Take Better Travel Photos Today

Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster in London, Photo by Brenden Sherratt

One of the biggest mistakes most people make in the pursuit of travel and holiday pictures is overlooking the fabulous in a quest for the trite and cliche. Every photographer in the business has made that mistake at one point in their career, so make a pledge that the pictures you take on holiday this year will be different.

Everyone knows what the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument look like. Any photos you could take will probably look just like hundreds of others of the same exact thing. Yes, take one or two, just for the scrapbook value, but don’t stop there. Find a unique angle, a different way of looking at something familiar.

Reflection of the Washington Monument in an eye. Photo by Jennuine Captures

When I used to work on a military base the building we were in had a peculiar paint job around the front door. Otherwise, it was just another nondescript government building designed and built by the low bidder. But the front door was distinct. So when I took a picture to remember my time there, I took a picture of the door handle. The handle that I reached for every morning for years and years and eventually came to dread touching. So many emotions all tied to an object that I looked at every day and almost failed to notice.

When you’re on vacation, get a shot of the touristy things, then try to find little details that define your experience. Maybe it’s a unique cab driver, or a street vendor, or some other details that normally get lost in the background clutter.

Faces in Temple Bar, Dublin, Photo by Brenden Sherratt
I have a friend with a large family who recently was able to get four generations of daughters together for a photo. He took the predictable group photo, then took one of everyone putting just their hands in a circle over a black background. Guess which picture was the most popular?

It’s the details that seem inconsequential today that spark the most vivid memories tomorrow. There was a stand of trees where we used to live, nothing particularly special about them, just trees. One day I fired off a shot just to check exposure levels of that stand of trees and forgot to delete it. It got mixed in with the assignment that day and I ran across it days later processing the pictures for the customer.

tree photo
A photo of a stand of trees that I almost deleted ended up meaning more to me than I would have thought at the time

To this day that’s one of my favorite shots. Just some trees, but I saw them every time I went outside and, even today, that shot can bring memories of that place flooding back.

So this year, don’t just take the obvious shots. Take pictures of hands, feet, dog toys, crumpled wrapping paper, and the millions of other little details you see but don’t always notice. Instead of just looking at the tourist attraction, look to the left and right, look behind it. Find a unique angle and tell a different story the next time you are on a trip.

Travel Photography Tips

busy airport photo
Picture yourself trudging down this concourse loaded with camera gear - by Brian Robert Marshall

Tis the season when families consider making the trek through wild weather and brave crowded airports to spend the holidays with family and friends. Travel photography presents its own set of challenges and a shortened equipment list. Here are my tips to get great pictures while not losing the feel of being on vacation.

Pack Light

Hauling a full-size DSLR on vacation travel is a non-starter for many people, even some photographers. These days you don’t have to with cameras like the Nikon J1 and the Sony NEX-5 (compare).

With these new compact, mirrorless cameras sporting large sensors in a small frame camera, there’s little reason to drag your full size DSLR along on vacation or family get togethers, unless you’re really a glutton for neck strain.

Modern Zoom Lenses Mean Fewer To Pack

The zoom range of some modern lenses means fewer you need to carry. With lenses like Tamron’s new 18-270mm zoom lens you don’t need to bring the bag. That is a crazy long zoom range. Criticized for having a slightly louder focus motor than the Canon lenses, I’ll put up with a little noise if it means I don’t have to carry a lens bag through a gate change in Atlanta.

Speaking of Bags, Get a Good One

A well-constructed padded bag is a necessity for your camera gear. Look for names like Lowepro, Canon, Think Tank and Domke. Don’t forget about the new sling-style bags that look like bike messenger bags. Those are super easy on your neck and leave both hands free for carrying your other luggage.

Take a Spare Data Card

Nothing can spoil the holiday mood like a data card going bad. I’ve had two SanDisk cards fail on me, one in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime event. Now I always have an emergency spare data card taped to my camera strap, besides the spare card. If it’s in a bag, it can get lost. If it’s in a pocket it can fall out. Taped to my camera strap is the only place I know it will be with me where ever I happen to be shooting.

Spare Batteries

I carry a pack of AA batteries with me all the time and always have a spare camera battery charged and ready. There’s an unwritten rule in nature that camera batteries must always run out at the most inconvenient moment. I pretty much use the same rule for my camera battery as I do for the gas tank in the car: Never below one quarter. Newer batteries don’t develop charge memory like the old NiCads, so there’s less incentive to push it. When my camera battery gets below half, I swap it out and put the other one on the charger.

Plan ahead and make a minimal investment in some decent gear and you’ll have much easier travel experience and enjoyable holiday.

How Do I Get a Press Pass?

press pool
The president's press pool is the holy grail for assignment photojournalists - by Pete Souza

This is another one of those questions I get frequently, usually when I’m in the media pool for some event, and usually from someone attending who wants to know how to get in without paying.

The answer is complicated. When I worked for several local papers and regional journals, it was easy. I’d pick one of several press cards and most of the event organizers already knew who I was. You may not have that luxury and I don’t have it anymore.

These days, when three-quarters of the people working in the business are freelancers, the situation is a lot more fluid and frequently really random. There are several organizations that will sell you press credentials and even supply cover letters for specific events. Most of those are not worth the paper they’re printed on, so save your money.

A web site that identifies you as a freelance journalist and has work samples, including photo galleries of other events you’ve covered, will work roughly 60 percent of the time and almost always for small, local events. After that it gets harder.

For the really big fish, like professional sporting events, facilities like NASA, and other events where everyone and their dog with a camera wants a press pass, a web site and business cards aren’t going to make it. My cousin is the media director for a professional sports team and had this to say on the subject:

“I think you will find that most teams don’t accept credential requests from freelancers, regardless of your affiliation with those companies. When we get requests from freelancers, we require the request to come from the organization for which you are working that day. We don’t allow photographers to come in shoot a game and then sell the photos to anyone who will buy them. “

So there you have it. Unless you’re being sent by an organization they recognize, you’re not going to get media credentials. Even then not everyone gets in; I’ve had organizations I was working for, names you’d recognize, turned down for events they wanted me to cover. There’s a lot of competition for media passes the higher up the food chain you go. Unless you’re being sent by Getty, AP, The New York Times, USA Today or other big names, getting in is not a lock.

But try anyway. Sometimes, despite all odds, you get lucky. It just depends on who is reviewing the requests and how they feel that day. I’ve put requests in, certain they would be turned down, only to have them go through. On the flip side there are venues I was certain of getting in that turn me down, sometimes rudely. You just never know.

There is one loophole in all this: Student journalists working for a school paper can almost always get in. Those battle-hardened media people like my cousin still have a soft spot for the plucky student journalists trying to get a story for the school paper.

What will really gripe you is being stuck outside the gate with the slush pile of freelancers, at a venue you’ve been trying to get in for months, and watching a group of college and high school kids packing a Nikon with a kit lens, whisked past the velvet ropes.

I had to cover the last shuttle launch from outside the gates while a bunch of 19 year old kids got to live blog it from the control room. That’s part of the business, just deal with it and move along.

Can’t Miss Landscape Tips

Twin Captains in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area

Every photographer hears the call of the wild at some point. I used to get up at 4 am to haul a Bush Pressman D model 4×5 out into the wilderness along with a steel tripod that was a handy companion in a bar fight but quite a load to pack around otherwise.

The great thing about shooting landscapes is they’re not moving very fast. It’s easy to keep a bead on them. All the same you keep seeing the same mistakes in shot after shot: The horizon splitting the shot across the middle, no point of interest, bad lighting, and no shot lines for continuity.

Luckily you don’t have to haul a camera the size of microwave oven up a mountain trail in the dark to get good landscape photos. Anyone with a decent camera and a tripod should be able to take postcard quality landscape shots by keeping a few simple rules in mind.

Use A Tripod

Today there are aluminum and carbon fiber tripods that weigh very little, or a Gorilla Pod that will easily fit in your backpack. Take one.

Two reasons for a tripod: One is so you can choose an f-stop to get the maximum depth of field. Unless you’re going for bokeh with a foreground object placement, most of the time you want the smallest aperture (highest f-stop) that you can swing for a landscape to capture the maximum amount of detail.

The other reason for a tripod is for water shots where a slow shutter speed will give the water a foggy, smooth appearance.

Don’t Split The Horizon

Look back on our tips for composition and remember those apply to landscapes as well.

When it comes to the horizon, it’s a rare shot that splits the horizon along the center line and still looks good. Decide whether you want to emphasis the foreground or the sky and align the horizon along the appropriate third.

Horizon line
The horizon line is a little too close to center in this shot

Look For a Foreground Subject

To make mental composition easier look for a foreground with some interesting detail and frame around that.

The biggest offender in this category tend to be beach shots. When the horizon is on the upper third, there’s this huge, featureless expanse of sand in the foreground. Try to find some dunes or beach grasses to break up all that sand.

Converging Lines

One pro tip for taking better landscapes is to start asking yourself what elements are leading the eye of the viewer in your shot.

If you don’t have good foreground lines, start looking around for roads, power lines, tree lines, anything that take a point of reference and lead it toward a subject.

Wait For It

In movie production the hour just on either side of sunset is called the “Golden Hour” for a reason. That’s when the quality of sunlight is at its warmest, with a reddish gold glow that saturates colors and brings out contrast.

That golden moment in lighting is worth waiting for. I try to get setup at least a half-hour early and shoot through the whole range of golden hour. As the light angle shifts you’ll be amazed at the different colors, patterns and shadows that change from one minute to the next. It is really quite a remarkable time of day.

Perfect Panoramas

panorama photo
Waves can be a challenge when shooting panoramas, you can see the break lines if you look closely - by 1suisse

Creating the perfect panorama is far more difficult than merely stitching together a series of images in Photoshop. Getting the perfect shot takes planning, the right equipment and a surprising amount of preparation.

For certain specialized areas of photography, like architectural and structural, it’s not unusual to see photographers employ highly specialized cameras like the Seitz 6×17, which is great choice if you have $30,000 to drop on a camera. For some specialty areas of photography and certain applications such expense is justified.

I’m guessing most of you will want to utilize the equipment you happen to own now, as I would.

Once you select the vista you want to capture and have established your vantage point, you’ll need to gear up.

– Your camera
– A sturdy tripod
– A bubble level if your tripod doesn’t have one (some cameras have built-in software levels)

Remove the polarizer if your lens has one as subtle changes in the angle as you pan across a scene can cause the colors in the sky to change slightly.

There are specially made panorama heads for tripods, but those are expensive.  A $6 bubble level and tripod will usually do the job.

Horizontal or Vertical Framing

It’s your choice. Horizontal framing will give you a long, narrow shot. To get a wider picture select vertical framing.

Be aware that vertical framing may introduce subtle errors because you’re no longer pivoting around the lens access. To correct for that you need to either have your camera perfectly level relative to the horizon, or there are specially made panorama tripod heads that compensate for the shift.

The vertical framing won’t be quite the issue if you’re perfectly level, especially with a full frame camera like a Canon 5D.

Turn Off Auto Everything

This will be a challenge because most cameras have automatic settings that most people aren’t even aware exist. Modern cameras are fitted with computers that will fight to the death to get you the most perfect picture it can with whatever functions it still controls independent of the operator. So, for panoramas, you have to turn them all off.

The auto ISO setting is the one most people overlook, auto white balance is another. I go so far as to turn of Peripheral Illumination Correction and Low Light Noise Correction. Some of the newer consumer cameras have panorama features built-in that take care of the exposure and overlap issues for you.

Depth of Field

In most panoramas, depth of field is going to be more important than shutter speed since you’re working on a tripod. You’ll want to use a smaller aperture (higher f-stop) but don’t feel like you have to go all the way to f/22. You should be able to get adequate DoF for a panorama out of f/11 or above.

Overlapping Frames

I prefer to pick my overlap points manually. For landscapes it’s easy: Find a prominent feature with strong vertical lines that will be easy to match up in post and overlap your frames on those features.

Oceans and beaches present peculiar problems in panoramas because of waves and people moving around on the beach. Waves may be one time you want to think about bumping up to f/22 so you can utilize a slower shutter speed. Since it won’t be possible to preserve a wave pattern from one frame to the next, sometimes the best compromise is to use a slower shutter speed that blurs out the wave motion. You can also cheat in post-processing and use the clone tool to blend wave features, but that’s a lot of manual work.

For situations where there are humans moving around, you’ll just have to be fast and try to pick break points large enough to conceal a moving person, like a pillar or big tree. If you’re far enough back from a crowd, minor imperfections won’t likely be that noticeable anyway.

I wouldn’t advise trying an HDR panorama where there are any moving parts. That’s going to be hard enough to get right on a static scene. Use Automatic Exposure Bracketing if your camera supports it and I do the HDR layering before trying to stitch the panorama photos together. It’s inevitable when adding HDR layering that the color in one frame will be off, so find that one first and minimize the amount of color work you have to do in post.

With that exception, do the stitching first and then run color and contrast correction on the final product.

Shooting Panoramas

Stitching Panoramas Together