Sharp shooters: photography tips

By Mark Watson 16 August 2012
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Getting started in photography? Then here’s all the gear you need.

IN TODAY’S WORLD OF iPhones, Flickr and Facebook, the photo is king. As our inboxes are inundated with holiday snaps and shots from our weekend activities, there’s no doubt that communication is more visual than ever before – and it’s because it works.

Nothing tells the story of where you’ve been better than the images you bring back with you. A great travel or adventure photograph grabs our attention. It stops us in our tracks and for a moment transports us to another place.

Whether it is a beautiful landscape, a striking portrait or a sporting moment frozen in time, it is for these shots we all strive as photographers, but as professionals and amateurs alike, only rarely do we succeed.

The advent of digital photography and today’s prevalence of affordable digital SLR cameras ensures more people have the capability to capture an inspiring photo. The only question is how to gain the creative skills, aptitude and dedication to make it happen. First we need to understand the basics of what makes a great travel or adventure photo.

East Africa-based adventure writer and photographer Nathan Ward reveals travel photography is about finding the image within its natural setting. “Find big scenery and local colour. Ideally something without a westerner in it! The world isn’t about a photo of some blonde person in their new Patagonia gear standing next to Tsaatan reindeer herders. The story is about the reindeer herders. Show the world and all its magic,” he says.

Finding the image within its natural setting is individual and we all differ in our visual perspective, however when it comes to releasing the shutter, the basic ingredients to attention-grabbing pictures has remained the same since the inception of photography; thoughtful composition, creative lighting and an interesting subject.

Travel and adventure photography is no exception; however, the photographer must do all this within the confines of air travel today: limited space and weight, language barriers, security clearances, visas… the list goes on. In reality, the everyday challenges are what travel and adventure photography is all about. The fun part is the process of documenting the journey along the way. The actual taking of photos is the final piece of the jigsaw.

Photography equipment

Ansell Adams created some of the most awe-inspiring landscape photography of last century, using an awkward and heavy 5×4″ camera. However had you given him a box brownie, his imagery is likely to still have exuded the magical qualities that made him so famous.

The camera is simply a tool… but the right tool for the job makes life a lot easier for everybody. For the budding adventure/travel photographer the digital compact, prosumer compact, prosumer DSLR (digital single lens reflex) or professional DSLR are all options, however, in my experience, the mid-level professional DSLR camera is your best option.

The mid-level pro-models allow complete manual control over all features, interchangeable lenses, add-on accessories and great image quality while remaining manageable in size and weight. They also have more weather sealing and are more durable than their smaller and lighter prosumer siblings while the heavier, robust high-end professional DSLR are a hefty and expensive item to have in your pack.

Just as important as the camera, if not more so, are quality lenses. The clarity, sharpness, detail, contrast and colour saturation of your images all begin with good-quality lenses. Start with entry-level zooms, and as soon as you can afford it, purchase a good piece of glass. Fixed focal-length lenses such as the 20 mm or 50 mm are the sharpest and most trouble free due to limited moving parts.

Ideally we would always shoot on these beautiful pieces of optical genius, however for travel and adventure photography, carrying 10 different lenses simply isn’t an option.

Fortunately technology now offers some amazing zoom lenses. High-end zoom lenses (usually notable by their f/2.8 aperture) are super fast and super sharp professional lenses that offer the best image quality of all zooms. But they are larger and heavier than the prosumer super-zoom lenses and tend to limit the zoom ratio to increase speed, sharpness and clarity.

On the other hand super-zoom lenses such as the AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II offer a massive range of focal lengths in a single compact lens while still retaining exceptional clarity. These lenses are generally not as good in low light and the autofocus is notably slower than high-end lenses. Advancements such as Nikon’s VR (vibration reduction) and Canon’s IS (image stabilisation) now compensate for this.

With size and weight limitations often the determining factor for the adventure photographer who is trying to squeeze equipment in among hiking boots, sleeping bag and jackets, the mid-range pro-DSLR with a single super-zoom lens is often the best option. The next step is to pack your bags.