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Photography - The Basics

In those first weeks after you return, when the memories of your travels are still vivid and the desire to keep them that way is almost overpowering, a disappointing batch of travel snaps can send you spiralling towards the gloomy abyss of nostalgic returned travellers. There's one sure-fire way to way to avoid this - just take great pictures - and we're here to help you do it!

Remember: Photography is a form of art. Like writing a novel or painting a masterpiece it takes time, thought and skill. So, if you want to capture the perfect picture you’re going to need to put your thinking cap on…

Composition is key

What you include in your photograph, where you place it in the shot and how close you get will have a dramatic effect on your final image. The fact is that if you want to get high quality, striking photographs then you need to pay careful attention to the composition of your shot.

Fill the frame

One technique that is popular with photographers is the “one step closer approach”. When you’ve chosen you’re subject take a step closer and see how it looks from your new position. Don’t be afraid to fill the entire shot with your subject or even just one feature of it. This will give you a simple, uncluttered picture that is extremely effective. What’s more, it will add a touch of the dramatic to even the most basic of subjects.

Remember: you’re not always as close as you think so if you want your travel shots to give the impression that you were right there next to your subject you need to get in closer.

De-clutter your pictures

Trying to fit too much into your photo is a sure-fire way to confuse the viewer. It distracts from your chosen subject and over-complicates the shot. In order to keep your pictures simple you need to first decide what your subject is. Once you know this you can begin to eliminate everything else. Look at the background and decide what is essential to the shot and what isn’t.

If you can’t cut enough out of the background from a certain angle try using another. Moving around, trying different angle and generally experimenting is a great way to get it right but if you have a camera that uses film this isn’t always possible.

Having said all that, there are some circumstances where clutter is just what you need. For example, to capture the essence of a bustling local market you need to show that it’s filled with life and packed with people. The more you squeeze into the picture, the more you will emphasise the lively atmosphere and that’s just what you want! The key here is to know when to break the rules.

The rule of thirds

One of the biggest mistakes amateur photographers make is to always place the subject or focal point of their photograph in the centre of the shot. This makes for unimaginative and ineffective pictures, so you need to get out of the habit of it fast. One technique to help you do this is the rule of thirds. The trick is to divide your subject into thirds both horizontally and vertically (some digital camera have a feature which will do this for you). Instead of placing your subject in the centre block, you place it at one of the four central intersections. This will give a more dramatic effect and should help to draw the viewers’ attention to your chosen subject.

The same rule applies when you are taking landscape photographs. Rather than placing the horizon line (where the land/sea meets the sky) in the middle you should experiment with placing it on the upper or lower third. Placing the horizon line along the upper third will emphasise the foreground while placing it on the lower third will emphasise the sky.

Experiment with different angles

One of the biggest mistakes a photographer can make is to neglect the possibilities of taking a step to the left or dropping down on one knee. You’ll be surprised what a difference a little bit of movement can make, so try out all the angles before you decide on your final shot.

It’s not just about moving left and right, it’s about dropping to a lower angle and climbing onto a near by rock for a higher one. A shot from ground level can create a strikingly unusual image, while a shot from above can allow you to capture something completely new and unnoticed.

Something else you might want to consider as you move around your subject is whether the image will look better in portrait or landscape format. It’s common for travellers to take all their pictures in landscape format but even shots of the countryside can look striking when using portrait format.

Get creative

It’s not often that travellers get stuck for inspiration but sometimes they do miss what's right before their eyes. Landmarks are everywhere and it’s easy to get distracted by what you think you should be taking pictures off. The essence of a country can’t be found in a famous building or a national landmark, it lies in every corner of every street, in the culture, the people and the lifestyle and that is what you need to capture.

Keep your eyes peeled for the unusual – this will be particularly effective in your first days in country when everything seems new and exciting. If you’re staying for any period of time you’ll want to change your technique. Once you start getting accustomed to your surroundings the best pictures will come from what you begin to think is “normal”. These real life shots are likely to be infinitely more effective than those you take of national landmarks and they’ll serve as a lasting reminder of your time there.

If you really want to challenge yourself then one technique is to set yourself little tasks. Spend an hour, or a day if you have the time, taking pictures of everything you see that is yellow or take time out to focus on a feeling or sensation – sad, laughter, juicy, rough – whatever catches your fancy!  If you’re only staying for a short period of time then this could be limiting and you might end up missing something really amazing, on the other hand you might just capture that perfectly unique shot.

Have your camera ready

It might seem silly but if your camera isn’t turned on and ready to go you could miss a fantastic photo opportunity. Beware digital cameras for they will often switch to “sleep” mode without you realising and the time it take for them to turn back on could be all it takes to miss that perfect snap!

Using colour

Colour is everywhere; in some parts of the world it’s vibrant and bawdy, in others subtle and beautiful. Whatever it’s like where you’re going you’re going to want to make the most of it, to capture it at its best.

Vivid colours make a photo stand out, so don’t be afraid to snap them even if they seem a little tacky. Traditional markets are a great place to find bright colours with all sorts of fruits and vegetables on sale and some colourful characters hawking them too.

Subtle colours can be just as effective but you need to catch them in context. Whether it be the way the sunrise tints the African plains or the drab greys of over-worn clothes contrasted against bright smile of a child, subtle colours can give your colours immeasurable depth and effect.

Telling a story

It’s important to remember that your pictures are lasting memories of your time abroad. You should be able to track your journey through them and each should spark a memory. Taking great pictures is something everyone wants to be able to do but taking pictures that bring you back to one of the best times of your life is the ultimate goal.

One way to do this is to capture “your time”, the daily activities that many of us forget when we get home. If you want a picture to bring it all back, give it a theme, be it eating, partying or simply relaxing on the beach. Don’t just take pictures of your surroundings; make sure you include those you travelled with and, more importantly, yourself. 

If you want to take great pictures then you need to start thinking outside the box. Most travellers simply see something they want to photograph and go ahead and do it. What this article has been trying to show you is that to get those striking, attention grabbing shots again and again you need to think about what you’re doing. Consistency can only be found in practice, forethought and creativity – you might be able to get a great one-off without them but when you’re travelling to exotic destinations, exploring new cultures and meeting extraordinary people, that just isn’t going to cut it!