Picture This: A Few Helpful Tips for Better Travel Photos

Alaskan Lake (Jeanette Mills)

We’ve all had the experience. We’re looking at a stunning mountain lake, a striking French cathedral, or perhaps the glittering harbor of a picturesque fishing village at sunset. We just have to capture it in a photo to share with our family and friends, a photo that conveys what we’re witnessing in all its breathtaking glory. But, try as we might, the photo doesn’t quite make the grade. And, when we do show it to others, we find ourselves resorting to our trusty fallback line: “You just had to be there.”

Disappointing photos have always been one of the traveler’s “occupational hazards.” The emergence of digital cameras in the last decade and a half has made good results easier to achieve and reduced a great deal of traveler frustration. Now, of course, we can check photo quality on the spot, edit out what we don’t like, and control many other aspects of photography much more effectively. But, as good as some digital cameras are, the photographer still has numerous choices that really do make the difference between run-of-the-mill vacation pictures and truly memorable ones.

What are some things to keep in mind when taking vacation pictures? Here are five tips you might want to consider.

1. Seek out bright, bold colors.

Just as cuisine depends on the best ingredients as well as a good recipe, the best photographs often depend on strong, striking colors to make a big impact: the bright green of the ocean in the Caribbean, the rich red-orange of the lava flowing from Kilauea, the sapphire blue of Crater Lake. When looking for subjects for effective travel photos, seek out the bold, arresting colors. And, if there’s an opportunity to contrast colors—such as an inky black ocean against a blood-red sunset—then you’ve just increased your chances for heightened impact.

2. Use early morning and late afternoon light.

Although cameras are much more adaptable than they used to be, mid-day light is still a killer for photographers, washing out colors and often making everything in the frame look overexposed. One way to maximize your photo opportunities, is to organize your sightseeing, planning your top photo ops for early morning or late afternoon. There will be far more of a chance both to record the rich colors you see before you and to take advantage of the interplay between light and shadows.

3. Photograph familiar landmarks from unusual angles.

Once, after posing for the standard photos in front of the four sculpted presidents on Mount Rushmore during a trip to South Dakota, our family got back in the car and drove down the road a bit. Then, peering in between two steep hills, I saw the sculpted George Washington alone in profile, a sight so dramatic it startled me. To my family’s annoyance, I brought our car to a screeching halt, jumped out, and took several photos of this one corner of Mount Rushmore from this unusual vantage point. The photo was one of the most memorable from that trip. Anything you can do to avoid the cliché composition and capture the unusual will make your photos far more interesting both to yourself and to others.

4. Get in close.

It took me years to realize that I couldn’t put my family and the Tower of London in the same photograph and do justice to all elements concerned. A photograph may include many features, but it must have one focus. If you want to photograph people or objects, don’t be afraid of moving in close can capturing as much detail as possible. And please, no head-to-toe full-body shots unless your subject is standing head to head and toe to fin with the marlin that’s just been reeled in.

5. Study photographers you like.

When I see a photograph I really like on a travel site or in a travel book, I look for the credit and try to remember the photographer’s name. (It’s amazing how many of the same people pop up regularly.) After a while, I can recognize the photographer’s personal style and the elements that make up that style: use of color or lighting, the juxtaposition of images, etc. Soon, I find myself imitating the work of photographers I like and realize that, in the process, I’m actually developing my own photographic style.

A more efficient learning strategy is to take a short continuing studies course in digital photography at a local college or community adult program before heading out for a major trip. A good teacher can make an enormous difference.

From your experience as a travel photographer, what tip or two do you think would be most helpful to share? Feel free to comment. We’d love to hear from you.

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