10 Tips For Inexpensive Travel Photography

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Transform your photos from awful to awesome

Have you ever wondered why some travel photographs consist of headless torsos, blurred landscapes, red-eyed monsters, and corners with fuzzy thumbs, while other travel pictures look like a professional spread from Budget Travel? The key to taking better travel photos is not a more expensive camera or the latest high-tech gadget. It's in eliminating "dumb" approaches and errors. You can produce eye-popping travel photos (without imploding your budget) by cutting down on stupid mistakes, developing an artistic eye, making the most of your equipment, and following the Ten Terrific Tips of Inexpensive Travel Photography. What's more, you can produce great snapshots with a camera that is easy to operate and costs no more than $50, often less. The camera I used in researching this article was a 35mm "point and shoot," a simple Minolta Freedom 35R-FF that cost me about $30 and has extra features called "Focus Free Lens" and "Red-Eye Reduction." Focus Free refers to a cheap plastic lens that does not zoom or need manual focusing-just about everything from four feet to infinity is already in focus. As for Red-Eye Reduction, that means the eyes of the people and animals you photograph won't come out with a creepy reddish glow. The camera can also read DX coding (virtually all modern cameras can), which means that the speeds of various films are automatically set when you load them into the camera.

Many people try to compensate for their lack of skill with a camera by purchasing expensive auto-everything models, only to discover they still get lousy photographs. If you are a beginning photographer with limited skills, you can get great photos with many simple point-and-shoot models in the $30-$50 range, which have all the features you're likely to need.

The best of the cheapest

Deciding which model to purchase can be a real headache, especially if you head for a photo shop where salespeople are more interested in their commissions than in helping you get the best bargain for your money. When looking for a good bargain point-and-shoot camera, the Internet can be a great tool. You can price and compare various models at Web sites like mySimon, Epinions, DealTime, and BizRate. With a few clicks you can price cameras in the $30-$50 price range and even purchase them online. Remember that most of the sites charge for postage and handling, so you need to learn the total cost before committing to buy. One really good bargain site for purchasing cameras is Overstock.com, where you can get deep discounts on surplus models (and free shipping).

And now: The 10 terrific tips

1. Get closer!

Not getting close enough to the subject is the most common mistake made by novice photographers. If you can't see the subjects' features well enough, it undermines the quality of the photograph. A good rule of thumb when using an inexpensive camera is to move a little closer to your subject than you feel is necessary. With inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras, what you see through the viewfinder when making the photograph is not exactly what you will see when the snapshot is printed. Also, don't try to get the whole world into your photos. A good head-and-shoulders shot with beautiful scenery in the background says more than a panoramic view with a stick figure waving back at you.

2. Always be aware of the range of your flash

Ever wonder why your snapshot of Wayne Newton onstage from row 27 didn't come out? The reach of your flash is, at best, only about five feet, so you can get a nifty photo of the people in the row in front of you, but not of the stage. You may want to take some sample shots using your flash to gauge the angle and range of the illumination.

3. Take more than one shot

Taking more than one photograph of the same subject is a veteran photographer's rule that applies to amateurs as well. Shoot two or three snapshots of the same subject, and at least one will be worth showing (granted, excessive overshooting can inflate your processing costs). Always try to be creative and vary your point of view.

4. Your landscape composition should include either more sky, more land, or more water

When taking scenic shots, the best compositions include lots of sky. When photographing water and sky, you can sometimes include more water in your composition. The old half-sky-and-half-land rule used by many amateur photographers often makes for unexciting snapshots. You can also vary scenic pictures by shooting them vertically rather than horizontally.

5. You should always vary the angle of your snapshots

Most portraits are shot at the level of the subject. Scenic photos shot from above or below often have a more vivid, original point of view that will produce truly unique photos. Try looking at art books and publications featuring travel photos to get a better idea of what makes an interesting composition.

6. Never show friends and neighbors your rejected photographs

If you want to be known as a good photographer, don't show every single snapshot you make. Most professional photographers show only their best photos, so why shouldn't you? Is anyone really interested in seeing a mediocre photograph? Trust me on this one.

7] When photographing strangers, please show courtesy and always ask them first-and say "please" and "thank you"

Many people don't like being photographed without prior permission. Others don't mind being photographed, but they would like a token of your appreciation. Common courtesy goes a long way here. You may find that a willing subject is a more photogenic subject.

8. When shooting outdoor portraits, make sure your subject is facing the sun

When you shoot a portrait of a person who has his or her back to the sun, you get a dandy silhouette. If you use your flash as a "fill in" light when shooting against the sun or when shooting in deeply shaded areas, you can save many of your snapshots from the trash can.

9. Move your darn fingers

More snapshots have been ruined by photographers' fingers blocking the lens than by overexposure and underexposure combined. This common problem can be solved if you take a moment to observe and think.

10. Make certain your camera has film in it, is loaded properly, and has an uncovered lens

You'd be surprised to know just how many people fail to load their camera properly or load it at all. Many fumble-fingered types get frustrated loading a 35mm camera. If you are one of these people, go to a camera shop and ask the salesperson how it's done. Many shots are also lost due to the photographer's failure to uncover the camera's lens. Also, every camera has a small clear plastic window on its back where you can see the brand and speed of the film you're using. If you don't see numbers and bright colors in the little window, you probably don't have film in your camera. Lastly, make certain you know how to rewind and remove the film when you have used up your roll.

Some final bargain pointers

Use high-quality film and don't cut corners with cheap film processing. And remember that you can save a little more money by purchasing your Fuji or Kodak film at Costco or some other reputable discount chain. You can also find good film-processing by contacting your local camera club to see where its members process their own film.

Which speed film to use? You can't go wrong with either 200-speed or 400-speed film. The 200-speed is a good all-purpose film for outdoors and indoors when using a flash. When shooting under overcast conditions or snapping action shots, 400-speed film is better.

When practicing the Ten Terrific Tips and working to keep the "dumb" out of your photographs, you will meet with few setbacks in your learning. If you stick with the program, your travel photos can be transformed from awful to awesome, and you can also have the satisfaction of knowing you saved money in the process.

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