The boring trap of the vacation slide-show is one of the great travellers’ clichés, one made increasingly uncommon as Facebook and Flickr make photo sharing easier by the day. It takes a lot to get an audience’s attention these days, not just interesting content but a strong presentation as well. Most vacation photography, however, consists of brushing sand off the lens before taking a shot from the hip, off-kilter and out of focus. This is hardly the stuff of which Facebook fame is made. Here are some easy tips to make your vacation shots impress even the most grizzled of photo snobs.
It’s a truism in photography that the best opportunities will arrive precisely when you run out of batteries. Don’t let this happen to you. Sometimes this means bringing extra batteries or a handy charger, but sometimes it means knowing when to put the camera down and conserve juice for more photogenic opportunities to come. In general, nights produce just as many photos as mornings, afternoons, and evenings, so make sure you have enough power left to take advantage of all it has to offer. Be aware of any power saving function on your camera, and remember that you don’t always need to use battery-draining features like the display screen. Often, the glass viewfinder is more than enough - and it makes you look more professional to boot!
Know your equipment, and treat it right
Fancy equipment does not a great photographer make. However, cheap equipment, or good equipment poorly cared for, can impose a hard upper limit on quality. When packing for your photographic aspirations, be sure to prioritize lenses with the widest array of focus; it’s better to have the versatility of a cheap telephoto and a cheap wide-angle lens than the narrow quality of two expensive, similar ones. Also remember that lenses need gentle treatment, just like cameras themselves. Make sure to handle your equipment with care, carry it in a well-padded case, and always (always) be mindful of sand. Also, a tripod is always worth the packing space.
More is more
Whether they’re snapping pictures of a football game or a sunset, a press conference or a budding flower, virtually all photographers can agree on one thing: nobody has ever regretted taking too many pictures. Bearing in mind Rule 1, always make sure to bring ample storage, more than ample, as much as you can possibly pack. Storage is cheap these days, often under a dollar per gigabyte, so there’s no reason not to have more than needed. The tiny variations between similar pictures can often make all the difference in the world; a fleeting glint of sunlight, a passing background element, or a quick facial expression can often be the difference between a good picture and a great one. Always be prepared to take several versions of the same photo, and always keep your finger on the trigger.
Before you ever raise the camera to your eye, you should be thinking it terms of framing, placement, and angle. Imagine the rectangular frame of a photo superimposed over your vision, and consider the placement of elements within a shot. Photographers often use the famous “Rule of Thirds” in such situations, which asks photographers to divide their shot into nine equal segments made by a grid of two equally spaced vertical and horizontal lines. Doctrine says that if you engineer your shots so that the major elements fall at the intersections of these guide lines, your shot will seem more powerful, more composed, and more professional.
Don’t be afraid to edit
In the Internet age, photo editing has a bit of a bad reputation. Photoshop and other image editing programs have put the concept of photographic evidence on the ropes, and cries of ‘fake’ are now as common as comments on lighting. There are more subtle uses for photo editing, however, like adding depth of field, removing unwanted glare, or cropping out unnecessary elements. Particularly, adjusting the borders of a photo can dramatically affect its impact, change its focus or its whole meaning. Always try to get the shot in-camera, but if some desired framing seems impossible, keep your mind open to creating it in post-processing. Even more advanced techniques like layer-masking and colour correction are relatively simple in modern editing suites. Just remember not to tinker so thoroughly that you ruin your photo’s natural beauty!
One common mistake among rookie photographers is that they stand too far away from their subjects. Sometimes a picture requires a context, a detailed background or a sweeping vista. Often, though, a photo’s central element is also its only element, and in such cases it is almost always better to get up close. Increased detail will bring the subject alive, and more importantly it will produce an image that is a closer approximation of actual human sight. Extreme close-ups can often require specialized lenses, but even stock lenses can often handle more powerful close-ups than their owners are aware.
Underexpose when shooting outdoors
Photography can quickly get overly technical if you let it, but don’t be intimidated by all this talk of f-stops and ISO reciprocals. In essence, these are all ways of controlling how much light travels through the lens as it takes the picture – a darker shooting environment requires that you allow more light in to provide detail for the picture. Like a pupil opening to capture more light, most digital cameras can adjust based on conditions. When outdoors, always try to underexpose (err on the side of too little light), as possibly the most common mistake made by amateur photographers is to let natural light turn their photos milky and indistinct. If you happen to get this wrong, don’t despair: rule 5 can often save a poorly exposed shot from both light pollution and excessive darkness.
Boy, that’s a beautiful toy mountain you found – and it’s on such a detailed miniature landscape! “What?” you ask, confused, thinking back to your adventure across the expanse of wherever. You distinctly remember the mountain being life-sized and imposing, so why does it look so... not? The answer is often very simple: a lack of scale. You can be as obvious or as clever as you like with this, from finding an object already in sight to holding a penny next to your subject, but it’s almost always advisable to give your photos some element with a known size. Human beings make for great scale elements, as not only do they show the relative size of things but they also create an intelligence with which we can empathize. A twenty-metre statue is always more imposing when it towers over a smiling family member than over their car, though the two might be the same height.
Know when to use your flash
Putting aside the legal issues associated with flash photography in many museums and live venues, even a purely analytical approach will have you switching off the flash more often than not. The flash has a very specific purpose, and it is almost always better replaced with a static light, if possible. The on-off nature of the flash leaves hard, well-defined shadows and harsh highlights in reflective surfaces. It will almost never improve an outdoor shot, even at night, producing a blown-out “Blair Witch” effect that photographers rarely want. A camera’s flash can be an invaluable tool in specific, low-light conditions. Most of the time, though, leave that little switch alone.
Photographers are great at surprising people. In a very real way, their job is to pass through a crowd unseen, to slide up close to an event while affecting its outcome as little as possible. This trained passivity is vital to good action photography, and it plays into the simple precept that, with a very few exceptions, candid photos are almost always better than posed ones. A candid photo captures more of a person’s true personality, immortalizes a genuine moment in life. Always have your camera handy so your subjects become acclimatized to its presence. Take many pictures, so many they begin to tune out its whirrs and clicks. And above all, don’t draw attention to yourself until you’re absolutely ready to do so. The classic photographer’s ploy, yelling “Hey!” right before taking a picture, is a great half-way between posed and covert photography. Remember that photography is a documentary art – you need to find the story, sneak up on it, and capture it before it can escape.