As a photographer in Tokyo, I’ve seen my fair share of tourists snapping travel photos. While it’s fantastic that people are documenting their adventures (With the exception of selfie sticks. Those things are a plague that need to be stopped), I have seen far too many vacation photos from family and friends that could be drastically improved with a few minor tweaks. From blurry, noisy images, to flat scenes that lack depth and intrigue, here are five tips to improve your travel photos with your DSLR or mirrorless camera.
1. Get Off of Auto Mode
I get it. It’s hard to beat the simplicity of simply pointing and shooting. However, if you’ve invested the money in a camera with a few more bells and whistles than a basic point and shoot, then you better be ringing those bells and blowing those whistles.
While I’m a big proponent of shooting in full manual mode, I know that’s not a practical solution for everyone. To get the best results possible with the least amount of effort, switch from auto to either aperture priority or shutter priority mode. These settings will allow you to manually control your aperture or shutter speed respectively, while letting the camera control everything else.
I’m sure everyone has seen a photo where the subject is in focus and the background is softly blurred away. It’s a pleasing effect and helps to draw focus to your subject and minimize distractions. Here’s an example.
To control the intensity of this blur, we need to adjust our camera’s aperture; the width your lens’ shutter blades will open when taking a picture. Aperture measurement is usually indicated by the letter “f” followed by a number. The smaller the number, the wider your shutter blades will open. For instance, f/1.4 is a very wide aperture, while f/22 is incredibly narrow.
The other term we need to know for this is depth of field (DOF). Think of DOF like a bubble. Everything inside the bubble is in focus. The farther away you get from the bubble, the less in focus you will be. A wider aperture will give you a brighter image and a shallow depth of field. A narrow aperture gives you less light, but a very wide depth of field. To put it simply, the smaller the number that follows the “f/”, the more out of focus things will be in front of and behind your subject (Of course there are many other factors that effect this, but you can read more about that here).
So how can you use this to your advantage? Adjusting your aperture is the easiest way to add depth to your photos. Want to make your subject pop off the background in an almost 3D effect? Increase your aperture to the small number the lens will allow. Trying to capture the seemingly endless countryside in front of you? Lower your aperture to f/11 or beyond to ensure everything is in focus as far as the eye can see.
Think about a picture of fast moving cars or someone standing in a busy cross walk while people hurry past them. How do you know the cars and the crowd of people were moving? More often than not, the answer is motion blur. This trail that seems to follow moving objects in a picture helps to clearly indicate that sense of movement to the viewer.
The way we create this effect is by controlling shutter speed. Shutter speed is typically measured in tenths or hundredths of a second, such as 1/250. What this means is that the shutter will open for 1/250th of a second before closing again. The closer you get to 1 second (and beyond), the longer your shutter will remain open.
The longer the shutter remains open, the more light it will be able to gather. This is useful both in static situations like a dark indoor scene, or in the case of what we’re talking about here, creating a motion blur behind a moving subject.
To be able to do this and make it look good, you will need to place your camera on a tripod to avoid blurring your static background elements such as buildings. Once it’s stable, set your shutter speed as low as you’d like and let the action play out in front of you. It’s a little extra effort, but when you look back at your photos of Tokyo with taxis zipping through the busy city streets, it will all have been worth it.
2. Invest in a Travel Tripod
When you’re taking a photo in an area that isn’t well lit, the easiest way to correct for exposure is by widening your aperture or raising your camera’s ISO level. Unfortunately, both come at a price. With a wider aperture, much less of your scene is going to be in focus. The higher your ISO, the grainier your picture will become. Lowering your shutter speed can get you a brighter image without compromising quality, but the tiniest shake of your hand can turn your photo into a blurry mess.
All of these issues can be solved with a reliable travel tripod. More compact and light-weight than a standard version, travel tripods can be easily packed in a suitcase or strapped to the side of a day bag when out taking photos. Once your camera is secure on the tripod, you can drop your shutter speed down to longer intervals without worrying about shaky hands. As an added tip, set the camera to fire after a 3 second timer. This will give you time to press the shutter release and take your hands off the camera without it shaking.
Of course, there are times when using a tripod is not allowed, such as crowded tourist areas where it may present a tripping hazard. In this case, I like to use what’s known as the string tripod trick. Your travel tripod may come with a removable base plate that attaches to the bottom of your camera. If not, you can buy one like this. See the little ring on the underside? Pass a string through there and knot it. Leave a decent amount of slack on the other end; maybe 4 to 5 feet, and step on it to make the line taught. Now, rather than preventing the camera from swaying in all directions, you will only need to control the side to side movement. Of course this won’t work as well as a real tripod, but in a pinch, it’s much better than nothing.
3. Simplify Your Gear
Photographers, both amateurs and pros alike, tend to have a problem. We’re addicted to the thrill of getting new camera gear. I totally get it. I often find myself browsing through camera stores, wondering what I should buy for projects I MIGHT need someday in the future. When it comes to travel photos however, basic is better.
I’m often asked by friends of mine, “which lenses should I bring with me?”. My answer is always, “it depends on what you want to shoot”. If you plan on shooting something specialized, like birds in trees or massive, sweeping panoramas, then you may very well need a specific lens. Otherwise, I almost exclusively swear by a 35mm prime lens.
A prime lens simply means a lens with a fixed focal length that does not zoom. So why 35mm? On a full frame camera, the field of view of a 35mm lens is almost the same as you would see with the naked eye. This makes it easier to compose a photo on the fly. When I’m out shooting street photography, or if you’re riding through the city on a tour bus, being able to compose your shot quickly is essential if you don’t want to miss your perfect moment. Because of this, 35mm has been one of the most trusted lenses by photojournalists for decades now.
Also, 35mm prime lenses tend to be very bright and relatively inexpensive. You can easily find a 35mm f/1.8 or higher without breaking the bank. On top of that, they’re usually lightweight and won’t leave you with a sore neck after a day of walking around. If you’re not ready to part with the world of zooms just yet, a 24-70mm is a nice compromise and makes an excellent walkabout lens.
4. Ditch the Built-in Flash
It’s an all too common scene that pains me to see it. A well-intentioned photographer taking a photo of a distant city skyline, and their camera’s built-in flash is firing. While it seems to make sense in theory (use flash to light up a dark area, duh), all you will accomplish is lighting the small patch of grass directly in front of you and ruining the ambiance of the scene.
A built-in flash is ok as a last ditch effort to save a photo when your subject is in a very dark area, but it’s never going to look good. At best, you’ll end up with a photo that is somewhat passable. In order for flashed photos to look nice, you’re going to need a bit more power and control. A hotshoe mounted flash is going to have a much higher light output than the camera’s built-in flash, and it will allow you to angle the light. This is really important when taking photos of people. Rather than firing the flash directly in their face, you can bounce the light off of a nearby wall or ceiling for a much softer, more pleasing appearance. And remember, no flash, no matter how powerful, is going to light that distant city skyline, so only use it for subjects that are close to you.
5. Change Your Perspective
This last tip is the simplest in theory, but can be very challenging in practice. Next time you go to take a photo, especially one of a famous landmark, ask yourself, “how can I do this differently?”. Think of every picture you’ve ever seen of the Eiffel Tower. The majority will have been taken from the same vantage point, at the same angle, framed in the exact same way. It makes sense. If something looks good a certain way, people will naturally want to recreate it. But if your goal is to take a photo for something more than simply proving you were there, why take the same exact shot you can find in seconds on Google?
Rather than taking that “tried and true” shot, walk around the corner and check the view from there. Walk up close and take an abstract shot of just one edge of the building. Shoot through some tree branches to add an interesting foreground element. There are endless ways to transform a cliched photo into something that is uniquely you. Those are the photos that will stand out from your travel album without fail, and for me, have a deeper emotional callback to that moment.
If you’re trying to take your travel photos to the next level, these tips will get you well on your way to doing so. If you’d like to share some of your favorite tips, send me a message. And if you’d like to step out from behind the lens during your next trip to Tokyo, book me for a private photo shoot in the city!