“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams.
Have you ever noticed how the same scene or subject can be photographed hundreds of times, but the photos can look so drastically different from one another? Some may be out of focus, others may be crooked or the subject is cut off, and the colors of some may be too saturated, while others seem to tell a perfect story, appear dreamlike, or be composed so well that they must have been taken by a professional.
Taking photos is so much more than seeing something you want to capture and simply clicking the “shoot” button. We all see the world differently and how we take photos is a reflection of what we, individually, see in the shot.
Before you continue reading, I’d like to preface by saying that this post covers just the basics and is intended for beginner or amateur photographers 🙂
So… where to start?
Identify Your Photography “Style”
I personally think the first step to taking great travel photos is figuring out how or what it is exactly you want to portray, or what your “photography style” is.
Is it to showcase a beautiful landscape or cityscape, to capture a moving portrait of the locals, or maybe a creative shot of yourself within a foreign environment to exhibit your own lifestyle, thoughts and opinions? Or do you have a certain technical style like only shooting in black and white, shooting with wide-angle lenses vs. telephoto lenses, or mastering features like shutter speed and/or aperture?
You don’t necessarily need to have one particular style, but it definitely helps to find your niche or a common element. The subjects of your photos will always change, but pinpointing your style can give your gallery a cohesive look that’s catered to your individual perspective.
Composition: Lines, Shapes, Framing and Symmetry
How you compose the photo is what you can consider your “vision.” It’s what you see in a scene and how you want to draw the viewer’s eyes to your subject.
Look for leading lines – how do they draw your eyes towards key elements in the shot? A photo of a single winding road that cuts through a desert or a shot angled upwards in the middle of a forest with perfectly straight trees force your eyes to follow the lines up, can result in a seemingly simplistic, yet dramatic, photograph.
In this example above, see how the downward lines of the mountain slopes direct your eyes to the bottom center of the photo at the subject (me!)?
Looking for shapes in a scene is another important way to beautifully capture it. Horizontal photos influence your eyes to view it from side to side, while vertical photos encourage them to look up and down. This is something to keep in mind when deciding how to depict your subject.
Look at the natural flow of the scene. If one side of the shot is busy (a lot of people, trees, buildings, etc.) and the other side is relatively empty space, consider looking for lines or shapes that bring them together to give the shot some balance.
Framing is a big one for me; correctly framing your photo will automatically draw attention to a specific part of the shot. It can accentuate an aspect of the photo that normally could have gone unnoticed by the viewer, which is why photography can be so creative and personal. It tells the story the way the photographer sees it.
Deciding to partially crop out something, reposition the frame to focus on a less obvious subject (for example, a man sitting on the ground next to a grandiose doorway to juxtapose the attention the door would normally command), or zooming out as much as possible in a landscape shot so the subject, a person in the distance, is so small that they are completely enveloped by the scene, are all ways we can frame a photograph to depict the world the way we see it.
There’s no denying that there’s something so pleasing about symmetry. We love things to be straight, centered, even and overall just as perfect as they can be.
Symmetry is about balance. So again, look for lines. See how the subject relates to its surroundings. I’m a big fan of the “rule of thirds,” which is the idea that splitting the frame into thirds either horizontally or vertically and positioning your subject within one of those sectors elicits a more interesting photo.
Get Technical: Learn How to Use Your Camera
You don’t have to be an expert at using your camera, but you should at least have some basic knowledge of what all those little functions do to take better travel photos. Controlling the amount of light we let into the camera (exposure) is basically how we take a photo. Here are the three elements that affect how we use light:
Shutter Speed: the length of time that light enters the camera. In general terms, when it’s darker, you should use slower shutter speeds and when it’s brighter, use faster shutter speeds. Slower shutter speeds also blur movement.
Aperture: controls how much light enters the camera. One thing you’ll notice when adjusting the aperture of your lens is that your camera will also automatically adjust the shutter speed, as the two work hand in hand.
Aperture largely affects the depth of your shot. Using narrow aperture (high f-number) causes everything to be in focus, whereas using wide aperture (low f-number) focuses on the subject and blurs the background.
ISO: controls how sensitive your camera is to light. When it’s dark outside, increase your ISO to make your camera more sensitive to light. When it’s bright out, you can lower the ISO. It’s better to adjust the ISO first because it affects both shutter speed and aperture.
There’s obviously a LOT more to using the functions on your camera than what I mentioned, but it would be impossible to cover it all in one blog post!
Hard Light: Typically comes from one direction and is intense, like bright sunshine. It creates contrast by illuminating everything in its path, while everything else is dark. Creates depth.
Soft Light: Less intense and creates more detail. There are still shadows, but they usually are cast in multiple directions as everything in the scene is lit up more evenly. Can be flat, so the subjects of your image are relied upon to draw the eye where you intend.
Golden Hour: Late afternoon, probably about an hour before the sun sets. It’s one of my favorite times of the day in general, as well as my favorite time to shoot. Almost everything looks good during golden hour!
Develop a Vision
As I’ve mentioned a few times now, photography is so much about what the photographer sees in the shot and not as much what’s actually there. Start to develop your own personal vision and try looking at things differently. Notice how the elements of a scene relate to one another. Keep things like light and timing in mind. Even take note of your mood – what is it about that moment you want to capture?
Photographs are meant to ignite the imagination. Don’t seek perfection because perfection is subjective. You’ll get better the more you practice and pretty soon you’ll have stunning travel photos (if you don’t already!).
For more on photography, check out this awesome book by Henry Carroll: Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs.