If my hotel were burning down and I could grab just one thing, it would be my digital camera with its memory card filled with photos.
Every year I ask myself whether it's worth the worry and expense of mixing photography with my travels. Then, after I see my pictures and relive my trip through them, the answer is always "Yes!" Here are some tips and lessons I've learned from the photographic school of hard knocks.
*Most people are limited by their skills, not their cameras. It helps to understand your equipment before you travel, but ultimately your most valuable tool is a sharp eye connected to a basic understanding of how your camera works. Work through the manual. Then make a point of being creative in your photo safari: Capture striking light, contrasting shades, repeating patterns, interesting textures, bold colors and intimate close-ups.
*Look for a new slant on an old sight. Postcard-type shots are hard to resist, but they're boring. Everyone knows what the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben looks like. Find a different approach to sights that everyone has seen. Instead of showing the Leaning Tower lean, climb to its top and try a shot of the piazza below you. Shoot up at the snowy face of the Matterhorn -- underneath a cow.
*Get personal. Show how you lived, who you met and what made each day an adventure (a close-up of a picnic, your favorite taxi driver, the character you befriended at the launderette). Those moments -- your moments -- are the ones you'll want to remember.
*Vary your perspective. Shoot close, far, low or high, during the day and at night. Don't fall into the rut of always centering a shot. Use foregrounds to add color, depth and interest to landscapes.
*Maximize good lighting. Bright light at midday will wash out and deaden your pictures. Professional photographers wait for the magic hours -- early morning and late afternoon -- when the sun is low and colors glow. I took some of my best photos ever of the Gothic statues at Chartres Cathedral at sunset. The setting sun brought life to the expressions on their delicately carved faces, almost as though they were struggling after eight centuries. Good lighting adds a valuable dimension to any scene. Portraits often look better in the even, soft light of a shadow.
Notice details. Eliminate distractions by zeroing in on your subject. Get so close that you show only one thing. Don't try to show all of something in one shot -- zoom in. People are the most interesting subjects. It takes nerve to walk up to someone and take his or her picture. But if you want some great shots, be nervy. In any language, point at your camera and ask, "Photo?" Your subject will probably be delighted. Many photographers take a second shot immediately after the first portrait to capture a looser, warmer subject. The famous war photographer Robert Capa once said, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." My favorite portraits are so close that the entire head can't fit into the frame.
Buildings, in general, are not interesting. It doesn't matter if Karl Marx or Beethoven was born there, a house is as dead as its former resident. Experienced travel photographers take more people shots and fewer buildings or general landscapes.
Don't be afraid to hand-hold a slow shot in low light. At most museums, you aren't allowed to use a flash or tripod. But if you can lean against a wall, for instance, bipods like us become tripods. Use a self-timer that clicks the shutter more smoothly than your finger can. Many new digital cameras use "image stabilization" to help in low-light situations.
A video camera used to be a big, heavy lug-along. Now, thanks to pocket-sized video cameras -- and the proliferation of video cameras built into smartphones -- shooting and sharing vacation clips is easier than ever.
With cameras getting smaller and smaller, it's tempting to make your trip more photo- or video-focused than experiential. Like a hunter on safari, you see everything as photographic prey -- to be captured or missed. Aside from skewing your priorities, there's nothing that screams "tourist!" like a camera bouncing on your belly. Don't let it become a barrier between you and the people you've traveled so far to connect with. My advice is to be selective and pull out your camera only for special moments. The viewfinder that really matters is the one atop your shoulders.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows that can be seen locally on WNED-TV.