“I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde once said. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” Today, he’d no doubt say, “I never travel without my phone. One should always have sensational images to scroll through on a plane.”
Taking sensational travel photos has become an international obsession. Witness the number of selfie-related injuries and deaths, a phenomena that’s now so common it has spawned its own Wikipedia page and two nicknames: “killfie” and “selfiecide.”
Fortunately most of us have learned that taking a powerful photo doesn’t require dancing with the grim reaper. Ever since I started this blog in 2011, I’ve been experimenting with (non-life-threatening) ways to improve my photography so that it adds punch to my stories. Just about the time I finally invested in a decent camera, I discovered my iPhone was giving me better shots, without all the fussing and fiddling. I gave away my “real” camera and now count on my phone to help me capture the sensation of joyful discovery I feel in the moment I first behold something truly wonderful.
Often a great shot is sheer luck — or as Ansel Adams put it, “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.” Of course, you can't always count on luck, so next time you're ready to click the shutter, you might want to have a few tricks on your back pocket to boost your chances of doing justice to the scene.
Trick #1: Take multiple shots of the subject. Sometimes even a slight change in angle or focus can suddenly make the image sing. I rarely take less than two shots of anything and often go for five or ten. (Rich says this has taught him more Zen-like patience than any meditation course.) Occasionally I realize I’ve arrived at that golden moment when God’s ready for a closeup; often, however, I don’t recognize my best shots I have until I scroll through them later. Which is why I advise taking lots.
My iPhone’s camera has a burst mode, which lets you take multiple shots in quick succession just by holding down the shutter release button or the volume-up button. (Here’s how to do bursts on an Android.) To be honest, in the heat of the moment I usually forget it’s there, but it can be terrific for capturing action shots.
Trick #2: Shift your perspective. It’s natural to shoot from eye height, but sometimes you get a more intriguing view by positioning the camera higher or lower, or finding a scene with unusual angles or depth. When possible, avoid sticking the main subject squarely in the middle against a flat background; that feels more static, like a police mug shot. Try stepping to one side, going down on one knee, or climbing up to a higher viewpoint.
Trick #3: Blur the background. This places everyone’s attention on the main event when it might otherwise be deflected to random passersby, hideously inappropriate graffiti, or other background clutter. Even if the background’s fine, as in the bookstore below, blurring lends a certain dreamy romance to the mood. In the photo of the fans, the distant, hazy image of Plaza de España gives context, underscoring the exotic location.
To get this effect, I use my iPhone’s portrait mode; the same effect is possible for Android users with a little finagling.
Trick #4: Arrange food shots like still life paintings. We often grab snapshots of interesting meals, but they tell more of a story if you pull in other stuff that’s on the table: a napkin, crusty bread, a dish of olives, wine glasses, the map of Paris. You’ll also want to remove any unsightly distractions such as dirty plates from the previous course. Apologize in advance to your dinner companions and insist they begin eating while their food is hot.
Trick #5: Work with uneven light. Bright, even light can make photos look flat and boring; this is why I avoid using my flash. You’ll get lots more drama when you happen to be somewhere with slanted light — for instance, from windows, lamps, or the sun at the beginning or end of the day. If you’re struggling with really low lighting conditions, borrow a friend’s cell phone, switch on the flashlight function, and hold it above and to one side so that you create your own slanted light. Nowadays, whenever I stumble across a place with gorgeous natural illumination — like this Krakow café — I immediately reach for my phone.
Every picture tells a story, even if it’s something as simple as “We loved this spaghetti” or “I can’t believe I’m here!” or “Is it me or is that really weird?” If you’re having fun taking a photo, chances are some of your enjoyment will carry over into the image, and it will delight your family, friends, and random strangers on social media. “There are no rules for good photographs,” said Ansel Adams. “There are only good photographs.” OK, maybe he's right and there are no rules, but I can suggest one life-saving guideline: no matter how much you want the shot, promise me you won’t ever do this.
Got any hot tips or questions about travel photography? Let me know in the comments below!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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