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Choosing the Right Camera for your Trip Abroad

Every year I ask myself whether it’s worth the worry and expense of mixing photography with my travels. After my film is developed and I relive my trip through those pictures, the answer is always “Yes!”

Here are some lessons that I’ve learned from the photographic school of hard knocks.

Know your camera before going on your trip. Don’t buy a camera a day or two before you fly. Not every camera works perfectly right out of the box. Before you go, devour the manual and shoot an experimental roll of 24-exposure film, indoors and out. If you don’t understand f-stops or depth of field—and want to—find a photography class or book. Do your learning on Main Street rather than Piazza San Marco.

Look for a new slant to an old sight. Postcard-type shots are boring. Find a unique or different approach to sights that everyone has seen. Shoot the bell tower through the horse’s legs or lay your camera on the floor to shoot the Gothic ceiling. Take nighttime shots. Use foregrounds to add color, depth, and interest to landscapes.

Record the personal details of your trip. Show how you lived, who you met, and what made each day an adventure (such as local schoolboys playing soccer or a close-up of your bug bites)?

Maximize good lighting. Real photographers get single-minded at the magic hours—early morning and late afternoon—when the sun is low and the colors glow. Plan for these times, and capture the bright colors.

Experiment when the lighting is tricky. When the weather’s bad, use it to your advantage. Consider using black and white film for that brooding film noir look. Get good shots in difficult lighting by bracketing your shots and trying several different exposures of the same scene. You may have to throw out a few slides, but one good shot is worth several in the garbage can.

Get close. Show only one subject in your photo. Eliminate distracting backgrounds. Don’t try to include everything in one shot—you always have more film.

People are the most interesting subjects. If you want some great photos, be nervy and take people shots. For a close-up, always ask for permission. To do this in any language, point at your camera and ask, “Photo?” Your subject will probably be delighted. Try to catch people in action. Challenge the boy in the market to juggle his oranges. Many photographers take a second shot immediately after the first one to capture a looser, warmer subject. If the portrait doesn’t turn out well, you probably weren’t close enough.

Prepare to take a quick shot. If you’re shooting manually, practice setting your camera before you come upon a photo-worthy scene. Under-stand depth of field and metering. In a lively marketplace situation—where snapping speedy photos is crucial—I preset my camera’s light meter on the sunlit ground and focus at, say, 12 feet. Now I know that with my depth of field anything from about 10 to 15 feet will be in focus and, if it’s in the sunshine, properly exposed.

Don’t be afraid to hand-hold a slow shot. At most major museums, you’re not allowed to use a flash or tripod. When you take a shot, hold your camera as still as possible. Lean against a wall if necessary. If you have a self-timer, it can click the shutter more smoothly than your finger can. You’ll hear that the focal length of your lens dictates the slowest hand-held shutter speed you can use. For instance, a 50 mm lens should shoot no slower than 1/50th of a second. But you can get decent shots out of the same lens at 1/30th of a second, even 1/15th.

Limit your scrapbook or slideshow. Nothing is worse than suffering through an endless parade of lackluster and look-alike shots. If you’re putting together a post-vacation slideshow, set a limit (maximum two carousels of 140 slides each) and prune your show down until it bleeds. Keep it tight. Keep it moving. Leave the audience crying for more . . . or at least awake.

Consider using a video camera. To a light and fast traveler like me, a still camera is trouble enough. But thousands of amateur videographers happily seeing Europe through their viewfinders can’t all be wrong. In Europe, charging your video camera’s batteries is easy if your camera has a built-in converter. If it doesn’t, you’ll need to get one. And remember, European sockets are different from ours (two round holes for the Continent, three flat prongs for Britain and Ireland). Adapters, which can be tough to find in Europe, are available at your hometown travel accessories or electronics store.

Stow that camera! When not using your camera or camcorder, stow it in your day bag. Many travelers go through their entire trip with a camera bouncing on their bellies. That’s a tourist’s badge that puts a psychological wall between you and Europe. To locals, it screams, “Tourist.”

Choosing the Right Camera

After taking travel photos for the 25 years, I recently found my favorite new toy: a Nikon 990 Coolpix, heralded as the best of the digital cameras. I knew I had entered a new age of travel photography when I spent several hours wading through the manual.

My model is expensive ($900) and needs a pile of accessories. But with this camera I can keep shooting away at a subject until I have it right. And it’s a real plus to be able to share slides with other travelers on the road, making storytelling much more vivid.

Digital cameras ($300-$1,000) allow you to edit your pictures and send them by email. Models come with conventional camera features—zoom lens, flash, and auto and manual focus—as well as a handy Liquid Crystal Display to use as a viewfinder or to review photos just taken.

With a digital camera, you’ll need to accessorize: rechargeable AA batteries with a recharger that works in Europe; an adapter for reviewing slides in the hotel room without draining your batteries; and a mega memory card (128 megabytes, $320, good for 180 high-resolution photos). While my camera blew through regular AA batteries in about an hour of use, the rechargeable nickel-metal hybrid batteries powered my recent 12-day trip on two charges.

Other than the high price and load of extra equipment, the main drawback to going digital is the trouble with finding a place to download your photos. Relatively few European cybercafes have the technology that allows you to download, email, or post pictures to your personal web site. Your best bet is to take along several memory cards; they’re more expensive in Europe.

My digital camera worked great on my last trip, but I also rely on my trusty point-and-shoot. Before purchasing a camera for your travels, talk with salespeople in your local camera shops. Ask friends and neighbors what they use when they vacation. Here’s a short sampler of more camera types to choose from.

Single lens reflex (SLR): Travelers shooting slides should stick with a good SLR ($200-$1,000). These offer both manual and auto-focus features.

Regardless of advertising claims, there’s no real difference between the mind of Minolta and the minds of Pentax, Nikon, and Canon.

Point-and-shoot: Compact little “focus-free” cameras ($25-$50) allow minimal creative control but are almost foolproof in getting a decent picture. More expensive point-and-shoot cameras ($50-$350) are also auto-focus but have a wide-angle 38 mm lens. Models over $100 come with a few helpful bells and whistles and small adjustable zoom lenses of 38 to 70 mm. The best units have a zoom lens from about 28 to 105 mm.

Disposables: The simple choice for an amateur photographer (or one lacking an environmental conscience) is a disposable or “single-use” camera ($7-$15). The panorama version, with a wide-angle lens for 180-degree shots, can be a fun supplement.

Remember, no matter which camera you buy, good shots are made by the photographer, not the camera.