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Composition — The Key to Travel Photography

The composition of an image, or the way in which the elements of a picture are arranged within the frame, is crucial to the success of any photo. What compositional rules can be applied (or ignored) to create the best travel photo’s possible…

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The Rule of Thirds

Probably the most basic compositional guideline is the rule of thirds, and it takes some beating! This technique has been used by painters since prehistoric artists first started daubing paint onto cave walls and is known to create the most pleasing balance within an image. Imagine dividing the image in your viewfinder into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. Accepted wisdom holds that when dominant compositional elements (such as trees, noses, horizons, lone farmhouses etc.) are placed along these thirds, or even better at their intersections,  the resulting picture will have more impact, balance and interest than if they were placed at the center.

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Some cameras actually offer the option of superimposing these lines over the viewfinder display as a compositional aid.

In the diagram above, the lines and points of intersection for the rule of thirds are shown. The strongest composition will result from the image’s main subject being placed on or near one of the purple dots.

The image of the West Gate of Angkor Thom above illustrates the rule of thirds in practice, with the stone face of the gate placed approximately at the intersection of the top and right hand lines.

Of course no rule is hard and fast and there are times when the rule of thirds can or should be broken, the most notable example being that of the mirror image reflection or where perfect symmetry plays an important role.

Lead-in Lines

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Picture in your mind an image of rows of lavender bushes in Provence converging towards the sun bursting over the horizon, or a snaking dirt road leading to a forgotten temple. These are classic and very pleasing compositions that owe much to ‘lead-in lines’. A lead-in line is any line (real or implied) that leads the eye into the picture, usually starting at the bottom of the frame guiding the eye upwards through the image. The use of lead in lines need not be restricted to paths or crops in landscape images; they also work well in virtually any context whether from swirls on a shell in a macro (close-up) image or a pair of chopsticks leading towards a bowl of noodles in a restaurant. Once you take the time to look you’ll find that lead in lines are all around you. Use them!

Knowing what to leave out

The sprawling ruins of Beng Melea can be a busy scene to capture. By focusing on a particular tree and crumbling corner of the temple, the encroachment of nature on the relic is captured.

It’s tempting when taking a picture, particularly of a sweeping vista or large temple, to zoom out as far as possible in order to ‘get everything in’. In fact this often doesn’t result in the best image and there is a strong case for picking out single elements of a view that sum up the location or subject. If your subject is very wide attempting to include its entirety in the frame can lead to a composition including acres of empty sky or potentially uninteresting foreground. By focusing in on a particular element, rather than trying to include it all, you will end up with a picture more pleasing to the eye — the perfect memento. Also, before pressing the shutter button, sweep your eyes around the edges of the frame to make sure nothing is intruding into the picture that shouldn’t be – a stray branch or passer by for example.

Space and simplicity

With a simple background, and the eyes and nose of Bayon’s face laid along the rule of thirds line, this image stands out.

Cluttered images rarely work and simplicity is almost always more effective. Think of a lone poppy in a field of barley, an empty pier leading into a lake or a portrait with an out of focus background. Part of what makes these images work is the use of space. One strong subject, preferably placed according to the rule of thirds, with an unobtrusive background is a good recipe for photographic success.

Fun with camera settings

With today’s modern cameras, the sheer complexity of the available settings can seem overwhelming. In this blog I will attempt to explain three of the most important settings and how adjusting them can improve your travel photos…

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ISO is the measure of sensitivity to light for camera sensors and film. The higher the ISO the more sensitive to light a camera’s sensor (or film’s emulsion if you haven’t transitioned to digital) becomes. Adjusting the camera’s ISO can be a very useful thing in low light situations, although there is a price to pay for this increased sensitivity in the form of grainer and less detailed images. The performance of modern cameras at high ISO setting is getting better year by year but as a rule it is still preferable to use the lowest ISO possible in any given situation. Once you have selected the aperture you require for your image set your ISO to the lowest setting that still allows for the shutter speed necessary to get the shot.

White Balance

Our eyes and brain are incredibly sophisticated — we always see a white object as true white whatever the lighting conditions, but in fact light has a ‘temperature’ which can produce a colour cast in photographs.  The colour temperature of light is essentially how cool or warm it looks. The light from a candle or old fashioned tungsten light bulb is warm, while the light from the sky on a very overcast day is cool.

While most cameras’ Auto White Balance (AWB) setting generally does a fine job, there are instances when a colour cast may be desirable, or when the camera struggles to interpret a neutral colour temperature. Let’s say, for example, that you have set your alarm for 5am in order to get out there and capture that wonderful ‘Golden Hour’ warm morning light. The last thing you want is for your camera’s AWB setting to cool it down by trying to neutralize the colour temperature, losing the feel of the sunrise. For most outside situations the ‘daylight’ white balance setting will give you the most natural and accurate results. In most other situations AWB is the best to go for.

In the image of Angkor Wat above the ‘daylight’ white balance option was selected to capture the sunrise colours in the sky accurately and to stop the camera from making unwanted adjustments.


Modern cameras have clever light metering systems that can assess the scene in front of you and generally produce well exposed images. Most cameras have at least 3 metering systems and understanding how they work (and when they fail) will help you produce better exposed photos.

In order to achieve a correct exposure it’s useful to know that your camera is trying to produce a mid-tone grey average for any given scene. In a scene with light and dark areas fairly evenly spread, a camera can cope fairly well using its default ‘evaluative’ (Canon) or ‘matrix’ (Nikon) metering system. The camera’s meter will struggle however when the entire scene is either very light (think snowscapes) or very dark (night time).  If you ever find yourself trying to take a picture of a white owl against a field of snow, you will probably find that the camera produces an under-exposed image, the reason being that the camera is trying to average all that white to a mid grey. Although rather counter-intuitive, in this situation it’s necessary to manually over expose your image either using ‘manual’ mode on your camera or the ‘exposure compensation’ option.  The inverse will apply in a very dark scene.

In situations where the lighting around the focus of the photo and the rest of the frame are vastly different (for example a person in bright light at the end of a dark tunnel) the camera will tend to overexpose the picture and all of the detail in the bright area will be lost. This is where ‘partial’ and ‘spot’ metering modes come into play. Both these systems meter only a percentage of the scene (a 10% and 3% circle in the center of the viewfinder respectively), making them more accurate and incredibly useful when a very small area in a picture needs to be metered correctly.

When Black and White makes the best shot

The ancient temples, rocky ruins and limestone cliff’s of the Southeast Asian landscape lends itself to a new way of photographing the world …

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Some black and white images are simply classics; Ansel Adams’ ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ or ‘West Gate – Angkor Thom’ by local Siem Reap-based photographer John McDermott are good examples. While certain pictures are well suited to the black and white (B&W) medium, others lose their impact once stripped of colour. What types of images naturally lend themselves to monochrome?

With historical sites like the temples of Angkor or Bagan, B&W brings an antique feel to the scene. This is perfect when trying to convey the great age of the monuments and so often works well. For other subjects the issue can often be more subtle.

Being able to visualize a B&W image from the colour image seen through a camera’s viewfinder is key — it’s important to be able to imagine how the colours in the composition will translate into different shades of grey.

For example a B&W conversion of a purple flower against a green background will not work well — the purple and the green will convert to very similar greys causing the flower to become ‘lost’ in the background. An image of similar grey tones will lack impact, particularly if shot on an overcast day without shadows.

The most successful B&W pictures generally contain a wide range of tones right through from pure black to pure white with a complete spectrum of greys in between.

Without colour to provide contrast, strong shapes defined by shadowing are also crucial for a successful B&W image. Although the colour temperature of the light found early in the morning and late in the afternoon may not be as important to a B&W photo as it is to one of colour (think back to my blog on the Golden Hour and the benefits of warm light), the lighting for monochromatic shots is still important. Side lighting found when the sun is low in the sky can improve your shots as it will highlight any textures that are present in the form of stone work, clouds or foliage. Side lighting really helps to bring the most out of these textures so always keep in mind the angle of the light hitting your subject.

Lines and particularly patterns that can go virtually unseen in a colour image may jump out when converted to B&W. Try to see form as well as colour when searching for your monochrome compositions. Subjects like leaves, stone textures, architectural details and repeating elements such as fence posts or temple columns often make successful B&W photos.

The photo above of The Bayon temple in Cambodia’s Angkor Park was taken as a colour image and converted to B&W in Adobe Photoshop. Removing the colour from the picture works well in this particular image as it focuses attention on the form and texture of the stone faces and brings out the clouds in the sky.

It should be mentioned that for best results, your camera should never be set to B&W mode. Instead pictures should be converted from colour images using your photo processing software after the fact. Not only do you also get to keep a colour version of your shot (which you may in the end decide works better) but you have far more control over your final monochrome image. If you are shooting RAW this will not be an issue as all information including colour is preserved.

A Journeys Within guest blog

We love it when Journeys Within guests share their experience with us! Matt, one of our recent guests, sent us a link to a blog of his travels in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos — a great reminder of just how much there is to see in Southeast Asia…


Below are a few of our favourite shots from his blog.

From the Grand Temple in Bangkok.
Buddhas all in row among the ruins of the former Thai capital, Ayutthaya.
Temple ruins in Ayutthaya.
Luang Prabang
One of the many great views in Luang Prabang.
And then one of the many smiling faces in Bangan.
One of Bangan’s pagoda view from Shwesandaw temple.
Some of the stilted houses along Inle Lake.
Gliding through the water on Myanmar’s Inle Lake.
Hua Hin
Swimming monkeys off the beaches of Hua Hin off the coast of Thailand.

Fun with Shutter Speeds

Whether you want to blur or capture objects in motion, adjusting your camera’s shutter speed is the key. Here Holly explains how to bring your photos to life …

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The world is in motion; more often than not there’s something moving, flowing or flapping! Expressing that motion brings pictures alive; transforming them from a static record to a dynamic image. There are certain classic subjects that automatically spring to mind when thinking of captured motion in images: smooth, milky water flowing over the falls, blurred people milling around a train station or star trails in the night sky. In each example, a part of the image is blurred by the motion of the subject — the water, people or stars – while the stationary parts of the picture remain sharp.

In order to capture the desired image using a slow shutter speed, a low ISO of 100 (or lower if your camera will allow it), should be selected. In fact, it is best practice to use as low an ISO as lighting allows to ensure cleaner pictures with less noise.

Setting your camera mode dial to Shutter Priority (either Tv or S depending on your brand of camera) will allow you to choose your shutter speed and ISO while allowing the camera’s metering system to automatically set the correct aperture for proper exposure.

The precise shutter speed needed will depend on how fast the subject to be blurred is moving — the slower the object you are looking to blur, the slower the shutter speed will need to be. For example, to blur a person moving at a walking pace a shutter speed of approximately ¼ of a second is needed, whereas blurring clouds in the sky can require as much as a minute.

You only have to look at the work of some of the great modern landscape photographers, such as David Noton, or Joe Cornish to see the beauty that can be captured with a slow shutter speed, but there is a price to pay – camera shake!

Accepted wisdom dictates that the lowest shutter speed at which a camera can be hand held without the images suffering from the unwanted fuzziness of camera shake is the inverse of the focal length of the lens. In other words, if your lens is set to a focal length of 50mm then camera shake will occur at shutter speeds slower than 1/50 second; if you are zooming in to 200mm then that speed increases to 1/200 second.

As previously mentioned, blurring the moving elements of an image only works when the static parts of that image retain their sharpness. The image above, taken on the Thai island of Koh Phangan was shot using a shutter speed of 30 seconds. All moving elements: the sea, boats and clouds are blurred whereas the jetty, foreground rocks and distant hills are sharp.

Luckily, for those looking to experiment with slow shutter speeds, a tripod will eliminate any and all camera shake leaving the stationary parts of your images crisp and clear.

Of course, sometimes we want to achieve the opposite effect and to freeze motion – for example capturing every droplet of water in a fountain or a bird in flight. To do this simply select a fast shutter speed – around 1/500 second for water and 1/1000 second for fast moving objects like cars or animals.  In low light conditions you will need to increase the camera’s light sensor by increasing the ISO, but be aware that this will lead to deterioration in the quality of the image. (High ISO settings are used when the photographer wants to hand hold cameras in low light situations.)

So if you are thinking of taking your travel photography to the next level and plan to experiment with longer shutter speeds why not pack a tripod in your luggage next time you hit the road?

Shutter Speed Guidelines

The best method of determining what works for the subject in question and for your own desired results is simply to experiment, but the shutter speeds given here will provide some rough guidelines.

To blur motion:

Blurring fast moving water (e.g. a river or waterfall)

1/8 second

People walking

1/4 – 1/2 second

Waves in the sea while retaining some detail

1 second

Water in the sea to create a smooth effect

15 – 30 seconds*

Moving clouds in the sky

8 seconds – 1 minute*

Creating traffic trails at night

20 seconds

Distinct star trails

10 minutes

* Extremely bright condition require additional filters to avoid overexposure. More will be covered on that topic in a later blog.

To freeze motion:

Running people or bicycles

1/250 second

Droplets of water in a fountain or waterfall

1/500 second

Fast moving cars, motorbikes or animals

1/1000 second