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Taking Great Travel Photos

St. Nicholas Cathedral in St. Petersburg, image
Photo caption
At midnight in July the light still shines on St. Nicholas Cathedral. In the background, you can see Saint Isaac's Cathedral.

It's exciting to have film developed after a fabulous trip, but it's depressing to pull prints out of the envelope and find they are drab, artless, overexposed, under-exposed, out of focus, or just plain ruined. The following list of tips for amateur shutterbugs on how to produce good travel pictures comes from three professional photographers: Catherine Karnow, whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian; Roberto Soncin Gerometta, who's contributed to Elle and Sunset; and Robert Holmes, who shoots for Islands and National Geographic.

Be prepared

Bring a spare camera, if you must come home with snapshots. "I did drop a camera once in Siena, Italy, and luckily I had my spare camera with me," Gerometta says.

Carry spare batteries. "It's very important to carry spare batteries, especially if your camera takes exotic batteries [not the standard AA], which are often hard to find," says Gerometta, who estimates that batteries die after taking anywhere from 15 to 30 rolls.

Check your camera thoroughly before you leave on a trip. Make sure everything works-even the spare batteries. Holmes says that when he was on assignment in Algeria, the batteries for his flash ran out and his spare batteries were bad. "There was only one battery factory in Algeria and they were on strike at the time," says Holmes, who was forced to photograph a night wedding at a little oasis in the Sahara by the light of rifle fire. "They were unusable, but interesting," he says of the results.

Take plenty of film. You may not be able to find more when you need it, or you may pay an exorbitant price. Holmes paid $18 a roll in Barbados, when he usually pays $6. Also, Holmes says the film you purchase in foreign countries is often old or damaged, especially in tropical locations where heat and humidity can ruin the film.

Protect your equipment

Never leave your camera in the sun or in your car's glove compartment. "Heat warms your camera up and it can cook the film," Gerometta says. "Heat changes the color balance of film, especially slide film."

Never leave your camera unattended, even if it's locked in your car. "I always take my cameras with me, even if I leave the car for five minutes," Gerometta says. "It only takes someone a few minutes to break into your car."

Beware of X-ray machines.Holmes warns that you should never put film in checked baggage. "Some airports have high-powered machines that X-ray checked baggage, and they don't even let you know they're doing it," he says.Also, even though the X-ray machines for carry-on bags typically don't ruin film with a single pass, Holmes says the effect of X-ray machines on film is cumulative. Several passes through a machine can destroy film. "I always try to have them hand check my carry-ons," he says.

Take perfect pictures

Always look for beautiful natural light. The best natural light usually occurs right before, after, and during sunrise and sunset. Gerometta says it's always worth rising early in the morning, as he did when photographing Death Valley. "This was one of the most spectacular places I've taken photographs," Germotta says. "The same landscape was so different every three or four minutes. The colors kept changing. It would go from beautiful to more and more beautiful."

People enhance photos. "I always put people in my pictures," Karnow says. "Not only does it give a sense of scale, which is imperative even for any landscape photography, but it helps to give a sense of place. Plus, it's a great way to meet people and interact with locals."

Don't be shy about photographing the locals. "Most people in most cultures are flattered to be asked to be photographed, contrary to what you may hear," Karnow says. "I always ask people first. Approach people gently with a warm smile and ask or gesture if you may take their picture. I never pay people unless it is a major photo shoot, but I always buy something from them if they are selling something. I also make a point of acting very appreciative, grateful, and happy about the whole thing, even if it was just for a minute."

Move in closer. Most photographs can be improved by filling the frame with the subject. "The biggest mistake most amateurs make is to take a photo from far away," says Holmes, whose up-close shot of a showgirl was used on the cover of a Las Vegas photography book. "To make it a strong image, I just shot the woman's body and cut off her head," he says. "I got the cover because it's an up-close shot, which makes it a symbolic and stronger image."

Photography courtesy of Herbert Ortner/Wikipedia

This article was first published in January 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.