With the post-Christmas exodus to winter sun destinations, there’s nothing quite as disappointing as returning from a wonderful family holiday and having only uninspiring snapshots to show for it. Antonina Mamzenko, London-based family photo journalist, shares her tips on capturing stunning holiday images like a pro.

Get to know your camera

Whether you’re taking photographs with your top of the range DSLR, smartphone, or a simple compact, you cannot take great photographs without knowing the capabilities – and limitations – of your equipment. While a camera manual definitely does not provide the most exciting read, a quick reference on how to access the most basic of functions is a must. Remember it’s not a novel, and you’re not supposed to read it cover to cover.

For a DSLR, find the functions that will be most helpful to start with, and learn to access and change them on the fly. For a novice, I recommend learning about the ISO settings and how to control them (they are responsible for adjusting your camera’s sensitivity to the light) and also your aperture (the setting that helps you capture that lovely blurry background you see in professional photographs).

With a smartphone, discover how to access the camera buttons quickly, and also whether you can take a photo by pressing the volume buttons as opposed to the on-screen button.

Another useful setting to familiarise yourself with is the exposure compensation (a setting that will allow you to override the smartphone camera and make your photo brighter or darker). This will differ depending on your phone model, so search “exposure compensation,” and your smartphone make and model to find detailed instructions on the how to.

Remember – it’s not the camera that takes a great photo, it’s the human behind it.

Avoid midday sun – or work around it

We all love holidays in sunny places, and of course we want to capture that wonderful sultry moment. Unfortunately, midday sunlight makes it really hard to take great photographs, especially if you’re photographing people. Not only is the contrast between light and dark areas especially harsh, creating unattractive shadows under the eyes and around nose and mouth, people squint and sweat too!

Also if you don’t know how to work your camera in a manual mode you will struggle to arrive at an appropriate setting. Just think about all the times when you’ve tried to take a great photo on a sunny day and your camera made all the faces really dark compared to the bright background. To work around this issue simply avoid taking photos between 11am and 3pm in the summer.

The best and most flattering light is usually found first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon… so put your camera away during the day, and enjoy quality time with your friends and family.

Another great time to take photos is just after the rain, so if you’re holidaying somewhere with frequently changing weather, take advantage of that! If you have to take photographs when the sun is at it’s worst, then use open shade (such as under a big tree or roof terrace – anything that blocks direct overhead light, but still allows enough light to come in from other directions).

For example, you can’t really make a beautiful portrait when the light is harsh, but you can photograph from the back and include the environment in your photos. More on that below.

Get smart about your composition

There are many ways to elevate your holiday snaps to a whole new level simply by adjusting how you compose your photographs. First, always take the photographs at the same eye-level as your subject. When photographing children, that usually means you have to crouch down. When photographing your tall spouse, you’ll have to stand on your tiptoes.

Second, take full advantage of the photographic “rule of thirds”. Mentally divide the scene in front of you with two vertical and two horizontal lines, and when taking a photo, intentionally compose it in such a way that the important elements of your photographs are placed either along those imaginary lines, or at the points where they intersect. This is especially useful when photographing running children: simply frame your photograph so that – visually – they have some space to run into.

Thirdly, look around the edges of your photograph and try to avoid unsightly background distractions, such as trash cans, or trees and lamp poles “growing” out of your children’s heads. Oftentimes the simplest trick is to ‘Move Yourself’, either cutting the unwanted element out of the frame completely, or visually hiding it behind the person you’re photographing.

Create a visual diary of your holiday

Tell a story of your holiday by capturing more than a group photo in front of a famous landmark. Photograph the little details that are unique to the place you’re visiting, such as street signs, details of the buildings, or your feet in the sand. Then go wide and include the environment in your shots as well: your child running through the cobbled streets of the old city, or your spouse holding a map while trying to figure out where to go next.

Experiment with the angles of your photos, and remember that not every single image has to include a smiling face. Photograph from the side, from the back, focus on the hands and feet, capture different facial expressions, experiment… pure joy to deep concentration – it’s all part of your story!

Don’t be afraid to “shoot through moments” as they are happening.

Sometimes it is impossible to get a great image with just one shot. I often take 10 or more of the same scene just to get that one photograph that speaks volumes. Embrace the power of the digital age, just don’t forget to go though the images and delete all the duds afterwards!

Don’t forget to be in the photos, too!

And finally, don’t forget to be present in your holiday photos too! After all, in 10 years time you don’t want your kids thinking you never went on holidays with them.

You can either use a tripod and self-timer, take a series of fun selfies, or even hire a local photographer to help you (just google “family photographer” or “portrait photographer” and the name of your destination, and you’ll find many options to choose from).

About the Expert

Antonina Mamzenko is former lawyer and an internationally published family photographer with over 8 years experience behind her. Antonina’s unique style blends photojournalistic approach and lifestyle aesthetic, to provide her clients with candid and unposed photographs that record and preserve their family life beautifully through heirloom fine art albums, and printed artwork. Since 2009 she has photographed hundreds of clients from all over the world, including the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Taiwan and Hong Kong.