How to Take Professional-Looking Travel Pictures

January 13, 2011
Eric Anderson, MD

,
Nancy Anderson, RN

The best way to improve travel photography is no secret. Film legend Frank Capra once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." This week, we explain his advice and offer other tips to achieve professional-looking travel shots.

Photography by the authors.

A montage may be fun to create but it takes a lot of time. You can save on ink and photo-paper but the images can be too small to be seen properly.

The best advice to improve our photography is no secret. It’s all out there. Ansel Adams made it sound simple by saying, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” Maybe, but many of his results were achieved standing in his darkroom. Film legend Frank Capra had another angle: “If your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough,” was one of his famous sayings. Composing the shot and cropping it in the camera is a start. But a cropped, high-resolution digital image (such as the Cambodian schoolchildren shot below) doesn’t have the perspective and drama of really getting close with the camera.

Tip: Try getting really close; zero in on a small part of the face

When we pick up a camera we need to know what we want to achieve. Steven Spielberg says “People have forgotten how to tell a story.” OK. So how do we tell our stories?

The shot on the screen shows the overloaded amateur. More is not better.

John Greengo, a professional photographer who teaches a popular online course, has a favorite response to those who think expensive equipment produces better pictures. “It’s not about gear,” he says. “It’s about moments. A lot of things in life happen only once and you have to be ready. If you saw it, you missed it. To be a great photographer you need to see what others do not.” And you need subjects.

Surely few places have a more exciting history than the Lone Star state.

People in Texas, like the state itself, are larger than life. They willingly cooperated in Fort Worth: It’s easy with happy extroverts to grab moments in the Stockyards or catch a kid in the Arlington baseball park acknowledging the great Nolan Ryan. People are important. You find them in almost every photo in National Geographic. They improve almost any travel photograph.

Lisl Dennis, the travel photographer who started the Santa Fe New Mexico photography classes and now takes enthusiasts to Morocco amongst other places, has her own views on travel photography. She feels you shouldn’t pay locals to pose for you: “Don’t make beggars of the Third World,” she says.

Dennis wasn’t around when a Navajo on horseback sat his horse on a sandstone butte in Monument Valley. It was a scene some photographers would die for. The Native American picked his way carefully over to where two travelers were standing with an obvious message: He had a nominal fee for posing.

Lisl Dennis has behavior suggestions for photographers. She encourages her students to chat with shopkeepers first and get to know them, maybe buy an object then ask permission to shoot a photograph. Respect local culture, she says; some people do not want to be photographed.

Lisl even has a list to get good photographs of people: Her protocol is, “Make eye contact, ask permission, honor your subject. (For example, it’s bad manners to zero in first , say, on rings on fingers; always take a preliminary head shot -- this what people expect). Listen for your own clues as to what should be the subject of the photograph. It’s OK to touch.” She makes the point you can and should get in close, many people in the Third World have no issues with personal space.

Dennis seems to give as much attention to even a simple photograph as she does for any cover shot for her books.

In the days of film, Lisl always recommended using a tripod as she is doing here to photograph nothing more important than vegetables. True, we can bump up the ISO rating of digital cameras, but tripods can still improve your photography as can a lens hood. Whether a circular polarizer filter is necessary depends on whether you shoot a lot of shiny or metallic surfaces, such as cars or through glass windows or water.

The pros all say that, as you walk around with no subject in sight, you should have your camera set up for average shots. If you last used a digital camera with, for example, programmed settings, you should return them to normal or you may take that-once-in-a-lifetime shot on a sunny day when your camera’s white balance is set for fluorescent artificial light. If you’re set up you really can grab the moment.

Images are enormously improved if they are sharply focused, tightly composed and properly exposed with color. A common criticism of photography bloggers’ websites is the subject being photographed interests the picture taker more than the reader, and often are not colorful enough.

Some photographic devices can become over-used, but the color manipulation of programs such as Apple’s ColorSplash, can clarify whether color is adding anything to your images.

Sometimes you can get away with a background that’s not well focused if it is covered in mist and looking mysterious, as in this picture on Ua Pou, the third-largest and the most populated of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. And, on occasion, you can get a sharp night shot without a tripod because sometimes stable platforms for your elbow or lens are easily found, as we did here on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in Taos, N.M., 650 feet above the river, the fifth highest bridge in the U.S.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last titled The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.