5 Important tips for the beginning travel photographer
When I try to think about a trip to Morocco I took three years ago, there are a couple of events that come to mind. When I have a look at the pictures I took over there, my memory gets a boost and my imagination brings be back to Jemaa El Fna within seconds.
Needless to say that besides memories, photos are the best souvenir people can bring.
Since the 21st century, digital camera’s have become relatively affordable for you and me and Johnny over there, so we all became photographers.
We traveled to far hidden places, we witnessed unique events and we came home with pictures that could be published in National Geographic Magazine instantly.
Unfortunately this last statement might not be correct. More often than not or images were too bright, too dark, not sharp, crooked with limbs cut off, people with eyes closed, hazy landscapes or a combination of all of this.
This annoyed me extremely. I didn’t want to be that guy who bores everyone with his two hour slide shows of meaningless images, I wanted to make people jealous, I wanted to show people how it was really like over there.
I wanted to show how heavy that thunderstorm was.
I wanted to show how crazy that party was.
I wanted to show how breathtaking the view from my room was.
I wanted to show how deserted the landscape was.
I wanted to show how pretty that girl was.
I wanted to show how delicious that food was.
And the only way to do that is by learning how to make better photographs.
So here are for you five tips that will improve your pictures. they will work best if you own an SLR camera, but you can also use them with a compact.
Don’t always look through the eyepiece (or the little screen)
What you see through your eyepiece will be the composition of the picture, so what do people do when they arrive in front of the Taj Mahal? They glue their camera to their face and it doesn’t come off anymore before they have left the place.
This has two major disadvantages, first of all you will never build a memory because the only thing you think of is to make nice pictures. If you take any memories it will be about the fat guy that appeared into yours sight and screwed up half of your images.
The second disadvantage is that you are not able to see the whole image. You’re constantly looking through a square, even though your eyes and mind can process a much broader view, so why not use that one?
When you arrive at a place where that you want to photograph, leave your camera in your bag for the next five minutes and take the time to absorb and process what you see.
So you see the Taj Mahal, right?
Where is the sun standing?
Are there other people and if so can I use them?
Are there any usable reflections?
Are there any lines that bring more attention to my subject?
Is there any symmetry I can use?
What if I look from this angle? or this angle? or this angle?
What if I come closer or go further?
By doing this, you will have several candidate compositions in mind. If you have problems with imagining what will actually be on your photo, try your composition by making a square with your hands and pointing to your subject - I know this feels a bit silly, but trust me, it works.
If you have a clear idea of the compositions you’d like to try it’s time to take your camera and start photographing.
Watch out! Above tip is true in 99% of the cases. If you happen to notice two lions that are about to attack each other, grab your camera as fast as you can and press that shutter button!
Don’t stop after one photo
This one hangs a bit together with the previous one, but if you’ve experienced the feeling of coming home from a trip and noticing that the very unique picture you’ve taken - at that very unique event in that very unique place - appears to be much too dark you’ll know why I like to emphasize this topic.
In times when traditional photography was more common than its digital brother, we had reason enough to not take the same picture five times. The films costs money, the paper costs money and the development costs money. Most of the times a film roll had enough space for 24 or 36 images, which meant that you had to buy, carry and take care of a lot of film if you were planning to make a lot of pictures.
With our digital camera, this is not an issue anymore. Memory disks with less than 1GB space are becoming rare, 16 and 32GB are quite common.
To give you an idea, with a regular compact camera your pictures (jpeg) have an average size of 3 to 5 MB. This means that you can fit about 200 to 300 images on a 1GB disk and 3000 to 5000 images on a 16GB disk. Not bad eh.
If you’re photographing in RAW, your images will be about ten times larger so you will be able to store 300 to 500 images on one 16GB disk. But that’s one disk. 2 by 3 square centimetres.
The development is for free because you develop them on your computer. Only the printing remains expensive, but of course you only print the images you really want to print.
Having this said, why the hell are you still taking only one image image of your subject?
It can’t be the cost.
So either you are lazy or you are that confident that your only picture will be a fantastic picture.
In any case, I would advise you to leave that attitude and start pressing that shutter button over and over again. Use different lighting and different angles and enjoy yourself.
One remark: If you’re planning to make a slide show with your pictures, only take one or two of each subjects, unless you want to bore the hell out of everybody.
Don’t be satisfied with the available light
You may or may not have noticed that the pictures you take between 11am and 3pm are often not your best ones. Even though you have used my first tip to create a fantastic composition, something seems to be wrong. You’re missing detail and colors.
During the hours when the sun is high in the sky, the earth receives very intense direct light that contains quite a lot of blue. This blue will give your image a cold feeling and if you don’t focus on the sky it will appear white(ish).
Because the sun is that high the shadows will be very short, which means that you lose a lot of perspective and depth in your image.
You may have guessed it, noon is not an ideal time to take photos.
If you want to take advantage of the natural light, the best moments to take photos is during the “golden hours”, which is the first and the last hour of sunlight of the day. Because the sun is then very low above the horizon, the light is much more diffused and the hue will be a lot warmer. Longer shadows will increase the perspective and the high amount of indirect light in the sky can cause a spectacle of colors.
If you don’t have the time or the opportunity to take your pictures during the golden hour, you will have to use some tricks.
First of all you can try to diffuse the light yourself, be creative with windows and sheets , reposition yourself and your subject to shadowed places and use different angles to play with the light.
If you are using a more sophisticated camera, you can play with the white balance to put more warmth in the image, or you can add the warmth afterwards by editing the image in your favorite software package.
But trust me, nothing beats the golden hour.
Protect your stuff
The threats for your camera are a lot higher when you’re not in your familiar surroundings, that’s why mommy and daddy keep telling you that you should not take that expensive single-lens camera on your next trip to the unknown.
It’s not that you can’t take great pictures with cheap compact cameras, but I figure that if you made such an investment in a quality camera it’s a bit stupid not to bring it when you need it the most. But you’ll need some extra protection.
Weather can be a real pain in the ass for travelers, one moment there is a bright sun, but as soon as you’re more than five kilometres from your backpack the sky closes and the rain starts pouring down. At home I can look outside the window and predict if it’s going to rain within the next two or three hours, but nature in the other half of the world works with different laws.
And rain is not the only issue, there can be too much UV in the sun rays, sudden gusts of wind can make you falter and the high humidity can cause vapor inside the camera.
So be prepared. My kit contains a UV filter and a waterproof bag. I always make sure that my camera is tied to my arm when I’m photographing in areas with a chance of wind and I try to take the time to acclimatize the camera because moving it from a cold to a warm area or the other way around can cause serious damage inside.
The second big threat on the road is theft. A camera bag easily contains material worth of more than 1000 dollars so for each villain who is used to rob people for a couple of ten dollar bills, this is like a pot of gold.
Luckily it is not that difficult to protect your stuff from being stolen and it’s also cheap.
Try to pretend you’re a criminal, who will you rob?
Someone who looks worth robbing of course, so if you look like you don’t carry anything of value, you just lowered the chance of losing your stuff with about 75% , isn’t that great?
Also never use a standard camera bag, because everybody knows what’s in it. Try a regular day pack or a camera bag inside the day pack. There you go, minus 5%.
Don’t carry your day pack on your stomach, first of all you look stupid and secondly people can see you’re trying to take care of something. Minus 5%
Of course all of this does not make any sense if you keep your camera around your neck all day. Take your pictures and put it back away. Another mines 10%
You see, easy and cheap. If it’s too cheap for you, you can also invest in an iron net to put inside your day pack so it can’t be cut open from beneath, but if you follow previous tips, chances are low that someone will make the effort of cutting your bag.
Ask approval if you photograph other people
First, it’s very impolite to take a picture of someone and then pretend nothing happened. maybe some women - probably Italian - may find this flattering but I can assure you that the majority of mankind does not appreciate being immortalized on camera without knowing why.
Secondly, some cultures find it offensive when their picture is taken. I’m not an expert on the usage of photography in different cultures but I know for example that certain tribes of Indians in Latin America think that a camera captures your soul.
Would you like it if an ugly white guy with a silly hat and sandals would steal your soul? Guess not.
And then there are legal reasons which differ from country to country. Often it is not allowed to publish photos of people without having a written approval and photographing children without permission from the parents can result in being someones bitch in the local jail.
So again, ask first, it doesn’t cost money.
Because I am in the whole Christmas and New Year mood, I’ll even give you an extra tip. There is always a chance that something goes wrong with your camera, or that you are planning to take more pictures than you have room on your memory cards, so you’ll need a place to store your images. Well you are lucky because I once wrote a blog post about this : What to do with your digital photos while traveling .
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