Although I am a photographer by trade, I really don’t consider myself an expert in the field of travel photography. Still, people ask me for tips and tricks on how they can improve their travel snaps all the time, so I thought I’d address the topic today! Often, this comes from people with state of the art gear and little clue on how to use it. Having good equipment could be considered a first step in the right direction, but it really isn’t in some other regards – because photography remains a means of expression.
Having technical skills is one thing, but an important aspect is the ability to develop a keen eye for what’s around: learn to see the extraordinary in the mundane, connect emotionally with what surrounds you, speak to people, touch, feel and follow your instinct. Granted, getting this sensibility for photography comes with practice and can be the work of a life time, but there are ways to cheat this and make sure you get the best shot each and every time. Here are some tips!
1. UP WITH THE ROOSTERS
It’s no secret that the best time to take photographs is sunrise and sunset, but to me, sunrise is the most beautiful time of day. I once woke at 2am to hike up a mountain to photograph the sunrise over a volcano. Not only did I have the place all to myself, I was also able to witness the shape of the volcano slowly emerge from beneath a thick shroud of mist – a truly magical sight. Make sure you know what the actual sunrise time is and plan to be there at least half an hour earlier so you can scout the area and pick the best vantage point.
2. USE APERTURE PRIORITY
Aperture priority is the responsible mode for creating those coveted blurry backgrounds. In ‘A’ mode (or ‘Av’, depending on your camera manufacturer), you decide the ISO and aperture yourself and the camera will select the shutter speed required to achieve correct exposure. A lower number (or “f/stop”, eg. f/2.7) means that the depth of field will be shorter and you’ll get those blurry backgrounds you’re after. This is an extremely powerful tool to compose a harmonious photograph and easily blur out unwanted or distracting things in the background – especially effective for portraits.
3. DON’T WAIT FOR THE RIGHT SHOT
I went to a Buddhist temple in Cambodia once to photograph the architecture, but this group of young local girls kept dancing around me and were very much in the way! That is, until I decided to make them the main subject of my photo. Have an open mind. Consider what’s already in place.
4. DITCH THE FLASH
Natural light is your best friend! The pop up flash of your DSLR will never yield good results, like, never. Learn how to change the ISO and open up the aperture of you camera quickly so you can adapt to different lighting situations.
5. USE PANNING
Busy city scenes provide lots of interesting subjects, and panning can be an interesting technique to capture those moments while giving your photos a dynamic feeling, where your subject is sharp and all the surrounding is blurred by the motion. The idea of panning is to move your camera while taking the photograph at the same speed as the subject going past you. For that, you need a relatively slow shutter speed – 1/30th of a second should be a good starting point (use shutter priority mode). Make sure your ISO remains low to avoid overexposure, and set your camera to burst (or continuous shooting) mode so that you have several opportunities to capture your subject in passing. Follow your subject while shooting with a steady motion. Panning is part technique, part luck, so keep experimenting!
6. NO TRIPOD? NO PROBLEM
Once you start discovering the full potential of you DSLR camera, you’ll probably want a tripod to be able to shoot nightlife and dimly lit scenes at slow shutter speed. However, tripods can be bulky and not especially practical while travelling – I personally seldom travel with one. All you need is to be a little crafty – everything lends itself to be a tripod: a chair, a rock, your bike, a car (just make sure it won’t drive off with your camera!) I simply wedge the strap under the lens until the camera looks levelled, and there’s my tripod! Don’t forget to use the self-timer to avoid camera shake.
7. BE PATIENT
Sometimes it’s worth waiting. If you know how to adjust your camera’s exposure for a backlit scene, waiting for the sun to be right behind your subject can create stunning photos. Sun flare can add a magical touch to the right subject.
8. FREEZE THE ACTION
Using your camera’s shutter priority mode to freeze your subject in motion is a fun tool that can generate surprising photos that your eye wouldn’t have otherwise perceived. High speed moving subjects call for your camera’s fastest shutter speed, but bear in mind that you will have to increase the ISO slightly for correct exposure because little light will enter the camera with fast shutter action.
9. SHOOT FROM THE HIP
This is a very controversial technique that allows you to “sneak up” on your subject without getting noticed or without asking for permission, but it’s one that could let you be more daring in your shooting, especially at close quarters. The idea is to have your camera pre-focused at a certain distance (or make sure your lens focuses fast), a small aperture that allows a greater depth of field and a greater margin for error (f/16 and up) and a fast shutter speed to avoid blur (you will obviously need a higher ISO). Then, all you have to do is walk around holding your camera at your hip and shoot interesting subjects as you walk past them at your established focal distance. Sneaky? Quite. This is a very experimental technique that will need a lot of practice and luck to get good framing. Remember that asking for permission before photographing strangers is preferable, if not mandatory. It’s easy to appear rude.
10. THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX
Sometimes, it’s the little things that evoke memories of a place the most. Think further than posed photos and selfies. A telephoto lens can be a nice addition to your gear for this, otherwise you’ll have to walk up to small things you wish to photograph: the inscriptions on a temple wall, that wonderful dish you ate while on a cruise ship, the traffic sign in a foreign language. These types of shots can take a little practice when you are used to looking at “the big picture”, but you’ll be amazed how many interesting things you’ll find to photograph. And once you’re in this frame of mind, you may never see the world the same again!