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Travel photography

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Tourist taking a picture on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles
Tourist taking a photo

Whether you look at them as the most expensive photographs you've ever taken, or the least expensive souvenirs you've ever purchased... whether you "take snapshots" or "create images"... travel photography is one of the most popular activities for those who travel.

Understand[edit]

The single most important choice to make is what kind of camera to purchase and/or bring along. There's no single "best" camera – or even kind of camera – for travel photography. The kind of pictures you want to take, how much flexibility or ease-of-use you want, your budget, and even how much you want to carry all factor into it.

Regardless of media type, cameras tend to fall into three categories of ease-of-use and features; an increase of one tends to decrease the other:

In-Phone cameras, which are bundled with most smartphones, providing a quick way for shooting without any additional device. Newer models like the iPhone 5 have considerable quality although almost all of these are no match when compared to a device specific for shooting (a real camera). They are quite OK however for the casual photographer.

Compact cameras, which provide at a reasonable price a way for quality images. If you usually take landscapes, people, and avoid weird conditions such as low light shooting or photographing speeding animals, then this is for you. Some of them have really high standard capabilities, easily comparable to the more expensive SLRs.

SLR cameras which provide the best manipulative ability and features, at the expense of the cost and other factors (like the size, the need for lens cleaning, the lack of automatic settings). They are for the serious shooter, but there can be problems when you just want to shoot something from inside a bus window.

Last years Compact and SLR tend to merge in both prices and capabilities. Unless you need to shoot in extreme conditions (like in ultra low light), then the compact is probably the best.

Resolution[edit]

Digital camera resolutions is given to you in Mega Pixels, which is the number of squares that are used to compose the image.

Keep in mind that:

  • The more the MPs, the bigger the size of the photograph, however the quality does not necessarily increase. The human eye cannot distinguish between higher levels of resolution, especially when the photo is viewed in an electronic device (in fact, the most high end TV sets have is 1980x1020 = 2MP).
  • Quality depends mostly on the sensor and the lens, not on the resolution. You may get a 12 MP camera with a poor lens (that's what most Smartphones have) that takes a lot worse images than a 4MP SLR camera.
  • The more the resolution, the more SD card storage you want.
  • Most cameras store the images with JPG which is lossy compression. If you need the 100% quality, you have to use the RAW format (usually available in SLRs).
  • When home, recompress your images. CPU power on PCs is much more than on camera, so you can get the same quality with less size.
  • Put your camera to shoot in 16:9 aspect ratio format. The old one 4:3 is deprecated and, when such images must be viewed in computers or TV sets, they will be stretched.


Media[edit]

Most, if not all cameras nowadays use SD cards to store media. These can be up to 64 GB in size; In practice, take two or three 8-16GB with you and you will be fine.

Some older models still use CDrs to store photos/videos. Avoid them, because a CD is more vulnerable to scratching or errors in writing (which could make it unusable). SD cards are more stable.

Digital cameras usually have different quality modes available which use more/less storage space for each picture. They sometimes have confusing names like SHQ, HQ, and SQ1, and different resolutions (how many pixels). Experiment ahead of time to figure out what quality setting you want to use. Keep in mind that you don't need multi-megapixel images to fill a computer screen or make a pocket-sized print, and you'll be able to fit a lot more photos on the same card with lower settings. Don't use the in-camera display to determine what setting to use, because it can't show you how much detail you're losing; look at the final results in a print or on the computer screen (depending on how you plan on viewing your photos). The ability to switch to lower quality settings can also be useful if you're running out of storage space in the middle of nowhere: better to have the last couple dozen pictures taken at a less-than-ideal quality setting than to run out of exposures before you reach home.

Lenses[edit]

Photo Gear Lenses

For professional and prosumer cameras with interchangeable lenses, the choice of lenses to bring along becomes crucial. Many come with a standard kit lens that covers the range from wide-angle to short-telephoto. For a high-end digital SLR this might be in the range of 18-70mm; for a 35mm SLR 28-100mm would be equivalent. (The magnification strength of lenses on digital SLRs varies from that of 35mm film, and even from camera to camera.) However, due to their moving parts zooms are more prone to breaking, and a sturdy and fast 50mm prime lens is a popular (and compact) backup.

Often the kit lenses are designed more for low cost than high quality; in particular they are generally quite slow. Professionals tend to buy either "prime" fixed focal length lenses or much more expensive high-end zooms.

If you intend to photograph far-away objects – typical examples include going on safari or birdwatching – you will also need a strong telephoto lens. If space is at a premium, you may be tempted to ditch the kit lens and instead go for a superzoom lens that covers the full range from wide-angle to to 200 or even 300mm; however, picture quality on these will suffer noticeably and you'll be stuck using a physically big lens all the time. A smaller-range 75-200mm or a fixed-focal length telephoto will offer better quality.

At the other end of the scale, if you expect to take a fair amount of panoramic landscapes or want to be able to fit a busy city square into the frame in close quarters, supplementing a normal-to-tele zoom with a strong wide-angle lens (e.g. 24mm or less for 35mm film) might be useful.

People with several interchangeable lenses sometimes carry two or more bodies with different film, or even a digital and a film body. A camera body that uses film can be an advantage for wide-angle lenses, because the larger format widens the angle that lens captures. Put a lens from a film camera on most digital bodies and the angle of view decreases; a 24mm lens on a digital camera might have the limited angle of view of a 38mm lens on a film SLR. Why not load some film into another body and use the lens as real wide-angle optics? This may give pictures that your digital rig can't capture.

If you are going on a safari for two weeks, you might consider renting a lens. Lens rental can cost about 10% the cost of the lens for a 2 week rental, and you can always have the right lens for your style of trip.

ISO Conditions[edit]

Photography is the art of allowing the correct amount of light to pass through the sensor. Sensors can change their sensitivity to light, measured in ISO values. The less light you have, the more ISO sensitivity must be set for the correct amount of light to get to the sensor.

Keep in mind the following about high ISO values:

  • Less stable images.
  • More noise.

The less light available, the more ISO level you have to adjust in order to take a shot. Most compact cameras allow up to 3200 or even 6400 ISO values. However that's one of the facts that make a SLR better: Their sensor is larger, thus in higher ISO values the image is more stable and less noisy.

ISO levels are related with shutter speed, and in cases that the ISO sensitivity must be set to high, you also have to set a low shutter speed, usually in high end or SLR cameras. This however requires a tripod.

Flash is almost useless, especially in long distances. If you plan to take photos in low light conditions, then you should consider a SLR. Fortunately as a traveler you will mostly shoot at light; In such cases a compact (or even an in-Phone) would suffice.

Focus[edit]

Today's cameras have both manual and auto focus. Most times it will be fine to use the auto-focus (which can get your subject focused faster). Use the manual focus when you need to focus somewhere where the camera itself cannot deduct, for example when focusing an animal behind zoo cells.

Zoom[edit]

Cameras include zoom capability, which is handy for getting a closer shot of something in the distance. (One of the most common errors of inexperienced photographers is not getting close enough). You want to check the "optical zoom" feature of your camera (the older "digital zoom" is useless), which can be for consumer level devices as high as 24x.

Some higher-end cameras use extensible lenses with higher zoom, but keep in mind that the more the zoom, the more stable your hand must be. A very high zoom would require a tripod for the shot to be stable.

Batteries[edit]

Rechargeable NiMH batteries

Batteries are an important thing to think about, because it can be extremely frustrating to run out of battery power right in the most exciting part of your trip. If your camera uses a non-standard battery type , be sure to bring extras or a recharger and use it regularly. Don't wait for your power to run out before deciding to recharge.

Even if your camera uses a standard AA-set, do NOT buy a set from the local store and expect it to work. Most manufacturers put special identification mechanisms to their batteries, so even if it LOOKS like a common AA, it is actually not. Always verify that the extra batteries you have will work, before leaving.

Battery chemistry makes a big difference, and even something as standard as AA batteries come in several varieties. A rechargeable NiMH battery usually lasts longer (even without recharging) than even the best lithium battery, and its reusability will pay for itself in the long run. The main drawback of rechargeables is that they lose their charge even just sitting for a few weeks. Don't use NiCd batteries in a digital camera (except in emergencies); they simply won't last.

If you're leaving civilization behind altogether, consider an old-fashioned mechanical film camera that can be run without battery power, or a not-quite-so-quaint electronic film camera which uses so little battery power (e.g. for the light meter, to time the shutter speed) that it can run for months on a single button-size cell. Most manual-exposure 35mm cameras from the 1970s and earlier will run battery-free; auto-exposure 35mm cameras from the 1980s merely sip from their batteries, and a few (e.g. Pentax ME series) can even continue working (on manual) without.

Consider also buying a solar charger, which may help you charge your battery when normal AC power is not available.

The largest battery drains on a digital camera are the preview screen and the sensor. Many will last for thousands of shots if you disable the screen and use a manual viewfinder (if available).

Accessories[edit]

Many photographers carry along a tripod, and even a little pen-sized model can come in handy if you want to set up timed shots of yourself and yours. If weight is an issue (e.g. when hiking), consider a monopod instead. Bogen/Manfrotto even makes a line of well-regarded monopods that double as hiking sticks, although they're rather pricy. Alternatively, shop for hiking sticks with camera mounts hidden under the top knob. However, bear in mind that many (if not most) museums and tourist attractions do not permit tripods or monopods. Sometimes breaking out the tripod will put you in the "professional" category, and you suddenly need copyright permissions for what the owners of the place now consider commercial photography.

An ultraviolet filter comes in handy, not just for blocking ultraviolet (which can cut down on distant "haze" in landscape photos) but also for protecting your lens from dust, grime, and scrapes.

An USB-enabled SD Card will save having to bring an adapter and can transfer photos straight onto a laptop.

Pack[edit]

With expensive photography gear, packing it properly becomes an issue. Specialized cases specifically for packing cameras and lenses are available, but they are bulky and inconvenient. If travelling light, it's better just to bring along the original leather pouches for your lens and camera. A T-shirt folded and wrapped around a lens provides some impact protection and guards it from prying eyes.

Wipe down your camera and lenses with a tissue after use, before you put them away. In particular, zoom lenses in dusty environments should be extended fully, wiped off, and allowed to dry before packing them, as grit will wreak havoc on the delicate mechanisms inside.

Video[edit]

Almost all nowadays cameras also record video. When capturing video, keep in mind the following:

  • Video might be prohibited in some places whereas simple shots aren't.
  • You need WAY more data storage space for high definition (like 1920x1080) video.
  • Bring along a few more batteries.
  • Use x264/AVCHD formats if available, for they consume less space (but they drain more battery).
  • You need a class 8 or better SD card. Anything less will result in problems in your video due to slow writing speed.
  • Remember that video recording also records sound. Do not say something that would be bad if heard again later.
  • Zoom less, and after zooming, keep the camera still before moving. This helps the eye to stabilize the video better.
  • When zoomed in far remember to pan the camera very slowly to avoid motion blur.
  • When back home, recompress your videos. Because PC CPU power is a lot more than the camera's, you get the same quality with much lower storage requirements.

Video is harder to do well than still shots, and bumpy recordings that cut abruptly from one scene to the next can be more disorienting than informative. Movie-editing software can help turn your raw footage into a slick presentation, but it's additional work after you get home. If you expect to show your collection to others, keep in mind that photographs are handier.

GPS[edit]

Most cameras now have an embedded GPS receiver which can be turned on or off. When on, it also saves the location within the JPG image. Keep in mind the following:

  • JPG image stores the GPS information with EXIF. It is only viewable using specialized software.
  • Your battery will drain way faster.
  • Most cameras have GPS turned on by default. Be sure to turn it off if you do not want it.
  • GPS signal might not be available when you need it. GPS relies on satellites position, your location, how much of the sky is visible from the camera etc.
  • Remember that EXIF is PROOF of where you have been. If you have enabled the GPS (or you are not aware it is on) and take a shot, the image can prove where you were. This might cause anything, from simple embarrassment to really serious trouble. For example, if you have been taking shots in North Korea where you shouldn't take them, a good police inspector can and may find where you took them.

Software[edit]

No matter how good your camera is, there's always room for perfection. Using specialized (and usually expensive) software can help you enhance your photos and videos.

For more, see Software for travellers.

Respect[edit]

Be aware that people in other cultures may view being photographed differently from you. In some countries, it is illegal to take pictures of individuals without their consent. Some Brazilian indigenous groups, for instance, believe their souls are captured when they are photographed. Members of some religious sects (e.g. the Amish) consider having their picture taken an act of impious vanity, and although they may permit it they don't welcome it. Cameras may also not be welcome during some religious rituals, in certain religious buildings, or at certain cultural events. Such particular views on photography should always be taken into account when deciding whom, what, and when to photograph. When in doubt, it is always better to ask before taking a photo.

There are various situations in which flash photography may be inappropriate. Sometimes it will not be permitted, either to preserve a solemn atmosphere, or to protect antiquities from the damaging effects of bright light. Keep in mind that flash usually won't illuminate things more than a few meters away, so taking flash photos of the roof of a cathedral would be both distracting and ineffective. Flash also tends to spoil the natural appearance of the things you're trying to photograph, and if the object is behind protective glass, then your camera may end up blinding itself with the reflection of its own flash. So if you can disable your camera's flash and shoot by natural light (holding the camera very steady to compensate for slow shutter speeds), it may very well be worth the effort.

Stay safe[edit]

Taking pictures during the hike

Photography equipment can be expensive and the pictures you've already taken at any point in your trip are effectively irreplaceable, so it's always wise to consider their safety when traveling. Besides theft and accident human-caused damage, natural issues like extreme heat and cold may have a significant impact on your equipment. If rain is likely, a weatherproof camera might be a good investment.

Don't flash your camera around any more than necessary. If you take it out of your bag, wrap the strap around your wrist a few times and hold it firmly in your hand. Walking around with an expensive SLR hanging from a neck strap is an invitation to motorcycle thieves. When walking in a city, keep not just the camera but also the bag holding the camera on the side of you facing away from the road. Brand-name camera bags advertise what's inside them. You may be safer carrying your camera in an old rucksack or even a shopping bag, perhaps padded with some clothes.

Avoid photographing government buildings (other than obvious tourist landmarks), military installations, or other plausible targets of political violence. In areas with ongoing military conflicts and/or heightened alertness for terrorism, this can get you unwelcome attention – or worse – from anxious security personnel.

Pose[edit]

Some people get their family or other travel companion(s) into every picture. Others focus exclusively on the places. Try to strike a balance. Including members of your group (especially if they're your kids) can add some fun and personality to your photos. But a litany of "Here's Stan standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. Here's Stan standing in front of Notre Dame. Here's Stan standing in front of..." can get tedious, not just to say but to look at. Try to capture your human subjects in the process of exploring the environmental subjects; a shot of Stan gazing into the sunset captures the experience better than him standing in front of it.

Similarly, share the camera, so that sometimes Stan is behind it and you get in some of the pictures too. Asking another camera-toting traveler to snap a picture of both/all of you (with your camera, not his), in exchange for returning the favor, helps to establish that you were in fact there together (though it puts you at the mercy of their ability to work your camera). Likewise, if you're traveling alone, either get someone to take a shot of you at various locales, or if that's not practical, at least try setting up a shot or two with a self-timer to prove to everyone that you really went there. Note that it's usually advisable to ask someone with a camera at least as expensive as yours - less of a temptation.

One of the most practical things to remember with a camera is that you are capturing "light". If you are photographing outside, make sure the sun is to your back. If you are shooting into the sun it will throw off the automatic settings on your camera and you will have a very dark image. The same applies to shadows. Sitting someone in shadows and standing in the light to photograph them will likely be disappointing. The same applies to inside photography. Taking a photo with an outside window in the frame will throw off the automatic settings and result in a dark image of what's in front of the window.

Photo Tour Companies[edit]

For those wishing to travel on a dedicated photography trip, there are companies that cater to this market. Photo tours and workshops allow interested photographers to travel to destinations with the primary goal of creating images. Some offer extensive photo instruction while others simply get you to locations where photography is exceptional. A few well established companies that offer a good mix of both, are Art Wolfe Photography, Luminous Journeys Photo Tours, and Jim Cline Photo Tours.


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