I’m a casual photographer with no formal expertise. I learn through mistakes and lucky shots.
A two week trip to to Greece in 2009 was an action-packed holiday with lots of opportunities for photography. A week of watersports and mountain biking with Poseidon Sports was followed by a week of island-hopping towards Athens. I came home with several thousand images on my memory cards. Some shots were good. Many were not. I learned some useful photographic lessons from the adventure, and here I’d like to share them.
But here are some simple little travel photography tips I’ve picked up through trial-and-error while travelling in Greece. If you’re a photographer, feel free to correct, criticise or add to anything I say here. I’m still learning. And I’m loving it.
Cameras and lenses
I only have a modest pair of basic cameras, so the task of selection for my trip to Greece was not difficult. My Canon EOS 400D DSLR came with me, accompanied by its three lenses – a Canon 18-55mm, a Canon 50 mm f/1.8 (great for portraits and low light) and a Sigma 70-300mm (with macro). I used all three lenses and I’m glad I took them, despite their bulk. If you are blessed with a greater number of lenses, consider which ones you really use and which ones you’re willing to carry. It may be a hard decision.
My Canon PowerShot S70 compact is getting old but has helped me to take some of my favourite photos, particularly while mountain biking. Its toughness and portability means I often carry it in situations where I may not have my SLR to hand.
As an accessory, I have a waterproof case for the Canon PowerShot. This housing enables photos in or near water. On a watersports holiday, that brings huge opportunities.
Additionally, a mobile phone with a decent camera is no substitute for a real camera, but often helps to capture fleeting moments, and can be handy for instant uploads of travel photos to blogs and social networks.
While travelling, access to electricity may be unpredictable, so a good handful of spare batteries is a worthwhile investment for your camera bag. Bear in mind that unbranded ‘pattern’ batteries are often priced far more keenly than original batteries from camera manufacturers.
Carry a charger for the times you are able to plug it in, but be aware of the voltage in the country you’re visiting. UK and mainland European voltages are inter-compatible, and some, but not all, UK-bought chargers and appliances can operate on the 110 volt supplies used in Canada and the USA. Check the label. If your charger plugs in via a detachable ‘figure of eight’ lead, try to obtain an equivalent mains lead with the plug of your host country – saving the weight of an additional UK plug adapter.
If using an SLR anywhere in the sunshine, polarising filters are virtually essential. Harsh sunshine can overwhelm the camera as well as the eye. A polarising filter acts like a pair of sunglasses, moderating the harshness of strong sunlight. Polarising filters are particularly worthwhile when photographing water scenes, cutting reflections and capturing clear blue seas. Polarising filters are available in sizes to fit the diameter of lenses, measured in millimetres, so get the right ones for your equipment. Screw onto the end of your lens and rotate the filter until you see an improved image through the viewfinder.
It’s tempting to leave polarising filters on your lenses semi-permanently when in sunny places, but don’t forget if you have one fitted. Action photos or shady scenes can be made harder to expose correctly by the presence of a polarising filter, so judge the need of each photo individually.
After taking great pictures, you need to keep your data safe until you get home. With large files, enthusiastic clicking and some precautionary bracketing, it’s likely you’ll end up with several gigabytes of files. The first step is to invest in some good-sized memory cards. Keep them in their little plastic cases and protect them in a dedicated bag, pouch or pocket. Then consider back-up. Will you be carrying a laptop? Will you have access to a computer during your trip? If so, you can back up your files to DVD, to a hard drive or an online service like Dropbox or MobileMe. Halfway through my trip to Greece, while visiting a friend, I backed up all my photos onto her computer and onto a portable hard drive I kept in my camera bag. If using public computers in places like internet cafés, be especially wary of viruses that may be carried on memory sticks or flash memory cards. A sound anti-virus package on your home computer should reduce the chances of bringing home an unwanted infection.
I took a Lowepro Flipside 300 and a CCS Warthog pouch. I stored all my kit safely and conveniently in my Flipside, while using the tough waterproof Warthog for day trips and mountain biking. So while travelling between locations, I had two bags to carry – one bag of camera kit and another containing the Warthog and my other possessions. During the second half of the holiday, I was constantly mobile and the extra luggage became tiresome. I wish now I’d just taken the Warthog, and carried spare lenses and accessories in pouches stored in my main baggage.
Take equipment you will use, not clutter you won’t
The bulkiest bit of equipment I took to Greece was a tripod, yet I rarely used it. My current tripod is of low quality. I don’t enjoy using it and it gives variable results. In retrospect, I should have either bought a good quality tripod before my trip, or simply left this awkward kit behind.
On the other hand, the waterproof housing for the Canon PowerShot is admittedly bulky and heavy. Am I glad I took it? Yes. Watersports and swimming were significant aspects of my trip to Greece, so my housing enabled me to get pictures that capture some of the best moments of the adventure.
Judge each item of equipment realistically, assessing how likely you are to use it and whether you really want to carry it.
Correct exposure can be tricky at the best of times. With the added factors of bright sunlight, strong shadows, whitewashed buildings and possibly the use of a filter, it can be very difficult to pick the right settings. So have a go at ‘bracketing’ your shots. If you think you’ve got a good picture, take some more that are underexposed and some that are overexposed. Take lots. When you get home you’ll have variously exposed versions, one of which will be the basis for your finished picture. Find the exposure compensation control on your camera, sometimes marked Av +/-, and play with it.
When spending time on the coast, the sea becomes an inevitable background to many photos. And where there are seascapes, there are usually horizons. The goal of a level horizon, straight from the camera, is virtually impossible to achieve. Leave adjustment ’til you get home, but give yourself something to work with: If your photo includes a horizon, don’t zoom right in on your subject unless you have to. Straightening and cropping a photo will sacrifice areas around the edge of your photo, so bear this in mind when composing a shot with a visible horizon. Don’t zoom in too much.
Maybe it’s a cliché, but many people choose to take photos of flags while visiting foreign countries. If you do this, take a few shots. Fluttering flags give unpredictable results. What looks like a proudly flying Greek flag may, when photographed, come across as an awkwardly folded sheet of stripy cloth. So grab several photos, allowing you to later select the one that best shows the flag.
Greece has a reputation for sensitivity regarding photography around military areas. An incident at Kalamata airport in 2001 shows how serious this can be, so be wary of photography near any military equipment or personnel. Bear in mind that many smaller Greek charter airports, such as Kalamata and Preveza, double as military airfields, even if this is not immediately obvious.
Whether in Greece or anywhere else, be careful.
Tagging and keywords
Once you’re home, you will possibly process and archive your photos. You may choose to share them on a social site like Flickr. In most cases, you’ll tag your photos so they can be easily found, by you, by website visitors, by search engines or by stock agencies. Tags might include words like Sailing, Sea, Catamaran, Greece and Sunglasses as well as words that describe the location in which the photo was taken.
In some countries, including Greece, this presents an interesting language situation. Many places in Greece have multiple spellings using the Greek alphabet. When transliterated into Roman text, as read by English speakers, the various possible spellings multiply still further. If you’re tagging your photos comprehensively, it makes sense to use all the variations you know of.
For example, I spent half of my Greek adventure in the town of Porto Heli (Πορτο Χελι in Greek). This can be spelled in several different ways, so my Flickr photos have been tagged with:
Porto Heli, Porto Cheli, Portoheli, Portocheli, Πορτοχελι, Πορτο Χελι
This may seem like an unimportant detail, but it maximises the chance of my photos being found by other people. If you’re visiting a location with several names, or with various spellings, use them all for your tags and keywords.