Previously a photojournalist for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Bennett’s also an instructor at Columbia and CUNY’s graduate schools of journalism. Here he shares some tips for taking better photographs on your summer vacation. Check out Bennett’s photos and get some more of his insight by following him on Twitter at @rob_bennett.
MapQuest: Your family is posing in front of an attraction, say, the Washington Monument. What’s the best way to take a photo that shows off both the attraction and the people?
Bennett: Good photography results from good problem solving. The most successful photographers identify the unique opportunities and challenges (subjects, emotions, lighting, position, equipment, goals) of any shooting situation and strip their shoots down into a series of more simple decisions they need to make. Amateurs sometimes think that there’s a magic to making pictures that work, but I see it as just a matter of putting some peaceful thought and, of course, quality practice into it.
Let’s tackle your monument example, for instance. Compositionally, think of this shoot in terms of shapes. Your family has a physical shape to it. The monument has a physical shape to it. Those shapes need to fit in a sensible way inside the shape of your camera frame (usually a 3x2 rectangle or a square). So, with that in mind, problem-solve your way to the best picture. Given the height of the monument, I'd start by setting up my family not at the base of the monument, but a good distance (a few hundred yards, at least, in this case) away. This will allow the monument to be smaller relative to your family and able to be completed in the frame (good composition rule there—allow strong graphic elements to complete themselves).
Your next task is to position the members of your family relative to the monument in the frame in a complimentary way. Work quickly and casually. Be creative in how you space your family members. Use the width, height and depth of the frame. Aim for natural and comfortable. Be mindful of their experience: as they get bored, frozen and even resentful, the image dies on the vine.
Last but perhaps most importantly, always be mindful of the lighting conditions—specifically, how brightly your family is lit relative to how brightly the monument and sky are lit. A simple rule is to photograph with the sun behind you and 45 degrees to the left or right. This should allow you to retain color and detail in the sky while also lighting your family favorably. If your family is falling into a shadow and is “underexposed” relative to the background, use your flash to fill them in, light–wise, and balance out the exposure.
To recap: consider composition, let strong elements complete in frame, stay engaged, work quickly, see and manage light. Um, maybe that wasn’t so simple. But that’s how I’d problem solve my way through.
Some travel attractions have been shot thousands of times. What are some easy ways to make your photographs of them more interesting?
Focus less on making “a picture of a thing” and more on the experience you and your family have of being at the monument. Be lyrical, not literal. Be creative. Share with us the feeling of being there. Look for moments of peak expression, interesting lighting conditions and opportunities to change your elevation and perspective of the monument.
Where’s the best place to shoot a family portrait?
Look for large areas of open shade. The shady side of large buildings. The light is softer and more flattering.
Sometimes a photo op arrives and you’ve only got your mobile phone. What’s your favorite app for taking a photo? And what’s your favorite one for editing a photo?
First off, I need to credit the great sports photographer Brad Mangin for teaching me most of what I know about smartphone photography. I work in his style and use the same tools. I like using the native iPhone camera app for capturing. It’s simple and shoots effectively. I like to use my volume buttons to picture-take as opposed to fumbling for the on-screen button. With phone photography, the visuals get a lot prettier in the post-shooting process. That’s more commonly understood as using filters. My favorite post programs are Snapseed and Instagram. Brad turned me on to a great program called Dynamic Light. Camera+ and Filterstorm are also really helpful to me. My recommendation: play around a lot with different programs and shooting styles.
How do you get a kid (or several kids) to look at the camera and stay still long enough not to be a blur?
Can I say shoot a lot? Too obvious? Really, though, don’t sweat it too much. Taking great family photos is all about being family first and photographer second. We need to work on the same wavelength as our family—and if we don’t, what’s the point? This is supposed to be fun. Did I mention shoot a lot? That and problem solve your own way to grabbing their attention. Trust your instincts and play around with different solutions.
A note about blur: what we commonly refer to as blur can be the result of either bad focusing or the motion of either the camera (called camera shake) or the subject. If we assume the cause in this case is the motion of a restless child, the simple answer is "use a faster shutter speed.” 1/250 or 1/500 of a second should get you into a safety zone in these situations. Keep in mind that you’ll probably need to boost your ISO or open your aperture wider to accommodate a faster shutter speed.
The family photographer is rarely seen in vacation shots. Without having to lug around equipment like a tripod and remote, how can the family photographer get in the pictures?
How about often re-casting the role of photographer in your family? Really, change it up. Photography is so easy now that anyone can do it. Either parent, or even the kids can be the photog. Heck—especially the kids. They’ll probably come back with something fantastically unique. Alternatively, find a good resting spot for your camera and learn to use your timer mode. Read the manual – they're not a painful as you might think.
What about taking your photography to the next level?
If you really want to improve as a photographer—beyond tips and tricks—come to understand light and the relationship between different sources and intensities of light. If there is a secret to photography, it comes down to seeing and understanding light, its qualities intensities and ratios.
MapQuest's travel news/travel buzz editor, Zach Everson looks fantastic in every photo. Follow him on Twitter at @Z_Everson.
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