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How to Take a Prize-Winning Travel Photo

Have you ever wondered what makes a great photo? We’ve all struggled to capture that perfect moment and come up short. But by employing these practical tips, we hope to enhance the overall quality of your photos—and increase the fun you have when taking them!

Photo provided by Virginia Scott.

Follow the Rule of Thirds

When taking a photo, your instinct might be to place your subject in the center of your picture. Resist this temptation!

One of the first compositional techniques that professionals learn is the “Rule of Thirds.” In your mind’s eye (or your camera’s, if it has the capability), draw two horizontal lines and two vertical lines to divide your frame into nine equally-sized rectangles. Think of the layout of a tic-tac-toe grid.

As a rule of thumb, the key compositional elements of your subject (faces, horizons, animals, etc.) should be placed along these imaginary lines, or at their intersections. Studies have shown that people’s attention is naturally drawn to these points of a photograph. Framing your subjects in this manner allows you to take advantage of this phenomenon, subtly creating a more appealing presentation.

Objects of interest, like the castle and steeple in Lake Bled, Slovenia, are placed at natural intersections. By doubling them in the lake’s reflection, the image retains a sense of balance.

Photo provided by Roger and Linda Gee.

Have Fun with Your Photo

Images of smiling people posed stiffly in front of an iconic landmark are ubiquitous—so why not try to capture a moment that makes the viewer laugh?

Photos that have a sense of humor, such as a funny or unique expression, are more interesting for the viewer. And when you capture a moment of surprise or energy, the photo comes to life, separating it from more traditional posed photographs<

Often times, a simple change of perspective can make an otherwise typical photograph memorable, so try placing your camera at unusual angles—angle it up from the ground, or get a higher vantage point by climbing nearby stairs or ladders.

The affable expressions of both children and adults, working together during a game of Tug of War, give this photo a sense of playfulness and camaraderie.

Photo provided by Giulio Baldrighi.

Watch the Light

Lighting is one of the most important compositional elements of photography. In fact, you can change the mood of almost any image—dramatic, playful, reflective, suspenseful—by changing the lighting.

The best time of day for photography is in the early morning just after the sun rises, or in the evening just before it sets. The elegant, mystical dance of color and shadow can lead to some amazing photo opportunities, and, according to an OAT Photo Editor, “Your subjects will be bathed in a soft, golden glow.”

Avoid shooting in the early afternoon, when the bright, harsh light of the sun overhead can ruin an otherwise perfect photo. If you must take a picture in less than ideal lighting conditions, follow the advice of Photo Editor Meredith Mulcahy: “Put your subject in the shade, and use a flash to control the amount of exposure.”

Time of day can change the color of your image; in this example, the shores of Etretat, France, are bathed in the lovely pink glow of early morning.

Photo provided by Arnie Kaminsky.

Be Polite, Be Subtle

Some of the most remarkable travel photos capture people in candid moments, which offer a glimpse into the daily life of the person or the larger culture. But take the advice of Photo Manager Meredith Gausch: “Nobody likes to feel like a subject.” So smile, laugh, joke, converse, or gesticulate while snapping your image. Even if you don’t speak the language, try to make your subject comfortable.

When shooting local people, the rule of thumb is to ask permission first, as many societies have cultural or religious taboos about capturing someone’s image. Award-winning photographer and OAT traveler Dr. Joseph Heyman has a different take on this: “If I see a wonderful moment, I like to seize it. If you approach someone first to get permission, what happens? They stop what they are doing and you lose the moment.”

Dr. Heyman suggests you take your picture first, then approach and ask permission. “I always walk right up to them and ask, ‘May I take your photo?’ as I show it to them in my viewfinder. Usually they are thrilled with the result and give their OK. If they do not, I delete the shot right there so they know I am respecting their wishes.”

In other words, shoot first, ask questions later—but always be respectful.

A local artisan works at his trade in Cefalù, Sicily. By not asking the subject to pose for the camera, the photographer has captured a more relaxed and authentic moment.

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