involves directing the light source to a white surface (usually a portable tool called a reflector, but could be as simple as a large cardboard slab, or in a crunch, even a piece of blank computer paper!) facing the subject, rather than directly on them, so that the light “bounces” off the white paper onto the person being photographed.

Issue: Too Bright

In very well-lit areas, you run the opposite risk of being overexposed, which means the photo will be “blown out” with a lot of white space.


This is an example of the same photo overexposed (above or left) and underexposed (below or right).

Most touchscreen smartphones will allow you to choose the “depth of field” (the rough zone between you and everything you’re photographing that will appear sharpest) by tapping something to focus on. In the case where there is a lot of available light, you want to play around with tapping the darkest areas on the screen, which tells your phone what area to expose for, and in the process balance out the light in the rest of the frame.

(For more explanation about how this works, it may be useful to understand how manual white balance adjustment can be done using grey cards, another tool for adjusting white balance in digital photography, as explained in this guide)

Tapping the wooded area in the foreground or even towards the middle of the frame would have yielded more even lighting, though it would have risked blowing out the Kuala Lumpur skyline in the distance.

So much of photography comes down to understanding how light works so it can be manipulated, but this is a great start and should be enough to help most amateur iPhone photographers avoid the most common biggest lighting pitfalls.