How To Take Better Travel Photographs

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

At the Medersa es-Sahrij in Fes, Morocco, my friend Ryan leans in for a water shot.
Back in DC, on a balmy Saturday afternoon in the spring of 2005, I was strolling around Dupont Circle (probably trying to avoid studying for finals). Then a sophomore at Georgetown, I would soon be heading off for Syria and Jordan. So, I stopped into Claude Taylor's travel photography shop to browse for inspiration among his vivid photos.

Inside, in the chair beside the usual cashier, sat the man himself. I perused the stacks, picked out a photo or two, and struck up a conversation with Taylor as I made my purchase. I explained my travel plans, and asked him, did he have any photography tips? (With no fancy camera or training of any sort, I figured I could use all the help I could get.) His answer was brief and immediate: "The two most important things you can do to take better pictures," he said, "are to get closer to whatever you're photographing, and to take more pictures."

My pictures during six months in the Levant never turned out quite as stunning as Claude Taylor's, but his words did influence me, and I still keep them in mind when I travel.

* * *

Besides these simple techniques, however, every aspiring photographer always wonders about equipment—specifically, is it the real key to success in photography?

As a former owner and user of a Nikon Coolpix 3200 (with which I took all the photographs on this blog prior to 2008) I've been a longtime believer in the supremacy of technique over technology. Even today, I still dare to post the occasional photo from my 2.0-megapixel camera phone (here's one of my favorite examples).

But by and large I do have a new appreciation for the value of nice equipment—to a point at least. It began when I was in Tanzania, at Serengeti National Park. One afternoon, our group's jeeps paused beside a few gnarled old water buffalo. I dutifully zoomed in with my Coolpix and snapped a shot:

Then, before the jeep rolled onward, a fellow traveler handed me her Nikon digital SLR so I could give it a try. I photographed the same buffalo, with rather different results:

See why I had a change of heart?

* * *

Today, I'm still a fervent believer in the primacy of technique and the importance of having a good eye, but I also appreciate a good camera. Before we moved to Morocco, Jacqueline and I decided to upgrade. My one rule of thumb: I wanted the best camera we could get, so long as it still fit in the pocket of my jeans. (One thing I've noted in my travels is that big SLRs attract too much unwanted attention, weigh too much, and are too unwieldy and delicate to suit a rough-and-tumble traveler's needs.)

We did our homework, reading reviews and scouring the net. Imaging Resource was particularly useful, and confirmed our decision to upgrade to a Canon PowerShot G9, a model renowned for its endless features and crisp photos.

While we hardly made use of most of the G9's capabilities during our time in Morocco, some undeniable trends emerged:
  • We always have our camera with us, because its size never forces us to leave it home.
  • Unlike our friends with point-and-shoots, we always have enough zoom to get great shots at distance, and enough customizable settings for low light.
  • After every trip around Morocco, friends who compared our pictures with theirs from the same trip would invariably ask us, "What was that camera again? I need to get one."
Though I'm certainly no professional, here's the best advice I can give:
  • Listen to Claude Taylor—get closer. You'd be surprised what amazing images you can create by taking a step closer and filling the frame. Also, take more pictures. It will only increase your odds.
  • If you're in the market for a camera, go try out the new and improved PowerShot G11, or one of the many similar models from other manufacturers (of course, the camera makers are continually improving, so no doubt they will soon have newer and better models too).
  • Remember—no camera can compensate for a bad photographer, so RFTM, and learn the rule of thirds and other basics of good composition. Photography classes are also available almost anywhere.
For those looking for more ideas, National Geographic, Frommer's, Lonely Planet, and Footprint all offer travel photography guides.

Next up: Some of my own handiwork from the past year, in a post highlighting my best photographs from Morocco.


Julian said...

Too true Andy. Thats why I have the Powershot myself. By the way how much did Canon pay you? ;-0

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Ha... I wish I were even important enough for Canon to notice my existence. :)
But no, I have not been paid a single penny by Canon.

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