The prospect of improving your travel photography can seem daunting if you don’t already have a good technical grasp of how your camera works, but the biggest improvements you can make really have nothing to do with the camera or its settings. I’ve put together a list of 25 non-technical tips which you can use on your next holiday or even where you live to immediately improve your travel photos and most of these tips apply equally to any camera, whether you’re using a £3,000 DSLR, a 5 megapixel point & shoot or even an iPhone.
You can’t take a photo if you don’t have a camera! You never know when a photo opportunity will come up so make sure you always have some kind of camera with you, even if you’re only going downstairs to have breakfast in your hotel. Some of my favourite photos have been taken with a lowly point & shoot, simply because I had it with me. Take a look at my article on making this all as effortless as possible.
This is one of the easiest things to look out for when composing a photo. A tilted horizon just makes photos look weird as far as I’m concerned. Try to get the horizon horizontal, like it’s supposed to be. I know that tilting can be a creative choice at times and that is fine, so long as it’s done on purpose rather than as a result of carelessness.
It’s easy to just keep on snapping away without any thought, only to go home and find that your pictures are out of focus, too dark, too light or just generally not great. By spending a little time thinking about the photo you are taking, you can make a snapshot into a great photo.
While this might sound similar to the last point, it’s not. Street photographers are masters of patience: they find a spot that looks good, compose the photo then wait for someone suitable to walk into the frame before pressing the button. With that same methodology, I waited for about 5 minutes for this boat to move exactly to where I wanted it:
It might sound stupid, but every successful photograph has a subject. Who or what are you taking a photo of? Are you portraying it in the right way? Think carefully about why you’re taking the photo before you take it. This goes hand in hand with tip number 3, above.
While this might sound technical, it’s not. Just place your subject somewhere other than right in the center of the image. Of course there are many exceptions to this rule but as a general guideline it is one that works very well for most photos.
Another one that sounds technical but really isn’t. Exposure compensation is usually still available in auto mode and lets you make the image brighter or darker. If you take a photo, then look at it on the back of your camera and decide it’s too dark, you can almost always use exposure compensation to make it brighter. Likewise if it’s too light, you can make it darker. The only exception to this is really with iPhones (and maybe other phone cameras – I don’t know) which don’t have the exposure compensation feature.
I have seen so many people with all kinds of cameras shooting with the flash on when it doesn’t do anything. In fact, built-in flash is usually detrimental to most photos. There are a couple of situations in particular where built-in flash does absolutely nothing but harm the image:
In case you are wondering, the little flash does actually have a purpose. Believe it or not, it’s best suited for use in broad daylight as a fill light (meaning ‘to fill in the shadows’). Have you ever taken a photo of someone only to find that the backdrop looks lovely but you can’t see their face because it’s too dark? That’s when you need the flash!
There are so many interesting looking people all over the world. Sometimes I can’t help but want to take their photo, and sometimes the best option is to just take it without them knowing. But most of the time you’ll get a much better result if you just ask their permission beforehand.
While we’re on the subject of portraits, whether you are taking a photo of someone you’ve never met or your significant other, always try and orient them so that some light is falling into their eyes. It will usually make for a much more engaging image.
This is another easy one. When you take a photo of someone be aware of what’s going on around their head. You wouldn’t want a palm tree growing out of your head, would you?
If you stand in one spot, you’ll only get one perspective. Try walking around your subject, looking at it from different angles. You may notice something about it that you couldn’t see before. People who have a camera with a zoom lens often think that zooming is an alternative to walking; it’s not.
Even if you don’t (or can’t) move yourself, you can always move the camera. Even the slightest move up or down can completely change the perspective of what you’re trying to capture. More often than not, by moving the camera a little further down (i.e. not at chest or face height) you will engage with your subject more: when I saw these old geezers playing cards in Sorrento, I went right up to them and put the camera at their eye-level (after I had asked their permission of course – see tip 9!).
Most point & shoots these days have a lens that starts off pretty wide, usually at around 28mm. You can also quite easily get hold of a wide angle lens for your DSLR. Unfortunately many people think that the purpose of a wide angle lens is to ‘fit more into the picture.’
This couldn’t be further from the truth; if you try and fit more in with a wide angle lens you’ll end up with a picture where everything is tiny and spaced far apart, usually with a huge empty foreground. More often than not, this will be a bad photo.
Wide angle lenses are really better served when you have a foreground element that you want to emphasise. Get close, show what you want to show in detail and still show a context for the scene:
Before you hit the shutter button, quickly scan the edges of the image: are you cutting off limbs? Have you left out a crucial part of a sign? Did you forget to include the top of a tree? Recompose – it only takes a couple of seconds.
Be realistic about what your camera can do. Don’t expect a cheap point & shoot to be able to autofocus at lightning speed or capture scenes in low light with extreme detail and accuracy. You should be familiar with what your camera is capable of just by having used it before.
Good travel photography is not just being in the right place at the right time; you also have to know where to be. A little online or guide book research will give you an idea of some places to visit, but try to think outside the box if you want to get shots that are a little bit different. I always enjoy hiring a car and then driving around randomly, looking for good opportunities or people to meet and photograph.
There are shapes and lines all over the place everywhere you look. You can use these to your advantage with relative ease: just use them to lead your eyes to your subject. Below, left is an example of lines I spotted at the skate park on Venice Beach, CA which I used to draw your eyes to the subject.
You must be aware of what’s happening with the lighting in any photo you take. Is your subject in the shade or in the sun? Is their face covered in shadows? If so, turn them around or reposition them as needed. If you’re taking a photo of a landscape or an urban scene, look at which areas are dark and which are light. The chances are your camera won’t be able to reproduce both light and dark areas faithfully, so use exposure compensation to emphasise one or the other. This is where having a better camera helps – but we’re not being technical today. If you do feel like learning more about how to deal with these problems, you should read my article on dynamic range. Below, right is a simple example of moving to accommodate the light.
Don’t leave loads of space around your subject. Fill the frame. Move closer!
The best light is at sunset and sunrise, just when the sun is low in the sky and the light is warm and golden. This is particularly important if you want to take incredible landscape photos. The sun being low means shadows are longer. Shadows give photographs depth. Without depth everything looks flat and boring.
If you’re taking a photo of a vast area it is always a good idea to include one or two people just to show some scale. The same goes for oversize sculptures or anything else that you might need to ‘help’ the viewer understand.
Most of the time the effects modes on your camera or phone are a waste of time. You can usually apply something like that later and still have the option of keeping the original photo. Effects can make a crappy photo look better, but at the end of the day it’s still a crappy photo.
Auto is easy and has its place, especially if you don’t know your camera inside out. But the transition to using the non-auto modes is not as hard as you may think. The most popular non-auto setting is aperture priority (usually marked A or Av on the mode dial) because this allows you to control your lens aperture (the amount of light it lets in). Shutter priority (S or Tv) lets you control the length your lens is open and can help you create effects like movement. Simple experimentation doesn’t cost anything – and once you leave auto you’ll never go back.
Nobody wants to see 10 photos of the same blurry, out of focus, over flashed party picture. Be ruthless in what you leave out when uploading your photos to Facebook or elsewhere.