Lately we’ve been receiving a lot of questions about how we take photos and achieve a specific ‘look’. It’s taken time to develop our own unique aesthetic and it’s still constantly evolving. Also, it’s a joint effort! Jacob takes the majority of our photos and has a wealth of technical knowledge that I don’t. On the other hand, I edit all of our photos, which is also what contributes to them having a similar look and color scheme.
While there’s plenty to cover in the realm of photography, I thought it would be most useful to simply break down how we each shoot and edit. These tips will help gain an understanding of our processes and how you achieve a similar aesthetic with your own photos. If you’re just getting into photography, check out our post about how to choose the right camera and lens set up. You can also find a full breakdown of our camera, lenses, and other accessories in this post about our travel photography gear.
How We Shoot (Jacob)
Regardless of which camera we are using (Sony or Canon) we use the same settings. We always shoot RAW photos rather than JPEG. This is because RAW format retains far more information and gives you a lot more control when editing. It can be tempting to shoot JPEG to save on storage space, but don’t do it!
I always prefer to shoot in manual mode because it gives me the most control over the image. If you’re just starting out with photography, I recommend learning to shoot in manual mode first. This means you will have to set shutter speed, ISO and aperture for your image. Understanding how you can use the aperture and shutter speed to give your images a different feel is really important and it will make you a better photographer. It can take some time to become efficient in manual shooting mode, but it is well worth it.
When shooting on a bright day, I keep the ISO low (between 100-400 ISO) to minimize any noise. I always keep the shutter speed fairly fast (1/250 second or higher). Setting the shutter speed this way minimizes motion blur and makes sure that any movement in the shot is still sharp (like if Selena does a hair flip!). Depending on the subject I’ll either want a shallower or deeper depth of field.
If I’m trying to draw focus to a specific object or person in the shot and create bokeh behind the subject, then I’ll shoot with a wider aperture (around f/1.4-2.8, like the Amsterdam photo below). This gives me a shallow depth of field. On the other hand, if I’m trying to capture Selena in a beautiful landscape or backdrop like the Palm Desert photo below, then I’ll want everything in focus. This means I’ll shoot with an aperture setting of f/8 or higher.
High contrast situations
If we’re shooting in a situation where there are bright skies and dark shadows, for example during sunset, then I’ll tend to underexpose the image. This means I’ll set my exposure for the brightest parts rather than the shadows. When you’re underexposing an image your camera’s light meter might show you -1,-2, or -3 instead of 0.
When you’re editing, it’s fairly easy to brighten the shadows and dark parts of your image but it will be more difficult to try and bring back parts of your image that are over-exposed. Keep in mind that brightening shadows from an image taken at a high ISO (400 ISO or more) will introduce more noise in your photo. If you know you’re going to want to lift the shadows then try and shoot at a low ISO (between 100-400 ISO).
Shooting at night can be a challenge. The trick is to get as much light to the sensor as you can. This can be done by slowing the shutter speed, opening the aperture, and raising the ISO. It’s important to understand how each of these will impact your image so you can choose what is best for any given scenario.
Slowing the shutter speed will increase motion blur. Typically if you’re shooting a long exposure (anything that’s 1/60 second or slower) then you’ll want to have the camera on a tripod. Keep in mind that opening the aperture (i.e. setting it to a low number such as f/1.4-2.8) will let more light in, but it will also make the depth of field shallower, creating more bokeh. If you want to take a nighttime shot where everything is in focus then this isn’t the right option. Try slowing the shutter speed instead.
Raising the ISO is a simple way to brighten the image. However, as you raise the ISO remember that you will be adding more noise to the image. This is because the camera is digitally boosting the sensitivity of the sensor to make the image brighter. Every camera’s noise levels are different, so I suggest experimenting with what ISO level you feel has acceptable noise. Keep in mind that noise isn’t very noticeable on the tiny LCD of a camera, so you’ll want to review images on a computer to be able to accurately decide what is the maximum ISO level you’ll want to shoot at.
For example, if I’m shooting stars I’ll typically have the ISO around 1600 on my Sony, aperture around f/2.8, and shutter speed around 10-30 seconds. These are general settings but they always depend on how bright the sky is. In this example, my camera is on a tripod and I’m careful not to bump or touch it while the photo is being taken. I also like to set the camera to 2 second timer mode to start, so that I don’t add any shake into the image when I press the shutter release button. This is useful anytime you’re taking an exposure longer than 1/60 sec on a tripod.
How We Edit (Selena)
All of our photos are edited in Adobe Lightroom, which is what most professional photographers use to edit. If you’ve ever used the VSCO app, you’ll find that the layout and tools within Lightroom are actually quite similar. However, Lightroom will give you much more editing control and it also allows you to edit out any unsightly elements in your shots.
In general, we try to choose photos for blog posts or Instagram that need minimal editing. If a shot is out of focus or doesn’t stand out, we won’t bother with it. I always prefer quality over quantity!
1. Apply a preset
I always start by first applying my own presets. When I’m editing a photo from a new destination and I like the way it looks, I’ll always right click on the photo and ‘Add’ it to my presets folder for later use. Usually I gravitate towards edits that:
- Have lifted blacks (found in Lightroom’s ‘tone curves’)
- Muted colors (controlled with Lightroom’s ‘saturation’ panel)
- Are bright (adjusted with ‘exposure’ and ‘contrast’ in Lightroom)
2. Adjust the basics
After applying my preset, I start with the basics. Usually this means increasing the exposure, contrast, and boosting the shadows. For photos where the subject is closer to the camera, I’ll usually lift the blacks more, like the photo below from Masada in Israel. For landscapes, I’ll typically increase contrast. And if the photo is shot at sunrise or sunset, I’ll usually exaggerate colors including the ‘split toning’ of an image, like the photo below taken at the Dead Sea.
3. Tweak colors
Blue and orange are complimentary colors and always look nice in photos. If the photo I’m editing has these colors I will try to bring them out by playing around with the color panel. I’ll also adjust the hue of blues to be more turquoise, and usually decrease the luminance and saturation with oranges since that will also affect my skin tone (and make me look tanner, like the Tahiti photo below!). For other colors, I’ll decrease saturation as needed. I probably spend the most time adjusting colors in an image.
4. Crop for the right medium
Once I’m pretty happy with my photo, I’ll crop it based on where I plan to use it. For Instagram, that usually means square or 4:5 ratio. For my blog, I’ll leave horizontal images as is or I’ll crop vertical images to a 4:5 ratio too, so that I can use them for Instagram and maintain consistency. I always pay attention to composition closely and crop specifically for the medium I plan to use the photo on.
5. Final tweaks
Lastly, I’ll remove anything in the photo that is distracting. That usually means signs, trash, even people in the background! Lightroom has a decent tool for this called the ‘spot removal’ tool. If heavy edits are needed however, I’ll right click on the photo and open it in Photoshop to make final adjustments.
I hope you enjoyed this basic overview of how we shoot and edit for our blog and Instagram! If you’re stuck developing your own photography style, I recommend looking to others for inspiration. There are a lot of different styles out there, so try to determine what you first loved about a photo that made you save it (for instance on Pinterest or Instagram). Once you have a starting point, it’s always easier add your own unique look to it.