This article is not about photography techniques, lighting, composition, exposure, bracketing, metering or a million other things – I encourage you to go and do some courses – and I’m not covering different cameras and lenses either. This article is about photography challenges and practical solutions when you’re on holidays.
Timing isn't Everything
I started to look into some hints and tips for real travel photography, ie for Mr & Mrs Traveller, not hobbyists or semi-pros who have the right gear and the technical and creative knowhow. However, many of the articles and suggestions I found still referred to ‘best time of day’ or ‘when the light is ideal’, not to mention ‘the best gear’. Now I don’t know about you, but when we’re on holidays, we’re out and about at what’s generally accepted as the ‘worst’ time of day for photography (mid morning to mid afternoon and night time).
Here are a few of my tips:
1 Change the composition
Yes, the ideal spot might be right in front of that monument but if the sun’s straight in your eyes, you’re not likely to get the shot you’re after. Having said that, using the sun strategically can sometimes enhance the photo.
2 Watch where your shadow falls
I can’t tell you the number of photos I have spoilt by having my shadow run right up through the middle of the shot, totally distracting from the subject of the shot. Cropping it or using software won’t always be able to remedy it. Try sitting the camera on something (ie a wall, table or the ground) and setting a delay timer so you can get out of the shot. Alternatively, use your shadow creatively to make it a feature of the photo. Or go back to Tip 1 above!
3 Use your sunnies
I saw a guy do this in Fiji. Get your shot ready then hold your sunglasses carefully in front of the lens. Might not always yield the best results, but I bet you’ll get some that work.
4 Change what time you visit
You might not have control over this, but if you do, try and work out where the sun will be at different times of the day, and visit accordingly. If you’re lucky, you might be passing by later in the day when the sun will have moved into a more advantageous position. Or go back to Tip 1 above!
5 Compact Tripod or Support
There are a multitude of options available these days to suit whatever you shoot with, and they won’t break the bank, or your shoulders or back! I’ve even used clothes, rocks, benches etc! I used a bridge for this one:
6 Find some shade
I have found that you can often get a decent shot in the middle of the day or bright conditions by standing in a doorway, under an arch or tree etc. Sometimes including part of it also improves the photo by adding what’s called ‘foreground framing’. Or go back to Tip 1 above!
7 Let the camera do the thinking
Use the camera’s creative settings to optimise image quality. If you’re shooting a landscape, and your camera has a landscape mode or setting, use it. But remember when you’re photographing your other half, change it to portrait. Similarly for sunset/sunrise, night or action shots. When you’re in a hurry, flick it to Auto – I always say ‘a so-so shot is better than no-no shot!’ But watch your focus!
Many hobbyists and pros shudder at the thought of using generic brand screw-in filters, but they’re compact and lightweight enough to carry in your pocket or handbag, making them ideal for holiday snaps.
If you’re travelling with family or friends, be mindful they may not share your passion for photography (or at least not to the same extent). And if you’re with a tour group, you really will have limited time at each location or attraction. Don’t become the one constantly holding everyone up.
One tip I totally agree with is to discuss (and compromise) beforehand about how much photography is reasonable to everyone concerned and what everyone’s expectations are. This is one of the most difficult things to agree on! You might only be in a place for an hour, so need to concentrate on getting the photos you’re after! I know I don’t care about lunch or afternoon tea as much as getting photos! I constantly find myself falling behind, but I justify it by telling myself ‘you’re not coming back next week, so get the shot!’ This sometimes means you will miss out on interesting facts and commentary provided by guides!
Also remember that people don’t like a camera constantly poked in their face, try for some candid shots:
Another tip here is to make sure you hand the camera over to the others so that you’re in some of the photos! These are your memories too.
Weapon of Choice
I have everything from iPhone, ipad, point and shoot, compact SLR to full frame DSLR cameras to shoot with! Remember, every piece of gear you take is one more thing to look after, and more weight in your bag … or on your arms/shoulders/back!
I suppose the first thing you should ask yourself is ‘will I want to print or hang any of my photos?’
If your answer is only small or not at all, and you primarily intend sharing your memories online, most phones or mobile devices these days will capture quality shots. Check on your device if you can change the capture quality so they don’t chew up your memory too quickly. If not, review your photos at the end of each day and delete any that aren’t worth keeping. Be diligent, and be brutal!
Point and shoot cameras are the next level and there are some phenomenal choices out there, they are lightweight, compact, easy to carry and use and are available at very reasonable prices. Learn to use the various shooting modes so you’re getting the best possible shots.
Probably the biggest advantage of using a point and shoot is you can literally go from shooting a panorama of a magnificent mountain range in front of you, to turning around and snapping the kids having fun behind you within seconds of each other.
But you need to be aware of their limitations:
- Because these have a smaller sensor, you will not get the same quality as you will from a compact SLR or DSLR.
- Limited zoom and field of view.
- They struggle at night.
- The flash has very limited range – don’t expect it to light up a scene for you.
Speaking of flash, learn how to turn it off quickly! Why?
There are many places where flashes are not allowed, however, peoples’ lack of knowledge of their camera often results in a total disregard for WHY flashes are not allowed in the first place. It’s possibly because of this that some places don’t even allow photos. Don’t be one of the ones who spoils it for everyone purely because you didn't take the time to work out how to change settings.
When you’re photographing a landscape, that flash is totally useless. It won’t necessarily impact on anyone else, but it is annoying, and uses up battery charge.
It may be adversely impacting on other people’s photos, eg bouncing off distracting foreground objects when the subject of the photo is further away (eg a building, sunset, someone’s white shirt etc), unwanted light, spoiling a long exposure. I’m sure you don’t want your photos spoiled, and neither does anyone else.
I generally take a compact SLR camera when I’m out and about being a ‘tourist’. Mine is a lightweight, mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses. The best thing is it fits comfortably in my handbag and I can even carry a lens or two without it all weighing me down too much. I’m not interested in lugging a DSLR and tripod around all day every day. Depending on the camera, you’ll still get decent photos, but just accept there may be a size limitation to get a quality print or canvas, especially if you’re unfamiliar with editing programs. This image was taken on a compact SLR and I had it printed onto canvas at 1100x730mm.
I do take the DSLR, a variety of lenses and tripod if I plan on shooting sunrises, sunsets, the moon, panoramas, long exposures etc, or want some high quality photos of buildings, attractions, land, sea or cityscapes, especially if I think I’ll want to print some.
My only suggestion here is that if you invest in and decide to take a DSLR, learn to use it properly. I have lost count of the number of people I see with big, professional grade cameras with lenses NASA would envy, yet they’re shooting in Auto! It’s no skin off my nose, but it does beg the question ‘why bother?’
I can’t recommend these highly enough! Especially if you’re on limited time. They take you to the most iconic locations, or sometimes even to lesser known places where you’ll end up with photos others won’t have gotten!! These are generally run by local authorities or interest groups, and your guide will likely be a local who’s passionate about showcasing their ‘home’ so to speak!
Size Does Matter!
I have found over the years that people generally don’t understand image formats and resolution. It is definitely a double-edged sword: higher quality = less images per memory stick, but more usage options; lower quality = more images, but less usage options.
And quality really is a one-way street in photos, you can reduce the size of a high res image for various uses, but you can’t transform medium or low res images to high res without sophisticated software (and sometimes not even then!). So before you change that setting on your camera or device, ask yourself again whether you’ll want to print or hang your photos. I always recommend shooting at the highest (or second highest) resolution as you then have choices. You can change it for a specific shot, then change it back if that suits you better, however, I have found sometimes that I’m quite surprised at how great a photo looks only AFTER I’ve downloaded it.
Additionally, you don’t want to be chewing up roaming data by uploading high res images onto social media sites. For whatever device you decide to use, look into photo editing options and use them. For example:
- on a phone or ipad/android device, after you’ve taken a photo, view it in the photo app, turning off all information/displays then screen capture it. You can crop out anything distracting before uploading. On most devices, screen captures are low res jpg or png format.
- Download or use free/open source software (eg iPhoto, Picassa, Fotor etc). This article has some great information.
- Select low or medium res if offered at the upload stage.
Get out of my shot!
People! Urggh people! Why won’t they get out of the way? They keep getting in my photos! It’s a never ending, worldwide challenge.
I’ve got no problem with people generally being in my photos, after all they’re there for the same reason I am, so long as they don’t distract from the main subject, and I’m probably in someone else’s shot for that matter! So if I’m photographing a monument, building or landscape, for example, I’m happy with having fellow travellers in my shots. Quite often, they actually make it more interesting, or help to give perspective or a sense of scale.
However, if I’m planning on putting a particular shot up on the wall, or I’m in a smaller space, I don’t want the shot crowded and overtaken by others. I will admit that sometimes it just can’t be avoided, but luckily I’m a patient person. I generally work out what composition I want, get the camera ready, then just wait, using my peripheral vision to keep an eye on everyone’s comings and goings and either get my shots without people walking through them, or having minimal impact.
I’m guilty of rushing to get a shot or being hurried up by others, only to download it later and realise it’s blurry! Sorry, I hate to be the one to tell you, but NO-ONE wants to look at your blurry images.
Here are a few ways to minimise blurry shots:
- Move away from others, give yourself some personal space.
- Lean up against a door frame or wall.
- Compose your shot, take a breath, start to exhale and then stop, take the photo by gently tapping the screen or pressing the shutter, and continue to exhale. Then do it again!
- Never rely on one photo. If you’re taking photos of people, let them know beforehand how many shots you’ll be taking. Take at least 2.
- Hold the camera close to your body with both hands, ideally with your elbows tucked in at the waist. The further the camera is from you, the less stable it will be an the higher the likelihood that you’ll end up with blurred images.
- Rest your elbows on a table or flat surface and hold the camera with both hands.
- Mount it on a mini tripod, sit it on a bag or a flat surface and use a timer.
- Attach a remote control to avoid camera movement.
Another aspect of focus is what I call ‘emotive’ focus, like in these Notre Dame shots, two of my favourite shots from that trip.
While we were inside, I knew that my mother-in-law would have loved this cathedral and would have lit a candle had she visited, so I suggested to hubby that he might like to light one on her behalf.
We were in the park across the road and I saw these beautiful trellises with red roses. My mum’s favourite flower was red roses, so I took this shot with Mum in mind.
And then there's what I call 'selective' focus. This shot was in Mijas in Spain. These blue pots were absolutely everywhere, and we were told they were to ward off evil spirits. I loved that everywhere we went they were in lines along the walls. You just get in nice and close and focus on the nearest one.
Be prepared for all weather conditions. While everyone absolutely loves a nice sunny day, you might get your best shot of the trip in adverse weather!
If it’s raining or drizzly, keep your camera protected when not shooting, take photos quickly, check your lens for rain drops and remember to replace the lens cap.
If it’s cold, your camera will chew up battery charge quicker. Put your camera and spare batteries in an inner pocket when not shooting so your body keeps everything nice and warm.
Tourists are a target for thieves and pickpockets the world over, especially those with lovely, expensive gear! Your personal safety and wellbeing are far more important than a photo.
- Be conscious of the time, especially if you’re in a remote location.
- Keep your belongings close to you and check on them often.
- Don’t leave expensive items in outside pockets (of bags or clothes).
- Close your bag, even when you’re carrying it.
- Don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself.
- Let someone know where you’re going if you intend going solo.
- If you’re using a camera, buy the best quality memory stick you can afford – the higher the Class, the faster you’ll shoot, and the better the quality of the images.
Don’t be caught up in the hype of thinking you need the latest memory stick with the highest capacity! It’s good to spread the risk (of corruption, loss/theft, inadvertent formatting etc) across a number of lower capacity sticks. And they’re generally better value for money for the same amount of memory.
- Do as much research as you can before you even leave home. Browse the attractions or places you’ll be visiting and see how other people have captured them, where from, time of day etc. If you think you won’t remember, screen capture them and print them up as reminders. A few sheets of paper aren’t going to weigh you down.
- If you’re taking a computer so you can download your images, start as you intend to proceed and download your photos each night into dedicated folders before going to bed! You won’t always feel like it, but believe me you’ll be glad you made the effort. At worst, do this every second day so you don’t forget where they were taken (it happens!) THEN BACK THEM UP (USB, external hard drive, The Cloud etc). You will need to format your memory stick at some stage, and you don’t want to be stressing about whether you’ve downloaded all the images or not.
- As soon as you arrive at your accommodation, make recharging your top priority. There’s nothing worse then being out and about with dead batteries.
Print or Canvas?
When you get home and decide you want to get some of your pics up on the wall, make sure you zoom in on each photo you think is a possible candidate. If it’s blurred or pixelated on your screen, it will be blurred or pixelated when printed! Having said that, canvas and some print stocks actually manage to conceal slight blur. It's just a matter of finding the right finish for each image.
Use a quality printing service. I appreciate you can dash into a department store or similar and get them printed at quite reasonable prices, but personally (and if your budget allows) I’ve found the better the quality of the paper or canvas, the better your shots will look on the wall. And, admit it, you WANT everyone saying ‘WOW! What a great shot!’ We all do.
The main thing is to shoot with what you’re comfortable carrying and using, and to come home with happy snaps.
And have a bit of fun too!
These are my personal experiences, observations, solutions and strategies. I’m sure everyone who reads this article will have their own, so feel free to drop me a line with yours.
The images in this post were primarily shot with iPhone and Sony NEX 5N.