The whitewashed textures of Tavira, Portugal, in the Algarve Region, with ruin walls in the distance. Image © Jain Lemos

Text and photographs by Jain Lemos, Special to The Los Angeles Times

When people I meet find out that I work in the photography industry, they often ask me for advice about what camera to buy, which software to use and what the pro “secrets” are for taking great photos. So I wasn’t surprised when my friend Catharine Hamm, Travel Editor at the Los Angeles Times, asked if I would like to write an article for the paper’s Sunday travel section to share some tips for taking vacation photographs.

Catharine’s goal was to provide travelers with pointers on working with compact digital cameras to improve the shots they bring home. My article, For Better Digital Photographs, Focus Inward, appeared in the January 26, 2006 edition of the LA Times, and you can read the text below. A big thank you to Catharine for the enjoyable writing gig. Also, a special thanks to the people on the editorial staff at the paper who did such a great job on the layout of the print version.

Getting the most out of your new digital camera requires knowing about more than megapixels and compression. It also requires knowing your strengths and weaknesses.

Nature lovers often do well photographing rose petals or sunsets. Graphically oriented people recognize natural patterns or unique signs. Are you ultra-organized or carefree on a trip? Should you set aside extra time to take and organize your shots?

Acknowledging such things about yourself can help you prepare your camera equipment in ways that will help you get the most from your efforts. Know your camera’s strengths and weaknesses—as well as your own—before taking off for vacation. Here are some of the keys:

Practice, practice.

Affordable compact digital cameras with professional features are finally here. For just a few hundred dollars, palm-sized models now come with higher resolution, longer battery life and larger capacity. They also have more menus to scroll through and option lists that can intimidate even tech-savvy users. Become familiar with your camera’s capabilities immediately, taking test shots over several days.

Start with the lens. Does it zoom, and to what magnitude? Practice zooming, then try duplicating the same shot by walking forward instead of zooming. Zooming causes more camera shake, so be sure to steady your shot by holding your elbows closer to your body. Also, turn the camera to the side or point it slightly upward for alternative angles.

Next, get in sync with the cycling between shots (called “shutter lag” time). Don’t get frustrated when you want to press the shutter button and the camera’s processor needs to recycle. Experiment with exposure times by shooting a moving subject on fast and slow speeds.

Built-in flash units on most compacts extend light only a few feet in front of the photographer, and red-eye or overexposure is often the result. Experiment with your flash indoors in low light and outside in shade.

Be sure to read the manual and visit the manufacturer’s website. Now is a good time for a more thorough review of the instructions. If the camera has preset modes such as macro, landscape and portrait settings, look at the instruction booklet examples and try to duplicate the shots.

This is also the time to understand the model’s various image compression settings to calculate how many images you can store on each memory card.

Finally, make a habit of running through a short mental checklist every time you pick up your camera:

  • Check batteries.
  • Check room on memory card or that you have an extra one.
  • Delete unwanted images.
  • Adjust settings for conditions.
  • Switch to shooting mode.
Make it an activity.

Part of relaxing with vacation photography is not feeling pressured to constantly record everything you see. Set aside an hour a day specifically for picture-taking, preferably during the magic hours around sunrise and sunset.

If traveling with companions, try going out alone some days. You’ll be creating a separate vacation within a vacation that only you experience, and your photos will become more personal and less static.

In the morning, gather your equipment and contemplate your day. Perhaps you previously visited a place you would like to capture better or differently. Ask a resident to help you get onto the roof of a high building or out to the nearest fishing hole—someplace you wouldn’t normally visit. Browse through local publications or your travel guide to see what images are being published of nearby attractions.

Digital photography also means you’ll need time for housekeeping. Deleting excess frames and making caption notes are good routine maintenance tasks to do before bed. If you have a laptop or some other separate storage unit, download images off your camera for editing later.

Framing, subject matter, composition and a relaxed state of mind are more important than perfect shooting conditions.

Create an assignment.

It can be overwhelming to know what to shoot, even if prepared with a list of places and local contacts to help you. Having a theme in mind helps you link the pictures together in a unique way. Start with a clear idea even if once you’ve set out, something else appears. The pictures will have a common thread and convey continuity.

Some destinations are image gold mines; however, many present little else on arrival but a dismal sky, an old man and a not-too-attractive dog. It’s easy to get discouraged by trying too hard to make something out of nothing. Wherever you are, you must be scouting—visually scanning your surroundings—to see if this is where you can take your best photos.

Just as writers are advised to write about what they know, good photographers should take pictures of familiar subjects. For example, if you work one-on-one with people, chances are you will take natural-looking portraits. If you are more mechanically inclined, look for pictures of people at work or play using their environment as a significant background element.

Storytellers can concentrate on picture narratives that have a beginning, middle and end. Shooting one color or shape is also a challenge.

These types of assignments are for your own development and can be taken in addition to your standard photos of your loved ones in front of the fountain. (Don’t always center your subject.)

Enjoy experimenting with this new age in photography. Remember, you’ll never again worry about wasting film or have to wait to see how your images turned out.

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