National Geographic photographer Jay Dickman has worked in photojournalism for more than 40 years—and he’s accompanied National Geographic expeditions everywhere from the Galápagos to Jordan. Here he shares photography tips and tricks for capturing those once-in-a-lifetime travel moments, whether you’re shooting with your smartphone or a high-tech DSLR camera.
Tips for mirrorless and DSLR camera users
Know your equipment. This is so important. Practice with a new camera before you depart. Oftentimes, in the crunch of getting ready for an expedition, a traveler will buy a new camera and have all the best intentions of reading its manual. Then reality gets in the way and the instruction manual is never cracked open. If this is your situation, I suggest putting the camera in “program” mode, which automates both shutter and aperture. When you’re not dealing with the minutiae of the controls, you’re better able to react to incredible photo opportunities.
Rent first, buy later. Going on an African safari? You don’t have to purchase a telephoto lens. There are companies that rent out really expensive lenses that are ideal for photographing wildlife. Check out “lensrental.com” or “borrowlenses.com,” or check with your local camera store to see if they rent equipment.
Be conscious of creating a sense of place. Setting the scene is critical for sharing our travels with friends and family. When standing in front of a place, think about what is resonating with you in the scene, and use the answers to drive your composition. When building your photo, layer information by putting something of interest in the foreground—perhaps a monument with the valley in the background, or your significant other placed a bit off center so the background plays an important role in the photo.
Play around with the placement of your subject. When putting a person in the foreground, aspiring photographers often make the mistake of putting that individual in the center of the frame. Consider putting them off to the side, with the information of place filling the frame in the background. These “environmental portraits” allow your subject to share space with the place, often creating a more engaging photo.
Think methodically about your image. If you see something that makes you react—if it makes you laugh or go “wow”—think about photographing it. If the subject is creating a strong reaction in you, it will likely resonate with your audience. Then go a bit further to break down the scene, and think critically about what elements are drawing you to it.
Lighten your load. Simplify your photographic life by purging as much as you can from your camera bag before departure. I started my photographic career using primarily two lenses: a 24mm wide angle, and a 180mm telephoto. With those two lenses, I could pretty much photograph any situation. By lightening your load, you enhance your photographic experience.
Utilize auto ISO. This is a great feature on almost all modern cameras and a critical element of exposure. In automatic mode, the camera will use the “native ISO,” which is the best quality. You can also consider using a limiter in the camera menu, which allows you to input a minimum and maximum ISO.
Tips for smartphone users
The fundamentals stay the same. Regardless of your device, a good photo is always well composed, exposed correctly, and has a main subject. Think of the monitor on your smartphone as your canvas, and be responsible for its entire area. You are the painter of the scene.
Capture the golden hour. When you photograph the sunset, try to make sure there is something in the composition that is unique to the area, otherwise it could be a sunset anywhere. Then turn around and capture what the light is doing to the surrounding landscape. This is the “golden hour” light that photographers passionately seek.
Portraits and flash. When photographing a person, and the sun or main light is behind the subject, turn on the flash. This simple trick creates a better photo by filling in shadows with light so that the subject is balanced with the background. Make sure your subject is close to the camera, as the effective range of the flash tends to be pretty short.
Utilize an HDR app. There are some very powerful camera apps made for your smart phone. For landscape photography, try Pro HDR X. The HDR function captures three exposures: one under exposed, one correctly exposed, and one over exposed. It then combines the best of each exposure, addressing the limits of the camera to capture the bright-to-dark level of a scene. You have HDR capability in your phone as a native app, but Pro HDR X takes this to another level. Note that you don’t want to photograph moving subjects in HDR, as the three exposures it combines can create a ghost-like effect.
For more camera tips and tricks, travel with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jay Dickman on a National Geographic expedition.