What your Pictures Say

Whether or not you’re a blogger or have an Instagram account, when you travel it’s important that your pictures tell a story.  And, ideally, capture a feeling.  Far too many travelers are content to simply document their movements, offering up an endless stream of snapshots of places, signs, and crowds of people.

But your photos, with a little thought and care, can convey so much more.  They can capture a special feeling, an atmosphere, a moment in time that was magical.  And all it takes to do that is to apply a bit of technique.

As a longtime video professional, I have always been fascinated in the tools and techniques that apply to both moving and still pictures.  It isn’t really rocket science, but a few basic principles will go far in allowing you to create travel pictures that capture emotion as well as real estate.

As one example, take a look at the picture above.  This night scene at Leidseplein square in Amsterdam allows the viewer to imagine the energy, the motion, and the feeling of being there.  In choosing a slow shutter speed, and allowing the fast-moving pedestrians in the foreground to blur, the energy of the image comes alive.  Notice that the background is still sharp.  When you shoot at a slow shutter speed it’s important to brace yourself.  You don’t want the entire scene blurry, just the part you intend.  Sometimes that means using a tripod or monopod, other times (as in this case) bracing against a light pole or other steady object.

Now, you say, that’s all fine and good if you have a fancy adjustable camera.  But what about my point and shoot, or action camera?  How do I capture these kind of effects with that?  There is absolutely no difference.  While it’s true that you can set the shutter to a slow setting with a DLSR or mirrorless camera, you can get the same effect with any camera.  Designed to shoot at a single aperture, you can capture the same effect by pushing any point and shoot camera in low light; that is by bracing yourself, taking the picture, and watching as the overmatched camera gives you the blur you were looking for.  Try it, you’ll see.

Oftentimes technique goes hand in hand with composition.  Try to find some interesting angle, then apply technique to it.  A second example is this Paris Metro scene.  Getting an extreme angle, at an extreme close-up, produced a nice, atmospheric effect.  Again, you may say that you need a fancy camera with adjustable settings to get this shot. Not so fast I would counter.  Try it with any camera.  Although background blur is partly produced by a wide lens aperture (adjustable in fancy DLSRs), and partly by the size of your camera’s sensor, you can achieve much the same result with your point and shoot.  Just get very close, make sure the object closeup is in focus, and include a background (at least half of the frame, but ideally two-thirds) that goes off into infinity.  See what you get.  You’ll be surprised.  It’s always good to have some pop of light or bright color in the out-of-focus background. That can really help your shot shine.  Again, experiment.  Any camera is capable of this effect, if your technique is correct.

Finally, the emotional impact of your picture is not entirely determined by cool blur, and atmospheric angles.  Sometimes it’s about the subject.  Check out this picture of Michon and my coffee cups as we were people watching on the walk up to Montmartre in Paris.  Notice what your eye is drawn to?  Just can’t keep from looking at those cups right? They are interesting, and so is the park and artists, and pedestrians passing by.  Here the interest is enhanced not only by the subject and how it is handled, but also by composition…that is, what we choose to emphasize.  And here, the famous “rule of thirds” comes into play.  As in the metro sign above, I’ve divided the frame into rough thirds.  One third the subject that draws the eye, the other two-thirds complete the scene.  Try it.  It works.  And together these three very simple but basic photography tips will help to make your travel shots tell a story, and capture the feeling you’d love to remember, and share with others.

 

 

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