Novice Travel Photography Crash Course
January 23, 2008 1:08 PM   Subscribe

Novice Travel photography. I'm just learning how to use my fancy new SLR that wife purchased for, among other things, our big three week trip to Italy coming up soon. I've been before; wife has not. So having seen the things we are going to see, I want to make memorable pictures to have while she soaks things in. SO the questions is: what skills, techniques or tricks should I learn and practice with and what traveling issues should I be aware of with my camera and camera bag? (Italy advice also welcome.)

Basically, we are splitting our three weeks between three separate environs. Cities (Rome, Florence, Venice). Tuscany countryside (staying at some fancy castles with wineries and cooking classes). Italian Riveria coastline (Cinque Terre, Portofino, etc). I mention that both for any advice on can't miss things to see and do that anyone may know with respect to those places, as well as to give an idea as to the type of things I'll be seeing of which I will want to take photos.

So I guess I will want to do some architecture photography in the cities, as well as random local people. I already like my pictures during daytime and when I can use a bounced flash indoors. But I can't ever seem to get pictures I like at nighttime walking around. Really would appreciate advice there. I just can't ever get the right amount of flash or ambient lighting (too dark or washed out). I would also like to figure out why the hell I can't get photos auto-focused when I put a polarizer lens on during the day.

And I'll probably want to do some landscape-y photos when I visit any sort of gardens, or the castles and countryside or the coast. I know having a tripod and perfect lighting is valuable when doing that, but I don't think I want to carry my tripod with me or wake-up early for sunrise (I want to take memorable photos, but I'm not going to build a master portfolio or anything). I know my camera has a cool landscape mode, but I'm not sure I can tell what the difference between that and the results of an auto or program mode photo.

Haven't got to the point where I mess with white balance or intentionally mess with exposure or ISO, though I will work on it if they will be particularly helpful. I'm only at the nascent stage of playing with aperture and shutter mode, and I'm not sure if I can master them enough that I should try using them over A or P by the time I leave in 3 months. I think I *get* what most of the functions and settings are intended to do, but I am just uncomfortable with trying them and don't want feeble attempts to detract from capturing quality photos.

So, any techniques, advice, tricks or things I should work to master before going would be appreciative. Also any advice about traveling with a camera bag and equipment would be appreciative. (For info: I'll be traveling with a bag that contains a D40 with a 15-55mm and a 55-200mm lens and a SB200 flash; wife chose that setup, but I would be willing to buy other equipment if they would be especially helpful in these situations). Note: I'm not trying to become a Pulitzer-prize winning photog; I just want to get the most out of it my novice-self can with only a handful of months to learn.
posted by dios to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, stuff to avoid is useful as well. Thanks.
posted by dios at 1:09 PM on January 23, 2008

Best answer: As you say a tripod won't be too practical at all times, but a compact monopod will do wonders for you.

You could also look at a quik pod (the slr version) for hard to reach shots, self portraits, etc.

Have a great trip!
posted by jazzman at 1:13 PM on January 23, 2008

Best answer: Ken Rockwell's users' guide is useful, for a start -- or at least it's better than the one that came with my D40.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:13 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend learning basic photography. Understand how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work together. I know you haven't learned it and feel tentative about it but keeping working on it. Three months is enough time to learn. You can get a basic book about this (there's probably a Nikon D40 field guide which covers the basics well.) That will improve your images immensely. Probably not want you want to read but that is the best advice I can offer!!

I also recommend learning a little about composition, understand the different types of focus your camera offers. I'd also suggest buying or making a bounce diffuser for your flash.

Your set up is fine for a beginner, you really don't need extra lenses. You can buy a gorilla pod for travel if you want some good night shots (they're on amazon.)
posted by red_lotus at 1:18 PM on January 23, 2008

Best answer: PS extra memory cards and batteries are always a good thing!
posted by red_lotus at 1:29 PM on January 23, 2008

Best answer: Take a look at Thom Hogan's Nikon site. As red_lotus mentioned, getting a D40 field guide is useful. I picked up the D70 field guide from Thom's site a few years ago, and found it very useful.

You may want to pick up a basic photography book. Check your used bookstore: if you're learning about shutter speed, aperture, etc., and all the other stuff that goes into exposure and focus, The Basic Book of Photography is good for that. Remember, you don't need a guide that's digitally orientated, and an old copy of that book for film will work just fine. The practical difference between your D40 and film SLRs is that your lens focal lengths will be 1.5x the film equivalent (so your 200mm will sort of behave like a 300mm on a film camera). The ideas of getting a correct exposure still apply, but you'll get faster feedback.

The main thing will be to take a lot of pictures before and during your trip. Practice, practice, practice, and see the results of your shots. The faster feedback of digital makes learning photography faster than on film, actually.

Remember to take a lot of memory with you. You can trivially take hundreds of photos in a sitting -- it's not film, so keep shooting. If you can, bring a laptop to dump the photos onto. If not, take more memory cards.

Bring an extra battery and have a recharger handy. It will suck when you get to this Sistine Chapel and you realize that your battery is dead. In the worst case, some camera stores will carry fully charged batteries for you, but you will pay a hefty Stupid Tax for that convenience (this happened to me in Sedona last year).
posted by chengjih at 1:34 PM on January 23, 2008

Best answer: Make your mistakes at home.
Go for walks with your complete camera kit at different times of day.
Take tons of pictures of a variety of subjects in all conditions.
Be very critical of your results.
Make the necessary corrections to your equipment and technique.
Go for another walk.
posted by Fins at 1:36 PM on January 23, 2008

Following up a little on extra memory/storage: a few years ago, we went to Alaska for two weeks on our first big trip with the new DSLR. Shooting RAW, you can chew through 1GB cards every day or two, depending on what's out there. You get a lot of crap shots, but it's better than not taking the shot in the first place, especially with wild life and big landscapes. Yes, shoot hundreds of photos a day, but make sure you have a place to put it at night.
posted by chengjih at 1:39 PM on January 23, 2008

Best answer: Any basic web page talking about camera exposure will set you straight on aperture, shutter-speed, sensitivity, so I'm gonna skip that. I usually have my camera set on aperture priority (A), or manual (M). I set the exposure manually when the light's a bit more complex, and usually at night.

For night shots, what's going on is that there's not a lot of light, so the camera wants to take in light by either opening up the lens (aperture), extending the exposure time (shutter speed), or by upping the sensitivity (film speed, or nowadays, sensor sensitivity, the ISO/ASA). Aperture and ISO are limited to how far they can go, while you can hold a shutter open all night. The problem with keeping the shutter open is that things start to blur at slower speeds (traditional rule of thumb is 1/focal-length, but now things are slightly diff). A tripod is the best tool, but even resting your camera on your backpack, on a ledge, works as well--get creative. You might also want to set your camera on a self-timer to factor out that movement when you press down on the shutter. Since you have a DSLR, I recommend shooting in RAW for your night shots so you have more leeway with colour-correcting later, otherwise it's usually a process of trial & error (shoot, look at LCD, adjust).

For shooting with a flash at night, I'd set my camera in manual mode and get the right exposure setting w/o flash. Then add the flash into the equation and either power it up or down depending on your subject (check your manual for flash compensation, or whatever). Also, aperture and ISO will change how much your flash affects your photos, but shutter-speed won't since the flash is too fast (but shutter-speed does affect how much ambient light comes in).

I'm ranting here, but lastly, your polarizer is probably a linear-polarizer. You need to get a circular polarizer in order for your AF to work.
posted by hobbes at 1:56 PM on January 23, 2008

Best answer: Here's what I learned with my D70 on my too long Honeymoon to England, Spain and France.

Batteries - if you recharge every night you will have absolutely no need to get another battery. Realistically speaking you could probably miss 2-3 days and still be fine (the most I ever shot was maybe 150 in a day so YMMV).

Memory Cards - If you're shooting RAW then you need at least 2 1GB cards. Obviously bigger cards would be even better, but if you have the choice between 1 4GB card and 4 1GB cards go with the latter. I lost a card's worth of photos through a still unexplained error that hasn't happened since and the only thing that didn't make it a disaster was that there were only maybe 30 shots on it. But even with a full card, losing 150 shots is much better than 600. If you're shooting JPG then 2 GB total will be a huge amount of storage. Just make sure to switch cards reasonably often and that you dump the pictures off your cards every day or so.

Medium-term photo storage - I brought my ipod with me (but not my laptop) and so every couple of days I would go to an internet cafe and both copy all the pictures to the ipod AND get a DVD made of the pictures on the cards. If you're taking a laptop with you then you're golden, but make sure to back up to at least two separate media.

Night photography - Play with your camera NOW. The great thing about a DSLR is that you get instant feedback and mistakes don't cost anything. Walk around your neighbourhood in the evening and take pictures of stuff to see how they turn out. Get to know the limits of your lenses, and if you find they aren't fast enough you might want to get another one (sadly fast lenses have a price and it isn't cheap). If you only plan on taking pictures of architecture at night then a monopod or tripod might be a good idea instead of a faster lense. But if you are planning on shooting people or other moving things a new lense may be necessary.

Don't always go for the impressive architecture shot. Take pictures of odd signs or cool looking trash cans, etc. There are only so many pictures of architectural wonders one can look at before tuning out (regardless of the quality of the picture) so have some fun and take the silly shot too.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:20 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a Canon guy, but much of what I'll say is the same... In a nutshell: play with your camera a lot before the trip. I've taken formal photography courses and read the owner's manual. Both were surprisingly helpful. But, in the end, it's playing around that has helped me perfect some of my skills. If you haven't already, read up on the concepts of aperture, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, etc. You'll find that understanding these things helps you move on to the next level of photography.

Some afternoon or evening when you're bored, sit down with your camera and its manual, and just read it. As fancy as SLRs seem, it takes less time than you might expect until you're at the point where you know what every single button does.

But I can't ever seem to get pictures I like at nighttime walking around.

Night photography is hard, because there's not enough light to get a good shot. This isn't to say that you can't make it work, but don't for a minute think that you're a bad photographer because you have a hard time with night photography. It's challenging.

There are three routes: expensive equipment (a 50mm f/1.2 lens will let you get shots in very low light, but most people don't have the $3,000 to buy one), a flash, or a tripod and a long exposure. A five-second exposure at night yield amazing photos, but if you don't have a tripod (or something similar to hold the camera perfectly still), it's utterly useless. (This also doesn't work so well if people are in the shot.) Thus using the flash is where most normal people end up. And all I can say here is to practice a lot: there's a fine line, where the background isn't all black, and the people in the foreground don't look like ghosts. But it takes practice to find that point.

As an aside, keep in your mind the 'handholding rule of thumb' -- you can keep the steady for shutter speeds as low as 1 / (focal length). If you're at 50mm, you can shoot at 1/50 of a second holding the camera and have it come out okay, but anything slower and it's going to be blurry. Zooming in magnifies things: 200mm and you need to be at 1/200 of a second. In night photography, you often end up at shutter speeds like 1/4 of a second, down to several seconds. No human can get good shots at those speeds without using a tripod.

Haven't got to the point where I mess with white balance or intentionally mess with exposure or ISO

White balance is right 99.98% of the time, in my experience. It's nice to know how to change it just in case, but the only time I've found that it's necessary is in downright bizarre lighting: maybe you're outside on a cloudy day (overcast/cloudy is a mode), but the subject is in partial shade so you're using flash (flash is another...), but there's an incandescent light outside illuminating them, and some light coming in from a fluorescent light to their side... Until you find yourself in these bizarre situations, auto-white balance (AWB) tends to work flawlessly, at least in my experience.

ISO, however, is something you will want to play around with. It's basically how sensitive to light the sensor is. (The best analogy I've seen was on "turning up the volume" on the output of the sensor.) You can raise the ISO to take shots in lower lighting, but if you take it too far, you get grain. I'm not sure how it works on your camera, but on mine, in the 'preset' modes (e.g., portrait, landscape, macro...) modes, the camera will automatically select ISO, but it's limited to ISO100-ISO400, whereas my camera goes to ISO1600.

A little secret: the 'presets' ("picture modes," as I think Canon calls them?) don't do as much as you might think. There are three main variables: ISO (aforementioned), aperture (how much the lens "closes" to take the picture), and shutter speed (how long the shutter stays open). ISO is set separately, and thus excluded, so you're left with two variables: aperture and shutter speed. And, since the camera performs "metering" for you, you only need to set one, and the other is calculated.

Thus you have aperture priority ("A" or "Av" on the camera), where you tell the camera what aperture to use (f/5.6, for example), and it selects the shutter speed; and shutter priority (usually T or Tv: think "time" for the 'T'), where you tell the camera what shutter speed (e.g., 1/200th of a second) to use, and it selects an appropriate aperture for each shot. Most people I know usually shoot in Av mode: we keep the aperture as 'low' (numerically: f/2.8 versus f/4.0, a "faster" aperture, which transfers into it being wider open, allowing in more light), since this affords the fastest shutter speeds.

The secret is that the picture modes: portrait mode, landscape mode, etc., are little more than presets for Av and Tv mode. Portrait mode is Av with a "fast" (small-number) aperture, to throw the background of focus; landscape mode is usually Av with the lens stopped down a bit (f/8 or f/16), to make sure everything, near and far, is in focus... And so forth. These presets work well, but if you really master the camera, you'll get to the point where you don't bother with them.

As I alluded to above, the camera selects ISO automatically in those modes, but from a more limited range of options. Rule of thumb: keep ISO as low as you can get away with. Outdoors in the sun, and stay at ISO100. But if you're trying to get shots in a dark room, raise ISO until you get good shutter speeds.

Not to intimidate you: you can stay in the 'preset' modes and still get great shots. But it'd be like driving a Porsche with an automatic transmission: it works well, but you're not getting the full potential.

I would also like to figure out why the hell I can't get photos auto-focused when I put a polarizer lens on during the day.

I suspect hobbes is right. But an aside: some time when you're not taking any photos that 'matter,' switch to manual focus and try to do it yourself. I was surprised at how little time it took until I was able to focus by hand--very accurately--in a pinch. Polarizer or not, there are times when the camera just doesn't want to focus on something. And now, instead of standing there with a dozen people holding a feigned smile for the camera while I curse at it for not focusing, I just switch over to manual focus and get the shot in under a second. You won't need this skill often, but use it once and you'll instantly be glad you took the time to practice it.

Oh, another tip: any time you pick your camera up to go somewhere, remember to stop, open the camera, and witness that the CF card and battery are in place! I can't tell you how disappointing it is to get somewhere, snag the perfect shot, and have "No CF Card" come up on the screen.

Take lots of pictures, indiscriminately even. Of course careful thought about framing and all is great, but don't let a deliberate approach slow you down--a haphazard shot is better than carefully setting up a shot of 'live action' and having it end by the time you go to take the picture. Even entry-level SLRs are capable of taking 3 or 4 photos a second. Exploit this. Yes, you'll end up with lots of pictures that are either terrible, or are almost identical to the one taken a quarter-second later. So you delete a lot of photos afterwards. The net is still an increase in good photos.

Anyway, this is absurdly long. Summarized really, really concisely: practice a lot now, take lots of pictures (both now and over there!), but don't fret--worst case, you can switch to an automatic mode and get some great photos.
posted by fogster at 3:38 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These answers are very useful. I really appreciate the information.

I think I have the battery thing covered. I have two and will take a charger with me.
I have a couple large memory cards, but I'll look into either getting more or something to DL it on to. I don't want to take a laptop over with me for that limited purpose, so maybe I'll try sending the pictures to my ipod or one of those card reader/viewer things.
I don't think I'll take a tripod, but that quikpod thing looks kind of cool. Maybe I'll snag one of those.

I have a couple beginner photography books, and that's what I am using to learn the basics. But I'm kind of teaching myself. I take pictures all the time to try to get better at composition and learn the effect of lighting, etc., and one reason I haven't played much with the different modes is because I have really, really enjoyed the pictures I get in Automatic and Program mode.

I really appreciate the tips. I'll plan on taking more pictures everyday and try to learn ISO and aperture better before I leave.

The night time thing is just frustrating as hell to me. I can't get a decently exposed picture and love the way things look at night. I know there will be great opportunities for such photos on this trip, and its annoying to me know that my options are $3k lens or tripod and long exposure (which can't have people). I guess I just need to learn more how to adjust flash and try to figure all that flash fill stuff.

This is really useful. Thanks everyone. Hopefully I'll read more and go back over this and end up with some cool pics from my trip that I can share.
posted by dios at 4:28 PM on January 23, 2008

It's a slightly different angle to everything else here, but you might consider picking up Scott Kelby's Digital Photography Book Vol 1 & 2. There is alot in there that will be irrelevant for your trip, but there are whole chapters dedicated to landscapes, urban photos and photographing people. They are really great books for tips on how to get 'the shot' that you will find yourself going back to over and over.
posted by mjlondon at 5:08 PM on January 23, 2008

Best answer: You don't need a $3k lens for decent night photography.

Firstly, I'd recommend shooting in RAW. It takes up more space, but the degree you can play with your photos afterwards is remarkable.

Also, don't be afraid to crank up the ISO. It's noisy, but I'd rather have a noisy shot than no shot at all.

Both Canon and Nikon make a very inexpensive 50mm f1.8 lens. That means that the aperture will open fairly wide and let substantially more light in than you're used to. This means that you can safely set the exposure to over 1/60th of a second, the safe minimum to avoid camera shake. Because it's a fixed zoom length, the optical quality is also far higher than an equivalently priced zoom lens. The only caveat is that it's a tad more zoomed than a normal lens. But I'm sure it'll serve your purpose. It's also a great portrait lens, giving you the crisp outlines and blurred backgrounds you need.

B&H have it for $110 if you're interested.

Here are two images I took literally a few nights ago with the Canon version:
posted by Magnakai at 6:52 PM on January 23, 2008

Best answer: The night time thing is just frustrating as hell to me. I can't get a decently exposed picture and love the way things look at night. I know there will be great opportunities for such photos on this trip, and its annoying to me know that my options are $3k lens or tripod and long exposure (which can't have people).

If you plan on taking any night photography where you expect to see anything illuminated by "natural light"... which there won't be a lot of (it being night time and all), YOU WILL NEED A TRIPOD.

No arguments. No discussion.

This has nothing to do with $3,000 dollar lenses. A $3,000 dollar lens isn't going to let you hand-hold night shots. All it will do is let you take slightly less blurry shots than the $300 lens. The difference between f/1.4 and f/5.6 is four stops. Your average night-time shot in an illuminated part of the city with a typical aperture is still going to be about two or three seconds. Four stops off that is maybe 1/2th of a second. That's still way too long to hand-hold, I don't care fancy your image stabilization system is or how much yoga you've been taking.

But none of that matters, anyway. Because even if you could shoot at f/1.4, your depth of field is going to be like half an inch. Which means your lovely city-scape background is going to look like a lovely barely-illuminated blob of light if you're focusing on anything but infinity. That means you're basically stuck at shooting around f/5.6 anyway. So instead of dropping $3000 on a Mr. Fancypants lens with a metric assload of glass, you could have bought a $70 flash and a $100 tripod and slapped on any basic lens and gotten a better picture.

You cannot buy your way out of poor technique. Many a rich idiot has made that mistake, only to find themselves holding thousands of dollars in fancy glass and not a single good exposure to show for it.

The secret to taking good night photos with properly-exposed foregrounds is a technique called dragging the shutter. There's really nothing difficult about it, you just need to understand a couple of basic concepts of flash photography.

The first concept is this: in flash photography, the flash dictates the exposure and the flash controls the motion. Most flashes use TTL (through-the-lens) metering, unlike the old days where you had to know Guide Numbers and calculate the light falloff using the inverse square rule... now it's pretty-much a brain-dead operation: Step 1. Turn on your camera and flash. Step 2. Point your camera at something. Step 3. Take the picture.

OK, no problem. But what aperture? What film speed? OH MY GOD I DON'T UNDERSTAND!

Relax. Take a breath. What aperture? Whatever aperture you like (within reason). Your flash will simply use more power and compensate until it can't put out any more, and at that point you'll either need to get closer to your subject or buy a more powerful flash. What shutter speed? Aaah, good question. Let's think about that question for a minute.

When you normally take a picture, shutter speed is how long the lens will remain "open" letting in light. Kind of like opening a floodgate. The longer the floodgates are open, the more water gets in. But when you're using a flash, you're producing the water. So why bother opening the floodgates at all, then? GOOD QUESTION. The longer you leave your shutter open, the MORE AMBIENT LIGHT gets in.

Let's try a hypothetical experiment. Take a picture (in your heads, I suppose) of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence at night without a flash at, say, f/5.6, with a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. What's that shot going to look like? If you said, "A big giant mess of black," you win!

Now, let's put a hypothetical person in the foreground, and let's slap a flash on that camera. Same shutter speed, same aperture. SNAP! What's the shot going to look like? "Well, Laetitia Casta is properly exposed, but the city is still completely black." (Hey, it's a mental photo. Substitute your goddess of choice.)

In that situation, the flash did it's job to a T... but your beautiful background is a pool of blackness... shit, you could have saved yourself several hundred dollars and had the same shot at your local McDonald's parking lot! The problem is that not enough ambient light is getting into the mix. What you need is balance. That's where the shutter speed comes into the mix.

In flash photography, your flash normally tells your camera what the exposure is going to be, instead of non-flash photography, where the ambient light dictates exposure. But even when you're taking a photograph with a flash at night, the ambient light is still getting in... barely a trickle, of course, not nearly enough to affect the exposure. But the longer you keep the shutter open, the more ambient light gets in the mix.

Back to your hypothetical situation. Let's take Laetitia Casta out of the picture for a second (don't worry, she'll be back). If you were just taking a picture of the Ponte Vecchio, without using a flash, what might the exposure look like? Maybe 2 or three seconds at f/5.6? Sounds reasonable.

So you've got two equations. The first one is your principal subject (Laetitia Casta), with a flash. The second is your secondary subject (the Ponte Vecchio) without a flash. What you have to do to get both exposed is find a common ground. You need to properly expose the foreground subject and the background subject.

Slap flash back on mental camera. Get Laetitia back in the shot. Point camera, turn on flash. What aperture? Let's stick with f/5.6. Shutter speed? Hmm. Instead of 1/60th of a second, let's try using just the shutter speed from the shot without Laetitia--2 seconds. SNAP!

OK, so now the bridge is beautifully exposed, but Laetitia is kinda blurry. Not the normal blurry you'd expect from a 2 second exposure: no, this is different. It looks like she's sharp, but has a strange halo of motion blur around her. Now, normally, she'd be tack-sharp because the flash would freeze the motion. But you've overridden the shutter speed and decided to let the ambient light come into the mix. Over the course of two seconds, Laetitia moved. Yell at her. Tell her to stop breathing so much. Aw, now you've made her cry. Apologize. Tell her it's your fault, not hers.

Try again: instead of a 2 second exposure, let's go for something less... something that won't give your subject time to move around (much), but will still be enough to get the background ambiance. Try 1/2 a second. SNAP!


OK, that's really not a very good example. They say a picture's worth a thousand words, and I've used up my thousand a while back, so look at some before and after shots here to get a better idea of what I'm talking about.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:48 AM on January 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Some random tips from traveling a bit:

1) Brace against columns or walls in cathedrals, because they won't allow tripods or flashes.
2) Watch for light poles, wires, etc that are in your frame. They will be really annoying when you get home and review your photos.
3) If the sky is not pretty, don't let it dominate your photo. Grey is grey.
posted by smackfu at 6:58 AM on January 24, 2008

I travelled a few years ago in Venice, Florence and Rome with a film SLR a few years ago. I don't think you need a full sized tripod for night shots. But like everyone said above, you will need something. I'd recommend a Gorilla Pod specifically the one for zoom SLRs (it has more stability when you have a bigger lens on it) There were always enough benches, trash cans, barriers and walls to set the camera on that I don't think you need a full tripod for night shots. Use the timer or get a remote trigger (wired or wireless) so you don't shake the camera when you fire off the lens.

In Venice, make sure you take the water taxis around, much cheaper than a gondola. Set your camera on fast speed, and stick to a railing. You'll get some great shots of buildings, and shoot up some of the side canals as you zip by. Aso, take a trip to Murano (glass blowing island) for some interesting shots inside some of the workshops. And just get lost, its a great city to wander.

Some great shots in Florence at night, in particular of the fake David in the courtyard (the real is indoors, and its worth seeing). Rome is Rome, you will probably figure out what to see there. The Vatican is worth seeing, a small tripod is worth it inside, otherwise you don't stand a chance - its really dark. The hike up to the top of the dome is worth the city view from the top if its clear.
posted by reckman at 10:19 AM on January 24, 2008

Night Photos
You need to understand basic exposure in order to get good night shots. Use a large aperture and pump up the ISO. Often times an automatic exposure mode will attempt to expose for the entire scene when in reality, you want to expose for a small portion that contains light and leave the rest naturally dark. The camera will try to make the scene too bright, and choose a shutter speed that is entirely too slow and will make your photo a blurry mess.

If you really don't want to do this, then at least read up on different metering modes. Move away from evaluative metering at night. Use partial or spot metering (if available), and stick the subject near the center of the frame. These modes will only measure light in a small area around the central focus point.

3 months is more than enough time to pick up basic photography. Spend a week reading "Understanding Exposure" by Bryan Peterson, and the rest of your time practicing.

Try this: turn on the flash, keep it in automatic mode. Put the camera in manual mode. Set the ISO to 400, shutter speed to 1/25, and aperture to whatever corresponds to your desired depth of field. The flash will automatically take care of properly exposing the subject, and your picture should turn out reasonably sharp.

Architecture and Landscapes
The 55mm end of your lens should suffice, but you are definitely not going to capture any wide, sweeping, landscape-y type shots with this lens. Do you really need 200mm on the long end? I find the wide-angle many times more useful than a long telephoto for travel photography - my travel lens was a Sigma 17-70.

Pointers for Strong Photos
Rule of thirds - don't put everything in the center of the frame. Stick the subject a little off to the side. If you're shooting a landscape, put the horizon line in the top third or bottom third of the photo.

Fill the frame - If you are shooting people are things, less is more. Zoom in to exclude any environmental distractions that do not contribute to the photo. Unless of course, you are taking a photo of your wife standing in front of a cathedral. In that case, less is certainly not more!

Sharp photos - breathe in or out before squeezing the shutter, but not during. I pin my elbows close to my chest to keep the camera as steady as possible. And don't walk and photograph at the same time!
posted by tomorama at 1:01 PM on January 24, 2008

If you are carring a bag with a D40 and a lens, you can probably fit an economically priced half-height tripod that folds down to 6 - 8 inches.
posted by tomorama at 1:14 PM on January 24, 2008

Fantastic advice here. One thing to add get at good switching between your two lens' on the fly. Bring a blow bulb for any random dust that might get in there.
posted by stratastar at 9:12 AM on January 25, 2008

This is a little OT, but be careful carrying your gear around in Rome. You'll probably be okay most of the time, but don't wander into a big crowd near the tourist stuff without keeping a hand on your camera. I saw someone with a nice SLR blithely hanging by a neck strap get distracted long enough for someone to come up, cut the strap and run.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:51 AM on January 25, 2008

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