Take Great Vacation Photos

A vacation is the perfect time to take pictures. You're visiting photogenic places around the world, and you have time to experiment with new camera techniques. Why, then, do our vacation photos so often come out...badly?

And why are photographs in travel magazines so well composed, sharply focused, colorful, and imaginative? It's because the professionals who take them have already made their first few thousand mistakes.

So that you won't have to make all these mistakes yourself, Magellan's gathers the advice of top travel photographers. Their work brightens the pages of National Geographic, Life, Arizona Highways, and many other publications. They'll teach you how to take great pictures.

A Sense of Place
Through photographs, we can rekindle our memories and retrace our journeys, one colorful picture at a time. But photos can go farther. They can capture the heart and soul of another land - the elusive essence that writer and traveler D.H. Lawrence called "a spirit of place."

How can an amateur photographer attain this goal? First, be a good traveler. With your curiosity high and your senses sharp, you'll do more than merely look at the sights. You'll truly observe the world.

Ask yourself: "What makes this place I'm visiting like no other spot on earth?" Then try to capture its character in unconventional photographs.

See for Yourself
We all know, despite the glossy travel brochures, that the world isn't really made up of picture-postcard scenes and "Kodak moments." As traveling teaches us generously, life is more surprising and richer than that.

So feel free not to photograph the usual tourist attractions. Instead, take pictures of what interests you. Federal law does not require you to photograph the cathedral just because the tour guide says it's important. Maybe you'd rather look in another direction. Are you interested in farm life, foreign cars, wacky hairdos, stained glass windows, the roles of women, or children's games around the world? These things are just as worthwhile as the architectural wonder the guide is pointing out.

A bonus: When you show your slides back home, they'll illuminate not just the screen, but your own unique personality.

How to Compose Great Photos
Learn to trust the viewfinder -- because what you see is what you get. Look carefully and...

Fill the picture. Decide on your center of interest and fill the viewfinder with it. Amateurs often stand too far away. Even if it's only a group shot of three people, they'll walk back 15 feet, just to be safe. The people look like specks in the distance. A good rule: Stand within six feet of your subjects. If you want to include more of the background, back up -- but move the people along with you. By the way, have people look into the picture, not out.

Consider the entire rectangle. It's not only a person's face that counts. All parts of the picture add something -- so make each part interesting.

Look at what's behind your subject. People often don't notice the background until they get their photos and find that Uncle George appears to have a tree growing out of his head. Solution: Move around until the background is uncluttered. Or use a different angle. To eliminate a crowd of strangers behind your child at a theme park, for example, kneel (using the sky as a backdrop) or stand on a bench (using the ground as backdrop).

Think simple. Great photographs are often graphically simple and direct. Consider restricting yourself to one element that will identify the place and put you there. In the desert this might be a lone cactus.

Use the "rule of thirds". Placing your subject in the middle makes a photo static and uninteresting. For a more dynamic treatment, try placing the subject - a sailboat, let's say - a third of the way in from one side. (Tip: Have the boat point into the center of the picture.) In a landscape shot, position the horizon a third of the way from the top or bottom.

Use color. Color draws the eye. If you're photographing a mountain valley of mostly greens and blues, you might include a red barn as a focus of interest.

How to Tell a Story in Pictures
Ask yourself: What stories would I tell friends about my trip? Then try to tell those tales in pictures.

Develop a narrative. All stories need a beginning (your cruise ship sets sail in the South Pacific), a middle (scenery, islanders), and an end (Tahitian sunset). Be sure to cover all three in your photos.

Also, look for themes. In Venice you might photograph gondolas, an ornately carved palace, and colorful clothes -- all as rippled reflections in the famous canals. Having a theme links one picture to the next, helping viewers follow your story.

Give people a sign. Photograph things that function as "chapter titles," such as signposts ("Welcome to Edinburgh"). Pictures of famous landmarks can also serve to introduce a place, e.g., the red buttes of Monument Valley announce "the American West."

Vary your viewpoint. To really cover a destination, a travel photographer works from many angles. Otherwise, all the pictures would have the same look.

To establish where you are -- the "big picture"-- use a wide-angle lens, move back, or climb to a high place and look down. After you've set the scene, then come in with medium shots and close-ups, which lend variety and intimacy. Details speak volumes -- for example, a Greek fisherman's sun-browned fingers cradling a string of worry beads.

The world isn't all at eye level, but people tend to just raise cameras to their eyes and shoot. Get a fresh perspective by kneeling (on an ice rink in Sweden, for example) or by finding a high viewpoint (such as a balcony overlooking a Mexican town square). Variety is the spice of photography.

Get off the tourist trail. To learn about another culture, jump into everyday life. Maybe you'll see a wedding in India with costumed elephants. Or wander into a Pachinko parlor, where Japanese people play their version of pinball machines. Stroll through a fish market. Attend a church service. New worlds will open up.

Camera Basics
Don't buy a camera that's over your head. You want to take pictures, not wrestle with fancy equipment. All you probably need is a "point and shoot" 35mm camera, with autofocus and flash. For more creative options, add a built-in zoom lens.

The wide-angle setting of a zoom lens lets your photo encompass a complete interior or a panoramic outdoor scene. The telephoto setting magnifies distant subjects, such as a Greek ruin on a hill. Use settings in between to crop a scene as you shoot.

More experienced photographers might use a 35mm SLR camera with a normal lens (50mm) for general photography. Add a 35mm wide-angle lens and a 135mm long lens, plus a small tripod or clamp for time exposures.

Don't buy new gear just before departure. Shoot a test roll to be sure your new camera or lens works properly. Always start a trip with fresh batteries.

Remember that film is (relatively) cheap. Compared to airline tickets and hotel bills, film is a minimal expense for travelers. So take a lot of pictures to boost your odds of getting good ones. Bracketing your shots -- that is, trying a range of exposures on either side of what your meter says is correct -- will help your chances for a perfectly exposed photo. Later, you'll be glad you shot enough film to bring home great pictures.

Prevent blurred photos. About 99 percent of fuzzy photos are caused not by bad lenses, but by camera movement. Don't punch the button as if you're trying to beat a drum. Push it gently, so the camera won't shake.

Be extra careful in late afternoon or in a place that's dimly lit, where your shutter speed is slow. At an exposure of less than 1/60th of a second, try to use a tripod. It doesn't have to be the three-legged kind: You can brace the camera against a tree, on a chair back, or flat against a building. Or just brace yourself- against a light pole, for example. The camera will be less likely to move.

One more caution: Photographers with SLR cameras may get blurred images because they think a picture is "in the can" when they hear the beginning of the shutter action and so start taking the camera away from their eye. Instead, wait an additional half-second, just to be sure that what you think is the shutter snapping isn't the SLR's mirror flipping up or some other action inside your complex camera.

Carry your camera at all times. You don't want to miss a once-in-a-lifetime picture. And great photo moments are often brief: The light fades, the weather changes, the people go home, the spontaneous moment passes. Make it a habit to carry your camera.

Take a notebook. When you get home, you'll want to remember locations, names, and other facts about your photo subjects. Using a small notebook, identify rolls of film with letters (A, B, C) and shots with numbers (1, 2,3), and jot useful information as you shoot.

Excerpted from the booklet Magellan's Passport to Travel Photography by Jerry Camarillo Dunn.

Travel Advice

Flight Delays     

Getting a Good Flight's Sleep

Avoiding Jet Lag 

Cardiovascular Disease and Travel 

Insect Protection 

Eight Nifty Cell Phone Travel Tips 

Packing for the Unexpected

Securing Your Luggage 

Seven Days and One Carry-on Bag

The Five Commandments of Packing 

Lost Luggage 

Avoiding Pickpockets 

Hotel Security for the Traveler 

Security Tips for the Female Traveler 

Take Great Vacation Photos