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Using content to increase the visual impact of your travel photos

May 17, 2011

- Words and images by Richard I’Anson

Good compositions leave no doubt as to the subject of the photograph. A good way to start is to fill the frame with your subject. This helps to eliminate unnecessary or unwanted elements and overcomes the common mistake of making the subject too small and insignificant, which leaves the viewer wondering what the photo is supposed to be of. Often just taking a few steps towards your subject or zooming in slightly will make an enormous difference.

What you leave out of the frame is just as important as what you leave in. Do you really want power lines running across the facade of the most beautiful building in the city? It’s fine if you do, but not if you didn’t notice them in the first place. Scan the frame before pressing the shutter release, looking for distractions and unnecessary elements. If you have a depth-of-field button, use it to bring the foreground and background into focus, which will help you spot unwanted elements.

Life Guard, Puri, India: What you leave in or out of your frame is another simple but powerful creative tool at your disposal. In a crowded situation such as Puri Beach just before sunset, a quick way to cut out distractions behind your subject is to lower your viewpoint and use the sky as a background. You have an instant, even-coloured and clean background. DSLR, 24-70mm lens at 48mm, 1/125 f3.5, raw, ISO 200.

Framing

Framing subjects is a common practice, but if not executed well it can actually weaken a composition. This is often the case when it’s just something on one or two sides of the composition, such as tree branches, whose only achievement is to draw the viewer’s attention away from the main content of the shot. The framing device must have some relevance to the subject and lead the viewer’s eye to the point of interest. Remember, the element being used to frame the composition is not the subject, so it shouldn’t be so overpowering in colour or shape that it competes for the viewer’s attention with the actual subject.

Market on Gunduliceva Poljana, Dubrovnik, Croatia: Although the framing device is not directly connected to the subject, framing the view from a window is something we can all relate to. In this case it offers a strong sense of the travel experience; the thrill of waking in a new place to discover that what was a deserted square the night before is the town’s focal point every morning. And you’re right there! 35mm SLR, 24-70mm lens at 24mm, 1/60 f8, Ektachrome E100VS.

Horizons

Keep horizons level. This doesn’t just mean that line far out at sea. It means all horizontal lines, such as the base of buildings, window frames, table tops etc, that should be parallel to the ground; they should be kept at zero degrees.

If you’re going for a deliberate angled look make sure it looks deliberate by tilting the camera’s axis off-centre by at least 30 degrees. Otherwise it can look more like a mistake.

Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, St Ignatius Church and old town at dusk.

Some subjects look best framed vertically, others horizontally. In this case it works both ways, which is actually often the case. Photographers routinely look to create horizontal and vertical compositions of the same subject to give them and their clients fl exibility in how the images can be used. The vertical is perfect for use on a cover, the horizontal perfect for a double-page spread. If you’re not sure, and you’ve got time, take both and you can consider your preference later. 35mm SLR, 70-200mm lens, 1/125 f11, Ektachrome E100VS, tripod.

Orientation

Consider whether the subject would look best photographed horizontally or vertically. Camera orientation is an easy and effective compositional tool and often a quick way of fi lling the frame and minimising wasted space around the subject. It feels much more natural to hold the camera horizontally, so it’s not surprising that people forget to frame vertically. Start by framing vertical subjects vertically.

Scale

To emphasise the vastness of a landscape, the bulk of a landform or the height of a building, include elements that are of a familiar size in your composition to add a sense of scale that is clearly understood. Place the element in the middle distance and use a standard to telephoto lens for best effect.

If the subject is too close to the camera and you use a wide-angle lens, perspective will be exaggerated. The subject will appear far bigger than the background elements, and all sense of scale will be lost.

If you’re using people to show scale, ensure that they’re looking into the scene. This will lead the viewer’s eye to the main subject rather than to the edges of the composition.

Mingyong Glacier, China: The inclusion of the umbrella-carrying visitors on the boardwalk alongside part of the 12km-long glacier gives a hint at just how vast it is. 35mm SLR, 24-70mm lens, 1/60 f8, Ektachrome E100VS.

Mt Thamserku, Nepal: Trekkers silhouetted against Mt Thamserku add a sense of scale and human interest to the landscape. It’s not hard to get your trekking friends to pose when the opportunity presents because everyone loves a hero shot like this. The trick to seeing the image is to walk some distance behind, but not so far that they can’t hear you yelling for them to stop. If you’re at the front of the group you just won’t see the potential. 35mm SLR, 24-70mm lens, 1/125 f11, Ektachrome E100VS.

Richard I’Anson talks about photographing iconic images.

Lonely Planet images discusses what camera gear to bring on the road.

Read these insightful tips on editing images in Lightroom.

Get all the great hints and tips on travel photography from Richard I’Anson’s latest book.

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