Take vacation photos as good as a pro's

Although he's an award-winning professional travel photographer, Peter Guttman avoids discussing f-stops or film speeds when advising amateurs. Instead, he reaches for one simple, empowering thought, especially when it comes to photographing people.

"Think of yourself more as an explorer than a tourist," he urges. "That helps overcome reticence and automatically gives you a higher sense of bravery and courage. When you do that, you will find very often that people, surprisingly enough, are very welcoming, very interested, and very engaging."

To go beyond merely snapping "I was there" images requires, Guttman says, a more active approach. This method ultimately speaks volumes about a person's caring attitude toward others and the world.

To create travel images with enduring meaning, he suggests giving yourself internal permission to "inject yourself into a space or scene or close to a person."

Guttman's photographs have been published in National Geographic Adventure, Conde Nast Traveler, and other magazines, as well as in a series of Fodor's travel books. In 2000, he was named Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers.

As the father of a 5-year-old, he encourages parents to place a camera in the hands of children as often as possible. This helps them develop a sense of passion and excitement for the visual world.

He thinks the same is true of adults. "I've found that experiences are deepened by thinking visually," he says. "I notice things more intensely, I appreciate sunrises, sunsets, and the quality of light more. I think all my senses are on high alert in thinking in an aesthetic manner."

When taking pictures of people, being too far away produces weaker images, Guttman says, and is often a telltale sign of a beginner. Getting closer makes the emotional sense of the image clearer by capturing the eyes, plus it produces a more striking graphic image.

Even when Guttman focuses on landscapes or cityscapes, he likes to have at least one person in his frame. This helps give a picture emotional impact, as well as a sense of drama and scale.

To illustrate this, he points to a a picture he took of a Southwest desert bluff at sunset. The scene is inviting enough, but what makes it dramatic is a cyclist poised on top of the rock. Guttman acknowledges that this was arranged, but the basic principle applies to unplanned shots: Namely, that even a distant figure offers an extra element of interest and information to the image.

When it comes to composition, Guttman hesitates to become too didactic, lest shutterbugs rely too heavily on rules that constrict creativity.

Yet he does share some general guidelines. One is to avoid placing the horizon at an image's halfway point. It works better to locate it one-third from the top or bottom.

He also says that it's helpful to divide a picture into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Where the imaginary lines intersect, he says, are called sweet spots, because they are ideal focal points in composing a picture.

Another helpful concept is to encourage eye movement. "The more the eye travels around as it looks at an image, the more intriguing the composition generally is," Guttman says.

In speaking of this concept, he envisions a possible picture of a landscape in which a clump of wildflowers commands the foreground, but the eye skips progressively from a piece of driftwood to a boulder to a lake, and finally a mountain range that serves as a dramatic backdrop and visual anchor.

What about much-maligned slide shows of vacation photos?

"I think what most people dread about slide shows is being forced to look at one image as the speaker drones on," he says.

To avoid this, he began inviting a small group of friends to slide shows in which most images are on the screen for only a second – no more than three seconds. He added music, sound effects, and narration. The resulting shows, in which Guttman's slides are grouped in photographic "sentences," have become so popular that now they attract as many as 350 friends and VIP guests.

Guttman believes that quality film produces superior results to digital cameras. Still, he likes the new technology, especially because it makes copying prints onto CDs possible. "You can play around with these images [on your computer], increase the contrast, recrop the images, take out the red-eye, or turn them into black and white," Guttman observes.

Although he's visited more than 170 countries, Guttman believes globe-trotting tourists benefit from first taking photographic aim closer to home. "If you don't really understand what your own country is about," he says, "you don't have a sound basis upon which to understand and judge and compare it with other countries."

As for the US, "there are a lot of wonderful and engaging adventures right within our borders," he points out.

• For more travel photography tips, see www.peterguttman.com.

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