I hate New Year's resolutions, I really do. I mean, I KNOW I'm not going to become a fitness guru and give up creme in my coffee and once-a-month Sausage McMuffins at the McDonald's at Union Station.
We'll all probably fall short of our 2013 dreams in one way or another. But one thing we all can do better is taking stronger images when we travel.
It's dead simple, really. And it doesn't take an extra nickel.
I went to a blogger's conference in New York a few years ago and heard a talk given by a superb photographer. What he said has stuck with me ever since, and it was so simple.
Basically, with two phrases, he summed up the art of travel shooting. The first phrase was a joke where he talked about how "nobody ever asked Ernest Hemingway what type of typewriter he used." The point being that it's the words that matter, not whether he used a Smith-Corona (I'm dating myself here) or an Underwood 300ZX with turbocharged backspace and a cappuccino maker mounted on the side.
No, you don't ask Hemingway or Twain what kind of typewriter they used and you don't need to ask a photographer what kind of camera they have. It's the person wielding the camera, not the technology, folks.
The other point this guy made is of a similar nature, which was to say that "the best camera is the one you already own." It's a nice way of saying we all get caught up in talk about fancy Nikons or Canons or whatever and we forget that we all can take fabulous shots with a $99 point and shoot, or with our Blackberry or iPhone, if we simply take a couple seconds to compose our thoughts and our shots, and to follow a couple simple rules.
I'm not a very good photographer. I don't understand F-stops and exposure control or any of that technical stuff. But I've learned a few very good tricks that help turn ordinary photos into something pretty good. Not amazing, at least not very often, but above average.
So people shots are huge. Take that photo of the Eiffel Tower if you
like, but don't forget shots of lovers walking near the fountain or
having a picnic on the grass. When I was in India a couple years ago, my
favourite shots weren't so much the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort but photos of kids I spotted outside Jaipur and of women in colourful saris dancing near the edge of a lake. When I was in France a couple years ago I got great shots of old villages on the side of the Dordogne River, but a shot of a silly man sitting on top of a bronze goose statue in Sarlat La Caneda was my favourite image of the whole trip.
We're often encouraged to think big in life. But sometimes a detail shot can be the most rewarding; the crumblings of white snow on a grey Metro sign in Paris; the curl of an iron gate, an old, weathered sign on the side of a barn in Saskatchewan.
One trick I learned, although I don't follow it enough in my haste to shoot everything in sight when I travel, is to stop and think for a second about what TYPE of photo I want. I had a lesson once and a photographer told me, 'Okay, you're in Paris and you want to shoot the Eiffel Tower like a million other people do every day. What type of tower do you want to shoot? Do you want the imposing tower? If so, get down low and fill your frame with the GIANT Eiffel Tower. Do you want the fun Eiffel Tower? Okay, wait for a kid with a balloon to walk by. Do you want the the FRENCH Eiffel Tower? Wait for a guy carrying a baguette on his bike."
That makes sense. Good photographs often have people in them to frame a shot and give it more visual interest. We all like looking at other people, and that shot you want to take of the Chateau Lake Louise will look much more human in scale and much more personal if you get someone in the photo. If you want the hotel to look imposing, get down low and, if you have one, try a wide angle lens. (For my money, a good wide angle lens is much better for travel photography than a telephoto. A telephoto is useful at times to get people shots without invading their privacy, but you often can zoom in on a wider shot and get a detailed photo of a person. You can zoom in, but you can't make the photo you took wider than the one in your digital camera).
One critical issue is to watch the light. The morning is nice but early evening often offers the best light of the day; rich and golden and variable and just lovely. Try to be out and about in a place like Montmarte or Parliament Hill or the Statue of Liberty or a steamship in Muskoka in the early evening and you won't regret it.
The rule of thirds is a key one to good photography of any kind. Our head often tells us to put people in the dead centre of a photo, or to do the same for that beautiful ship in Halifax harbour. But our eye is drawn to photos where the major attraction, if you like, is slightly off-centre and slightly above or below the horizon. If you divide a four-by-six photo into three horizontal quadrants and three vertical sections, you'll find four points where the horizontal and vertical lines meet. Centre the major bit you're shooting on one of those points and you'll be amazed how much snazzier your photos look. Confusing? Just think of placing your subject slightly below the middle of the photo or slightly above (more likely below for travel shots) and put them over to one side a bit. Easy as cake.
Pay attention to backgrounds. Don't take a photo with a light standard sticking out of your mother-in-law's head. Unless you want to, of course. Watch for a garbage bin you might not see in a corner, or things like that. By taking a couple seconds to compose your shot you'll get much better results.
Framing your shots is possibly the easiest thing you can to do to make your photos stand out. Look at a shot that's straight on of the Sydney Opera House, for example. It's fine. But there's no perspective and not much visual interest. Contrast that with the shot I got of a woman adjusting her hat on a ferry boat as she looks out at the Opera House. I'm not saying I'm a great photographer, but I knew that the woman would provide a framing effect for the photo and some human interest, and I liked the hat. I also liked that I couldn't see her face, as that adds a slight sense of intrigue to the picture.
If you're trying to get a shot of the Vancouver Skyline while on a bike ride in Stanley Park, prop your bicycle up in the foreground. You'll get a nice shot of the buildings and the water but your bike will help frame the photo and give it a spark, as well as reminding you later of how you went on your bike ride. Or stand between a couple of towering trees and use those as frames on either side. Or place a blazing rhododendron bush in the lower part of the photo, with the buildings rising up behind. Your shots will be terrific, especially if you wait for the light to be behind you.
Trying different angles can be a lot of fun, too, and hugely rewarding. Get down low. REALLY low, then shoot up at the Golden Gate Bridge or the CN Tower or what have you. Or go up somewhere, such as atop Notre Dame in Paris, and shoot back down. Tilt the camera and shoot at some crazy angles. If you shoot digital, and you almost certainly do, it's free. So experiment. Raise the flash. Lower the flash. Increase the exposure. Reduce it. Try the sports feature if your camera has one. But you don't need anything fancy. Remember, it's all about you, not the camera.
I have a fairly cheap Canon Rebel SLR that's pretty good. I bought a nice wide angle lens for it that's my go-to shot for architectural or street photos where you want to cram in the entire Chateau Frontenac or that cool, Art Deco building in South Beach. But for my money the best overall camera on the market is the Canon G12. It's usually $500 or less and it has a terrific lens and shoots quite well in low light. It also has a decent zoom and a bit of a wide angle.
Framing your photos and getting people in your shots and watching the light are possibly the easiest things to do. They take very little extra time and hardly any effort. And you don't need a $3,000 Canon that doubles as a police radio and espresso maker to do it.
Here's to great travel in 2013, and even better travel photography. And don't forget to send your favourite travel photos to the Star for our weekly travel memories feature, where we run reader pictures. Send your high-resolution jpeg's to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and address and 50-60 words on why you like your photo so much and what it means to you. We'll print our favourite each week.
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