Professional photographers offer tips on improving your shots
By Roy Furchgott,
Most people’s travel shots have a certain predictability — everybody wants pictures of the landmarks they’ve visited. And let’s face it: Most of us visit pretty predictable spots. At their best, those familiar scenes have a certain postcard beauty that confers a “wish I were there” quality. Pros get those shots reliably, even at the old standards of tourism (Eiffel Tower, anyone?). So why is it that when we travel to the same spot, our shots look nothing like what we see in magazines? We asked some pros to pick favorite images that typify the types of photos that tourists take and explain how they got theirs to look so good.
Landmark tourist attraction
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
When Mark Alberhasky, a mentor in Nikon Treks photo workshops, was vacationing in Jerusalem, he visited some typical tourist spots, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although he was carrying a camera, he hadn’t planned on taking photos. “This is the sort of thing I usually wouldn’t shoot,” he said.
And indeed, the quarters were close, with fellow tourists cheek by jowl — not good conditions for photographing a landmark and a problem that tourists frequently face. But to get this image, Alberhasky did two things — one simple, one not so much — that casual photographers don’t.
First, the simple one. Using a wide-angle lens to capture as much of his surroundings as he could, he set the camera’s sensor to a high sensitivity for low light, braced himself against a wall, and — here’s the important part — waited. “You just find the composition that works for you and camp out with the camera to your eye,” he said. “It might be 30 seconds; it might be five minutes.”
While he waited, the crowd ebbed and flowed. It took nearly 10 minutes, but he caught the harlequin pattern of the floor drawing the eye to the anachronistic-looking priest among the colorful tourists.
The harder part was a trick that added depth and detail, a process called HDR, for “High Dynamic Range.” It combines several frames shot at different exposures into a best-of collection, putting the properly lit parts from each exposure into a single image. Most newer cameras (even phone cameras) have an HDR setting, but Alberhasky took an inventive approach. He took one image, made darker and lighter versions in Lightroom, then combined them using the Photomatix HDR setting.
Masai Mara, Kenya
When we think of wildlife photographs, we usually think about the close-ups shot with costly high-magnification lenses. But Rick Sammon, honored as a Canon Explorer of Light, suggests another alternative that you can shoot with the stock lenses on many point-and-shoot cameras as well as DSLRs (he favors a 100mm-to-400mm zoom).
He calls it an “environmental portrait,” which captures the subject and its surroundings. “A lot of wildlife photographers shoot so close it looks like it’s in a zoo,” he said. There’s nothing wrong with that, but he suggests also zooming out to get a broader picture, as in this giraffe shot.
The trick is to keep the main subject out of the center of the picture. “Dead center is deadly,” he said. Instead, use a classic composition trick called the rule of thirds. “Imagine a tic-tac-toe board over the frame,” dividing the picture vertically and horizontally into thirds, Sammon said. Put your main elements at the points where the tic-tac-toe lines meet. Notice that the giraffe’s body is in the right third, the horizon is along the lower third, and the foreground tree is in the left third.
Also, use a fast enough shutter speed if you want to freeze motion, and a small aperture (meaning a higher F-number, such as F8 or F11) to get the foreground and background in focus. You can even do this with a point-and-shoot, if you learn how to use the setting called aperture priority, or the manual settings.
Most important, think like a naturalist. “Patience is important, luck is important, but also very, very important is knowing behavior,” Sammon said. “You have to know where the animals are, how they’re going to act and where they’re going to be.”
When Gail Mooney, who has shot for major magazines such as Travel and Leisure, decided to shoot the lavender fields of Arles, she didn’t know how she was going to do it, but she knew when. “I researched it,” she said. “It wasn’t happenstance. I was there at the optimum time, not just time of year, but time of day.”
Classically, the best time of day to photograph is at sunrise and sunset, when the low sun casts light that gives depth and dimension without being overpoweringly harsh. “Definitely be there at the right time of day,” Mooney said. “Generally speaking, that is first thing in the morning before the sun comes up. When the sun is in the sky, it’s over.”
Because she had no particular shot in mind, Mooney worked fast, taking about 100 shots in an hour. “I worked that scene, shot wide, medium and tight, horizontals and verticals, as quickly as I could.”
She discovered that the best angles weren’t straight down the rows. “I wanted the purple to show up,” she said. “When I was aligned with a row, I was seeing just as much ground.”
In the chosen shot, the center rows lead the eye to the trees, which give the shot scale. Using a wide-angle lens and shooting at an aperture of F8 or higher helped keep all the elements in focus.
The major elements — trees on the right, the burst of light (called a lens flare) on the left, and the horizon near the top — conform to the rule of thirds.
And an important point about sunsets. “I see amateurs taking pictures of sunsets all the time, and they are just that — sun. There isn’t anything else in the picture,” Mooney said, which is a recipe for a deadly dull image. “The sun sets the tone; it isn’t the subject. It provides that beautiful, beautiful light.”
What Ami Vitale, whose work appears frequently in National Geographic, faced in this shot was the same challenge facing any photographer trying to shoot his or her spouse on a hotel balcony with the city lights in the background. Only Vitale’s shot was a little tougher, because she had to contend with man-eating lions stalking the villagers she was photographing.
Deadly lions aside, the technique is pretty simple. You use a slow exposure to capture the light of the sky but add a flash to light your main subjects and freeze their motion.
Vitale was shooting with a 24mm-to-70mm zoom lens, using a wider setting, which helped keep the focus sharp, but she also used another pro trick: The flash isn’t mounted on the camera. An on-camera flash makes a harsh, flat light, but moving it to the side gives depth and shadows.
And it doesn’t have to be a fancy remote radio trigger system. She connected the flash with a long cord, and for a stand, “I just recruited one of the little kids to hold it for me.”
Even simple point-and-shoot cameras often have this feature. You can usually find it in the manual under “slow sync flash.” Discover where that is on the dial, and you can easily capture portraits with a stunning sunset backdrop.
Furchgott writes about personal technology and photography.