You could spend thousands of dollars on the latest and priciest camera technology to take travel photos you'd be proud to frame or post online. But a small digital camera with which you are familiar and comfortable, handled quickly and unobtrusively, is easier to carry and renders images with plenty of appeal.
That's the word from Kevin Moloney, a photographer who covers the Rocky Mountain region for the New York Times and teaches photojournalism at the University of Colorado. Moloney's key ingredients for great images: Be close enough, be there in the right light and be quick.
You can get up close and personal with family, friends and people you meet using the zoom function on your camera -- if it has one (and most compact digital cameras do). Look for a model that gives you a wide-angle setting for landscapes and portraits in tight quarters, and zooms out to a moderate telephoto length to capture peak action at a distance.
But while the technology is a nice asset, Moloney recommends another approach: Use your camera as a way to overcome your shyness and get closer to the people you photograph. "Take the time to get to know someone. Sit, talk, nod and smile," Moloney said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people you meet are friendly, so it's not hard to walk up and shake a hand," and maybe get to know subjects and their surroundings a little bit better, he said.
Being ready to capture a fleeting image can mean the difference between a photo filled with peak action, great light, or a meaningful gesture -- and no picture at all, or at least one destined for the "delete" button. To get those images, Moloney said, you should leave your spiffy new camera case back at the hotel room or in the car, and carry your camera on your shoulder, switched on and ready to use. By the time you open your case, pull out your camera and turn it on, the opportunity you saw will likely be gone.
At the same time, take you your time to make a great sunset image, or render a portrait or landmark bathed in the dense, warm light you see in travel magazines. If taking pictures is your priority, choose when to go out, Moloney said. Early morning or late evening, sometimes called the "magic hours," offer a low angle of light that creates rich color and interesting shadows. And there's a bonus: Those times of day often provide more interesting photo opportunities because it's when the locals are out and about, beginning and ending their days.
More tips: Don't worry about megapixels: Most consumer camera models shoot a 8-12 megapixel file size, which provides more than enough data to make even an 8x10 inch printed image look fantastic. Instead of megapixels, worry about the quality of the sensor inside the camera; it's the part that actually records the image. New CMOS sensors allow you to shoot in very low light without worrying about grainy (or "noisy") images, and some record scenes in finer detail than film.
Know and be comfortable with your camera: Whether it's a $200 point-and-shoot or a $10,000 professional model, make sure you purchase a model that you have picked up, held in your hands and fiddled with so that you are comfortable with all its controls and settings. Then, when you get it home, pull out the user's manual and put the camera through its paces. Practice, practice, practice. That way, you won't be flailing around while the picture you want has passed you by.
Hold still: Your shot may look blurry in preview because the camera was shaking when you took the picture. If it's possible, try for the same shot again, but this time brace against a wall, or a street lamp or other solid support. Not available? Moloney has a nifty solution. He attaches a piece of string to his camera long enough to be held under his foot. He then adjusts his footing and the string length until the line is taut at eye level, thereby holding the camera steady. Another option: purchase a camera with image stabilization, which cuts down on vibrations.
Shoot a lot of frames: Fire away as you circle your subject, and frame pictures from low-, high- and eye-level perspectives. Even with portraits, when your subject is sitting still, it's worth cranking out a handful of frames to capture just the right look or light. Or aim for candid moments when a subject is looking someplace else besides right into your viewfinder. Digital photography is relatively cheap and quick, and you can learn a lot about composition and great moments quickly by looking at your collection of images before deciding which ones to keep and which ones to dump.
Know your thirds: For photographs that go beyond the look of a snapshot, imagine your viewfinder is divided into nine squares of equal size. When you frame a portrait, or an interesting feature in a landscape, place the subject over one of the four points where the imaginary lines of the squares intersect. You can also apply the rule of thirds to horizon lines, placing the horizon within the top third or bottom third of the image. Again, move around and shoot from a variety of angles and light.