Last Updated on April 19, 2020 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.

travel photography tips - boat in the philippines

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.

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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.

travel photography tips - 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.

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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.

travel photography tipsThis 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.

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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.

travel photography tips - 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.