Taking Better Travel Pictures

All too often we return from great travels with mediocre pictures to show for it. There are some common reasons for this banality that I can help you end-run. Here are some thoughts, and some examples of quick pictures I took on a recent standard tour of China. I’m not going to talk about anything technical here, instead about the paradigms of the picture-taking.

Be Involved and Immersed in your Overview Scenes, Not Just a Distant Observer

 Each picture is a message from you to the viewer. You are telling a story to be understood without your having to be there to explain it in words. That means you will want to “speak” clearly. Even if you don’t really share your pictures, pretend that you will so that you develop the discipline to communicate clearly.

There are postcard views and there are your intimate views and experiences. Some of both types are likely to reward you later in your own memories or your sharing the stories with others. The postcard views are generally expansive and rather generic to everyone’s experiences. Pretty as they can be, they tend to be the minimum hoped-for generic remembrance of the site. I am inclined to shoot light on those sorts of pictures and instead go for the cultural immersion or personal-detail views that will make my story telling much more compelling because they celebrate first-hand experiences. Better for my memory and better for being able to engage my listeners/viewers later.  I want to make them yearn to follow in my footsteps and it is the special intimacies and discoveries that catch their imaginations of their own possibilities.

Give Your Friends Something To Do; Don't Just Stand Them Like Bowling Pins In Front Of the Monuments

 We face many distractions when photographing on our travels. Everything is exotic and unusual: the locale, the bird songs, the languages, the smells, the shapes, the history etc. All of these influences come to bear on us as we lift camera to eye at a moment of joyous celebration of the scene in front of us. But the camera is only going to show us the visual part, which is often lesser than the whole. Now we need to filter and channel our thoughts carefully so as to convey the message on a much simpler experience level.  One of the greatest things you can do is to become disassociated from the act of spontaneously or compulsively taking a picture and instead take the time to study your proposed shot before pressing the shutter button. Look on what you see in the viewfinder/screen as a finished picture in a frame on a wall.  Does it look like it is worth framing? Why not? Figuring out how to make it better from a dispassionate or critic’s point of view will be hugely rewarding to all in the end. It becomes a statement from you, not just more effusive babble.

Refine Your Vision: Don't Show Too Much

Most people take pictures that show way too much. There must be a reason for you to be excited about a scene and that is not often the whole panorama in front of you. What is it, exactly that I want to show?  It will often be a detail within the vista before you. Treat it as a detail and zoom in to it so that we can tell at a glance what the picture is really about. If it is a part of the vista, give us that part which attracts you and eliminate that ugly building or the telephone poles on the sides. The “cleaner” the picture, the clearer the message.

Compose to Full Viewfinder and Make Every Sq. cm. Count

Try to work with the frame you are given: your camera’s aspect ratio. Usually something like 2×3 or 3×4 or 4×5 Unless you can change it by choosing from a menu, you’re going to end up with a picture that has all the elements you see in the viewfinder. I recommend that you learn to compose everything with those limitations and spare yourself the extra work later in having to crop each picture before showing it. We imagine that we’ll crop it later, but few of us ever get around to it and we make excuses or apologies, in our minds, at least, later when we show it uncropped.



Shoot Vertically When the Message Warrants

Many subjects are generally vertical; don’t be afraid to turn your camera on its side in order to give the best, simplest, composition. There is seldom a good reason to show tall thin things you are interested in surrounded by a bunch of clutter in horizontal picture. The added advantage of shooting vertical subjects vertically is that you end up using the available pixel resolution to it’s fullest.

 When photographing people, the “moment” is hugely important. Be ready for that moment and don’t diddle around when people are trying to give you their best looks. Watch the background and move to keep poles and strange shapes growing out of people’s heads. Whenever desirable photograph people, ( such as the family gathering ), from above their heads. Doing so will make them look up at you to some degree. That will stretch their jaw lines and often eliminate double chins. It is even better when they lean forward andlook up. The slimmer their jaws, the better they’ll like the picture.

Show the Locals Actively Pursuing Their Culture

 Imagine, (realistically), you’re never coming back here in the foreseeable future. It’s cloudy, it’s raining, the sun is at exactly the wrong angle. Tough petoops; it’s now or never so make the most of it. Imagining coming back tomorrow to shoot it often ends up as fantasy because of intervening events or interests. Get it now and if you do happen to come back at a better time, shoot it again and feel better for it. You will always kick yourself for not getting something when you had the (only) chance.  And if the current conditions are less than ideal, still spend the right amount of time shooting it; it will be all you have to show later. If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.  The sad truth is that you’ll almost never get the National Geographic shot, so if you’re keen to enjoy the scene that way, buy the postcard. Really. Add the postcards into your collection of pictures and you’ll have the best of both.


Be ready for the Moment: 3 pedicab drivers ride by on the Xian City Wall

If you are feeling rather photojournalistic and hoping to come back with some insightful images of the culture and goings-on, keep your camera and your wits at the ready for action. Many of the stories you will tell on your return will revolve around your appreciation of quick/short-duration events swirling around you. See if you can catch some of them; you’ll be mighty pleased when you do. But you have to be ready.

 Be curious. Look over all the low walls and explore the side-streets. The paths less traveled are full of reward for they will show truer cultural details.

Often the Grand Sights, ( such as the Terracotta Warriors ), will have Profound Details and "Side Stories". Be Alert to the Other Possibilities to Tell These Stories

 When taking your pictures, be sure to hold very still when pressing the shutter. It is best to hold your breath for that moment and squeeze one off rather than jerk it.  Pay attention to the horizon line, especially in wide-angle panoramic scenes. Another thing to consider in general overview pictorials is the balance between foreground and background as determined by the virtual horizon. It is amazing to feel the difference in where your mind concentrates its appreciation of the picture content as you tilt up or down to check the view before taking the picture. There is a balance for every picture and it is not always the same. Remember that you are directing the viewer’s eye to appreciate your vision of the message.

When Things Are Moving, Try to Anticipate the Moment of Best Composition and Arrangement of the Elements. Composition is Hugely Important to the Engagement of the Viewer

Before you go, consider what it is that will most likely make up the majority of your pictures and bring a suitable camera for the purpose. PACK LIGHT. One camera with only one zoom lens. If you are likely to photograph a lot of buildings, be sure that you have enough wide-angle in your zoom. A 28 mm or 35 mm equivalent ( to 35 mm film ) will generally be enough and will force you to get to the point of your picture. ) 85mm to 105 mm equivalent will be fine for portraits.  Having a zoom that will cover at least that range will cover off most of your needs and be in the price range that is most affordable. If you think you would like to take video with your still camera, be sure to have that capability. Get to know your camera’s bells and whistles to a reasonable extent. The default settings in most consumer cameras do well in standard lighting situations, but there are often myriad other surprisingly good presets you can use for unusual situations. Camera technical settings can make or break your enjoyment of the picture later; you could be spending a lot less time with your apologies.


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