You’re in a new place and you are very excited to go take some photos. You are ready to go. You’re eager - hyper, even (ok, maybe that’s just me). You have all your gear in your bag - including your tripod - and your batteries are charged up. You even have extra memory cards just in case (right?). It’s all done, so you head out the door.
You arrive at your destination and immediately start firing away. That’s all good, right?
I’ve done this wrong so many times I can’t even count them. It’s very easy and normal to get all excited about where you are and what you are looking at that you may overlook the very basics before you even get started. Excitement takes over and logic and planning take a back seat.
Sadly, overlooking some of those basics can have a profound impact on the photos you end up with.
While I still do things wrong many times, I try hard to remember these 5 things before I head out and shoot:
1.) Do your research
Google is your friend, as are countless other resources you can find on the internet. I always do a lot of research before I go to a new place (heck, even when I return to places I have shot before). In fact, I have a bunch of lists here on the blog showing you countless great spots in multiple cities. Or use someone else’s list if you prefer. The point is to dig in a little ahead of your trip and see what you can unearth. Each place, no matter how “bland” on the surface, has a wealth of photo opportunities to offer. Chances are someone has been there before you and shared it. Why not put their experience to work for you? Once you get there, you can find your own take on it (more on that in #4 below).
2.) Check your camera settings
Oh man, this is a big one isn’t it? I am very prone to losing all thought due to excitement over what/where I am shooting. If I am in Paris and see something (ok, really anything there gets me fired up!), I just start shooting without any other thought in mind, including my camera settings. It’s usually later that I happen to look at them, and then it’s too late (thankfully, some of those things you can correct later - but not all).
For example, the big one for me is my ISO setting. Just the other day I was firing away and 10 minutes later realized my ISO was too high. Thankfully I was still in the same place and could easily redo some of the shots (and the light change was minimal). The other one I hear about is whether you are set to record RAW or JPG files. I have heard of photographers going through an entire shoot in JPG when they meant to be shooting RAW. Oops.
Bottom line - turn on the camera and check your settings, before you even step outside!
3.) Figure out where the light is coming from
Most people, to the extent that they do plan, have the intent to capture sunset at a particular place (which is why I prefer sunrise, because it’s much less crowded, usually). So they may have a mental vision of a stunning sunset behind, say, Big Ben in London. But what if the sunset isn’t behind Big Ben? What if the light is coming from a completely different direction?
One thing I do for my trips to European cities like London (being so big and sprawling, and so full of a multitude of subjects) is to print out a map and mark all the spots I want to go see. This has the added value of giving you an idea which direction is which. In other words, you can easily tell where West is if you are looking at a map. When you are standing there it’s much harder, at least for me. That way you can get a sense of where sunset or sunrise is likely going to be best, instead of showing up and being disappointed.
There is also a great app known as The Photographer’s Ephemeris that can do this for you!
4.) Focus on composition
Composition is key in photography - we all know that. But how much time and effort do you put into making sure yours is “good”? There are general guidelines for better composition (I hate to call them rules because I think it’s great to experiment and not follow the rules all the time) such as the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio. Understanding and utilizing these can be very helpful and can make the difference between a so-so photo and something that really leads the eye.
But as I said above, don’t hesitate to experiment and find something that is truly yours. We have all seen a million pics of The Eiffel Tower, for example, and while we want to capture the classic view, I think we are better served to also spend time looking for a different view that, while maybe not totally original, isn’t the same shot everyone else always takes.
Here’s perhaps the biggest one: go enjoy yourself. You’re in a far-flung place you’ve never been to, and have always dreamed of visiting. Yes, you want to capture great photos - and you will - but don’t forget to enjoy the experience. It’s easy to get too focused on the photo-making (pun only somewhat intended) and forget that the trip is a life experience. It’s bigger than the photo itself. Don’t be overly militaristic in your approach. Be flexible. Go with the flow. Take a moment, at least briefly, to step back and soak up the scene. It’s a beautiful place, and while taking home great photos is a huge deal to us, I believe it’s equally important to take home great memories.
Well folks, thanks for reading through and for stopping by. Remember to calm down and slow down before you start firing away indiscriminately. It’s easy to get all fired up because, HEY YOU’RE IN LONDON! or HEY YOU'RE IN PARIS!, but I think you will get better photos and enjoy the trip more if you use these guidelines.
Have fun out there, be safe, and go make some memories.