Years ago I was in Bolivia on a climbing trip. We trudged on glaciers and ascended a steep face to the summit of Pyramida Blanca, a 17,000-foot peak. As we clambered up, I pulled out my camera for a summit photo. I pressed the shutter button and then . . . nothing. My battery was dead.
I have no photos from the highlight of that adventure.
Sometimes we learn the hard way that capturing great vacation photos requires more than pointing and shooting. A little attention to detail and understanding of a few basic concepts can make the difference between a forgettable photo and one showcased on a holiday card.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT Most of you will rely on a point-and-shoot camera for your travels, and if you select the proper one, you can still take DSLR-quality photos. Choose a camera with a wide-angle lens, something around 20mm, to enable you to get close to subjects. This will be more useful than a powerful zoom. Consider a waterproof camera if you’re skiing or hitting the beach. Video capability is nice, but a GoPro is better, and also takes publishable still images.
ACCESSORIZE Always bring a lens cloth. Your shirt makes a poor substitute and might not prevent that fingerprint from blurring the Eiffel Tower. If your camera houses a hotshoe for a flash, bring one. Its power can wipe out the dreaded high-noon shadows. Soften its blow with a softbox, a cheap, light diffusing accessory. A sheet of toilet paper and a rubber band works almost as well. A remote shutter release can permit shooting long exposure times if you use it with a tripod. You can purchase inexpensive pocket tripods that work fine with compact cameras. Pack one along. And don’t forget a spare battery and your charger.
KNOW YOUR CAMERA Most casual shooters depend too much on the automatic setting on their camera. It can work fairly well, but will almost always fail in unique situations. Familiarize yourself with the aperture and shutter priority modes on your rig. Pull out the fast shutter speed when it’s needed, like at the races or a sports game. Flip to aperture priority and choose a wide-open aperture (low f-stop number) if you’re in dim lighting.
MASTER YOUR FLASH The automatic flash setting almost always screws up in strongly-lighted conditions. You need to force the flash to fire, even if it doesn’t detect the need, if you’re shooting a close subject with shadows, like the faces of your kids at the beach. The same situation holds if you’re shooting into the sun. The light will trick the camera to turn off its flash and your subject will appear dark. This technique can generate intriguing back- lighted images, but if your intention is to be able to see your wife’s face with the sunset behind her, you’ll need that force flash.
BE READY FOR UNIQUE SITUATIONS Too much or too little light are your enemies. And often they’re not avoidable. Shooting in an aquarium? Pull out that tripod and set the aperture wide open. You’ll need a shutter release to avoid shaking the camera, but if you don’t have one a helpful hint is to set the timer. Press the button, step away and let the steady camera do its thing. This same trick can work when shooting streetscapes at night. With the camera on a tripod, choose the widest aperture (lowest f-stop) you can. If you execute this properly you’ll generate interesting streaks from the lights of passing cars. This works well for campfire shots and kids running with flashlights. If your camera has a “bulb” function, select it. This will keep the shutter open for as long as you dictate.
Sometimes you want to manipulate the focus of what’s in the camera, a concept known as depth of field. Let’s say you’re shooting the length of a picket fence and you want only the middle to be in focus. Again choose a low f-stop; this narrows how much depth will come into focus. Next, find the setting that allows you to tell the camera where the focal point is, selecting a spot focus rather than the general setting. You’ll find this information in your manual. Point that spot focus mark on the part of the fence you want in focus and shoot.
COMPOSE It’s worth getting a basic book on composition of photos, as composition is the foundation for great images. You should try to focus on interesting subjects and incorporate them into your photos. A photo of the Grand Canyon will be much more stunning with a person or a cactus is in the foreground. Try to place the image a third of the way across and a third of the way up or down in the photo, not in the center. This “rule of thirds” has been shown to produce visually pleasing photos, more so than ones where the subject is centered.
RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN Sometimes placing the subject directly in the center of the frame works best. A photo of a child walking down a trail might appear more striking if they’re in the dead center of the frame. But be careful with symmetry, as most good images aren’t symmetrical. Symmetry works best with objects conducive to presentation in a “mirror image” fashion, like a zoom photo of the grill of a firetruck or a lengthwise photo down the throat of a set of railroad tracks.
BRING IT ALL HOME Gathering your images is one thing, storing them is another. Digital photos can pile up faster than spam in your inbox and can be a nightmare to organize if you don’t start from the beginning. There are many ways to do this, but I prefer to sort them into a series of folders, each starting with the year, then the location (i.e., 2014_NYC). This way you can always find images from specific trips. No one is so skilled that every photo is a keeper, but don’t toss any. Instead build a subfolder inside of each folder with your top shots. Now, you’ve essentially built a photo album in the subfolder, and kept all the images in the master folder.
I like to keep my computer clean, so I store all folders on external hard drives, sort of like digital photo albums. I back them up onto two separate drives. Now, my images are safe if my computer crashes. Using cloud-based storage is another option, but it takes more time to upload photos. Consider bringing a card reader and your laptop on trips and dumping your photos onto the drives each night. Camera cards can become corrupt, and if they do, they’ll eat your photos and your memories alike.