Some simple tips to help you prepare for the holiday season.

While it’s tempting to buy a new camera just before you leave for a holiday, we would counsel against it. You’ll be far better off travelling with equipment you know really well.

Buying a new camera as you’re about to set off on a trip is risky. Any problems in manufacturing are likely to show up within the first few weeks of use (and you may not get warranty support off-shore). You need to be able to return faulty gear to the distributor ““ and obtain a replacement ““ before you leave home.

You also need time to familiarise yourself with new equipment ““ and that includes reading any user manuals supplied. Don’t plan to read it on the plane or cruise ship; you simply can’t get to grips with complex gear in such a short time.

If you’re going on a special trip this year and want to come home with memorable photos (and, videos, if you take them), here’s a list of things you can do to make successful holiday pictures more likely.

1. Pack your camera bag carefully.

Simplify your equipment to keep your bag light for maximum manoeuvrability. While there’s no reason not to take a DSLR, compact and mirrorless cameras take up less space and are less conspicuous than a DSLR kit with a couple of lenses. They’re also useful as back-up cameras.

DSLRs owners should consider lens choices carefully and decide whether they can accept the compromises imposed by a body+extended-range lens or if an 18-55mm plus 55-300mm combo is preferable. Unfortunately, the longer a lens’ zoom range the more its performance is compromised. However, good pictures are still possible with a body+extended-range lens combo.

Maximum apertures are smaller so you lose the ability to take available-light shots in dim lighting. Edge softening is also common. On the plus side, all-in-one zooms are usually lighter and take up less space in your camera bag. And if it’s left on the camera, you are always ready to shoot. There’s also no risk of dust entering the camera because you never change lenses.


An example of a situation where an all-in-one zoom lens proved useful because the opportunity was short-lived. It’s also difficult to change lenses in near zero temperatures when you’re wearing gloves. Taken on the Antarctic Peninsula with a Nikon D200 and 18-200mm zoom lens, which covers most subject types. (80mm focal length, 1/90 second at f/18, ISO 100.)

Pack a spare battery and extra memory cards. Most modern DSLRs perform well enough at high ISO settings to be used hand-held (and some cameras include multi-shot modes specifically for low- light photography). You can usually do without a tripod and a separate flash gun, particularly if your camera has a built in flash.

2. Control at least one shooting parameter.

While most snapshooters never take their cameras off the ‘green’ (full auto) shooting mode, you can’t expect outstanding pictures if you adopt this strategy. Even cameras with built-in scene recognition can fail in tricky situations and it takes time to select and apply the correct pre-set from the multitude on offer.


The aperture priority AE mode was used for this shot to maximise overall sharpness. (Sony SLT-A55 with 18- 55mm lens at 18mm, 1/160 second at f/16, ISO 100.)

If you have a total ‘can’t cope’ attack and need to take a picture quickly, it’s OK to resort to the scene presets. But you’ll obtain more successful shots if you know how to adjust aperture and shutter speed settings and stick with the P, A, S and M shooting modes.

Most photographers work mainly with Aperture- priority AE, which provides control over depth-of-field. Shutter priority AE is used for different effects when shooting moving subjects. (Slow shutter speeds blur motion while fast ones freeze it.) Select the Manual mode when other settings don’t produce the result you want and experiment with different aperture and shutter speed settings.

3. Learn how to use the histogram.

The histogram display is your best guide to correct exposures. Most cameras provide a graph that maps the number of pixels at each brightness level (the vertical axis) against a range of tones from black to white (the horizontal axis, which ranges from 0 to 255). Some cameras provide channel histograms for the three colour channels, mapping the red, green and blue pixels separately, along the same 0 to 255 axes.


The histogram superimposed on this image shows its overall tonality is slightly dark but all tones are well within the range of the baseline. (Canon EOS 600D with 18-135mm lens at 135mm; 1/125 second at f/9; ISO 200.)

Aim to achieve a near-even distribution of tones across the full brightness range. This is usually only possible with subjects that have a modest brightness range and lack bright highlights and deep shadows, so be prepared to make compromises with wide brightness range subjects.

If the peak is pushed up against the left side of the graph, it shows most pixels are in the dark tones. Consequently, the overall image will appear dark and there’s a risk of visible noise. When the peak is against the right side of the graph, the overall image appears light and highlights are often blown out.

In very contrasty scenes, it may be impossible to avoid overflow at one end of the graph. However, you can choose which end of the scale to favour. This choice can also influence whether the shot is high or low key.

[Tip: if your camera supports contrast adjustment, reducing overall contrast may help to bring image tones within the range of the graph. Contrast can be restored when you edit the image and you have more scope for retaining control at this stage.]

4. Frame and focus shots thoughtfully.

Decide what the subject is and fill the frame with it, making sure critical areas are sharply focused. In portraits, the eyes must be sharp; landscapes require as much of the scene as possible to appear acceptably sharp.

[Tip: Depth of field is strongly influenced by sensor size and lens focal length. Small-sensor cameras have inherently wider depth of field than DSLRs. You can take advantage of this factor in several ways. If you want to blur out backgrounds and you’re using a small- sensor camera, shoot with the zoom lens extended. For maximum depth of field with a DSLR, stop the lens down to f/11 or smaller. ]


An example of a DSLR shot using a small lens aperture to maximise depth of field. (Nikon D200 with 18-200mm lens as 18mm; ISO 100, 1/100 second at f/18.)

Most cameras provide several autofocusing modes; many also support manual focusing. If you’re in a rush, use the most highly automated setting and let the camera determine where to focus. When shooting portraits, take advantage of face detection technology, which in modern cameras usually includes auto exposure determination and may also be able to track moving subjects.

Use selective focusing to draw viewers’ attention to the main subject in the shot and blur out distracting background details. Switch to manual focusing so YOU can decide what should appear sharp when you’re shooting with a shallow depth of field. Practice manual focusing until you get a feel for how quickly you can make adjustments and how to time your shots.


Caged animals and birds at parks are best photographed with long lenses and wide aperture settings to blur out background (and foreground) details. (Sony SLT-A55 with 180mm focal length, 1/20 second at f/5.6, ISO 400.)

5. Capture the ambience.

Aim for pictures the recreate the emotions you felt when the shot was taken. Where possible, include people who live and work in the area and those involved in characteristic activities ““ or special events ““ that add interest to the scene.


Bakers in a shop near Tokyo’s Asakusa Kannon Temple, a grab shot through the shop window. (Canon PowerShot G10 at 6mm, 1/25 second at f/3.5, ISO 200.)

Look for ‘magic’ moments in action shots: a climber’s stretch, a kayaker’s paddle cleaving the water, a boat rushing through a cascade. Visit markets and attend performances where photography is permitted.

Boost the camera’s ISO setting in preference to using flash. A little blurring is usually a better way to suggest movement than a ‘frozen’ flash shot. Be aware of the subtle changes that occur in lighting as the sun’s position in the sky changes. Waiting for 10 minutes may enable you to obtain a better shot than the one captured when you first arrived on the scene.

For sunrise shots, be prepared to arrive well before the sun rises and stay until it’s too bright to photograph directly. Around sunset, be prepared to hang around until it’s too dark to shoot.


Cape Borda lighthouse on Kangaroo Island, photographed at 8:13 pm. (Canon EOS 5D Mk II with 24- 105mm lens at 24mm, 1/13 second at f/5.6, ISO 800.)

6. Seize the moment.

Successful shots are largely a matter of timing; picking the ‘decisive moment’ to press the shutter and capture the ‘story’. Shoot first; ask questions later is a useful strategy. If you see something interesting, grab your camera and take the picture because within a split second, the scene can change.

Practice with your camera and lenses until you know the extent of the capture lag (the delay between when you press the shutter button and when the shot is taken). Compact cameras often suffer from autofocus lag times of up to half a second, which means you have to anticipate where the subject will be when the shot is taken. DSLRs seldom have significant capture lag.

In AF mode, half-pressing the shutter when composing shots can come close to eliminating capture lag. However, the subject may move between focusing and capture, and could be blurred if there’s insufficient depth of field.


A ‘grab shot’ of one of the workers in the Tokyo fish markets. (Canon PowerShot G10 at 18mm, 1/20 second at f/4, ISO 200.)

7. Try different angles.

Don’t take all your pictures with the camera at head height facing the subject. Try some different angles. Instead of placing your main subject in the centre of the frame, try positioning it to one side.

Look up; look down. Angle the camera for a more dynamic shot composition. [Tip: Half-press the shutter button with the AF sensor on the subject then re-frame before pressing the shutter button all the way down.]


Some subjects lend themselves to being photographed from below. (Canon EOS 600D with 18-135mm lens at 55mm; 1/200 second at f/8; ISO 200.)


But an interesting image of the same subject can also be created by pointing the camera down and photographing a reflection. (Canon EOS 40D with 17-85mm lens at 44mm; 1/80 second at f/5.6; ISO 320.)

When photographing children or pets, get down to their level. Scenic shots often look most impressive when photographed from above. Move in close for a more intimate picture; step back to create a sense of space and distance.

‘Zoom with your feet’ rather than relying solely on adjusting the lens. That way you can select the focal length setting that provides the best perspective on the subject and the highest image resolution.

Shoot things as well as people. People’s possessions often say as much about them as the pictures of the people themselves. Including both the face and an important possession is often a winning combination.

8. Be selective in your use of flash.

Avoid using flash indoors. In many tourist venues, flash photography is prohibited. For close-ups, particularly portraits, the light from on-camera flash units is often too harsh to be flattering.


A Japanese taiko drummer in action in a situation where flash is prohibited. (Sony DSC-H5 at 32mm, 1/30 second at f/3.5, ISO 320.)

If there’s no alternative, use the flash exposure compensation setting to reduce the flash output by -0.7 to -1.3EV for a better balance between ambient and flash lighting. Use natural light from windows for portraits during the day and flood the room with whatever lighting is available by night. With most cameras, the auto white balance setting should produce attractive results.


Use of flash would destroy both the atmosphere and appearance of this portrait of a Japanese tea ceremony specialist at work. (Canon PowerShot G10 at 25mm, 1/40 second at f/4.5, ISO 200.)

In contrast, flash can be a big help when shooting outdoors during the day. Not only can it brighten up the faces of strongly backlit subjects; it can also reduce the brightness ranges in shots taken in contrasty conditions. Use fill-in flash for better balanced exposures in shady places with patchy light, and for night portraits just after dark.

9. Try something different.

Tired of the same old Christmas tree photos? Why not blur, zoom and streak those lights instead? Setting your camera’s shutter speed to one second or longer will allow you to move the camera during the exposure and record patterns of light. If you have a tripod and a zoom lens, you can mount the camera on a tripod and zoom the lens in or out during the exposure.

Taking multiple exposures is another way of creating non-standard images. Some of the latest interchangeable-lens cameras provide this facility and will automatically balance exposures to produce a usable image from two or more superimposed shots.

Some cameras also come with built-in special effects and most provide the option of taking black and white images. In some cameras, the effects are adjustable and a few cameras allow several effects to be combined for different results.


Many cameras include special effects that can be used to emphasise certain characteristics in shots. For example, the Fish-eye effect (lower image) makes these crabs look much more threatening than a straight shot (upper image).

Effects settings are normally only available when you shoot JPEGs and the adjustments are locked into the file and cannot be changed. When you shoot raw files, you gain the ability to adjust images fully as they are processed into editable formats, and it’s easy to add many effects to shots after they have been recorded.

10. Share as you travel.

Loading your pictures onto a photo sharing site allows you to share them with friends and family members while you’re away. Some sites charge a fee for this service but it usually covers a certain amount of online storage for high-resolution images. Some popular sites include Picasa, Flickr, DPHOTO, Facebook, Shutterfly, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitpic.

This is an excerpt from Photo Review Issue 49.

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