The Making of a Good Travel Photograph
Ironically I’ve been traveling and haven’t had much time to write so this week I’m happy to feature a guest author, Zarek, from 25 days off. I met him online and love his web site concept and his photography. He has some great stories and tips on his site, and today he’s going to share how he created one of his images.
Zarek, travel photographer and writer
My wife and I are travel bloggers, but not the kind who spend their lives traveling and blogging full time. We’re probably more like you – we work full time and only get limited days off each year which we strive to make the most of, and most importantly, remember. I understand that travel photography can be a difficult prospect and when you’re on holiday sometimes you just want to enjoy yourself and not worry about these things. I really want to help those that do care about the details, and that is what many of my photography related articles are about on our website, 25 days off. Every now and then I like to break down some of my holiday photos, so today I’m going to talk you through one of my favorites from our trip to Italy last year.
Mount Vesuvius - What’s the story behind the image?
Before we visited Southern Italy in May last year I knew there would be plenty of opportunities for landscape photography, particularly since we were staying in Sorrento which is on a western coast and therefore prime location for incredible sunsets.
Sorrento is a beautiful little town an hour south of Naples. It’s generally regarded as a good hub for exploring the Campania region of Southern Italy. Halfway between Naples and Sorrento lies the dominating Mount Vesuvius, one of the world’s most dangerous and active volcanoes. Having been taught about the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius and the fate of the nearest town Pompeii in school, I just knew I had to get a shot which would encompass the volcano, the town and the ominous feeling you get when you see it all with your own eyes, knowing the history of the site.
One morning, after having sipped on fresh lemonade from the local l’Agruminato (lemon grove) we decided to go for a stroll along the cliff side. At that point I had no idea how I was going to take my shot of Vesuvius but as we wandered down the path I could quite clearly see the volcano towering over the town below. It was still bright daylight, but instead of taking the shot at that moment, I simply made a mental note of how I wanted to compose my image and planned to return at dusk to wait for better lighting conditions. By the time I got back to the same spot, it was getting dark but there was still enough light to create a nice contrast between the sea and sky.
Why does this image work?
At first glance this is an incredibly simple photograph of a mountain at sunset, but there are several nuances which I have tried to work in through my choice of composition and colour. The volcano is clearly the main element in the image but I was careful to ensure that the town below was also clearly visible. The size of the volcano against the tiny lights from the buildings below gives a real sense of scale. While the warm red and orange tones in the night sky were as close to showing off a volcanic eruption as I could get. Overall though, the simplicity of the image is what really makes it work for me. There are no distracting elements in the foreground or the sky, and despite the ominous mood I still find it to be a peaceful and calming photograph.
The technical stuff
- Nikon D800
- Shot in Raw format
- 85mm 4/1.4G AF-S without a tripod
- ISO 100 for 15 seconds at f8
The camera was rested on a wall overlooking the sea which happened to be at just the perfect height for the composition I wanted.
I shot in manual exposure mode with matrix metering. In order to make the volcano into a silhouette, I had to expose for the sky (which was brighter than the volcano). My meter was around a stop underexposed (-1) but the meter is just a guide and being at zero does not make a perfectly exposed photo (your camera meter is set to exposure for medium grey)! I shot in manual because I wanted full control of the aperture (f8 for sharpness across the frame and deep depth of field) and shutter speed (15 seconds to get in as much ambient light as possible – it was quite dark). My choice of the 85mm focal length resulted in a nice amount of perspective compression (making the town and volcano look closer than they are in real life) while still giving context with the sky and sea, but filling the frame with as much volcano as possible.
I used a remote trigger to ensure there would be no movement when taking the shot. Ideally if you have a tripod this is the time to use it, but when traveling it’s not always convenient to carry one around all day, so make do and steady the camera the best you can when doing long exposures (longer than 1/4 second).
While my eyes could quite clearly see the warm tones of the sky set against the deep blue sea, my camera had a little more trouble recreating this. The image on the LCD came up looking like this:
Most digital cameras have problems setting white balance automatically and this is why I usually choose to shoot in RAW which allows white balance to be adjusted later, without any degradation of image quality. All image adjustments were made in Photoshop with only a single curves adjustment layer, setting the black, grey and white points with the eyedropper tool and then making minor adjustments to the curve to suit my own tastes. I finished it off with some very minor cropping and rotating just to get the horizontal lines dead on (wonky horizons bug me).
Breaking the rules
There’s a ‘rule’ that says the horizon should not be in the center of the image (rule of thirds). That’s one rule that would have wrecked this image, had I followed it. In fact, in my opinion, this photograph works far better with the horizon in the center, although it is broken somewhat by Mount Vesuvius and town.
Here’s a few more of Zarek’s images of Italy
Bonus travel photography tips
- Just having a plan, no matter how simple, made things infinitely easier. This doesn’t ring true for all travel landscape photos, but for iconic sights like Vesuvius, I think it always helps to try and consider what you’d like to achieve. I knew I wanted to show the volcano as a backdrop against the town. But being my first time to the region I had no idea how I was going to do so.
- Scouting locations doesn’t have to be a difficult job. We really were just out for a walk, when I came across the view you see above. Of course, it helped to have an idea of what I wanted to achieve so I was on the lookout for it.
- Know when to come back to a location to get the best light. If I had taken this photo in the stark daylight when I first saw the view, it would have been very different. There would be no red sky, there would be no lights in the town below and there would have been very little depth to the image with the sun casting harsh shadows down on everything. Light makes the big difference to make an image good or great. If you have the chance to come back when it’s better, take advantage of that.
- The upside of planning your shots is that you can leave the tripod at the hotel and only take it out when you really need it – so you can still actually enjoy your holiday walks. It was pure luck that there was somewhere appropriate to balance my camera for the shot. I did have a tripod with me though, and I wouldn’t have hesitated to use it if it was needed.
- You shouldn’t get disheartened if what you see on the back of your camera isn’t what you wanted. Most cameras now offer the option to shoot in RAW which gives you a huge amount of latitude when it comes to altering your image later on. To me, the initial out of camera shot is nowhere near as interesting as the final image.
- Shoot more often so you have a good idea of what your camera is capable of, and you are familiar with all the settings. Then when you are traveling you will know exactly how to make the shot you envision.
Guest author Zarek Rahman
Zarek and his wife Aiman run a travel and photography blog at http://www.25daysoff.com for those who want to see the world and capture it with their cameras but only get limited time off a year. They have been traveling together for 5 years while working full time in London. Their goal is to help the average person make the most of their 25 days off each year by sharing their travel itineraries, photography tips and various other tidbits.
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