One of my favourite photography quotes is by famed National Geographic photographer, Jim Richardson. Simply put, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff”. Well, vacation travelling is one of the easiest ways to “stand in front of more interesting stuff” and enhance your photography at the same time. People yearn to travel. And people who travel want to take great pictures of the places they’ve been. I’ve put together a collection of picture taking tips that have helped me get great shots.
This tutorial is not technical at all. You won’t learn about apertures, or shutter speeds, or ISO settings. It is more about the way I look at landscape and the way I work. I hope you find inspiration here to better visualize your pictures both before and after your click the shutter.
Always Have Your Camera Ready
Some great pictures come and go in an instant. When traveling, don’t keep your camera in the bag. Always have your camera (or phone) ready to snap that photo in an instant. I don’t know how many times I’ve missed pictures because my camera was tucked away and I just didn’t feel like digging it out. Then later, I usually regret not stopping and taking the time to get out the camera. Often I know it would have been the best shot of the day. Always have a camera ready.
Shoot a Lot of Pictures
We don’t use film anymore (unless you’re into retro technology). The cost of digital storage is cheap, so take a lot of pictures. By this I don’t mean take one picture of a hundred different things. I mean, take a hundred pictures of one single scene. Take a shot. Then take a couple more just to be safe. Unless you’re an action photographer, bracket your exposures. Most pro photographers take a shot at what they believe is the best exposure, and then take another slightly overexposed, and then another slightly underexposed. Choose the best exposure later.
Once you have taken a few shots, move around. Take some from varied angles. Get closer to the main scene if you can. If not, try another lens. Take some shots low to the ground. Other from higher up. Maybe try some different foregrounds. Get some trees or branches in the frame. You will not get a hundred great shots. But you may get that one perfect one. Later, you can delete the ones you don’t like.
See the Picture
If you see something that excites you, take a picture. After getting the first shot out of the way, really look at the scene. Try to imagine what the picture will look like. Study the image you just took on the viewfinder. How can you improve it? Is it really a great shot, or just something you thought was interesting? I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “That’s an interesting tree, why don’t you take a picture”, or “That’s a lovely sunset, take a picture”. It is what people don’t see that kills the photo. It might be a lovely sunset, but what about these ugly telephone lines running right through the top of the shot? When people get excited about something they see, they seldom see how the picture will look. They have selective focus.
Learn to truly look at a scene. Think about the main interest in the photo and the best way to capture what you are feeling. Can you zoom in to crop out those telephone lines? Maybe switching angles, or moving a little to the side will improve the shot. Maybe what you want to take is really interesting, but the surrounding crap will ruin the shot. Take it anyway. It won’t be great, but maybe you can fix it in post-processing (that’s a topic for another day).
Eventually you will come to know when there’s a great shot in front of you. You will naturally feel the excitement. You know it’s there, but you can’t see it just right. Move around. Take more shots. You will find it.
A View Askew
It’s logical to want to put your main subject right in the centre of the photo. Isn’t that were they put the focusing grid? Don’t do that. Your pictures will be much better for it. Renowned photographer, Annie Leibovitz used to say she always photographed her subjects off to one side because she never knew when she would get a two-page spread. Learn to do the same. This technique will help you think about what you want to capture. Whether you’re shooting people or iconic landmarks, put your subject off to the side a bit. One-third to the side is best. Or compose the image with the horizon higher or lower. Again, about one-third is best.
I cover this a bit more near the bottom of this article when I talk about cropping your images.
Keep the Horizon Straight
Nothing screams amateur photographer more than a crooked horizon. This comes from being caught up in the excitement of taking the picture and not actually seeing the picture. Most cameras have a grid of some sort in the viewfinder. Learn to use it and keep the horizon straight. Especially for landscape / scenic shots.
Shoot From The Hip
Rules are made to be broken. Isn’t that what they say? Now that I’ve just told you to keep the horizon straight in your images, I going to tell you to change it up and shoot crooked pictures. I call it “shooting from the hip”. Sometimes I literally shoot from hip. Other times I hold the camera over my head and click away. Exaggerate the angles. This works fairly well when there is no actual horizon. Shoot lots of pictures, moving the camera a bit each time. Review your shots afterwards, keep the best and discard the rest.
Put Something in the Foreground
This is one of the simplest techniques to improve your photos. I learned it a long time ago. Just put something, anything, in the foreground. It provides perspective and scale to the photo. It gives the viewer something to catch their eye and draw them in. Imagine the most fantastic sunset over a large lake. You have lots of water and gorgeous sky. It may be nice. But, wouldn’t it be better to have a tree, or trees, or a rock, or anything in the foreground? Even if it’s in silhouette. The viewer will feel like they are standing there looking at this wonderful scene. This one technique alone will improve a lot of your shots.
Include the Tourists
This is like the previous topic. When visiting an iconic landmark, like the Tower Bridge in London, there will undoubtedly be a lot of tourists. Depending on the time of day, you won’t be able to get any shots without the tourists. So what can you do? Be ready! Have your camera out, or set up, and wait for something to happen. Wait for someone to do something fun or interesting. Capture people taking selfies. Especially today, tourists typically don’t just stand waiting to get their picture taken. They’re often goofing around, making faces, laughing or posing oddly. Take a picture of that. But don’t forget to include the landmark. It will make for a far more intriguing photo than the back of someone’s head.
Great photos lead the viewer into the image. This can be accomplished by including pathways, fences, rocks, water, roads or anything else. Positioned at the bottom edge of the photo, leading lines direct the viewer’s eye into the shot. Direct them to what you want them to see. Avoid anything that is distracting or directs the viewer away from where you want them to look. Telephone poles and lines are a big no-no. If possible, avoid benches at the edge of your photo. Don’t cut birds or people in half at the edge of the picture. If it can’t be avoided, learn to edit them out in post-processing. Keep everything inside the four edges of the photo. Keep the eye moving in.
Shoot at Dawn or Dusk
For dramatic scenes, shoot at dawn or dusk. Maybe you’ve heard of “Golden Hour”. It’s the time just after the sun rises or before it sets. As the name suggests, the colour of the light and the sky is golden yellow. Before the sun rises, and after it sets, is commonly known as “Blue Hour”. This is also a good time to shoot. Exceptions aside, the best scenic photos are taken during these times when the sky is its most colourful. So get up early and find a spot. Or perhaps sunset will be better? It may not be a perfect sunrise or sunset, but your chances of getting a good shot improve.
Use a Tripod
Ever wonder how professional photographers always get sharp pictures. Well, they don’t. But they increase the odds by always using a tripod. I don’t want to suggest that you always use a tripod because that just isn’t practical. Particularly in the middle of a busy tourist destination. And most digital cameras and cell phones today have some kind of image stabilization technology built in. It works well enough in many situations. However, I believe a tripod and a camera release will win out every time. Just remember to turn the image stabilization off when using the tripod. If you leave it on, the camera software will try to counter movement that doesn’t exist, and your photos will turn out blurry.
On our last trip I wanted to travel light, which meant not carrying a bulky tripod. I settled on this small, lightweight tripod and this cell-phone adapter (for the odd time I used only my cell phone). I’m glad I had it with me for sure. I didn’t use it all the time. But some shots I wouldn’t have got without it.
Crop Your Finished Images
The best photos are always well cropped. You can learn to do it in camera, but that may be hard, especially in the beginning. All great photographers edit their photos after the shoot. Many use a combination of software like Lightroom and Photoshop by Adobe. I like to use DxO Photolab and Affinity Photo for my editing. I will not get into a discussion of the pros and cons of the software available. There are many other alternatives to the ones I mentioned. Find what’s right for you.
Editing software will let you do a lot with your images. You can make them darker or lighter, increase or decrease contrast, change the colour and a lot more. For this discussion, I will only talk about composition.
Start by reviewing your pictures, editing the best and discarding the worst. Most photographers tend to keep the so-so pics.
Will cropping improve the best pics? Should the subject be in the centre or off to the side? Usually the side is better, but where exactly?
Easy. Divide your image into thirds both vertically and horizontally. Where the lines intersect is often the preferred position to place your subject. Most camera viewfinders can be configured with this grid commonly referred to as the “Rule of Thirds”. You can crop in-camera, but in the beginning it is easier to crop while editing your images later.
The “Rule of Thirds” is not the only standard. Other grids may provide a slightly more pleasing composition. The best known of these would be Fibonacci’s Ratio, or the Golden Spiral. This spiral is found in nature. Many plants and sea shells exhibit this spiral. The grid was made famous by mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci about 800 years ago and is based on Phi.
Other grids include the Phi Grid and the Golden Triangle. Interestingly, when Fibonacci’s Ratio, the Phi Grid and the Golden Triangle are all laid on top of each other, their lines all intersect at about the same place.
Hope you found this tutorial inspiring. Let me know how my suggestions work for you.