I get asked this question a lot. Particularly from fellow travelers, who may be casual or beginner photographers, once we compare photos of the same sights taken at the same time. Much to their chagrin, the answer has almost nothing to do with cameras or other equipment. Reference my Photo of the Day posts on Facebook. Many have been shot with compact “point and shoot” cameras from both Canon and Nikon. So what is it? Am I such a wizard with the camera that all my pictures are perfect? Well, yes, but that’s not it either. It’s being acutely aware of what you’re photographing, the camera’s capabilities under the circumstances and what you can do with the pictures after the fact. So, in no particular order, here are my tips for getting the best travel pictures possible.
- Plan ahead. Know your itinerary and mentally plan for any special shots. For example, I always check to see if my group is going to be visiting any waterfalls. If so, I make sure I bring a tripod so I can get long exposure shots with the water flowing. If I’m going to be seeing landscapes or cityscapes with blue skies, I bring a polarizing filter to enhance the blue sky, etc. Study each stop in your itinerary and think about what you will want to photograph there and what you’ll need to do it.
- Watch the background. Avoid distracting elements by careful framing and composition and by the use of your aperture setting to control depth of field to maximum effect. Sometimes changing your position even slightly will allow you to hide distracting elements or position the subject against a more pleasing background.
- Check your framing. Look around the entire frame to ensure you haven’t included any undesireable elements or inadvertently created any awkward juxtapositions (like lampposts growing out of people’s heads).
- Check your exposure. Don’t just rely on what the image looks like on the camera’s screen. Learn to use the histogram and highlight warning display available on most cameras to ensure no important elements are blown out or lost in shadow.
- Be aware of what the camera is focusing on. Check the focus point before each shot to ensure the camera is focusing where you want and not just where it thinks it should. If the subject does not coincide with a focus point, many people like to lock the focus, reframe and shoot. I prefer to move the focus point and shoot so that there’s no chance of getting a soft image because of either my movement or the subject’s.
- Know what the camera is doing to your pictures. Most cameras are set up by default to apply certain parameters to your image files. Things like sharpening, contrast, dynamic range adjustment, etc. These are often lumped into broad picture categories like: landscape, portrait, vivid, etc. and can be set by the photographer. But they can also be individually adjusted to your specifications. I use the picture categories in my cameras based on the type of image I’m shooting but I’ve also adjusted each category individually to my preference. I most often use the vivid setting for general photography but have modified it from the factory specifications to match my style.
- Don’t use flash. At least not on-camera flash unless you’re desperate and just want to record an image for posterity. Most current cameras work almost miraculously at high ISO settings so there’s little reason for using flash in travel photography.
- Be patient. Wildlife (including humans) operate on their own schedules. If you’re hoping to capture a particular behaviour or an interesting juxtaposition, position yourself such that you’ll be ready when it happens and wait patiently. For birds in particular, it can take hours to get that great shot.
- Don’t take only one picture of anything. We all occasionally get that feeling where we know we’ve just captured something special. That’s when we want to pack up, get back to home base and check out that great shot on the computer screen. DON’T DO IT! Keep shooting – pixels are free. You’ll be rewarded by additional angles, changing light, and often, a better image than the one you wanted to run home to.
- Try to anticipate what’s going to happen. People, cars, animals, birds – they’re all in constant motion. Look for interesting arrangements and patterns that are going to form. Is that girl in the red dress going to walk in front of the blue painted building, is the classic car going to stop on the cobblestones, are the impala going to fight for dominance? Look for things that are happening around you and are about to, for just a few seconds, make a great image.
In no time, these simple tips will become second nature and, if your pictures don’t look like mine, it’s because they’re better!