We’ve all seen them, those breathtakingly beautiful travel photos which grace our coffee table books, inspire our future trips, and make us want to take pictures as good as them. Unfortunately, the reality is that most travelers lack both the financial resources and the technical expertise necessary to purchase and use professional cameras.
But here’s the thing. Just because you only have a compact at your disposal doesn’t mean you can’t take wonderful pictures, because, as professional photographers like Alex Majoli have shown and keep showing, you can take great pictures by using only them and their limited functions.
So if you cannot afford costly gear, would hate to lug 10 kg of it everywhere you travel or just cannot seem to comprehend the intricacies and nuances of advanced camera settings, know that you can still take pictures worth showing off and holding on to. Just follow these straightforward 10 tips from a fellow compact camera traveler.
1. Work on your composition
The nature of your compact camera makes it essential that you get your composition right on site, as if you simply snap at random and then hope to crop unwanted objects out back home you’ll be disappointed because your shot will end up losing a lot of its quality. Your first instinct when you see a beautiful scene or an interesting cluster of things will be to try and capture it all exactly as you’re seeing it, but you need to understand that your camera will put a concrete frame around that scene which your eyes lack. This means that what you capture needs to fit comfortably within this frame in the same way that a painting also needs to fit well in its canvas space to work.
There are a few simple rules you can follow to dramatically improve your composition. I’d highly recommend only placing the focal point of your picture in the middle of your frame if that object/person is close enough to fill most of the photo space. If that is not possible, position the subject on the side, and importantly, if it’s facing or moving towards the left or the right, give it room in that direction, rather than making it point towards the photo edge and therefore unbalancing the composition. If the focal point or an interesting object in your picture is small enough, place it approximately in one of the frame’s four corners. This technique is referred to as the photographic rule of the third and with it, even seemingly uninteresting elements, like a lone tree in an empty field, can be shot in such a way as to make your picture beautiful.
Finally, you can also organize your shot using rules of symmetry. For example, if your subject is two people of similar size sitting back to back or facing each other and you place them in the center of the shot, the result will be pleasant because of its symmetrical quality. For more information about composition, check out GeoffLawrence.com’s tutorials about it and other features of compact photography.
2. Check where the light is coming from and work accordingly
Pointing your camera towards a scene over which the sun is shining directly will result in dark objects and overexposed skies, so if there’s a spot you particularly love and want to capture, try going during a time of day when the sun has shifted in the opposite direction. Heavily overcast skies also make for bad pictures, and in this case you just need to accept that there are times like in this case when you just can’t take great shots. Backlighting, however, both natural and artificial, is what you need if you want to shoot an interesting silhouette.
On bright sunny days, avoid shooting light, white or highly reflective objects or surfaces as your shots will turn out to be overexposed. Taking pictures in the evening as the sun is setting and at night is also problematic, with too little light making pictures grainy and the use of flash only resulting in yellow-tinged shots. So in the end, it’s simply a matter of being a bit lucky with the weather and being in the right place at the right time. Having said that, if you’re still keen on taking good pictures at night, such as when you’re witnessing a particularly good music performance you want to keep a memory of, take a look at this article about how to take better gig photos at night. Finally, when you’re experimenting with low light conditions, take plenty of pictures, as out of numerous grainy ones you might just get that one perfectly clear and sharp example.
3. Look for interesting angles
A common mistake that compact users make is to always take pictures at their own eye level, which often results in odd shots when the subject demands that you get yourself at its level. Here is a simple example: You spot a cat lounging on the pavement, and you simply point down at it and click. The resulting shot will most probably look awkward and not particularly remarkable. But what if you get your camera at the same level as the cat? The result is shown in the picture above.
Then of course there are moments when you’ll get your memorable shot by pointing downwards (such as when on a terrace to capture the street life below) or upwards to give a feeling of the height and bulk of a particular object, or simply to shoot it from an unusual angle.
Perspective and angle are especially important when trying to take pictures of food you come across during your travels and where it’s not enough to simply point the camera downward at your plate. For a bit of inspiration on how to take food pictures from different angles, check out the Road Forks’ excellent examples in their post about budget eats in Japan.
4. Think about color
A good way to choose a subject or a scene for your shot is to take color into consideration. A scene with too many contrasting colors will appear chaotic and should only be shot if showing that sense of chaos is your primary aim. If, however, you want to give a feeling of peace and order, group together things with similar or same scale colors. For more unusual shots, work with complimentary colors which are those tones that face each other on the color wheel, or focus on a scene where most of the color is grey or muted apart from one or a cluster of objects sporting markedly stronger tones.
If the color combination does not work or the colors are not vivid enough, the shot itself won’t work. Check out this post at My Kugelhopf.com for an example of how great color choices can bring simple things, like the produce in a food market, to life.
5. Be creative
If you open your mind to things other than the main monuments, sculptures and buildings you will discover that great photos can lie in seemingly simple compositions. Stop taking pictures millions of others already have and look for unique picture opportunities. Try to think of fresh and original ways of making overly photographed spots special and new (by for example, shooting them from unusual angles or shooting only parts of them), so that the pictures you take home are truly your own and not indistinguishable from those you find printed on postcards.
Use all the previous points mentioned regarding composition, light and angle to do this. You can also work with additional frames to create a frame within frame effect as in the picture above, and you can compose these frames out of practically anything; two tree trunks, a window, the steel frame of a ship or an arch. Frames are everywhere and come in all shapes and materials. You just need to keep your eye open for them. Or consider getting creative with a waterproof digital camera — playing with water, light, and color.
6. Tell a story
In order for your picture to tell a story you need to set a mood or include a dynamic element. You might find a particular temple peaceful as you walk through it and its silence envelopes you, but the people who see your pictures might not get the same feeling as they only have the visual element to rely on.
So instead of simply shooting the temple structure, included that local in the corner enjoying a bit of warm sun with her eyes closed, and if you want to shoot that Buddha statue which caught your eye, wait for something to make it stand out, like a lone monk walking past it in his traditional robes but at the same time wearing a brand new pair of sneakers. Including a human element automatically introduces a story, because it captures a moment, a snippet of life that will most probably never repeat itself in that exact same way.
7. Know your camera’s limits and use them to your advantage
By opting for a compact rather than a more professional camera, you reduce the weight you have to carry around but also, of course, miss out on some great things which a better camera can do. Zooming too much with a compact camera is not really an option, because the more you zoom the less sharp your picture will be. Try to learn instead to place small objects into their larger context, be it a deer in a forest or a group of teenagers hanging around beneath an impressive mural, thus creating a story connecting those subjects to the place they are in. Cropping is also not an option, as this will dramatically reduce the quality of your shot, so you need to learn to make on the spot decisions about how to organize the objects in your picture.
With time this will become second nature and you’ll also find that it will heighten your perception skills, making it easier for you to spot great photo opportunities where others may see very little potential. Added to this, I find that having a small camera helps you blend in much more than if you’re holding a bulky one and pointing it uncomfortably at passers-by. It’s easy to keep your compact in your pocket, scan your surroundings, identify a particularly photogenic man or woman in front of an interesting background, quickly take it out, point, click and slip it back into your jacket without that person even noticing. For more tips on taking photos of people on the street, check out this post from Uncornered Market.
8. Learn to ditch pictures
With the advent of digital photography we no longer need to worry about taking pictures sparingly. Use this as an advantage and take plenty of pictures of the same scene from different perspectives and with different settings. When you get home from your trip, don’t simply upload every single photo you’ve taken, but make a selection of your very best, ditching blurred, ill-organized and under or overexposed shots.
If however, you notice a photo whose composition you particularly like but which doesn’t work because of color, you can save it by changing it into a high contrast black and white, and in doing so retaining the strength of the composition but getting rid of the dullness of its colors. Take a look at the picture above for an example of a shot I saved with this technique.
9. Invest in a photo editing program
If you keep your camera on auto mode, chances are that the only time you will get pictures with vibrant colors is when the light is absolutely right – not too little, and not too bright – which is to say, almost never. While certain shots with just too little or too much light will be unsalvageable, most of the others will benefit immensely from a bit of a digital intervention. I’m not speaking about messing with the general idea of the photo – your composition should not be tampered with – but dull colors in well-composed pictures can be brought to life by increasing their brightness/contrast value. See above for one of my own before and after shots.
10. Display your pictures appropriately
Many travelers nowadays love to show off their travel pictures on their personal blogs but equally many spoil the shots themselves by displaying them improperly. In the same way that you wouldn’t put a painting into a border three times its size so shouldn’t you just place small pictures in your post and let them swim in empty white space. If it’s a horizontal picture, make it fit well into the width of your blog layout and if it’s a vertical one, put it side by side with one or two more which have a similar theme or color combination. Otherwise, place your picture in the text itself so that the words appear to be hugging it.
You should think of your blog layout as a book or magazine page – when was the last time you saw empty spaces or pictures which don’t fit snugly in the layout in these sort of medias? Probably never, because it just looks bad. For a better idea of how you can experiment with photo placing, check Klutzy Chef’s post about her trip to Sydney and notice how she plays around with layout for a visually interesting display.
If you want to get a little bit more serious about photography but still hold on to your little compact, there is plenty of information out there. Matt of Wrightfood has a great post about how to take better food photography, as well as a list of typical problems connected to compact camera photography including a few solutions. Photocritic.org explains how to take better macro shots and photoradar.com speaks about the best 10 compacts for photography enthusiasts. Then there is Seriouscompacts.com, which is a site catering specifically for compact users. Finally, for more inspiration about what you can do with a simple compact, visit my travel photo gallery. (link)
Got a great travel photo you want to share? Submit a photo to be considered for the WhyGo Photo of the Day, check out the 15 best travel photo blogs, or view our best photo essays:
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- 12 Most Amazing Pools in the World
All photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.