Take Better Travel Photos

March 10th, 2012

Here is a great article from photographer by photographer Timothy Allen.  These are great suggestion for taking more meaningful photos while traveling.  I tell students to watch their body language and physical composure. If you’re nervous it could reflect in your subject.  Try and relax and make your subject feel at ease.

5 practical suggestions that may help you

Getting the right shot often requires a lot of hanging around

… Research published earlier this year has suggested that there are an estimated 3.5 billion cameras currently in use across the globe.  The reality of this mind blowing statistic will be all too familiar to those of you that travel and take photographs, inevitably meaning that in the prettier and more interesting parts of our planet, if you decide to point your camera at something you will more than likely be sharing your vision with at least one other digital sensor.

So what makes one person’s travel photos better than another’s?.. and how can you improve the quality of your own?  Well, over my years of travelling it has become increasingly apparent to me that the truth about learning to shoot great images really only comes down to two things:

Life experience and camera experience.

Life experience is a very personal journey that every photographer essentially takes alone.  The way to learn from the life experience of other photographers is to study their photographs and use them as inspiration for your own journey but as far as I’m concerned I can’t tell you how to let your life experience unfold.  Only you can allow that process to happen.

Camera experience on the other hand is something that is a little easier to communicate. Camera experience represents the interface between your life experience and your photographs and is something that appears to evolve in a remarkably similar way across the careers of most photographers. As such, it is certainly something that I may be able to offer some of you some interesting insights into.

The internet is awash with tips on improving your photography which appear to ignore the simple fact that photography is an intuitive art form which owes everything to our innate human ability to understand what it is that we all find beautiful or interesting rather than to any set of cerebral laws that we could ever sit down and learn, so I’m not planning on making this an article about the rule of thirds or the ‘decisive moment’ or any of that stuff that I predict will blossom naturally in anyone who wholeheartedly practices this craft.

Instead, here I have summarized five simple practical choices that I made in my photography career over the years that definitely helped me to improve the quality of my images.  If any of them strike a chord with you then give them a go… they worked for me.

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1.  When shooting people, stop using your long lens so much

After many years of perusing the portfolios of aspiring photographers, I can safely say that the single most common factor I see leading disillusioned travel photographers to accumulate huge collections of mediocre travel images is an unhealthy dependence upon using long lenses for shooting pictures of people.  I hate to say it folks, but for most people the inconvenient truth about this addiction is the fact that it is born out of one thing and one thing only… fear.

I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that the English language has evolved the use of the verb ‘take‘ to describe the process of taking a picture.   For me, this etymological hint serves as a reminder to us that when we photograph someone, maybe we shouldn’t overlook the fact that we are in fact taking something from them and that in just about every other aspects of our lives, when we take something from someone we normally ask first and say thank you afterwards.

Why should it be any different in photography?  Asking and thanking involves connecting with people and long lenses make that a very easy thing to avoid.  They tend to put a large distance, both physically and emotionally between you and the people you are photographing which does a fine job of insulating you from any potential intimate interaction.

I’ve seen it many times before.  This lack of intimacy will show in your images.

Losing your big gun will mean that you will have to start connecting with your subjects again.  I know all too well how nerve racking that process can be.  Believe me when I say that even after all these years, I still get butterflies in my stomach when I have to approach a stranger in order to photograph them. That’s a fact of life for me but as far as I’m concerned a healthy and invigorating life involves addressing a lot of uncomfortable feelings like these, so if you recognize an aspect of yourself in what I’m saying then you will have to feel the fear and do it anyway if you want the power of intimacy to resonate within your images.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is a place in this world for long lenses… I  use a 200mm f2.8 and 400mm f5.6 but I would say that when I’m shooting people, I generally tend to use them in order to condense the background contents of my frame, often when I am photographing somebody in their environment.  However, using a long lens to pick off people in a crowd like a sniper shooting his victims is certainly something that I don’t condone if you want to make your images stand out from the rest of the drones of travel photographers who are regularly shooting unexceptional head shots and portraiture on their long lenses.

Using a long lens to condense the background contents of an image (400mm)

What about the fact that when you use a long lens you get more candid shots of people because they don’t know you’re taking their picture?

Candid?.. Yes, possibly.. Dull? .. most definitely.  I’ve often heard this argument used to justify hiding behind a camera, fostering laziness and producing bland, unengaging pictures IMO.  Why not try and get a candid shot with a short lens?… now that’s a real skill.

Try this technique next time you decide to approach someone to take his or her picture.  Instead of snapping them and bolting, try asking them if they wouldn’t mind if you accompanied them for a little while whilst you take some photos.  If they say no, then thank them and move on.  However, if they agree then in my experience before not too long they will have forgotten you are there, and your resulting images will have a far more intimate feel to them. This technique works particularly well when you are visiting people in their homes.  Just make sure you can give the situation your full time and attention, which also means forgetting about your cameras .  The quality of your images will be a direct reflection of the degree to which you engaged with both your subject and their environment… and in my experience, the biggest part of that is usually what happens when your cameras are packed away in their bag.

2.  Start using fast, prime lenses

Not a lot of people realise this, but a fixed 50mm f1.8 lens is probably the cheapest lens you can buy for your DSLR.  Sadly, the first thing that many aspiring photographers do after they’ve spent a small fortune on a state-of-the-art digital camera is to go out and spend an equally exorbitant amount of money buying a zoom lens that, whilst it may well have the ‘latest’ auto focus and auto exposure technology, is very often stuck with an aperture that will only open as far as f3.5.

For me, some of the greatest photography happens in the places where light is delicate and soft. (See tip no. 4).  These are the places in which prime lenses really come into their element.  Rooms lit by fire light, dark corridors, very early mornings and late dusk… to get sharp punchy pictures in these kind of environments you will need a lens with an aperture that opens to at least f2.

I sometimes hear people say that you can compensate for a small aperture with ISO.  This is a grave mistake in my opinion.  If you believe this then you will be missing out on the incredible benefits of using fast fixed lenses.  Even your expensive f2.8 zoom lens will struggle in a room lit by candlelight, but pop a relatively cheap 50mm f1.4 on to your body and the room will literally come alive with potential images.

When people sing the praises of prime lenses they tend to focus on the image phenomena that these lenses produce, in particular bokeh and the really shallow depth of field that fast primes can give you.  Whilst I appreciate that these are great selling points for these lenses, what actually excites me more about using primes is the way that they can literally shift your whole attitude to image making by opening you up to new possibilities.  Allowing you to venture into very low light situations is one obvious opportunity but many of the ways that primes can influence your photography tend to be a little more esoteric in my experience. Somehow, their visual clarity and simplicity will influence the way you choose to use them and that can have quite a profound effect on the kind of pictures you produce.  Primes also compel you to zoom with your feet rather than the barrel of your lens offering you more dynamic perspectives on a situation and they do a great job of inspiring a more minimalist, uncomplicated view of photography that will definitely be reflected in your imagery.

Sometimes, I feel that zoom lenses encourage people to be a jack-of-all-trades whilst a beautiful fixed prime lens may gently tempt you to become a master of one.  In my experience, once you’ve started using primes, it’s hard to go back.

85mm – f1.2 – 1/8000 sec – ISO 50

Over the years I’ve owned just about every lens there is, but I can honestly say there’s still nothing quite like the feeling of going out into a vast crowd of people at dusk with just a 50mm f1.2 and a smile.  This is photography at its most Zen in my opinion.

If you’ve never owned a prime before, start by going out and buying yourself a second hand 50mm f1.8… it may just change your life.

3.  Stop using auto exposure

In my experience, as your photography skills improve, you will naturally begin to reject the automatic functions on your camera. (excluding autofocus, which I class differently)  The first one to go will no doubt be auto exposure.  Cameras aren’t too bad at predicting exposure when you are shooting in ‘flat’ light, but other than that they are terribly naive when it comes to predicting what you want.  Luckily for you, digital SLRs allow you to review an image instantly, so these days there is no excuse for messing up your exposure.

Once you start taking your photography seriously, controlling every aspect of your exposure will become imperative, especially if you follow my advice in tips no.2 and 4 and start shooting in low light situations.

I’ve been using roughly the same simple technique for manually exposing for many years now:  Whilst making sure that I am always acutely aware of changes in light intensity, upon entering any situation the first thing I do is meter for the highlights in that place.  This means making a correct exposure for the brightest part of the situation that I anticipate to include in my frame.  Then I know that I can shoot away to my hearts content until I reframe or notice the light change, at which point I will adjust the aperture (or shutter speed) appropriately using the respective dials on my camera.

Pictures like this are impossible to shoot using auto exposure

More often than not, unless you are shooting outside on a really variable or contrasty day (which I don’t recommend anyway… see tip no. 4), or in a situation where a light source is erratic (e.g. Around fires burning at night) your exposure will be relatively constant and easy to follow, a skill that you will eventually end up doing subconsciously.  However, in the beginning when you are learning to manually expose you may have to shoot a quick frame and check the exposure on the camera’s review screen every time you feel that the light intensity has changed within your frame.  But don’t worry, it will become second nature the more you do it. I promise you.

4. Start shooting more photos outside of ‘office hours’

Time after time, photographers who are trying to break into the industry show me their travel portfolios and I’m amazed to see that 99 percent of their images were shot in the harsh light of broad daylight.  There’s normally a very simple reason for this.  Predominantly, people don’t like getting up early and by 5pm they are starting to feel hungry for dinner, but also I think that many photographers work office hours just because that’s what everyone else does and it makes their life easier.

Well, if you are one of those people then I’m afraid to say that your photography has hit a wall…  one that you won’t overcome unless you start venturing into more delicate lighting situations. This means stepping outside of your tour guide’s working hours or if that isn’t possible, swallowing your fear and knocking on a few doors to go and visit people inside their homes and places of work during the day.

I can already hear a lot of you protesting already… “Many cultural events only happen in broad daylight!”  Yes, this may be true, but I would say this to you…  IMO one amazing image shot in fantastic light is worth a hundred OK frames shot in the harsh light of a sunny day.  That’s my opinion.  In my experience, you can always find a way to make at least one shot in great light, no matter what the situation. You may just have to think outside the box a bit and invest in a little extra effort to help make it happen.

Nothing beats the golden light of the setting sun

During the daytime when it is sunny, shooting indoors allows you to work with the harsh light outside.  More often than not, all you need is a room with just a single window or a door letting light in to produce a lovely image.  For an easy way to shoot a timeless portrait when the sun is too harsh outside, the easiest thing to do is bring your subject inside, position them facing the source of daylight and shoot from a position to their side like this..

If the light is too harsh outside, bring your subject indoors

It’s such a simple technique used by pro photographers the world over and one that can improve the quality of your portfolio no end.  All it takes is a little extra organisational effort and some time to connect with the person you wish to photograph.  Oh.. and try not to forget your please and thank you.

As far as I’m concerned, when you are working outside you should be aiming to shoot as much as you can around dawn and from late afternoon onwards including night time, when you can work with the many colour temperatures of man-made lighting around to enhance your images.  If there is something or someone particular that you wish to photograph outside then my strong advice to you is not to even begin to start thinking about taking any pictures until the sun is low in the sky.

5.  Switch to ‘back button focus’

My final tip is only for people who use auto focus, but I would hazard a guess that this is probably 100 percent of you.   It’s a really simple technique that makes auto focusing and image composition much easier and faster.

As far as I know, all cameras come with the auto focus function assigned to the shutter button by default.  Normally, half pressing it will cause the camera to focus before you fully depress the button to take the picture.  If you wish to hold focus you are required to maintain this half-pressed position after every frame but often you end up refocusing each time you finish shooting a frame or rapid succession of frames.

By reassigning your auto focus function to a dedicated button on the back of the camera you can free up your shutter release button leaving it to do just one thing, the thing it does best… take a picture.  With this new configuration, (Using a Canon DSLR in manual mode), your thumb is now used to both focus with the back button and adjust aperture on the wheel and your first finger shoots images with the shutter release and adjusts shutter speed with the top dial.

I normally get blank stares when I tell people about switching to this configuration, so don’t worry if you’re currently sitting there frowning at the screen.  However, I have yet to meet anyone who went back to shutter button focus after they mastered this configuration.  It takes a bit of getting used to in the beginning but once it becomes second nature you will wonder how you ever worked any other way.

I can’t speak for Nikon users, but for all you 5D Canonistas out there… in your C.FnIV:Operation/Others custom function menu, Shutter button/AF-ON button should be set to 3:AE lock/Metering + AF start and the AF-ON/AE lock button switch should be set to 1:Enable.  (C.FnIV menu will then read: 3 1 0 0 0 0).  This will make the (*) button on the top right back of the camera your auto focus button, and disable the auto focus on the shutter button.

Update: If you’re a Nikon user, HERE is a great tutorial on how to configure your camera for back button focusing.  Thanks to @celenabeech for the link.

For me, a dedicated focus button is essential for shooting fast moving action with an erratic focal plane

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A quick recap:

1.            Face your fear and lose the addiction to your beloved long lens.

2.            Let fast prime lenses take you on an adventure into the twilight.

3.            Take back control of your camera by learning to manually expose.

4.            Get up early, keep shooting until late and stay out of the midday sun.

5.            Try back button auto focus. It worked for me and thousands of others.

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