Taking Better Pictures in the Smoky Mountains and Surrounding Area

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Taking Better Pictures

Great Expectations

Your personal knowledge and experience will dictate your expectations. If you are taking an instamatic and one roll of film, your expectations probably fall in the range of none-to-low. If you give it any thought at all, its "the guy at Revco will have the prints ready the next day". The first piece of advice is to chuck the instamatic (sorry Kodak--we make up for it later), and buy a good 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera. The cost, when averaged over its life, is negligible. These cameras are designed with the photographically challenged in mind. Auto focus, built-in flash, several lenses in one (wide angle, normal, and telephoto) are standard features designed to make picture taking fun and easy. With a 35 mm SLR, you can't forget to take the cover off--if you don't remove it , you see nothing! Ideally, you should get one with automatic and manual features (just flip a switch), because after you get comfortable with it, you'll want to try some of the special effects discussed later. Even loading film is now idiot proof. However, as easy as the operation of the latest cameras are, you should have realistic expectations. For example, a 36-exposure roll of film does not necessarily equate to 36 great pictures. My personal experience over the years have taught me that getting 10-12 "good" pictures or 2 to 4 "great" pictures from a roll of film is realistic. Lets explore some of the methods (these are the tips I promised) to increase your chances of improving your travel photos.

Show Me the Light

Available light and the time of day are probably the most important factors to consider, because photography IS exposing film to light. Indoor light or outdoor light, low light or bright, noon-day light--these conditions will determine which film you should use. The best times of the day to expose film are in the morning and the afternoon. The light is less harsh, and the colors are more pleasing. Contrary to what some might think, one of the worst times is high noon on a sunny day. This creates a new set of problems. The strong shadows cast by the high sun causes too much contrast--that is, the brights are too bright and the darks too dark, with too few tones in between. Flash can eliminate some of the contrast and will freeze motion, but its value is limited to short distances.

The speed of your film (ISO rating--the higher the number, the faster the film). The less light you have available, the faster the film speed requirement. However, the faster the film , the more grainy the results (the appearance of which comes from the little silver particles in the film emulsion). Sound complicated? Start with a good middle of the road film speed such as 100-200. Its fast enough to help in low light, but stable enough to prevent graininess.

Work with the light at your back whenever possible. This only works with static subjects, of course. Developing action doesn't care where the light is. However, never face the sun to take a picture unless you are convinced its the only shot you will have. Through-the-lens-light-metering tells the camera you have too much light. It compensates, and the front of your subject is thrown into shadow. The downside to this is the subject, if human, is permanently recorded with a squinty look.

A the Artist Inside

Think in terms of composition and balance. Use natural and imagined frames to compose a scene. For example, frame a scene looking out a window--certainly a natural frame. Use overhanging branches to frame a photo of a house. You get the idea. Use the rule of thirds to affect a balance. That is, divide your frame into thirds--either vertically and horizontally to suit the subject. Then use the imaginary grid to place the image.

Fill the frame. This can be the most effective composition. If you fill the frame, you've solved the question of composition and balance. However, you might want to avoid my experiences with bears.

Little Things Do Make A Difference

Protect your film. Store it in a cool, dry location prior to use. Never place a film container in the sun for any length of time. Heat can ruin the emulsion. Professionals routinely refridgerate their film.

Keep the camera lens clean. Dust particles and smudges can ruin an otherwise great photograph. It's very time consuming and expensive to retouch photographs. The best protection (and cheapest insurance) is to purchase an inexpensive UV (ultraviolet) filter. One can be had for approximately $8 to $15. These little items not only filter out unwanted ultraviolet rays, but they protect the camera lens itself--better to scratch or crack the filter than the lens.

Standardize the film you use--at least until you are comfortable with the results. The bewildering array of choices regarding which film to use (brand, color or B&W, print or slide, indoor or outdoor, speed) can be countered by standardizing. However, this makes it even more important to take more than you think you'll need. Start with Kodak's Gold 100 film, or any of their slide films. Kodak has all those years of research and development going for it--you can't go wrong. Fugi would not be a bad second choice.

Use a Tripod--You can literally eliminate those accidentally blurred--and very frustrating--forgetable photos. A decent tripod can cost as little as $30, and leave you wondering how you got along without one.

Start with slide or transparency film. Transparencies afford you the greatest flexibility. You can always make prints from slides. Transparencies retain the most accurate color data, which is critical if you want to use your photos for other media such as prints, CD-ROM digital files, JPEG format for the World Wide Web (in reality, JPEG digital files use less color information due to limitations on the Web, but you are better off starting with all color information and reducing it for other uses, than starting with too little color data). Furthermore, transparencies retain the luminesance of the original scene on a computer screen. The only downside is you can't color correct transparencies, though resulting prints from the transparencies can be color corrected.

Take the film you'll need with you, and take more than you think you'll need. Film can be much more expensive and difficuly to find when you arrive at your destination.Take extra batteries. The camera won't work without them, and some camera batteries aren't sold everywhere regular batteries are sold. If you are travelling to a foreign location, customs regulations, availability of film and batteries become even more critical.

Film processing and preservation--drugstore vs professionals--are options too few people consider. Drug and department stores promise film and prints overnight, with double prints and a great price. However, they can do this because the entire roll is processed and printed without consideration to individual exposures. Professional processing at a camera store might cost a little more, but special instructions such as lighting conditions used or other special circumstances dealt with more professionally. Custom labs are even more expensive, but they allow you even more control.

Okay, you've planned your shots and executed them while incorporating as many of the tips above as possible. Are you through? Photo preservation is the "followup" referred to earlier. Assuming you took transparencies as recommended above, its now time to back them up. You can make prints from the transparencies, transfer the images digitally to CD-ROM, or create a collage on videocassette or film for use at family gatherings. You can even add special effects such as music, graphics, commentary. Your last act is to store the originals as you did before you began--maintain the transparencies in a cool, dry environment.

If this brief series of tips has piqued your interest in making the effort to take better pictures, you might want to try some special effects--experiment!. While special effects are outside the scope of this article, give some thought to trying some of the following:

- Timed exposures of lights at night, particularly moving objects like stars.

- Try a panorama shot using a tripod: snap a picture; turn the head of the tripod just enough to have your second exposure overlap the first, and so on until you have 4 or 5 overlapping shots you can position in your album later on.

outdoor film indoors renders warm tones

- Deliberately allow an object in motion to blur.

- Try black and white film (our eyes see in color, so black and white forces us to look at things differently.


(1) Buy a good 35mm camera. You can pick up a good used one for under $200.

(2) Standardize. Buy one type of film (try Kodak's consumer color slide film, Elite II) and use it until you are comfortable with the results. Then try other stuff (Kodak's professional speed film with an ASA of 25--if you expose this stuff correctly, you'll think about changing careers).

(3) Invest in a tripod. At least try the small ones that collapse to the size of one of those small umbrellas. When you experience their importance you will naturally graduate to a larger, more stable variety later.

(4) Protect your equipment. Use a padded carrying case. Keep film in a cool, dry, dark place until you use it. The best place to store film long-term is in the refridgerator! Invest in a UV filter.

(5) "Squeeze off" lots of shots. Don't wait for the "perfect" photo. More often than not, perfect shots just happen. If you are clicking away, your chances are improved. Professionals will use two dozen rolls a day. I use 3 or 5 rolls a day. The novice might take one or two rolls of film along and nurture them for the duration of the trip. Who do you think ends up with several really great photos?

(6) Bracket your shots. Be pleased with 10-12 good photos per 36-exposure roll. Be ecstatic with 2 or 3 great ones!

(7) Get professional quality processing.

(8) Properly preserve your results.

(9) Finally, obtain some good books on photography and read them. Several suggestions are listed below.

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Resources: Suggested Reading

There are any number of books on photography in general and travel in particular, but to get a true artist's perspective by arguably photography's greatest technician, read Ansel Adam's "The Camera", "The Negative", and the "The Print"; Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 1984.

If you want to learn more about taking good photographs, and just haven't concentrated on doing something about it, then maybe a workshop is the right path for you. If you can chuck everything and like the idea of getting involved in a photography project for a week, then you can have the encouragement of being surrounded by people who are serious about photography, have a truly unique vacation, and have an instructor by joining a workshop.

Other Web Links

If you want to see good travel photos and their presentation along with another photographer's perspective, visit http://philip.greenspun.com/


We're interested in other points of view, tips, and experiences. This is the forum to share them:

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