15 top tips for great photos

Make your holiday snaps even better and impress your friends with these simple hints

Maheshwar, India
Maheshwar, India

Want friends to love your holiday photos? try these tips

Travel sharpens awareness of our surroundings; the different, the unusual and it’s these things, the view of a new eye that makes great photos.

As a travel writer I take many photos during my first few days in another country, a different culture. (www.kiwitravelwriter.com)

If you want your photos to be more than a mere record of your travels try these tips.

  1. Keep your camera with you : some of my ‘best photos’ are the ones I missed by not having my camera read
  2. Filling the whole frame adds impact to many pictures
  3. Eliminate the unessential, cut the clutter. Don’t try to grab it all.
  4. Early morning and late afternoon have the most favourable light.
  5. Avoid midday as overhead sun drains the colour.
  6. Simple blocks of bright colour make bold statements look at other people’s photos to see what works, what catches your eye.
  7. Vertical shots are great for height and portraits, while horizontal ones are good for getting some background.
  8. Hold your camera at an angle for some fun shots: I won a photo-of-the-month prize because my angled shot stood out.
  9. If possible, leave the subject lean on something, or put their weight on one leg for natural pose.
  10. Take photos when the person is unaware of you.
  11. Use a background that enhances the subject: don’t have poles, trees, or the Eiffel tower growing out of your subjects’ head
  12. Balance the picture; rarely does the subject look great right in the centre.
  13. Take a series of photos: signs, doors, sunsets, fountains, or faces.
  14. Use something to frame the subject, a tree trunk and branch, a door, a window – but not with all your photos.
  15. Finally, be considerate and don’t take photos of people who don’t want to be photographed – eg the hill-tribes of Laos. If I believe I will publish a photo of people, I get permission to do so (when possible) and pay them in an appropriate way.
Takahe - a colourful native
Festival of the Hungry Ghost. Malaysia
Kaikoura, New Zealand

Hot air ballooning makes me fall in love

“When the wind blows in your face, something different is about to happen,” we’re told. It’s true and when the wind blows on our faces we change direction during the best morning I’ve had for ages. In fact it is so good I’m in love – in love with hot air ballooning. It is such fun even clichés fail me.

At 4 30am I was woken with a phone call. “It’s on, the weather is perfect, and your transport will be at your door in 20 minutes. It takes an hour to reach Methven, (1025 ft above sea level) home of Aoraki Balloon Safaris and close to Mt Hutt ski fields – and also on the Lord of the Rings route, a nearly a New Zealand-long-trail. Meeting with others who have driven from Christchurch or stayed overnight, we’re given overshoes, have our names and weights recorded and divided into two groups. A short bus ride takes us to the Methven Show grounds where we’re to be launched upwards.hot air balloon over village

Already the excitement is building and our group of eight or nine strangers are talking freely with each other. We’re all virgin balloonists and are anticipating a great time. Unlike many tourist ventures, on this we get to assist with the preparations. Some drag the traditional wicker basket (willow cane and rattan) from the trailer while I help unfurl the colourful giant balloon from an impossibly tiny bag: even the basket seems too small for us all. The balloon is now stretched out on the ground, a Kiwi and Swiss traveller hold open its mouth and two huge fans begin blowing. Slowly the multi-coloured nylon takes shape and our excitement continues to grow. We are all taking photos – recording the time for future memories – and finally it’s full – so full in fact that there is around eight tons of air in it. Now to heat it – apparently this is what makes it rise – and guess it’s why they call them hot-air balloons. Our pilot directs the roaring jets of flames into the mouth without burning it and shortly the balloon is moving. It rolls slightly to the right, back to the left, centres itself, then as we let go it leaves the safety of the ground to do what a balloon does best – it flies.

As it hovers above the creaking basket, so evocative of ballooning images, we climb aboard, are given safety instructions for landing (facing forward holding the rope handles and bent knees,) and, after being given the chance to bail out, and no one wants to disembark, the heat is turned up and off we go. Actually it’s up we go. Magic. Cool cool cool. What else can I say? It is at this moment, as the ground falls away below us, that I fall in love. I’m having a natural high and I know I’m addicted with this first rush. Although I watch the other balloon, I am too preoccupied with my own experiences. web hot air ballooonThe world looks very different from up here; it’s quite different to a plane because of the lower altitude and speed. A local is taking a photo of us from her terrace but it seems most of the other 1000 villagers are still asleep on this crisp clear spring day. A dog is barking, magpies are chortling, hares and sheep flee, cattle stare, and the Swiss traveller breaks out some genuine Swiss chocolate to share. Perfect. He, like many of the others flying today, was given the flight as a birthday gift: one couple were celebrating their wedding anniversary.

The South Islands’ snowy-backbone, the Southern Alps, provide a perfect pristine backdrop for our 360°views. New Zealand’s highest mountain Aoraki-Mt Cook can be seen in the distance along with beautiful braided rivers. Across the productive, but dry Canterbury Plains, the port town of Timaru and the Pacific Ocean are clearly visible. I click my camera frequently: the rest of the time I’m awe-struck. No wonder parts of this scenery was used in the Lord of the Rings ( And, am I the only person in the world not to have seen the movies?)

All too soon the gas is getting low and it’s time to land. We have been watching the chase vehicle following us and our pilot points out the landing spot, and reminds us of the landing position. The lower we get to ground the faster it seems we’re going. Then, cattle staring and even following us, we skim over the final fence, more air is vented and we land in an empty field. One little bump, back up into the air briefly then we land. As if in slow motion the basket gracefully falls on its side and the journey is over. We burst into laughter as we gaze, from our backs, up into the sky that only a moment ago we were floating in. Although we have landed, the adventure is not quite over. The farmer and our chase vehicle are driving towards us and we have a balloon to pack. With more laughter we roll our bodies along it to expel the air, and then squeeze it back into the very small bag. It fits. The traditional ballooning breakfast: a glass of good kiwi bubbly or orange juice, coffee, croissants, jam, cheese and fruit.

The farmer gets a bottle of bubbly to take home. As a child lying on my back, and watching clouds drift by, had whetted my appetite for flying like a bird. This, surely, is as close as one gets.

Facts and figures The balloon is 81 feet in diameter – 93 feet highHolds 245, 000 cubic feet of airThe air is heated with LPGBalloons always fly east to west, the circular direction of the world’s major weather patternsThe balloon and basket were made in South Dakota, USA

now to roll it up
now to roll it up

Brief history of ballooning. Paper-makers Joseph and Etiene Montgolfier, who were looking for new applications for their product, made the first hot air balloon, in France. The brothers made a balloon from paper and fabric and it rose when put over a flame. They first tested it with a rooster, a duck and a sheep – under the orders of Louis XV1. The brothers never flew. The first flight with people was in Paris in front of Louis and Marie Antoinette while outside France the first was ten months later (Sept. 1784), by an Italian in London. Marie Antoinette is on record as having said, “It is the sport of Gods” The traditional bottle of champagne was given to the farmer on whose fields the balloon lands was not so much for the joie de vivre of today, but to stop the farmer attacking these strange and uninvited creatures with pitchforks.

To read more by this writer buy her book: Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad.  Readers reviews are on this website – see above.

Happy Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year: travelling in Penang, Malaysia, (a couple of years ago)  temporary stages were all around the city during the days leading to the Chinese New Year. Large semi-solid structures are at temples or outside affluent establishments or homes where people have financially supported the theatre or opera that is about to be staged.

Happy Thai new year
Happy Thai new year


For a few days before New Year opera plays nightly. Outside a supermarket two colourful dragons cavort, their fluttering eyelashes making the dance look flirtatious. As in many warm climates, evenings are when places come alive in a different way to the daytime busy-ness. Locals wander the streets talking to neighbours, eating meals in noisy gaggles and now in the Chinese New Year, watch local theatre.


As with all travellers, I too watch the theatre of life that unfolds itself daily, hourly, minute by minute and as part of that kaleidoscope, watch the shows. To a Western ear the sounds are often discordant, loud, and too highly pitched.  Each evening I wander the streets of Georgetown, watch the opera and gradually my ears become accustomed to the tone.

Men, often dressed as women, are in colourful clothes and the story usually seems to be about long-lost loves or love betrayed;  well that’s how I, with no knowledge of any Chinese language, interpret them.

Four or five men, sitting behind screens, make up the orchestra, and during long speeches or songs from the stage, I could hear their conversations and watch as huge plumes of cigarette smoke drift from around the screens and out to the audience.

The audience emerges from the shadows of alleyways, shops and homes as the band tune their instruments. I am given a sheet of newspaper to sit on, others sat on their rickshaw, bike, or chair carried from home, while yet others sat on newspaper too. Most smoke. Adding to the pall of smoke is the token money burnt in temple grounds as people make offerings to their ancestors.


If you can, spend  some time on the road early in the western-calendar year. Leave New Zealand  ( or whatever country you live in) after your New Years eve party and picnic the next day, then start counting. Counting the celebrations you can indulge in. Chinese New Year is usually first, both it and Islam’s end of Ramadan, the next new year, aren’t fixed dates but are lunar events so check for the dates. Then finally, in mid April – the Buddhist New Year.


Four fabulous New Years in a short space of time, all celebrated in very different ways and all wonderful times to be travelling and learning more about how other cultures enjoy the change of year.

To the Chinese community – Have a happy New Year!

NOTE: See photos of the Chinese New Zealand in Christchurch elsewhere on this site