#Kauai: Learning To Take Better Photos

The view from the temple. It sits high on a ridge overlooking the north fork of the Wailua River.
A sweeping view from the temple grounds, set high on a ridge overlooking the north fork of the Wailua River, and looking out to Mt. Wai’ale’ale.


The day before we left on our Mystery Vacation, I had the opportunity to go with my good friend Mary Bartnikowski up to the Kaua’i Hindu Temple in Wailua to learn how to take better photos. As you know from her posts here, Mary has been a professional photographer for many years, and one of the services she offers here on Kaua’i are one-on-one or small group sessions where she shares her experience to help you improve your picture taking . . . with any camera. When I had mentioned to her one day that I honestly needed one of her sessions, Mary’s reply had been, “Let’s do it!” The stars aligned with good weather and time off for both of us on that Tuesday.

Capturing micro-shots
Capturing micro-shots

My camera is a five year-old Panasonic Lumix with a Leica lens, which I learned from Mary is actually a pretty darn good camera (she has used one for paid commercial photo shoots). However, other than knowing how to charge the battery and use the zoom feature, my camera was mostly a mystery to me. I knew nothing about how to use its many features, or what it was capable of.

The temple grounds were filled with gorgeous orchids
The temple grounds were filled with gorgeous orchids just begging for us to take a close-up shot.

A few days before we were to get together, I downloaded Mary’s free book, Secrets of Stunning Photographs, gleaning lots from the great tips she shares. It was genuinely a fun and interesting read and I learned quite a bit. But, as I’m primarily a hands-on learner, I was especially excited about the opportunity to actually get out and take pictures, getting feedback from Mary as I snapped away.


The day of our session, the first thing we did was to sit down and go over the features on my camera, and how to access and use them. For example, I had no idea how to use the manual setting, and set f-stops and such. I learned about all sorts of other options on the camera that I had no idea existed, let alone how to find them (like leveling).

Wearing a sarong over my slacks
Wearing a sarong over my slacks

Then we were off to the temple, which turned out to be barely a mile away from our previous house! Why had we never visited the temple while we lived there? It’s absolutely gorgeous. Entrance to the temple grounds is free, but women are required to wear a skirt, and men in shorts need to cover their legs as well. The temple thoughtfully and thankfully provides sarongs for visitors to meet the dress code.

Another view of the Wailua River
A closer view of the Wailua River. This was a tricky picture to capture because of the light. Get it wrong (which I did several times) and you can’t see the water flowing between the trees.

It didn’t take much encouragement to begin taking pictures immediately, with Mary offering feedback about lighting, and how to best position my photo subject in the frame to create a more interesting photo. We wandered through the breathtakingly beautiful temple grounds for nearly an hour, while I practiced both close-up and distance photos as well as using the automatic and the manual settings. I found myself using tips from Mary’s book as I went along, and watched and learned as well from what and how she was photographing as we walked through the grounds.

Light filtering through the roots of a giant banyan tree. There’s nothing here though that really grabs your eye.
A much improved photo taken under the same tree. Light it still filtering through the roots, but the statue adds much more interest.
A much better photo taken under the same tree. Light is still filtering through the roots, but the statue adds more interest.

When we were finished at the temple, we headed back to Mary’s house to look over all the pictures I had taken. One of the best pieces of advice she gave me was to never delete my “bad” pictures until I had looked at all of them side by side, because it’s those less-than-perfect photos that will show you which ones are the keepers. As I went through my photos, and listened to Mary’s feedback, I could see the difference between pictures, what I had gotten right as well as wrong, and what made one shot better than another.

An OK shot of the fountain, but . . .
An OK shot of the fountain, but . . .

What I learned in my session that day greatly improved the pictures I took on our vacation (until my camera battery died). I was more conscious of what I was doing, and what I was photographing, rather than just snapping away at anything, which is what I tended to do in the past. I got much better vacation photos than I ever have before.

 . . . it becomes a much more interesting picture when the fountain is slightly off center.
. . . it becomes a much more interesting picture when the fountain is slightly off center and the palm trees are included (still needs leveling though).

My photo session with Mary was a great way to not only learn how to take better pictures, but also learn a bit more about our beautiful island, up close and personal. Mary’s an insightful, patient teacher, and she’s happy to share her vast knowledge on how to get better photos no matter where you are or what camera you’re using (because great photos are more about who’s taking the picture rather than what camera they’re using). I’m looking forward to visiting the Hindu temple again with Brett and the girls in the not-too-distant future, and plan to sign YaYu up for one of Mary’s sessions later this year.

Mahalo nui loa, Mary!
Mahalo nui loa, Mary!

If you’re visiting Kaua’i, you can book a photo session with Mary by contacting her via bartnikowski.com!

11 thoughts on “#Kauai: Learning To Take Better Photos

  1. Laura, I love what you wrote about our dynamic session, you have a good eye and learned quickly. This is what makes me so happy to share the 29 years of professional shooting in Silicon Valley and worldwide I’ve done into a highly accessible nutshell of advice that will transform your picture taking quickly and easily.

    It all comes down to light, angle, composition, and timing, and suddenly with fun and clear guidance you’ll be getting amazing photographs too. I look forward to helping YaYu soon!

    If you have an iPhone or iPad check out my award-winning work in my magazine, Vagabond Travel Photography Mag in the iTunes store. http://apple.co/1UFIDD1

    You get stunning photography I’ve shot worldwide, photo tips, and practical advice on independent fun and exotic travel. Enjoy.


  2. I am definitely booking this next time we visit! I tried an online class, but I too need to be out doing. And I really want to visit the temple too!


    1. You really should, Denise. You will be surprised by how much you learn in such a short amount of time. Plus, it gives you a very up-close and more personal look at whatever place you choose to visit. And, it’s just flat-out fun to spend time with Mary.


  3. What a great way to get to learn a new skill! My friend and I did an online class and then went out and tried some of our new skills. It was fun to see how we each took different pictures of the same subject matter.

    Recently, I had fun taking photos of my son for his birth announcement. I used different blankets for backgrounds and tried shooting from different angles. I really enjoyed editing the photos and putting together the announcement. I can’t wait to make a book out of the photos. It is such a fun hobby!


    1. What I especially appreciated was the instant feedback on the photos I was taking – it helped me clarify what I was shooting, and how to make the picture better and more interesting right then.

      I doubt I’ll ever make photography a hobby, but with children and a grandchild, it’s great knowing more about how to take better photos. Plus, it’s almost a necessary skill living here on Kaua’i!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I just returned from a trip to Iceland and I have the exact same Panasonic Lumix camera you do. I also have no clue about all features it has. Actually, I didn’t know it had any features until I read your post! I wish I’d known before I went to Iceland. We saw the Aurora Borealis, but I didn’t know that you can’t take photos of it unless you have a camera that has adjustable shutter speed (whatever that means!). I don’t know if the Panasonic Lumix has that, but I’d like to find out. Thankfully, there was a nice lady on the trip who had an expensive camera and she sent us her photos, but it would have been nice to take them myself.


    1. Oh boy – there is a lot more to that camera than you would think! The Lumix does have an adjustable shutter speed. I tried it a few times our photo session just to see what would happen, but usually the automatic feature took better photos (because I mostly still didn’t know what I was doing). What’s humbling to me is that so many of the features are instinctive to my kids – they don’t seem to need the manual or instruction to use them effectively.


      1. Wow, I’m shocked the Lumix has adjustable shutter speed! I lost the manual a long time ago but I can probably find it online. I tried taking photos of the Aurora Borealis with it in the automatic mode but all I got was pitch black sky with some stars. By the way, Iceland is amazing and I highly recommend it. The landscape reminded me a bit of the Big Island–lots of lava rocks and volcanoes. It’s the cold version of Hawaii, lol.

        If I ever get to Kauai I will get in touch with Mary for sure. Kids today seem to be naturally good at anything technical.


  5. Hi JJ,
    Yes you have to change the ISO to get night pictures and you also will need a tripod if the shutter speed is set below a quarter second. 🙂
    Come on over and I’ll show you how to do it.


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