Shoot like a pro (even if you aren’t one!)

There’s one thing tourists, travellers and nomads have in common – photography. From compact point-and-shoot palm-sized cameras to complex DSLRs that look like they can do everything including doubling up as a jetpack if you’ve missed a flight.

But irrespective of what kind of camera you travel with, there are a few tips to getting better pictures without having to go to photography school for a few years.

I’m pretty far from even coming close to being a pro. But there are a few tips I’ve picked up that have helped a self-taught amateur like me and hopefully, these tips will help you get better as well. I’ve divided these tips into sections (trying to keep them as un-technical as possible!):

  • Framing
  • Light
  • Shooting modes
  • Re-touching

1. Framing

Framing is probably the single most important thing to get right so I’m going to elaborate a little on this. When there’s something interesting you want to shoot, don’t feel compelled to zoom as close as you can get and put your subject bang in the middle of your picture. Try to put it in the context of the environment you find it in. Is that just a frame-filling picture of the Arc de Triomphe or have you got a some of the actual environment around it? The trees, cars zipping around it, the road encompassing it…all of this gives the viewer an impression that he’s actually there. It might also help to frame your subject to one side of your frame. There’s a simple, but valuable, method of framing called the Rule of Thirds.

rule of thirds

The Rule of Thirds

It’s a simple guideline that divides the frame into 9 equal parts using 2 equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. According to the guideline, your subject should be placed at the points where your lines intersect. The Rule of Thirds is not a must for every picture you take. For instance, you might want a certain symmetry in the picture that requires you to put the subject in the middle (like a picture of the Eiffel Tower taken from Parc du Champ de Mars). But the Rule of Thirds is a great tool to use for most pictures.

Another thing to try is to look for alternate ways to frame a popular subject. There are a million similar pictures of the Eiffel Tower on the Internet. Why would the viewer be interested in seeing another? Look at ways that are surprisingly unfamiliar. Look up from below the Eiffel, try and zoom into a particular section rather than zooming out to get it all.

Eiffel Tower

a. If you have a subject that’s walking, ensure you adjust your frame in such a way that there’s extra space in the direction they’re moving. It also helps to put more space in the direction a subject is facing.
b. If you have a wide angle lens, try getting up-close and go really wide. It makes for an interesting distortion of perspective.
c. Try including a human element (preferably local or else you’re going to find another camera-totting traveller in your picture!).
d. Try combining your central element with something else. Something unexpected in the foreground against a familiar background often adds so much more to the picture.
e. Shoot your subject along with the current environment. This is especially great when it comes to shooting portraits.
f. Try and find an unusual viewpoint. Can you get a top view from a building rooftop? Try shooting shooting people from closer to the ground on your knees instead of always shooting them at eye level.
g. Look for natural frames. Like a break in a section of rock through which you frame your central subject. Or a window through which you shoot your subject.

2. Light

In addition to framing, light plays a big role in how good your pictures look. As traveller, we often shoot out in the open and the time of day is vital to the way your pictures turn out. Early mornings and late afternoons are good when it comes to light. Light in the middle of the day is harsh and pretty much beats straight down on things you want to shoot, making them pretty ugly. So ensure you try and get out early (also helps you beat the crowds!) or shoot late in the afternoon if you can manage it.

Waiting for these Golden hours may not always be possible. It also may not be possible to always expect great weather. So whip out your camera and make the best of what you can. Sometimes rain and clouds offer fantastic shooting possibilities that bright sunny weather won’t offer. For example, overcast skies are great to shoot people and portraits, eliminating harsh shadows on faces.

If it is bright, remember the light needs to be behind you unless you want to shoot some dramatic stuff like silhouettes or have your subject backlit. If your stuck with bright sunny blue skies, try and frame (and cut out) the bright sky with something in the foreground. It could be a cafe shade or tree branch on the top of your frame that sandwiches the sky and the subject.

a. Avoid the harsh afternoon sun. Try and shoot early in the morning or late afternoon.
b. Use natural weather conditions like rain and overcast skies to your advantage, shooting things that look great in that light and avoiding things like landscapes.
c. It’s preferable to keep the sun behind you while shooting, Having the subject and direct sunlight facing you might make the subject appear dark.
d. Play with light. Get in front of it and experiment with backlighting.
e. If bright skies are a problem, try and play with your framing to use something in the foreground to cut away part of it.

3. Shooting modes

I’ve seen a lot of people use the Auto mode on fine DSLRs and shoot on nothing else. I’m not going to discourage you by saying you’re doing everything wrong (cameras come with Auto mode for reasons) but there’s so much more to shooting on other modes, especially Manual.

Most DSLRs come with Aperture Priority (where you decide the aperture size and the camera takes care of the rest) and Shutter Priority (where you decide the shutter speed and the camera takes care of the rest). These are the primary ways to control the amount of light entering your camera.

Seen one of those pictures where everything behind the subject is beautifully blurred out? You can do that too with the Aperture mode. For a blurred out background, you need a larger aperture (say an f/3.5 or f/4.5 on a standard zoom lens). For a picture where everything is super sharp, you need a smaller aperture (say an f/16). Sounds complicated? It isn’t really. Here’s an easy way to remember it: Small aperture number=less details, large aperture number=more details. I might get flogged for this stupid formula but it really is a simple way for amateurs to remember this! So switch your dial to this more and get practising. Do remember, that there are a lot of other factors that influence pictures like this. The distance between your subject and the background, the focal length you’re shooting at (50mm or 150mm or 300mm), for instance. So keep experimenting and you’ll see it’s not as complicated as it sounds.

Shutter priority mode is simple. It controls your shutter speed, which is primarily the amount of time your shutter remains open. Shutter speed is measured in seconds, so 1/60 refers to 1/60th of a second. If there’s a bull run on the street and you want to freeze the action of an idiot being tossed in the air, you choose a quicker (faster) shutter speed. Want to blur out the water flowing down a stream or get a pictures of a trail of headlights at night, you choose a slower shutter speed. Remember, for slow shutter speeds, you will need a tripod or some way to stabilize your camera (before I got my camera, I would find somewhere to rest my camera, like a wall, and turn the timer on to prevent shake when I press the shutter release button).

Freezing action © Konaboy (http://www.flickr.com/photos/konaboy/71558293/in/photostream/)

Slow shutter © Jules Fletcher Le Masson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/julesandmm/6893593517/)

Another mode to try is Manual. Yes, I know Manual is daunting and seems like somethings only pros use. But once you begin experimenting and understanding how shutter speed and aperture work, you’ll work in Manual mode and nothing else. Of course, Manual mode requires you to set everything, including using your lens focus ring to focus on your subject. It takes longer than shooting in other modes but it gives you complete freedom over what your picture will look like.

a. Aperture mode gives you control over the aperture and Shutter mode lets you control your shutter speed.
b. The smaller the aperture number, the larger the aperture opening.
c. Smaller apertures make everything go sharp in your picture. Larger apertures keep your subject in focus and blur most of everything behind and in the foreground out. Of course, lots of other factors determine this as well.
d. Shutter speed is measured in seconds.
e. Slow shutter speeds blur the action and you need to prevent camera shake. Fast shutter speeds freeze the action.
f. Manual isn’t just for the pros, so start experimenting!

4. Re-touching your images

Let’s face it, most of us are amateurs and don’t often get the best results even after we’ve controlled light as well as we could. That’s why re-touching is so important. Re-touching, again, isn’t something that’s just for the pros. There are little adjustments you can make (Brightness/Contrast, Saturation, B/W, etc) that can greatly improve your image. Of course, there’s a whole lot more you can do and it does require you to devote some time and attention to learn it but it’s not as difficult as you think. There are various retouching packages available. From Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom that a lot of pros use to free packages like the versatile GIMP (available for both Mac and Windows users).

Word of caution: You’re going to be tempted to over re-touch your images and throw a bunch of effects and filters. Don’t. You want your images to look real and beautiful and not fake. Re-touch, don’t recreate!

a. Make copies of your original jpegs (if you’re not shooting RAW images) and re-touch the copies you’ve made, keeping the original intact.
b. Read up a little on re-touching techniques (maybe I’ll write a post later on that!) before you dive right in.
c. Experiment. Understand what each function does.
d. Don’t go crazy with effects and filters. They can sometimes make a beautiful picture of the Acropolis seem like an alien spacecraft.

Honestly, there’s a lot more to shooting great travel pictures than just the few things I’ve read about here. I’ve just skimmed the surface and listed a few things that I initially experimented with when I first forayed into photography. Also remember, none of these tips are rules to abide by to get great pictures…they’re just suggestions that you sometimes will also need to throw away while actually shooting. And if all of this sounds a little too heavy to read, let me point you to a something lighter that I recently loved reading over at Nomadic Samuel’s site on how to take the worst ever travel photos! I’m sure you’re going to laugh as heartily as I did!

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