How to take better holiday snaps by Ginny Light
Ginny Light improves her travel photography on an active weekend in Slovakia; plus 10 tips for better photos
My camera is normally pointed at my friends and family on holiday, at grandiose monuments, at huge ice cream sundaes or pretty views. This time, it was directed at a drop of dew on a Horsehoe Vetch in a meadow at sunrise, shafts of light between tall silver birches, or a rusty metal scoop in a derelict cow shed… this would be a holiday photo album like no other.
The brief was a long weekend of photography specialising in the landscapes and waterfalls of Slovakia, but in three days we’d photographed the triumphs and tribulations of man and nature in just about every condition the latter could throw at us.
I’m a keen amateur when it comes to SLR photography – but there’s only so far enthusiasm will go when knowledge is lacking.
Understanding the principles of aperture and shutter speed are all very well, but when you’re being bustled by hawkers in an Istanbul market or your travelling companions are tapping their feet over your umpteenth attempt to get an arty shot of a San Francisco fire hyrant, the camera inevitably gets flicked to auto.
I know I’m not the only one – the technology has become more affordable, and digital photography has opened doors, but the skill set has not caught up. We’re bombarded with stunning travel photography, be it in magazines, on photo sharing websites like Flickr, or in photography competitions, such as our own Times Citizen Traveller, but knowing a good shot when you see one doesn’t make you a good photographer.
Going on this holiday, I’d hoped to see a part of eastern Europe that has intrigued me for a long time, albeit through the lens of a camera, and finally get to grips with that manual function.
The trip is open to allcomers, but I was most clearly on the steepest learning curve of the nine of us. My companions feined ignorance to reassure me, but when we loaded our bags into the minibus at Krakow airport, and mine was the only one whose clothing bag outsized my equipment bag, it was clear I had some margin to make up.
Aged between 31 and late 50s, made up of two couples, three women and two men travelling solo, my companions were an eclectic bunch, among them a retired fireman, a school teacher, a garden centre manager and a lawyer.
Unusually, I never found out what the others did – we were there to escape the 9 to 5 and indulge our hobby – small talk was about filters and tripods, not boardrooms and classrooms.
We had all come across the holiday in different ways. Beverley was an avid consumer of photography forums and picked up an online thread on it, while Katy had seen an offer in a travel magazine. Despite receiving a kit list and rough itinerary, none of us knew what to expect.
The two-hour transfer from Krakow across the border to Slovakia gave us a taste of the landscapes to come – lush U-shaped valleys, wooden chalet-style houses with cows tethered in the gardens and the snow-capped Tatra mountains looming large.
The region offers every panorama for the budding photographer, a quality recgonised by Matt Jevons, who started Tatra Photography in 2003 after he fell for Tereska, a Slovak national, now his jocular sidekick. The two ferry guests from the airport, and Tereska provides translation on the rare occasions when Matt’s pigeon Slovakian is thwarted.
Matt is a knowledgeable and passionate photographer in his own right, but employs a pro on his trips to provide tuition, although only in the loosest sense of the word. Nick Jenkins was our pro, an affable Welshmen whose thigh-slapping humour and jolly vernacular were just the ticket at 5am.
I was braced for a classroom-style briefing each morning and some handouts on f-stops, but Nick and Matt’s approach is thankfully less didactic. Recognizing the broad spectrum of abilities and aims among the group, Nick made himself available for questions and advice, pottering between us at shoot locations and scrolling through shots at the end of the day.
Too often photography holidays employ a pro who all but presses the shutter on your shots, giving detailed instructions on the composition and camera settings, only to then disappear for a couple of hours to get stock shots to sell to picture libraries back home.
Nick took a few of his own shots, but used them to provoke ideas among us, and rather than issue flat instructions, he let us experiment.
I only realised how much I’d picked up when, crouching among buttercups and sweet meadow grass at dawn on the last day, I used a graduated neutral density filter to take the glare off the rising sun, manual focus to sharpen the miniscus on a dew drop, and self timer to steady the camera. The aperture setting was low to get that gorgeous blurring behind the dewy grass and beyond it the soft orange orb of the sun.
Three days previously, using the manual settings to capture the glistening meadow at dawn was something I’d only have dreamed of – and given I’d have been tucked up in bed, I probably was dreaming of just that.
We were staying in a penzion, a Slovak guesthouse that’s like a B&B, but with hearty home cooking in the evening. It was clean, comfortable and run by the warm and locacious Dzugas family, whose English was faultless and whose cuisine amounted to the filling, simple fayre that one craved after a day in the outdoors.
We spent the first and third night in their company and the second in a mountain cottage, a somewhat misleading name for the lodges that feed and house walkers, climbers and cyclists in the Tatra.
We’d spent the first afternoon practising composition at a somewhat brisk and soggy location. It was a pretty lake, but shrouded in heavy cloud. Between blowing on my hands, my photos did little to bring the landscape to life, and it was a welcome challenge to be tackling the climb up to Zelene Pleso at 1,551 metres on day two.
It was touch and go whether we’d go – heavy rain had dogged the region for the four weeks before we’d arrived, and on our first evening a particularly heavy and at times spectacular thunderstorm ensued for eight hours. In the morning we heard reports of villagers 15km away being airlifted off their roofs to safety. While Matt contacted mountain rescue to assess our departure, Nick took us to a derelict former co-operative farm to escape the showers and satisfy our itchy shutter fingers.
The rain hardly eased but Matt assured us our ascent was safe, and we took off as a team decked in Goretex for the three-odd hour climb to the top.
As we soon learnt, Matt’s amble is another man’s hike… The path was broad but bouldered and the gradient rarely eased, making hiking with heavy camera equipment quite a challenge. Incredibly, the shots we took gave little indication of the tough conditions – the colours of the forest looked jewel-like in the rain. There were rocks blanketed in lurid spongy moss, streams bursting at the banks with water showering off boulders and pine trees glistening with tear drops of rain.
The welcome at the top was worth it. The cottage overlooked a perfect circular glacial lake in a natural amphitheatre of steep scree slopes. Snow was nipping at the heels of the cottage steps. We wearily climbed them and needed little encouragement to throw off our layers and walking boots to sit down to a tea.
The tea recipes in Tatra huts are closely guarded secrets. The delicious brews are made from a concoction of spring flowers and honey and are the drink of choice for those not opting for a schnapps with a beer chaser.
We watched the weather lash the huge windows of the cottage for the afternoon, while we mulled over the morning’s photos. At times the cloud became so thick that we might well have floated thousands of feet up – there was no point of reference to say we were still anchored to earth.
The morning brought better news and we were up before the larks to photograph the mountains before the sun rose at 4.45. It produced some stunning photos, which warmed hearts after a chilly wait staring longingly at the horizon. Warm hands came later, wrapped around a tea back at the cottage over a breakfast of cheese and ham. It was time to return to the foothills and our penzion.
The by-then familiar 4am alarm call was less bracing second time round, although there were some who couldn’t face it. Those of us who did were duly rewarded.
I can now attest there are few pleasures more wonderful than being slowly warmed by the rising sun in a sweet-smelling meadow. The gentle buzz of insects gradually coming to life was the only noise bar the sporadic shutter clicks of seven cameras.
We were all silenced, not so much by the surroundings, but by the focus – we had one last chance to get that perfect holiday snap – and there wasn’t an over-sized ice cream or crumbling monument in sight.
Ten tips to better holiday photos
1. Be patient when photographing landscapes, scenes, wildlife and people. Find a good spot, wait and watch for the right moment. The light might change, a subject might move or a small detail might catch your eye. Your patience will be rewarded. See the sunrise pictures over the meadow, above.
2. If the light isn’t good enough to do justice to the colours, think about processing the photo in black and white.
3. You don’t always need sky in a landscape photo. It can look over exposed and take the eye away from more interesting details – see the pictures of the lake scene above.
4. Look for boulders, logs or other objects to break up the foreground of landscape scenes – again see pictures of the lake scene above for an example. Break the picture into gridlines by thirds, horizontally and vertically, and try to put the object on an intersection of the lines.
5. A road, track, railway line, power line, path or other line to follow can help draw the eye into the photo – see the final meadow image, above.
6. When you take a picture of an animal, get its eye in focus – see the duck picture above.
7. Don’t patronise the viewer by giving them the whole scene – sometimes a snippet is more interesting – see the picture of the stone steps above, the bridle and scoop in the barn, and the details of the rusting car.
8. If you want to take someone’s picture, you need to decide whether to take it subtly, without them noticing, or whether it’s better to ask their permission. This varies by culture, gender, country, and whether kids are involved. In the case of picture above of the woman with the headscarf, we asked for her photo. To begin with she posed, but it’s worth waiting a moment for people to relax, then catch them in a more natural pose.
9. Don’t rush to delete pictures off the camera if they don’t look good. See them on a larger screen first and consider the option to crop them, convert to black and white, and so on.
10. Objects look better in threes than in fours – if you take a picture of a group of trees, for example, try to get three in the frame, as it’s easier on the eye.
Need to know
Ginny Light was a guest on the Lakes & Waterfalls of the Tatra mountains weekend.
The company will send out a kit list ahead of the trip, however much of the camera kit is optional and can be borrowed from the pro or other guests on the trip. The clothes recommended by Tatra Photography are essential though, and it’s wise to heed their advice on taking good walking boots, waterproofs, layers, gloves and a hat. I’d also recommend taking some snacks to have between meals – we took cereal bars and were glad of them on the sunrise shoots and the hill climb.