Photography shooting tips

 (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

12 travel photography tips for capturing great shots on the road

Here are some guidelines for getting the pictures you want.

Shoot the details

Any postcard stand can provide you with facade pictures, panoramas, and aerial shots. You’re the only one who can concentrate on the minute details that enthrall you. 

Focus on the hideous devil in a Last Judgment painting, a rivet in the Eiffel Tower, laundry hanging from the windows, the face of a Wallace Fountain figure, the cracks in the cobblestoned street.

Frame the shot

Make it interesting: Take the picture through an open window or archway or flanked by a pair of columns.

Get a church facade reflected in a puddle.

If you can’t quite get the whole thing in a shot, give it up and zoom in for a detail instead.

Check your backgrounds

Nothing spoils a medieval or bucolic scene like a TV antenna, telephone poles, or tourists milling in the background.

Grab the best light

The light of early morning and late afternoon works magic on any scene, bringing out depth, deepening shadows, and warming up colors. The harsh noonday sun makes for notoriously boring pictures.

Get the sun behind you

Try to get any light source at your back or glancing in from the side if you’re going for special shadow and light effects.

One of the only times it's effective to let the light come right at you is to shoot a sun setting or rising directly behind a column or statue—a marvelous effect.

You know what you (and your family) look like

Explorers used to plant their county’s flag to claim a new territory. These days we conquer by selfie and plant the waving family. It’s nice to take an Eiffel Tower selfie, or snap a picture of your husband in front of Notre Dame, but you don’t need to prove you were there at every single stop. 

Plus, it’s more fun to get candid, action shots of the family riding the train, going on a picnic, contemplating the art in the Musée d'Orsay, whatever. Show that you traveled in and interacted with Europe, not just that you knew how to smile and wave.

Look for the unusual in the everyday

What sums up a country or culture? Half the things you’ll remember most about any trip won’t be the attractions but rather the sights and oddities of daily life over there.

Go ahead, take pictures of old men playing cards, funny little European cars, busy vegetable markets, double-decker buses, weird street signs, improbably long Welsh words, or a sheep jam on a country road.

Candid shots of people can be great, but may get some people mad. Be discreet and diplomatic.

Ask permission

It's a bit embarrassing, and it may often spoil the un-posed shot you want, but it is only polite to ask someone before taking their picture whenever possible. In some cases, people get outright mad if they catch you photographing them on the sly, whether it's a cultural thing or they're just plain shy and/or mean. Always ask. 

And if you're worried they will turn rigid and pose for you, take a shot of two of the pose, then wait around until they get bored with you just standing there and go back to hanging the laundry, playing cricket, or whatever it was that drew you to them in the first place. Then you can get the shot you wanted.

Don’t be a flasher

I have a good rule for the camera flash option: Don’t use it.

Flashes are the most overrated and least understood of camera features. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the flash effects cheapen most shots, so either read up on flash techniques in a photo book or consider using it rarely, if at all. Here are a few general guidelines: 

  1. If you take a flash photo of anything behind glass, you’ll end up with a fuzzy image of the subject (the camera usually auto-focuses on the glass, not the subject you’re trying to capture) further obscured by a bright, white star-like image that covers a quarter of the picture. That’s the flash reflecting off the glass. 
  2. By filling in shadows with a bright, uniform light, flashes always flatten a picture out, which 99% of the time is an effect you do not want. 
  3. Do not take flash photos of artwork. Flashes destroy paintings and frescoes, doing more damage than leaving a painting out under the sun for many days. Flash photos would make the Mona Lisa your grandchildren see a pale, faded image of itself. Also, if I see you doing it, I will yell at you in public. Seriously. I do it all the time. 

Just about the only time I ever use a flash is if I’m trying to take a night shot, in which case I use the option most pocket cameras now have of a “night flash.” This option basically first exposes the low light of the background by leaving the camera shutter open for a few seconds (you have to be very still—ideally, prop the camera on something and don’t touch it), after which it flashes so that the people or object in the foreground pops out of the image in a bright pool of light. If you use just flash by itself at night, the subject will be washed-out and bright, but the background pitch black.


The perfect shot might not come out until the sun moves from behind that cloud or an un-photogenic tour bus pulls away.

On the other hand, don’t let a good opportunity slip away. If a shot is good but you think you should wait, take one picture immediately, and then stick around to see if it gets better.

Get close

Unless you’re shooting a countryside landscape, try to get within 10 feet of most subjects. Fill up the frame. Keep shots dynamic.

(And for landscapes, try to get something in the foreground at the corner or side of the frame to make the depth pop.)

Find a new angle

Choose any angle that will get you a picture different from everybody’s else’s. Remember: you can turn that camera on its end; take some shots vertical, others horizontal.

Eye-level is boring. Climb a tree, squat down, stand on a bench, hold the camera high above your head and point it in the general direction, or lie flat out on the ground.

I do it all the time, and while I get funny looks, it makes for some great shots.

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Useful French phrases

Useful French for sightseeing

English (anglais) French (français) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Où est? ou eh
...the museum le musee luh moo-ZAY
...the church l'eglise leh-GLEEZ
...the cathedral le cathédrale luh ka-teh-DRAHL
When is it open? Quand est-il ouvert?  coan eh-TEEL oo-VAIR
When does it close? A quelle heure est-ce que cela ferme? ah kell eur es kuh suhla fair-MAY
ticket billet d'entrée bee-YAY dahn-TRAY
two adults deux adultes dooz ah-DOOLT
one child un enfant ehn ahn-FAHN
one student un étudiant uh-NETOO-dee-YON

Basic phrases in French

English (anglais) French (français) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you merci mair-SEE
please s'il vous plaît seel-vou-PLAY
yes oui wee
no non no
Do you speak English? Parlez-vous anglais? par-lay-VOU on-GLAY
I don't understand Je ne comprende pas zhuh nuh COHM-prohnd pah
I'm sorry Je suis desolée zhuh swee day-zoh-LAY
How much does it cost? Combien coute? coam-bee-YEHN koot
That's too much C'est trop say troh
Good day Bonjour bohn-SZOURH
Good evening Bon soir bohn SWAH
Good night Bon nuit  bohn NWEE
Goodbye Au revoir oh-ruh-VWAH
Excuse me (to get attention) Excusez-moi eh-skooze-ay-MWA
Excuse me (to get past someone) Pardon pah-rRDOHN
Where is? Où est? ou eh
...the bathroom la toilette lah twah-LET
...train station la gare lah gahr

Days, months, and other calendar items in French

English (anglais) French (français) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quand est-il ouvert? coan eh-TEEL oo-VAIR
When does it close? Quand est l'heure de fermeture?   coan eh lure duh fair-mah-TOUR
At what time... à quelle heure... ah kell uhre
Yesterday hier ee-AIR
Today aujoud'hui ow-zhuhr-DWEE
Tomorrow demain duh-MEHN
Day after tomorrow après demain ah-PRAY duh-MEHN
a day un jour ooun zhuhr
Monday Lundí luhn-DEE
Tuesday Maredí mar-DEE
Wednesday Mercredi mair-cray-DEE
Thursday Jeudi zhuh-DEE
Friday Vendredi vawn-druh-DEE
Saturday Samedi saam-DEE
Sunday Dimanche DEE-maansh
a month un mois ooun mwa
January janvier zhan-vee-YAIR
February février feh-vree-YAIR
March mars mahr
April avril ah-VREEL
May mai may
June juin zhuh-WAH
July juillet zhuh-LYAY
August août ah-WOOT
September septembre sep-TUHM-bruh
October octobre ok-TOE-bruh
November novembre noh-VAUM-bruh
December décembre day-SAHM-bruh

Numbers in French

English (anglais) French (français) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 un ehn
2 deux douh
3 trois twa
4 quatre KAH-truh
5 cinq sank
6 six sees
7 sept sehp
8 huit hwhee
9 neuf nuhf
10 dix dees
11 onze ownz
12 douze dooz
13 treize trehz
14 quatorze kah-TOHRZ
15 quinze cans
16 seize sez
17 dix-sept dee-SEP
18 dix-huit dee-SWEE
19 dix-neuf dee-SNEUHF
20 vingt vahn
21* vingt et un * vahnt eh UHN
22* vingt deux * vahn douh
23* vingt trois * vahn twa
30 trente truhnt
40 quarante kah-RAHNT
50 cinquante sahn-KAHNT
60 soixante swaa-SAHNT
70 soixante-dix swa-sahnt-DEES
80 quatre-vents  kat-tra-VAHN
90 quatre-vents-dix  kat-tra-vanht-DEES
100 cent sant
1,000 mille meel
5,000 cinq mille sank meel
10,000 dix mille dees meel

* You can form any number between 20 and 99 just like the examples for 21, 22, and 23. For x2–x9, just say the tens-place number (trente for 30, quarante for 40, etc.), then the ones-place number (35 is trente cinq; 66 is soixsante six). The only excpetion is for 21, 31, 41, etc. For x1, say the tens-place number followed by " un" (trente et un, quarante et un, etc.).

‡ Yes, the French count very strangely once they get past 69. Rather than some version of "seventy,' they instead say "sixy-ten" (followed by "sixty-eleven," "sixty-twelve,' etc. up to "sixty-nineteen.") And then, just to keep things interesting, they chenge it up again and, for 80, say 'four twenties"—which always make me thinks of blackbirds baked in a pie for some reason. Ninety becomes "four-twenties-ten" and so on up to "four-nineties-ninteen" for 99, which is quite a mouthful: quartre-vingts-dix-neuf. 


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