Travel Photography Tips Part I – The Basics

Posted on May 23, 2012 by

We often receive emails with positive comments on our photos and questions on how to take better shots, so I’m here to share with you what I have learned over the years to help you get the most out of your camera.

In this first photography article of our photography series, I’m going to explain the basics of photography first, giving as many practical examples as possible. Keep in mind that for every new term, fact or technique that you learn there is at least one new amazing picture you can take on your next trip.

The Fundamental Elements of Photography

The first element that we’ll discuss in this post is exposure, which is the key factor that defines a picture. Exposure is the amount of light that falls on the lens. It is actually determined by the aperture and shutter speed, so I believe that if you understand these two concepts and the relation between them there is no picture that you can’t take.

Let’s imagine that a picture is a glass (container) and light is water that we pour into it. The exposure will be the amount of water in the glass, or more specifically, the proportion of the glass that is filled with water. A correctly exposed picture will be one that has the right amount of light in it; pour too much water into your glass and it will start to overflow, pour too little and you will not be able to quench your thirst. An over-exposed picture will be very bright, so bright that it might be completely white and the details in it could be hardly recognizable. A poorly exposed picture on the other hand will be very dark and details that fall under the shadow will be completely black.

Let’s start filling up our glass shall we? Let’s imagine that aperture and shutter speed are the components of a faucet that we use to fill our glass with water. The aperture will be how big the faucet is opened while the shutter speed is the amount of time we keep the water flowing. If we want to fill our glass with the correct amount of water we can either open the faucet all the way and keep it open for just a short moment or we can open it just enough for a thin string of water to flow and leave the glass filling for a couple of minutes. Similar to our faucet analogy, the bigger the aperture is, the less time we will need to “fill up” our picture and vice versa.

When you shoot in automatic mode, your camera chooses a combination of aperture and shutter speed to ensure a correct exposure under the given light conditions. The result is often satisfactory but you can usually use the appropriate features/settings to create an even better image, and that is why good photographers don’t usually shoot in automatic mode.

Depth of Field

Let’s take a look at these two faucet components individually.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is the amount of time that the camera lens is going to let light into the sensor. In digital cameras, it is usually stated as a number that represents the number of seconds or the fraction of a second that the shutter will be opened to let light through.

I almost never use a tripod when I shoot. Even for night shots, I usually rely on my own pulse and stabilization techniques (which I will discuss in future articles). On our trip to Iceland, we carried a tripod in the hopes of catching some aurora borealis shots, but we were down on our luck and ended up lugging it (without using it) the whole way. In my experience, the use I get out of a tripod doesn’t make up for the amount of space and weight it adds to my luggage. When you don’t use a tripod (like me) you have to watch your shutter speed extra carefully, specially in low light conditions. If you leave the shutter open for too long while shooting free-hand, you will probably end up with a blurry picture.

A good rule of thumb to avoid this from happening is to fix the shutter speed to be the same or more than the focal length of your lens (that is the distance from the end of the lens to the sensor or “zoom level” that you are shooting with). For example, if you are shooting with a standard 18-55mm you should use a shutter speed of at least 1/50. Take into account that this rule of thumb is for full-frame cameras. Cropped-frame cameras will have to apply the crop factor so you will need a slightly faster shutter speed, in this case 1/60 should suffice. If you own a digital camera and don’t know what full-frame means, chances are your camera is not full-frame, so you should always go one or two steps up to make sure.

Most cameras (specially DSLRs) have a shutter-priority mode that let you “lock” the shutter speed to whatever you want and calculate the correct aperture for you to ensure a proper exposure. This is a mode that I use extensively, specially for interiors and low light conditions, allowing me to get the maximum aperture possible without getting a blurry image.

This photo was taken with a slow shutter speed, without a tripod.

Aperture

As I described in the faucet analogy, the aperture is how wide the lens will open in order to let the light into the sensor. The wider the hole, the faster the picture will “fill up” with light, but also the shorter the depth of field. The depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a scene that appear acceptably sharp in an image.

To illustrate with an example: if you are taking a picture of a person in front of the eiffel tower with a very big aperture, the person will be in focus but the eiffel tower will be completely blurry. Similarly, if you take it with a small aperture, both the person and the background will appear equally sharp.

When taking a picture you should always think about what is your focus — if you want to center the attention on the subject, it is often a good idea to use a wide aperture to make it stand out; but if you have more than one subject in the picture and they are at different distances from the camera (a landscape shot for example), be sure to use the smallest aperture you can. One thing to take into account is that the aperture is measured as a fraction and most cameras only display the bottom part, i.e. if your camera shows an aperture of 10 on the display it actually means the aperture is 1/10, so higher numbers in the display mean lower apertures. To avoid confusion, just remember that the higher the number, the higher the depth of field will be.

As with the shutter speed, most cameras have an aperture-priority mode that lets you “lock” the aperture and automatically adjust the shutter speed accordingly so this is a convenient mode to use when light conditions are good and you want to focus your attention in the depth of field.

Short depth of fieldUsing a short depth of field, the insect becomes the focus while  the background is blurred.

 Once you get these concepts clear, you’ll be able to control the light element of photography. We’ll discuss the other elements in the next few posts, so stay tuned! In the meantime, be sure to share any ideas or tips in the comments field below.

Comments

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About Alberto Molero

Alberto Molero is the co-founder, photographer and designer of WildJunket. With an infectious sense of adventure, he’s fed his adrenaline cravings with scuba-diving trips in Borneo, wildlife jaunts on the Galapagos Islands and hiking expeditions to Iceland and Australia. He constantly dreams of living on the beach and going surfing all day.

23 Responses to “Travel Photography Tips Part I – The Basics”

  1. melvin May 24, 2012 11:31 pm #

    Great post! The example with the water is good… For some it might be better with wine or beer though. ;-)

    • Alberto Molero May 31, 2012 6:45 pm #

      Hi Melvin!

      Yes, probably the alcohol would have added interest to the topic but I can't imagine someone trying to fill a glass of beer as fast as possible :)

  2. Turtle May 27, 2012 2:38 am #

    Awesome explanation. I'm an idiot when it comes to even the basics of photography (thank goodness my auto setting is pretty decent) so this is the kind of thing I need! Tganks

    • Alberto Molero May 31, 2012 6:27 pm #

      Hi Michael,

      I'm glad you found my article useful, I'm sure that with some practice you will be able to ditch the automatic mode and get great results!

  3. Emily in Chile May 27, 2012 7:17 am #

    I just got my DSLR and am picking up bits and pieces to really get as much out of it as possible, so this post is really helpful. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

    • Alberto Molero May 31, 2012 6:28 pm #

      You are very welcomed Emily!

      I will be posting more photography posts in the future so stay tuned!

  4. Jeremy Branham May 27, 2012 2:37 pm #

    This is awesome! I love this as I just started using a new camera. I didn't go for the full DSLR but went with a 4/3. I took over 600 photos with it last weekend playing around with the shutter speed and aperture. Half of my photos are awful. This explanation really helped. I did notice that the the shutter speed open, it lets in a lot of light.

    Hopefully, this will help me in the future. Now I just need to play around with my camera and get all of this working for myself.

    • Alberto Molero May 31, 2012 6:43 pm #

      Hey Jeremy,

      I also have a cropped DSLR (Canon 60D). Somehow a full-frame doesn't really seem appropriated for my level and also I can't imagine having to buy a whole new set of lenses :S
      I'm glad you found my article interesting, I'm sure you'll be able to get great results in no time!

  5. Aaron May 28, 2012 9:40 pm #

    Great post! I love travel photography as well and think it's critical for people to get these fundamentals down!

    • Alberto Molero May 31, 2012 6:30 pm #

      Yes Aaron, I think that no matter how boring these fundamentals can be sometimes, after you learn them you can be more confident with your photography and when something isn't quite right you will know exactly what to change to get the perfect shot you are looking for.

  6. wild727 June 8, 2012 5:45 pm #

    Brilliant ideas,thank a lot for these info.

  7. Janella July 26, 2012 12:17 am #

    No rule of thirds? :p

    • Alberto Molero August 14, 2012 2:21 pm #

      In this post I cover basic photography contest, I wrote another one about photo composition where you can find the rule of thirds :)

      Thanks for stopping by!

  8. techincal writer August 3, 2012 7:15 pm #

    Great post and ideas. And amazing photos too

  9. Holiday Sri Lanka September 30, 2012 6:07 pm #

    Thanks for the excellent tips. They are very handy when come to novices of photographers or people who look for fundamentals of photohraphy.

  10. Rachelle October 13, 2012 11:11 am #

    Love the analogy of the water glass. Never heard it explained that way and it makes total sense. Looking forward to the rest of your series! Especially how you stabilize without a tripod. I to, hate lugging around a pair of sticks. Usually I have them with me for video interviews but for photos I typically find something I can balance the camera on.

  11. Gorge Scrambling March 27, 2013 8:44 am #

    Great Article. I've always struggles with shutter speed. I can never seem to catch fast moving activities such as sport. It must be the limitations of my camera? What type of shutter speed would expect to set for a fast moving sport such as surfing?

  12. Bruce Duncan May 6, 2013 11:21 pm #

    Above all, don't let the thought of taking perfect pictures ruin your vacation. Just remember that no one and no shot is perfect. Besides, skill with a camera is something best improved through experience.

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