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I am by no means a professional photographer. In fact, considering the number of close friends that I have who are semi-professional photographers, who would be very generous not only with their time and advice if I wanted to learn more, but also their gear if I wanted to practise with different lenses and filters without having to go out there and buy my own – well, I would actually consider myself a lazy photographer for not making full use of all those perks that would be readily available to me if I only had the inclination to ask.
Nevertheless, in looking at my photos from the last 10 years or so that I’ve been travelling the globe, I can definitely see an improvement. Of course, some of it has to do with the fact that I have a much better camera now. But I also think that I’ve learned a few things about the composition of my photos over the years. Some things were drummed into me by my many friends who are much better photographers than myself. Other things were picked up by just going out there and taking lots of photos, then coming back and analysing them, working out what works best to create a picture that is not only pleasing to the eye, but also tells a story. And at the end of the day, those are the photos that I find myself looking at over and over again when I’m back home reminiscing about the places I’ve been. Those are the ones that would be worthy of being blown up and hung on a wall.
Here are some of the basic principles I generally adhere to when I’m taking travel photos. And I really do mean basic. So no scoffing from the pros please.
1. Zoom in on the details
Sometimes, just one part of a building or structure is more than the sum of its parts. Take this statue of St Paul outside the St Sulpice Church in Paris.
I would argue that the zoomed in picture tells more of a story. By focussing on his foot, I am highlighting the devotion of the person who placed the roses by it and said a prayer while laying hands on the sculpted foot.
Then there are those times when a structure is so iconic you just don’t need to photograph the entire edifice. There’s nothing wrong with this photo.
2. But don’t forget to take an overview photo as well to set the scene.
As I mentioned this past week in my post on gardens, I have been known to get so caught up in the details that I’ve forgotten to simply take a step back and enjoy the big picture. I have loads of great tulip photos like this from my time at the Keukenhof Garden in Holland.
But these photos could have been taken anywhere. How I wish I had remembered to also take a few zoomed out photos like this one taken from the Keukenhof website’s Flickr account.
3. Natural colours are best
A few years ago, I was mad about that vintage look and shot virtually all my photos in lomography style. Now I look back at those pictures and realise it was just a fad. There’s nothing wrong with playing with a few special effects now and then, but natural colours stand the test of time, I think. Here is a lomo photo of Butchart Garden, followed by a natural one. Which do you prefer?
4. Straight lines are good too
I have already alluded to my other crazy photography obsession, crooked photos. Now, I’m not discounting crooked photos entirely. I think there’s a time and a place for them if done sparingly. For instance, this one taken in Quebec City is one of my favourites.
However, after making a few photobook albums now, I realise that the artistic impact of the crooked photo is diminished if they’re all like that. Then it just looks like sheer laziness for not wanting to line your camera screen up nicely against the horizon or the lines of the building you’re photographing. Which in all honesty was probably the real reason I was taking so many crooked photos. These days, I think the 2nd photo below is better than the first.
5. Take the time to position yourself in a way so as to crop out people or unsightly objects
It’s unbelievable how many people don’t bother cropping out unwanted persons or objects in photos. Just take a look at this photo someone took of me in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Cropping out the man to my right would have been a really simple matter of just stepping a little to the left and angling the camera a little to the right.
Similarly, I loved this little courtyard in Basel, Switzerland, but not so much the cars parked inside.
6. And sometimes, you need time to just wait for that perfect shot
I mentioned how I once waited for about half an hour in one spot to get the perfect vehicle-less, people-free, non-glare (from the sun, which was poking in and out of the cloud cover above) photo at a crooked little laneway in Montmartre. Would it surprise you to learn that this is a not too uncommon occurrence for me? This is definitely one of the perks of independent solo travelling, being able to take your time to compose the perfect shot. Take this series of photos taken at the cloisters of the Basel Munster. The first one had the shadows I wanted but also other tourists in the shot, the second one was devoid of people but also the shadows as the sun momentarily hid behind a cloud, and it was only in waiting awhile that I finally captured the image I had desired.
Similarly, here’s an OK photo at the Barfusserplatz in Basel.
7. Forget flash
I know we would all like to avoid blurry photos taken in low level light, like this abomination of a picture snapped by me (eep!) at the bone church in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic.
But trust me, flash is not the way to do it. In fact, I so dislike the artificial colours of flash photos that I don’t have an example to show you how horrible I think they are. If you hold your camera steady with both hands, you can take a shot without worrying about camera shake if you control the shutter speed to remain at around 1/50 or 1/40s. If you can find a flat surface to rest your camera, you can get away with shutter speeds as low as 1/15 or 1/10s. Just remember to turn on your timer function so as to minimise shake from pressing the shutter. Or invest in a shutter release cable. Another option is to increase your ISO. Just remember that if your ISO is too high, you may end up with grainy photos. Bearing all these things in mind, I can now take reasonable night shots like this one taken at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore without having to compromise on my “no flash” rule.
8. Unposed photos tell more of a story
It’s nice to stand in front of a famous monument and get your photo taken as proof that you were there. But many of my favourite photos show my friends doing or looking at something, like this one taken outside the Empress Hotel in Victoria, Canada, instead of that usual boring portrait pose.
9. While you’re at it, take some unposed photos of random people around you too
The thing about tourist destinations is that they’re full of tourists. Sometimes, there’s just nowhere to position yourself and no way to wait all day just so you can snap a photo devoid of people. In these instances, look out for the person or persons that can help tell your story, like this cellist at the steps of the Sacre Coeur in Paris.
Or this couple outside the St Maclou Church in Rouen.
I quite like the contrast between this businessman and the gypsy woman outside the St Paul Church in Paris.
In a less crowded and noisy place, you may want to turn the sounds off on your camera, like when I sneaked this picture of a peaceful and reflective moment at the Church of the Anunciation in Nazareth, Israel.
10. Look out for reflections
Ever noticed how a photo of a still lake with a crystal clear reflection always seems to elicit lots of positive reactions? Well, you can also find reflections in rain puddles, mirrors (great for taking self portraits) and just about any shiny metal surface if you could just be bothered to look. See this stained glass window at the St Germain de Pres church in Paris?
11. And also movement
Capturing movement in a photo is also a great way to tell a story, in my opinion. You may be one of those people who likes to jump in front of a famous landmark. Good for you. Know that, as someone who can neither jump high nor gracefully, I am insanely jealous! I’ve tried those jumping shots before. A whole lot of hassle, at least a dozen takes, and nothing good to show for the effort.
Instead, I try to capture movement as I see it before me. This requires having your camera poised at the ready, but the end result is one of immense satisfaction. Like this photo of what I would consider to be quintessential Amsterdam – a cyclist.
What about a waterfall? This requires a bit more setup, as there usually isn’t a ledge in national parks on which to set your camera. So you’ll probably need to carry a tripod and possibly a dark filter with you to compensate for the slow shutter speed required and the consequent overabundance of light entering your camera.
You can even create movement where there is none. Here I am in the St Germain de Pres church again, playing around with candle light and stained glass window effects derived from zooming in or out while taking a long exposure shot.
12. Remember the 2/3:1/3 rule
There is a natural tendency to want to place your subject or the horizon smack bang in the middle of the photo. But did you know that dividing your photo into thirds actually gives a result that is more pleasing to the eye? Take this photo of sculptures on a post in Zurich. The zoomed in photo is not very interesting at all.
Here’s another example with the man who got stuck in a wall in Montmartre as an example. I wasn’t that pleased with a front on shot.
So tried again from the side.
Somehow this shot with roughly 2/3 white space is better than the previous one with roughly 1/2 white space, don’t you think?
Which brings me to this – above all, remember to practise practise practise! There is simply no excuse in this day and age of digital photography where you can take 100s of photos without having to worry about the cost of buying numerous rolls of film and getting them developed. You can even check your photo instantly to see if you’re happy with the result, and if not, just re-frame your shot or change a few settings and try again until you get it right!
What are some of your tips for travel photography? Do let me know as I’m still learning too!
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