On being a tourist…

Being a photographer, I have quite a few friends across the UK and abroad who also happen to be photographers and occasionally come to visit.  We hang out and go photograph the various historic and other attractions around Lancaster, or perhaps arrange a model and find some fancy location.

I always find it interesting watching how other photographers tackle locations and situations that are new to them and apply their craft to overcome problems that pop up, locations taken for granted by the locals, and it often helps me see things with a fresh pair of eyes.

After a recent visit from a fellow photographer, and some conversations with a couple of other folks I know, I wanted to post up a few tips to help you get better photographs when you’re out and about and doing the tourist thing with your camera.

Always be respectful to the location you’re shooting, the people that may work there as well as the other members of the general public who have just as much right to be there as you do.  You may find yourself entering somewhere that photography is prohibited, whether by company policy (and on private property they can lay down whatever rules they wish) or by law (such as the tour of Lancaster Castle‘s court rooms).

Some locations may permit photography, but not allow flash.  Others may not allow tripods.  So, if a location doesn’t allow the use of tripods or flash, just don’t use them.  Sometimes, if you approach the staff and ask nicely, if it’s not too busy, they make an exception.

Try different angles.  This is one you often hear people repeat, but it is for good reason.  Why would you go to an amazing location just to shoot the same photographs that everybody else has shot a thousand times before?  It’s like watching repeats of TV shows that nobody liked the first time around.  Look for unique viewpoints that others might not have noticed.

Try a different focal length.  Have you seen a lot of photographs of a location using a really wide lens?  Try photographing it with a longer lens and pick out some of the details.  Or, vice versa, if you commonly see people have picked out a particular detail in their photographs of a location, go wide and give it some environmental context.

Look for interesting things, and they’re not always the obvious things.  A location may have been around for 500 years, but the random position and posture of another member of the general public within the environment could make it a one time event, never to be repeated.

Don’t be afraid of shooting high ISO.  The image at the top of this article, of Lancaster Priory, was shot at ISO1600 to allow my shutter speed to become fast enough that I could handhold the camera without it becoming blurred by the motion of my hands.

When a location doesn’t allow for flash, this may be your only option.  Even if a venue does allow flash, that flash might ruin the whole mood of the shot if it’s just perched on top of your camera.

Use a tripod, in locations where you are allowed to.  Using a tripod helps you to slow down and allows you to put more thought into the composition of your shot.  It also allows you to repeat your shots if your scene gets disrupted by a stray tourist (we can’t always direct the people in front of our lens!).

Use a remote release, whether wired or wireless, if you are in a location that allows the use of tripods, and you need to use a tripod because of the lower light levels, or simply to aid composition, a camera release will help to prevent any movement of the camera and result in a sharper photograph.

Try different times of day, even indoors.  If you have the opportunity to do so, revisit the location at different times of the day.  Even indoors, sunlight could be blasting through a window which ruins your shot.  Coming back a few hours later could mean the sun is shining through an entirely different window (or not at all) lighting your scene beautifully.

Outdoors, high or low contrast depending on whether it’s clear blue skies or one big fluffy white cloud (or even grey) can be the difference between grabbing a casual snapshot and making an image to be proud of.  If the light doesn’t look so great, try to come back at a different time of day to see if it improves.

LOOK BEHIND YOU! No, there isn’t somebody about to creep up on you, but if you only ever watch where you’re going instead of where you’ve just been, you can miss an awful lot.  Turn around, look behind you, you might be surprised at what you see!

Pack Light.  No matter where you go, generally speaking you don’t want to be carrying around a mountain of gear with you.  There’s no point taking half a dozen lenses you probably won’t use, or a bunch of flashes and light stands you probably won’t be allowed to use anyway.

I find that 35mm and 50mm lenses will generally cover most situations you may face, and provide a much better level of quality than the low end 28-300mm super zooms you can buy ,as well as having much better performance in low light situations.  If, however, you already know in advance that you want to make a very specific shot that requires a certain lens or other item of equipment, just take what you know you will need and are able to use.

Oh, and don’t forget to pack your battery charger and lots of memory cards.

So, I hope this helps and gets you thinking a little more about the shots you get when you go away on holiday, or just wandering around your local town or city with your camera.