DON’T JUST STAND THERE AND SMILE (Tips on Travel, Scenic and Outdoor Photography)

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We all do it. I still do it. We stand prosaically with smiles plastered on our faces while someone snaps our photo in front of an amazing view, venerable historic site or some other destination we worked so hard to get to. We just want a record to say we were there. Such shots are important souvenirs of our time away, but you should be able to boast a collection that includes more impressive pictures.

Though a thorough list of tips would be inexhaustible, I offer some basics below:


  • When touring in the company of family or friends, have them take candid photos of you as you’re enjoying your outings. Informal pictures record the joy of a trip more accurately than posed ones. Helen has taken numerous candids of Tessi and me over the years. The ones where I’m wielding my camera are my favourites. They express the activity I revel in most during my travel time.
  • Instead of asking my subjects to pose, I like to grab a shot of them while they’re gazing out towards the scenery. I place them in the corner or lower half of the frame, with the view filling in the rest.
  • Give your fellow travellers a camera to use. They may come up with ideas you missed. Kids especially are generally uninhibited; their photographic creations tend to be quite unique. When Wayne’s son was young—but old enough to handle a camera—I’d often give him my old compact to explore with.

Take Advantage of Mornings

  • The first time Helen and I stayed overnight on an excursion, she dragged me out of my cozy bed to catch the sunrise in Tobermory (on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario)—almost an hour’s drive away from our campsite. Though rising had been a struggle, I was rewarded for the effort as soon as I spotted the sun’s rays bursting over the horizon to cast a warm glow on Big Tub Lighthouse. Now when Helen and Missy join us on our travels, I appreciate the early motivation.
  • Morning light also illuminates flowers and plants beautifully. Zoom in close or select the macro setting generally offered. Dewdrops sprinkled on the flowers add a special sparkle.
  • Too many people in a wide shot can make it look crowded and unattractive. I’ve noticed on our early morning jaunts, we usually beat most of the tourists to these destinations and avoid the issue, plus we can enjoy the sights peacefully by ourselves.

People, Wildlife and Scenery

  • Get away from the typical postcard type of picture, which customarily consists of sunny blue skies dotted with a few puffy clouds. Whatever the weather offers, you can work with it. Overcast days provide soft lighting, which is more pleasing on a subject than the harshness coming from an intense midday sun. I’ve even endured rain for the cause. The dampness brings out the richness of nature’s colour palette. (Make sure you protect your camera from the water, unless it’s an all-weather or water resistant type.)
  • One or two people, or wildlife, within the scenery add scale and convey its vastness.
  • Wildlife will rarely come close enough for you to manage a detailed shot, so consider using your zoom lens to close in on them. (I’m surprised at the number of people I’ve talked to that don’t.)
  • Use foliage to hide hydro lines or other undesirable and unmovable objects stuck in your view. I once stood on top of my car to avoid the fence surrounding the Cape Croker Lighthouse (in the Bruce Peninsula). While walking around after, I came across a bush that hid the fence perfectly and added dimension to the lighthouse.
  • To create a more compelling photograph, place your subject anywhere in the frame other than in the middle.
  • Horizons shouldn’t sit in the centre either. And watch for crooked ones, which I personally have difficulty avoiding. No matter how hard I try, my best shots of lakes, oceans and other water bodies end up with slanted horizons. Thankfully, I can easily straighten them in my photo editing program.

At Night

  • Many years ago, before I became a photographer, Wayne and I visited Niagara Falls. We took what we thought would be satisfying pictures of each other standing in front of the cataract at night. When I picked up the prints after getting the film developed, I was disappointed to see each of us standing in front of blackness. It seems like common sense now, but my biggest lesson learned at the time is that a flash isn’t going to light up the vast scenery behind you in the darkness.
  • On the other hand, city lights can be recorded sharply with your camera attached to a tripod—no flash needed, simply find the night scene setting usually offered. (If you’re into experimenting, try a combination of flash and tripod to include a person and the lit city. I notice my compact camera offers a setting for that, too.)

This and That

  • While judging your next posed shot, beware of background trees and poles that appear to be sticking out of heads.
  • Avoid litter, and clutter in general.
  • Reach past that standard postcard view, too, by varying exposures, trying assorted angles, vertical or horizontal, close-ups and wide angles and from different perspectives—kneeling down or climbing up. The convenience with digital is you can shoot lots and delete the duds.

To Obtain and Keep Those Treasures

  • Bring a generous amount of photo memory storage, especially if you often end up off the beaten path. For our Newfoundland trip, I thought I had plenty of memory space available. Then I ran out at the most inspirational place I’d ever been—the farthest northern point on the Northern Peninsula. We were many kilometres away from the nearest store.
  • Download or back up your photographs as you travel. Digital is awesome; nevertheless, it does fail. After we returned from our trip west, we were at the local beach. I pulled out my compact camera and found the memory card blank—trip pictures gone—and it wouldn’t allow me to add any to it. Luckily, I had already loaded the images to my laptop and a USB flash drive while on the road.

When I look at old photo albums, I value my standard I-was-there snapshots. Why? They confirm I was indeed there. But I do appreciate having so much more in my collection to help me remember those amazing places I’ve been able to visit.

(c) Cheryl Smyth, 2014


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