Travel Photography Made Simple – Improving Your Photos Through Composition

Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011
Kasbah at Ouarzazate Morocco

Today I am very pleased to welcome guest writer Iain Mallory. I first came to know Iain, virtually at least, through weekly web chats about photography. I soon started visiting his web site and learned that not only does he offer expert advice about photography, but his work shows true expertise in this unique art form. In this post, Iain offers some easy to follow, practical tips on how we all can improve our travel photos.

Being subjected to viewing friends or family members endless supply of holiday snaps is something most of us have suffered at sometime or another. Usually this is relatively painless ‘duty’ as often there are many lovely images that captivate.

Occasionally, however, after just a few minutes it can become tiresome. The reasons for this can be various but often it comes down to one particular aspect; poor composition. If a photo isn’t interesting or if the main subject is poorly positioned, then ultimately the images will be boring.

What can be done to avoid falling into the same trap – what are the appropriate rules?

Actually there are not really any rules; this would suggest that photography is a rigid science. It is a fallacy to think that by merely following a simple set of instructions, great images will be produced. There are principles and guidelines but ultimately it is the skill and creativity of the photographer that lifts an image beyond the ordinary.

Top of the range cameras and expensive equipment are not necessary either, many great photographs have been taken with a point and shoot compact. Amazing images have been around for over a century and even the most basic modern camera is capable of capturing stunning photographs.

Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011
Lake Tjornin in Reykjavik, Iceland

Focusing the landscape
Probably the favorite type of picture we all like to take is a scenic landscape; sunset beaches or majestic mountains. A lovely image that depicts the beauty of the traveling experience and effectively sums up the destination in one image is a goal for which we all strive. The most common mistake novices often make however is taking a landscape photograph that lacks any foreground image.

This makes it hard for the eye to focus on anything in the image; the viewer will search around looking for anything of interest. The photograph will still probably be pretty, but it will fail to capture the imagination of the viewer and a portfolio or scrapbook full of these will quickly become boring.

Remain aware of your surroundings when taking photos and look for objects in the immediate vicinity rather than always looking to the horizon. ‘Leading lines’ are a great way to draw somebody into an image, roads, fences, walls, rivers or anything which the eyes can naturally follow will prove effective in ‘guiding’ them through the scene.

It is also possible to make use of natural or man-made ‘frames’ by positioning the subject within the borders of a door, window, archway, practically any suitable object, it will only be limited by the creativity of the individual. Used correctly however it will again enable the viewer to focus on the intended subject of the photograph.

Ensure that the image is sharp from front to back however; it is pointless finding some great foreground interest and then allowing part of the scene to remain unfocused. This is actually easier with a compact camera as it is often fully automatic and the camera will attempt to focus the whole scene. More complex cameras, especially those with interchangeable lenses, will require the photographer to physically set-up the camera to achieve this.

There is yet one final mistake that should be avoided when taking landscapes, ensure the horizon is absolutely straight.

Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011
Moroccan desert

Rule of Thirds
This is actually only a guideline and one most keen photographers regardless of their experience are aware. By adhering to this simple principle it is possible to avoid another common mistake made by novices, ‘centering’ the subject. Take a look at a some of your own favorite images; see how many have either a partner, building, animal or maybe the sun slap bang in the middle. Be critical and honest, it is likely you will quickly realize they lack impact.

To effectively use the ‘rule of thirds’ imagine a grid in the viewfinder which splits the scene into nine equal segments. This can be achieved by imagining two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines and then placing the subject on one of the intersections. It is also useful for splitting the image into the correct proportions, the foreground, main subject and sky all in equal areas of the photograph.

This is a natural phenomenon which follows the laws of nature; how we view the world and how our eyes are drawn to certain areas of a scene. There is not any reason to go into any great explanation but using this simple principle more often will possibly make the biggest single improvement to your photography.

Most compacts will have a grid available to view on the LCD screen, another advantage, no need to use your imagination!

Captivating Portraits
Taking countless beautiful landscape photos will mean you return with a lovely portfolio of travel photographs but if there are not any images of the local people or even friends, there will definitely be something missing. People and their pets or livestock going about their daily tasks is an important piece of the puzzle that depicts the destination as a whole. Often a portrait of a particularly attractive, interesting or intense looking person can prove more compelling than a landscape.

The particular manner in which photographs of people are taken is entirely a matter of conscience for the individual and is not the subject of this piece. Taking images of a person expressly against their will however is certainly not something that is recommended.

Assuming that your ‘subject’ is happy to pose, there are two choices to make:  1) an environmental portrait which includes some of the surroundings and putting them in context or 2) a close up. In either case, focus on the eyes of the person but this is where the similarity ends; a close up will require the background to be thrown out of focus preventing distractions. In an environmental portrait the background is not distracting it is a part of the image.

Once the initial photograph has been taken, take a few more, work quickly so as not to make your subject uncomfortable but take some low, different angles and with varying focal lengths. This is actually good advice for any photograph, do not just settle for the first capture, whatever the subject take several images.

Do not forget animals when taking portraits either, they are often the most endearing images that many people viewing your photographs will remember longest and along with children, react to with the greatest emotion.

Copyright © by Mallory On Travel 2011
Derwentwater in the English Lakes

Unlimited subjects
There are obviously countless subjects for travel photography: buildings, markets, food, abstracts, galleries and museums just to name a few. The principles described here are relevant in most situations.

The beauty of digital imagery is that it is low cost, take plenty of photographs, have your camera ready at all times, switched on so that an opportunity is not missed.

This is often the most important aspect, do not miss the chance when it presents itself, worry about if it is technically correct on subsequent captures. It is possible to resolve some of these issues with post-capture editing software.

Improvements in photographic ability will come with practice and experience, so keep the camera close and take plenty of images. Be critical of them and try and work out how each one can be improved, then put these observations into effect.

Before long friends and family will be pestering you to show them all of those great pictures from your last trip!

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By: Iain Mallory

Iain is an ex-military man, and served as a Warrant Officer in the Army Physical Training Corps. This enabled him to become highly qualified in a large number of adventurous activities as well as see the world, satisfying his wanderlust. For a short period of time after leaving the forces he tried his hand at running a public house in leafy Cheshire, England, but it was not too long before his love of travel got the better of him and he once again set off to discover more of the World. He now works freelance as a writer and photographer and enjoys finding adventure wherever he travels and whatever he does. You can find Iain on his site Mallory on Travel as well as Twitter .
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