Here are a few remarks about travel photography, not much that's specific to dark tourism, rather more general points to bear in mind …
simply click on the titles to jump to the relevant sections:
Restrictions and ethical issues
Most travellers like to capture what they perceive as images they want to keep, in order to document their travels. Only, there are points when photography is either downright prohibited (e.g. at military sites in many countries), inadvisable, or unethical.
Where you are clearly informed of the fact that photography is forbidden, don't disobey, esp. at military sites, or you may end up being taken for a spy and getting arrested (or worse …). Then there may be situations when it is advisable to put your camera away rather than capture the moment, say if that's a moment of unrest.
Angering an already volatile mob can be more dangerous than military imprisonment. Fortunately, most travellers are unlikely to get into such a bad fix. But should you get into a somewhat hairy situation, use your judgement. When in doubt, don't take pictures – i.e. do the opposite of what holds for journalists: they have to take risks, it's their job. For a tourist it's not and risks should be avoided (see also danger tourism
and health and safety
And then there are lots of situations where taking pictures isn't exactly risky, but ethical issues
come into play. In some cultures taking pictures of people as such is an issue – and you'll either have to avoid photography or at least ask for permission before raising your camera.
In general: when in doubt as whether it's OK to take a picture or not, then don't or ask first rather than just shooting away.
Photographing at places of tragedy
Other ethical issues
about photography concern the way pictures are taken. I for one have a real issue with people taking 'selfies' or posing for photos in that 'cheese'-smile fashion in front of sites of tragedy and grief, such as at memorial sites of former concentration camps
(see e.g. Sachsenhausen
). Some people may find it unethical to photograph at such sites at all, but that's too extreme in my view.
A decent balance and respectful behaviour
should be observed, but stigmatizing all photography at dark tourism sites is taking it too far – and would take a crucial part of what tourism is all about out of the notion of 'dark tourism'. Why should it? A respectful middle ground is what I believe is adequate.
Taking photographs of the places, buildings etc. that you've come to visit should in most cases be fine (but preferably without people in the pictures – see ethical issues
and composing your shot
). Where even this is not welcomed, and it's usually made clear explicitly, then of course be obedient (see restrictions
). At many such sites there are shops that offer an alternative – books that include photos of the site (often taken by pros and under better conditions than you will get). Even where you are allowed to take pictures, it may be worth checking these alternatives out before you shoot away.
Be considerate – PLEASE turn off those bleeps and pings!!!
One more point that is close to my heart: please take the trouble to turn off all those sounds that many digital cameras make when left in the manufacturer's default setting. Somewhere in the set-up menu there will be a function silencing those annoying peeps and pings. Use it – do turn them off! Even if you're not bothered by them yourself, it's just a courtesy to fellow travellers and your environment in general.
In fact this applies to some locations especially, namely again ones where remaining quiet is generally a duty out of respect, e.g. at former concentration camp
memorial sites. Beeping cameras in such locations can also annoy the hell out of me and surely out of others even more so (see photography at places of tragedy
). Be warned: if you're a camera-beeper too, then you really don't want to bump into me at such a site … or mercy be with you! So listen: turn those sounds off!!!
And after all: does anyone really need all those sounds? I doubt it! The only exception I could just about imagine may be the artificial shutter-noise many digital cameras make – that may indeed serve to give you instant feedback that the camera's shutter has actually been released. (In the case of an SLR you can't do anything about it anyway, so I suppose it has to be tolerated.) But then again, the digital still image coming up on the viewfinder/LCD-screen does the same job of confirming the shot – with only a bit of lag time.
And as for all other functions – go by visual feedback too, it's good enough. No need to add noise pollution to your environs. The world's already too full of beeping noises as it is …
There's a difference between snapshots and good photography – some hints:
Photography can vary wildly in quality. I'm not a professional or even a real photographic expert, but I do know one or two things about the topic and over the years have managed to enhance my own photographic skills to provide for much better results than I used to be able to achieve many years ago, before I became aware of a few aspects that make a difference (and some that don't).
I have an eye for aesthetics and, conversely, an awareness of some of the typical mistakes that jeopardize good photography. Here's a few points in question that I'd deem worth passing on:
- Demands and equipment
Of course, many people aren't very demanding when it comes to photography and are happy if whatever object or scene is "in the photo" somehow, as long as it is not totally out of focus, blurred or dark. But of course there's more to good (as opposed to average snap-shot) photography. And it does not mean you have to use big expensive gear.
It's just as possible to do crap photography with a big SLR with a mortar-size lens on it as it is with your 1 megapixel mobile phone cam. Naturally, good gear will enhance the possibilities for very good picture quality, but that's just the technical side.
It doesn't require expensive gear to do decent above-average photography from a stylistic and aesthetic point of view. Lower resolution digital photos may not respond well to blow-up prints, but who really requires poster-size print-outs of their photos? Professionals mainly. And they'll have the pro gear anyway – in fact they often retain the use of analogue cameras for that purpose. For "normal mortals", even enthusiasts with pretty elaborate gear, most digital photos these days remain in electronic format anyway, except perhaps for a few select super-shots we may want to put on the wall.
It's all a matter of balancing individual needs and preferences – including what you can/want to sensibly invest in your gear. In general: SLRs tend to be more expensive, not necessarily at entry-level and with just a kit lens, but they require more additional equipment, at least some alternate good quality lenses, which soon can make things very expensive … and unwieldy to cart around on travels. At the other extreme is the little flat slab-like compact digicam, which may be super-convenient, as it can be carried around in a shirt pocket – but it may have its limitations especially in image quality. Often also with zoom – cheap ones may offer no more than 3 x optical zoom (and forget "digital zoom", that's not zoom at all, but just the processor cutting the picture smaller in-camera … totally pointless, as you can do that at home by cropping the image yourself afterwards).
These days, of course, many people simply rely on the cameras built into their smartphones. While some are capable of images about as good as a decent point-and-shoot compact camera, the limitations to taking really good pictures are at least as severe with smartphones as with ordinary compacts.
There are now some really good (almost) pocket-sized digital cameras specifically marketed "for the enthusiast", but these can actually cost more than an entry-level dSLR. Image quality may be excellent, but they tend to come with restrictions especially with zoom reach (some only have one fixed focal length).
With more demands, though, size will matter and thus increase.
If you don't want to go up the scale all the way and take the SLR path, then consider a so-called 'bridge camera' ("bridging" the gap between compact and SLR, hence the designation), which may offer just the right compromise, esp. for the traveller. They're bigger and heavier than the little slabs, but with fixed lenses of often good quality which can offer tremendous zoom-ranges. And that without the inconvenience of having to cart the much bulkier SLR zoom lenses about.
Also: changing lenses on an SLR can get dust on the sensor. Several manufacturers have developed "dust-shake" systems to compensate for this, but there's only so much they can achieve. In many photographic situations this may not be much of an issue, but "out in the field", say in a dusty desert or steppe it can be a crucial factor (believe me - I'm speaking from bad experience). Bridge cameras don't have that problem so much as their lenses are firmly attached anyway. Their flexibility also makes them much quicker to use, which is another factor to consider.
In general: make an informed
decision, and shop around. Specs alone aren't good enough. Get reviews (at the fullest depth e.g. at dpreview.com) and customers' opinions (e.g. from Amazon) first and take your time comparing. If possible it's best to even test-handle
candidate cameras ... it's very much a matter of personal taste and e.g. one's size of hands, as to what makes good handling.
Just one specific thing: don't be drawn into that megapixel game. More megapixels does NOT
(necessarily) mean better pictures
(at least not with compact and bridge cameras). It often simply means cramming more information onto a much too tiny sensor. The megapixel count may go up, but it can create other problems. Some reviewers now actually recommend looking for older models – they may have gone cheap, because the manufacturers are now pushing a follow-up model with more megapixels. But those older models may offer better overall qualities. After all: if you really need
16MP or more then you'd go for a semi-pro SLR anyway. Compacts at least do just fine or even better with lower MP counts. It has been argued convincingly (see: 6mpixel.org/en/
) that for a small-sensor compact camera the ideal megapixel count is 6MP. But due to the marketing craze about ever more megapixels, no such cameras are currently being built any longer. Shame!
If you're interested, these are/have been my personal camera choices over the last decade or so: I entered the digital camera world in 2002 with a mediocre, in hindsight, but then still OK Olympus model; image quality at 2.3 or so MP was just about alright, but operationally the camera soon proved painfully too slow. When that camera got stolen in Beijing, China
, I bought my next camera right there and then in 2005, a Sony T7, then an award-winning super-slim design, and still the smallest camera I've ever owned. At 5.1 MP its image quality was brilliant in good light, and in terms of responsiveness it was fine too. But I knackered the little thing, and it had its limitations anyway in low light/indoor conditions. So I added a slightly chunkier Canon compact model to my arsenal in 2006, a Powershot A700 with exactly 6MP, 6x optical zoom and a rudimentary optical viewfinder. A very good compromise, it is still in use today, mainly with my wife, but I, too, still sometimes use it when I don't want to carry anything bigger around. It allows for manual control and when set right it can perform superbly, even though I find it lacks a bit of colour depth (requiring extra saturation on the PC). In essence, all these cameras were still so-called "point-and-shoot" designs (though the Canon has potential much beyond that).
Having become more interested in photography, I eventually acquired, in early 2007, my most trusted workhorse of a camera ever, a Fuji S6500sf bridge camera. It was as perfect a compromise as it was ever possible to get. It had the dimensions and feel of a full SLR but came with a fixed 10.7x manual (!!) zoom lens (28-300 mm equivalent) of very good quality. Coupled with a larger than average 6.1MP sensor it was capable of an image quality that you can no longer get with anything other than an SLR these days. Its electronic viewfinder was also of very good quality. OK, it had its limitations too, especially in that it lacked any image stabilization, which meant you needed to fix the camera in low-light situations. Where that was not possible, e.g. when on a boat moving through the Venezuelan jungle, it showed its limitations too clearly, as I had to crank up sensitivity, but then image noise soon became intolerable. It was also a bit unwieldy in some more advanced operations. But wherever it was possible to stay at ISO100/200 and there was enough time, it produced photos so crisp and sharp and with vivid natural colours that they still outshine many an SLR's image quality. For three and a half years, this Fuji was my trusted Number One camera in almost all situations that mattered, and a large proportion of the images reproduced on this website were taken with it. Especially, for landscape photography I have yet to come across a consumer camera that can match it.
After it had seen extensive use over the years it began showing signs of ageing … the labelling had come off most of the controls, the rubber grip came off (and had to be fixed with tape) and on empty batteries it would reset itself, requiring lengthy repeated processes of customizing (from turning the peeps off to setting the date). So I started looking for a possible replacement. By that time no other manufacturer would build bridge cameras with manual zoom lenses any more, so Fuji was the only option. However, the follow-up models didn't quite convince (and reportedly had problems with image flaws such as excessive chromatic aberrations – purple fringes on hard contrast lines). Still, the versatility of a bridge camera with a long zoom remained an asset.
So eventually I decided in September 2010 to follow a two-way path: for image quality I finally upgraded to an SLR (a Pentax K-x), but instead of equipping that with an expensive set of interchangeable lenses (I only upgraded to a 16-45 mm wide-angle zoom, with macro capability, as the standard lens that's always attached), I complemented it with the then latest Fuji bridge camera, the HS10, which features a 30x zoom for those situations where such a reach was necessary.
This tandem has proved a good solution. The Fuji provided enormous zoom reach and sometimes this can be incredibly useful, but in terms of image quality, due to its minuscule 10MP sensor, it is a massive step backwards compared to the older predecessor. So I found myself relying mostly on the Pentax, which has particular strengths in low light (ideal indoors). With its current standard lens that I have on practically all the time when travelling (a 16-45mm, f4), it just lacks reach. I've also encountered the nasty problem of dust on the sensor, which required professional cleaning, so there are follow-on costs.
As I also wanted to have the option of a small, pocket-sized camera to carry around more easily, I initially added a Panasonic TZ7 travel-zoom camera (12x) to my arsenal. This also offered very good video capability. At 10MP, however, its image quality also showed the typical flaws of too many megapixels: washed-out details, and chroma noise. Still, at ISO80 and long exposure times it was nevertheless capable of producing decent pictures – and it was certainly very practical. Unfortunately, however, I almost immediately knackered it as I got volcanic ash in it on Montserrat
in 2009/2010. The lens was clearly not sealed enough. Ever since, shooting against the light produced artefacts and refractions caused by ash particles which were impossible to remove. Then its zoom seized up and eventually also its autofocus. So when it came to replacing this pocket camera too, I looked long and hard, testing and discarding the Sony HX9VB (crazy 16MP!) and finally ending up with the Canon SX230HS (12 MP, and 14x zoom). It has meanwhile proved nice and versatile, though the image quality is often a bit behind that of the previous Panasonic. Autofocus at the long end of the lens is a bit hit-and-miss … and so is the GPS module. At home in Vienna
I haven't once been able to pick up a signal with it yet, and in other cities it also proved quite erratic. However, out in the open expanse of the Atacama in Chile
and the Andean Altiplano in Bolivia
it worked a treat. And the GPS-logs and route displays on a map back home on the computer are really cool. The positioning is not always spot-on accurate, but mostly you do get a good record of where you took which picture.
On my trip to the Falklands
I also knackered the little Canon SX230, this time around simply by dropping it (from icy cold hands) onto hard rock ... and it fell awkwardly right onto the menu button, which broke. So after that most functions (including GPS) were no longer accessible. I've now replaced it with a Nikon AW110, also a GPS compact, but a rugged "outdoors" design (you see, I've learned my lesson!). Real-life use proved that the GPS is faster than the Canon's was but image quality even lower. Never mind, I need it for GPS logging primarily and otherwise only for not so important situations when I simply want a pocketable compact I can take anywhere, even under water.
But my main camera in most situations will remain an SLR. Had there been bridge cameras of sufficient quality on the market I would have stayed with one of them for travel photography. But a) none other than Fuji's feature a manual zoom (and once you've got used to manual zooming you simply cannot go back to those awful motor-zooms that almost all other compact and bridge cameras rely on) and b) the megapixel craze left none with acceptable enough image quality. So my upgrade to the world of SLRs was kind-of enforced by the industry's failures. But now I no longer regret this, as I have come to value the other advantages of an SLR – in particular the much greater responsiveness and versatility.
In late 2013 I upgraded further to a new Pentax model, namely the K-50, a weather-sealed SLR, in a bundle with a 18-135mm zoom lens (also weather-sealed). I hope it will put an end to the dust-on-the-sensor problem. (Update: it hasn't, at least not completely: I still get the occasional speck in so that the sensor needs cleaning about once a year).
And the K-50's all-weather design was immensely useful in the unpredictable, and often very wet weather in the Falklands
and Patagonia (Argentina
), where photography with an unsealed camera would often have been downright impossible (or would have meant the end of the non-sealed camera). At time the K-50 was completely covered in icy cold water. But it carried on working just fine. Baptism by water, as it were. It adds a great deal of extra versatility. It's also super fast and its user interface nice and intuitive with useful customizability. (For instance I programmed one button for selecting RAW format - after the shot! That way I can only record the large RAW files when I get the imression that will be useful later because e.g. auto-whitebalance was a bit off, but leave it at jpg only when that is already good enough.)
At the same time I also upgraded my bridge camera to a new Fuji HS-50 (42x zoom, articulated LCD screen, but small sensor). I contemplated the high-end model XS-1 (superb built-quality and large sensor, though less zoom, 27x, and no articulated screen) but in the end I didn't go through with this, because the XS-1 just didn't feel right in my hands; the grip was just too small, it made my hands cramp after just a minute of test-holding it in a shop. The HS-50 meanwhile proved a decent enough compromise image-quality-wise and in practical terms it is just a joy to use (and that zoom makes it a veritable "paparazzi camera" as well!). It would be cool if Fuji were to come up with a model that combines the advantages of the two and eliminates the respective downsides. We'll see if that ever happens.
Update: 2016: the latest addition to my gear is a Sony RX100 III. This is by far the best compact camera I've ever held in my hands (and the highest rated ever on dpreview). It wasn't cheap, but the investment quickly paid off. The image quality is often close to that of an SLR. Even in low light its performance can be superb. It has plenty of helpful modes (including quite workable auto-HDR) that can be set to activate automatically in difficult light situations, but also allows full manual control, just like a big dSLR. But unlike an SLR it comes in a tiny body (though it's comparatively heavy). It's not without flaws (it tends to overexpose, autofocus is sometimes unreliable ... and I miss a GPS function). Its large sensor, moreover, means that zoom is limited to x3. But the image quality is so good that you can just crop afterwards. So overall it really is very good compromise. Now I often find myself leaving the heavy K-50 behind when it's not essential and taking only the much more portable Sony.
- Learn to use your camera's potential
For the traveller who wants to capture his or her travels well photographically, the way in which you take pictures is ultimately more important than the price of your equipment. Today, even many small digital cameras are capable of decent enough photos technically – provided you use them right!
One thing is: familiarize yourself with the settings of your camera – don't just shoot everything in auto-mode. It may be alright in perfect daylight conditions, but once you're, say, indoors in a sparsely-lit environment, many a camera's auto-setting gets into trouble. At least learn to use some of the additional programmes your camera offers.
E.g. night-shot modes can be useful – not only at night out in the wild or in city streets, also indoors! But you will have to stabilize your camera to get a shake-free result. If no natural options are available, then one of those trouser-pocket-sized mini-tripods can indeed be useful – esp. for travel photography (not much extra bulk).
Make use of the auto-release function when using settings with longer exposure times – even pressing the shutter can be enough to blur the picture (or, if your camera allows it, use a remote control).
Just being familiar with a few standard choices in camera settings will give you better chances of decent results. Most travellers will not have the time for fully manual settings in most situations anyway, and only exceptional situations really require such an effort. But be familiar with a range of pre-sets and your options are much enhanced.
I emphasize again: I'm not talking professional photography here, but simple enhanced picture-taking for the travelling user of budget to mid-range photographic gear who isn't interested in the finer technical points of photographic theory, but who wants to do more than mere auto-mode snapshots.
If you're relying on a smart phone, forget all this, unless you have one of those few that specilize in decent camera functions. Most smart phones produce at best very mediocre results and often do not even allow much, if any, control over settings. They are really just for irrelevant snapping and selfies, but not for serious photography.
- Holding the camera
This can be more of an issue than you may think – many people use the digital LCD display and apply that arms-stretched-out free-held approach. That's a recipe for camera shake resulting in blurry pics (even if your camera does have a shake-reduction function – there's only so much that can be compensated for). Instead hold the camera tight, elbows propped against your body, take a breath and hold you breath while taking the pic. If necessary (and possible) support the camera against something solid, like a pillar or something.
When shooting hand-held it's generally better to use the viewfinder rather than the LCD-Display – if your camera has one, that is. Some super-slim miniaturized digicams these days often do without. That's quite a restriction (also in situations where the sun makes seeing the LCD-display difficult or impossible.) Some cameras' viewfinders aren't very good, though – so this is something to check especially carefully when choosing a camera! If it's an option, then going by viewfinder rather than display is to be preferred. It has the immediate advantage that it almost forces your body into a position more conducive to controlled, shake-free pics.
It's also easier to compose the shot through the viewfinder (it's easier for a single eye to flit around various fixation points, and you don't have to focus your two eyes). This is of course especially true if you're long-sighted (like me), which means you either need your reading glasses to use the display or you have to hold it away from you on outstretched arms to be able to focus. Not an issue at all with a proper viewfinder (which should have dioptre adjustment, of course!).
- Pressing the release button: gently does it – or automatic, by using the self-timer
And don't slam the shutter button down, rather gently squeeze it down. Better still, when it really counts, use auto-release – the self-timer function that most cameras have provides this (how easily it is accessible is another one of those little criteria to look for in a prospective camera's controls determining the quality of handling).
You can even use it for increased stabilizing of hand-held shots. Set it to the shortest timing (e.g. 2 seconds), press the shutter button to start the countdown and autofocus, hold still and wait for the picture to be taken – that's what makes it calmer than even the softest manual pressing of the button. Obviously auto-release is especially helpful when using a tripod.
Some better cameras also have a remote shutter release function – which is even better still, but most compact and bridge cameras lack this special feature. The self-timer does the trick almost as well.
- Observe the light
Brightest sunlight is not necessarily the best light. In fact the glare you get in some hot countries such as Turkey can be a real problem for getting good shots. Morning and afternoon/evening light often works better – and it can add atmosphere.
Obviously, too little light is also a potential problem, but that can be compensated for by using special settings with longer exposure times or higher ISO sensitivity settings. In many digital cameras, however, higher ISO sensitivity too readily makes pictures overly grainy. (Excessive ISO sensitivity values are another crazy marketing ploy, like excessive megapixels, even though values over 400 may in effect be totally unusable.) Better to resort to longer exposure at less sensitivity, and use a tripod or some other physical stabilization (see holding the camera
). That's usually best for capturing scenes in low light.
Obviously enough, shooting into the light makes it all but impossible to get a decently balanced picture (although it can occasionally be an effect that can be employed for specific artistic reasons, but use it sparingly and consciously). One exception is sunsets – always a favourite with most photographers, would-be or advanced. Many cameras, therefore, have a special setting for sunsets – try using it. It's bound to be better than on auto. It may be good for other situations too, by the way – try thinking out of the box.
For instance, I was once able to get superb results at a live gig by shooting in my camera's sunset mode – it enhances colours, but stage lights are often extremely colourful anyway, so you don't notice any deviations; and it makes shooting hand-held easier, whereas night modes would have too long shutter times.
- Timing natural light conditions
In general: try and capture your object of photography decently-lit – if you have a choice, that is. On the road, in a large number of travel photography situations, light conditions are simply out of the photographer's control. But: there may be occasions where you do have a choice, e.g. of going to certain places that are especially photography-worthy at different times of daylight. Take photography into consideration when making that choice. If photography is important to you, plan in advance – find out which sites/objects are better in morning light and which are better in the evening, for example.
If you know which way an object is facing (in relation to a predetermined vantage point), then you can predict the basics: if it's facing east, light will be better in the morning, if it's facing west choose the afternoon. Some objects/scenes may be better in sunlight, others without (strong shadows are often not too good for photographing buildings, for instance), but of course you won't have much say in the matter … other than picking an appropriate season, but even then you may be at the mercy of the weather gods …
- Careful with that flash!!!
Most standard digital cameras with fixed flash have a clear weakness here. Mostly, front-on flash is simply too bright to make for a good photo. (Of course, the people with the semi-pro gear will have those top-'shoe'-mounted flash machines that can be angled and flexibly set to accurately fit the situation – but most us of do not carry such gear around with us on our travels … see above under 'equipment
Typical results of too much flash are those party pics with white-faced people in the foreground in front of an invisible background. Or photos taken at live gigs – if flash is used you typically see the brightly lit backs of heads of the people in the audience right in front, and hardly anything of the action on stage.
In such situations, turn the flash off!
In other situations when you may want a bit of flash, at least try using a reduced flash setting as default, if your camera allows for this.
Another typical fault through flash happens when there are objects like doorframes or the like in the way of what you're actually aiming at. Avoid these when using flash or else they'll stand out more in the resultant picture than the actual centre of attention. (This will look even more annoying than the T-shirt wearing tourist in the frame mentioned under take a second
Rule of thumb: if at all possible avoid flash altogether when shooting indoors, try using a "night" setting or a (semi-)manual setting and then make sure you stabilize
the camera when shooting (holding the camera
) or use a tripod and/or auto-timer release.
And remember: there are situations when you aren't even allowed to use flash, such as in museums or ancient cultural sites. Not knowing how to turn off the flash on your camera in auto-mode is no excuse for disobeying such rules! And the rules are generally not there to annoy you but for the good reason that flash can do real damage, e.g. to ancient wall paintings. Thousands of flash photos by masses of tourists can mean the equivalent of exposing these artworks to direct sunlight: the colours fade. Of course you may think, well, one single flash can't do much harm – true, but think of the cumulative effect if everyone went by that reasoning …
- Take a second to think before you shoot.
Think photography when pointing your camera at what you're seeing. Human eyesight/visual perception works differently when looking at a two-dimensional photographic representation compared to looking at things in the 3-D animated real world. Our perception is very good at filtering out the irrelevant in the real world, esp. when we're concentrating on something specific. Remember those tests in that BBC programme where people were asked to count the number of times a ball was passed from one person to the next and thus totally failed to notice the man in a gorilla suit casually walking through the scene! Same with photography – many people are surprised to see things in their photos that they failed to notice when they were taking the picture – and that's usually things you wouldn't have wanted in the picture in the first place. But then it's too late (or requires complicated digital manipulation afterwards).
… a "case study" for illustration:
Imagine sightseeing at some ancient Roman temple site – you're fascinated by a particular row of columns and immediately point your camera at it to capture the moment. Your real-life visual perception concentrates on those columns that are the "target" of your photo-shooting. Only when looking at the picture afterwards do you notice that tourist in a brightly coloured T-shirt annoyingly blotting out part of a column in the bottom left part of the frame … and he was just walking away from the frame. Had you simply waited a second or two, the shot would have been unblemished by that touristy colour blot in the frame. Now that it's on the screen (or in print), all the viewer sees at first is that T-shirt – the columns suddenly fade into the background. In short: it's a failed shot.
If you find that sort of thing as annoying as I do, then take my advice: think and briefly scan the whole frame before pressing the shutter button. It doesn't take more than a second's hesitation. In most cases the opportunity for a good shot will not have gone away in that short a moment and instead you'll have the chance for a better photo (see also compose your shot
). It's no guarantee for better photography, but it may save you a larger number of failed or imperfect pics that you later have to delete or at least trim or manipulate.
What you can't compensate for in a picture is those cut-off parts of objects that should really have been captured in full. Cut-off heads of people is only the worst example. How many pictures of buildings, say churches, have you seen where the top bit is missing? Too many, would be my guess. So, try and get the full object in the frame (you could always trim later should you wish to) – if necessary take a few steps back first (but look first, don't just stumble backwards into people or traffic …).
Of course a wide-angle lens helps – and these days even some compact cameras offer wide angles (28 mm or less). This may actually be a criterion in choosing a camera, if you want a stand-alone all-rounder, that is. (With SLRs this is the point at which you'll have to change lenses – see demands and equipment.)
- All things being equal, the most important bit is: compose your shot!
Again, the underlying issue is that seeing doesn't equal photographing. Visual perception in the real world moves to fixation points differently to when looking at a static 2-D photo.
From an aesthetic point of view, it can make an enormous difference whether a photo is simply aimed at a certain object in the middle of the frame, ignoring what's around it (see also take a second
…), as opposed to a consciously composed shot in which everything within the frame is arranged in a way that makes sense. It's difficult to be more precise here, and much depends on personal liking and stylistics, but for instance it can help to think imaginary lines connecting more than one object in a frame (I'm using "object" loosely, to include scenery and people as well, even clouds). Say it's three main things in the frame. Now, think perspective and how they should ideally appear in the frame – all in a horizontal line, a diagonal line, arranged in a V-shape? Note in particular: the most foregrounded object doesn't always have to be in the centre (see play with focus
There's no rough-and-ready rule here, but just remaining aware of different composition options can help making better choices. If you can, that is – in some quick moving situations, such as wildlife photography, choices will be determined partly out of your control and you'll have to take what you get. But for instance when photographing architecture, controlled composition can make a huge difference.
- Play with focus
Many cameras come equipped with multi-field autofocus. Fine for most situations. Often, however, spot-focus gives you more options with more ease. Having a particular part of the picture, a particular object, in crisp focus while other parts/objects further away in the background – or closer in the foreground – remain "blurry" (out of focus), can have a good aesthetic effect (Photo enthusiasts call it 'bokeh'), and to be in control of which point is to be in focus you need to switch to spot-focus. Bokeh effects can even simulate "real eyesight", as that's what happens all the time when you look at the world. When using an SLR, put it into aperture priority mode ('A' on the mode dial on most cameras – I have my SLR set to A mode by default) and play with the different settings of the 'f number' (aperture value). A rough rule of thumb: a lower 'f-number' means open aperture allowing in more light and creating a narrow depth of focus giving more blur around the focus point, which is useful for close ups with lots of bokeh. A higher number (narrower aperture) gives a deeper field of vision/wider depth of focus, and generally makes the picture crisper and sharper (good for low light landscapes). Remember, though that higher 'f numbers' also require longer exposure times (i.e. more stable camera, possibly even a tripod), and that lower 'f-numbers' can result in lack of sharpness overall.
From a creative point of view, remember this: your stereo-vision eyes can only focus on one point in the depth of your field of vision at a time. OK, having a clear focus point in a picture the rest of which is out of focus does limit the way you can look at the picture – but that can be the point: it guides the viewer to one (controlled) way of looking at the pic. It's not for everyone and certainly not for every situation, but something to experiment with.
Similarly, the focal point of a picture doesn't always have to be in the centre (see also compose your shot
), often you get a better effect if you focus on your main object but then move the camera a bit to point the centre focus spot somewhere else off centre (but keep the actual focusing, i.e. keep the shutter pressed halfway down – in 'focus memory' as it is sometime called) then release. Try it.
When shooting moving objects, try moving the camera "with" the object to get it into clear focus – the surroundings will then appear blurred of course. Can be worth it – again, because the result is similar to what your eyes do when they track an object's movement in the real world. If you can predict the distance at which the object will be passing in front of the camera, it can help to pre-focus it in advance on another object at the same distance (and brightness) – that way the autofocus doesn't actually have to "catch" the moving object itself, which may be too fast.
It'll often be a bit trial-and-error to get the camera movement synchronized with the object's movement but with a bit of practice it can enhance your aesthetic range well. The alternative is always having a crisp and clear background perfectly in focus and a blurry swoosh going through the picture (this may occasionally be just what you want too, but try alternating).
- Take some time processing photos afterwards – but don't overdo it.
One of the main advantages of digital photography is that you can manipulate the results after the event in ways much more flexible than in traditional 'analogue' photography. Most people will have some sort of picture-processing software on their computers. Use it. The free software that comes with some cameras may not be too good (I have even encountered positively harmful ones), but you may find alternatives already part of your software package, or part of the software that came with your printer. If none of them are any good, invest in special software – there's loads on the market, some very affordable, some unwieldy but powerful, some easy-to-use but more limited ones. Basic functions for post-processing should include trimming, colour-correction, contrast and light settings, size-reduction (if you want to send pics by email or put them on your own website), and so forth. I'm not talking elaborate manipulative "photo-shopping" (after the name of one of the most popular and powerful photo software packs), just some essential measures.
If the picture is already perfect, no manipulation is necessary. But often enough a few minor tweaks can indeed enhance the result. E.g. if you have taken pictures from a bus, colour-correction (red-shifting) can make the pic look more "natural" (because often the windows are tinted slightly blue). Or your frame composition may not be perfect – say, you didn't wait long enough for that T-shirt to move out of frame (see take a second
) so that a thin sliver of it is still visible at the right edge? Just cut it away. It's so easy digitally these days.
But don't assume (like surprisingly many people seem to do) that more contrast and more sharpness always means better. Too much of this and a photo can easily take on a visibly processed character – rightly criticized by old-school purists. Simply be careful, try minor tweaks first. If in doubt, copy the file twice first and make two versions of increased processing. More often than not the less overtreated versions will stand the test of time better. Unless it's extreme artistic manipulation you're after, of course, then it's all just a matter of how far you choose to go … Also, do all the processing of one photo in one sitting – repeatedly treating and saving of the same file can lead to loss of picture quality per se.
Perfectionists often shoot in RAW format, which allows more processing flexibility after the event, but this takes up a hell of a lot more memory space for each shot, and then requires a lot more time sitting at the computer later. If you do want to go down that route and be more demanding than I am, then those countless specialized photography-themed websites will be useful for more hints (it's simply beyond the scope aimed at here). For what I assume to be my average target group, a reasonable compromise between affordable gear and sensibly restrained post-processing, mostly in JPEG format, will do just fine.
- Keeping (selective) order and showing photos selectively
And finally: keep your digital photo archives tidy. Throw out immediately files that are so faulty that you can be sure you don't want to view them again in the future.
What appears to be a major advantage of digital photography is also one of its banes – namely that you can just shoot away masses of attempts, as it doesn't really cost anything and you "could always delete later" … but if you don't do it rigorously, then those masses of files can quickly clog up memory space, first on your camera's card, and later on your computer's hard disk. There are people whose computers' hard drives are more than 80% filled with photo files, many of which are never properly looked at ever again. If it gets out of hand, an external hard drive may be the solution for storage – but make sure to research the options well, some external drives are not too reliable long term, so best have a "back-up back-up".
In principle: keep order, or you may drown in the masses of files. Put photos in clearly labelled thematic folders, preferably take the time to give the photo files themselves telling names. When processing your photos, keep a copy of the original files, as they've come off the camera, and preferably back-up everything on different media, not just the internal hard drive, also externally, and perhaps even on CD/DVD.
And if you want to show your photos to others and there are loads and loads of them, then make a strict selection for this purpose, don't bore your viewers with multiple versions of the same view over and over again.
Also: when putting together a selection vary the aesthetic styles, if possible. E.g. alternate wide shots with close-ups, "normal" ones with more "experimental" ones, calm ones with action, and so on and so forth. Try making the photo viewing exciting as such, independent of what's "in" them. As exciting as that may already be to you – it often is less exciting for others who weren't there, but can be enhanced by a more interesting presentation.