By Michelle Delio
Whether it's the trip of a lifetime or the place that you return to year after year, the photos you take while on vacation will end up being your best travel souvenirs. And, happily, for those of us who have albums filled with unfocused and badly exposed photos, digital cameras have gotten so smart in recent years it's now really hard to take a technically lousy picture. It's quite possible today to just point, shoot, and let the camera sort out all the practical details of focus and exposure.
But despite all the technical innovations there are still some things that your camera can't do. It can't tell you the best time of day to get the best exposure, it can't override shaky hands or your lack of knowledge of the camera's capabilities, and it certainly can't compose memorable photos on its own. So, here are a few tips on how to get the best shots with your digital camera.
The Golden Hours:
The best photos are taken when most of us are either happily snoozing or relaxing over dinner -- an hour before and shortly after sunset and one hour on either side of full dawn. That's when the light is gentle and golden, and when your photos are less likely to be over-exposed and filled with harsh shadows or squinting people. If you want the most beautiful shots, start snapping early and stick around for sundown.
Divide to Conquer:
You can't go wrong with the Rule of Thirds, the classic photographer's tip for creating interesting images. When you're setting up a shot, mentally divide your LCD screen or viewfinder into nine squares. Place the primary subject where two of those squares intersect. If all this talk of imaginary lines makes your head spin, just remember not to plop your primary focal point in the center of your photos. Set up the shot so the prime point of interest is a bit to the left or right of the midpoint.
Lock Your Focus:
When your digital camera is in automatic mode, it focuses when you depress the shutter button (the button you press to take a photo) halfway down. To get a properly focused photo, press the shutter down halfway and wait a few seconds. Most cameras emit a cheery beep when an image is focused, or a light will go on near the viewfinder or on the LCD screen. Once the image is in focus, press the shutter completely down. If you don't give the camera a few seconds to focus, your photos won't be as sharp as they could be.
Circumvent Auto Focus:
Your camera may not focus on what you consider the correct focal point of a particular photo. So center the primary subject smack in the middle of the frame, depress the shutter button halfway and allow the camera to focus. Then, while still holding the shutter button down, compose your photo properly and press the shutter button all the way down. This procedure ensures your selected focal point is in proper focus.
Jettison the Jitters:
Shaky hands are the most common cause of photos that are out of focus. If your hands aren't steady, invest in a tripod or put the camera on something steady: a wall, a bench, a table, a rock -- anything that's not going to move. If all else fails, lean against something sturdy like a building, a tree or a stable friend to avoid the wobbles that ruin photos.
No Flash Photography Allowed:
Photos taken in less than ideal light conditions take longer to capture because the camera needs time to grab whatever light is present. During that waiting period there's a chance that your hands will shake or someone will move, resulting in a blurry image. Deal with the dark by following the jitter tips above to stabilize yourself and your camera. The absolute best solution for managing odd light situations is to get a digital camera that offers super-high ISO speeds, like Fujifilm's FinePix F30, which shoots full resolution at ISO 3200; you can capture great images in dim light with this camera.
It's polite to ask people before you photograph them. Be aware that in some cultures not asking can get you into a world of trouble or just cause bad feelings. Some people may want a cash incentive if they allow you to take their photo; it's your call whether you want the photo enough to fork over some money for it. If you really want pictures of the locals but are nervous about approaching folks, take your camera on shopping trips and ask the vendors at markets if you can snap their picture with the souvenir you just purchased from them.
What Are You Doing?
Before you press that shutter button, take a moment or two to consider why you're shooting what you're shooting. Why do you want to take this picture? What's important here? What do you want to remember? How can you photograph this scene so that you capture the mood? After you've thought a bit, start setting up your photo. Look for interesting lines that curve into your image, a path, the shoreline, a fence -- use these lines to create the impression of dimension. Photographing people with their bodies or faces positioned at an angle to your camera, rather than looking directly at you, also adds a sense of depth to photos.
Ignore All the Rules:
Sure, thoughtful contemplation and careful technique are likely to produce brilliant images, but there are times when you just need to capture the moment. If you see something wonderful, grab your camera and get the photo -- don't think about it. If the photo turns out to be blurry, over- or under-exposed, or everyone in the picture chose that exact moment to grimace and blink, oh well. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.