Photography Tips for Beginners: The Basics


As much traveling as I’ve done over the course of my life, it’s a shame that I didn’t get a decent camera until a little over a year ago. Yet once I bought my Nikon D3100 and had a friend show me the photography ropes, I quickly realized that my photography skills, or lack thereof, constituted a huge part of the problem. I look back on photos from trips to Europe, Brazil, Costa Rica and SE Asia and think “if only I had known the basics of photography”. I always knew I liked taking pictures, but until recently I was flying blind.

Even if you don’t have a stellar camera, there are a few basic tips you can use to optimize your travel photos to remember that trip fondly. Here are some for starters, regardless of whether you’re using a DSLR, point-and-shoot or even your phone:

1. Lighting can make or break a photo. The times of day when the sun is highest in the sky often produce very harsh light, so try getting out in the dawn or dusk hours and snapping some pictures within an hour before and after sunrise and/or sunset. This is called the Golden Hour and it’s when you can get a nice, gentle hue.

Taken in the midnight sun of Iceland, just minutes before sundown.

Taken in the midnight sun of Reykjavik, Iceland, just minutes before sundown.

2. Avoid putting your subject square in the middle of the shot. Instead, divide your view up into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and put it where those intersecting lines would be. In photography parlance this is called the Rule of Thirds.

Camel in the desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan

Camel in the desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan

On that note, if trying to get a beautiful sunset, put the horizon on the lower third plane and use the upper two thirds to highlight any clouds or beautiful sky colors.

Sunset over Oahu, Hawaii

Sunset over Oahu, Hawaii

Or put the horizon on the upper third to accentuate water, fields or mountains:

Oregon coast

Oregon coast

If photographing people in a certain setting, put them off to the left or right side.

Waikiki Beach, Honolulu Hawaii

Waikiki Beach, Honolulu Hawaii

There are times the rule of thirds doesn’t apply, for example if the subject takes up most or all of the frame or when highlighting symmetry:

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul Turkey

Basilica Cistern, Istanbul Turkey

3. Experiment with lines and patterns. Take pictures of things you never would have guessed would be interesting.

Steps of Pioneer Square, Portland Oregon. This photo launched my fascination with steps and stairs.

Steps of Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland Oregon. This photo launched my fascination with steps and stairs.

Get close-ups of even the blandest, most everyday objects and try to make them interesting. To bring out texture, try going black and white.

Rose Garden, Portland Oregon

Rose Garden, Portland Oregon

4. Experiment, experiment, experiment. Some of us are old enough to remember the days when you took a picture, then had to wait days or even weeks and spend money to have it developed before seeing what went right or wrong. Digital photography has done away with all of that, so use it to your advantage. Try different settings, lighting, subjects and composition. Don’t be afraid to get shots from different angles, even if it means getting down on the ground or climbing onto things (but be safe!!). If you don’t get it right the first time, keep changing things up until you get what you want out of a picture. What do you have to lose?

On the train from Oslo to Bergen, Norway. I must have taken 50 shots of this before I got it right.

On the train from Oslo to Bergen, Norway. I must have taken 50 shots of this before I got it right.

5. If you’ve invested your time and money in acquiring a DSLR camera, please, for the love of all things sacred, invest some time and money to learn how to use it. I find it baffling that so many people out there spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a good camera, lenses and other equipment, only to leave the settings on automatic or use the camera improperly (like deploying the flash in broad daylight or to illuminate things like sunsets). Chances are your local community college has a relatively cheap ($100-200) introductory course for explaining the basics. If you take the time, I guarantee you will get better results and get the most out of your investment.

Happy travels and happy snapping!

Happy travels and happy snapping!

Categories: Travel TipsTags: , , , , , , ,

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