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Ten Tips for Better Travel Photos

Good photos are an important part of any leisure trip. They remind you of the places you’ve seen, the people who traveled with you and the exceptional experiences that made the trip a good one. Unfortunately, most travelers’ pictures look about the same and they get polite but ho-hum comments from the friends who view them. You can improve the quality and memorability of your trips by following a few simple tips. These apply whether you have a film camera or a new digital model.

  1. Move closer to your subject(s). If you are typical, many of your vacation photos show you and your spouse or travel partner, and perhaps your kids or friends, standing in front of a major landmark. The setting might show up well in print photos but the people often are visually too small to be easily identified.

    This happens because, when you take the picture, your eyes see the setting in full size but your prints most likely will be only 4 x 6 — a reduction that makes faces very small. So, move closer to your main subject, especially if you include people, to capture their features.

    Note also that your camera probably takes a picture that includes more background than what you see in your view finder or screen. Camera manufacturers do this to compensate for the possible error of inadvertently cutting off something important at the edge of the frame.

    Usually you should also get closer when photographing scenery or historic buildings. Your shots will be more dramatic if they have the detail you get up close. You can also accomplish this by using your zoom lens.

  2. Compose photos following the rule of thirds. This is something that most good photographers do to the degree possible. Rather than placing your subject in the middle of the photo, it should be off-center a bit. For example, on scenic shots, don’t split the picture evenly with half of the photo as ocean and the remaining portion as sky and clouds. Rather, reduce the sky/clouds to the upper third of the photo (or two-thirds, if that scenery is more interesting), with the ocean and beach taking up the remaining two-thirds (or one-third).

    For land-based scenery, the same rule applies. Usually two-thirds of the picture should be majestic mountains (or whatever) and the remaining third is the sky. You’ll have more interesting shots as a result, ones that you may sometimes want to print in an 8×10 or 11×14 size to show to friends.

    This rule also applies when you include people in your pictures. Rather than putting their heads in the middle of the frame, try composing the photo to place them in the top third of the picture. And, if you have three or more people in a shot, think of organizing the photo as a triangle — the tallest person in the middle and shorter ones to the side, even if someone must sit down to get that kind of composition.

  3. Look for interesting backdrops for pictures with people. A large knurled tree trunk can serve as a great setting for people shots. The grey trunk highlights faces, and the canopy of branches and leaves provides filtered sunlight that gets rid of shadows and protects eyes from heavy sunlight that causes squinting. You can add a sense of composition by having your subjects lean against the tree, or placing a child in a notch in the tree’s trunk, or having your loved one stand behind the tree and look out while you move in for a close-up shot.

    Boats also provide great opportunities for creating interesting settings, whether a small skiff or a yacht. Use an anchor, or a railing, the captain’s deck or other common parts of boats as a backdrop. Historic sites offer possibilities, especially sections of buildings that show the ravages of time.

    If you are in a botanical garden, you have many options with bushes that will provide a green backdrop or flowers that can add bright spots of color. But be sure there are no dead flowers or limbs of bushes that would detract from the picture.

  4. Always look carefully for unwanted distractions. These can spoil an otherwise great photo. Not everyone is smiling at the same time (especially babies and young children), there’s a garbage can in a photo of fall colors in Vermont, strangers are about to walk between your subject and you, or there’s a cheap-looking “50% Off Sale” sign in a store window in a quaint town or historic village.

    Practice will help make you more conscious of these inappropriate scene stealers that can ruin your great pictures.

  5. Take more than one shot of anything important. Most people already know this, but you really should take extra shots of things you want to remember. In photographing friends or relatives, someone might blink at the wrong time, or forget to smile, or look away. For scenery and historic settings, you’ll also want to add an extra shot (see “bracketing” below).

    Digital cameras give you more flexibility for taking multiple shots, knowing you can delete the excess and weaker photos later.

  6. Use your flash even when outdoors. Photographing people outdoors presents special problems. Strong sunlight causes people to squint or results in heavy shadows on eyes. Hats darken faces even more.

    Control this by turning your flash on to manual operation. Using the flash will soften eye or hat shadows so that all features are more distinguishable, while leaving enough shadow to make the picture look natural.

    Consider using a manual flash as well for some scenic shots if the foreground is too dark to provide good detail. Also, use the flash outdoors to counteract backlighting—the situation where there is more light behind your subject than in front. That lighting imbalance too often fools the camera into determining settings based on the background rather than on the person or object you really want to photograph. As a result, the foreground is too dark to produce a decent photo. Alternatively, move your subject to avoid the backlighting, or shoot the immobile object from a different angle.

  7. Soften your indoor flash. Photos taken indoors or at night using a flash present special problems. Most dedicated flashes (built into the camera) don’t have the power to handle many tasks and lack flexibility (flash won’t swivel or detach from the camera body). A rather typical result is overexposure of subjects standing near the camera, with everything else in shadows or near darkness.

    Ask your camera store if it has a diffuser that will fit over your dedicated flash (not very common). If not, you may want to consider buying a separate flash unit. It will have more power, can be set on automatic settings to coordinate exposure with your camera and can attach to the side of your camera to get rid of red-eye (produced by light bouncing from the retina back to the film from straight-on shots).

    A separate unit can also be detached from the camera body and set off with a short extension cord or by a wireless option. To soften the light from a flash while lighting the room more evenly, try some shots with an accessory flash pointed off to the side to bounce the light off a wall. You may have to try several shots to get it right, but you can probably improve some of your pictures.

    A quick warning note. Older cameras may shoot only when the shutter is set for 1/60th of a second. Thus, you need to hold the camera steady in order not to get blur or movement in your pictures. Newer and more expensive cameras tend to use 1/125th, which will control movement in most situations.

  8. Get your best shots early and late in the day. National Geographic photographers have long followed a rule that other pros have adopted: shoot when others don’t shoot.

    Most of us assume we need good sunlight to get the best pictures. National Geo pros, however, take striking photos in the softer light of early morning and late afternoon. Colors are warmer and more vivid, detail is clearer because shadows don’t hide important features, skies have more dramatic blues and reds, and people can smile naturally without squinting. You’ll be surprised at how striking some of your photos will be.

  9. Bracket important shots. Most often, when shooting, you will probably use your camera’s auto exposure feature. But if you want to make certain you capture all the beauty of a dramatic sunset or other memorable setting, turn the camera to manual mode and bracket one-stop above and below what the auto setting captured. This slight over and under exposure will give you pictures with a little more light and a little less. You’re likely to be surprised by a sunset that includes deeper reads, or more foreground detail, or more balance among all colors.

    Bracketing involves opening or reducing the lens exposure by one full stop, or increasing or reducing shutter speed, also by a stop. For lens adjustment, the ring on your lens will allow you to adjust the opening up or down. The common lens markings are 4 (better lenses can go as low as 2.8 or 1.4), 5.6, 8, 11 and 16. To decrease exposure by a full stop, move the dial to the next highest number. To increase exposure, move it to the next lowest number. Lowering the number on the exposure ring, however, can reduce picture clarity if the lens is wide open. Reducing the exposure time for the photo can cause blur if you get below 1/60th of a second.

    Exposure times are measured in fractions of seconds, such as 1/15 (better cameras will expose up to 4 seconds or even for an indefinite period of time), 1/30, 1/60 (exposure time for flash units on older cameras), 1/125 (flash exposure on newer cameras), 1/250, and even 1/500. Moving the exposure dial to a lower number increases exposure by a full stop (equivalent to moving the lens one stop); moving it higher decreases exposure by a stop.

    It’s really pretty simple. Try it and, if you have a digital camera, it’s easy to delete pictures you don’t like.

  10. Frame your pictures. You can add depth to a photo and make it more alive, especially scenic photos, by including objects in the foreground that help frame the primary subject of interest. A small section of a tree branch close to where you are standing that appears on one side of your viewer can make a picture more interesting and three-dimensional.

    Or shooting a harbor scene from a hill through the arch of an ancient Roman building adds interest and gives a sense of its historic setting. Also, if you are near water, many photos are enhanced if you are able to position yourself to photograph the buildings or scenes of interest and pick up their reflections in the water. Possibilities are only limited by your creative imagination.

    Finally, don’t forget your option to turn the camera sideways for vertical photos. It is a simple step that many tourists overlook.

    When you think about it, these suggestions are rather simple and based on common sense. Try them before you take your trip so that you are more likely to remember them at the right moments.