Friday, December 3, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: Travel Photography 101

Our guest this week is Gerhard Bock, who lives in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. He makes his living as a professional translator but his passions are photography and gardening. Check out his fine-art photography at The Photo Continuum, and his gardening blog at

In the 30+ years that I’ve been taking photos, I’ve made all the mistakes that can be made—many more than once. Eventually I came to realize that each mistake is an opportunity to get better. If you feel frustrated with your pictures, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, look at them calmly and try to figure out what exactly you don’t like. Then work on improving that particular area. The following tips should help you get images that you’re happy with, whether you’re a complete novice or have been taking photos for a while.

Pick a subject.

This may sound redundant but a lot of photos don’t have a real focal point. If your viewers don’t know what to look at, their eyes will soon glaze over. Before pressing the shutter button, ask yourself: Why am I taking this picture? What is it that fascinates me in this scene? If you can’t answer these questions, chances are your photos won’t be of interest to others. As Ansel Adams once said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Luna Park, Sydney, Australia

Don’t center your subject.

Putting the focal point of your photo right in the center results in a symmetrical, balanced image—one that puts people right to sleep. Move your subject off center, even right into a corner. This will create visual tension and grab the viewer’s attention. And remember: This tip applies to both people and inanimate objects.

Amargosa Opera House, Death Valley Junction

Get closer.

Many photos do have an interesting subject but unfortunately it only occupies a small portion of the frame. Taking photos means being in motion. Don’t stand still like a signpost. Get up close with your subject—human or otherwise—or at least zoom in. Know that in many cases walking right up to a subject and using a wide-angle lens often creates a more dynamic composition than standing back and zooming in. In addition, zooming in, or using a telephoto lens, increases the risk of camera shake, even in spite of today’s image-stabilization technologies.

Manzanar National Historic Site

 Change the perspective.

We’re used to seeing the world from eye level. To mix things up, lie down on your belly or climb onto a table or wall. You’ll be surprised by how different everything looks from down low or up high. The best photos show us the world from an unfamiliar perspective.

Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia

Frame your scene.

In 1970s how-to manuals on landscape photography, there would always be a tree lurking somewhere in the corner to lead the viewer’s eyes into the scene. In spite of the cliché, this technique does have its merits. Anything near the edge of the frame that adds visual interest is a good thing. It could be an old lamp post when taking street photos in Paris or Prague; it could be the very edge of a neighboring building; or it could be a simple sign, as in the photo below.

Dinkelsbühl, Germany
Include people.

I’m sure you’ve gone through your old photos and quickly realized that photos without people quickly become boring. I’m not even talking about people you know. What’s a beach photo with nobody in it? Or a nature trail without at least one hiker? People give photos a human dimension. Without that, even the most beautiful scene quickly becomes sterile, and we have a hard time emotionally connecting to the image.

Dinkelsbühl, Germany

Capture the light.

Photography literally means “writing with light”. To get stunning photographs, you have to know how to take advantage of the light. If at all possible, get up early to capture the magic light at dawn. And stay late for a repeat at dusk. I’m not talking just about sunrise and sunset proper; often the most beautiful color happens before sunrise and after sunset. Yes, photographers rarely get to sleep in and often they miss dinner, too.

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley National Park

Use fill flash.

Unfortunately, when traveling it’s often impossible to wait around for the best light. Frequently you find yourself in a beautiful place in the middle of the day when the sun is directly overhead, casting harsh shadows. There’s little you can do as far as photographing buildings or natural scenes is concerned. However, you can greatly improve people pictures if you use flash. Yes, use flash even on a bright, sunny day, especially if your subject is positioned against a bright background like the sky. Invariably your camera will underexpose the photo so the person’s face is nothing but a dark blob. To prevent that, force your flash on (i.e. switch from “Auto” to “Manual”), or better yet, use fill flash if your camera has such a setting. The result will be a balanced image where both the subject in the foreground and the background are properly exposed.

The Last Supper by Albert Szukalski, Rhyolite, Nevada

Don’t be daunted by the information in this post. You don’t have to remember it all right away. Just focus on one or two of these areas at a time, and then go out and practice, practice, practice. Remember you don’t have to travel to exotic destinations to take memorable and meaningful photos!

Next week, Gerhard will be back with a travelogue and photos from his trip to Tasmania. We hope you will return to read all about his adventures and see how these photography tips work in the hands of a pro!


  1. Oh, Gerhard, you had me until the missing dinner and not sleeping in part. Any other options? J

    Thanks so much for all the great tips and gorgeous photos! Using a flash on even sunny days was news to me, but explains why some of my sunny-day photos have shadows in all the wrong places.

    Can't wait to see your travelogue next week.

  2. Great post! I learned so much. I love taking pictures. The picture from Death valley is amazing. Looking forward to your post next week.

  3. so many great advices and at the right time too - I'm starting to learn to take pictures everywhere I go, partially for the blog, partially for the magazine I'm writing for - I realized I never know what may come in handy!

  4. Everybody, thank you for your kind words.

    Supriya, I know, the getting-up-early- part is the hardest for me but it's so worth it. Far fewer people out and about as well.

    Using flash during the day is one of the easiest things you can do to improve your photos. I've seen so many photos where the faces of people are barely recognizable because they're so dark.

    The most important advice I can give you: Take lots and lots of photos. Experiment. Don't feel silly trying something weird. It's easy enough to delete the results if they're not successful.

  5. Great article, Gerhard! In this age of digital photography, you really can't take too many photos, and it makes it much easier to review what you've done and see if you need to make adjustments. Moving up close to a subject is VERY helpful when taking photos of friends and family, too. Plus, one of the things I see our kids doing is forgetting that they can turn their camera vertical and have an entirely different perspective, but perhaps one that fits the subject better (like the photo you took of the man pushing a bicycle in Dinkelsbühl).

  6. Thanks for these great tips, Gerhard! I know I'll be practicing them the next time I get out my camera. I love your advice to keep experimenting and find out what works. I think for us writers, it's a no brainer that we need to keep honing our craft by writing in order to improve. Yet I've always been willing to accept that when my photos turn out well it's simply the luck of the draw. :)

    Great Ansel Adams quote!

  7. Heidi, it's always a good thing to have luck on your side. But knowing how to take a good photo of what Lady Luck brings to you, that's all up to you.

  8. These are such great tips, Gerhard! I'm usually very to using a flash, but I'll have to try that trick. And regarding waking up early: The best part of the jet lag I got on a recent trip was that it made me wake up at sunrise, so I was able to capture some beautiful sunrises -- otherwise I'm terrible at waking up early even for my photography :)

  9. Gigi, thank you!! I'm not an early riser by nature and there are few things I like better than sleeping in, but the world looks so different at dawn!

  10. Great post, Gerhard! I've been doing some of the things you mentioned without even knowing why - I just thought the angles looked really cool. Thank you for explaining why I found them interesting.

  11. Gerhard, I just thought of something else on the flash technique. Sometimes when I use the flash in trying to get both the subject and background, it can darken the background. How to avoid that problem (esp until I figure out this flash fill feature)?

    Also, any good DSLRs you can recommend for the casual photographer like myself?


  12. Supriya, very good question! The only way to avoid that is to use a camera that lets you adjust the flash intensity (so the balance between foreground and background is more even). Some compact digital cameras and practically all modern DSLRs give you control over the flash intensity.

    As for which DSLR I can recommend, I'm an unabashed fan of Canon products and currently use their Rebel T2i. However, you can't really go wrong with any of the major manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Pentax or Sony. It's all a matter of which features matter to you most, and what your budget is. In my opinion, it's better to get a lower-priced camera body and instead spend more money on lenses. Investing in higher-quality lenses will make a noticeable difference in your photos.

  13. Thanks so much for this post, Gerhard. You have such a fabulous eye with your photography. Very impressive. And thank you for sharing your tips -- keeping the main subject off-centre is an excellent one!

  14. Gerhard, a belated thank you for the recommendations!