Monday, March 4, 2013

Basic guide to travel/landscape photography

One of the first photos I took while travelling

Photography can be as simple as just pressing the shutter button for some but it can be more than just that. In this guide, i'll be giving you 10 tips on how to better document your travels through photos. Some of these tips will also be useful for general landscape photography. Note that while you don’t need a DSLR camera to take good photos, a camera with a "manual" setting would definitely help you get the photos that you want. I'll try to make this guide as beginner friendly as possible. Emphasis on try. (If you don't see all 10 tips, click on "continue reading")
1.) Avoid white skies if possible: A picture with a white featureless sky usually looks unattractive, especially if you have a detailed foreground. To bring out more details in the sky, you'd usually have to lower the exposure of the entire image (make it darker).  This can be done in a number of ways but the simplest way is by lowering the exposure compensation of your camera (check your camera’s manual for the instructions on how to do this) The goal is to get the exposure just right so that you’d get enough details in the sky without making the ground look too dark. If you have people in the picture, you’d want to expose for the sky and use your flash to illuminate the people. Note that the flash is useless for illuminating things that are too far away from you. Don’t expect it to make an entire mountain range look brighter. If either the sky ends up being overexposed or the ground ends up being underexposed, as a last resort, you can use an editing program like photoshop to either brighten up the ground or darken the sky. Try doing research on HDR editing as well. If it really can't be avoided and you don't like editing so much, just fill the frame with the ground or try to hide the sky behind foliage. If you’re more serious about photography, consider getting graduated density filters. These will allow you to darken just a part of the image such as the sky while leaving the rest of the image unaffected.

A very uninteresting photo. The white featureless sky is so barren compared to the mountain range below that it looks like one half of the photo is missing. This photo was actually taken at sunrise but it was so overexposed that the sky just looked white and the clouds are not visible

 I adjusted the exposure so every cloud in the sky would be visible. As a consequence, the ground looks a bit dark (the trees are just silhouettes). I compensated for this by using my flash to illuminate my subject, the street signs, and making the sky occupy more of the frame.

2. )Use your flash: Most people think that the flash is only useful when there’s not enough light in a scene. But there are more uses to the flash than just making a dark picture brighter. Using your camera mounted flash under direct sunlight will soften up shadows and it can actually make your subject’s skin look smoother because it eliminates or softens up the shadows created by facial imperfections. In photography jargon, it’s called “fill light”. Note that the flash only acts as a fill light if there's another light source that's stronger than it, such as the sun. Usually it’s possible to adjust the power of the flash. The ideal amount is when some shadows are still visible but they’re very soft. By using your flash, you can also adjust the exposure of the background independently from the subject. You can bring out more details in the background by making it darker without making your subject look darker as well. It also freezes motion so if you’re subject is moving, motion blur can be minimized or eliminated. One downside of using a camera mounted flash is that it will practically remove all drama in a scene by removing the shadows. By using an external flash though and positioning it at an angle to the subject, you can create very dramatic shadows (subject for another entry)

This photo was actually taken with a flash but the camera was too far away for it to be effective (it was on the other side of the road). As a result, the shadows on our faces are clearly visible

This photo was taken with a flash but the camera was much closer. As a result, there are no harsh shadows on our faces even if the sun was at a very sharp angle to us. We also stand out against the background better making the picture look sharper.

3.) Minimize flare: Flare is caused by unwanted rays of light hitting your lens. You usually wouldn't know how much contrast you’re losing from flare until you put your hand over the lens and see how much the contrast improves. If you have a DSLR, try using a lens hood (yes, they’re not just for show). If you don’t have one, try using your hand to shield the lens from the light the way Hillary Clinton is doing in the picture below
Hillary Clinton, either measuring her own height with her hand or showing us how to improve image quality by shielding your optics from flare. Photo’s not mine of course. Credit goes to the intornets

4.) Increase your depth of field: (warning possibly confusing analogy ahead) I’d like to think of depth of field as an imaginary wall that runs perpendicularly to the lens of your camera. Everything outside this imaginary wall would be blurred and everything inside it would be sharp. If the wall is thick, your depth of field is deep; If it’s thin, your depth of field is shallow. I’m not sure if I was successful in my attempt to make your brain explode but I tried my best. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say that it’s the blurriness or sharpness of the background.  A shallow depth of field (blurred background/foreground) looks good for portraits but if you’re travelling you'd probably want the place to be in the spotlight as well as the people so you’d want everything to be as sharp as possible. You can adjust the depth of field by adjusting the aperture and also by “zooming in”. Use a smaller aperture (The higher the number, the smaller the aperture) to increase the depth of field. Try to set your aperture to f11 or higher and adjust the other settings accordingly. If you have a point and shoot, just set it to landscape mode.

While this is not exactly a snapshot, it’s a fine example of why you’d want a photo with a deep depth of field. You can see how focused everything is from the rocks in the foreground to the farthest ripple in the ocean. Equipment: Sigma 24-70mm f2.8, one 580ex off-camera. Settings: 1/250, f13, ISO 100

Again, not a snapshot but a fine example of a photo with a shallow depth of field. The background is completely blurred and the subject is sharp. Equipment: canon 70-200mm f2.8, one 580ex flash mounted off camera. Settings: 1/125, F2.8, ISO-100

5.) Adjust the color parameters of your camera. Most cameras give you the capability to change certain parameters like saturation, sharpness and contrast. Increasing the saturation generally would make your photos look more colorful which is good for travel or landscape photography. If you’re using a canon camera, go to the menu, then parameters and then select landscape  For Nikon, go to optimize image and the select vivid or more vivid. If you have another camera, you can check the manual if your camera has the capability to do this.

6.) Try different angles. The general rule is if you crouch down and you point the camera upwards, you make a person’s legs look longer and head look smaller and if you stand up, the opposite happens. You can increase this effect by using a wider lens or by getting closer to the subject. The sweet spot would be somewhere near the middle. Try squatting when taking photos of people or getting down on your knees depending on the proportions of the person you’re taking pictures of. This technique is not only applicable to people, it can also be used on trees, cliffs, rivers etc. Whichever part of the subject is closer to the camera will look longer/bigger

Here’s an example of using perspective to exaggerate the proportions of your subject. I used an ultra wide angle lens, I crouched down and pointed the camera upwards. The result: the model’s legs look especially long

7.) Experiment with the shutter speed.  Shutter speed controls the amount of time that your sensor is exposed to light. Motion would cause blurring in a photo if you have a low shutter speed.  Using a higher shutter speed would minimize or eliminate this blurring effect. If you have a tripod, you can use slow shutter speeds to create beautiful images of running water. You can use a fast shutter speed to take sharp photos of jump shots, people running on the beach or water splashing against rocks. You can also use a slow shutter speed so you’d have motion blur in the background and then use your flash to make your subject look sharp. (the flash freezes motion, as I mentioned before.) One question that beginners usually ask is "what settings should I use" There is not always a straight answer to that. Photography is a matter of trial and error, a lot of times. Usually photographers would take a lot of test shots before they arrive at the settings that they want.

Even at a shutter speed of just 1/2 of a second, there's already a lot of motion blur in this photo

8.) If you have a canon DSLR, install Magic Lantern!! This one’s for the more advanced photographer/videographer. It’s  a program that you install on your memory card that adds functions to your camera like timelapse, HDR, manual audio controls, programmable rack focus, more frame rates, higher bit rates, zebra pattern and so much more. Based on the amount of functionality that it adds to your camera, it should be worth thousands of dollars. The fact that it’s free just makes it an absolute must to have. As of the moment, it only supports the canon 5Dmk2, 50D, 60D, 500D, 550D, 600D but support for future models should be available in the future.
Here are a few timelapse clips that i took using my 600D, 10-22mm lens and magic lantern.

9.)Pack accordingly.When hiking, weight is an important consideration. It’s probably not wise to bring your 70-200mm f2.8 even if you have a porter with you, unless you also have a lighter camera with a lighter lens. You’d want to be able to put your camera in your bag quickly if you need both hands and take it out quickly if you wanna take a shot. You won’t be able to do that with a big lens and you’ll just miss out on a lot of nice shots. If you’re gonna bring a heavy lens, make sure that you also have one lightweight lens with you. If you’re gonna be hiking, bringing a compact camera along with your DSLR might be a good idea.

This is all that I bring with me when I hike. A canonI 600D and an 18-55mm kit lens. I also had a tripod in this picture but I regretted bringing it. I was tempted to leave it among the rocks at one point.Photo grabbed from Julie.

10.) Tell a story using your photos:  Sometimes it’s not just about taking beautiful images. Travel photography is sometimes also about what you did, what made the trip special for you. A picture of you holding chopsticks may not be meaningful to everyone but if it was your first time to use them, it would be meaningful to you.The story doesn't even have to be about you. It could be about the people you see around you.  If you see something that triggers a thought in you, take a picture of it and then maybe write about it later if you have a blog or a travel journal.You don’t always have to follow the rules of composition. There really are none, only guidelines. When you take too much time setting up a shot, you end up losing the moment and that spoils that travel aspect of your travel photography. The photo below was completely unstaged. It was a random couple sitting under the shade and looking out towards the horizon. They were there for just a few minutes. If i had been a little bit late, i would've missed the shot. People are drawn to photography for a variety of reasons. For me, one of its more personal uses is capturing brief moments before they pass by completely

A picture of me holding chopsticks

That ends my little guide. Happy clicking

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