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19 Tips for Better Travel Photos


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It wasn't that long ago that many travel photos were taken, developed and then dumped into boxes, rarely to be seen again -- unless a basement flood forced someone to throw them all away. These days, things aren't so different except that now the photos get dumped onto external hard drives, perhaps to await a hard drive crash instead of the proverbial basement flood.

But in most collections of vacation and travel photos, a precious few of the very best shots are often spared this fate -- those photos that are somehow more enduring or more interesting, or (I think most importantly) that best capture the spirit and sensation of the trip. What is it that keeps these photos from the dustbin of our traveling history? Often they are simply better photographs. That is, the "keeper" photo isn't of a favorite person, place or activity -- it is better composed, better lit and thus simply more visually interesting than the run-of-the-mill vacation snapshot.

There are plenty of resources out there for folks with thousands of dollars of photographic equipment, but what about the rest of us -- those of us with a point-and-shoot digital camera or even simply a smartphone? What can we do to get better, more lasting images from our travels? Following is a collection of low- and no-tech tips to help you improve your keeper count on your next trip.

Think "people, places, things."
This old definition of the use of a noun is a handy guide to a great vacation photo: the best travel photos will often be about all three of these. To illustrate, let's say you want to take a photo of the Tower of London, and it's a rainy day in England. If you pull up your photo and snap the Tower in the gray light, you could get a decent photo. But if you put your kids in the photo (your favorite people) with the Tower glimpsed over their shoulders (the place of interest), visible just under the rim of an umbrella (a very specific thing that evokes the conditions), you have a great shot.

africa boyGet closer.
As Robert Capa famously said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Taken literally, the closer you get to your subject, the more detail and interest you can capture.

There are a couple of ways to do this, both equally valid and effective. One is to use the telephoto features found on most cameras to zoom in on your subject. Before anyone cries cop-out, this can be a very effective photographic technique, and has resulted in countless compelling images in this age of big lenses.

The other is simply to walk closer to your subject. Not everyone is comfortable doing this, but the person viewing the photo will appreciate it; despite how close a zoom lens makes things appear, when viewing a photo the human eye can still sense the distance, and appreciates when an image has truly been taken up close.

Be in the thick of it.
A less literal read of Capa's statement, and probably the one closer to his intent, suggests that Capa likes photos in which the photographer himself or herself seems to be part of what is going on, and not standing apart from the action. Capa's solution to get more intimate, engaged photos is simply to be more intimately involved in the photo yourself.

Think about the light, not the view.
The human eye is vastly more adaptable and clever than the lens of your camera, and what you see when you are standing in front of your intended subject may not be what your camera ultimately reproduces. When staring directly into the sun, you may be able to make out colors and people, but your camera is going to reproduce mostly shadows. Or when shooting into shadows, you may be able to see features, but your camera will reproduce a lot of dark stuff. In these cases, it helps to ...

Know where the sun is.
The easiest way to flatter your subject is to put it in the best light. If you want your subjects' faces to shine, turn them so the sun is shining on their faces. If you want your photo of your cruise ship to look like the brochures, take the photo on the sunny side of the ship. Alternately, if you want to catch the glistening of light on the ocean, take the photo when the sun is low enough to bounce off the waves.

Consider the time of day.
This is a fairly simple story -- there's no time like sunrise or sunset to take compelling, interesting and even stunning travel photos. Sunrise in particular can produce very striking images, in part because most people are not awake at the crack of dawn, and so can still be surprised by a sunrise photo.

Turn the camera on its side.
In some situations, turning the camera on its side to take a vertical shot is just not good composition, it is almost essential -- when taking a photo of the Space Needle, for example. But taking vertical shots also has an added benefit: it will enhance the interest of your overall photo collection considerably, adding geometrical variety as folks flip through your vacation album.

Fill the frame.
When giving instructions to new photographer hires, I always tell them that the interesting parts of the scene should start at the left edge of the viewfinder and end at the right edge. That is, the subject should absolutely fill the frame such that the edges of the photo will include as little superfluous imagery and information as possible.

I find this tactic offers a couple of distinct advantages. First, the intended subject of your photo is absolutely clear to anyone who sees the photo. And second, the photo becomes a thing apart from how we usually see the world, which is more or less in 180-degree panorama thanks to our peripheral vision. A photograph can isolate and amplify our experience, which turns out to be one of the attractions of travel itself, as well.

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