What do you do if your DSLR dies on day one of your photographic dream vacation—a walking tour of Italy's extremely photogenic Amalfi Coast? Have a "Plan B!"
Anyone who likes to travel as much as I do knows that you have to expect the unexpected. On a recent vacation to Italy, “A Walking Tour of the Amalfi Coast,” run by Go Ahead Tours, I surely didn’t expect my Nikon D300 to die on me since I had been using it without incident during the weeks just before this trip.
Since this is one of the world’s most spectacular coastal travel destinations, I couldn’t come back without images. Luckily, though I was intent on packing light for this walking tour, I did take an extra camera along, a compact Canon G11 with a built-in zoom lens that goes from about 28mm to 110mm. (Although the Canon G11 has been discontinued, the Canon G12 can deliver similar results to the camera I used.) This was my "Plan B," which I was now forced to implement.
While strolling along the busy shopping streets of Amalfi, I spotted these colorful bottles of limoncello, the region’s signature liqueur, outside a shop. With the lemon hanging above them, I knew it would make a perfect detail for this trip. It was a straightforward shot taken in shade, which eliminated shadows and helped saturate the brilliant colors. 9.8mm; f/4 at 1/500sesc. ISO 200.
My Canon couldn’t do all my Nikon could, but I used this as an opportunity to see what I could do with the kind of camera most non-professionals would take on such a trip, and work within this camera's limits. I had used the same approach when preparing our book, “Focus on Travel,” shooting under the same conditions ordinary travelers encounter. Now, I would again be working with limited time in an area, no control over when I’d be in a given location, no chance to return for another shot at a favorite destination – and with a non-professional camera!
Still, as I hope you’ll agree, I was able to bring back strong images, even with such a fast pace and lack of control. So here are some suggestions for maximizing your photographic results when touring the Amalfi Coast or similar locations.
Our tour took us along walking paths near the tops of the hills. I had to stop for a few moments to grab this overview of a picturesque farming village tucked among the terraced hillsides typical of the Amalfi coast region. With bright overhead sun, I polarized to deepen the blue of the sky and make the clouds pop. Polarizing filter; 6.1mm; f/4 at 1/600 sec. ISO 200.
Understand what’s beautiful vs. photogenic
When you’re in a stunning landscape, there’s a temptation to snap away trying to capture it all. The trouble is the camera can’t encompass all we see. Its vision is more limited and the impact of a given image depends on the aesthetic arrangement of what’s in your frame.
That’s the difference between beautiful and photogenic. If you’ve been disappointed with shots that don’t convey the beauty you experienced, remember to frame a particular part of the scene and make that fragment tell a powerful visual story. It should point to something clearly, draw your eye to it, and contain enough interesting elements so the composition – as opposed to the subject – is truly beautiful. Always aim to shape the beauty that you see into an aesthetic statement that is photogenic. With this in mind, even ordinary subjects can be transformed into powerful and memorable images.
The colorful risers on these stairs caught my eye as we walked around parts of Ischia, an island in the Bay of Sorrento. Their shaded location saturated the colors. But I had to figure out a strong composition for this detail. By placing the potted hydrangeas in the foreground, I created a C-shaped line that draws the viewer’s eye in and then up the stairs. This ordinary scene, not especially beautiful, became a photogenic subject. 6.1mm; f/4 at 1/1250 sec ISO 400.
Vary your compositions
We are all creatures of habit, in our photography as elsewhere. Try hard, especially when you’re on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, to break out of your default approach by switching from horizontal to vertical formats and shooting a variety of perspectives: overviews, vignettes and details.
For example, take shots of the magnificent coastline as it meets the sea; but then move on to capture vignettes of colorful streets in the towns; and go one step further with details of local pottery or interesting native characters. These variations will animate your photo collection and make the trip come to life.
Finally, your compositions will always be stronger if you are conscious of the abstract arrangement of colors, shapes and lines in each image. For example, include a colorful boat in the foreground of a seaside scenic or a dramatic tree in front of a town or coastal landscape.
Positano is the quintessential Amalfi coast town. To get a good overview, however, took some scouting. We walked beyond the shops and eateries to a high point above the town to get the right perspective. By the time we got there, the late day light was rather flat so I used Bridge’s after-capture color vibrancy slider to get the colors closer to how they would have looked in better light. 6.1mm; f/4 at 1/2000 sec. ISO 200.
Umbrella pines like this one are a distinctive feature of this part of Italy. For this coastal scenic taken at the Villa Rufolo, a garden estate in Ravello, I decided to use this statuesque tree as a visual focal point for the classic coastline. Working with very bright sunlight, I underexposed to saturate colors, which turned the tree into something close to a silhouette. Polariizng filter; 6.8mm; f/4 at 1/ 2,000 sec. ISO 200
Adapt to the light. Most of us love bright, sunny days when we are on vacation but they are far from ideal for photography. I might have wanted to be in some locations early in the morning or toward sunset, when the light is softer, but I was on tour and didn’t have those options.
To make the best of the light I had, I tried, whenever possible, to shoot either in bright light or in shadow, not both. (High contrast light conditions cause either overexposure in the bright areas or underexposure in the shadow areas.) If that wasn’t possible, I’d get the best exposure on the most important elements or integrate shadows into my composition.
Sant’ Angelo is a gaudy beach town on the island of Ischia. I felt that a straight shot of the houses would have been ordinary, even though they are quite picturesque. Placing the palm in the foreground made my composition more photogenic, with a strong focal point that still retained the colorful setting. I underexposed one f/stop to saturate the colors under midday sunny conditions. 8.9mm; f/5 at 1/8 sec. ISO 200.
If you’re working with a DSLR, it always helps to have a sunshade plus a polarizing filter that cuts down on glare and deepens the blue of the sky. (Since I had my polarizer with me, I hand held it in front of my Canon lens to get the effect I wanted.) Just screw them on top of your UV filter, which you should always have on your lens to protect it from dirt and spraying water if you are on a boat.
Sorrento is full of charming cafes and restaurants with great food. We were looking for a dinner destination when we came to Caruso’s, a well-known eatery off the main piazza. There was a gap in the window curtains, just enough of an opening so we could peek in. I decided to experiment by placing my lens up against the window for a shot of the interior. This image was taken at 1/8 of a second and I brightened it in Photoshop to get the atmosphere right. 7.4mm; f/2.8 at 1/8 sec. ISO 200.
Whenever a cloud passed in front of the sun, I tried to make the most of the temporary diffused light to get the saturated colors and dreamy atmosphere I prefer. I had to work quickly, but knowing I had these kinds of shots in mind, I was ready to go when such moments occurred.
At the end of the day’s touring, I’d go into Sorrento, the town where we were based, to explore the narrow old streets with their cafes and charming restaurants. Using the mix of late daylight and electric lighting, I shot at a higher ISO—as high as 800—to capture the activities that are so typical of this region despite the low light.
I’m always looking for interesting characters. I noticed this vendor squeezing lemons and oranges in his colorful outdoor shop on the island of Ischia. I took a few shots while he worked but couldn’t show his face. So I asked him – without any Italian – to pick up one of his lemons and show it to me – that’s when I got this image. 6.1mm; f/4 at 1/32 0sec. ISO 400.
Put people in your pictures.
People from the area will spice up your travel images—provided you stop to notice and photograph them. The rules are simple: Get in close enough to show their faces and set them against an interesting backdrop that tells something about your trip. You may even have a chance to strike up a conversation with sign language if you don’t speak the local lingo.
After a morning of walking, our group stopped for lunch in Massa, a small traditional village far from the bustling tourist track. After a quick bite, I was ready to explore the town and was intrigued by the painted stucco walls and potted plants along the streets. For this vignette, I focused on the areas in shadow to get good color. But, since it was high noon, there were unavoidable patches of bright light. I decided to incorporate one band and let it stay overexposed as a graphic element in my design. 6.1mm; f/4 at 1/800 sec. ISO 200.
Classic Travel-Mate Photo Foibles
But the people in most travel photos are of the photographer’s companions during a trip. As I watched my trip mates take such pictures, I noticed some common mistakes that are easy to correct.
For example, photographers were generally going for a shot of their family or friends in front of a special location. But they often posed the people in such a way that they obscured the backdrop. If you want the environment to count, move your subjects away from the center. That way the landscape takes center stage and you still get the people in the frame. Also, get close enough to your people so their faces are clearly visible – no one will mind that you didn’t show their shoes.
Your companions don’t have to be smack in the middle of your travel shots. For this photo of Anne, taken from the Augustus Garden on the island of Capri, I placed her in the lower right quadrant and filled most of the frame with the coastline of Capri. I climbed on a bench in the garden to get downward perspective I wanted. Then I added fill flash to illuminate Anne’s face – she was backlit and her face would have been in shadow otherwise. 6.1mm; f/4 at 1/2000 sec. ISO 200.
I also noticed how often people pose their travel companions against a brightly lit scenic backdrop, not realizing that the people’s faces were backlit and in shadow. The simple solution for this is to use fill flash, which adds enough light to balance the illumination on the faces and the background. If all else fails, there are some useful after-capture techniques to help you fine tune exposure if you are not totally happy with your results.
For more ideas about photographing people, go to our article.
One of the great benefits of digital photography is that it doesn’t end in the camera. Nowadays, you have a chance to perfect and refine your images on the computer using software and a variety of after-capture techniques.
Start by cropping to improve your composition. A little nipping, tucking and straightening will go a long way toward defining your subject with greater precision.
Then use your white balance to adjust your color tonalities. Digital cameras don’t automatically register colors the way our eyes see them because the light source or reflected light may affect the color cast. The white balance tool lets you correct any color distortions – or you can use the tool for some interesting creative effects.