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Taking the Perfect Shot

John Lawton

Photo: John Lawton

The first impulse is to blame your camera. But that's the easy way out. "Almost any camera can take a good picture," says New York—based photographer Paul Costello, who contributes to many national magazines, including House Beautiful and Travel + Leisure. Though you might be relieved to hear that the answer to better photographs doesn't mean you'll have to drop hundreds of dollars at your local camera shop, capturing photos you're proud to show off does mean making some basic changes in the way you shoot. We asked the experts for tips on how to get the best possible pictures.

1. Get to know your camera.
It sounds obvious, butwhether you're using a digital, a point-and-shoot, or a professional-grade camera, you need to experiment to figure out exactly what it can do. Even a fully automatic model is likely to have different flash settings for day and night, affecting things like shutter speed and aperture, which, in combination with the camera's built-in light meter, affect the film's exposure. Shutter speed—the amount of time a camera's shutter is open and the film is exposed to light—is measured in seconds and fractions of seconds, typically from one second down to 1/4000 of a second; the shorter the time, the less light the film is exposed to. Aperture refers to the size of the opening on a camera's lens that allows light into the camera body, and is measured in f-stops. If you have a fully automatic camera, you won't need to worry about adjusting either of these features—they change themselves, depending on the flash setting you use—but you should still shoot a few rolls before setting out on the road to see how your camera handles different situations. And if you have a manual camera, you'll definitely need to play around with at least the basic settings to get comfortable with making adjustments.

2. Start with the right film
. The market may be mad for digital cameras, but professional photographers are still devoted to good old film: they might use a certain brand to bring out, say, the red in Moroccan villages or the greens in an Irish landscape. But most of us stock up at the local drugstore, where the main decision to be made is whether to go with a generic brand or spring for Kodak. Next time, try professional film instead—Costello insists he can tell the difference between a photograph shot with a consumer brand and one using professional. Professional film must be refrigerated; it has a shorter shelf life than consumer film, which is designed to sit around for long periods of time. In addition to high-grade film from Fuji and Agfa, Kodak makes a professional line that averages just $2 more per roll than its consumer film. You'll find them at camera shops, or you can purchase online at BHphoto.com. The higher the film speed, the more sensitive it is to light, so carry 100 (for outdoor shooting, especially at midday) and 400 (for everything else), and you'll be ready for any situation.

3. Aim for backlighting.
According to Costello, the most difficult time to take photos is during the hours you're likely to be out and about—at midday. Shooting then isn't out of the question, but it does require practice. "If it's summer in Bombay and the sun is straight overhead, there's not much you can do," he says. But when you do want to shoot in the middle of the day, try for backlighting: if you can get the sunlight behind the person or thing you're shooting while avoiding a glare in your camera lens, the object will be surrounded by a slight halo. Photographer Ericka McConnell, who shoots for Bon Appetit and O, the Oprah Magazine as well as T+L, suggests that those whose cameras accommodate it use a basic hood that screws onto the camera lens to help reduce glare. "It's a little tricky to make sure the sun isn't coming directly into the lens," she says. "If you see a glare, then it's going to be in the picture." Costello also advises more-advanced photographers to carry a handheld light meter to get the correct light reading, since the sun coming directly into the camera can cause underexposure and loss of detail.

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