June 21, 2007

Oh, Snap! Five Tips for Better Vacation Photos

San Francisco de Asis, Taos

El Santuario de Chimayo, Taos

Fly fishing near Taos

New Mexico rock formation near Taos

Do your vacation photos make the best trip of your life look like a slightly blurry stroll through a vacant lot? Get a tripod, lose the bleached-out midday lighting, and focus on the subject at hand, says award-winning Southern Methodist University photographer Hillsman S. Jackson.

Jackson shares his skills with novice shutterbugs through his popular course in digital photography at the SMU-in-Taos Cultural Institute. Here are his five top tips for getting great vacation photos:

1. Set the scene. Compose your shot, focus, get closer, and focus again before you take your photo. “Too many people don't get close enough to the subject to get the picture they really want,” Jackson says. “If you think you’re close enough, you probably aren’t.”

2. Avoid photographing people in bright sunlight. Shoot them with the sun to their backs using a flash (yes, a flash – it eliminates shadows), or photograph them in the shade. Early in the day or during twilight are the best times, says Jackson, who calls the minutes just before twilight “the magic hour.” Watch your timing, though: Within 15 to 20 minutes, the magic hour becomes the tragic hour, when there’s too little light for a decent shot.

3. Use a tripod to avoid free-form streak effects when photographing city lights and other night scenes. “A tripod will ensure that your camera remains stable and eliminate shaky photos – unless, of course, those are what you want,” Jackson adds.

4. Shoot – and keep shooting. “Remember the old saying: ‘Film is the cheapest thing in the bag,’” Jackson says. “And with memory cards getting less expensive each day, digital photos cost practically nothing.”

5. Have fun. “It will show in your snapshots.”

A few samples of Jackson's Taos photography accompany this article. To see more photos by Jackson and his students, visit the SMU-in-Taos Cultural Institute Slideshows page.

About The SMU-in-Taos Cultural Institute:

Now in its third year, the SMU-in-Taos Cultural Institute provides an opportunity for adults from all over the country to learn about the Southwest –– its colorful history, diverse cultures, rich art and literature, and ancient archaeological sites. Courses are taught by SMU’s distinguished faculty and local experts over three days against the spectacular backdrop of northern New Mexico. Due to popular demand, the program added a second weekend for 2007; sessions will take place July 12-15 and July 19-22. Learn more at

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