If you are a serious photographer, you are reflecting each and every shot. You are planning it. You are studying the subject from every possible direction to find the unique original angle and composition. You are choosing the time of day wisely to get the perfect light. You may even come back several days in succession to get that magic moment where everything comes together and you get the dream shot, the shot that ends every discussion about that very subject, the shot after which nobody will ever attempt to shoot that subject again because they know that you where there.
Did I characterize you correctly? No?
Ok, I see! You are a guy that has normal holidays with his wife (or husband) and maybe a bunch of kids. Somebody who likes to take guided tours through foreign countries and happens to have his/her camera with him/her. BUT you still have the ambition to take great shots that are worth presenting.
Does that sound familiar to you? Then I may have some useful tips for you.
You frequently find yourself in situations that simply do not allow for planning “the perfect shot” While the serious photographer takes hours to get the shot, you only have seconds. You are rushing after your guide, already last in the group. Your wife (or husband) is already throwing that come-here-now look at you, and you discover that lovely sight. Wonderful light, great colors. You know that this will be your one and only chance to take this shot. If only you had 15 minutes… or maybe only 5. That would be all it takes to shoot the photo of your life. Here you are with about 5 seconds left. How do you get the best out of this situation??? The question in this situation is not whether you get the perfect shot. The question is whether you get the best shot under these circumstances. There are ways of getting the shot and of maximizing the result as I will show you below.
Having the right gear can help you a lot with your effectiveness and speed. Here are some things that you may want to think about. Be aware though, that every photographer is different when it comes to gear. You should experiment and develop your own strategy.
Tip 1: Get a camera with good low-light capabilities. Shooting in low light is one of the most difficult and at the same time most frequent exercises. When you go to a foreign City, you will most likely visit its churches as they are usually a very good subject to shoot: Great colors of paintings and statues etc. and the low light adds a special atmosphere. However, you will probably not be allowed to set up your tripod in most cases. Moreover, there will be little space and time and so much to shoot. That’s when you need a camera that performs good in low-light situations. What does that mean? Stepping up the ISO sensitivity and opening the aperture is the only way to get decent shutter speeds in low-light. Therefore, you need a camera that allows for high ISO values while keeping the noise low. Moreover, you need a lens that is still reasonably sharp at a wide-open aperture. I use a Nikon D7000 that produces very low noise at high ISO values.
Tip 2: Use a monopod. A solid tripod is definitely the best solution for high image quality and comes in very handy for panorama shooting (together with a panorama head). However, on the kind of travel discussed here, it is barely usable. First, setting it up takes a lot of time. Second, in those places where you need it (churches, temples, museums – any place with low light) you are often not allowed to use it. In these situations (as well as for panorama shooting) a monopod can be extremely helpful. It provides more stability than shooting handheld, it is quick to set up and use, it is allowed in most places, and it gives you a base of making a quick panorama with a proper panorama head. Practice using it! You will get better quickly and get the extra stability that allows you to take decent shots in low-light situations.
Tip 3: Get the right panorama head. If you are interested in panorama photography, then you may have learned that for a proper panorama, you need a tripod and a very expensive 3 Kg panorama head for €700. Well, of course this gets you the perfect panorama, if you have 30 minutes setup time and a strong wife that can carry your gear for two weeks straight under extreme climate conditions. But it is not what I want to take on my travels. First of all, I use a monopod for most of my panoramas (normal and HDR). A monopod with an integrated leveler is all you really need. It gives you a point around which you can rotate the camera and keep it at the same height for every shot. Second, I use a very simple panorama head: a Kirk macro rail mounted on a simple tripod head. This gives you the possibility of adjusting the position of your camera and lens to the no-parallax point. Together with the monopod, it is light-weight and easy to carry.
Tip 4: Get an ultra-wide zoom lens. This tip has to be regarded with caution. An ultra-wide angle zoom (e.g. 10-20mm) produces images with a specific perspective with some perspective distortion. If you don’t like this, forget this tip. If you do like it, such a lens will give you an invaluable advantage: It puts you into the pole position. On my travels, I have hardly ever seen anybody with such a lens. This means that everybody else has to stay further away from a subject to get everything into their frame. You (if you happen to have such a lens) have to get really close. Thus, nobody will be between you and the subject, at least nobody with a camera. Such a lens is also perfect for panoramas!
Tip 5: Get the right lens bag. Unless you are using a single lens, you will have to change lenses for different shots. And you will have to do so quickly! I usually carry two lenses that cover the zoom range from 10 to 200mm. I have a small lens bag with a shoulder strap that takes these two lenses and some other equipment. This is light-weight, unobtrusive, and allows me to change lenses very quickly. Don’t get a camera backpack for such occasions. You will have to take it off, open it, take the lens out, put the lens back in, put it back on – way too much time!
Tip 6: Get the right camera strap. I use a self-made system similar to the Rapid-R Strap. This is really perfect for me. My camera is at my right hip not obstructing me in any way, and I can slide it up to my eye to a shooting position extremely quickly. When I put it back to its hip position, I have both hands free without something dangling in front of my chest.
Tip 7: Get a biiiiig memory card. The urge to save space on your memory card is the most detrimental thing for photography. It makes you do things like reducing the image quality, turning off the RAW images, not taking certain shots, deleting shots etc. If you use a modern DSLR with 12+ mega pixels, I recommend a 32GB memory card. Maybe you won’t need all that space, but it frees your mind! In fact, using all the techniques described below, I came close to the 32GB limit on some occasions, and I was happy to have a spare 16GB card in my pocket. In addition to having big memory cards, you should also take a small laptop with enough hard disk space with you when you are traveling. After each shoot, move the photos from the memory card to the laptop to archive them and to free the space on your memory card.
Tip 8: Get a small external hard drive as a backup, just in case. We all know that shit happens. If you incrementally copy all the images from your memory card(s) onto a single hard drive, this may not be the safest place. The laptop and/or hard drive may fail, it may get stolen, and you may lose or forget it somewhere. Get a cheap external drive and copy all the images from your laptop onto this drive to have a backup. You may either take it with you when you leave your hotel room, or you may put it into the safe at the reception or another safe place.
Speed and effectiveness are very much a matter of preparation. This is not only true with respect to your gear, but also for using it. Here are my tips for being prepared.
Tip 9: Know your camera setup. Since you normally work under some time pressure, you have to get your shots quickly. But still, your camera setup is vital for getting good results. Now, you could just bump your camera into auto mode and let it take all the decision for you. But since you are an ambitious photographer, that’s not what you want. You want to set the vital camera settings to decide the final outcome yourself. In order to be able to do that, there are two things you need: 1. decent knowledge about how a particular setting changes the result (basic photography knowledge – e.g. how the aperture influences the depth of field), and 2. a base setting from where you can operate. I will not tell you anything about no. 1. There are tons of pages on the Internet that do a good job with that. However, I want to emphasize the importance of no. 2: I always have a base setting on my camera that suits the given location. When I want to shoot a particular scene, this lets me quickly change the settings accordingly. After the shot, I change them back to the base setting. If you do not have such a base setting, you have to check and adjust the entire range of settings for every photo because you will probably not remember the most recently used settings. If you do have a base setting, you only need to change 1 or 2 things and then change them back immediately after the shot. I usually change the aperture, the ISO sensitivity, and the auto-bracketing mode (see below).
Tip 10: Have a steady hand. Especially if you are into multi-exposure techniques like panorama or HDR photography (or HDR panoramas for that matter) you have to take many single shots that are combined into one final photo. This can be between 12 and 30 shots sometimes. The more steady your hand is, the less problematic the process of combining these shots will be. Furthermore, in low-light situations (e.g. in a church) shutter speeds will be quite low. Having the ability to hand-hold very low shutter speeds (1/40 – 1/10 seconds) and still produce sharp photos is a definite advantage since you do not need a tripod or monopod each time. This can save you a lot of time and trouble with local authorities. Practice proper techniques of hand-holing shots before it counts!
When you are shooting, the most important thing is to produce material that gives you the flexibility of choosing the best shot and of improving the shots in post-processing as much as possible. The following tips allow you to maximize this felxibility.
Tip 11: Auto-bracket your shots. Most DSLRs have an autobracketing mode. However, most people don’t know what this is, how to turn it on and off, or how to use it. Basically, autobracketing means that your camera takes 3 or more shots when you press the trigger, each with a different exposure. I auto-bracket 90% of my shots. Why? Bacause this allows me to choose the best of the three exposures when I am selecting shots for post-processing. Furthermore, for scenes with a high dynamic range (big difference between the dark and the bright parts), you can later combine those three (or more) shots into a single one where all the areas are exposed well. This techniques is called HDR. Most cameras allow you to bracket different settings. You should bracket the shutter speed, not the apreture or ISO!
Tip 12: Shoot RAW (and JPEG). Especially beginners tend to switch off the RAW output of their cameras. RAW images take a lot of space and time to download, and you don’t really know what to do with them anyway. Right?… Wrong! I was like that too. Now, I wish I had taken all my shots in RAW format right from the start. RAW images contain all the information your camera captures while JPEGs are compressed. Some of the information gets lost in this compression. Especially, if you post-process your images, this lost information usually translates into notably lower quality of the final result. I am not going into the details of this here. I can only tell you: turn on the RAW output format on your camera! If you don’t know what to do with it now, just let the RAW files sit on your hard disk. Some day, you will be thankful that you have them. Additionally, you should turn on the JPEG output in highest quality. RAW images cannot be used before your run them through a RAW converter, and you do not want to do this with each and every shot you take just to view it and share it with others. So, let your camera produce both the RAW image and the compressed JPEG for each shot you take.
Tip 13: In critical situations, shoot multiple times. If you are in this fantastic church and there is this gorgeous golden ceiling that you would love to get a great shot of, take as many shots as possible. If you are taking a panorama or HDR shot, repeat the whole series of shots 2 or 3 times. Check the result on your camera display to see if the images (longest exposures) are sharp enough. If in doubt, shoot again. Sometimes you may also vary setting inbetween. This ensures that you have enough material to produce a high-quality photo. Chances are that you will only use 10-20% of all your shots. But who cares.
Tip 14: Have fun: There is one final tip that I had to include for two reasons: 1. to give you the right perspective again and 2. in order not to let this post end with a 13th tip (some people may be supersticious). This final tip is: Don’t let this whole thing stress you too much. Producing high-quaity images under pressure may seem to be stressful. But it should be fun. Enjoy your time wherever you are on the planet.