I am not a great photographer. Despite visiting some of the most beautiful destinations on the planet, and seeing some of the most wonderful things, my approach to photography has always been one of simply pointing a cheap cellphone camera with a dirty, scratched lens in the general direction of the subject, and then snapping off a whole bunch of shots in the vein hope that one of them turns out OK.
Only this year did I buy an ‘actual’ camera. Even then, it was the cheapest one in the shop that had a decent enough sensor and an optical zoom.
The fortunate thing is, after taking thousands upon thousands of photos over the years using budget equipment, (90% of which are awful) I now have a nice little toolbox of techniques that I use to take passable photos, even on a cellphone or basic camera. I would like to share some of those with you here.
Note: All photos in this article were taken on a cellphone, or a cheap camera. They are not journalism quality photographs, but the aim of this post is not to teach you to take professional pictures, but to help you to have a better, more cherished collection of personal memories.
Tip 1: Composition can make or break a photograph, even a $10,000 camera cannot fix bad composition.
Composition is how a photograph is ‘built‘. It is an incredibly complex and varied subject with many rules and recommendations, most of which can be broken for artistic effect – but only at the right time! As a result, composition can be really daunting for an amateur photographer. It can include such factors foreground, background, where the subject appears on the photo, how much of the subject is in shot, whether the horizon is straight, patterns and symmetry, focus, depth, distance, and more.
“A well-composed photograph taken on a cheap cellphone will look better than a badly composed photo taken on a top-of-the-line camera.”
Composition: Rule of Thirds
This is a big thing you will hear about a lot in photography circles. Effective use of the Rule of Thirds will really help create a nice photo. If you imagine a 9×9 grid across your picture made up of two evenly-spaced vertical lines, and two horizontal ones. You then have your photo divided into vertical and horizontal thirds, and how you fill each one will dictate how the final photo will look. A classic example is a landscape picture; the foreground should fill the lower horizontal third, the background the middle, and the sky the top third for an even and balanced look.
Personal Note: I am a big fan of adding a subject into the foreground of landscape photos, even if it’s subtle. I think it adds depth to the photo and helps the viewer to imagine how the photographer would have seen it at the time. The very nature of photographs being two-dimensional means they poorly capture the ‘essence’ of a scene compared to the human eye. I feel that adding something into the foreground such as a tree branch, grass, lamppost, statue, etc. helps to give a sense a scale. See the three photos below that help demonstrate what I mean.
Composition: Lead In Lines/Shapes
Another way to give a sense of distance is using ‘lead in’ lines. These are subjects in the photograph that lead the viewer’s eye in such a way as to create a more tangible feeling of depth to the picture. Bridges, winding roads, railings, train tracks etc. are all good examples of these. See below for one of my examples. I think that the scene is impressive enough already with the dense forest covering the sides of a steep gorge, coupled with a raging torrent of water in the river below. But, add in the bridge, and it really takes the picture to a whole new level! (Shame about the slightly blurry patch! As I said – I am just an amateur!)
When combining portrait AND landscape photography in a single shot, it’s easy to ‘lose’ the subject into the background. In the example below, my earthy-coloured clothing blends into the desert landscape. Although a nice photo, the second example taken with a different angle is much better I believe. The subject (me) stands out and is the focal point of the photograph, yet the background is still visible and impressive. Also note that by default, the rule of thirds which had been lost in the first picture with too much foreground, has been restored again in the second.
Composition: Don’t amputate people’s limbs!
Don’t rush to hit the shutter button, make sure the whole person is in shot, or if you are choosing to only capture part of them, make sure you are sticking to the generally accepted ‘cutting off’ points. Otherwise you end up with a photo like below… not tragically bad, but would be nice if I still had fingers! (To be fair – this was only one of a series of shots at this location, and I think I moved at the wrong time!) It is of course possible to compose a photo in such a way that only part of someone is in shot, but use the cheat sheet below to do so while still keeping the picture natural looking and aesthetic.
Bonus: Sometimes the composition falls into place quite by chance, all you have to do is point the camera and try not to f**k it up! The below picture is a perfect example of that. You won’t see a lineup quite like this again in a thousand years; sometimes it’s simply a case of being in the right place at the right time! (Photo taken by Candace Dawn!)
Composition: Creating a ‘frame’ for the photo
Another way you can make your photos stand out from the crowd is to frame the photo in some way using what’s around you. Doorways, windows, arches, tunnels, etc. are all ideal for this. I have provided three basic examples below to illustrate what I mean and to perhaps inspire you try something similar. (Sorry for the stupid face that I appear to be pulling!)
Tip 2: Work with the available lighting – post production can only do so much
As travel photographers, we do not typically carry fancy lighting setups, especially those of us on a budget, and with limited packing space. Also, while specialised editing software can go some way to lightening an underexposed photo, or visa versa, the lower-end camera equipment that we use means that the software can only go so far to correct bad lighting. Artificially lightening underexposed images can result in images that are grainy and pixelated. I have many times fallen into the trap of saying to myself; “It’s Okay, I’ll touch this photo up later and make it brighter/darker.” Only to be disappointed with the results.
Getting the lighting as good as possible at the time of image capture is an incredibly important skill that makes much better photos that are easier to edit. Most of us already know the basics of lighting such as trying to get the sun behind you while taking the picture, and not shooting from a dark place to one with more light etc. Cameras such as those on cellphones automatically gauge the ambient light, and adjust their aperture size and shutter speed accordingly. This can result in overexposed or underexposed photos.
In the two photographs below, the left-hand one was taken towards the sun. (Although it was behind a cloud at the time.) The camera, sensing the brightness, reduced the exposure in such a way as the resulting photo is dark and difficult to work with; it is nearly impossible to see the subject. The right-hand side one was taken a few minutes later when the sun had come out again, and I was now positioned so that it was behind me. A much better result overall.
Note: These photos have not been edited in any way – they are straight from the phone’s camera.
Did you know?
Most cellphone cameras come equipped with a mode called HDR. (High Dynamic Range) This allows you to take decent-enough photos even in variable light conditions. HDR effectively takes several pictures in quick succession using different exposures, then stitches them together automatically to create a single photo that highlights the darker areas whilst not overexposing brighter areas such as the sky. The example photograph below is a perfect example of how HDR can enhance a picture at the touch of a button.
Note: These photos have not been edited in anyway – they are straight from the camera‘s SD card.
Bear in mind: When taking photos in HDR mode, you need to be careful to hold the camera steady and ensure the subject/s are not moving too much. Because several photos are being taken in quick succession, any movement will translate to a blurred final result.
Tip 3: When editing photos, go easy on the saturation slider! (and the contrast too!)
It’s so tempting! I just want to make that sunset more orange! The trees more green! My skin more tanned! So what do we do? We slide the saturation slider hard over on our cellphone’s built in photo editor software, and suddenly our picture now looks fake, cheap, and not at all professional! Saturation simply enhances every colour in a photograph. In the example photograph below, taken on my cheap Samsung phone, I wanted to try to enhance the natural colours of the sunrise, especially the way it reflected off of the clouds. But, sliding the saturation bar all the way up only ‘blew out’ the colours and made the photo look tacky and poorly edited.
However, in the same example below, using quality editing software, (more on that in a future article) I was able to enhance individual colours in such a way that I was able to accentuate the natural tones without making the photograph look too intense and fake.
“The saturation tool is useful if used carefully on photographs that are muted, and have little colour. However, it does so indiscriminately so can ‘over-enhance’ in areas that you don’t want it to.”
Another good option is to see if your photo editor has the ability to change vibrance. A subtler, deeper relation of saturation, vibrance enhances only select colours that are more muted while leaving more vivid colours alone. By using this tool, you are able to enhance some of the colours, whilst not blowing others out of proportion. In the example below, I wanted to make the sky more blue, as it was a hazy day.
The left picture is the original, as it was taken. The middle is using saturation only, and finally the right hand side is using vibrance only. Saturation is horrible when used with a human subject as it has a tendency to enhance skin tone over any other colours creating a very unflattering look! In my personal experience, vibrance is much more useful for most photos, and is certainly far superior when it comes to avoiding turning people orange!
Also, don’t go crazy with the contrast slider as well…
Contrast is exactly that. The difference between two shades, tones, colours, etc. in a photograph. The higher the contrast, the greater the difference between them. Shadows appear darker, while bright spots become even brighter. Colours ‘pop’ more, but as with saturation, can begin to appear fake if not adjusted well. Using the contrast slider simply adjusts all of the variables at the same time, lacking any form of finesse or fine-tuning. It can be used as a quick fix to give a picture a little more depth, (or less depth if that is what you require!) but it is worth playing with other tools to achieve a better effect.
Let’s look at an example…
The wintry light and overcast skies in the photograph below made the cityscape look flat and featureless. I wanted to enhance the picture to give it more depth and substance. I experimented with the contrast slider to see what would happen.
What has happened is that although the photo indeed has more depth, and the buildings in the background look much better, the sky is even more overexposed than it was before, and the padlocks don’t look as aged and weathered, instead appearing bright gold in colour. It’s an improvement no doubt, but it is not what I was aiming for.
The below picture is a much better result in my opinion. Although the sky is much the same as the original, the buildings stand out more and look more tangible, the river has more substance, and the padlocks now have their rustic patina again! To create this look, I adjusted the shadows, highlights, exposure, clarity, colours, and white balance independently until I had the desired look and feel.
Tip 4: Use pre-made filters wisely
Different types of photos can be improved by the appropriate filter. While generally shunned by pros in favour of more tailored editing, filters no doubt allow a quick ‘spit n’ polish’ before posting to social media. However, it is important to use the right filter for the effect you desire. For instance, in this photograph below of me riding a decrepit, vintage bus in Guatemala definitely looks great with the ‘yester-year’ look in the left example. It does not, however, suit the filter on the right-hand side. That’s not to say that the right side filter does not have its place, but it is perhaps more suited for a different style of photograph.
Tip 5: Treat your photos well, and store them correctly.
Hands down, my biggest ever regret when it comes to going through all my old photos (of which there are many) is not understanding how to store and look after them properly. For the longest time, I had no idea that sending photos through email and messenger apps, or uploading them to social media reduced their quality!
“Sending photos via messenger apps and email, or uploading them to social media diminishes their quality!“
Let’s break it down. An average JPEG file from a basic cellphone camera is anywhere from around 4MB to 6MB in size. The larger a photograph is in size, the more data is used to make up that photo, roughly translating to quality of the picture. A RAW file from a quality camera can be over 40MB for a single photo – 10x that of a cell phone!
Photos that are sent via email or messenger, or uploaded/downloaded from social media, are generally in the area of 500KB. This is up to 10x smaller than the original file. They may look fine on the small screen of a mobile device, but I can assure you that they will look terrible on a large computer screen. Not to mention that it has ruined any future potential the photograph has to be printed, framed, and hung on your wall!
I have thousands of photos of some momentous occasions in my life that were sent to me electronically, or that I downloaded from Facebook, or at some point obtained in the myriad of other ways that digital photos can be compressed. I even remember in my early days, editing photos using free editing software, uploading the results to social media, and then deleting the originals to save space!
What on earth was I thinking?
I have searched fruitlessly through hard drives to find the originals, but in vein. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but at least now I know that in future, I will treat and store my treasured photos with respect.
Want someone to send you a photo? Why not create a dropbox/google drive folder and share it with them so that they can upload the full resolution image for you?
I now backup all of my photos onto the cloud as a general rule. I use Microsoft OneDrive for no other reason is that it is what I know best, and it works fine. I get tons of storage too.
When editing photos, create two folders – one in which you store the originals, the other that contains the edited versions. That way, if you wish to edit the same photo again in the future in a different way, you always have the original ready to go.
Phew! That was a lot of work putting this post together, but a whole bunch of fun too. I have learned lots about travel photography over the years, sometimes the easy way, many times the hard way! I hope this article helped you to avoid the common pitfalls – leave a comment below!
Why not check out some of my photo logs from past trips?
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