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The total ignoramus's guide to travel photography

OK, so you're wondering why someone capable of producing such terrible photos as this, would write an article on travel photography. Well the point is that I'm not a photographer. I've never had any photographic training whatsoever. And yet despite this complete lack of talent, I've still managed to pull off occasional moments of passable photographic glory (such as this, this, this, this, and this).

Those kinds of shots are not too hard, in fact all I've done is follow some general rules picked up from people far more talented than me during my travels. You might find them handy too:

1. Have the right camera

Digital cameras are a traveller's best friend for so many reasons. They let you take millions of shots to experiment with (and learn from) shutter speeds, flash settings, etc, without wasting money on developing film. You get instant gratificaion, their memory cards are airport X-ray proof and you won't run the risk of losing ten rolls of your Great Wall happy snaps. One word of caution, though, download your photos often onto two CDs. Keep one with you, and post the other home. That way losing one set won't mean you've lost a month (or nine) worth of memories.

2. Lighting, lighting lighting

Lighting can make a huge impact on how a photo turns out. In general, just remember these simple rules:

  • Avoid the middday glare. From around 11 am - 4 pm, direct sunlight can be too bright and glary, giving your photos a flat, washed out feel. If you have to take a photo in these conditions, photographic boffins recommend using a polarising filter to reduce glare. If you're not in the habit of lugging 200 pounds of photographic gear around with you on your travels, however, just hold your sunglasses over the lens. Most decent sunglasses also double as polarising filters, for your eyes.

  • Sunrise, sunset. The warm glow of light during sunrise and sunset make for effortlessly brilliant photos.

  • Make your portraits more dynamic by backlighting them with sunlight. Photos of your Aunt Flo will look much better if she has a faint halo of sunlight behind her. And as an added bonus she won't be squinting.

Compose yourself

One of the easiest way to improve your shots is to pay a little more attention in compositing them, in other words picking what should go into the frame. Like most people I'm usually tempted into taking utilitarian photos—basically just pointing at what I want, centering it in the frame and clicking away. Instead, just try these simple guidelies.

  • Pick a subject, and stick with it.

    When you're overwhelmed by a foreign landscape or scene, it's tempting to try and cram as much into the shot as possible. While these shots are effective at replicating what you see, they usually make for boring, dull and uninteresting photos. Instead, each photo should have just one point of focus; one thing you want to draw the viewer's attention to. Once you've picked what that subject is, fill the frame with it and try to keep out any other elements that might distract the viewer.

  • The devil's in the detail

    Quite often the most interesting elements of a scene are small details that would otherwise get lost in the bigger picture, such as a window that best captures the feel of an Andalucian village, the calligraphic tiles that immediately evoke the calls to prayer of an Iranian mosque, or the fiery produce on sale at an East Timorese market.

  • A little off-center

    One of the most quoted rules of frame compositing is the "rule of thirds," and it's a damn good one too. It encourages you to mentally divide your frame into a 3 x 3 grid, and place your subject of focus somewhere on the intersecting points. In other words keep things away from the center of the frame: when taking a landscape, for example, keep the horizon either one-third from the top of the frame, or one-third from the bottom. If you're photo has one main point of interest, throw it to one side of the frame, rather than the center. Once you start following this rule you'll notice you're photos look more dynamic, interesting and people will pay them a lot more attention.

  • But what are you trying to say?

    Before you frame your shot, ask yourself what it is you're trying to achieve with the photo. What are you trying to say? If you want to convey the hustle-and-bustle of a Mashhad bazar, for example, a long-exposue shot to show motion is a good idea. On the other hand, you're trying to convey the sense of desolation and insignificance felt while standing atop an ancient Zorastrian burial hill, you should frame your shot appropriately. One of my favourite photos has to be this one taken in the Iranian village of Abiyaneh. It works for me because its interestingly composited (ie. nothing's in the center), but also because it best encapsualtes life in the village: the main mode of transport, the dress and demeanour of its residents and the omnipresent red-mud walls of it houses.

  • Look for shapes

    If you keep an eye out, you'll soon start to notice lots of great patterns and shapes in nature that make for amazing photos. Things like the vertigo-inducing tunnels of London's Tube, the symmetry of ancient Persian bridges and the interesting people that use them, or the maze of masts at a Geneva marina.

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