How to shoot the perfect travel photograph
Today, professional photographer Laurence Norah of Finding the Universe, continues his five part series on taking better travel photos. Photographs are important for the memories they represent. You look at a picture and it conjures up thoughts, feelings, and smells that take you back to a long forgotten place so Laurence is here to help us take better pictures! Part two of the series is on how to get the perfect shot.
In my first post in this series, I talked about the key compositional rules that you can use to create better travel photos. If you’re new to this series, I recommend you start there.
Today I’ll be covering how to deal with challenging light and some introducing some advanced ideas for controlling your composition, including being selective with your focus and making objects seem closer together than they are.
Then I’m going to get into specific tips for common travel scenes to get you taking better photos faster.
I’ll begin, though, by talking about the most crucial element of photography — the light. Here’s a shot from where I grew up and first got into photography, the Seychelles Islands, taken at one of my favorite times of day for shooting — sunset!
When to shoot
The middle of a sunny day might seem perfect for photography. In truth, it’s the worst time to take pictures — the light is harsh, shadows are challenging, and your photos will not do your subjects justice.
The best times to shoot are closer to sunrise and sunset, when the light is soft and warm. These times are known as “the golden hour”.
Dealing with bad light
You can’t be everywhere at the right time for the perfect light, especially when traveling. Here’s how to get the best shot from a bad lighting situation.
Be aware of the sun. This is the most important tip of the lot. Ideally you want the sun behind you. If you can, position yourself so you are between the sun and your subject, as I did in this shot from my journey around New Zealand:
Be creative. That harsh light can be used to your advantage. Try shooting into the sun to create silhouettes, or use a high aperture to create a starburst effect, like in this Napa Valley balloon photo:
Use the weather. When the sun is behind clouds, the light is diffused. Clouds also add interest and scale to otherwise plain, boring skies, as in this shot of the Painted Desert in Australia:
Seek shade. If you’re taking pictures of people, find somewhere shady. Here the light will be more even, with fewer harsh shadows on faces, such as in this shot in the middle of the day in Sri Lanka:
Getting Creative with Depth of Field and Compression
Now I want to share with you two concepts that will let you shoot more creatively.
Depth of Field
Depth of field is all about controlling which parts of the shot are in focus. Check out this shot of a monkey:
As you can see, only the monkey is in focus. This is known as a “shallow” depth of field and is used to isolate subjects and make the shot about them.
A wide depth of field is for shooting landscapes and scenery. Here’s a shot from New Zealand where I used a wide depth of field to get much more of the scene in focus:
To manipulate depth of field on your camera you need to change the aperture — check your manual for how to do that. Typically it will be marked as “Av” or “A” on your mode dial.
Some smartphones allow you to manually set your aperture, either through the built-in camera app, or by downloading an advanced app from your device’s app store.
A wide-open aperture (f/4 and lower) produces a shallower depth of field (less of the shot will be in focus), and a smaller aperture (f/8 and higher) puts more of the scene in focus.
Tricking your viewer: Perspective and compression
You’ve probably used a camera with a zoom, letting you get closer to faraway objects.
A zoom lens can also be used to trick your viewer into thinking objects are closer to each other than they are. This is known as compression. Here’s an example, using a Coke bottle as the subject:
These three photos show the same Coke bottle in the same spot. The difference between the shots is where I stood, and how far I zoomed in. On the left hand shot I stood close to the Coke bottle and zoomed out, and then I moved further away and zoomed in.
By the far right image, it seems the Coke bottle is almost next to the houses in the background.
Compression can be used to bring your subject closer to the background, such as in the shot below of a friend against a huge setting sun. Zoom out, as with the leftmost Coke bottle above, and you can isolate your subject from a distracting background.
Shooting for different scenes
When traveling, we often find ourselves in similar locations. Here’s a guide to getting better shots in common travel scenes.
Street photography is about capturing moments — immersing yourself in environments and finding interesting stories.
Patience and politeness are key to successful street shots involving people — not everyone wants to have their photograph taken, and it may be illegal to do so without explicit permission.If no one wants their photo taken, try wider crowd shots, or focus in on market goods — colorful spice piles or unusual-looking goods are always interesting subjects. Alternatively, shoot the streets themselves. Doorways or intriguing architecture are a nice starting point — take this street in Bologna, Italy, for example:
As for the settings, use a wider depth of field (smaller aperture) for general street scenes.
If you’re looking for portraits, your best bet is to make friends with people. Learn about them and their stories, then ask for that permission.
I prefer taking pictures of people I know, as I generally don’t have to worry about permission problems.
My favorite style of people photos is “candid,” unposed shots. This is the best way, in my opinion, of capturing the personality of people.
The key to the art of unobtrusive photography is persistence, patience, and keeping your eyes open to the photographic possibilities around you. Anticipating the moments that might be about to happen is key.
I’d advise a shallow depth of field (wide aperture) and fast shutter speeds for portraits and action shots of people.
Beaches are one of my favorite spots to shoot sunsets — nothing quite beats the sun setting over the sea! The water and the wet sand make for great reflection opportunities.
Think carefully about your composition, and in particular the foreground and mid-ground of your shot, as I talked about in the composition post. Try different angles, and maybe get above your subject to present the beach in the context of its environment, like this shot of Hellfire Beach in Western Australia:
Outside of sunset, beaches can be very bright environments, so you may need to adjust your exposure to compensate. Most cameras and phones let you shift exposure left or right manually with a button that looks like +/-, or from inside the app.
If you are shooting friends and can’t find shade, consider setting your camera’s flash to “fill” setting to compensate. This uses the flash to light up the shadows caused by the sun, and can make portraits shot into the sun look more pleasing.
Finally, take care of your gear. Fine sand and salt water don’t agree with most camera equipment! Here are some more beach photography tips to get you started.
There are two things that helped my landscape photography improve: a tripod and a polarizing filter (if you’re interested in my photography equipment, here’s a full list of my travel photography gear).
Controlling depth of field is a key part of landscape photography. Unfortunately, as you increase the aperture the shutter speed becomes slower — to the point where your hand movement can result in a blurry image. This is why you need a tripod.
Read more about how shutter speed, ISO (light sensitivity setting), and aperture are linked in this article on the exposure triangle.
A polarizing filter is fantastic for making blue skies and clouds pop, and for controlling reflections. It also reduces the amount of light entering the camera, so that tripod is even more helpful.
If the above two sound like too much effort, don’t worry. You can improve your landscape photography no end by thinking seriously about your composition. Leading lines, the rule of thirds, and finding a sense of scale by putting subjects in your foreground or mid-ground are key.
So often we’re out with friends at night and want to capture those moments together, but we can’t seem to get anything other than a blurry mess.
This is because most cameras aren’t great when working with the amount of light that’s available at night —they use slow shutter speeds that turn movement into blurs.
More expensive equipment can make a real difference for low-light photography. All is not lost if your pockets aren’t deep enough, though. First, you can increase the ISO setting on your camera. While this will reduce the quality of your shots, they will look better than blurry photos.
Another idea is to find something to rest your camera on. If you don’t have a tripod, try and find an alternative — anything that is stationary and not prone to shake like your hand does. Then, use your camera’s timer function to take the shot. If you’re taking pictures of people, get them to stand as still as possible!
For better action photos, you have two options. One is to use a fast shutter speed to “freeze” the action — such as a shot of a hummingbird in flight, or a surfer on a wave.
The other option is show the motion by using a longer shutter speed — the resulting blur will convey a sense of action to your viewer.
In this shot of a train, I manually set the shutter speed to 1/30th of a second, slow enough that the trees at the edge of the shot would seem to be rushing past as I leaned out of the window, yet fast enough that the train itself would remain sharp, even handheld. I think this worked pretty well!
Waterfalls are a fantastic photography subject. My favorite way to shoot them is with a slow shutter speed, creating a soft and fluffy effect. Shutter speeds of 1/15th of a second and slower give the best results — you’ll need to use a tripod or rest your camera on something to avoid blur from your hand movement.
Another good way to shoot waterfalls is from far away using a long lens, using compression to create a sense of drama around your subject. Or, go the other way, and shoot super-wide, taking in the full glory of the scene.
Finally, don’t forget to use the light. All that flowing water can cause beautiful rainbows, as seen in this shot of Vernal Falls in Yosemite:
I believe that taking better photos is a combination of three factors — being in the right place at the right time, knowing how your gear works, and knowing how to compose a great shot. Shutter speed and aperture are two key settings in the photographer’s toolbox, and you need to learn how to access and control those modes on your camera. When you do, you will have much greater creative control over your photography.