Travel Photography Tips

The best photos usually come from being in the right place at the right time. However, if you're constantly on the move in your travels then understanding how to get the most from the moment is the key. In this article we'll give you some valuable tips to improve your travel photography.
Article By: ExplorOz Team
Created: December 2011
Latest Feedback: July 2012

Composing the frame

Photo composition is all about how you frame your picture, the field of view (determined by the focal length of the lens you have chosen (the amount of zoom), and how you position interest or natural features in the foreground and background.

Composition is part of the art of photography – what composition appeals to one person may not appeal to the next. Some people seem to naturally have a great eye for how to compose interesting photographs, yet for others you'll need to learn some design theory and guidelines. If you don't know the following, it is worth doing some further reading: Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Isolation (Selective Light/ Selective Focus), and Shooting Angles (Low or High).

Good photographers are never satisfied with the first frame they snap. They always take multiple photos at the same site and with digital photography, there is no reason why you shouldn't do this too. Get closer, try different angles, different lenses, get out of program mode and change settings and experiment with shutter speeds and apertures and compare the results. For outdoor photography particularly, it is ideal to come back at different times of day. Shadows, colour, light intensity etc will greatly affect your photo. Wait for something natural, like a bird to appear in the foreground to add depth to your frame, or wait for crowds to leave if photographing a unique natural formation, like Chambers Pillar or Wave Rock.

Landscape Scenery

Although a great scene can photograph well at any time of day, if you shoot just after dawn or dusk, the sun will have that magic light and warm tone that works spectacularly with the Australian outback. Red sand dunes, for example, will be really emphasised and will contrast even more with the blue sky.

When working with harsh light, one small, relatively inexpensive piece of equipment that can assist daytime scenery photographs is a polariser (make sure it is a circular polariser). You'll need to purchase one to fit each of your lenses as they are sized by the diameter and screw to the end of the lens. Polarisers work in the same manner as they do for sunglasses, they cut down glare and restore true colour depth to your photographs. You need to learn how to use the polariser as it needs to be adjusted (by rotating) to (for instance) bring out the blue in the sky, or reduce the glare from a water body. Polarisers do, however, reduce the amount of light getting to your sensor or film, so in low light conditions, they may be inappropriate.

Wide-angle lenses are ideal for scenery photos, especially in the Australian outback where the landscapes are often vast and widespread. Often, the better quality Digital SLR (D-SLR) cameras will include a kit zoom lens (for instance 18–55 mm) which is ideal as the short focal length provides a wide field of view for all but the most panoramic of scenes, and the long focal length is sufficient for portrait photography. This range will limit your ability to zoom in close on very long distance shots, so the additional purchase of lens to about 200 mm would give you the ability to zoom in tight on a small item in the distance.

A fine all-around lens for landscape photography is the 50 mm lens (or 35 mm digital lens), that comes as standard equipment on many 35 mm SLR cameras although depth of field is greatest with wide-angle lenses, so use them if you want the entire scene from close foreground subjects, from the foreground to mountains and sky at infinity. With telephoto lenses, depth of field reduces, though for many subjects, the smallest aperture still allows sufficient depth of field – naturally with a narrower field of view it it less important to have a deep depth of field because there is unlikely to be as much interest in the foreground and background – the subject is likely to fill the frame. At a wide-open aperture and a close distance, you can use the very soft background of a telephoto lens to differentiate a person, wild animal or object from the rest of the scenery. With either wide-angle or telephoto lenses, you may need a tripod in low light – the alternative is to invest in a “fast” lens.
In approaching a landscape, you intuitively or deliberately arrange elements of the scene into a meaningful composition. Unlike candid forms of photography, landscapes depend heavily on composition for their success. Viewpoint is influenced by the angle, height, tilt and distance of the camera. A change in viewpoint can be the answer when you seem to be getting nowhere with a landscape. One trick in particular for taking photos of your campsite, is to walk well beyond the range of your camp area - ideally find a high point looking down on your site, this will show the general surroundings and tell a story, particularly if your campsite is in a very remote area of a desert. These sorts of photos are not about showing detail, but more about the story.

Another small trick is to add recognisable objects into your scene to add dimension, a person is the usual tool here, for example a shot of a canyon seems nothing without the comparison to the size of a human, and once included in the composition seems to explain why the photo was taken.

Another trick is to break the rules - especially the rule of thirds. If the sky is important to the scene, you may want to lower the horizon; if the foreground is more interesting, you can raise the horizon or perhaps eliminate it. Move back to bring a new element into the picture, forward to remove an object from the frame's edge. Spend time preparing your “canvas” and take control. Don't be afraid to experiment, especially with a digital camera where you can learn rapidly by trial and error and it doesn't cost a cent. The interesting thing about photography is that no two people see the world in exactly the same way.

My particular style has a lot to do with my preferred lens - being the wide angle. I purposefully frame my landscape with something nearby as my foreground subject (this could be a person, an overhanging branch, or the edge of a rock), whilst focussing and optimising light on the scene of the background.

Another way to take scenery photos it to close in on a particular texture, rather than make your photography replicate the actual human view. Go beyond what the eye sees and show the elements that are special - the ripples of a sand dune, the shadow of a lone branch on dry ground, or the reflection of a tree in still water.

The three photographs below of the Perth city skyline were taken on the same day at the same time by three different photographers at the same vantage point. It is interesting to note the difference in composition and the effect on the scene.

Moving Objects

Perfect action shots are actually quite hard to obtain. Action shots are of moving subjects and unfortunately most cameras aren't that good at taking photos when the subject is moving. You'll most likely get a blurry image because the subject has moved while the shutter is open. The trick is to freeze the action and remove motion blur, yet still give the illusion of movement.

The movement of every object has it’s own complexities – for instance a helicopter’s rotor or a horse’s legs is quite different to a racing car’s wheel.

With a fast moving subject, you can use a faster shutter speed to achieve a sharp image with no motion blur. One way to do this is use your camera's Shutter Priority mode which gives you the ability to increase shutter speed to at least 1/250 second – but fast moving subjects will require even faster shutter speeds. If you don't have shutter priority mode, decrease the ISO setting (digital camera). This will tend to increase the shutter speed automatically because you have enabled the camera to work with less light (at the expense usually of image quality). Although this will freeze the action, you'll also freeze the illusion of movement, thereby the result will look like the subject is not moving at all. An example is when a stationery photographer tries to take a photo of a vehicle driving past on the road, lines up the shop and waits for the vehicle to be in the frame and then takes the shot using a very fast shutter speed of say 1/500 sec, or even 1/1000 sec.

A better solution to taking a photo of a moving object that remains in focus, whilst the background is blurred, is to pan the moving object. Panning, means you follow the subject with your camera (ie. move the camera) and only press the shutter when the object reaches the position you wish to take the shot. The background will be blurry as it will have moved relative to the camera during the same time but the subject will remain in focus.

When taking action shots that are not truly fast moving, such as 4WD obstacles, which could be large boulders, steep dunes, or rutted tracks, you want your photography to purvey the extremes angles and give the viewer something to marvel at. An excellent way to depict this in photographs is to get down low and take the photography of the underbody of the vehicle - even better if you use a wide angle lens and move in very close to achieve some distorted perspective and make the closer object appear larger, for instance.

But these tricks all work if you have a simple subject to work with, however what about when your subject is the terrain, ie. a steep hill climb. Many a traveller's trip snaps just don't do justice to the terrain but you can improve the result by understanding how to use perspective and shadows to depict shape and form.

    Shadows:- When shadows are present, they provide an indicator of depth, so an image of a hill climb may look much more dramatic late in the evening (given it is north or south facing) than in the middle of the day.

    Perspective:- This allows aspects of the image to be emphasised, and along with this, focal length is an important consideration. Long lenses (long zooms) tend to bring subjects closer together. Wide angle lenses tend to make subjects appear further apart.
Using these to things together, can allow you to choose a viewpoint and focal length to emphasise the aspects of the subject that are important.
    Rocks:- Any rocks close to the camera (you might have to lie on the track) will look massive and the 4WD in the background at the top of the frame perhaps, will look comparatively small compared to the terrain it is crossing if you are using a wide angle lens.

    Vertical Trees:- Trees in the background can also add emphasis to the angle of approach of the vehicle when there is some visibility of the side of the vehicle. This is not so apparent when the vehicle is being shot head-on.
The skilled photographer will purposefully chose a viewpoint and shooting angle for a photograph depicting a steep hill climb to best capture size and dimension, rather than flatten it out which may render the hill to appear as if a straight flat road leading ahead. Obviously composition plays a large part too and using a digital camera you'll be able to experiment by trial and error until you get just the right result.

People

When taking photos of your family and friends on holiday, you'll get the best results if you can take candid photos where its obvious that there's plenty of fun. Use high shutter speeds and use a telephoto lens set to long focal lengths to avoid subjects knowing they are being photographed - this ensures more relaxed subjects and almost invariably better portraits. This will also tend to make the background soft emphasising the subject as discussed earlier.

You don't have to take a front-on, full length photo to photograph a person nicely. In fact, most people photograph most attractively with a short depth of field, often achieved in conjunction with a candid moment such as standing a long way back so they are not intimidated by the camera, and using a long focal length lens. My favourite long digital lens is the 90-100 mm for this type of portrait.

Posed photos need a beautiful element; this can either be the subject's attractive looks, or the attractive mood of the photo set by clever use of lighting. A posed portrait does not necessarily have to be framed full centre to be the main subject of the photograph either. Always consider creative composition to add beauty to your portraits.

Don't forget that there are many interesting characters in the Australian outback that will add flavour to your travel pics. However, its best to ask permission if you want to single out a stranger or indigenous Aboriginal for a close-up or posed shot. If approached in an open and friendly manner, most people will be agreeable - many are flattered that someone has shown and interest in them and what they do. I usually show them the photo on the display screen of my digital SLR and offer to email a copy to them. Most people will readily oblige, but if not show respect and move on.

Dusk & Dawn

Dawn and dusk is generally the best time of day to photograph. Images taken at this time of day have more warm saturated yellows, oranges and red hues. However, you will need to make the following small adjustments to make the most of available light:
  • Modify the white balance on your digital SLR to the sun setting for normal colour, or increase colour saturation by using the cloudy and shade settings. Use manual white balance for greater consistency in your images rather than the Auto-WB settings
  • Use exposure compensation to make your images lighter or darker as you desire. Many DSLRs have an auto-exposure bracketing feature which you can set to make the camera take several exposures in rapid sucession. You'll then have several versions of the same composition.
  • Use a tripod and cable release to capture the twilight colours

Low-Light Options

Skilled photographers normally carry a tripod to enable photographs to be taken with slow shutter speeds, and thus eliminate camera shake in low-light settings. However, this technique will only work if the subject is stationery, such as a sunset.

The novice will immediately use a flash, however this often spoils the mood created by the natural light that is reason the photo is desired, eg. sunset. What do you do in situations without a tripod? Learning how to prop the camera to minimise camera shake, and understanding how to use special features on your digital camera such as backlight may enable you to take a very special low-light photograph that retains all the mood of the moment. Alternatively, get creative and purposefully go for the silhouette photo - this works well for people watching a sunset or trees, posts, houses … objects in the foreground.

Remember, if you can’t use a tripod, a small bean-bag, a post, a bonnet, a roof … any firm surface may be a good alternative, and if you do not have a remote release, remember to use the “self-timer” mode to minimise camera shake.

In instances where you need to capture moving objects in low-light this is best achieved with a flash, however this results in a dark background behind the illuminated subject.

Another low-light scenario where flash works well, is where you have a foreground subject in the dark (such as person sitting at night in a camp chair), with moonlight sky. If the subject is the person, not the moon, then you can balance the light of the photograph with fill flash on the person.

To take a photo of the moon, you need a long focal length lens, a tripod, long time exposure, and no flash.

Cloudy or even stormy days can actually provide ideal lighting for photography. The first trick is ususally to adjust your white balance, and then to adjust your ISO to 200 or 400 to maintain a fast enough shutter speed for lower light conditions. You'll immediately notice that the cooler colours (greens, blues, and purples) will pop and clouds will have more definition. Look out for magic moments just before or after a storm passes. Rainbows also often appear when sunshines immediately after rain.

Night Sky

Camping in the great outdoors opens up the beautiful night sky of stars that can be easily photographed with a little effort and some basic equipment. If you have a digital SLR you'll need a tripod and camera release - the rest is up to you to learn how to use your camera and experiment.

Start by setting your camera to manual and turn your shutter speed past 30 seconds until says "bulb". This setting will keep the shutter open for as long as you depress the cable release button. ISO will also need to be set somewhere between 100 and 400 and aperture between F8 and F16. Start with a 2-second exposure and keep doubling it until you capture a wide range of tones.

Tips:
  • Add perspective to the composition by including objects (such as trees, or mountains).
  • Use the light of the moon to highlight foreground subjects (natural features, or even empty camp chairs, a pair of old boots, a vehicle, tent etc).
  • Use a 1 minute exposure to capture the stars without showing relative motion.
  • To show motion of stars, use a much longer exposure - try 15 minutes, and then even an hour for longer star trails!

Make the most of every situation

Serious photographers take their time to capture the perfect photos, and often relish the opportunity for outback photography but for most of us travelling Australia on a touring holiday, there are other factors that have to be considered. Often, there'll be a destination that needs to be reached that day, meals that need to be prepared in time, and camps to be packed up swiftly in the morning so exploring endlessly with your camera can be a cause of upset for photographers travelling with those that are less passionate about your artist pursuits! The key is to learn how to make the most of every situation, and be well equipped and knowledgeable to do so efficiently.

Here's some handy tips:
  • Take one DSLR camera body, plus a pocket-size compact camera, numerous memory cards, a lightweight or mini tripod, a flash unit (speedlite), batteries, selection of lenses, and a camera bag for hiking.
  • Plan how you will store and backup your images. Memory cards are now quite cheap so you can simply swap out a new card as each one fills up, however it is still a wise move to also create a copy of the files and store them on a laptop or flash drive.
  • Each time you put a new battery in your digital camera, check that the date/time is accurate as this is an important tool when reviewing your travel photos.
  • Plan how you will charge your camera batteries - experienced outback travellers plug a 240v charger into an inverter installed in your vehicle. Our invertor is mounted in the rear of our wagon so we plug in a power-board and run the cable under the seats up to the passenger seat so recharging camera batteries, kids Nintendo devices, and running the laptop off 240v power whilst driving means we don't rely on powered accommodation facilities. Find out more in our Inverters article.
  • Create a documentary - think about taking photos of everything that's happening from the moment you leave home, including the depature. It may seem mundane now, but when you look back you'll realise the value in capturing the little details.
  • Think about how you might collate your photos into themes when you return - food, campsites, roadsigns, mail boxes, roadkill, rusted cars, trucks, insects, birds, wildflowers, trees, coloured sands etc.
  • Try getting up close with your zoom for a new perspective.
  • Learn the basic principles of photography to frame and compose your photos with flair, seek out the golden hours (dusk and dawn) to get dramatic colours and tones in your photos, learn how to avoid common mistakes when photographing people, such as telegraph poles behind their heads, dark faces under hats
  • Photograph your campsite from a distance to capture the feeling of isolation when bush-camping.

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