How to Take Better Vacation Photos, According to a T+L Photo Contest Winner

T+L reader Stan Nalewski wowed our photo editors with his stunning shot of nuns in Chicago to take home the grand prize in our photo contest: a dream trip to Thailand. Read on for Stan’s trip highlights, and for his tips on how to capture a prize-winning shot of your own.

Boy on a tuk tuk in Bangkok, Thailand
A boy eating on his dad's tuk-tuk in Bangkok. Photo: Stan Nalewski

"Congratulations! You’re the winner!" This was real, not some pesky pop-up ad. I’d won Travel + Lesiure’s photo contest. The prize? A dream trip to Thailand, including stays at some of the best resorts in Southeast Asia.

When I took off from Chicago on my trip, the wind chill index was -50ºF. It was the perfect time to escape the city, and two long flights later I landed in Thailand. Goodbye, -50ºF. Hello, 95ºF.

First stop: Bangkok. The air was humid, and thick with the smell of street food being cooked. Bars, street food vendors, and massage parlors lined the streets. The shopping malls made the Mall of America look modest, but the real draw was the street markets. Spired golden temples rose above the city. The streets themselves were packed with tuk tuks and cars, and motorbikes with two or three people on them zipped around vans packed with tourists.

The next stop was postcard-pretty Krabi, and with it came the transition from the buzz of Bangkok to the slower-paced atmosphere, truly running on island time. The sunsets were spectacular, with pastel colors that made each one unique. The days were spent lounging in the water underneath towering rock formations, calm waves breaking.

Final stop: Chiang Mai, the perfect mix of city and town. The New City was vibrant and architecturally impressive, modern, with street art all around. The Old City offered beautifully preserved temples and a glimpse into the life of the locals. An elephant sanctuary about an hour outside Chiang Mai gave us the unforgettable experience of getting up close with elephants, petting their rough, bristly skin, and watching them roll around in the mud.

As traveling always seems to do, this trip opened me up to a place and people I’d never seen before. The Thai people welcomed me with their warm smiles, and I was thankful for the opportunity to see their side of the world. And, of course, for the chance to document it all with my camera.

A restaurant in Bangkok
Outside a restaurant in Bangkok. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Don’t be afraid to experiment with your photos. You can play with color, light, and foreground to create something that looks more like a painting than a photograph. It’s not always about capturing a clear, simple subject.

Boy on a tuk tuk in Bangkok, Thailand
A boy eating on his dad's tuk-tuk in Bangkok. Stan Nalewski

Tip: When shooting street portraits, aiming for candid shots can feel more natural and sincere. I love to catch my subjects just as they look at my camera. When I’m drawn to a subject, it’s great to capture both the person and the scene around them, which can help tell their story and capture the essence of both the people and the place you’re visiting.

Raialy Beach, Krabi, Thailand
A man poses in front of a backdrop at Railay Beach, Krabi. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Step back from your scene to see the bigger picture. In this case, a picture within a picture. Here it’s not just about the backdrop, but the backdrop scene in the bigger context of the man taking his friend’s photo. The best photo story is often one with layers.

An elephant sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai
An elephant sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Capture motion in your photos. You can use direction and lines to show movement in your photography. Here, the elephant and the farmer both walking in opposite directions is captured, with added tension because they’re moving away from each other. When capturing people walking, try to catch them mid-stride so that their legs form a wide base. It makes a stronger shape in the photo, and enhances the feeling of motion.

Sunset on Ao Nang Beach in Thailand
Sunset on Ao Nang Beach, Krabi. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Use scale to your advantage. I love capturing people in a landscape image to help show the scale of the environment. Here, the people help show just how large the body of water, and the rocks in the distance, are.

Bangkok monks
Monk’s sandals outside of temple, Bangkok. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Look for interesting details. Every day around 6 p.m., monks would enter this temple for prayer and chanting and would leave their sandals at the entrance. Capturing details like this can give texture to your overall set of photos, and help tell a wider story in a more subtle way.

Temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Outside the temple walls, Chiang Mai. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Use layers to make your photos more interesting. Here, instead of just a straightforward shot of the temples, I’ve used a nearby stand of trees to frame the temples and add additional context to the shot.

A dog in Chiang Mai, Thailand
A dog laying in the sun outside of Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Use shadows and light to your advantage. Paying attention to how light and shadows are arranged in your images can make your image far more focused and rich. The shadows and light in this image not only draw your eye toward the subject (the sleeping dog), but also highlight another figure in the shadows behind the dog.

A family in Chiang Man, Thailand
A family just outside Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Consider black and white. Sometimes the situation is perfect for a black and white photo. In this image, the great contrast between the light and dark areas really lent itself to a black and white photo, in which the different elements of the image (darker subjects against a bright sky) could really pop.

Krabi, Thailand
Poolside overlooking the Andaman Sea, Krabi. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Create silhouettes. One of my favorite techniques is to create silhouettes with people, which, when done right, can produce some really striking images. Look for the right well-lit background with a shadowy or less-lit figure to create this effect. Make sure your silhouettes' limbs are isolated to create strong shape in your subject. Also, keep just a bit of detail in the shadowed figures; in this case, the rosy touch of color you can still see in the figure’s sunglasses is the perfect cherry on top.

Children on Thailand's Ao Nang Beach
Children playing at sunset on Ao Nang Beach, Krabi. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Look for lines. Use lines to segment your photos, helping to simplfy scenes. In this photo the children are all playing in a line, and the water, sand, and horizon create additional lines that help your eyes navigate the image.

Tab Kak Hang Nak Hill Nature Trail, Krabi, Thailand
Tab Kak Hang Nak Hill Nature Trail, Krabi. Stan Nalewski

Tip: Try a high vantagepoint. Sometimes the prettiest photos are taken from high up. Getting this shot required an hour-long hike to get to the top, but catching this view was completely worth the climb.

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