Text and photos by Villiers Steyn

This is Part IV of a series of blog posts in which I share with you some of my most valuable travel photography tips.

Follow these links to the previous posts:
Part I
Part II
Part III

1.  Who was there with you?

When they travel, people usually spend the majority of their time photographing what they see (close-ups) and where they are (wider shots), but most forget to show who was there with them. Take some time to compose at least one really striking group photo of you and your travel buddies.

I like taking these photos at sunset. Place your camera on a tripod relatively far from the group (I usually use a 70-200 mm lens at 200 mm) and switch to Manual Mode (M). Expose for the background until you capture a colourful sky and then use your camera flash (preferably a hot shoe flash over that kind of distance) to light up the people.

A group photograph by Villiers Steyn

2.  Take a step back

When I go on guided walks in game reserves and natural parks, I often take a few steps back when we find relaxed animals on foot. This allows me to get photos of the group and the animal(s) in one frame, which better tells the story than photos with only animals or only people in them. I seldom use a large depth of field for these. In stead I use low f-values (which creates a shallow depth of field) and focus either on the animal or, in this case, the people watching the animal.

A photograph by Villiers Steyn

3.  Capture the clouds

There are few scenes I enjoy photographing more than dramatic cloud formations. To capture it best, fit your widest lens (preferably wider than your 18-55 mm kit lens), turn your camera vertically and place the horizon close to the bottom of the frame as opposed to right in the middle, as so many people do instinctively.

Post-processing can be very helpful to bring out contrast in the cloud-filled sky. I’m particularly fond of Adobe Lightroom’s Dehaze slider, located under the Effects panel and the Adjustment Brush in the Develop module, which tends to ‘remove a grey layer’ in parts of the photo that seems hazy.

A dramatic cloud photograph by Villiers Steyn

4.  Climb up high

Changing the angle at which you photograph your subject can make a massive difference in the outcome of the photo. Not only should you bend your knees every now and again to photography small things at eye-level, but you should also try to get some height once in a while.

When travelling, I often climb on top of my bakkie’s roof to photograph landscapes and in this example I climbed up a tower at Bitterpan Wilderness Camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park to get the best possible photo of the camp and the pan in one shot.

A photograph by Villiers Steyn with a different angle

5.  Catch expressions

I enjoy taking candid photos of people so much more than posed ones, and more often than not, they capture a person’s emotions or feelings perfectly. So whenever I’m enjoying an interesting sighting or experience with other travellers, I constantly look over my shoulder to keep an eye on their expressions. Ideally they shouldn’t be aware of the fact that they’re being photographed, otherwise they might become nervous and start looking more unnatural, so use a long zoom lens for short periods at a time to capture candid photos.

A candid photograph by Villiers Steyn

6.  Repetition

Using repetition in your photos is one of the most powerful compositional techniques and is relatively simple when you’re photographing inanimate objects or living things that never move, like a grove of trees. It can, however, be extremely challenging when photographing birds and animals that hardly ever line up perfectly for a striking shot.

When you find a group of animals together, try to find that one angle which captures repetition the best and make sure your burst mode is set to continuous, giving you a chance to get the money shot. It could be a herd of elephants lifting their trunks together when drinking water, two lions yawning at the same time or a pair of dolphins jumping out of the water at exactly the same time.

A photograph of dolphins by Villiers Steyn

7.  Go wide!

As much as I like zooming in close to capture animal portraits, I think my wide-angle lens is my favourite. Zooming out wide allows you to capture so much more than just an animal or an object. It allows you to place it somewhere, capturing the environment it’s in as well. In this case it’s not just a tame elephant, but one being watched by a group of enthusiastic students under a massive tree.

Top tip: Create the star effect seen in this photo by switching to Manual Mode (M), choosing your largest f-value and a shutter speed that balances out the exposure. Make sure to place the sun right on the edge of the subject – it must only just ‘peek around the corner’.

A wide angle photograph by Villiers Steyn

8.  Photograph children

Children are excellent subjects to photograph, because they’re usually fearless and not shy to pose for images. They tend to smile naturally most of the time and can do it for much longer than adults can. With this in mind, I often call over a group of kids to act as models when I’m photographing a specific activity or facility, like this tube slide at a resort in Badplaas. Just remember to ask their parents’ consent first.

A photograph of a child going down a slide by Villiers Steyn

9.  Aim for the stars

Some of the most beautiful travel photos are also the most difficult to take, including those of the stars. Use these steps to give yourself a sporting chance:

Step 1: Use a wide-angle lens (wider than 18 mm) and a tripod.

Step 2: Switch to Manual Mode (M) and choose a shutter speed of 30 seconds and the lowest possible aperture (f-value) – the closer to f/2.8 the better.

Step 3: Push up your ISO-value to 1600.

Step 4: Switch over to Manual Focus on your lens (MF instead of AF) and turn your focus ring all the way to infinity and then bring it back a millimetre. Getting perfect focus on the stars can be very tricky, so may have to try this a few times.

Step 5: Activate the camera’s 2-second timer and take the photo.

Step 6: It will probably take a good 10 or 15 photos before you get the desired result, so play around with your focus, composition and ISO-value (which will influence the brightness of the scene) and don’t hesitate to place a subject like a tree, or safari vehicle in this case, in the foreground.

A photograph of stars by Villiers Steyn

10.  Get that game drive shot

One of my signature shots when I go on safari is the game drive shot that shows the guests on the vehicle while it’s moving. The key is to capture movement in the photo. To do this, fit your widest lens (wider than 18 mm is ideal) and switch over to Manual Mode (M). Choose a low f-value (between f/2.8 and f/5.6) and a slow shutter speed (start on 1/8 sec). Use your ISO-value to balance the exposure – if the photo is too dark, increase the ISO and if it’s too bright, lower it slightly. Now ask the guide to drive a little bit faster than usual and take a few shots in short succession, making sure to focus on the people and holding the camera as still as possible.

A photograph of people on a game drive by Villiers Steyn