If you undervalue your potential as a travel writer because you lack the latest in whiz-bang photographic equipment, follow these eight steps--the same tricks used by the big guys--and you will provide your editors with the professional images they want while adding more keepers to your photo archives.
1. Concentrate your creative energies on what you can do with your equipment, rather than on what you cannot. To produce more than snapshots, you must understand your camera's limitations and concentrate on its abilities. Study the manual and take plenty of practice shots utilizing all aspects of your camera's features--auto-focus, focus-lock, fill-flash--until you can consistently produce technically perfect, properly exposed, accurately focused shots. Use a tripod, backpack, beanbag, or rolled up jacket to support your camera in low light situations and to avoid blur from camera shake. Only sharp, crisp shots, in correct focus will sell.
2. Compensate for parallax to achieve tighter composition. If you are using a point-and-shoot camera, such as a disposable, you view the scene through a different viewfinder than the one that captures the image. You must adjust for this slight offset, called parallax, or you will cut off important elements of the picture on one side and add superfluous space on the other. You can improve almost any shot by moving in closer. Shift your view until you can fill the frame with exactly what you want--no more and no less.
3. Seize the day. On inclement days capture glistening tree leaves, reflections on rain-slick streets, or a stormy sky to set the mood. Look for bright-colored objects--flags, neon lights, a yellow shirt--to include in your shot. Shoot from a low position to catch great billowy cloud formations and deep blue skies. Shoot during the golden hours, early morning and late afternoon, when colors are vivid, and shadows long and dramatic. Don't be impatient--wait for the right light.
4. Flash or not to flash. Use fill-flash in daylight (not full-flash, which can be too bright and may not match the natural color in the scene) to bring out detail in shadowy areas. Use flash to eliminate harsh shadows on your model's face from overhead high-noon sunlight, and brighten subjects that are back-lit. Turn off your flash for low light sunset shots to silhouette subjects in the foreground.
5. Compose and frame. Think like an artist. To achieve an artistically pleasing composition, imagine drawing lines through your viewfinder dividing the composition into thirds both horizontally and vertically, like a tic-tac-toe game. Set focus-lock on your subject, then re-compose and shift your camera to place the subject where the lines intersect. Separate the main sections of your scene into thirds, for instance fill your frame with two-thirds land and one-third sky rather than placing the horizon through the middle. An "S" curve, such as a stream or two-lane road, draws the eye of the viewer through the scene. Don't settle for the easy shots that everyone with a camera has taken and editors have seen hundreds of times over. Shoot from different angles and locations--halfway up a cliff, in the middle of a stream, or flat on your stomach. Look at everything in your frame, every corner, before snapping. Hurried shots seldom produce good shots. Take more time looking for your shot than shooting it.
6. Add depth with foreground objects. Find shooting positions that include bright flowers, a gnarled log, or footprints in the sand, in the foreground. Frame your shot with tree leaves, a window frame, or a rustic stone arch. Focus on an object about one-third into your shot to get both foreground and distant objects in focus. Place foreground or framing objects to block out distractions, power lines, or clutter.
7. Shade trees and bright skies -- compensate for extreme light variances. The difference between a pro and a snapshooter is the ability to handle difficult lighting situations. Slide film, which most magazines prefer, has less exposure latitude than print film, and must be more accurately exposed. Your built in light meter averages the amount of reflected light, regardless of the shadows and bright spots in your setting. Pick the important elements in your composition and change your position or use a frame to block out a bright sky or dark shadow, enabling your meter to expose correctly. Move your models and your composition either into all shade or all sun. Take several shots from different positions.
8. Populate. People add action to static scenes. Study the scene, plan your composition and camera angles, and visualize where you think people should be and what they should be doing. Then place your model(s) accordingly or wait for the right action--skaters, bike-riders, or walkers--to enter your scene. Seldom have I had anyone refuse to model or be offended after I included them in my shot. Position yourself to catch people moving into the scene, not out of it--faces, not backsides, toward you. Pick subjects or dress models in bright colors. Concentrate on providing what editors want: sharp, accurately exposed, correctly focused, original, lively shots that tell a story. With practice, you can do it!
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