Understanding the Basics of Digital Travel Photography


Maloti Mountains of Lesotho in the late afternoon light.

The majority of us use digital cameras these days for our travel photography.
But do we really understand it?
In this article, understanding digital travel photography, I’ll explain in simple words, some of technicalities we should all know about digital travel photography.

Digital Travel Photography

So, what is digital travel photography?
Well of course we know what travel photography is, don’t we?
If you don’t, head over to An Introduction to Travel Photography to get a better understanding.
But what about the digital bit?
When we push that shutter button whether it be a physical or virtual one, a complex process takes place in less than a second.
Let’s look at the components of this process:

Hoh river rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, USA. Understanding the Basics of Digital Travel Photography
Hoh river rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, USA Click on image to see a larger view

The Sensor

The heart of all cameras is the sensor. It’s integral to the camera as it dictates pretty much everything.
There are lots of different sensors manufactured, but the most common in digital cameras are the CCD (Charge Coupled Device) and the CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor). Sensors are semiconductors that consist of a grid of tiny light-sensitive cells called photodiodes.
Because photodiodes are black and white devices, a coloured filter is placed over the sensor so it can record colour.
When you take a photo, you allow light to hit the photodiode which then generates an electrical charge.
The individual photodiode records the brightness and colour of the light and generates a pixel that is placed in a grid.
The number of pixels in the grid determines how much information is recorded.

Sensor Quality

The sensor’s quality is affected by how the following factors:

a. The physical size of the sensor.

b. The build quality.

c. The quality, size and spacing of the actual pixels.

d. The way the camera’s image processor treats the data.

Understanding the Basics of Digital Travel Photography
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Sensor Size

Larger sensors allow the use of larger pixels, which can process more light. Usually that results in the capture of sharper images. Sharper images have more detail, less noise, wider dynamic range and smoother tonal gradation.
But it doesn’t stop there.
For example, I have an Olympus OMD1 MKII and a Canon 5D MKII.
Whilst the Canon is a lot older, it is a full frame camera which means it has a larger sensor than the Olympus which has a crop sensor of 1/2.
The image quality on both is excellent and I would challenge anyone to tell the difference.
In fact, my opinion is that the Olympus is slightly better.
And I’m taking into account that it could also be because of a difference in the quality of the lens.

Resolution

Ah, resolution! Disturbingly misunderstood and incorrectly used as a benchmark of quality

A camera’s resolution is the number of pixels on both the vertical and horizontal sides of the sensor. That’s called the total pixel count and is usually in the millions and is described in megapixels (MP).
One million pixels equal a megapixel.
For example, a camera with a sensor size of 5184 x 3456 pixels has total pixel sum of 17,915,904. Camera manufacturers round it up to 18 MP and so it is an 18 MP camera.
You should find this number somewhere on the camera body. In the past it has been used to justify the price. I.E. More MP’s more dollars!
Nowadays that is no longer the case. Although there are exceptions, image quality is much more important.
The actual quality of the image file is affected by the same variables used to determine a sensor’s quality. See Sensor Quality 

Print Size

The other important factor is the maximum print size that the camera can be expected to produce. 
This is based on the sensor pixel count. 

Most printers print at the international professional standard of 300 Pixels per inch. Therefore, by going back to the above example 5184 x 3456, you divide 5184 by 300 you get 17.28”. 
And then divide the other side 3456 by 300 you end up with a 17.28” x 11.52” (or 432mm x 288mm) paper size.
Now it’s not my intention to get into the black art of printing. But some printers will print at 240 whilst others might print at 350.
What does that mean? Well basically if you use the same calculation of 240 then you can be forgiven for thinking that you will get a bigger print. However, the quality is not as good because those pixels are being scattered over a bigger area. On the other hand, printing at 350 should give you a smaller picture but it actually works out that you will get a better print. There are lots of articles and charts available online if you really want to get into print sizes.
The one takeaway is that if you want to print a A4 (8 x 10”) size print you must have at the very minimum a 7-8 MP Camera. 2400 x 3000 Pixels divided by 300 comes to 8 x 10”. 2400 x 3000 = 7200000 or 7.2MP
A good inexpensive eBook on this whole topic is Making the Print by Martin Bailey

Screen size

Having said all that, most of us these days only view photos on a screen.
And the smaller the screen the smaller the photos you need to display it without pixilation.
Most cameras have different “image quality” settings. That’s a rather misleading way of telling you that you can adjust the size of your images.
That is also usually only for JPEG images as RAW is fixed.
Having smaller images has the benefit of requiring less space with both your memory card and your computer storage. But can also mean that you are restricted to a maximum size screen when you view it on a larger screen as it will drop in quality if you try to enlarge to fit.
If you were to view it’s original size on a larger screen, you will get a border, usually white, around it taking up the space from the edges of the image to the edge of the screen.
Conversely viewing an image that is larger than the screen means that you will not see all the image as it will fill the screen.

In the examples below you can see an image of 4608 x 3456 on a screen of 2560 x 1440 which is on a 25” computer screen. If you look in the right-hand corner of the second image you can see a box that tells how much of the image you are looking at.

Understanding the Basics of Digital Travel Photography
Understanding the Basics of Digital Travel Photography

Whatever software you are using to view will allow you to zoom in or out. But you can see how the dimensions of an image directly relate to the physical viewing medium

Upscaling

Of course, there are exceptions.
When viewing images on your TV with something like a Chromecast or an Apple TV you’ll see that they will fill the screen regardless of size.
That’s because they do a great job of sizing it according to the size of the TV.
In fact most of the newer TV’s do the same.
That’s called scaling the image.
On a larger TV they usually have to upscale. Although there are limitations of what these devices and TV’s can do. A very small image of say 320 x 240 Pixels just won’t be able to be upscaled on a 65” TV and still look great. It may be just OK but more likely it will be pixelated or shown at its original size.

Summary for understanding digital travel photography basics

· Digital travel photography is the process that happens once you press that shutter button.

· At the heart of all cameras is the sensor

· A sensor is an electrical device for absorbing light and then transmitting it in a form of electrical current

  • · There are several factors that determine the quality of a sensor.
  • · Resolution is no longer an indicator of quality
  • · When considering printing always consider that quality printers print at 300 pixels per inch. So size your camera (min 8MP) and then your image accordingly
  • Viewing on electronic screens allow you the luxury of having smaller image sizes

Thanks for reading this article

There must have been something that piqued your interest.

Is it that you see yourself taking some great travel photos that you can share or display?

Or is it you can see yourself reliving your travel experience by bringing home some emotive travel photos?

Maybe you aspire to getting your travel photos published.

If one or all of these is YOUR goal, I can help.

If you sign up in the box below you’ll get my free eBook “9 ways to improve your Travel Photography”. At the same time, you will also subscribe to my Travel Photo Tips Newsletter.

Remember if you want to take great travel photos 

  • that you can share and display.
  • that help you relive your travel experience
  • give you a chance to have your travel photos published

then sign up below and subscribe to my Travel Photo Tips Newsletter and for your trouble get my eBook “9 ways to improve your Travel Photography”

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Understanding the Basics of Digital Travel Photography
Maloti Mountains of Lesotho in the late afternoon light.

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