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How to Take Good Photographs

Self portrait

I’ve been receiving a few emails recently asking about travel and expedition photography. Although I am not a professional photographer and still consider myself very much a learner, I thought that I may be in a good position to help. I’m currently somewhere between a beginner and an expert so I can offer a few tips that might help a beginner, but are a bit simplistic for a proper, artistic photographer.

I have also written about how to film your expeditions here.

With a bit of patience, effort and imagination anyone can take excellent photos on their travels, a major advantage if you’d like to give talks about your experiences, write articles and blogs, or even sell your photos.

These tips will work for any camera, but you will need to boldly go beyond the Auto mode. If you have a point and shoot camera you can experiment with scenes such as Sports, Portrait, Night Portrait as well as forcing the flash to be either on or off, as the occasion demands.

If you are using an SLR camera you’ll need to play with the aperture (Av mode on Canons) and the shutter speed (Tv on Canons). I won’t venture into the scary world of Manual mode in this blog post! This article is designed as a try-it-and-see post rather than trying to teach you why or how things work.

For each example photograph you can click on the link beneath it in order to see all the geeky details of the photograph (shutter speed, aperture, focal length, ISO, and lots of stuff that I don’t understand).

Depth of Field

Often when you take a photo you want the viewer to concentrate on just one part of it. A good way of doing this is making the camera blur out the bits you’re not interested in. To do this you need to make sure that there is a big distance between what you want to be in focus and what you want to be blurred. On a little camera use Portrait Mode. On an SLR use the Aperture priority mode and twist the dial to get the smallest ‘f-number’ possible. You will also get a better effect if you use you lens as zoomed in as it can manage. Aim at the bit you want to be in focus and fire! This technique is often used for portraits.

Zig and Viv's wedding
detail

Dawn sunlight on autumn grass
detail

Shutter speed (Fast, Slow, Panning)

Use of the cameras shutter speed is more intuitive than use of the aperture (above). You can use it in three main ways.

1. To capture action use a fast shutter speed. On a compact camera use Sports Mode. On an SLR use the Shutter priority mode and twist the dial to get the smallest number (the display is showing fractions of a second) you can get before the display flashes unhappily (meaning that beyond that point it won’t be able to take in enough light to get a decent picture.) Aim at the fast-moving thing you want to capture and fire!

Greyhound crossing the finish line
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Jump
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Water ski
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2. A nice way of showing how fast something is moving is to use an effect called panning. Instead of holding your camera steady you use it to follow the moving object, pressing the shutter on the move. By experimenting with a slower shutter speed than in the example above you can get the thing you’re focusing on to be clear and sharp whilst all the background is blurry. This usually requires quite a lot of trial and error until you find a shutter speed that works for the particular scenario.

London taxis at night
detail

Smithfield Nocturne
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London cyclist
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3. If you slow the shutter speed right down then light is let into the camera over a longer period of time. The time can vary from fractions of a second right up to hours for photos of star trails through the night. You either need a tripod or to balance the camera somewhere and take the shot using the Self Timer mode so that you don’t make the camera wobble. Here are a few examples.

In the headlights
detail

A starry night's camp on Snowdon
detail

Circling Stansted and wishing I was home
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Iceland crossing - self portrait
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Carpe Diem
detail

Fill-in Flash

Our eyes are better than any camera. They can make sense of a scene in which parts of it are very light and others are dark. For example you can be indoors and simultaneously see objects in the room as well as the sunny garden outside. A camera is not so clever: it can either expose properly the light parts or the dark parts. It cannot do both at the same time.
A technique to get round this is called Fill-in Flash. It involves forcing the flash on your camera to fire to illuminate dark parts of your image. Even compact cameras can do this, either through forcing your flash to fire or by using the Night Portrait mode (which combines what you have just learned here about fill-in flash with what you learned above about using a long shutter speed to suck in more light. The flash lights the person in the foreground, the long shutter speed makes sure you can still see the Blackpool Tower in the background).
To keep this very, very simple do this: force the camera to fire, aim at the lovely sunset, press the shutter half way down so that the camera can get itself properly exposed for the bright sun, and then fire. The flash will ensure that your beloved in the foreground is nicely lit up, even though she is far ‘darker’ than the sunset behind her.
Counter-intuitively this is also a technique worth trying on very sunny days to reduce shadows or to stop a bright sky “blowing out” (looking white).

Mountain Biking
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Mountain Biking
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Merry Xmas
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Dancing girl
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Overexpose

Overexposing a photo means allowing in too much light. You can do this deliberately as in the examples below. Aim at the darkest bit of your picture, press the shutter half way down so that the camera will get itself properly exposed for the dark part, reposition your camera as you wish, and then fire. This is a great technique for making bright, dreamy shots.

Coffee
detail

Winter tree
detail

Husky Dog in the Arctic
detail

Underexpose

Underexposing a photo means allowing in insufficient light. You can do this deliberately as in the examples below. Aim at the brightest bit of your picture, press the shutter half way down so that the camera will get itself properly exposed for the bright part, reposition your camera as you wish, and then fire. This is a great technique for making silhouettes.

Self portrait
detail

Chiaoscuro on his skateboard
detail

And finally here are two techniques that veer away from camera technique towards composition and creative decisions. (Extra post: photography composition tips.)

Tight Shot

Don’t always take the ‘normal’ shot. Get in close, zoom right in, try to tell your story as much through what you leave out as what you include.

Swoosh
detail

Wide Shot

Don’t always take the ‘normal’ shot. Stand back, get up high, get down low, be imaginative.

Flying a kite
detail

Late night on the Underground
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Shadows
detail

Was this article helpful? Would you like to know anything else? Post a link to a photo in the comments and I’ll do my best to explain how it was taken. Or do you know a lot more than me? If so please do leave your own tips in the comments as well.

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Comments

  1. Brilliant photographs chap, you always take great photos!

    Reply
  2. Professional simply means that someone makes a living out of something. It has nothing whatsoever to do with ability or talent. Although you haven’t added a commercial direction to your photography (by choice), it’s obvious you have ability and talent in bucket-loads. Looking through this collection of your work, I find my usual irritation with ‘amateurs’ diluting the professional photo industry having no grounding at all.

    Reply
  3. Thanks Alistair. I am really a big fan of your blog.
    Super tips that will go a long way! Look forward to more.

    Reply
  4. Al, thanks i always admire your energy to learn and to teach. How lazy am i. I?m about to sell my heavy camera stuff and travel more lightly as i feel i never got into this whole photographing thing. It just feels pain in my knees…

    Maybe i reconsider, read your tips again, start doing something to improve, rather than to to give up……

    Thanks for the other post too.

    Jukka, from wet and cold US

    Reply
  5. Gavin Davies Posted

    Awesome post Al, and a nice compliment to your compositions post from a while back. Will come in handy for the 365 project! Messing about with a mate’s 450D now too. Loads of fun. Cheers!

    Reply
  6. Raph Taylor Posted

    Nice pics Al, and sound advice to boot.

    Much like reading your books; you tell it only like you know it, and offer it as simple advice…

    Do you always carry an SLR when you travel?

    The results are worth it, but the weight can be a bother – I travelled to Whistler in Canada about 8-9 years ago, and lugged along my old 35mm Canon Eos5 and a bunch of lenses, flashguns and bits, as well as a bag of snowboards and clothes for a season: it was bad enough going through airports, train/bus stations etc I can’t imagine doing the same on a proper adventure with tent and equipment to carry along too.

    I have an SLR, and use it for getting the better shots, but recently bought a Canon G12, which is far more portable, and offers many of the functions of my SLR, and so far I have had some really good shots from it: and still learning all the things you can do with it!

    Reply
  7. Great tips, Alastair! I just got a point and shoot to take with me on travels, due to my fears my own clumsy-ness would cause certain destruction to any DSLR. The camera takes some great pictures, but these tips for those of us who don’t want to rely on ‘auto’ are fantastic! I can’t wait to go out and experiment.

    Reply
  8. Hi Alistair,

    Sound, clear advice, thanks. I’ve had a DSLR for just over a year now (Olympus E-520) and although I love taking photos and have taken a few good shots, I struggle with camera manuals/books and all the technical jargon. Pleased that you consider yourself not-a-professional, but I have to disagree as these photos are ace.

    Cheers.

    Reply
  9. Such a useful blog post. Just bought a very good compact camera for my travels and trying to learn enough to get some great shots without trying to become a pro.
    Really looking forward to the meet-up tonight btw 🙂

    Reply
  10. A special thanks for this bit of encouragement:

    With a bit of patience, effort and imagination anyone can take excellent photos on their travels.

    I took it to heart. I’ve never been a creative type but, just as you said, with a little patience and effort I’ve improved my photography.

    Really appreciate all your tips.

    Reply
  11. A *brilliant* article Al, nice one.

    Reply
  12. John Hanna Posted

    you are really professional, amazing photo. wish one day to take pic like your’s,

    Reply
  13. Brilliant article that gives all the essential points. Will definitely be sharing this one!

    Reply

 
 

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