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Holiday photos: Five tips for taking snaps

Not your average monkey snap

So, your friend has just returned from a long, exotic trip abroad, and the pictures are now filling every corner of your Facebook account. Clicking on the album, you soon get bored at seeing one close-up shot of your friend’s face after another, along with what she ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, dozens of sunsets, a white building, a pony, and a temple. As you keep pressing “Next”, you begin to question what this is all about (or where she went to in the first place!).

People often get caught up in the excitement of travel and take the same pictures as every other tourist. To save yourself from becoming that friend with the boring pictures, just remember these five things before you click.

1. Purpose
“What are you trying to say?” This question applies in every form of communication, including photography. A photograph is a projection of your thoughts and experiences. A good photograph is one that conveys a clear message about those thoughts and experiences.

A street remains a street unless you highlight the reason why it’s interesting. Is it because of the colour, the narrowness, the texture, or the people in the scene? So, to show the quaint, cobble-stone street of an old European town, for example, take a low-angled picture that shows the rough texture of the ground, then frame the other one-third of the picture with the architecture that surrounds it. Or if you want to emphasise the height of the Statue of Liberty, move right up to the statue’s feet and take a shot upwards (frame the statue and the sky), instead of being content with a far-away shot from a ferry.

2. Keeping it simple
In the words of Lonely Planet photographer Richard I’Anson, “Fill the frame with your subject so there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind what the picture is of. If you have to explain that the grey blob is an elephant then the picture has failed.”

Have you ever been forced to sit through an aunt’s photo album where in every picture, the subject is smack-dab in the centre and so tiny you have to squint to make it out? What’s more, this tiny subject is surrounded by all kinds of off-putting clutter, from standing onlookers to parked cars. What’s worse is when you see a coconut tree seemingly growing out of the middle of the subject’s head.

So, here’s the thing to note. Get as close as you can. You’ll simplify things enormously. Sure, you can wait and crop later, but why throw away perfectly good pixels?

Don’t forget, too, that positioning everything in the centre doesn’t mean it’s a good, “subject-focused” shot. More often than not, you need to be aware of the background and take your eyes for a spin around the edges to see what’s going on around the frame.

3. Composition
Most photographers, and even non-photographers, will have heard this term “The Law of Thirds” at some point. My students often dread to hear it, but more often than not, they actually do subconsciously apply it when trying to achieve a well-composed shot.

Life is given to a photograph when the object is placed on a line that splits the photo into one-third and two-third sections in either dimension. And this is yet again, why every photograph doesn’t need the subject in the centre.

For added interest, look for patterns and shapes to give your photograph a strong graphic image. This might come in the form of steps, architectural columns, or the line of apple trees on a farm. Note colours, too. Our eyes are always drawn to brighter tones before we see the dark areas.

Did you know that our eyes are naturally inclined to look at the top-left corner of a picture before roaming towards the rest? As such, you might want to look for diagonal lines that draw your eyes from the upper left to the lower right.

4. Lighting
Turn off your flash! With most point-and-shoot digital cameras, the flash is turned to automatic by default. Turn it off. Photos look much better when taken in soft, natural light. There’s a reason why, for most DSLRs, the flash is sold separately. Note how the light is falling on your subject and select a viewpoint that makes the most of these elements of natural light to enhance your subject.

This doesn’t mean light isn’t helpful. Other than lighting up dark environments, a flash can also be a perfect tool when you’re outdoors in bright sunlight. One of the problems of taking pictures – especially portraits – in the midday sun is that the strong light creates dark eye sockets and unattractive shadows under the nose and lips. Fill-in flash lightens these shadows by balancing highlights and shadows. Remember not to overpower the sunlight with the flash, or you will get a washed-out image.

5. Avoiding Clichés
To be a successful travel photographer, it’s imperative to discover and promote your own original voice or vision; your own style. Cheesy reflections of a hilly landscape in water, people pushing over the Leaning Tower of Pisa (I’m guilty of taking this shot, too), or getting your friends to jump on the count of three in front of insert-famous-tourist-spot – these are pictures that can be found in countless travel photo albums.

Try to move away from these clichés and observe the things that genuinely capture your eye or your heart – something you haven’t seen before. That’s the joy of travel isn’t it? Define your own personal travel experience! The bonus is being able to show something that has your distinctive vision. It’s hard, but the payoffs are great. You might even earn a dozen more “Likes” in your Facebook profile.

Melissa Boey, 27, teaches design and digital new media at a local polytechnic. Her love affair with the camera started eight years ago, after a photography study exchange programme in Sydney. For Melissa, “photography is the power to interpret and make sense of the world through different people’s eyes in the form of image-making. It can be ruthlessly truthful or flawlessly delusive.”