Writing about camera gear or providing technical how-to tips is easy. But now I’m going to have a go at something much harder: tips on what to photograph and how to compose the shot.
It’s a Matter of Personal Style
Before we get into the specifics, please understand that I’m not suggesting that you slavishly try to copy what I do. Heck, you might not even like what I do—i.e. my style. Even if that is so, I hope this post will still inspire you in your search for your own photographic voice.
Talking of personal style, to my own eye at least, my photography has advanced most since I stopped shooting for the sailing magazines and stopped thinking about what they would like and buy—a very narrow and, to my mind, boring style—and started shooting purely to please myself. After all, how many more over-saturated sunset shots does this world need?
Ok, just one more, as long as it’s mine.
Photography as Part of Daily Life
Another important step in my journey as a photographer has been that I have now integrated my craft into our daily voyaging life. For me, this has proved to be much more realistic and enjoyable than trying to fit photography-only time to what is already a very full life. Sure, I still occasionally go out by myself with a tripod to try and make a killer landscape shot, but increasingly it’s the shots that capture the daily life or details of a place while out walking with Phyllis, or even running errands, that mean the most to me.
I noticed the lovely light on this tree and the flag with the colourful buildings in the background as I came out of the bank. Good photographs are everywhere, but you must learn to really see and have a camera with you. And, no, you could not have made this with the camera in your phone—see the slideshow for why, as well as how to make photographs like this.
Share With Your Partner
The additional advantage of my developing style is that now my craft is a shared one. Although Phyllis has no interest in making photographs herself, because my photography is almost always part of our time out together, she has become part of the process: anticipating what I will shoot and discussing the composition afterward. In fact some of my favourite shots of the last couple of years are ones that Phyllis saw developing before I did—she pointed, I shot.
Phyllis saw this shot setting up and pointed it out to me a good minute before this charming and yet poignant composition came together. Were we out looking for photographs? No, ice cream.
Not Snapshots, Made Photographs
Having said all that, I don’t want to leave you thinking that I now take snapshots. Far from it. Every photograph I make has been thought about and composed, even in a street shooting situation where the time from idea to shutter trip is just seconds. And that leads me to my single most important tip: think about what you want every photograph to say and the larger story they are part of. Make your photographs, don’t take them. For example, in the shot above I consciously decided to throw the foreground out of focus as well as include the grave stone.
Let’s Make This Hard
An anchored yacht lit by lovely long warm light, a scene that it is easy to make a pretty photograph from, like the one above. But I’m going to try something harder: I made the photos below around Charleston last winter as part of our daily life. Yes, it’s a picturesque city, but even so it’s all too easy to come away from any place with cluttered uninteresting photographs that fail to tell the story of the place and our time there. If you can make strong interesting photographs in a town, you can do it anywhere.
I hope the tips in the captions of the photos at the end of the post will inspire and help you to make photographs that please you and tell your story, wherever you happen to be. To really see the shots, click on the photos to enlarge them.
A Word About Gear
Many of the images below could have been made with a reasonably good point and shoot and all are within the capabilities of just about any mirrorless camera with the right lenses. In fact, the advent of the new small easy to carry mirrorless cameras has contributed hugely to my evolving and improving style. Good photography is not about big expensive gear.
I have tried to keep the captions as jargon free as possible. But explaining every photo term would make them overly long, so if you have any questions, please leave a comment below the photos. Likewise, if you have any photography tips that will help others.
There really is no way to make the average marina full of cookie-cutter motorboats look good, other than pull the dawn light trick. But there is more to the making of this shot than great light: I carefully positioned myself and the frame to get the best of the foreground reflection on the water and then used the strong diagonal of the boats to lead your eye out into the harbour through the entrance that I positioned off center in the classic rule of thirds position.
I don’t normally like shots that are this busy. But for me, somehow this composition works, although it breaks many of the classic rules. I think that maybe it’s the way the shot gives you a feeling for the Charleston architecture and how the houses are set in a riot of lush vegetation.
I struggled all winter to capture the way that house owners use flowering plants to adorn their dwellings. The problem is that it is all too easy to come away with just another picture of a window box that could be anywhere.
The biggest mistake that new photographers make is including too much of a scene for fear of leaving things out. Once you realize that your viewers are smart enough to figure out that an ornate door and traditional window belong to a historic house and that the other half of a flowering bush is there, without showing it all to them, you are free to compose much stronger images. Here, by including just a part of the flowering bushes I have framed the door and window in a pleasing way.
Something about this lit door and the tree on the piazza (Charleston-speak for porch), just says “Christmas in Charleston”. I don’t need to add any more information.
One of the most wrong photography “rules” is that the light should come from behind the photographer—back light. In fact, back light often yields boring shots. Front light, while more difficult to expose for, creates interest and highlights beauty. Here I used a long zoom at 250mm and a mid range F9 aperture to bring the flowers into sharp focus while blurring the bright leaves behind. I carefully composed to anchor the shot with the tree trunk at the right. I then kept dialing down the exposure compensation and taking shots until none of the bright highlights were burned out (see my previous tips post).
Every travel shoot needs a good food shot. I have a bunch of more formal ones from this winter, but I like this one the best. To me, the items on the table all perfectly balance and the Vanna White impression from Phyllis adds a touch of humour. Once again I used my 40mm fast prime wide open at F1.7. I focused on the surface of the pudding and then recomposed. I almost always have my camera set to use a single center focus point that I aim at what I want most in focus, press the shutter button half down to lock focus, and then recompose the shot before finally tripping the shutter. If you practice this technique it will quickly become second nature and you will have taken one more step on the path to making photographs instead of taking snapshots.
This is another shot where I pared the busy scene that included parked cars and power lines down to its bare essentials to tell the story of Charleston houses that are turned sideways with a single room on the street end and a piazza on the side. To me, a lot of the reason the shot works is the strong diagonals, which are almost always more interesting than horizontal and vertical lines in a photograph. I moved back and forth until I got the balance of the window, door and piazza just as I wanted it.
Once again there is humour here. The guide is in full cry, but the tourists are bored. Even the horse has heard it all before. So often the real story makes a more interesting photo than the ideal tourist shot. A tight crop makes the image. If I had included the whole carriage and both horses the people would have been too small for their expressions to be obvious. Here I used a 90mm prime lens nearly wide open at F2.2 to freeze the movement and focused on the guide’s face to emphasize the star of the show. If I had used a slower zoom everything would have been in sharp focus, including the background, and the shot would be weaker.
Towns are about people and to me a good travel shoot should include them. This is not the back fence, but it’s pretty close. Charleston is a college town full of students and their residences. This shot helps tell you that. Once again the strong diagonal between the two women is what makes the shot.
The key to this shot was anticipation. I carefully composed with the sun off center and the strong diagonal lines of the rails to the left just included. I then dialed in 2-1/2 of negative exposure compensation to make the walker a silhouette. I took a test shot to make sure I had it right and then waited. As the person walked into the frame, I fired a burst of seven frames and got this one as number three. You do need a camera that is quite responsive and has a high frame rate for this kind of thing. Also be careful not to stare into the sun or expose the camera sensor to it for too long.
These night herons hang around the marina and fish all night. I included this shot both because I like it and to show you what can be done once you take a step up in camera quality. This was taken with a mirrorless camera at ISO 1600 with a 90mm prime lens wide open at F1.8 in near darkness. Try this with a point and shoot and all you will have is a noisy pixilated mess.
Usually I try and avoid lens flare like the plague. And I could have got rid of it in this shot by using the really dumb hat I wear to block the sun leaking in round the lens hood that I always use. (You read that post, right?) But in this case I intentionally let a little flare creep in and I think it works to give the shot a bit of a dreamy feel. First know the rules, then break them. Here again I cropped tight. A wider shot would have shown cars, power lines and all kinds of other distracting stuff, whereas this shot focuses on just the parts that give the feel of Charleston.
Charleston is a city of flowers. But how do you avoid taking “just another flower shot”? Yawn. Here I used a 90mm fast prime and a fairly wide aperture at F3.2. This combination yields a very shallow plane of sharp focus isolating the important part of the shot. I composed very carefully, anchoring the shot with the tree trunk at the top left and including the highlights at the top to draw your eye through the shot. I then shot at several different aperture settings until I got just the right amount of blur in the background. This technique of isolating with focus, that is so valuable in cluttered places, is something that you simply can’t do with a point and shoot since a small sensor and slow lens will always yield a lot of depth of field. If everything had been in sharp focus the shot would be just another munge of flowers.
Charleston is full of art galleries, but how do you portray that when every one, understandably, has a sign saying NO PHOTOGRAPHS? This speaks to a big point about good travel photography: A lot of it’s access. But access is easier than you might think, even for the amateur. The key is a winning smile and a slow and relaxed approach. Don’t ask to break the rules until you have established rapport with the rule maker. Over the years, using this approach, I have been allowed past many a “no admittance sign”, from the Tate Modern Gallery in London to the light chamber of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. In this case, only after chatting for ten minutes or so with the curator, did I ask if I could take a shot using a fast lens to blur the detail of the artworks. I also invited her to supervise me as I did it and assured her that I would immediately delete any shot she was uncomfortable with. In fact I think I like it better like this anyway. Photos of other people’s art that are too literal are, I think, just a rip off. Witness all the images people take of good graffiti (yes, there is such a thing). Really, what did the photographer contribute?
I like to give my viewers a bit of a challenge. This shot takes a minute to figure out, but will raise a chuckle from most viewers. Again I broke a “rule” here and focused on the worker in the background, not the closer P.O. box doors.
Like many old cities, Charleston has wonderful street surfaces. It’s part of the city, so show that, but make it interesting. This may look like a snapshot but it’s anything but. Long morning light gives dramatic colour, but even more importantly, the low angle side lighting shows the texture of the flag stones. I placed the inspection cover to anchor the shot and the drain pipe to pull your eye through it.
OK, Charleston is not just flowers, window boxes and gas lights. Like most cities it has abandoned buildings and pickup trucks too. Not generally very interesting subjects. But early evening, with the lights and ambient light balanced, makes it more interesting, as does the contrast between the boarded up building and the well kept ornately decorated building with the brightly lit store. Once again, strong diagonals add to the image.
I don’t consider myself a wildlife photographer. However, watching wildlife is a big part of our enjoyment of voyaging, and so I always try and get one good bird or animal shot to fill out the story of a place. What I look for is a composition like this that puts the animal in the place, rather than a killer close up shot. This was taken in the marina at low tide, when we were on our way out for a walk. Another time when the key to success was having a camera with me most of the time. The lens was a zoom all the way out at 280mm. Another time when my mirrorless camera came into its own, because there is no way I would have been lugging my big kit with a lens this long. I waited for the bird to look interested and then fired a burst of 3-5 frames as it darted for the fish. I took about 20 frames to get this decisive moment with the fish in its beak. You don’t need a camera with blindingly fast frame rate for this, but about 4 frames a second is the minimum.
Conveying the feeling of being in a crowd without ending up with nothing but a boring shot of random people is hard. However, I think the symmetry of the church makes this one work. Including the tents anchors the shot and tells the viewer something about the market. I used a 90mm telephoto prime (a zoom would have done just as well since I did not need a fast lens) to compress the scene and add to the feeling of crowding. I set the aperture at F13 to keep the whole scene in focus, front to back.
A plantation says Charleston like nothing else. Sure, it’s a cliché shot, but if you are going to tell a story of a place in photographs you need shots like this, so embrace them and do the best job you can. This scene has a very wide dynamic range, so I carefully exposed to just slightly blow the highlights. I was then able to recover those highlights and bring out detail in the shadows using Adobe Lightroom. That would have been impossible shooting JPEG although some of the newer cameras do come close. Learning to process RAW images well is neither trivial nor for everyone, but it does let you make good photographs in difficult situations. I also got rid of some orange traffic cones in front of the building that would have been a shot ruiner, using Photoshop; another skill that is worth having if you aspire to be a travel photographer.
This photo just screams “The South”, at least to me. I really like the long evening light making the spanish moss glow, and the contrast to the gnarled old live oak trunk. Like the last shot, this is really pushing the capabilities of my rather old mirrorless camera. And since I was not using a tripod, I had to push the ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed in the late evening light, even with the image stabilized zoom I was using. So the shot is both noisy and a bit soft from camera shake. A few years ago I would have discarded it. But lately I have learned that the strength of an image and its importance to the story being told trump a few small technical issues that most people will never notice. That is not to say that I ignore the importance of craft, but if the choice is no shot, or pushing the technical envelope, I will make more compromises than I used to.
John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.
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