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01-26-2013, 09:13 PM - 1 Like   #1
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Picture Taking Tips for (Biblical Site) Tourists

I've actually posted the info below on my blog, but I'll spare you the click there. I was prompted by someone else's post, but my real incentive to get this down is that I'll be leading a trip to Israel/Palestine/Jordan in January 2014, and I want to provide some advance instruction to aspiring photographers on the trip. Some of this is indeed specific to a biblical sites tour (Greece/Turkey/Israel/Palestine/Jordan/Egypt), but a lot of it is pretty basic stuff.

Please comment and add any other suggestions you may have! Thanks.


Charles Savelle at BibleX has posted an excellent series on Picture Taking Tips for the Holy Land, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. [HT: Todd Bolen at BiblePlaces] You will want to read his full posts, but I'll simply bullet-point them here, and add some additional comments of my own. I'm not a professional photographer either, but I've been working on improving my photography, and I've taken enough trips and photos to have opinions and thoughts on the matter!

  1. Take pictures of signage. This is really helpful.
  2. Look behind you as well as ahead of you. And look up and down and to the sides!
  3. Don’t be afraid of having people in the pictures. In addition to the points that Savelle makes, remember that your trip is not simply a biblical / archaeological tour. It is also a cultural experience. Sometimes people can be the point of the picture.
  4. Decide why you are taking pictures. This is one of the most important points Savelle makes. Are you really going to want to look at all those pictures of rocks and ruins again? Is anyone else going to want to see all your pictures? What do you want to do with your pictures when you get home? Are you simply 'documenting' the site?
  5. Study what others have done. Great advice. It's another way to think about why you are taking pictures. With so many great pictures available for free on the Internet (do always check copyrights, but many really are free), is your time well spent trying to get a picture of something for which there are already hundreds of pictures? Or are you better off just observing and experiencing the site and the moment? People who aren't worried about getting pictures usually are a bit more relaxed and able to enjoy the site more!
  6. Ask the tour guide for suggestions.
  7. Have your camera ready and not tucked in your backpack. Indeed! I'll mention it again in point 11 below, but when I wasn't carrying my camera around, I usually was carrying my smartphone and could use its camera.
  8. Don’t forget to think small. Holy Land trips are basically large-scale affairs. Also keep in mind that the Bible talks about birds and flowers and insects. You might want to include these in your portfolio of pics. And the food! And the colors!
  9. Take more rather than fewer pictures. Yes, but delete and edit before you share them with others! I also recommend taking your pictures at the highest quality your camera allows. Yes, each photo will take up more space as a larger file, and thus you will need more memory cards, but it will be worth it. If you are really serious about photography, you probably know that you should be shooting RAW.
  10. Download and review your photos each night on a computer (if you bring one). This is hard to do when you are tired and have a busy schedule, but it is important. Savelle actually is talking about offloading pics from your memory card (in order to free space on it), but I think you are better off just downloading and leaving pics on the card. This way you will have a backup of your pictures if something should happen to the camera, the card, or your computer. Memory cards have become relatively inexpensive, so you really are better off just buying plenty of memory cards.
    Another option to consider is uploading your photos nightly to an online storage service like DropBox or Google Drive or Windows SkyDrive. Personally I use SugarSync which gives you a free 5Gb account and has very flexible syncing options. {Clicking on that link to get an account will get both of us an extra 500Mb of space free. Thanks!} Of course using this option means that you are counting on having regular access to the web and the time to upload a few hundred megabytes of pictures each day.
    How much memory do you need? I probably take more pics than the average visitor, and on a two-week trip to sites in Turkey and Greece, using a Pentax K-x DSLR 12Mp camera whose pictures were each about 5-6Mb in size, I took about 1800 pictures. (I.e., I averaged a little over 100 pics each day.) Total space used was less than 10Gb. A four-week trip in Israel ended up with over 3500 pics and less than 19Gb storage. If you are able to back up your photos each day, you should consider just getting a 16Gb or 32Gb or 64Gb card and being able to keep all your photos for the whole trip on one card. If you won't be able to back up your photos, I'd recommend getting multiple 4Gb or 8Gb cards. That way, if something should happen to the camera or the card, you will at least have some photos still saved.
  11. Consider what you will do if your camera breaks on the trip. Yes, it happens. I have two backup plans. 1) I bring along my old 7Mp compact point-and-shoot which still does a serviceable job. 2) I don't use my smartphone for calling, but I can use the camera or video in a pinch.
In my next post, I'll add some additional points of my own.


In the previous post, I expanded on some of the excellent points about picture taking made by Charles Savelle. In this post, I'll add a few additional observations of my own that arise more from my experience than because of my expertise.
What kind of camera should I use? You may already have a camera you like, but if you don't, here are some things to consider.
  • Today's compact point-and-shoot cameras are incredibly capable. They really can do just about everything and take very good quality pictures. Probably a key factor in your decision initially will be price. You will pretty much get what you are willing to pay for. I wouldn't worry so much about the number of megapixels. Pretty much any camera with 12mp or more is going to be fine. Another key factor is size of the camera. Do you want one that is very compact and pocketable but sacrifices a few features? Or are you willing to get a somewhat larger camera? If so, the main thing you will gain is zooming capability. Most point-and-shoot cameras start with 24-28mm at their wide end. (Ranges are usually measured in terms of their 35mm film equivalent, and at the wide end, the lower the number the better.) I think most people would be satisfied with a camera that has 5-7x zoom, but 10x or more zoom will give you more options. I doubt that you will need the 50x zoom some of today's cameras are capable of, but they are available. One other factor that is important to me is having a camera with a viewfinder. I find it hard to hold the camera in front of me to shoot, and it can be really hard to see the screen in bright light. HERE are some point-and-shoot cameras to check that have viewfinders. My daughter went on a mission trip to Africa this past summer, and she got excellent pictures from a Panasonic Lumix FZ47 12.1Mp camera with 24x zoom. Check reviews on Amazon or a site like DPReview to get more info on cameras you are considering.
  • Given the quality you can get with a point-and-shoot, what's the advantage of getting a larger DSLR camera for which you use interchangeable lenses? First, you should be able to get higher quality photos simply from the technology used. In particular, a DSLR should be able to do much better in low light situations. Second, you can be more particular about the kinds of pictures and how you want them to look because you are able to use a lens that is best suited for a particular type of photo. Of course this all means more money and more equipment and more weight to carry around. Personally I use a Pentax K-x which is one of the smaller, entry-level DSLRs (now discontinued and replaced with the K-30). From my experience, I've ended up using a relatively light and simple kit that has an 18-135mm lens (27-202mm 35mm equiv) and a ultrawide angle 10-20mm (15-30mm 35mm equiv) lens. The 18-135 is used for 75% of my pics. For touring biblical sites and getting interior shots in close quarters, I've found that I've wanted a wider angle lens more than I've needed a longer telephoto. (I do often carry around a 55-300mm = 78-450mm equiv for telephoto needs.)
Know your camera! Don't buy a DSLR just before you go and expect to get good pictures. Even with a point-and-shoot, however, you really need to have some practice with it and familiarize yourself with the camera's features. Check out all the modes that are available. Know the limitations of flash. If the camera allows for some manual selections know when and how to use them. One of the really handy features on many newer cameras is a panorama feature that allows you to scan across a scene, so know how to do it. (While handy, the result is a lower resolution photo. To get better quality, know how to take a sequence of shots and plan to stitch them together later using software.) Going to a different timezone, know how to change it.

What other gear do I need?
  • Unless you have a pocketable camera, spend some attention on a camera bag that you like and can use effectively. Do you want something hanging around your neck or shoulder or around your waist? Personally, I don't like a bag bouncing around at my front or side, so I prefer a waist-pack or a sling bag. The advantage of these is that you can swing them around to get at your gear and have both your hands free.
  • As noted before, bring plenty of memory cards.
  • If your camera can accept it, a hood for the lens is very helpful. Another item to consider is a circular polarizing filter. There is usually lots of bright sun, and it will help to use these to cut down glare and flare.
  • Cleaning supplies: A small microfiber cloth will be handy to have. With an interchangeable lens system, bring along a rocket blower too. There's plenty of dust around to get in your camera.
  • Batteries and charger! Make sure you have a backup battery set. Also make sure that your charger will work on non-USA electrical systems and that you have the proper adapter to let you plug it in.
  • Tripod? It's a nice idea and is important for critical photography, but... I don't think you'll use it. For one, it does take up room in your luggage. (So, if you do get one, make sure it's one that folds down small enough to fit in your luggage.) Second, and more importantly, I don't think you'll have time to use it. When you are with a tour group, you are usually moving right along, and you just don't have to set up. (If you're traveling on your own schedule, then do consider bringing one.) As an option that I have used, consider instead bringing a monopod. They are lots easier to carry and faster/easier to use. They are especially useful if you have a long zoom and need some extra stability. Want something even more portable but still functional? Try a cheap, DIY string tripod!
  • Flash? Again, a nice idea, but I've just not been able to justify the weight and bulk. In most instances, if you need more than the built-in flash on your camera, you probably need to be serious about the lighting. Using an external flash takes some practice to get things right, so if you do bring one, know what you are doing. Workaround: I added a 'flashlight' app to my smartphone, and in smaller dark settings, it really helped.
  • Other stuff: If your camera is able to use a remote control, they are pretty small to bring along and may come in handy. I also put a bunch of business cards in my camera bag. They help identify my gear, but if I take pics of people, I can give them my card, and they can email me if they want me to send them the pic.
Practice photography etiquette.
  • If you are at a site and lots of people are trying to take a picture, take your picture and then get out of the way.
  • Be aware of when you can (or should) use flash. Many museums do not allow it.
  • Is your bright screen disruptive? Turn it off.
  • Does your camera make a noticeable sound when taking a picture? See if you can turn off beeps and such or don't shoot when it may disturb others.
  • Stay on the paths where requested. Don't be risking your life or endangering ancient artifacts by climbing up somewhere. In Israel, when the sign says to stay out because there are potentially landmines present, obey the sign!
  • If taking pictures featuring people, get their permission if it feels like you are taking a specific picture of them. Oftentimes it simply means holding up your camera, nodding, and saying, "Photo?" Remember that the people live there. They are not there simply for your viewing pleasure.
  • If you are with a group, stay with the group. As a tour leader, I'm always conscious of people who are wandering off or who are delaying the whole group while taking pictures.
  • I have mixed feelings about taking pictures while the tour guide is speaking. On one hand, you want to be polite, so don't be disruptive and make a scene while the guide is speaking. On the other hand, you paid for this trip and are paying for the guide, and the guide is usually hurrying the group along, and you really want to get some pictures. The best thing is simply to use good sense and practice common courtesy.
Consider using video or audio comments. You may not think so at the time, but I guarantee you will take photos that later you will not remember taking and not have a clue why you took it. One way I've used to remember what pictures I've taken is to shoot a short video of the scene and describe what's there. Most cameras these days also have a video feature or else use your smartphone. Some cameras allow you to add audio attachments to a photo.

Consider using GPS. If you want to remember where you were when you took a picture, use GPS. Some cameras these days have GPS included and will include the location data directly with the photo. If your camera doesn't have that feature, you still have some options:
  • One option is to use and Eye-Fi Pro X2 SD card. They are rather more expensive than regular SD cards, and their geotagging depends on wi-fi network positioning, so it is not likely to work well in remote locations.
  • Your smartphone or tablet probably has GPS capability, or maybe you are a runner and have a GPS watch. You can use these devices and free software like Runkeeper or Endomondo to map the path you took while going through a site. (HERE is an example of how I used it.) Then you can use Google Maps or Google Earth to retrace your steps. With some sites, Google Street View will even let you walk through the site, and you can confirm your pics. Check this post.
  • Even better, if you have a GPS device, you can automate the process. Make sure the time on your camera and your GPS are the same. Track your path and save/export the GPS file (GPX or TCX file) it generates. Then use the free Geosetter program which allows you to synchronize the GPS data with the timestamps on your pictures and automatically apply the location data to the metadata of the image file.
  • If you offload your pictures to a computer, most image software (e.g., Picasa, Lightroom) allows you to pinpoint the photo location on a map. Another good option is Geotagger or Geosetter.
Have a 'theme' for your trip. If you don't want your pictures to look just like everyone else's, consider adopting a theme for your trip. Maybe you want to be especially attentive to taking pictures of food or including cats in the picture. (There are plenty of free-range cats and dogs in Turkey/Greece/Israel/Jordan/Palestine!) Or maybe look for a particular color. How about the ornate capitals on all the columns you are going to see. Maybe bring along some little token like a stuffed animal and include it in your pictures. One of the benefits of having some kind of theme like this is that I've found it helps me see more. Instead of being overwhelmed with all there is to see, I find I see more when I'm looking for something in particular.

Try to practice photography and not just take pictures. This is harder to do and is moving from simply documenting a site to trying to capture the essence of the site. Is there a photographic opportunity you see that with one picture will help you recall the experience of that site? Can you find a scene that tells a story related to the situation? Be aware of the light and shadows and lines and patterns. Here's where you start thinking more like a photographer and an artist than simply as a tourist.

Relate your picture taking to your devotional practice. If you have some kind of morning devotion, use that Scripture to inspire you throughout the day. Where does that Word of God connect with what you are seeing. I'm not thinking so much literally: it's a passage about Paul in Ephesus so you take a picture of Ephesus. Think spiritually and abstractly! How is what you read experienced in what you are seeing.

Last edited by mgvh; 01-27-2013 at 01:37 PM.
01-26-2013, 09:50 PM - 1 Like   #2
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I would add: practice photography technique before you go. Get a reasonable course so that you can use all your equipment and be familiar with using it for whatever it does. Get all the basic things routine: focus, correct exposure with backlighting, using a lens hood, closeup (as close as your closest lens will go) an if you use a flash, getting the flash right with all the other settings.

Also, buy any camera equipment long enough before you travel to be able to practice using it at home befroe you go.
01-27-2013, 06:43 AM   #3
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Very good post. Todd Bolen was the guide/instructor for our seminary course in Israel, and he was very helpful also. Because this course involved a lot of hiking and carrying gear, and the main purpose was not great photography, I left my main cameras home and just took a super-zoom Lumix - and was very glad I did. I got several shots the Nikon guys missed while they were changing lenses and fussing over gear, and I've used the resulting work for lectures ever since. The quality is fine for PowerPoint projection. (And at my age, weight matters!)
Another hint: if you go up on the Temple Mount, make sure you don't leave your SD card in your laptop back in the hotel. (Ouch!)
I hope to go back and do it all again.

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