I am not an expert when it comes to taking photographs. But, over the past two years, I’ve been working at learning how to take better pictures of my travels. Pictures help convey the imagery and feeling of a place and they enhance the memory of a trip. Combined with the words of a blog post, they’re the visual record of what it looked and felt like. And if done right they create a wow factor for a story.
To enhance my skills, I’ve read a few books, subscribed to some weekly photo school emails, I read photography blogs, and like to study other people’s work. A couple of years ago, if I took a good picture , it was an accident. Now, I’m taking good photos more consistently and I can see the improvement. In this post, I thought I’d share some of the things that I do that are working for me. There’s probably a lot more I could do and I’ll continue to learn. But these are simple things that work for me regardless of the type and quality of the camera or lens. And, perhaps they might help someone else.
First, let me say there are some basics that every photography book talks about. These are things like using a tripod, using a shutter release, using the rule of thirds, composing a picture, shooting in the golden hour, using filters, and shooting in Aperture Priority mode. I do all of these and they help immensely. I’ll mention a couple of these in my tips, but my tips are more basic things that got me from just ok to good. And, I’m not going to repeat what you can easily find in any photography book.
Since I travel, I tend to shoot mostly landscapes, some close up nature shots, and some people shots. So, my tips are focused on that type of photography. Also, these tips work with any camera. Just as FYI, my main camera is a Sony Alpha a6000. I like it because in has a good-sized sensor (APS-C), a view finder, and can take interchangeable lens. You can see a list of my photography equipment in Tech Stuff page.
For me, taking a good picture is more about how to look for and compose a great photo. So, here’s my tips on how J. Dawg composes a better photograph.
1. Look for good light and multiple colors. I like photos with multiple bright colors and contrasts. Green vegetation, blue skies, white clouds, brown earth tones, red sunsets. A drab day with a pale sky is tough to shoot good pics. High mid day sun can wash out the colors. For me, I like late afternoon when the sun is low and giving good reflection (also, I’m not a morning person). I like blue skies with clouds. I always look to get as many colors into a picture as a I can. This is one reason why I like to include flowers or vegetation in the foreground of my pictures.
On the picture below, it was late afternoon and I wanted to capture the clouds covering the Sierra Del Carmen Mountains in Mexico. I could have just used a zoom to get a close shot of the mountains and clouds, but adding the desert vegetation and the ocotillo gave more color and perspective.
2. Look for lines and use them in your photos. Lines draw your eye to a subject and give perspective and depth. I try to find a line to include in every picture. It doesn’t have to be a formal line. It can be a fence, a road, line of trees, or a path. In the picture to the right, the fence points to the mountain and gives the shot perspective. Without the fence it would just be a drab picture of a mountain. It’s also got a foreground, middle ground, and back ground as you’ll read below.
3. A good landscape picture has a foreground, middle ground, and back ground. I especially look for a foreground to include in every landscape. It gives perspective and a view-point. In the picture below, the distance view of the Rio Grande and mountains was really pretty. But I saw the cleft in the rocks with some flowers and knew if I added them it would make a better picture. The rocks are the foreground, the river the middle ground, and the mountains and clouds the background. And look at those colors!
4. Get low and close when shooting plants. Plants have small features and if you want their color to fill your frame, then you’ve got to get close. You don’t really get to appreciate their details unless you get low and close. In this picture, I was almost laying on the ground to get the blue bonnets and desert marigolds. I also wanted the ocotilla to silhouette against the sky. It’s another example of foreground, middle ground, background. I wish I had blue sky and clouds but it was a drab overcast day.
Here’s another plant shot. I hiked up this trail and was looking for a canyon river shot. I passed this little cactus on the way up and never noticed it. It was about the size of a volley ball. But on the way down, I happened to see it and thought how could I get it in a picture. I got down on my knees and about a foot away from the cactus, looked up the trail (to create a line), open the aperture to blur the background and shot. It gave me a great memory of the desert conditions and of hiking that trail.
5. Turn around, walk around, and look around. There’s stuff all around us that will make a great picture. Some of my best shots are things I stumbled upon. Sometimes its stuff I see behind me as I’m walking back to my RV or back down a trail (like the one above)l. Here’s a great example. I was walking in back of my RV to get a picture of a windmill in the desert against the mountains and clouds. I was looking out in the distance, but as I got to the property edge, there was a fence, and on a corner of the fence was an old pair of boots on the fence. Old boots, a fence, barbed wire, out in the western desert. Whoa! I couldn’t plan that shot. An image of the old west right in my face. Got down close, open the aperture, fill the frame, and shoot.
Here’s one of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. I saw this view in my rear view mirror. It was late afternoon, the sun was giving good light off the mountains, and there where some puffy clouds. I quickly hit the brakes, left the RV running in the middle of the road, grabbed my camera, and stood in the road to take the picture. I had good light, good colors, vegetation in the foreground, lines (from the road), and luckily no cars.
6. Never place a person in the middle of a photo. Also, don’t shoot a wanted poster. I like putting the person in the foreground, on one of the vertical thirds axis, with something in the background on the other side. Also, I like to shoot them in the foreground and from the waist up. I like to see the expression on a persons face so I have the person about 8-10 ft away and close down the aperture to make sure the background in focus. I want them to show a pose or do something off character. The last thing I want is a wanted poster type picture. It’s easy to do when I’m doing it but when I ask someone to take my picture it usually doesn’t work out. Here’s two examples. The first is me at Mesa Verde National Park taken by my son. I’m in the middle blocking the scene, posing for a police type photo (e.g., Exhibit A, I was at Mesa Verde). Blah.
Here’s one I took of my son in Utah at a turnout on Route 12. He was standing there back to me enjoying the view as I got the shot ready. I said “Hey Cav!” He turned around and I shot the picture just as he turned. He’s in the foreground, on the left axis, got him from the waist up, smiling at the great view in the rest of the frame. A great picture.
7. Fill the frame with your subject and detail. Don’t have too much road or too much bland sky or too much bland landscape. Here’s a boring picture I took standing on St. Augustine Beach with too much sand, bland sky, and with mid day sun.
8. Try different of shots of a subject at different angles, different heights, with different zooms. I was at Assateague Island, had good morning sun, and wanted to get a photo to capture the beach. The beach was my subject and it was wide with lots of gray sand. I took some boring shots of the waves and sand. I happened to climb the dunes to get some height and a different perspective. At the last-minute, I tried crouching down and included the dune vegetation. Bingo! That was my shot. Foreground, middle ground, lines, clouds, detail, and some color. I used a polarizing filer to cut the glare from the sand.
If you have some tips you’d like to share, please leave me a comment.