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Don’t Forget the Foreground
Want a killer landscape shot? Make sure you’ve got a striking foreground. Now in most cases, the foreground will not be the main subject of your image, and really serves as a kind of frame to emphasise the depth of your composition. One of the big advantages of using an ultra wide angle lens is the dramatic perspective you can get between a relatively close foreground and the rest of the scene while still keeping everything sharp. But you can still use this principle even if your lens is not so wide, although you have to be more careful about depth of field — stop down!
And Don’t Forget The Other Two…
The best landscape photographs have clearly a defined foreground, middle ground and background. I’ve emphasised the foreground because that’s the one that people usually miss out when they’re taking photos of an impressive landscape. Everyone usually gets the sweeping background, that’s often the first thing that strikes them when they look at a scene. But it’s equally important to have a strong middle ground to avoid a feeling of emptiness in the centre of your shot (unless that’s what you want, of course, the middle ground in the shot above is deliberately empty to emphasise the feeling of expansiveness).
So you’ve got a foreground, you’ve got the middle ground, and you sorted out a fine background. Okay, what’s your photo about?
Well, what’s your photo about?
“Er, er, well, it’s a landscape shot, in Spain, I thought it was quite pretty…”
Dong! Sorry, wrong answer, you fail, you are the weakest link, goodbye!
With landscape photos, it’s quite easy to take a technically competent photograph about nothing. Attractive wallpaper. Don’t let this happen to you. The landscape in front of you may be beautiful, but you must have a focus to your picture, a clear subject so that anyone looking at your image can instantly say “this is a shot of a mountainous forest landscape in the Ardennes” or “this is a viaduct spanning a valley in Yorkshire” or the like. All right, they don’t have to be able to tell that it’s in the Ardennes or in Yorkshire, but you get my drift.
Your subject can actually be the light itself, “shafts of sunlight breaks through the storm clouds onto the fields”, or the weather, “a heavy downpour streams down the mountainside”, just so long as the subject of your photograph is clearly evident. If the person looking at it has to think twice about what your image is about (we’re not talking about your interpretation of the subject), it’s not strong enough.
When you’re shooting groups outside in sunny weather, even with friendly light, you may find it difficult to get the lighting right on everyone’s face. In harsh midday light, it’s even harder! The best way to solve this problem is to turn everyone round with their backs to the direction of the sun, and use fill-in flash to balance the light. The same goes for shooting inside, with awkward artificial lighting. Of course, you’ll come in relatively close and the light source won’t be included in the picture.
Get Them Up Close and Personal
When you’re doing a shot like this, when the emphasis is on the people in the photo as opposed to the surroundings, make sure that you get everyone to really squeeze together, especially their heads. Preferably, their heads should be virtually touching. Although they’ll feel strange, and it may cause a few giggles, you’ll find that the result will be immeasurably better than if you leave them to pose at the distance they themselves would normally select. Try it, you’ll see what I mean. It helps to break the ice and get a relaxed shot, too!
Make Them Look Up To You
Another trick I’ve found useful, especially when the group is quite sizeable, is to shoot from a higher viewpoint and get everyone to look up at you. You don’t have to get up too high, maybe a nearby low wall or a few stone steps, or if inside simply stand on a chair. This is helpful in avoiding people blocking each other, because you can be sure that later everyone will be looking for his or her own face!
Keep Up the Chat
As with individuals, always remember to keep talking when you’re photographing groups. You have to keep them amused and happy — it doesn’t matter if they think you look or sound stupid, as long as you get the shot.
Close-Up Food Shooting
Food shots make great memories, but not many people remember to take them! When you’re shooting your close-ups with a point-and-shoot, don’t go too close to the food, and pay especial attention to this when you’re sitting at the table, or you’re liable to burn out your highlights. You want to use your zoom to frame the plate tightly, so if necessary stand up. Another way to do this is to photograph the plate of the person sitting across the table from you. If you have a diffuser on your camera flash, this will help no end.
Although I like to have as much of the food in focus as possible, you’ll often find that you are shooting at large apertures, which coupled with your use of zoom leaves you with quite shallow depth of field. Actually, this is currently very fashionable in professional food shots, just make sure that the first food element is in focus and let everything beyond the back of the plate (or closer) go soft. If you’re using flash, and find you have too much depth of field, just use a bigger aperture (f/2.8 is good) to get the desired effect.
Brand Your Shots
Take at least one shot that uses the branding devices employed by the restaurant or cafe to show where you are. These can be menus, paper napkins, coasters, plates, coffee cups or even sugar sachets with the establishment’s name on them. Just incorporate them into your composition.
You can also get good shots of “local” dishes at buffets; there is usually a wide range of food and the situation is often more relaxed. The arrangement and decoration can also provide interesting elements if you’re lucky.
Red Wine Trickery
Here’s an old pro tip about shooting wine. Red wine is always too dark in photographs as it is, so as you’re not in the studio, the easiest way to get over this is to — shock, horror — dilute it with water. You should easily be able to see your finger through the glass.
The Golden Rule of Shooting Food in Restaurants
Now if there’s one golden rule when you’re shooting food in restaurants or cafes, it is to BE QUICK! One very good reason for this is because you obviously want to shoot the food before you start eating it, and hungry people tend to get impatient when delicious fare has been placed in front of them. So get an idea of the way you’re going to compose your shot before the food arrives. If I’m honest, there have been some occasions when I’ve joyfully tucked into my food, before realising a little too late that I had meant to photograph it…
The best time to shoot night shots is at twilight. At that time, the sky still has some blue in it and the city lights have already come on. It’s obviously best if you use a tripod and cable release, as this opens up a whole range of shots to you that would be impossible without it. If you haven’t a tripod with you, you’ll have to make use of walls, lampposts and other supports, because the exposures will certainly be slow, unless you’re shooting brightly lit shop windows and the like.
Exposing At Night
City Skyline: Don’t Burn Out
The tricky thing with night shots tends to be the exposure. If you’re taking a shot of a city skyline, simply taking an overall exposure reading will probably overexpose your shot, as the large expanse of dark areas will fool your camera into burning out the highlights. So in this case, you’re probably going to have to use exposure compensation to reduce your exposure a little. Fortunately, since you’re not paying for film and can check things immediately on your LCD, you can adjust your image to your own taste.
By the way if you are taking a skyline, if you can get a river or other stretch of water in front of it, you’ll get some great reflections that can really lift your shot. This also goes for decorative pools in front of floodlit statues or other tourist sites.
Bright City Lights
On the other hand, if the city lights and brightly lit areas are closer and you point your camera at them, it’s almost certain that your shot will be underexposed as your camera will work out the exposure based on those highlights. Try focusing slightly off to one side of the lights and use that exposure. If this doesn’t look good, you may find you have to increase your exposure compensation by +1 or +2.
[CAPTION: Traffic streams along the river freeway outside the Kremlin in Moscow. Taken from inside a coach, you can see the bus clock at the top left, on a Nikon E995 (yes!).]
White Night Balance
As far as your white balance is concerned, you’ll have to experiment. Surprisingly, I’ve found that the auto setting on my Nikon and Canon often produces acceptable results when shooting at night. You can have quite a mix of light in your shot, and although you might start with an incandescent setting, this won’t necessarily get you the best results. I’m often glad to be shooting in raw format!
You should note that sodium lights (orange) and some mercury vapour lights (bluish white) produce an incomplete spectrum, so cannot be properly filtered or balanced to give true colours; fortunately you see less of them of late (the use of mercury vapour lamps for lighting purposes will be banned in the European Union in 2015). Nowadays, halogen lights are popular for shop window displays, and you’ll frequently get a good result on your auto setting.
That’s all I have space for here, but please share your own experiences and tips below. In any event, I hope I’ve encouraged anyone who ever thought “these travel techniques are all very well, but I simply would never have the time for them” to realize that they’re not alone, and that there are other ways of photographing on the road.
Cynics have said those who can, do, and those who can’t, take photographs. Guerrilla Travel Photographers believe that on holiday you can do both.
So, lock and load, and good shooting…
Tony Page is a professional photographer and writer. View his work at Travel Signposts. Tony has just launched his new eBook – Guerrilla Travel Photography with a special discount for dPS readers this week.