Five reasons to leave your camera at home

When packing for that dream trip, a camera is usually high on the list of essential items. Actually, it’s not as important as some people think. Here are five reasons to leave your camera at home.

One less thing to worry about

Besides a wallet, what could be more tempting than a nice flashy camera? Travelers get their cameras stolen all the time, and they not only have to undergo financial loss and wasted time reporting the theft, but have the added nastiness of knowing some criminal is looking at photos of their family.

It puts a barrier between you and the people

Nothing makes you stand out more than pointing a camera at a complete stranger. An unsuspecting market stall owner or farmer or palace guard is busy trying to do his or her job, and suddenly some tourist comes along and sticks a big lens in their face. Not a good way to get the locals to warm up to you. In some places, posing for photos has become a business and you’ll be promptly asked for cash after you take a shot, or be badgered by flocks of children asking for their photo to be taken. Some countries have strict rules about what you can photograph. I once got told off by a cop in Tehran because I took a photo of a statue. The statue was fine, but including the post office behind it was forbidden because it was a government building. With no camera in sight, you’ll get a lot less harassment.
Really, does anyone care?
There’s nothing quite as boring as looking at someone else’s holiday snaps. Oh sure, your family and friends will make admiring noises and ask to see more, but that’s because they like you. They’d like you more if you closed the photo album or computer and took them out for a drink.

It can interfere with the moment

When my wife and I attended an archaeology conference in Oxford, we and the other participants got invited to walk among the stones of Stonehenge at dawn. As the sun rose between two of the standing stones it cast an eerie glow through the mist. Everyone hurried to take a picture while I stood there in awe. The conditions were such that nobody got a perfect shot. I ended up with the best memory of the event, still vivid after seven years, because I was actually looking at the sunrise instead of trying to capture it. (Full disclosure: this was mostly due to the fact that my wife was holding our camera at that moment, otherwise it would be her bragging right now.)

Over at Postsecret, where people send in heartfelt messages and confessions on anonymous postcards, someone who says he plays Mickey Mouse at Disneyland tells parents not to rush over and take a picture of their kid cuddling him because the best part of his job is seeing the kid’s face light up at meeting him. Taking a shot distracts both him and the kid from a magical moment. Who are we to disagree with Mickey Mouse?

You can get better pictures elsewhere
Chances are you’re not a professional photographer. Even if you are, when you’re on vacation you probably don’t have the time or inclination to take professional quality photos anyway. The pros work under ideal conditions with expensive equipment, and often wait hours, days, or even weeks for the perfect shot. Benefit from and reward their labor by buying postcards and coffee table books full of amazing images of the places you’ve been. Or check out our Photo of the Day section.

So when you’re packing for your next vacation, rethink what you’re putting in your bags. Your trip might just be the better for it.


Through the Gadling Lens: your questions answered!

As promised, this week I thought I’d answer some of the really great questions many of you have sent in. I’m going to try to do this monthly, so keep sending in those great questions to

Let’s get started!

Question 1:

I have a nice Canon Digital Rebel XTI and I admit I mostly use it on the automatic setting. My question is… what do you do when you go in someplace where the flash is not allowed? For example, we went to visit Graceland this summer and I turned the flash off but almost all of my photos are blurry. My camera has a “flash off” setting then it autofocuses and auto sets the apertures and shutter speed.

Is it my lens? Is it me?

Judy (a fellow Texan)

Hi, Judy —

You’ll be happy to learn it’s likely not you or your lens. It’s probably your ISO setting. You might remember in an earlier post, I talked a bit about ISO — the number of “light catchers” you might need to capture light. The more light you have, the fewer light catchers you’ll need; in less light, more light catchers are required. If you have your camera set to a low ISO (i.e., too few light catchers), the slightest shake is going to give you blur. In this case, you need to figure out how to really crank up your ISO — to, say, over 1000 — and the blur will likely disappear.

Once you’ve figured out ISO, you might find you prefer your shots without flash — they tend to be a much closer representation to what you actually see, rather than completely washed out in the light of a flash. The image below as taken in a dimly lit coffee house/art gallery here in Houston, without a flash:

See what I mean? A flash would’ve created a white light without any shadow nuances — but in the above, you notice the warmth of the available incandescent light, communicating the ambiance surrounding the painting far more accurately than a flash would. The above image was shot at an ISO of 1000.

Good luck!

Question 2:

I have a question. How much processing do you do? Do you crop a lot of shots (or otherwise process them) or do you WYSIWIG (“what you see is what you get”)? And do you rename them all or leave them numbered in your files on the computer?


Hi, Wanda —

The other day, I was surfing the web and came across a photographer who promised her clients “an hour of post-camera processing on each image.”

An hour?!?

Don’t get me wrong, her images are beautiful, but I can’t imagine what she must be doing for an hour on each image — I certainly don’t process my images that much (I spoke of how I process most of my images in my last post); I spend maybe a minute or two on each image — five minutes at the most.

As for cropping, I only crop for size, but not to edit. My reason for this mostly has to do with standard print sizes: in normal mode, my camera shoots images at 4288 pixels x 2848 pixels at a resolution of 300 dots per inch — all a fancy way of saying that if I want to print an image it sizes down nicely to 4 inches x 6 inches, with no cropping necessary. If, however, I want to print a 5×7 or an 8×10, some cropping will be necessary to get the size right.

I don’t, however, crop an image to get an objectionable item out of a shot — as I mentioned here, when I look through the viewfinder, I scan to see if there’s anything I wouldn’t want in the shot first, before I squeeze the shutter.

And finally, when it comes to archiving my photos, I pretty much leave them named as they are, and file them in a folder titled with the date I took the shot. And that’s it. Isn’t that awful? I am, however, in the market for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which I hear allows you to tag images and do all kinds of other wonderful things related to archiving — as soon as I purchase it, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Wanda followed up her question with another:

Question 3:

In your Gadling post, you talked about sharpening the images you take. Being new to digital photography and not having any experience with Photoshop … or the like .. I really don’t know what that means.


Hi again, Wanda —

Sharpening an image means what it sounds like: using Photoshop (or your favourite photo-editing software) to make the details of an image sharper, or more distinguishable. Paradoxically, however, in Photoshop, the way you sharpen an image is to “unsharp mask.”

I know, I know, it makes no sense.

To show you how it works, though, here’s an image of my friend Sam, taken late last week, before I sharpened the image:

Can you get over those eyes?

Okay, so here’s the same image, “sharpened” — a bit more than I’d normally sharpen an image, but I wanted to make sure you saw the difference. To sharpen an image in Photoshop, I go into the toolbar and click “Filter,” and then under “Sharpen” I click “Unsharp Mask.” After playing with the range a bit, I get this:

See how you can see more detail in his hair, his eyes, and each little freckle starts to pop? Sharpening an image takes some practice — too much sharpening, and the image starts to look downright scary — but done properly, it can make your images look really clean and detailed. It’s a lovely little photographer’s “trick.”

Question 4:

Can you give suggestions on how people can get pictures taken of them that don’t show that “deer in the headlights” look of complete and utter terror at being photographed because they hate how they look?

Green Yogurt

Ah, yes, Green Yogurt, the age-old question: how to take a “natural” looking photograph. Unfortunately, I certainly can’t give advice on how to pose to have your photograph taken — people either tend to be comfortable in front of the camera, or they’re not. I
do, however, have a few tricks that I use when I’m taking a portrait to get people to relax:

(a) I lie.

I attended a conference earlier this year, and I knew my friend Kristin would be there. I wanted to take her photograph, and she describes herself as being “notorious for having that deer-in-the-headlights look” in photographs. I knew that I was going to have to make her feel a bit more comfortable in front of the camera in order to get a good shot.

So I lied to her and told her I wasn’t taking her picture.

Basically, I said something vague like, “Don’t worry, I’m not shooting now. I’m just testing the light.” And I kept talking to her, all the while furrowing my brow and fiddling with the camera after each shot, and pretending not to be paying any attention to what she was doing — in the meantime, of course I was taking the shot:

And I love how it turned out.

(b) I talk and joke incessantly

This is related to the above: Once I’ve lied and told my subject I’m not taking their picture, I don’t ever tell them when I do start taking their picture. And then, basically we start joking, and laughing, and I’ll purposefully say something outrageous, and hopefully they’ll laugh in shock, and I’ll shoot.

One particularly memorable occasion was during a few days away with some friends on the Oregon coast, and I asked my friend Brené if I could take her portrait. She reluctantly agreed. We walked out on the beach, and were joking about nothing in particular. She sat down, we kept talking, and one of us said something outrageous. She threw her head back in laughter, and I took the shot — resulting in one of my favourite portraits ever:

(c) When it comes to children, I have them tell the jokes.

Everyone knows that when it comes to photographs, no one can do “Cheese Face” better than a kid. But I recently learned a trick: rather than me trying to tell a kid a joke, I have the kid tell me a joke. The image of Sam at the top of this post was taken while he was telling me a joke, and the image below? Taken last year while my daughter Alex was telling me something she found exceedingly funny:

The fact is, kids totally crack themselves up. (For what it’s worth, Alex’s joke wasn’t that funny.)

And finally:

Question 5:

I know that in an ideal world, I’d rather shoot in shade or filtered light, than in bright sunlight. But if I must shoot a subject (person, scene, etc.) at high noon with harsh light, what tips do you have for a successful shot?


Hi, Jen,

You know what? While convention does say that you should shoot in shade, and in truth, overcast skies are lovely for avoiding weird shadows and that sort of thing, I’m actually a fan of shooting in harsh sunlight (see Brené’s image, above). In harsh-light circumstances, I think the best thing to do is embrace the sun as a tool, and use it to help create your image. A couple of ideas:

Have your subject close his/her eyes, and look into the sun:

Or use the sun to illustrate translucence:

Or better still, break all the rules and shoot directly into the sun, and capture some of that great lens flare, or a cool silhouette:

So I maintain it’s possible to get great images in harsh sunlight — it just means sometimes you have to get creative.

So, that’s it for this edition of Through the Gadling Lens — but please, keep sending your great questions to, and I’ll try to tackle them in next month’s FAQ post. Next week, we’ll be back to our regular scheduled programming.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.

Through the Gadling Lens: Tips for choosing which vacation shots to take

As I type this, I’m about half-way through my trip to England. It’s a whirlwind trip of visiting family, seeing long-lost friends, making new acquaintances and cramming in sight-seeing daytrips when I can — not to mention fighting a rampant case of jetlag. But through it all (and as you may well imagine), I’m taking a lot of photographs … which has got me thinking about how I choose the images that I choose to shoot. I mean, why do I take one shot over another? Is there a “right way” to shoot a vacation?

Obviously, the answer to that question is about as varied as the number of people who own cameras: the “right way” differs for each person. And in truth, the way I shoot for my own personal use (that is, to capture as many vivid memories of a trip as possible) is far different from the way I shoot for professional purposes. But I’ve heard time and time again from people who say “my vacation photographs don’t move me as much as my own memories do,” and I think that’s really unfortunate. So I thought I’d share some of the ways that I shoot my vacation, in the hope that perhaps it will trigger something for you.
1. Shoot the iconic shots. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how many times I’ve heard friends say “I tried to shoot a photograph of myself in front of the Eiffel Tower, but I couldn’t get the tower and me in the shot!” First of all, don’t be afraid to shoot from weird angles (get someone to lie down on the ground and shoot up at both you and the tower, for example), but even more obviously, you could always forget about trying to get in the shot — just shoot the icon. Find something your destination is known for, and capture an image of that … just that. Remember, you’re going to be shooting lots of additional images, so it’s okay if some of them don’t include you or your travel buddies. And trust me, even if it seems cliche to you at the time, once you return home you’re going to wish you had that picture of the cable car in San Francisco, or Big Ben in London.

2. Get portraits of your travel companions. Again, this may seem like a given, but understand I’m not just talking about an image of your spouse standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon (although, done right, that would probably make a pretty good shot as well). I’m talking about getting in close and taking an actual portrait of your wife, husband or friends who are with you. I mean, if your holiday is going well, it’s going to show on their faces, you know? They’ll be relaxed, or excited, or thrilled — and nothing triggers great memories like capturing the emotions on their faces. So grab your camera (remembering what focal length lens works for portraits), get close to your companions, and capture their expressions.

And one more thing, while we’re on the subject: when it comes to taking portraits of your kids, particularly when they’re on vacation, it can be damned near impossible to get them to smile sweetly and look into the camera. Don’t let this stop you: just get down on their level, get as close as you can without getting smacked in the face by their flailing hands and feet, and take the shot. You’ll find that your kids just being kids will make far more appealing shots than posed images of them grimacing while shouting “CHEESE!!!”

3. Get portraits of total strangers. This isn’t about walking up to the locals and asking them to pose for a portrait (although if you’re brave enough, by all means do it — just remember to be polite and respectful in your request). For me, one of the easiest ways to get some images of the locals is to take images of buskers: people who entertain on street corners, in subways, or in parks. In fact, I’m always mindful to keep some change in my pockets for just this very reason — and then, armed with my 70-200mm lens, I can take nice, intimate portraits, and thank my subject with the equivalent of a few dollars.

4. Grab images when your travel buddies aren’t paying attention. This is sort of similar to tip #2 above, but different: in this case, you’re still trying to capture expressions and emotions, but this time your subjects have no idea you’re photographing them. In fact, on this particular trip, I’ve managed to capture some great images of my father-in-law and his wife, as well as my brother-in-law and his wife, and in both instances, they had no idea I was taking the shot. But I think both shots the atmosphere at the time I took the image and will certainly be wonderful reminders of how much I love being around them. Happily, they’re pretty pleased with the shots as well:

5. Be inspired by colour and texture. I don’t know about you, but I find some of my most vivid memories occur because of the vibrant colours and unfamiliar textures that a foreign land often has to offer. For this reason, I usually remain on the lookout for images which take my breath away, merely because I’m shocked by the colours: a vivid sunset, bright flowers, or crystalline oceans. If something makes me catch my breath because if its hue, you can pretty much guarantee that I’m going to grab a shot.

6. Shoot in situ. At some point in every vacation, I find that I have some down time: I’m sitting on the beach relaxing, or in a cafe watching the city wake up and start its day, or simply watching the sun set. Invariably, I grab my camera and just shoot what’s right in front of me — it may not be a perfect image, but it’s generally enough to remind me exactly what I was doing when I was really relaxing into my travels.

7. Let what you see frame what you see. I know this makes no sense, but perhaps the following will explain: the other morning, my father-in-law took me into the Forest of Dean so that I could grab some images of the amazing fall foliage that’s currently all over the English countryside. We drove into a public park called Cannop Ponds, and I got out of the car to walk into the forest.

As I was walking through, all of a sudden the branches of the trees parted, and I caught a glimpse of some swans gliding along a small lake. It was breathtaking. Now, I could’ve walked a bit closer and taken a shot of the swans, but really, what was amazing to me was the sudden appearance of these beautiful birds through the branches. And so, I took a photograph, letting the branches frame the shot:

Again, technically not the best shot in the world, but it captures a moment I’ll never forget.

8. When in doubt, don’t choose. Sometimes, when I’m taking a shot, I find myself a bit torn: should I take a photograph of this delicious margarita right in front of me, or the image of my husband and daughter snorkeling off in the distance? Or should I take just one shot of my kid cracking up? In these cases, I just shoot everything, and then let the diptych (or series of shots) tell the story:

9. Every once in a while, give someone else the camera. I’m actually horrible at this: I much prefer to be behind the camera, rather than in front of it. But if I’m honest, sometimes it looks like I never go on vacations with my family! For this reason, I’m trying to teach myself to hand my camera over to my husband, or to whoever else might be traveling with me. It takes an effort not to be self-conscious in front of the camera, but as time passes and I look back on the shots, it’s nice to be able to see how I was enjoying the experience myself.

With that, I’m off to enjoy the rest of my holiday. Please share your tips of how you choose your own images, below. Next week, we’ll answer the age-old question: can point-and-shoots really take as good an image as an SLR? And in the meantime, if you have any questions you’d like to ask, please e-mail me at, and I’ll do my best to answer them in future posts!

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
And for more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.

Tips for taking photos of memorials on Memorial Day

Perhaps you’ve been one of the people jockeying for position to snap a photo of a memorial that other people are also trying to capture. Getting a photo that looks different than what the person standing next to you has taken can be a challenge. Plus, memorials are inanimate objects that might not look all that interesting in those vacation photos after all.

I came across these photo tips for taking photos of memorials from Rambling Traveler . Each are simple to follow and effective. The focus of her shots are memorials in Washington, D.C., but would work anywhere you happen to be.

One of the tips I particularly like is to take photos with people in them. Notice that these are natural shots. There are none of those types where family and friends are looking at the camera.

If you want shots of people reading quotes, don’t think it’s cheating to move someone reading a quote to get a better angle and tell them to stay still while you’re focusing. You’re creating a composition. Sometimes this is necessary to make sure a person isn’t hidden in a shadow, or that the quote is visible. Take more than one shot to make sure you get one that you like.

This photo by David Paul Ohmer on Flickr of the Vietnam War Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery the National Mall has the added detail of the wreath and the small flag. The white hat and the raised arm with the pen pointing at a name also add visual interest. If you look at the larger version, you’ll see reflections of other people. Well done!

Tips for the taking the best photos, or at least passable ones

When I went to Bern, Switzerland by mistake once (I meant to go to Lucerne, but ended up on the wrong train), the only picture I took was of the bear in the bear pit. Because my own camera had broken when I dropped it on the stone floor of the church where William Shakespeare is buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, Great Britain, I was using a borrowed, cheap one on this Switzerland jaunt.

How did I drop my camera? I was donating money of all things. And what was my payback? My picture of the bear looked like it was of a dog–a mangy dog at that. What was I thinking?

See what I mean? And this is the enhanced version!

Why was this the only picture I took in the entire country? Maybe because I didn’t plan ahead about what pictures I’d like to take. I didn’t even know that a bear was the symbol for Bern and there was a live one in the center of town. Plus, I only had a couple hours. I was on my way to Lucerne, after all. I was too busy having an experience to snap pictures of my experience. Still, how depressing.

Gadling reader, Jeff Nolan dropped us a list of picture taking tips that might have helped me out in Bern. One of the tips he passed on is to plan ahead. He suggested that as you look through guide books to plan a trip, think about what photos you want to get beforehand. Then you can decide what time of day will give you the best light. I also would have known why the picture was doomed from the get go. The contrast was lousy. A brown bear next to dull grey cement in late afternoon lighting is not the best. Plus, the bear was so far away, the perspective was off. And I was looking down on him. He was in a pit. Admittedly, I took this picture before I had taken a photography class.

What I also discovered with this class is that it’s important to sweep the edges. That means have your eye look at all sections of what is framed to look for things you don’t want in the picture. Pay close attention to all the edges. Sometimes, we’re so focused on the main subject, we miss what else is in the picture. Move what you don’t want, or adjust. For example, a backpack thrown down in the foreground of the shot might detract from what you want as the focal point. Sometimes you can crop those details out or mask them, but a shot is better if you notice those details in the beginning. Digital photography, I’ve found, makes this a bit trickier because of the lag time.

The above photo was taken at the Circleville Pumpkin Show in Circleville, Ohio this fall. Yep, those are pumpkins. When I was framing this I was paying attention to getting both pumpkins in the shot, the men along with their feet –plus the sign. I didn’t notice the little girl at all until I saw the photos later. Also, what’s that yellow thing on the stage? A piece of trash? I should have moved it. In another photo of the same subject, a woman’s arm is in the frame. She was also taking a picture. I wonder whose picture I was in? It doesn’t hurt to take several of the same shot so you are at least assured of one turning out okay. The men were important to provide scale for the pumpkins. The little girl actually added interest since she indicates the presence of spectators. Because one man is looking at his watch, and the other man is looking at him, that shows natural movement instead of a posed shot.

Now, I know to check to the background contrast when I take portraits, and if necessary move people into better lighting so that their features show up. This is particularly important when taking pictures of people with very dark skin, or when people are wearing wide-brimmed hats.

Even though this picture (a scanned photo just like the one of the bear) was taken at the Bay of Bengal in India at dusk, there was enough light that it worked. Plus, the boy with the darkest skin’s head was framed by the lightest portion of the sky. His blue shirt, helped provide contrast, as did the other boy’s tank top. If they had all been without their shirts, this would not have turned out that well.

Jeff’s main point is that if you are cognizant of the shots you take, you can bring home images that will heighten your experience after the fact. I agree, but sometimes, if all you have is a picture of a bear in a pit, it’s better than nothing. That in itself makes a story.

(When I took the photo of the bear out of the album I made, I verified that this is indeed the only photo I took during my short time in Switzerland. Since I was on a tight budget, I only was in Switzerland for a day (night train from Rome to Bern and from Lucerne to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Denmark. That’s one way to save money. )

Jeff also suggested the HP Web site link to “Digital photography tips and techniques: How to take better photos.” This link leads to other excellent photo tips. Thanks, Jeff!