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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.

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

Seek unexpected views, times, and angles. For an unfamiliar shot of the Taj Mahal, you could go to nearby Agra Fort and frame the image through a carved stone window. To photograph England's ancient Stonehenge, go at a significant time - perhaps with a full moon rising, to suggest a feeling of timelessness. Rather than shoot Disneyland's Cinderella castle at noon, wait for sunset, when tower pennants flying against a golden sky lend a fairy-tale atmosphere of romance. In Venice, forget the trite photo of pigeons in St. Mark's Square; instead, climb the clock tower and focus on the statue of the bell-ringer, which seems to float above the domed roofs of the city.

Don't eat breakfast and dinner at the usual times. You should be outside taking pictures. That's because the best light comes in early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is low on the horizon. During these "golden hours," outdoor illumination is soft and warm, with no harsh shadows. (The ultimate is Alaska in summer, when a sunset can last three hours.)

See for yourself.  Take pictures of what interests you. 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.

Clear the area. To photograph popular tourist sights without tourists in them, arrive at sunrise, before other people show up. (A word of caution: If the light is behind you, be sure your own shadow doesn't creep into the picture!)  If there are crowds when you visit, try screening off other tourists behind something, such as a massive stone block below the Parthenon.  The technically minded can try putting the camera on a support, using a small lens aperture and a neutral dark gray filter (2.0), and exposing for several seconds. Passing people will just be faint blurs.

Find the good in bad weather. A wash of rain adds an appealing glisten to almost any subject. It causes bright colors (reds, yellows, blues) to "pop" from their drab surroundings and makes everyday scenes resemble paintings.

Show people acting naturally. Photograph subjects doing something other than posing. Let's say a Spanish farmhand is pitching hay. If he's looking straight at you instead of the hay wagon, you know he's conscious of the camera. Politely ask him not to look your way, or just lower the camera until he goes back to what he was doing. When you've got a nice person who's cooperating -- a smiling babushka selling sausages at a Russian marketplace -- take a few shots so she'll get used to you. Then, when a customer comes and the woman gets animated and forgets you're there, you can take better ones. Be kind. Many people don't want to be photographed when they're sweaty, dirty, or otherwise at a bad moment.  Instead of trying to sneak a shot of someone, walk up and ask, 'May I take your photograph?" (You can learn the appropriate phrase in any language -- French, Hindi, whatever.) Be open and friendly. Most people say "fine" -- but they do appreciate being asked. If you just race up to people, snap their picture, and walk away, they'll feel that you took advantage of them. Worse, depending on their culture, they may be angry. Respect their right not to be photographed if they so choose.

Walk around. Before you take out a camera, look around the building -- both inside and out. You'll absorb the spirit of the place, understand its architecture, and find details that strike you: the figure of a saint in a stained glass window, a gargoyle crouched atop a wall. Sometimes one small thing will mean more to you than the whole building.  When shooting an overall view, try to put a lot of distance between you and the cathedral. Photos can show the way a structure dominates its surroundings, as well as showing its architectural components. Some buildings are illuminated at night, creating a dramatic effect. (Be sure to bracket long night exposures, to minimize the risks of underexposure and overexposure.)

Shoot interiors in late morning. An hour or two before midday, strong light slants through doors and windows. It may glint off a fixture, or descend in luminous shafts through dust suspended in the air.

Don't forget details. Many public events are visually chaotic. Look for details to single out, such as a reveler's mask or a clown's shoes. A long lens will frame the image tightly. Using a flash can isolate a nearby subject from the busy surroundings -- for example, a feather-clad dancer in a wild carnival procession. Keep both eyes open. Looking through both eyes, not just the lens, lets you observe when someone or something unwanted is about to enter the scene you're shooting.

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.

Be patient. A good photograph sometimes means waiting until the light is right, the weather changes, or the feeling is strong.

Go back. Places are like people: After the second or third visit, you begin to know them better and start to get involved. That's when exciting things happen.

Use different lenses. Wide-angle and telephoto lenses can entirely alter the look of a scene. A wide-angle skews the perspective so that nearby things appear larger and closer, while more distant things look oddly smaller and farther away. Through a telephoto, objects at successive distances appear nearer to each other -- a useful feature when you want to "stack" repeated design elements, such as Victorian houses on a city block in San Francisco.

Mountains. Beware the empty landscape shot. Photographed from ten miles away with a snapshot camera, a majestic mountain will look like a molehill. To add depth and dimension, frame it through trees or add something of interest in the foreground. To dramatize the height of mountains, use a telephoto lens. A wide-angle lens expands the scene and also keeps the foreground in sharp focus -- such as pebbles on the shore of an Alpine lake.

Sand and sea. On film, even a glorious beach in the south of France may look like dull sand and featureless sky. Give the eye something to focus on: the shadow of a palm tree on wet sand, people tossing a beach ball. When faced with a large expanse of ocean, include a subject of interest such as a sailboat. Or wait for changes in lighting or weather to create spectacular clouds or a glittering pathway of sunshine on the water.

Snow. Snow lends itself to several effects. Use flash to arrest falling flakes as white specks. Use a slow shutter speed (1/30 or 1/60) to render them as white streaks. To avoid streaking, choose a shutter speed of 1/125 or faster. In winter's dim light, you'll need fast film.

Rocks, cliffs. Take pictures when early morning or late afternoon sun rakes the jumbled landscape at an angle and creates sharp relief. Otherwise even the Grand Canyon may look flattened out and blah.

Stay on the edge. The margin between day and night triggers excitement in a photograph. The transition between seasons of the year lasts only a few days as time marches forward. Even a still landscape can seem full of movement. When you're shooting a Swiss meadow full of spring wildflowers, it adds an edge if there is still snow in the high mountains beyond.

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.

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."

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" 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 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 some test photos to be sure your new camera or lens works properly. Always start a trip with fresh batteries.

Beware of airport security checkpoints.  At airport security checkpoints, signs claim that X-ray luggage scanners won't damage your film. While it’s true that a single zap of low-dose X-rays probably won't affect slower film rated up to ISO 400, repeated passes through multiple airports have a cumulative effect that will "fog" unprocessed film. (It doesn't matter whether the film is exposed or unexposed.) Films rated ISO 800 or faster may be fogged by a single X-raying. If you use film, do not pack it in checked luggage, as it will be X-rayed.  Keep it in your carry-on bag and have it hand-inspected at the security checkpoint.

Videotapes and digital cameras are not affected by X-rays, but are sensitive to the magnetic field inside the walk-through security gate. Place videotapes, your loaded video camera, and your digital camera and memory cards on the conveyor belt with your hand luggage, or have them hand-inspected.

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.

Remember to recharge. If your camera is digital, bring extra batteries and make sure to pack your recharger.  Recharge every night so you have all the power you need.

Increase your memory. Additional, or larger capacity memory cards for digital cameras are fairly inexpensive.  Make sure you clear your cards before you leave.

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.

Excerpted from articles by Jerry Camarillo Dunn.

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