Take Better Travel Photos

Summer is the season for travel, and that probably means you're packing your digital camera and headed off for warmer, drier, wetter, or just plain different environs.

In this Here's How, we have some advice that will make your vacation pictures stand out from the crowd.

What Makes It "It?"

My cardinal rule when taking travel pictures is to avoid typical postcard shots. I really don't like to end up with the same photos that everyone else has already taken, so I avoid taking pictures while standing in front of visitor centers, scenic lookouts, and popular tourist attractions.

But that doesn't mean I don't capture the essence of whatever locale I'm in. Indeed, I often ask myself what is truly unique about the city I'm visiting. What makes it "it?" Paris, for instance, is virtually defined by the Eiffel Tower. But rather than shooting it from the courtyard along with everyone else, I've tried to capture the tower from more distant neighborhoods.

Shoot Some Panoramas

Vacations loom large in our memories, so the pictures we take should be just as big. That's why I always nab a few panoramic shots of interesting vistas when I'm on the road with my family.

The first panorama I ever took was in front of the famed Abbey Road studios outside of London. But as a relative newbie in the digital photo universe, I made the mistake of discarding the individual shots after stitching them into the wide picture on my computer. Now all I have is a relatively low resolution wide-format picture of the street in front of the Beatles' recording studio, and I can't re-create the panorama with modern technology.

So don't make my mistake. Take a series of full-resolution images and use your favorite image editor or panorama stitching program to assemble them into a finished product. Then save it all for posterity--the individual shots as well as the final panorama.

Weave People Into Your Picture

You might be tempted to try to capture famous landmarks and beautiful scenery without any people marring the scene. Likewise, you might want to take pictures of your friends and family in front of those same locations--the classic "I was here" photo.

There's nothing wrong with either approach, but why not be a little more subtle? I like to try to weave people into my photos in a less obtrusive way, almost as if I'm telling a story or capturing a scene from a movie.

For instance, if I had asked my wife to pose in front of the Arc de Triomphe, she probably would have stood there as if she were posing for her driver's license. (She looks great on her driver's license, mind you.) Instead, I posed her: I asked her to lean on the post and look at the monument while I took some pictures. The result is something that I think is a little more lyrical.

Include Yourself

It's easy to go the entire trip and realize only later that there's no evidence you were there. (My wife estimates that there are perhaps only six pictures of me in existence, including the small one that sits at the top of this newsletter each week.)

Certainly, you can ask people to take your picture or, occasionally, do something unusual like capture your reflection in a mirror. For example, I found a reflective sphere on a trip a few years ago and decided it was a great way to capture the giddiness of our mood.

Start Your Own Photo Tradition

When my wife and I went on a trip with a friend a few years ago, our friend told us about an expression that her family had traditionally associated with vacations. Whenever they went on a trip, they'd announce to their feet where they had just arrived. So it was not unusual for her mum to shout "Feet, you're in Melbourne!" after getting off the plane. I stole the idea on that very trip and starting taking pictures like this.

It's silly, but it's now a traditional photo my family looks forward to taking whenever we go on a vacation. Think of your own photo tradition--the feet idea is mine.

Look for Unexpected Details

While everyone else has their camera lens set on wide angle, trying to shoehorn an entire landmark into each frame, think outside the box and look for the details. I love snooping around famous places and zooming in on things that most other photographers might miss. It may be a snippet of graffiti at Abbey Road, or unusual angles in the ceiling of a museum.

Wait Until the Lights Go Down

Finally, remember to carry your camera at night. Most cities have a very different character at night than they do during the day, and you can record a sense of that if you try your hand at some night photography.

Your subjects can be classic landmarks, like London's Big Ben or something as mundane as a telephone booth.

Your night photos can be some of the highlights of your vacation album, as long as you remember to "think night" when you shoot. Be sure to use a tripod or brace the camera against a stationary object. Shoot with a high ISO to minimize the shutter speed and reduce the risk of blurry pictures; but don't be afraid to use longer, multisecond exposures if you can secure the camera with a tripod.

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Dave Johnson

PC World (US online)

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