When I came home I was really surprised at the number of compliments I received on the photos I took/posted while abroad. I’d never considered myself a particularly good photographer (and still don’t), which goes to show that truly anyone can take great pictures. Here are some of my tips/tricks and tools:
1. Rule of Thirds
This rule refers to the composition of the picture and is photography 101 that will go a looooong way in improving your photos. If there is one thing to take from my tips/tricks this is it. Imagine the picture on a grid, divided up evenly into nine squares with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines – sorta like tic-tac-toe. The rule of thirds reasons that the best pictures result when the subject lies on these lines or within one of the four intersection of the lines. When the subject of a photo is centered exactly in the middle (both width and height-wise) it results in a boring floating effect. When the rule of thirds is applied, the photo is more interesting and for some deep-down biological reason it’s just more pleasing to the eye. I can’t explain it, but it’s true.
2. Centering and Symmetry
And now I’m going to talk about how I love to break the rule of thirds. I LOVE centered, balanced photos. They just make me happy. All feels right in the world. But there’s usually some element of the photo that still follows the rule of thirds. For instance, even if my subject is centered, the horizon or some important “line” within the photo lies within the top or bottom third of the photo. So when I say I like to “center” my subject, I’m usually referring to it being centered within the width of the photo, but not the height (or vis versa).
When initially composing your picture or when editing it, consider its framing. I like to frame my photos with something that runs almost the full height of the photo (can be on both sides or just one), but I generally like to include just part of whatever it is (a tree, wall, rock, whatever). I also consider framing a lot when taking a shot down a street, alley, corridor, etc. I like it to be evenly centered on both sides and I like there to be a consistent line that leads the eye, giving the picture depth.
Traditional posed photos like those my mother would take of me by the front door before my first day of school have no place in great travel photography. But purposefully snapping beautiful, “natural” looking photos can be difficult. I learned this trick from Lawrence – a Dutch guy I met while in Malaysia – and took it to the next level when traveling with Melanie (photo shoots with Mel were a daily thing).
I was in Kuala Lumpur and Lawrence, Selma and I were taking turns posing in front of the famed Petronas Twin Towers. I ran up onto the steps. flipped my hair, adjusted my dress, checked out my surroundings to be sure no one was behind/beside me and then said, “Ok, I’m ready!”
“It’s ok – I’ve already got it,“ Lawrence called back at me.
“What? Are you sure?” I asked skeptically.
And as I came bounding down the steps towards him he continued to snap. The results were of a natural, relaxed, in-the-moment me And I must say, it was beautiful.
Ever since then this has been my go-to method for taking great photos of people. Mess with your hair, look back or out into the beautiful landscape you’re in front of (because let’s be real, that’s the ACTUAL subject of the photo), laugh, turn around, enjoy the moment. Melanie was also a pro at this and often helped direct me when I clammed up, felt awkward and didn’t know what to do. “Margaret, no. Get your hand off of your hip. And stop looking at the camera.”
I would also snap secret photos of friends when I saw them really enjoying the moment – it’s when people look the most beautiful. And they loved them so much that they would do the same in turn for me. Sharing is caring ya’ll.
Adding people to your photos give perspective, context and personality. I honestly think this is the absolute best way to capture great landscape scenes.
Over the course of my time abroad I took more than 17,000 photos. I know, right?!? Like daaaaaaamn Gina! But in reality I probably have about 4,000 unique photos. I would take the same picture over and over, but with very small changes (slightly different angle or framing, which usually resulted in me squatting/laying on the ground or standing on a chair/stump/fence/etc.) Get up above, down below, and level with your subject to mix it up. This gave me lots of choices to pick from when I was eventually back in my hostel or on a bus doing some editing.
7. Ask for Help
Ideally you’ll be with friends who will not only put up with you dramatically swinging your hair and looking off pensively into the distance, they’ll straight up direct you to get the best photo. Shout out to Melanie!!! But when you’re traveling solo that is not always the case. You either have to resort to selfies (rarely the best pictures) or ask for help. So ask for bloody help. Wanting pictures of yourself in beautiful foreign pictures isn’t vain – you want to document it, to prove that you were there. Otherwise you could just do a Google image search and come up with the same lame landscape pic. Odds are they’d like you to take their picture as well, so you can take turns helping each other out and make a friend in the process. I looked for people who were trying to take similar photos to me because I knew they would compose the picture with care. As a general rule I avoided teenage-20s boys because they give zero fucks about you wanting a bombass pic for your Instagram and will take pictures of you from the MOST unflattering angles, resulting in double chins, small head/large body phenomenon, and lots of durp faces. Oh and nothing – and I mean NOTHING – will be centered as it should.
1. iPhone 6
My phone served as my camera for the duration of my trip. Phone these days take incredible photos so unless you’re well versed with a fancy camera I don’t think they’re all that necessary. I knew I wouldn’t take the time to learn everything about a nice camera and all of its capabilities would be wasted on me. Plus, it’s one more thing to lug around and another expensive item that can be devastating to loose or have stolen.
2. Mini Tripod
I bought a teeny tiny tripod that would hold my phone for taking time-lapse photos/videos and selfies when no one was around. I didn’t use it all that much to be honest, but it did come in handy a few times. Plus, it took up so little room and was so light that I found it was worth it.
3. Ollo Clip
The Ollo clip is another “add on” I brought that I rarely used. But when it did…. oh buddy did it produce some great results. It’s a small lens that snaps over the camera of your phone to take macro (close up) or wide angle photos. The main reason I used it so little is that you have to use it on a “naked” phone with no case. My case (LifeProof) was particularly difficult to remove so I just didn’t take the time to do it all that often.
This app was my bread and butter, and it deserves all the credit in the world for the quality of my photos. I used it for nearly every pic I posted. Now, I know that some people are opposed to filters saying that they make the photo look fake or portrays something different/better than it actually is. I couldn’t disagree more. I would find myself in the most incredible of places, anxiously snap a pic to capture the moment, only to be disappointed when I looked at the result. “My pictures don’t do this justice at all.” I said it time and again in some of THE most amazing places. I used the VSCO filter app to make the image look more like what I saw in real life. It was also a lifesaver for dark, shadowy photos because it allows you to play with the exposure, contrast, saturation, temperature, tint, and on and on. It really is an incredible tool and well worth the small cost.
Disclaimer: I think beautiful photos can be taken almost anywhere – it’s just a matter of training your eye to look for the right things. HOWEVER – and this is a big however – I found myself in some of the most beautiful, breathe-taking locations so I can hardly take all of the credit for the quality of my photos. When you’re in that lovely of a place, you just start snapping.