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Travel Photography Basics 101 for all Travel Photographers

This article in the Tim's Tips for Travel Photographers discusses some of the very basic topics to remember when you are wandering around the planet on your exotic overseas photography trip. Though elementary, they are nonetheless essential, and worth reminding yourself of, even if you have been taking travel photographs for many years already.

Point number one is also the most important. Whatever else you are doing, don't forget to concentrate on the focus point of your photograph. Every photograph has some point that must be in focus, even if the rest of the shot is not, and it is essential that you recognise that point, and check that the focus is set correctly for it. For portraiture, or any shot that has a person in it, this point is easy to assess: its the eyes. ALWAYS FOCUS ON THE EYES. I've typed this in capitals because it cannot be emphasized enough. Focus elsewhere on the body, and if the eyes are out of focus, the photo is ruined. There are many mistakes that you can make when taking a photograph, and most of them can be corrected in PhotoShop after the event. One of the exceptions to this, however, is an out-of-focus shot. There is nothing that can be done afterwards to bring an out-of-focus photograph back into focus, so it is crucial that if you remember nothing else, you at least remember this.

I have lost a number of what would have otherwise been excellent commercial-quality shots, just because the focus was wrong. It is very easy, for instance, to leave the camera set to choose its own focus point out of the 51 available on my Nikon D300, but if it chooses the wrong point and I don't notice it, the photograph is ruined. Multiple-focus points chosen by auto selection are very useful at times, especially when there is a lot of fast moving action taking place. It lets you snap away regardless, confident that at least something is in focus, but leave this turned on at the wrong time and there is every chance that the camera will pick the wrong bit of the image, and in the heat of the moment you will not notice this. Another photo that 'might have been good'. When taking photos of people, birds, animals, or anything else with a face, the best option is to switch to Single Point focusing. When taking a portrait you must quickly move the focus point to the eyes. Don't take too long about that, as it is very off-putting to be staring into a large lens whilst someone fiddles around with the settings. Practice doing this quickly and you will make your subject much more relaxed.

Get the horizons straight. Again, this is an easy one to forget when snapping shots in the heat of the moment, especially if the prime point of interest and focus is not connected in your mind with the background. Get the horizons wrong, unless for definite artistic effect, and they will need to be corrected later on. Although it is very easy to rotate and crop a photo later, it is better not to have to do this. The reason is that every time you rotate and crop, you will also lose some of the rest of the image, and may even take the pixel size below your acceptable range, causing the photograph to be rejected. Better to remember this in the first place, and try to keep the horizons straight whilst taking the shot. Some cameras, such as my Nikon D300, have the option for a Framing grid. When this option is turned on in the menu d2, you will see a grid displayed in the viewing area. This is very helpful when checking that horizons are straight. One other point of note about cropping: if you do crop a photograph later in PhotoShop, make sure that the new image doesn't have a small unwanted white border added. The cause of this is often the result of "snap" being checked in the view menu in Photoshop CS. See my 'Photoshop Image Retouching Workflow' tutorial for further details.

Look at the world through 1 eye. Most of us, fortunately, have two eyes, and we are so used to using them together to form a sense of the world around us that we forget we are seeing in three dimensions, not two. The camera you use to take still photographs is not so lucky, and with its single sensor can only view the world in two dimensions. This might seem quite obvious, and make you wonder why I am bothering to even mention it here, but actually it is a crucial concept to remember when you are assessing an image for maximum impact. The images that the camera will take have no factor of depth included, so if this is an important aspect of your shot, its necessary to add some depth-related clues in other ways: for instance by using a wide-angled lens and having clearly defined areas of fore, mid and background within the image. How to anticipate this, though? The simple way, and one to get into the habit of using, is simply to close one eye when looking at your potential photograph. As long as you haven't been looking at the scene for too long already, and thus built up a sub-concious 3-D image in your mind, by closing one eye you will take away all clues of depth, and flatten the image just like your camera will do. The shot will lose some of its appeal, of course, but at least it will be accurate, and better help you to assess the potential of the scene when considering its composition.

Keep an eye on changing conditions, and adjust accordingly. This is very important, but as with other things, easy to forget about in the heat of the moment. Here's an example: The other day I was photographing a carnival in a small seaside town in northern Venezuela. There were dancers, street processions, lots of color, and everything was moving quickly. To get the best shots, I had to keep ahead of the parade then let it pass me, then move back to the front and let it pass me again. This happened a number of times - exciting stuff, and great fun. But I forgot to notice that the light was slowly decreasing as the day progressed, and that my camera was taking shots at a progressively slower and slower shutter speed. The result was a few blurred photos that otherwise would have been useful. I realised soon enough, and was able to increase the ISO setting, and thus gain more speed at the expense of a slight increase in graininess. I could also have changed to my 50mm f1.8. I am mentioning this to remind you that even when you are having lots of fun, being creative, and taking a lot of shots, try and pause now and again to check that the photos are being recorded properly at setting that you are happy with.

Anticipate the action. In the life of a Travel Photographer there are more than enough surprises anyway, without introducing any un-necessary ones yourself. One way of reducing your surprise-count is to try and anticipate the action beforehand, and thus be prepared for what will happen. Where are you going to go today? To look around the famous town cathedral? Then you know in advance that the light will be poor, so you'll need your tripod, and probably a large aperture lens as well. Going to the racetrack? Then you know that things will be moving fast, but probably some way off from where you will be, so you'll need a good telephoto, and you might want to practise panning to capture the action beforehand by shooting some shots of cars on the freeway. Is the day sunny? You might remember your raincoat, but are you also sure that all your camera equipment will stay dry as well? Maybe it would be useful to add some extra plastic bags to your backpack.

These are all simple examples, but I think its worth including them just to make you consider the day before you start it. Lets always make sure that you have the right lens on the camera before you get there. Make sure your camera's clock is aligned with the GPS satellite time if you are Geo-referencing your photos. Get the little things correct before you leave your hotel, and thus save those surprises for the ones that your trip will undoubtedly provide, each and every day.


Read other articles in the Tim's Tips series...

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