Today I’d like to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years about simple travel photography. This post is not geared toward the enthusiast with the SLR, but for the average person with a point-and-shoot who’d just like to take pictures as mementos of their trip or share on a blog.
First off, don’t worry that you may not have the fanciest camera out there. You can still get good photos without expensive equipment. All of the photos I’ve taken for IO since I started blogging here have been with my iPhone 4S camera, without any apps to change the functionality. Here are some basic pointers. (Edit: I upgraded to the iPhone SE on 7/13/16, but my only camera remains a smart phone without any special apps!)
- Pay attention to lighting. A picture taken towards the sun won’t look as nice, if the sun is behind you, the colors will be a lot better. Pictures taken before sunrise or after the sun has set will look more grainy besides being darker. Pictures taken when the sun is really high in the sky will be more washed out looking. And pictures taken during the hour after sunrise or before sunset will have more vibrant color. Artificial lighting will also give a different effect from natural light. One of the big differences between expensive cameras and simple ones is how well they handle poor lighting conditions, so you’ll need to watch the lighting yourself.
- Always have your camera with you. The biggest benefit to point and shoots is that they have virtually no prep time, so use that to your advantage and take it with you whenever you go out exploring. You never know when might stumble across something interesting.
- Take multiple shots. The more pictures you take, the more likely one will be usable. Try experimenting with different angles on the same subject, or centering the picture on different objects in a scene. You can also try leaving the subject of the photo off center intentionally for a more artistic look.
- Practice, practice, practice. Most people don’t think of snapping a photo as a skill like playing an instrument or changing the oil in a car, but it is. The more you do it, the more you’ll get a feel for how to line up the elements in a frame to get a good picture. While some people might be naturally gifted at composition, everyone will improve with practice.
Every RVer out there who has a blog wants a picture of their RV in an interesting place to share, but it can be a challenge! RVs are so big that they can be hard to capture in one frame without getting unwanted elements like the neighbor’s RV in there too. Plus, while the location you’re visiting may be beautiful, it’s entirely possible the immediate area surrounding your campsite is not. What’s an RVer to do?
- Focus on one part of the RV. Move in closer to just get a picture of the best part of your site. Maybe it’s your deck area all set up with chairs, decorations, and the welcome mat going inside. Catch a sunset glinting off the polished wall of the RV. Take a picture from inside the RV looking out the window with the best view.
- Watch the angle. When you’re parked at a campground, take pictures from the front of your site looking back, so that the road isn’t in it. Position your picture so that the RV is blocking the electric pedestal, water, and sewer hookup. Likewise, if you have neighbors you might be able to block their RV behind your own if you angle it just right.
Take pictures on travel days. If you’re going to be driving with your RV through a park or on a road known to be scenic, keep your camera on hand and watch for pull-outs along the side of the road. These are some of the best places to get those awe-inspiring RV travel photos. The header of my Rig page was taken at such a pull-out in Badlands National Park, the campground I stayed in there was not nearly as picturesque.
I use photo-editing software on my computer to touch up many of my pictures before I post them on this blog. The program I use is Adobe Photoshop 7.0. It came out in 2002 so it’s certainly not cutting edge anymore, but it was considered high end when it came out and still suits my needs.
If you’re looking for a free program to get started with, I’ve heard good things about Picasa which is run by Google and stores your edited photos online instead of on your computer, which means you’ll never accidentally overwrite your original photos. GIMP is another one that’s gotten good reviews.
Also worth a note: some cameras these days give you the ability to edit the photo right on the camera before even uploading it onto your computer. If your camera has this capability, you might not even need to download a computer program.
Some people prefer to keep their pictures completely natural, and some will spend a lot of time making a photo look just perfect or even surreal. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I do value simplicity and time-efficiency. Therefore I don’t use “brushes” to change individual parts of a picture, but just stick to “filters” that adjust the whole picture. They take a lot less time to use – important when you’re putting up to ten photos in a blog post twice a week.
Sharpen This filter will make a picture look more crisp and edges more distinct. I used this filter on the the current IO header so that it was easier to distinguish me from the rocks I’m standing in front of. It can also help if your hands shake when you take pictures, or if you’re taking a picture while in motion (like from a car) and it comes out blurry.
- Contrast I use this tool on every single photo that goes up on IO these days. On my editing program it’s a slide tool, pull it one direction and it decreases contrast – decreases the darks and lights and makes the photo’s mid-tones more prominent. Pulling the slider the other way increases the contrast and makes the darks and lights more prominent, which is what I want to do with my photos. Photoshop 7 has a filter called “auto-contrast” that’ll optimize the contrast for you, this is what I do. On more gray photos with poor lighting auto-contrast might make a huge difference in how a photo looks, on a photo with good lighting it’ll make hardly any difference at all because the photo already has good contrast naturally.
- Color Saturation Most photo-editing software will let you adjust the colors of a photo – make the whole photo look more red, or yellow, or blue, or whatever color you want. But what you’re really looking for is a way to adjust the color saturation. It’s another slider that when you pull it one way, will decrease saturation and make a photo look more black and white; and when you pull it the other way, will make the colors already in the photo look more vibrant. I increase the color saturation on many of my photos to make the sky look bluer, the grass look greener, etc. Increase it too much though, and the photo will start to look unnatural.
- Brightness This is another slider tool, and it does exactly what the title suggests. Pull your cursor one way, and the picture will get darker, pull it the other way, and the picture will get lighter. It’s really handy for fixing pictures that were taken in low-light conditions to make them easier to see. Tip: When you adjust a picture’s brightness, you’ll usually also want to adjust the contrast. Dark photos usually have low contrast, so increase it to get better detail.
Now it’s important to note that while these filters and tools are useful, there is a limit to what they can do to fix a bad picture. You’ll want to practice the good photo-taking techniques I described in the first section to get the best results.
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I know there are other amateur photographers out there who read IO, and I would welcome any further tips you all have about taking and editing pictures in the comments below. Now get out there and have fun taking photos of your travels!