4 tips that guarantee better travel photography

Sunrise on the river near Greenwood, Mississippi at Tallahatchie Flats (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Sunrise on the river near Greenwood, Mississippi at Tallahatchie Flats (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

A few decades ago, Mom or Pop took the occasional photo with their handy Kodak Instamatic camera, and only “serious” photographers carried around big lenses and heavy black cameras with mysterious settings.

Now, anyone with a halfway-decent camera on his or her phone can take a good photo. When you’re traveling, it’s even more important to get it right since you’re just passing through and may not have a chance to return.

I am by no means a professional photographer, or even a very serious amateur, but over the past few years I’ve tried to improve my technique so I can be proud of the photos that go along with my blog posts.

Here are my top four travel photography tips, all learned after taking a lot of crummy photos and with fervent thanks for the advent of digital photography, so I can mess up and delete at no cost:

1)  Compose an interesting photo by filling the frame and drawing the eye. If you do nothing else, taking a big step toward the subject will probably improve your photo. This is especially true when taking pictures of people; no one cares about seeing people’s feet in a photo, so stop doing those full-body shots and get close to their FACES.

Try to compose photos that draw in the eye – this may mean that the main focus is to the right or left and not the middle. Photographers call this the “rule of thirds.” In plain language, it means not always centering everything because that often creates a boring image.

Here’s an example – see how the taps are lined up to draw your eye from large to small, into the photo? Note: I could have made this picture look better by using a tripod or propping the camera on something to steady it; the slightly blurry text gives me away.

Beer options on tap at Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora IL (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Beer options on tap at Two Brothers Roundhouse in Aurora IL (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

2)  Lighting – maneuver so the light falls ON your subject, take advantage of softer lighting early or late in the day and avoid using flash. Usually this means avoiding midday shots when you can, although of course if that’s when you’re there, it will have to do. Move around so that the light source – sun or artificial light – is coming mostly from behind you. If you’re photographing people, try not to make them squint directly into sunlight; move so that the light comes from their right or left (and get them to remove hats or the hat’s shadow will cover their faces.)

There’s a reason that the time around sunrise and sunset is called the “Golden Hour” by photographers, so take advantage of it. Use flash with caution; it’s usually a waste of time with any landscape shot, and it washes out your close-in subjects. Try your camera’s Indoor or Night setting instead (yes, even your phone camera probably has such a setting.)

Here’s an example, taken with my phone camera. I knew the setting sun behind me would light up the Manhattan skyline if I waited till the right moment (about 8 squillion other photos were taken and deleted till I got this one.) I propped the camera on a railing to steady it in lieu of a tripod. The pretty cloud formations were a total bonus.

Manhattan skyline at sunset from Lincoln Harbor NJ (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Manhattan skyline at sunset from Lincoln Harbor NJ (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

3)  Try the Macro (close up) setting on your camera, including phone cameras. You’ll find a whole world of texture and color that might otherwise go unnoticed. Pay particular attention to lighting, composition and keeping that camera super-steady when you’re in Macro mode. In settings, look for a little single flower icon; that usually means Macro.

Here’s an example taken with a Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot, of the door to a pie safe. The metal on the door is hand-decorated into a paisley pattern, which is nice to look at but not that remarkable until you get up close to one of the nail holes.

Clyde's Willow Creek Farm Virginia pie safe Macro example (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Closeup of a pie safe at Clyde’s Willow Creek Farm, Loudon County, Virginia (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

4)  Whatever you do, hold the camera as steady as possible. Use a tripod when you can – a Gorillapod-style tripod is easy to throw in your bag – but I’ve used a wine glass, sugar shaker in a diner, light pole, rock and the side of a building. If you have no options, hold yourself very still and grip the camera with both hands.

Here’s an example of Becky McCray taking a photo out of a window, but using the window jamb as a makeshift tripod to steady her camera.

Camera makeshift tripod how-to with Becky McCray

Camera makeshift tripod how-to with Becky McCray

She’s taught me much of what I know about taking better photos; here’s Becky’s Flickr photo collection if you want to see more, with everything from her cattle in northeast Oklahoma to London to Africa.

**  Extra tip: When using a phone camera, always wipe the lens first before taking your shot. Many phone camera photos are fuzzy and blurry simply because the lens had fingerprint grime on it from being grabbed all day.

Did I miss anything? What are your favorite photography tips? Let us know in the Comments!

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