From baroque Vienna to futuristic Tokyo, I've waved my camera around some of the world's most photogenic cities. But as an enthusiastic amateur – shooting 200 images to get one good one is why digital works for me – I often mull the idea of brushing up my skills beyond the Instagram level.
Luckily, there are dozens of on-the-road ways to get serious about photography – and learn to operate your fancy new equipment beyond the auto setting. Of course, you can certainly sign-up for camera classes at home, but it's much more fun to expose yourself – so to speak – in situ.
Those focused on architecture have plenty of options for honing their f-stop skills. Trawling the Tours by Locals website (toursbylocals.com), you'll find informative "photo safaris" from Barcelona to San Francisco and from Moscow to Rio de Janeiro, each offering unique visuals to poke your lenses at.
Closer to home, Vancouver Photowalks (vancouverphotowalks.ca) hosts instructional photography rambles around the city, including an architecture-themed option. There's a strong focus on getting the most from the camera you own, and while its group tours are popular, individual walks are also available.
But if shooting grand cityscapes pops your flash, consider Chicago, home of ornate early skyscrapers and the landmark designs of Henry Hobson Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright et al. Start with a photography boat cruise from the Chicago Architecture Foundation (architecture.org) – running weekends until the end of September – then turn your creativity loose.
Workshops and photo walks abound here, from popular instructional tours with photographer Jason Wolf (jasonwolfdigitalimages.com) to full-day classes at the Chicago Photography Center (chicagophoto.org) where themes include a monthly Architecture Photography Class.
But if you're really serious, blow your future lens budget on Vision Explorers' $1,650 (U.S) Fine Art Architectural Workshop (visionexplorers.com), a four-day September feast of high-end instruction, photo walks, guest speakers and portfolio reviews. It's the perfect place to start that glossy coffee table book you've been planning.
Of course, classes and tours are not the only way to improve your photo skills. Simply slowing down and taking your photography more seriously will also produce better results, according to travel writer and photographer Brandon Elijah Scott (eyeandpen.com). His website is stuffed with advice for shooters – including a free downloadable e-book of 100 photography tips.
Scott has a few immediate suggestions for upping your photo quality. "Shoot in the morning for the best light and don't just snap a shot and move on – rework it and challenge yourself to take a better one," he says, adding that "the best ways to improve your skills are to practise as much as possible and try new things."
Since my own worst photos tend to be shakily focused night shots, Scott also suggests tackling low light issues with a tripod, keeping ISO settings low and taking long exposures. And if, like me, you don't know what all of that means, it may be time to dip into your vacation budget and upgrade your equipment from a Polaroid Instamatic.
"I would suggest buying an entry level professional DSLR from Canon," he says. "It's what I started out on and I still use as a backup camera today. The new Canon EOS DSLR models in the $500 to $1,000 price range are top-notch entry level professional cameras."
And once you're back home from your trip, there's still work to be done to create those perfect photos. "If you've taken high quality shots that gather the most detail – using the HDR setting on some cameras or shooting in RAW file format – your photos will be like canvases. Like a painter, you can then create the art of the image in Photoshop using tools like Photomatix and Topaz Adjust."