I like taking photos and I want to create visual memories of my life and travels. While I truly recognize and admire the talent and knowledge that professional photographers are able to create with their art, I have no aspirations to that level. That doesn't mean that I don't want to improve. On the contrary, I am always looking at ways that I can improve my minor photographic talents however my main goal is that my photos are clear, interesting and share my experiences in an aesthetically pleasing way. This post is intended for beginners with equally modest goals. With today's technology, taking clear images has never been easier. Our phones and cameras can automatically focus and adjust to different lighting techniques without any effort from the user. Pre-sets are available to create more vivid sunsets and soft-focus portraits. Both include advanced settings with more precise options for photographers wanting more control.
Camera or Phone?
As a strict amateur, the equipment to choose is whatever works for you and your budget. For many, our phones work well. The quality of images and available functions are remarkable. No additional equipment is needed. The device is small and lightweight. As phone camera quality improves, more and more amateurs are choosing to use phones phone as their primary cameras.
I use a Nikon DSLR mainly because I like bird and wildlife photography and I want to be able to use a telephoto zoom lens to get detailed photos. Fancy DSLR cameras are expensive and every additional lens or accessory is an additional expense. They take up more space, tend to be heavy and attract the attention of thieves. However, there is generally greater versatility and range of options and adjustments for more knowledgeable users.
Whether using a phone or camera, it's pretty easy to take clear photos. Our phones and cameras automatically adjust lighting and focus as we capture the image. For most of us to improve our travel shots, we need to focus on the way the image "fits" the space... which is much different than the space in which we are actually viewing the scene.
When taking travel photos, we can often be entranced by the view in front of us but the photos don't convey what we want. An interesting view is one that hasn't been seen before or is being seen in a new way. Look for reflections, patterns, shadows, or a portion of the view. Cut out extraneous detail in your image by using closer focus. Seek out details unique to the area you are visiting -- door handles, lamp posts, street signs etc. Take wide shots for overall impressions.
Include people in your photos to help provide culture, context, and scale. Take more candid shots of people than posed shoots. Make sure if a person is your main subject that they are the majority of the photo. Have your travel companion stand closer to you and further from the background to promote them, move your model further away for the opposite effect.
Don't forget to get some photos of yourself on your travels, too. This can be accomplished in several ways: the good ol' selfie via your phone (I've yet to master this), learning to use the timer function, or ask a travelling companion. I've found that when I offer to take a photo for someone struggling to take a selfie, they almost always offer to take one in return. You may not appreciate photos of yourself (now) but your friends and family want to see you.
Unrelated to better photos but very much related to travel photography -- take pictures of the signposts in front of the landmarks, buildings, and sites -- not because they are particularly interesting (although sometimes they are!) but because you will forget the name or spelling and it will help you to organize your photos after you return home from your adventures.
For artists, composition refers to the way objects are arranged and framed. The best advice to improve photographic composition is to change position. By moving further to one side or another, a different perspective is seen or an unsightly element may disappear. A photo of a field of wildflowers taken while laying on the grass will be more interesting than a photo taken from a standing position.
Artists know that images are often more interesting when things are arranged using a design principle known as the rule of thirds. If you think of your image divided into a 9-square checkerboard pattern, objects would be placed along the outer horizontal and vertical sides. Instead of putting the subject in the middle, consider placing the subject slightly off-centre.
Another design element that helps create an interesting image is the use of leading lines. Leading lines are those lines that draw the viewer's eyes along train tracks, a wall, or a pathway to the subject or off into the distance.
Symmetry is when the different elements reflect or match each other -- mountains on either side of a lake, a city square, or trees framing a view.
Lighting/The Golden Hour
There are certain times of the day when the sun bathes everything in a gentle warm and flattering light. The best lighting is usually around sunrise and sunset during the "Golden Hour" when the light is more diffused with reds and golds and produces soft shadows.
The amount and style of editing you choose to do on your photos is a personal and aesthetic choice but even very minor edits can take a photo from "meh" to "wow". Professionals and keen amateurs can use complex programs which allow them to manipulate minute elements to enhance their artistic vision. Amateurs may not have the desire, knowledge, or software to do those kinds of edits but can use the existing software on their devices to make adjustments to improve our images. Through the advanced settings on your phone or camera, you can choose which file format your photos will use. More editing can be done with photos shot in larger RAW files than can be done with those shot in JPEG files but the JPEG files do allow the basic processing that most amateurs use.
The most basic processing may include cropping as well as colour and lighting adjustments. Once these have been mastered contrast, sharpness, exposure and other editing processes will allow for even greater control over the final image. All devices include editing software that include "filters" with pre-set edits but also include options for making your own choices.
Even if you choose to forgo most editing, learn to crop your photos. Cropping can be used to reposition your subject and remove distracting or extraneous elements to improve the overall composition.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The absolute best way to learn how to take better photos is to take a lot of photos and the best way to learn how to edit your photos is to edit lots of photos. Take multiple photos of the same subject, changing settings, positions, and focus points. Edit a favourite photo in multiple ways.
As you take and edit more photos, you'll develop your "photographer's eye" and discover the elements that please your aesthetic sense.