The Perfect Instagram Picture Versus the Perfect Vacation

We’ve all seen it. Gorgeous people, couples, men, and women alike, sprawled across a city overlook, at Machu Picchu, or the Taj Mahal. Whether you’re one of the billion people on Instagram or not, we all know of the influencers who are captured in gorgeous Greece and Bali, hair billowing in the wind as they stand tall sipping pina coladas over mountain peaks. And you think – how does that even happen? Why can’t my vacations be like that?

Truth is, it doesn’t happen. Naturally, anyway. Visiting a gorgeous destination is one thing. Wearing gorgeous dresses sipping pina coladas over a mountain peak? I personally know that this happened — but only after the person hiked all the way up in normal gear, changed into a dress at the summit, and pulled out props from her bag to pose with her make-shift pina colada while her photographer snapped dozens of photos just to get that “perfect shot.” You have to give them props for effort but it makes you wonder — what’s so wrong about posing in your normal gear — what’s so wrong about creating a beautiful yet real picture?

hawaii acoupleonabudget
This is a picture I took of Christian on Oahu in Hawaii. We hiked up a waterfall and were relaxing, and he decided to sit there. I saw it was a gorgeous shot, and took it. No extra staging or changing of clothes required 🙂

Being real isn’t such a bad thing.

As a psychologist, I am fascinated by Instagram. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people obsessed with white, clean backgrounds and perfect pictures. But reality isn’t white, or clean. Reality is full of blurry shots and random people in your pictures. Reality is that you had to walk down those stairs a few dozen times to get that one perfect shot. If you’re photographing in a city especially, the reality is that probably that you’re holding up a line of others waiting to photograph what you’re posing in front of, or you’re awkwardly trying to avoid the glance of locals who are wondering what the heck you’re doing, posing for hundreds of pictures like that. There’s nothing wrong with taking a couple of photographs of a monument, or gorgeous landscape. In fact, it’s a staple part of any vacation! But does it have to perfectly staged every time? Why do you have to photoshop those people at the Louvre out of your picture? What’s so wrong with letting other travelers know: the Louvre is busy at [this] time! It’s a fact. Why is it so bad to photograph real things — that are still beautiful?

where to go big island acoupleonabudget hawaii
This is the Black Sand Beach at Waipio Valley. We visited in the early morning, nobody else was around. No editing or Photoshop required!

Creating alternate realities is misleading.

Photographing the natural beauty of a location, “flaws” and all, can be one of the most convincing markers of a great photographer. What makes National Geographic shots so stunning? That they capture real things, in a beautiful way. There’s editing involved – but just so that the natural beauty of the destination is enhanced, and not so that you had to enhance the location to give it beauty.

There’s nothing wrong with capturing beauty, but when it’s used to mislead followers into believing that you can survive Iceland only wearing crop tops and flowy skirts, it perpetuates a false belief and a group of following travelers who will try to reinvent these fantasies. Photoshopping people out of your shot in the Louvre misleads people to thinking that midday is not the crowded mess of people it is at this (yes, still beautiful) place.

Pompeii in the summer
Yes, Pompeii is crowded in the summer.

You can still enjoy photography, videography, and fly drones without making your entire vacation about filming perfect footage.

Who are we to talk about perfect Instagram shots and travel photography?! Haven’t we taken countless photos to create an augmented reality for the 12,000+ followers on @acoupleonabudget? In reality, we do fly drones and tape most places we go. We do stand in front of waterfalls waving excitedly, and we do pose in front of grand landscapes. I love dressing up, and wearing beautiful dresses in front of gorgeous destinations. We enjoy creating beautiful photographs, not only to be shared, but for us to look back on, in the future. But we keep the augmentation of reality to a minimum: we don’t use Photoshop at all, and we like to actually chronicle what’s really happening in the photo, instead of removing elements from it. I take pictures of Christian while we kayak the Adriatic Sea. We didn’t rent a kayak for photography purposes; we photographed ourselves while doing an activity we actually enjoy doing. Christian takes pictures of me struggling up a mountain in the Westfjords, Iceland. We actually enjoy hiking (no matter how often I trip!) and take photographs to capture the awe-inspiring places we discover during our hikes. We don’t change outfits, and we keep the staging to a minimum (yes, I too don’t want him to capture me at my worst angle, mouth half open, at half blink — that may be too real!)

We’re not saying that’s the only way to do it: we love following travelers on YouTube and Instagram who capture beautiful pictures. But you don’t necessarily have to create these pictures, artificially. And the trend seems to be headed that way nowadays: more and more people are speaking out against the artificiality of travel photography touted by bloggers and Instagrammers. And sometimes, when a camera can’t capture the real colors of a destination, using Photoshop to enhance a picture is fine – until you create a picture that’s nothing like the original.

However, most importantly, we make sure that we appreciate the beauty of where we travel sans camera. We make sure that we have enough time after we are done flying our drone and taking photographs to actually sit back and enjoy the scene that we’re witnessing, in each other’s company. Because our vacation shouldn’t be about the perfect picture: it should be about the great memories that we made, that yes, we can look back on and share using a couple of well-timed photos we took. The pictures don’t make the vacation: we do. Is that so old-fashioned?

Yup, we pose in front of waterfalls, but this is not an alternate reality: I was ridiculously thrilled to see this beauty, Seljalandsfoss, and made sure we kept our pictures quick so that others can take some too.

You can still edit your photos without creating alternate realities.

There’s no denying that humans appreciate beauty. Plenty of people make a living off of creating beautiful pictures. But we don’t all have to create alternate realities of the locations we visit. We can saturate colors and sharpen images to bring out a place’s beauty as we remember it – but not necessarily change it completely from what it actually was. The worse thing is for travelers to arrive somewhere and realize it’s not as pictured on Instagram. Isn’t the point of a travel account to share the beauty of a location – and not oversell as to disappoint on arrival? We can still enhance and edit, and not oversell.

We’re definitely guilty of enhancing colors and sharpening images; but we always ask ourselves the question: is this similar to the original? Are we showing the beauty of the original that’s marred by shadows and low lighting on our camera, or are we creating a facade of what it actually was? You’d be surprised at how many people actually appreciate beautiful, but real, pictures.

skogafoss where to go in iceland stopover
So many people have asked us if this photo is real. Is the double rainbow added? No, to our delight, this was Skogafoss, and this is why it remains the most beautiful waterfall I have seen to this day. I asked another traveler there if she wouldn’t mind to take a photo of us, and this is how happy we were to be there. Yes, we did increase the saturation by 30% since our GoPro isn’t great with colors or shadows, and the lens was wet with the spray of the falls, but this is what it looks like in real life, you won’t be disappointed! We’re not advocating for ZERO editing – it’s fun to play around with software, I love to do it!

Most importantly: Are we destroying someone else’s vacation while creating our perfect Instagram shot?

A few months ago, in March 2017, we visited Hawaii. We scouted a spot close to Sunset Beach on Oahu, which is known to have several giant sea turtles come ashore at different times during the day. We were thrilled to see an old sea turtle slumbering in the sand when we arrived. There was a marine biologist nearby, who had cordoned off the area closest to the turtle so that he wouldn’t be disturbed by our presence as he slept. Hawaii is a beautiful place #nofilterneeded, seriously, and it was made even better by the presence of these beautiful, gentle creatures. Until of course, a model came by, who wanted to take pictures on the beach where this turtle was slumbering. While she wasn’t immediately next to the turtle, she insisted on taking pictures directly within any shot of where the sea turtle was sleeping. Oblivious to the tourists trying to see and photograph the turtle, she spent more than an hour posing in the background. And we’ve seen this countless times – Instagrammers taking dozens of pictures in front of grand landscapes and monuments, while keeping others waiting. This is an easy issue to fix: go at a time when you won’t be interrupting others’ vacations. But it begs the question: are we being conscious of others when we’re working to create the perfect shots?

We fly drones, we take pictures, we film during our vacations. But we always try to keep it to a minimum in front of others, and usually check with them if it’s alright, especially when flying our drone. It’s their vacation too, and we don’t want to ruin their shots while creating our perfect versions on film.


Visit Puerto Rico El Yunque
La Mina Fallls, Puerto Rico. It get’s very crowded, so we visited early in the morning to have the falls to ourselves and take a few pictures without being in anyone else’s way! This is one of my fondest memories of Puerto Rico.

There’s nothing wrong with being a travel photographer.

Travel photography can bring faraway destinations to life. It’s also an extremely hard job: it requires heavy, expensive equipment and spending hours at a time sometimes trying to capture the perfect shot of a waterfall or a sunset over a glacier lake. Some lucky folks even make a living out of it. More and more people are traveling more as part of their job: whether they are professional travel photographers, bloggers, or influencers. But the point of travel photography shouldn’t be to augment reality, or to put a half-naked model in front of a scene to “make” it beautiful – it should be to capture the beauty and culture of a scene, a country, a hotel, a restaurant, a place…to inspire others to travel there, or at least, aspire to travel there! If you’re paid to advertise a place, isn’t it better if your customers have a beautiful, yet realistic image of what you’re promoting, versus being disappointed when they get there? And whether you’re being paid to advertise a place or not, shouldn’t we all make sure it doesn’t come at the expense of our vacation – or even others’ vacations?

Yes, Santorini is actually this beautiful. You won’t be disappointed!

In the end… why do we even travel?

We should travel to learn about new cultures and see beautiful places. We should travel (for work) to capture beautiful places. We should travel to tell real stories, to encourage others to journey to these places. We should travel and create to inspire and fondly remember – and not mislead and even misremember. The real places we have to explore around the world aren’t all that bad, sans Photoshop. They can even be jaw-droppingly beautiful…sans Photoshop!

Thingvellir, Iceland. No Photoshop required. A quick photo while Christian was exploring, memories for a lifetime.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. I loved this article guys. Very interesting points! I couldn’t be bothered to carry a dress up on my hikes, I’d rather pack more snacks 😉 (plus no way my hair won’t look like a sweaty mess at the top).
    I’m guilty of being excited to visit a place because of a photo I saw on Instagram, only to be disappointed. I’ve learned I need to travel for my own experiences, not to recreate a photo!
    Again, love this one! 😊

    1. Thanks so much! Yeah, changing at the end of a hike would be too much of a struggle for me, not to mention that Christian (and everyone I know!) would think I’m insane haha. Instagram and blogging can be such great ways to connect with people, and I really appreciate them, but sometimes I’m blown away by the augmentation of reality that goes on on them!