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You Are Here:  Home  >  FAQ  >  Photography Techniques  >  Travel Photography

Travel Photography

Table of Contents

Chapter Word Count: 3432
1 Introduction  (285)
2 Composition: The First Step to Better Photography  (901)
       2.1 Ways to Learn  (789)
3 The Technical Side  (464)
4 Setting Expectations  (888)
5 Summary (105)

This page has 21 images dated from
Feb 17, 2002 to Oct 16, 2006
Markers indicate locations for photos on this page. Accuracy responsibility of Google Maps
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1 Introduction

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I, Travel Photographer
(Shannon, Ireland)
county shannon, europe, horizontal, ireland, irish, self-portrait, shannon, shannon river, photograph
I admit it. I have a cushy job. I get paid to go on spectacular vacations that you read about in magazines or see in catalogs, and I take pictures. What can I say? It's a living. Someone's got to do it.

I know what you're thinking. OK, besides "How can I get a job like that?" You're thinking, "How hard can it be to just take pictures on vacation?" You're not alone. In fact, pretty much everyone thinks the same thing about my job. Early in my travels, one particular tourist made the following observation: "If you put a great-looking model on a pristine beach on a beautiful day, and just sit there and snap a million pictures with great photo equipment, a monkey can come up with a bunch of great shots." That tourist was me. And the photographer who was on assignment for that trip replied, "so, why aren't you taking a million pictures?"

I sat and pondered that for a while. What if I actually did just shoot indiscriminately as my theory suggested? Would I suddenly find gold nuggets among them? Normally, I would bring two or three rolls of film for a two-week vacation, and even then, I may finish all the rolls if the weather was good. I was determined to test my theory on my next vacation, a two-week cycling trip to New Zealand. I packed what I thought was far more film than I ever thought I'd use: 10 rolls. 36-exposures each. Color. And with my point-n-shoot camera, I exhausted my supply precisely to the last day. The result? A lot of... well, "bad pictures." (This is a family book, after all.)

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Put your friends in the foreground, near the camera. Not way far away where they end up as tiny figures. Good distance is between five and ten feet, and not in the center of the frame.
(Dubrovnik, Croatia)
croatia, dubrovnik, europe, friends, girls, people, photographers, photographing, teenagers, vertical, photograph
Clearly, my theory needed rethinking. I was still convinced that there couldn't be much more to it than what I observed. What is it that these pros do that I can't do? While it's true that pros tend to have better equipment, I knew it was more than that. I thought maybe it was a matter of having better technical skills. But there wasn't really anything wrong with my exposures. This got me to look more closely at some of those magazine photos of wonderful places. That's when it struck me:
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Position people for what's behind them, not you!
(Dubrovnik, Croatia)
archways, cityscapes, croatia, dubrovnik, europe, horizontal, men, photographers, photographing, town view, photograph
I noticed composition choices I hadn't seen before. Yes, composition can truly make or break a photo. What we see everyday in travel brochures had gone passed me without notice: using a window to frame a landscape, rather than just taking a wide-angle picture; placing my friends in the immediate foreground in front of me, rather than far away next to the ancient cathedral; zooming in close on people, rather than holding back. Yes, even small, subtle things, like making sure the horizon (and/or other lines) are level, can have dramatic effects on the perceived quality of a photograph.

My big epiphany came when I started seeing as the camera does, not as my eyes do. To see a scene as it will appear as a photo is profoundly different than the way our eyes see real life. When we walk around, our brains are wired to see things in real-time, three-dimensional, live-action movement. We then introduce our emotions into the mix, which collectively coalesce into "an impression." When we click the camera's shutter release, we think the camera is capturing the same impression our brains are seeing at the time, but it doesn't. Reproducing that same emotional effect requires understanding how we view photographs. When a tourist takes pictures, he lines up friends or family members like a football team in front of an ancient cathedral, thinking, "Hey! People I know! An old church! We're in Spain! We're having fun! Let's take a picture to capture the moment!" Then when he shows his photos to others, there's a sort of obligatory "great!", with forced smiles, even though the pictures are, well, you know, "bad." This is because a bad vacation photo doesn't capture the same essence of moment that real life provides.

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When subjects are up front, and off center, the photo is much more appealing.
(USA)
dan jill, dans, horizontal, jills, personal, trip, photograph
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Good Composition is simple once you "get it."
(Alto Adige, Italy)
alto adige, berghotel moseralm, bernard, dolomites, doorways, europe, italy, vertical, photograph
Knowing how the non-vacation brain works is the key. First, viewing a photograph allows the brain to pick up details that vacation brains filter out: the telephone wires overhead, or the annoying car on the left side of the parking lot overlooking Monument Valley. When we see pictures, we notice all these small artifacts and imperfections that we often had no idea were even there in the first place. Such details notwithstanding, the second thing our real-time brains are wired to do that our photo-viewing brains don't is automatically make certain adjustments, such as straightening out lines. We always see the horizon as level, or the side of a building as vertical, even though we may not be upright ourselves. Our real-time brains also compensate for jittery motion, or to conceptually put into focus the object of our interest, and put everything else out of focus (even though our eyes don't really do that). Our real-time brains also put objects' sizes in perspective to one another, such as the size of a full moon in a dark sky, or the proximity of a friend standing next to a statue far away. Our real-time brains even do color-correction, like the black or blue of nite, or the amount of red in a sunset. These perceptions are not reality—these are our brains constructing a reality that makes sense to us. It's easy to demonstrate this—simply take a snapshot of any of these things and you'll see the photo doesn't quite look the same as you remember it. Obviously, the goal is to make photos reconstruct the "impression" that the real-time brain would have if viewing the same thing.
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Do you really want the bus in the picture?
(Patagonia)
animals, horizontal, latin america, lesser, lesser rhea, patagonia, rhea, photograph
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Move five steps to the left to put the mountains behind it.
(Patagonia)
animals, horizontal, latin america, lesser, lesser rhea, patagonia, rhea, photograph

Perhaps you're thinking at this point, "Hey, I don't want to take great shots that end up in magazines, and I don't want to ruin the moment by having to futz with a bunch of thing-a-majigs. I just want to shoot and go." I understand. But before you get your undies up in a bunch, you'd be surprised to find that taking a better picture requires no more time than taking a bad one, nor does it take away from the experience of whatever you're doing. Once you know what to look for, you can just as casually and instinctively snap away as you currently do. This is much the same as how putting on your seatbelt doesn't interfere with the driving experience once you get in the habit of wearing it; it just becomes second-nature and you never realize you're doing it.

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The Rule of Thirds
Horizon and Fence line up with horizontals, and trees and fence line up with verticals
(Bodie, California, USA)
nite, car, clouds, thirds, tech, rule, photograph
Though it can certainly be dissected and studied ad nauseum, good composition is largely intuitive; at some level, you already know what works and what doesn't—it's more a matter of having it pointed out to you, so you'll stop overlooking what's always been right in front of you. To some degree, that's what this book is for: to present examples that illustrate basic photography guidelines that contribute to better pictures. When actually attempted in the field, most people find their pictures improve considerably. By now, I'm sure you've already paged through this book before reading this first chapter. (I never read photo books without looking at the photos first. And usually from the back to the front for some reason.) If you're like me when I first saw photo books, you were probably thinking, "wow, I'd like to be there." Great—that's the real-time brain responding to the photo technique I want you to learn.

When composing a picture, the rule of thirds can promote most any average photographer to the next level almost instantly. The idea is to brake down the scene into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Strong horizontal objects should line up with (or be "close" to) each of the top and bottom division lines in the frame. Similarly with strong vertical objects lining up with the vertical lines.

The four cross-sections where each of the six dividing lines intersect are potential "anchor points" where you place something, whether it's simply an intersecting line (such as the horizon), or an actual subject (such as a doorway, car, light, or person).

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Anchor points in The Rule of Thirds: the top of the bell tower, and the doorway.
(Bodie, California, USA)
nite, car, clouds, thirds, tech, rule, photograph
The "rule of thirds" is a guideline only, subject to creative judgment; not every anchor point needs an object, and not every scene has a horizon. Like learning to drive, "seeing" scenes this way may seem involved when you first try, but it doesn't take long before it's second nature and you don't even think about it anymore.

This book does not present a structured curriculum for teaching composition. I illustrate composition ideas, which are suitable for getting the basics. This may be suitable for most people, and a large part of the learning process is simply trying—once you know what to look for, you'll become better at judging your own photos, or at least other people's pictures. As long as you learn to critique someone's work, you're on your way to improving your own. Many websites allow you to upload pictures and have other people review them. A good search engine will quickly find the latest and greatest sites for this. (Hint: use "photo critique" as a search term.) Reading other people's critiques (and the critiques of those critiques) will quickly get you to see your own photos with a new eye.

For those who are truly eager to learn in a more formalized environment, local colleges or universities usually offer an introduction to composition course (whether photography or other art forms). One can typically grasp all the basics in just a few weeks of hands-on work with a teacher.

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A Photo worth trying to reproduce
(Piran, Slovenia)
europe, horizontal, monastery, pirano, signs, slovenia, photograph
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Reproduction Accomplished
(Piran, Slovenia)
buildings, cloisters, europe, franciscan, horizontal, monastery, monestaries, pirano, slovenia, photograph
For those who want to guide themselves, what I often suggest is reproducing pictures you already know. For example, when visiting a new city, go to any place that sells postcards and look for the top-selling ones. I was visiting the town of Piran, Slovenia, when I saw this sign for a monastery. I wanted to reproduce the photo on the sign to use as a starting point for inspiring new perspectives on the subject. Once I was there and sought out the location, I had gained had a new perspective on the building, and was able to produce images reflection my personal take on it. (See Buildings (Pirano, Slovenia) for examples.)
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Classic View of the Golden Gate Bridge
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bridge, california, golden gate, golden gate bridge, horizontal, national landmarks, san francisco, west coast, western usa, photograph
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Classic, with a twist
(San Francisco, California, USA)
bridge, california, full, golden gate, horizontal, national landmarks, san francisco, slow exposure, views, west coast, western usa, photograph
Sometimes, pros will say, "when I see everyone rush to take the same picture, I rush the other way!" I feel quite the opposite. There's a reason people go to a particular spot: because there's a classic photo to get. Pros want to get "unique" pictures that everyone doesn't have, but that doesn't require going where others don't go—it requires employing creativity. Here, I shot the Golden Gate Bridge at 4am, with a very long exposure to give light to the sky and to enhance the glow of the bridge. I also used a very wide angle lens to yield a photo you typically don't see.

3 The Technical Side

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Encroaching Storm
Sahara Desert
(Morocco)
africa, black and white, camels, desert, dunes, horizontal, morocco, sahara, sand, photograph
OK, so it's not all about composition. There are some technical details involved, especially for complicated shots. And while those who fear tech-talk are probably more squeamish than they need to be, those who seek technical details tend to rely on it far too much, thereby failing to be self-sufficient. Therefore, I'm hoping to reach a happy medium here. Let me illustrate.

I get the following question in email about many of my photos:

    "What were your camera settings when you took that picture? It would really help me to know that, because I'm a beginner."

This reminds me of the story where Ansel Adams was teaching a photo workshop in Yosemite National Park, and a student raised his hand. "What was the aperture setting and shutter speed on that photo of the moon rising over Half Dome?", Ansel quickly replied, "f64 at 2 seconds." This prompted another student to do the same, "And what about that photo?" Again, he quickly replied, "f32 at 1 second." This goes on and on, while the students scribble in their notebooks the technical information they were told, as if the magician were giving away his secrets. Finally, someone asked, "How do you remember all that information?" This time, the answer was more direct, "I don't. I'm making it up." The pencils stopped, and eyes looked up. "Beginners always wonder about this information, but it's meaningless. When you learn how to shoot, it won't even occur to you to ask such questions, or to remember those settings yourself."

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Tech Details: f9.0 @ 1/128, Canon EF 28-135mm Lens
Now, what did you learn?
(Buenos Aires, Argentina)
argentina, buenos aires, colored, la boca, lamps, latin america, painted town, vertical, photograph
A lot of beginners mistakenly believe that knowing the camera settings for any given picture will help them learn something, or give them some guidelines or insights on how the photographic process works. But, photography is not a paint-by-numbers game, where you memorize detailed do's and don'ts, and apply them under what appear to be similar conditions. One cannot possibly learn anything using this method. In fact, books that provide such information do more harm than good by perpetuating the illusion of knowledge, thereby delaying the real learning process.

When I talk about technical matters in this book, I'm not going to spoon-feed you with "data" that you would regurgitate in the field to come up with a similar picture. When it comes to learning certain techniques, like shooting night landscapes, it may be useful to know that an exposure requires 30 seconds on a tripod, not a single, hand-held snapshot. Or, that star-trails may require several hours exposure, not a few minutes. In every case, technical discussions are intended to be general guidelines about the nature of the photo process, not information to be stored for later retrieval.

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Everyone loves photographing at sunset, but the sun by itself—even with a magnificent sky—is often more dramatic when adding the context of the surrounding landscape.
(Ile de Rey, France)
europe, france, horizontal, ile de re, lighthouses, sunsets, water, photograph
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Not only does the sky get better after the sun sets, but other lights start coming up! The photo-ops never stop!
(Dubrovnik, Croatia)
cityscapes, croatia, dubrovnik, europe, horizontal, long exposure, ocean, sunsets, photograph
Eye-popping photos you see in books, galleries and magazines are rarely the original images that came out of the camera. Although technology is getting better, you shouldn't be discouraged if your photos of gorgeous sunsets just don't come out as spectacularly as the scene appeared in real life. This isn't your fault, nor that of your camera. It's simply a matter of how digital sensors capture and store light. That is, it simply sees light as "data," and cameras are calibrated so that the "common" pictures come out right. But our eyes are more dynamic than the traditional daytime picture—they readjust according to various real-world conditions (including human emotions) that the camera can't emulate. So, while the camera does a good job at representing real-world light in those easy, evenly-lit scenes, all cameras begin to falter when the light gets complex, uneven, or brighter or darker than the typical middle range of light. Oh, it captures the light OK, but it doesn't necessarily reproduce it properly in print or even on a computer screen. This requires human intervention to re-calibrate the picture properly to restore the light data back into proper alignment. Or, at least, what the viewer remembers it as being. (Or, ahem, wants it to be.)

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Original Photo out of the camera
(Logarska Dolina, Slovenia)
dolina, europe, horizontal, logarska, logarska dolina, long exposure, nite, orig, slovenia, star trails, stars, photograph
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Same Photo after drawing out hidden color data
(Logarska Dolina, Slovenia)
dolina, europe, horizontal, logarska, logarska dolina, long exposure, nite, slovenia, star trails, stars, photograph
To illustrate a dramatic example, the photo on the left illustrates that color exists in the digital image, but isn't weighted properly against other colors, yielding a flatter look. Using Photoshop, I "drew out" the fainter colors to bring the scene back to reality. I did not introduce new colors that wasn't there—that requires far more skill that exceeds my abilities (and time, which exceeds my patience). But, the task of re-balancing colors already in the image is a reasonable, and more manageable process. Tools such as Photoshop are becoming easier to use for everyday people, and come with automated tools to do the same kinds of color-editing you see here.

This book does not get into any discussion of digital editing, but it is mentioned here for context and to set your expectations of what you can get from your own photography. Granted, the untrained eye may never notice such details, and you may well be perfectly happy with your unedited prints when you get them back from the lab. But, there will be a time when you try a shot found in this book and say, "I did exactly what you did, but you got all that shadow detail that I didn't!" Trust me, it's not you or your camera; it's the post-processing. If you want to take photography to the next level, learn Photoshop or other digital editing software. (No, it's not cheating—it's how pictures are made.)

All that said, I present no photographs here that require technical facts or skills that aren't at least described sufficiently for you to accomplish successfully on your own. Some tech details may be necessary to perform, such as, "reduce the flash power by one stop." Here, you may feel like it's beyond your reach, but I will also explain (to which you must understand conceptually) that the flash usually emits more light than you need for a given type of shot, so you need to reduce it's output for this picture. If you don't know how to do that, read your flash (or camera) manual and figure it out.

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Shooting many times optimizes the chance of getting the "best" one.
(USA)
panoramic, triptych, tech, photograph
If you are still intimidated by what appears to be a complicated process, let me put another thing into perspective: even the best pros never get the shot right the first time, or at all in some cases. By the time many photos appear here (or pretty much in any print form), they may be among the finalists of tens or hundreds of attempts. (In some cases, over a period of time.) Though some pictures really are just single shots, it's more often the exception than the rule. One needn't master technical skills before making good pictures. Over time, you will simply get better at them, and thus, your overall image yield will improve.

On the other end of the scale, there are certainly those who are well adept at using their camera, and accordingly, may be worried that this book may be too simplistic. Again, learn from the Ansel Adams story above—it's not about the details—it's about the process. Those who have technical ability are even better candidates from stepping away from the "tech" and looking at photography from the big-picture perspective. In that context, this book is well-suited for the moderately advanced amateur photographer.

As for camera equipment, I assume you have a camera and the basic knowledge of how it works. While I will include point-n-shoot cameras in some areas, you are strongly advised to use an SLR camera and an array of lenses to accomplish the most of the kinds of photos presented in this book.

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Anyone could shoot this.
(Havana, Cuba)
caribbean, cuba, horizontal, island nation, islands, latin america, people, shannon, womens, photograph
In closing, let's return to my own observation about travel photography years ago and re-evaluate it: given a really great-looking model, a pristine beach, a sunny day, and great photo equipment, can "anyone" can come up with great photos? I can honestly say, "yes, if they simply bother to think conscientiously about what they're doing. That, and practice a lot." But, before your hire the model, rent the beach, and buy all that photo gear, spend some time practicing on a beach with your family (or reasonable facsimile) the next time you're on vacation. It'll be much more fun.

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