There was a lot of response to a post of mine titled How To Bring Back Boring, And Possibly Horrid, Travel Photos here on DPS. It was a sarcastic stab at some problems I’ve had in the past with creating less than exciting travel photos. Photos that bore my friends and family. Some people liked it and some people didn’t (and it’s good to see different people still have different opinions!). But two requests came out of that post: 1) Tell us how to take good travel photos and 2) tells us how to recover our already bad photos.
To that end, this post will address #1. There is a lot of info here on DPS if you search for travel or use the category link for Travel Photography. To consolidate some of it, here are 7 tips to get you started.
Get Up Early And Stay Out Late
The Golden Hour, that slice of time just after sunrise and just before sunset, is a tried and true method for taking great photos. Photography, after all, is the art of capturing light, so get it when it’s at its peak, low on the horizon and full of color. There are also deeper shadows and contrast during these times giving photos a punch. The mistake most of us make is taking photos of great landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower, during midday when the sun is high and harsh. Do all you can to avoid photos during midday. Colors become washed out and lifeless. Shadows disappear or cover faces in an unattractive manner. If you have the luxury of extra time at a location, take advantage of the light when the sun is lower on the horizon and you’ll come back with dramatic scenes.
Use The Rule Of Thirds
Imagine a grid on your screen or eyepiece. It is made up of two lines, equally spaced, extending from top to bottom and another two from left to right. A small grid with four intersections. These intersections are the start of a simple method for making your photos more interesting. What you will need to do is place the main focus (pun intended) of your photograph in one of those intersections. If the main subject is someone’s face, place one of their eyes at an intersection. If it’s a mountain, place the peak near an intersection. Interesting bug on the ground? Don’t just center it in the photo and click away. Boring! Place it on an intersection and give it room (meaning, if it is facing left, place it on the right side of your photo so it visually has room to move into the photo).
More on the Rule Of Thirds can be found here.
Get The Horizon Out Of The Middle Of Your Picture
Along with the Rule of Thirds, never, ever, never place the horizon in the very center of your screen. While it may seem logical at the time, when you view a photo taken this way, it will appear bland and unnaturally balanced. Get that horizon off the center one way or the other! I prefer to give more foreground space and less sky, but there are times when more sky is needed. It works well to use one of those grid lines explained earlier in the Rule Of Thirds as a location for your horizon, but there’s no pat answer. Play around a little, but please, no more centered horizons!
Learn How To Change Your Exposure Settings
This one may be a bit trickier but is worth it. Background: Your camera is not perfect. Neither is mine. No matter how much money you spend, cameras have their limits. In most automatic modes a camera will take a look at the scene in front of them and try to find an average setting that lets all the highlight areas be seen and the shadows as well. The problem with this approach is cameras are not human eyes and don’t have the wonderful range our eyes (and brain) do. A scene may be 40% dark and 60% bright and the camera comes to middle ground on its choice.
This choice may make the highlights far too bright, or the shadows as black as midnight, with no detail either way. And if your subject happens to be standing in those shadows when the shutter is released, they will be lost in the dark while your camera tries to make everything even. Understand what your camera is trying to do and then tell it to do something different. How? By using exposure adjustment features.
Most cameras will have a simple +/- button or menu feature. This allows you to override the camera’s ‘correct’ exposure setting in any condition and will tell the camera to overexpose or underexpose the scene by up to three extra ‘stops’ of light. Taking the example above, if the subject is too dark when you snap the first photo, use the exposure adjustment and crank it up to +1 or +2. This tells the camera, “Hey, take what you think is the correct settings and let in more light, please” You’ll notice the highlights get brighter, but you’ll also notice you can now see your friend in the shadows. The reverse is also true if you find things are a bit too bright (because you’re out shooting during the middle of the day like I told you not too, aren’t you!?). Crank it down to -1 or -2 and your camera will let in less light to help those overexposed areas. It’s a give and take game, so practice with this setting.
A quick example: The first picture below is adjusted to the camera’s suggested exposure settings (ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/500). Because of the large amount of sky, the camera adjusted the main subject to be too dark. But the sky looks ok.
In this case, I adjusted the exposure compensation to +1 (overexpose by one stop) and further bumped it another half stop in Lightroom.
Use Fill Flash
If your camera has a flash, there are many instances when it can be used and you may not have thought of them. For instance, you’re on a tour with a set schedule and have no other option than to take photos of your family in front of the pyramids of Egypt at noon. Harsh, harsh sun is beating down. Everyone, rightfully, has a hat on their head to block the sun. The only problem is their faces are now in deep shadow while the pyramids are harshly lit. Did I mention the harshness in this setup? In this scenario adjusting exposure, as in the item above, will not help because the pyramids will become washed out while the faces become visible. What do you do?
Use your flash! That’s right, in the middle of the day, use your flash. Most cameras have a “Fill-Flash” setting and even if they don’t, a full flash will be better than none. A fill flash is just that; a flash to fill in the areas of the scene in dark shadow. Suddenly your family’s faces can be seen beaming with joy from under their hats before rushing back to the air conditioned tour bus. The photo at right has a subtle fill flash used to overcome the very dark shadows on my daughter’s face. While more edits can be made in Photoshop, starting with a more even exposure helps in post processing.
Another handy use for fill flash is when a subject is backlit. Maybe the sun or a bright light is behind them. Fill flash to the rescue! The bright light will still be there, but now faces and features can be seen as well.
Use A Long Lens
This last bit of advice might not seem obvious at first. While wide angle lenses are great for panoramic shots and big features, a zoom lens, something that is 100mm or greater, will do wonders for your photos. Zoom in on details and features of those grand, wide images. Use the zoom to help isolate your subject so the scene becomes less cluttered. And use a zoom to help capture those stalking lions far out on the savannah.
If you don’t have a zoom lens readily packed for travel, consider renting one. There are many places online and possibly in your town, that will rent a lens for a fraction of the price of purchasing it new. It’s often worth the cost if your once-in-a-lifetime trip will require it.
Lastly, Break All The Rules
Once you have learned the rules and how to use some of these tips, break them when the situation calls for it. Travel photography is about artistic expression so go with what feels good to you. But first, learn the Rule Of Thirds before you move your subject just a bit further to the side. Learn to use a fill flash before you decide having a dark, silhouetted face works better and don’t be afraid to take some details shots during the middle of the day even in the harsh sunlight.