Take Great Travel Photos

A Picture IS Worth 1000 Words

Great photography doesn’t happen when you take a picture. It happens before you do so.

The reason: Great visuals are composed. 

Leonardo knew what he was going to paint before he put brush to canvas. Michelangelo knew what he was going to sculpt before putting chisel to stone. Beethoven knew what a symphony would sound like before putting pen to paper.

Compelling photos start with preparation. Here are the three most important things to do before you shoot, regardless of whether you’re using a phone or a dedicated camera:

  1. Decide on the single most important element in the photo you wish to take.

  2. Get close it. You want as much of it on the screen in distortion free form as you can, recognizing that backgrounds are important for providing context.

  3. Draw a mental grid over the screen, dividing it into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Place the most important element over one of the four points where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect. This is known as the rule of thirds. All great artists and photographers use it, because they know that your eye is drawn more to an object placed one third of the way up, down, or across a canvas than right in the middle of it.

If you’re using a phone or tablet to take photos of your trip, and you’re only planning on posting to Facebook, that’s pretty much all you need to know.

But, the odds are, you won’t be happy if you want to create a print for framing, card for sending, or photo book for remembering. That’s because your phone can create enough pixels for your smallish electronic screen, but not enough for printed material, larger screens, or tablets and computers with Retina screens.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a digital camera. Most of them, whether point-and-shoot or SLR, will allow you to take good travel photos. (Notice that I didn’t say the camera will take good photos. Only you can do that.)

Starting with the tips given above, use your camera to improve what you’ve composed by tweaking the aperture and shutter speed to ensure both focal depth and sharpness:

  • If you’re shooting people, focus carefully on their eyes and use a slightly larger aperture such as f2.8 or f4 to keep your subject sharp and your background soft, but relatively recognizable. Assuming that you’re using a wide or normal angle lens somewhere in the 24-55mm range, you’ll get plenty of depth of field (in-focus area) and a fast shutter speed that will ensure a sharp, steady shot.

  • If you’re shooting a landscape with the same type of lens, the same principle applies. If everything you want in focus is on the same plane, you can shoot at f4 or f.5.6 and use the fast shutter speed to keep things sharp and stable. Try to keep people out of the foreground, as they’ll be both out of focus and visually disruptive. Opening the aperture to f2.8 or f2.0 will soften the foreground, if you’d like.

  • If you want to have both the foreground and background in focus, or if you’re using a telephoto lens, things will be a bit different. You’ll be using an aperture of f8 – f11 to generate proper focal depth and a slower shutter speed to create proper exposure. You’ll probably want a shutter speed of at least 1/250 to eliminate camera shake. (This is especially true if you’re using a telephoto lens.) It’s very possible your camera’s light meter will be unhappy with this shutter speed, meaning you’ll either need a higher ISO (400-1600), a tripod, or both.


    Also, to get maximum depth of field, you’ll want to focus between the foreground and background. A good rule of thumb is to focus one third of the distance past your foreground. This should keep everything reasonably sharp.

Questions? Contact me. Happy hunting!


Masthead photo: Farming in Val D’Orcia (Bob)

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