Festivals and street fairs can be challenging to shoot due to backgrounds cluttered with people, buildings, and cars. To make this portrait of grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco, I got down low so that most of the background was covered by the cloth of the costume, and I used a wide aperture to throw the hectic street scene into soft focus.
The web is positively overflowing with “life hacks,” simple tips and tricks to save us all time and effort and to achieve better results. Some lists are better than others, but it is in the spirit of these lists that I bring you this compilation of five simple travel photography hacks. These techniques are not difficult and do not require expensive gear. They work equally well for your photography whether traveling or at home. And I promise that if you follow them, your images will improve. Pros do these things almost automatically; to us, it’s hygiene, like tooth brushing. If you read no other post about photography, read this one.
- Avoid cluttered backgrounds: So often the travel images of a professional stand out from those of amateurs simply because they took careful notice of what was in the background while composing the shot. Try to frame your subject against a clean backdrop such as a dark-colored wall or the sky. If there’s no way to avoid including some clutter in the background, at least use a wide aperture (low F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus. I’m always reminding my students–and myself–to pay at least as much attention to composing the background as the main subject.
- Watch your horizon: Frequently, we’re so intent on composing the main subject within our viewfinder that we forget to check whether the camera is level before firing the shutter. An uneven horizon can give the impression of vertigo, like the subject is going to fall out of the frame. Some cameras have a virtual horizon function to show you whether the horizontal and vertical axes are level, but whether you use it or not, be sure to check visually that the edge of the image looks correct.
- Achieve sharp focus: The one characteristic of an image that even the most inexperienced viewer can identify immediately, and one that’s almost impossible to fix in post-processing, is poor focus. Today’s cameras are so easy to use that we often overlook this most basic element. The camera can’t know for sure what subject you intend to have in focus; it can only make its best guess. So take the extra fraction of a second while composing your image to move the camera’s focus point onto the main subject (even smartphone cameras have this capability). Or use a small aperture (high F-stop number) to provide a wide depth of field so that essentially everything is in focus.
- Choose the correct exposure: Another very basic element of any photograph, exposure can only be correctly chosen by the photographer, not by the camera. Your camera’s Auto mode can be fooled very easily by many tricky situations, most commonly by backlighting of the subject. It’s fine to use the camera’s guess as a starting point, but nearly every camera (including smartphone cameras) have a way to manually override this guess, so learn how to do this and add in about a stop or two of extra exposure if your subject is backlit, more if the backlighting is severe.
- Turn off the darned flash: Most cameras have a mode where the flash fires automatically if the meter determines the extra light is needed. This is rarely a good thing. Far better to turn off the auto flash setting and make your own decision about when to use the flash. Otherwise, your low-light images could end up with an eerie, unnatural color cast or your far-away subject could be underexposed (a flash typically lights an object only a few feet away from the camera, so why fire the flash when you’re photographing an object hundreds of yards or even miles away?). Worse, if you are shooting through glass or another reflective surface, your flash reflects off the surface, ruining your whole image. Worse still, your flash may blind everyone else near you in a very dim setting, damage sensitive artwork, or scare or anger nearby wildlife. I’ve seen countless visitors ejected from museums, zoos and aquariums, and other wonderful destinations because they hadn’t figured out how to override their camera’s auto flash setting. Just turn off the darned flash, and use it manually when appropriate.
To properly expose a backlit subject, you will usually need to override your camera’s automatic exposure mode. Two easy methods are to use your camera’s spot meter (if available) to set the exposure based on the area where the subject is, or to use exposure compensation to dial in an extra 1-2 stops of exposure.
Learn these simple techniques and follow them whenever you shoot, and you’ll start making images that stand out from the crowd. Remember, you, and not the technology inside your camera, are the creative force behind your images.
What are your favorite tips and tricks to ensure you make the best images possible? Please share here!
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