Focus on Panama [Encore Publication]: A man, a plan, a canal Panama, but so very much more


Iconic Panamanian scene: Nearly every visitor to Panama comes, at least in part, to see the canal, one of the wonders of the modern world.  Although our small vessel was able to transit the canal using the original 1914 lock system, we had the opportunity to visit the newly expanded 2016 lock system that can accommodate some of the world’s largest ships.  We observed this super container ship carrying more than 10,000 shipping containers each the size of a tractor-trailer truck as she transited the new lock system.  The massive scale of this scene makes it challenging to photograph.  Compose too tightly and you lose the grand sense of scale; compose too wide and you lose the dramatic impact.  I opted to capture this enormous vessel fully enclosed by the gargantuan lock chamber with the entrance to the Caribbean (Atlantic) waters and the modern Atlantic Bridge in the background.

My wife and I recently returned from a lovely two-week adventure traveling through Panama.  Our itinerary took us from the capital of Panama City to the historic and folkloric Azuero Peninsula, then up the Chagres River via dugout canoe for an in-depth encounter with the Embera indigenous people, followed by transiting the entire length of the Panama Canal aboard our 24-passenger catamaran, and ending with a visit to the remarkable rainforest of San Lorenzo National Park before returning to Panama City.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Panama’s people of diverse backgrounds and trades.  We discovered that Panama is much more than just a canal: it’s a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, unparalleled biodiversity, centuries-old cultural traditions, and friendly people.

Our Panamanian adventure began in the largest city, Panama City.  While small relative to other major Latin American cities, Panama City is growing and thriving, juxtaposing a modern vibrant energy on top of a lovely historic Spanish-colonial old town.

Old meets new in Panama City as the Old Quarter ruins lie in the shadow of newer developments. To capture this juxtaposition of ancient against modern, I composed using a wide-angle lens and a low vantage point so that the skyline appears to grow suddenly from behind the ruins.  A narrow aperture (high f-stop number) allows both foreground and background to be in sharp focus.

Wildlife is abundant nearly everywhere in a rainforest climate zone, so our cameras should already be ready.  On the outskirts of Panama City, we observed this lovely iguana. I crouched down very low to shoot from the same level as the iguana, using a long telephoto set to a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to soften the background.  It’s important to shoot many frames of wildlife subjects to maximize the likelihood of capturing a few really strong shots.  This image appeals because the iguana appears to be smiling at us.

Lovely view over Panama City from the roof garden of our hotel.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water.  When composing busy images like this one, I seek a sense of harmony and balance between the different elements.  It’s also helpful to avoid the use of extremely wide-angle lenses and to keep the horizon level so as to minimize distortion of the vertical lines.

Food is an important aspect of travel, so it’s fun to make some images of the dishes we try, such as this whimsical presentation of ceviche in a local Panama City restaurant.  Photographing food in restaurant or home settings can be challenging due to poor lighting and cluttered backgrounds.  Here I removed some of the clutter from the table and shot from a 45-degree angle, which works well for many food presentations (shooting from directly above almost never flatters the dish).

A highlight of our stay in Panama City was getting to explore the neighborhood of El Chorrillo, nearly completely destroyed during the 1989 US invasion to oust Manuel Noriega.  Nearly three decades later, much of this neighborhood is still in shambles and its residents are divided on whether such destruction was justified.  I feel it’s a privilege to observe and photograph peoples’ homes during times of regeneration, so it’s important to explore and shoot photos with a high degree of respect for those who live in the neighborhood, speaking with residents and obtaining their permission before capturing images.

Departing Panama City for the historic and folkloric region of the Azuero Peninsula, we were very fortunate to arrive in the little town of Chitre on the day they celebrate Panama’s “First Cry of Independence”. The push for independence from Spain began here, then spread to the rest of the country.

Whether halfway around the world or right in my home town, I’m always thrilled to have the chance to capture the special energy and tradition of a festival or celebration.  Because festivals are very busy events, it’s important to look for clean backgrounds insofar as possible.  To make this portrait of two young Panamanians dressed in the national costume known as the pollera, I composed so as to minimize clutter in the background and also used a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to render the background in soft focus.  Too often photographers compose based only on the main subject, but a clean background is at least as important to the success of the image than an interesting foreground subject.

In the village of Las Tablas we visited a pollera-making workshop run by a husband and wife team. These intricately embroidered costumes can each cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years to make. The owners’ niece and son made adorable models for their work.  I asked them to move a few steps away from the cluttered area where they were standing so we could frame the portrait with the lovely traditional Panamanian window in the background.

Local fishermen ferried us from the mainland to the lovely Iguana Island for a day of snorkeling, hiking, and relaxing at the beach.  A strange sighting: this hermit crab re-purposed the discarded head of a child’s doll for its new shell.  I did not have a macro lens with me, so I used the closest focusing lens in my bag and got as close as possible, later cropping the image further during post-processing.

The second day of independence festivities are celebrated in the small town of Villa de los Santos. I asked this parade participant to pose for a portrait in a spot with a clean background and lovely soft lighting, then got in close with a fast prime portrait lens set to a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to throw the background out of focus.  Soft lighting (which can be obtained by shooting near sunrise or sunset, or by moving the subject into a shaded area) makes vivid colors truly pop and flatters the subject of your portrait.

The “First Cry of Independence” festivities last well into the night.  The extremely low-light conditions offer a photographer’s dilemma: either continue to shoot using only available light (and accept the added visual noise and motion blur) or switch to using flash (and live with its short coverage distance, artificial color cast, and distraction to the subjects).  I chose to work with just available light, boosting my camera’s ISO sensitivity setting to as high as I could get away with and using a fast prime lens at a very wide aperture to gather as much light as possible, which in turn allowed the use of a reasonably fast shutter speed.  The results are lovely: sharp dancers in the foreground with just a touch of motion blur, soft focus on the dancers and buildings in the background, and a soft and painterly feel for the scene that to me feels quintessentially Panamanian.

As we prepared to depart the Azuero Peninsula, we visited the mask-making workshop of renowned artisan Dario.  Even avid photographers enjoy returning home with at least a few photos of themselves and their loved ones, so I set up the camera and asked a fellow traveler to capture the shot.  Expect to spend some time fixing the composition and exposure in post-processing if your designated photographer is not very experienced.

After spending a few days on the Azuero Peninsula, we navigated up the Chagres River via dugout canoe to meet the Embera indigenous people.  This fascinating in-depth encounter offered a window into an ancient culture that has mostly disappeared from Central America as indigenous groups have been forced to resettle on national parklands where their traditional fishing and hunting practices are not permitted.  Our Embera hosts are able to continue to live in the traditional manner by sharing their culture with visitors like us.  Our lovely day spent with the Embera villagers included preparing and enjoying a traditional meal, visiting the two-room schoolhouse (supported by Grand Circle Foundation), exploring the village, learning about their government and way of life, and observing and participating in traditional singing and dancing.  We will never forget this experience.

We enjoyed a wonderful visit to the two-room schoolhouse in the Embera village.  As we shared songs and dances with the schoolkids, I made this portrait using only available light, intentionally blurring the girl’s hands to impart a sense of motion.

I got to know this Embera teen as she helped prepare her sisters and brother for the traditional dance ceremony.  We chatted and I captured photos of her preparations as she applied tattoos to her siblings using the juice of the jagua plant.  It’s always a good practice to get to know your subject before making a portrait.  Doing so will help put them at ease and allow you the opportunity to capture their true personality.  To make the portrait, I asked the girl to move outside of the hut to a spot with open shade and a pleasing background, then captured the moment using a fast portrait lens and a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to get that lovely “bokeh” (artistic quality in the out-of-focus background areas).

At the conclusion of our day in the Embera village, all the people of the village came out to demonstrate traditional singing and dancing for us.  For large group portraits, it’s often best to work with a slightly wide-angle lens, but not so wide as to cause distortion.  I chose a narrow aperture (high f-stop number) so that all of the people and the surrounding village landscape would be in sharp focus.  Shooting from the same level as your subject has the effect of seeming to place your viewer within the scene rather than (literally) looking down on the action.

A brief jaunt back to Panama City put us in position to board our 24-passenger catamaran, the M/S Discovery, for our three-day transit of the Panama Canal.

Strolling near our hotel, we happened upon these two brightly-colored toucans in a tree.  Using the longest telephoto lens at my disposal, I made the shot handheld with a fast shutter speed to minimize camera shake.  If your camera or lens has built-in image stabilization (also sometimes called vibration reduction), this modern feature can be very useful in avoiding blurring caused by camera shake.

Setting sail on the Panama Canal, we pass the Frank Gehry designed Biodiversity Museum with the Panama City skyline in the background.  Cityscapes can be great fun to photograph.  Attention should be paid to composing the image to include the most interesting urban features while eliminating extraneous and distracting elements.  A polarizing filter can help reduce reflection and enhance the color and texture of clouds and water.  And it’s always a good practice to keep the horizon line nice and level.

A spider monkey feeds in a tree on an island in Gatun Lake, highest point along the Panama Canal.  Photographing an animal in the low light of the rainforest canopy, and from a moving boat, is a challenge.  I boosted the camera’s ISO sensitivity setting and used the fastest aperture setting available on this lens to render a sharp image of the monkey in motion.

Transiting the Atlantic locks near the end of the Panama Canal.  This scene conveys the hustle and bustle of this hectic waterway without too many distracting elements.  I composed to include two relatively large ships in separate chambers of the locks along with the Canal Authority’s apparatus and our own ship’s Panamanian flag.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Panama photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Panama?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

Brave New World [Encore Publication]: AI tools for photographers are improving

As a working professional photographer who also spent nearly 30 years as a technology manager/executive, I’ve long had an interest in the intersection between art/creativity and technology.  Recent attempts to marry photography with artificial intelligence have ranged from useful (facial recognition) to silly (Instagram filters) to hype (an expensive camera that several days after you shoot sends you only the images it deems worthy).  But as pattern matching algorithms improve and machine learning becomes more reliable, we are starting to see some amazing applications at the intersection of AI and photography.

I’ve recently been playing around with two good examples from Adobe.  Available only in the online version of Lightroom as “Technology Previews”, these tools enable you to search all your images for specific attributes and to have the AI automatically select what it determines to be your best photos.

To activate these new tools, go to https://lightroom.adobe.com, log in using your Adobe Creative Cloud credentials, and then click on the Lighroom logo in the upper left and select “Technology Previews” from the drop-down menu.  Click the check box next to “Best Photos”, and you’re good to go.

There are two main tools available at this time:

  1. Intelligent Photo Search: This is already very impressive technology.  You can search all or a subset of your images using any natural language term you want.  You could, for example, search all your images for photos of cats, or of mountains, or of dancers, or of waterfalls.  The more specific your search term is, the more accurate the results are likely to be.  When I searched for “waterfall” or for “dancer”, the AI seemed to get many or most of my photos featuring those themes, and only occasionally did it include photos that did not feature those themes.  When my search terms were broader, like “clouds” or “mountains”, the results were less accurate.  Aesthetic searches, say for the color “blue” or the effect of “motion” resulted in mostly accurate selections of images featuring these concepts.  While there are a few false matches, and likely quite a few more errors of omission of images that should have matched, this technology is quite useful in its current state.
  2. Best Photos Selection: This one is more of a work in process.  You can select any of your online galleries and ask the AI to select what it “thinks” the best photos are.  You can move a slider to increase or decrease how selective this tool is.  As a default, it shows you its picks for the top half of your photos, and then you can refine the selectivity to include more or fewer photos.  I tried this advanced technology using several of my recent photo galleries.  In most cases, it included my two or three favorite images in its initial selection of the top half of all the photos, but dropped them from its cut as I increased the selectivity.  In one gallery, for example, an image that was recently selected as a favorite by the editors of “National Geographic” was dropped by Adobe’s AI in the first cut of 10% of the images.  That image was quite artsy and abstract, and it’s not reasonable to expect that a machine could choose it as special.  Yet in another of my galleries, the AI included an image that recently won a major local competition in its final cut of just 1% of the images.  That image is a more traditional landscape that could reasonably be evaluated by a machine as a “good” photograph.

The bottom line here is that the applications of advanced technology to the art of photography are improving at an astonishing rate.  While neither of Adobe’s AI tools is as good as a human artist at selecting images by their features or their quality, both tools are off to an impressive start and one of them (Intelligent Photo Search) is already very usable.  I would not be surprised if, in a year or two, this technology advances to the point where machines can be making decisions about photography along with humans.  Both human and AI evaluations will have their strengths and weaknesses, and I can see them coexisting for the foreseeable future.  I recommend we all, as photographers, get steeped in this advanced technology and prepare for a future in which man and machine will both play a role in sophisticated evaluation of images.

Focus on 2018 SF Pride Parade [Encore Publication]: Capturing diversity, purpose, and intimacy

It’s no surprise that San Francisco hosts one of the world’s oldest and largest LGBTQ Pride events in the world.  Each year, the parade and festival grow bigger and better attended.  SF Pride is one of my favorite annual events in my home region, the SF Bay Area, and what I love the most about this exuberant celebration is its remarkable focus on the central human values of diversity, inclusion, activism, hope, and love.  In today’s post, I share some of my favorite images from this year’s Pride Parade, along with a few words about how the images were made.  The goal is to showcase the incredible diversity and sense of social purpose of the participants and observers at this grand celebration, while also striving to capture the small, more intimate, moments.  Remember that you can view–and purchase–all of these images as well as many more by clicking on any of the images in this post.

In a frenzied environment like that of most festivals, parades, and street fairs, it can be a challenge to make a nice clean portrait with an uncluttered background.  Sometimes it’s possible to relocate the subject to an area with a clean and clutter-free background, but most often (as with this portrait) that isn’t feasible.  In those cases, my best practices are to use a moderate telephoto “portrait” lens, select a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus, get in close to the subject, and use a touch of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.  

Huge festivals and celebrations such as SF Pride can be overwhelming, with hundreds of thousands of participants and observers present.  I strive to capture the smaller, more intimate, moments within this gigantic environment.  Here I captured a beautiful portrait of two participants sharing their love, which I think encapsulates the entire meaning of Pride events around the world.  I had been chatting with these two people and had obtained their permission to photograph them before making this image.  I used a medium telephoto “portrait” lens and got in close to isolate the couple from the busy background.

Color and texture play a huge role in photographic composition and expression.  As photographers, we’re very aware of these factors when we compose landscapes or nature scenes, but even when making a portrait, we should always be considering the mood evoked by the colors, patterns, and textures in the scene.  I love this portrait for its moody use of the similar shades of orange-red offset against the multiple colors of the flowers and the cigarette.  This is an image that tells a story, but that also leaves most of the story untold.

Another intimate portrait, this one made of a young woman doing yoga poses while waiting to march in the parade.  She had an adorable sense of humor and expressive face, which, coupled with her offbeat outfit, made a great closeup portrait.  Don’t be afraid to get in close to your subject, but always get to know them and ask permission first.

An iconic Pride scene, this portrait was made with a longer telephoto lens, its use made necessary by the greater distance to the parade float in the middle of a wide street.  While I prefer to get up-close and personal with my subjects, and to get to know them before shooting, sometimes we have to shoot from farther away, such as during a fast-moving and crowded parade.  It’s therefore important to have the gear and expertise to make portraits from any range.  Even when shooting from farther away, though, my key portrait rules still apply: try to capture the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible, use a wide aperture to isolate the main subject from the background, and apply a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

It can be tricky to try to capture nudity in a tasteful way suitable for sharing and selling to broad audiences.  I spent some time chatting with these two activists to get to know them and to understand their cause–overturning San Francisco’s ban on public nudity–before starting to shoot.  Even though they had given me permission to photograph them nude (which is an important courtesy all photographers should follow, although no permission is legally required to photograph people in a public space in the US), my market for images containing graphic nudity is small, so I strive to capture scenes that tell the story but with implied nudity rather than graphic nudity.  Here I found a vantage point that allowed the subjects’ arms to strategically cover certain parts of their bodies.  The resulting portrait conveys the story of their purpose and gets across the idea of their nudity, but is still shareable and sell-able to a broad market.

Another close-up portrait, using the same techniques I shared earlier in this post.

Another of my favorite portraits from the day, this one also tells a small-scale, intimate story, conveyed by getting in close and isolating the subjects from the busy background.  The end result is a sense that these two people are celebrating their own story, even in the midst of the bustling celebration going on around them.

I met this young woman in a very crowded space, but fortunately I had the opportunity to walk her to a less cluttered space to make her portrait.  I’m always on the lookout for quieter and cleaner spaces when shooting festivals and celebrations.  A few steps was all it took for us to find this simple, clean background, allowing the portrait to really pop.

Group portraits pose a special challenge in busy public spaces: how to capture all the group members in crisp focus while also trying to isolate them from the cluttered background.  Here I used a medium aperture to keep the people in sharp focus while slightly softening the background, but since a very wide aperture cannot be used for groups, the softening effect will be mild.  As a result, it’s especially important when making these group portraits to seek an interesting, complementary, or clean background.

As their float passed by in the staging and assembly area before the official start of the parade, I observed an opportunity to capture this quiet scene of one woman helping to apply her friend’s makeup.  I used a moderate telephoto lens and shot several frames to increase the odds of getting a clean and interesting shot.

When making portraits of kids or seated people, it’s a good practice to get down to their level.  Getting in close is also usually an effective technique, both to isolate the subject and to capture a sense of their spirit.

What are some of your favorite celebrations, and how do you capture their diversity in your images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling or close to home?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

Approach with Care [Encore Publication]: Sensitive photographic practices help keep wildlife wild and healthy

Photographing wildlife in its natural habitat is one of the most exciting and rewarding activities I can imagine.  From researching the species’ behavior to seeking it (sometimes for days) in the field, to that wonderful moment its image is captured on our memory card and to the thrill of viewing that image when we return from the field, there’s something truly magical about this genre of photography.

Observing and photographing animals in the wild, such as this rare wildcat along Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, is thrilling.  Strive to put the animal’s welfare ahead of your image-making.  Buy this photo

Done properly, wildlife photography can have zero to very modest negative impact on the creatures whose images we capture.  In fact, photographers have done a great deal over the decades to help preserve wildlife through sharing images that inspire local people, governments, and the public to protect endangered species.

But by stalking and encroaching on a species’ territory, we photographers also put wildlife at risk of harm.  Improperly engaging with animals with the intent of photographing them can cause a predator to starve by allowing its prey to escape, cause another creature to become prey by distracting it from its natural wariness, stress the animal to harmful levels, or acclimatize them to being around humans.

Here are some important guidelines for photographing wildlife in as safe a manner as possible:

  1. Do your homework: The more you know before you set out to encounter a creature, the less likely you are to cause it harm inadvertently.  If you will be going with a safari or tour, research the outfit first to make sure they follow the highest ethical standards.  Get to know the behavior of the species you are seeking.  What is their daily and seasonal routine?  Where is their habitat?  What do they eat and what eats them?  What is a safe distance from which to view them?
  2. Keep a respectful distance: As kids we were told to keep away from wildlife for our safety, but as photographers we also need to consider how far away we must stay in order not to cause the animals undue stress.  Knowing where their meal ticket comes from, some safari and tour operators are willing to break park or preserve rules and approach the animals very closely so their clients can get great photos.  Do not encourage this.  Aside from the harm this stress can cause the animal, a stressed animal will look stressed in your photo and is more likely to bolt and leave you with no photo at all.  So, use a long telephoto lens, keep your distance, and both your subject and your images will be the better for it.
  3. Show special respect for the young: Baby animals are extremely vulnerable and should be treated with special care.  If you are traveling with a tour, defer to your guide’s knowledge.  If you’re on your own, be sure you’ve done your homework first, and err on the side of caution.Young animals, such as this baby baboon in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, should be photographed with special care.  I made this image using a long telephoto lens and shot from a safari vehicle parked at a respectful distance.  Buy this photo
  4. No kidding–don’t feed the animals: It seems almost too obvious to have to state, and yet nearly every day I encounter humans attempting to feed wildlife.  In Yosemite National Park, a number of bears must be killed each year because they have become dependent on humans for food.  At your local city park, you’ll probably observe people trying to feed the birds or squirrels.  And of course there are the big news stories (the recent major one was about the killing of the beloved Cecil the Lion) about hunters baiting animals with food.  A well placed and properly maintained bird feeder in the backyard may be okay, but no other attempts should be made to feed wildlife.
  5. Come back another time: In today’s networked world, word about rare animal sightings travels quickly.  If you hear about a sighting while traveling or near home, chances are many other photographers and watchers have also heard about it.  Multitudes of humans crowding around an animal will put it under undue stress and will also ensure you won’t make a great portrait of it.  Come back another time when there are fewer other people.  No photo opportunity is so irreplaceable that we should put the wildlife at risk.

With a little knowledge and courtesy, photographers can make great wildlife images while helping preserve and protect their subjects and keeping the wildlife wild.  Conversely, without respect or information about the local fauna, we run the risk of putting them at grave risk.  As the saying goes, make good choices!

The world’s smallest species of reindeer, the Svalbard reindeer is at risk due to global climate change.  Cautious and respectful photographers can use their images to help protect and preserve at-risk species.  Buy this photo

Do you have best practices about shooting (with a camera, that is) wildlife in the field?  Have you observed human behavior–positive or negative–that serves as an example?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling or near home?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

 

Join Me on a Photography Tour of Morocco: Capture unique images of breathtaking desert scenery, fabled cities, and fascinating cultural encounters

Dear Readers,

Please join me on a one-of-a-kind photography adventure through Morocco from October 24 to November 8, 2019.  This is a small group tour and is likely to fill quickly.

Join our small group of photography enthusiasts and experience the thrill of capturing the full range of Morocco’s spectacular beauty. Morocco is a dream destination for travel photographers, offering breathtaking desert scenery, fabled cities, and fascinating cultural encounters. We’ve planned this itinerary to provide ample opportunities to capture unforgettable images that you won’t find in travel brochures and on postcards. Depending on the season’s agricultural conditions, we may even have the chance to photograph the annual Erfoud Date Harvest Festival, a distinctive cultural event that is rarely seen by foreign travelers. Award-winning professional travel photographer Kyle Adler will be shooting alongside tour participants and will provide personalized in-the-field instruction. During our optional informal workshops, we’ll review our recent images, plan our shot list for upcoming locations, and cover techniques to make the best images possible. Topics will be tailored to the group’s interests and may cover any aspects of travel photography from shot planning to capture technique, and on to post-processing and image sharing. Unlike most photography tours, we will place a special emphasis on learning to use the camera as a bridge to enhanced understanding of the land and people we visit. Photographers of any level will see their images improve, and non-photographer friends and family are also most welcome to join this tour. You can make memorable images using whatever camera gear you wish to bring; it is not necessary to invest in specialized gear.

Visit the Overseas Adventure Travel web page to  learn more about this photography adventure: Photography Adventure in Morocco.

Call Overseas Adventure Travel toll-free at 1-800-353-6262 and press 2 for more details. Refer to Group Booking Code (G9-28085).

Luck Favors the Prepared [Encore Publication]: Tools for planning your shot

It was Louis Pasteur who said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”  We usually hear the quote paraphrased as, “Luck favors the prepared.”  For travel photographers, there is often a great deal of luck involved in capturing a truly great image, but there are some very useful tools that we can use to help us plan to be in the right place at the right time with the right gear.  Let’s look at just a few of my favorites.

I’ll start with a quick review of the most obvious resources.  I would never plan an hour-long photo shoot, let alone a month-long trip to a far-flung travel destination, without doing some research.  What are the must-see locations, and what dates and times of day are perfect for each one?  What are the events or activities that most authentically represent the locations I am visiting?  Is there a livestock market, a street festival, or a religious celebration taking place while I’m in the region?  How can I build an itinerary that best incorporates all of these locations?  Great resources for this type of research include guidebooks (online and hardcopy), online review sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp, mapping and navigation apps (Google Maps is still my all-around favorite, but several others have their own advantages), and local weather sites.  I like to build my itinerary by customizing an online map to show all of the locations I’d like to visit, then creating a routing that links the locations in the proper order.  If travel by air, rail, bus, or boat is involved, I research those schedules and fares to determine the best way to get from one place to the next.  Airline consolidation sites such as Orbitz can be quite helpful for finding the best flights at the best prices.  If the itinerary has been pre-planned by a travel company, then I will still do most of this background research to better understand the locations we’ll be visiting.

Once I know where I’ll be going and what events I plan to shoot, I develop a shot list.  Some photographers craft very detailed and specific shot lists, but I like to keep it quite flexible and informal, often simply jotting down my ideas in the calendar event on my phone that is associated with each planned shoot.  After all, if I adhere too closely to a shot list, I will just end up with the same images that hundreds or thousands of other visitors have captured after doing the same research.  Serendipity and the artist’s eye have their place in travel photography, too.  The research phase can also inform me as to what clothing, gear, and other essentials I should bring to each location.

Now I’d like to introduce three smartphone apps that I consider indispensable for travel photography.  First, there’s Photo Pills, an app that incorporates several essential tools into one package.  I use Photo Pills for planning shots where I need to know how to get all the elements, including location, date, and time of day, to come together.  For example, during the Perseid Meteor Shower, I wanted to find a dark sky location with a nice foreground and a view toward the galactic core of our Milky Way.  This way, I could capture images including the meteor shower, the Milky Way, and the pretty landscape in the foreground.  I had a location in mind, a beautiful spot where there isn’t too much light pollution and with a gorgeous view over a reservoir and the Santa Cruz Mountains.  The Planner tool in Photo Pills allowed me to visualize the foreground as viewed by my phone’s camera, superimposed against the Milky Way as it would appear on different days and times of day.  I planned the shot for a certain time on each of several consecutive days, confirmed that the Milky Way would be rising in the desired direction and that the nearly full moon would have already set, and then waited for clear weather.  The first night of the meteor shower was cloudy, but the second night was the charm, and I was able to capture this striking image.
Using the Photo Pills app on my smartphone, I was able to plan in advance for a location, date, and time that would maximize the chances of capturing the Perseid Meteor Shower and Milky Way over the lovely Crystal Springs Reservoir.  Buy this photo

Here’s a screenshot of the Planner tool in Photo Pills that I used to prepare for this shoot.

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The Photo Pills app has a number of tools to help plan and execute your shots.

Another useful app for planning the best locations, dates, and times for your shoots is TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris).  I find this tool to be especially helpful for visualizing the path of the sun and moon across the field of view for any location I select.  This app is very powerful, and I have only scratched the surface of what it can do to predict and prepare for photo opportunities.

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The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a powerful tool for planning any outdoor photo shoots.

A final app I will mention here is called Easy Release.  Sometimes (read this post for details about model releases), we need a model release when a person or several people are clearly identifiable in a photo.  I know some photographers who carry hardcopy model releases with them wherever they travel, but I find this to be cumbersome and impractical when on the road shooting.  Instead, I use Easy Release on my phone, so I’m always ready to quickly prepare a release for a new friend to sign when they appear in my images.  Even though the app has the ability to translate the text of the release into several languages, there are situations in which it isn’t reasonable to try to explain to a local person what’s in the release and why it’s required.  Furthermore, I consider it to be exploitative if the person can’t reasonably be expected to understand what’s in the document or why they should be signing it.  But there are times when having immediate access to a model release that can be prepared, signed, and stored right on my phone is a big advantage.

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Easy Release is a convenient tool for creating, signing, sharing, and storing model releases when a person is clearly identifiable in photos.

With proper planning using readily available resources and various apps including the ones I’ve presented here, we can be better prepared to maximize our chances of capturing memorable images.  Happy shooting, and remember that luck favors the prepared!

Do you have a favorite tool you use to plan for your photo adventures?  How have you used this tool to get your shot?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read more posts about tools for planning your travel photography?  Find them all here: Posts on Planning.

Telling a Story about Storytelling [Encore Publication]: Capturing the epic contemporary hula production by Na Lei Hulu

I’m honored to be the photographer for the incomparable Na Lei Hulu’s annual show, “Hula in Unusual Places”. If you live anywhere near the SF Bay Area, you should get to this show. The combination of preservation of traditional Hawaiian cultural dance with contemporary artistic sensibility makes for an unforgettable experience. Event info here: Na Lei Hulu event info.

As a photographer specializing in travel and cultural documentation, I love having the opportunity to tell a story about cultures different from my own, and because hula is the ancient Hawaiian art of telling stories using gestures, this assignment was especially appealing: telling a story about storytelling.

Today’s post consists of a photo essay of a few favorite dress rehearsal and performance images to whet your appetite.  Note that all of the images appearing in this post and many more can be viewed and purchased in this gallery.

First, a few notes about the making of these images:

  1. During dress rehearsals the photographer is free to roam about the theater, often including the backstage area, apron and wings, and even onstage with the performers.  This mobility is not possible during live performances.  As a result, there are more creative possibilities during the rehearsals, so that’s when I seek out the most exciting and dramatic shooting concepts.
  2. When shooting fast-moving performances in very low light situations, I like to use mostly fast prime lenses coupled with a high ISO setting to allow a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion.
  3. Theatrical productions often use mixed temperature lighting that can be challenging for photography because of the strange and complicated color casts that often result.  Sometimes this can be fixed in post-processing, but often I choose to convert to monochrome to avoid unpleasant and unnatural color casts.
  4. The difference between adequate dance photography and excellent dance photography is all about the dramatic purpose.  I try to adapt my shooting and post-processing style to suit the dramatic intent of each moment during the show.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sampling of images from the epic modern hula production by Na Hei Hulu in San Francisco.  It’s a challenge and a genuine joy to have the opportunity to make images of important large-scale ethnic dance productions such as this one.  Mahalo for reading, and if you’re able, do try to catch one of the remaining shows in the run.

Note that all of the images appearing in this post and many more can be viewed and purchased in this gallery.

 

Focus on Northern India [Encore Publication]: A diverse tapestry of colors, cultures, and chaos, India will stay with you forever

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 2.5-week adventure traveling through northern India.  Operated by Overseas Adventure Travel, the trip’s diverse itinerary took us from the chaotic capital of New Delhi to the “pink city” of Jaipur, brought us face to face with wild tigers in Ranthambore National Park, continued to Agra to view the landmark Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, then on to the ornately carved 9th century Chandela temples of Khajuraho, and finally to the ancient holy city of Varanasi.  While it was exciting to view the iconic attractions of India, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Indian people from all walks of life: pilgrims arrived in Varanasi to pray and bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges River, street kids in Delhi who started their own newspaper to expose the exploitation and abuses of children in their community, a matriarch and her family as they keep house in a tiny remote rural village, students at a village school, and women in Agra who survived horrific acid attacks and are advocating for awareness and justice.  India is a diverse tapestry of colors, cultures, and chaos that will inspire you and stay with you forever.  And for a travel photographer, visiting the north of India is a dream come true.

In today’s post we will take a look at some of my favorite images from this adventure.  I’ll include some brief discussion about who or what is included in each image and, where appropriate, a few words about how each image was made.

Our adventure began in the capital and largest city, Delhi.  The old part of the city is truly ancient, with a heritage dating back more than 1000 years.  But Delhi’s heritage also includes the British colonial period in the 19th and 20th centuries, and New Delhi today is the capital of the Indian republic and home to 22 million people.

People waiting for the next meal service at the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib Sikh temple in New Delhi.  The staff and volunteers there serve more than 8000 free meals per day to the needy people of New Delhi.  To make this image, I used a telephoto lens and shot from a low angle so as to compress the scene and capture the epic scale of the crowd.  In post-processing, I cropped the image to better lead the viewer’s eye around the scene, and I tweaked the contrast and vibrancy to better represent my original emotions on being in the middle of this scene.  Buy this photo

Our first gift purchase was a set of necklaces from this girl who sold them roadside in New Delhi.  To make this portrait, I used an 85mm portrait lens at a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to blur the background, and I added just a touch of fill-in flash using a handhelf off-camera strobe connected with an extension cable.  Buy this photo

We met this lovely girl at the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, and she graciously agreed to pose for a portrait.  Many travelers will try to “take” photos of people they see on their trips by simply pointing the camera at them or using a long lens to hide their intentions.  To “make” (not “take”) really compelling portraits, it’s essential to have a personal connection with your subject.  Even though we didn’t share a common language, we engaged the young woman in “conversation” using a combination of smiles and hand gestures, and once we were comfortable together, I used the universal gesture to ask if she would pose for my camera.  Buy this photo

For an authentic Indian experience, we took a thrilling and bone-rattling 30-minute ride through the crowded lanes of Old Delhi in a bicycle rickshaw.  In this image I tried to capture the sense of chaos and crowding as we experienced it from the rickshaw.  I shot from the perspective of the passenger and framed the image using the top of the vehicle.  I used a small aperture (high F-stop number) to ensure the whole vista would be in focus, and I set the exposure based on the motorcyclist in front of us.  Buy this photo

Qutab Minar is the symbol of New Delhi and was built in the 12th century.  The minaret is 234 feet high and a crowning achievement of Indo-Islamic architecture.  To fit in the entire tower, a wide-angle lens was required, but I was careful to frame the image so as to avoid distorting the structure too severely.  I timed this shot to capture the jetliner as it overflew the site.  Buy this photo

We made an inspiring visit to the Balaknama newspaper, run by New Delhi’s street kids as a platform for getting their voices heard and for championing fair treatment of these historically underserved and abused children.  This 17-year-old girl is the primary organizer of 10,000 of New Delhi’s street kids.  The portrait was made using only available light (no flash), as I didn’t want to disrupt our conversation with the kids.  Because the light was so dim inside the building, I had to use a very fast portrait lens and a high ISO sensitivity setting.  Buy this photo

After leaving behind the bustle of New Delhi, we traveled overland to Jaipur.  Known as the “Pink City” for the peculiar rosy color its downtown buildings were painted in preparation for a royal visit, Jaipur is home to several of India’s most impressive historical sites.

We arose very early in the morning to embark on a hot-air balloon ride over the rural villages and farms surrounding Jaipur.  I shot this image of a brick-making factory from the gondola of our hot-air balloon using a telephoto lens to compress the perspective.  I converted the image to black-and-white during post-processing in order to emphasize the patterns and textures of the stacks of bricks surrounding the camel-drawn cart.  Buy this photo

Our balloon landed in a field outside a tiny village in rural Rajasthan.  All of the villagers came out to our landing site to say hello.  Here we are posing in front of the hot-air balloon, together with our new friends in the village.  I did not have time to set up my tripod for this shot, so I enlisted a fellow traveler to release the shutter for me.  When using this method to capture yourself in a photo, be sure to preset all of your camera’s controls and show your volunteer exactly how you want the image composed.  Buy this photo

This wonderful elder lady of the village danced for us and generally entertained the whole village.  Equally entertaining to the villagers were the dances we attempted to perform for them.  Buy this photo

Jaipur’s landmark Palace of the Winds provided nearly 1000 windows through which the women of the court could look down on the streets below.  Careful attention should be paid to composing architectural images so as to capture the building in a striking way.  Here I used a wide-angle lens and composed slightly off-center so as to portray some depth to the image.  Buy this photo

During our home-hosted dinner in Jaipur, we enjoyed a lovely meal cooked by our hostess Ruchi.  Most images of food are made by shooting straight down on the plate from above, but here I wanted to convey the conviviality of the meal by shooting from the perspective of a diner at the table.  Buy this photo

Outside of Jaipur we were privileged to come across and participate in a pre-wedding dance celebration in honor of the couple who were to be married the following day.  This portrait was composed from a low angle right in front of the dancer to truly put the viewer into the middle of the action.  A fast shutter speed was used to freeze the motion, and I chose a small aperture (high F-stop number) to keep the whole scene in focus.  Buy this photo

After Jaipur, we set out overland across the heart of Rajasthan, heading for Ranthambore National Park.  This wildlife preserve is home to many species, including spotted deer, the large sambar deer, langur monkeys, crocodiles, and more than 450 species of birds.  But it is best known for its population of wild tigers, one of the highest concentrations of tigers in the world.

Although Ranthamore National Park is one of the best places in the world to attempt to observe tigers, even there it is unusual to see them.  We were very fortunate during our early morning game drive to encounter two tigers.  The first, this female, was not particularly close by was stalking prey in an open and forested terrain.  The second, a large male, was near our vehicle but was obscured in dense jungle.  The key to successful wildlife photography is to shoot lots of images.  I shot more than 200 frames of this tiger in order to ensure a few would be of excellent quality.  I used the bulky and heavy 500mm lens that I had carried all the way from San Francisco in the hopes that we’d encounter a tiger.  The images were shot with a fast shutter speed to freeze the animal’s motion and to reduce camera shake, and I used a relatively wide aperture (low F-stop number) to throw the background out of focus.  Careful attention should be paid to composing wildlife portraits without too much clutter in the background.  Buy this photo

We visited a school in a rural Ranthambore village.  It was a delight to meet the students there.  Here my wife Mary chats with two sixth-grade girls who hope to become engineers when they grow up.  They were very happy to meet Mary, a female engineer herself, and to learn about careers in the field.  When photographing children, many people shoot from their own eye level, which results in portraits that appear condescending to the subject.  It’s better to get down to the child’s eye level or even below so as to show the world from the subject’s point of view.  Buy this photo

After our school visit, we strolled through the village to get a sense of the daily life of the people living there.  A highlight was a visit to this matriarch’s home.  Many of the local kids came by our hostess’ house to say hello to us.  The eyeliner on the kids’ faces is intended to make their eyes look bigger.  Once again, I got down low to capture the scene from the perspective of the kids.  Buy this photo

A women’s cooperative trains village women to make handicrafts, providing them with income and empowering them to invest in the community and their own futures.  We enjoyed lunch with several of the artisans, and after getting to know the woman who sat at our table, I made this compelling portrait.  I got up-close and used a classic 85mm portrait lens with a very wide aperture (small F-stop number) to soften the background.  In post-processing I brought out the colors in her sari and scarf, and I added a bit of vignetting to darken the edges of the image and emphasize the subject.  Buy this photo

En route to Agra, we visited the remarkable Abhaneri step-well, an ingenious solution to bring up water from a very low water table.  In this image I wanted to emphasize the step-well’s abstract, Escher-esque appearance, so I composed it using a telephoto lens to frame the seemingly endless symmetry of the ladders.  In post-processing I converted the image to black-and-white to bring out the patterns and abstraction.  Buy this photo

To break up the very long drive from Ranthambore to Agra, OAT provides an overnight stay at a tented camp.  Here our entire group (except for your intrepid photographer-author) gathers around the campfire for drinks, snacks, and folk-dancing.  Buy this photo

Agra is home to India’s most visited and loved site, the Taj Mahal.  Of course, the Taj is a must-see, but our visit to Agra also included worthwhile visits to the Agra Fort and a farmer’s market, as well as a very moving and inspiring encounter with women survivors of acid attacks.

Early in the morning we visited a farmer’s market in Agra.  I used a medium telephoto lens to capture this fruit seller as he enjoyed a smoking break (right on top of his wares).  Buy this photo

Sheroes’ Cafe in Agra is a project founded by and for the women of India who are survivors of acid attacks.  We were so inspired by meeting Rupa and learning about her story and her road to physical and emotional recovery after her brutal attack at the age of 15 by her stepmother.  Through this project, Rupa has gained the confidence and independence to leave home, meet other survivors and activists, build a business as a clothing designer, and access the surgical care required to reconstruct her face.  The courage and resilience shown by the women we met at the cafe moved us to want to help their cause to educate people and improve the treatment of India’s women.  Buy this photo

When shooting an iconic site such as the Taj Mahal, I try to avoid capturing the “postcard shots,” opting instead to capture the well-known site from a less-known vantage point.  The Moonlight Garden provides a less crowded and even more lovely alternative view of the Taj Mahal at sunset.  As I’ve said before and will surely say again, don’t forget to include yourself in some of your images.  Buy this photo

To get from Agra to Khajuraho, the seat of the 9th and 10th century Chandela Dynasty, it is necessary to take first a train and then a long drive.  It’s worth the effort!  The ancient temple complexes at Khajuraho are adorned with ornate carvings depicting all aspects of life.  Many of the carvings are erotic in nature, which shocked the Victorian British who excavated the site in the 19th century.

The Chandela Dynasty ruled Central India for several hundred years beginning over 1000 years ago.  The temple complexes at Khajuraho are well preserved and are fascinating for their intricate stone carvings, many of them erotic.  Here I included a rhododendron tree in the foreground to provide some contrasting color and texture against the stone of the temple.  Buy this photo

Our final destination in India before returning home by way of Delhi was the ancient sacred city of Varanasi.  This was a highlight of the trip.  Families of the deceased join pilgrims and holy men along the banks of the Ganges River using its sacred waters to cremate the dead, bathe, and pray.  Boat rides along the Ganges in the morning and again in the evening afforded us the chance to observe the many rituals conducted here by India’s Hindus each day.

A sadhu (holy man) on the banks of the Ganges River.  Because the sadhus are dependent on alms to survive, it is important to offer a small amount of money in order to make a portrait.  Buy this photo

Bathing in the sacred Ganges River.  This favorite portrait was made after meeting the two women, getting their permission, and shooting from behind as they prepared to bathe and pray in the river.  To impart the dreamlike mood of the scene into the image, I framed it with the brightly colored women at the front surrounded by the mystical dark color of the water.  I used a wide aperture (high F-stop number) to blur the water, and in post-processing I created a slight vignette to darken the corners of the image.  Buy this photo

We took a second boat ride, this time in the evening, to witness aarti, the sacred light ceremony in which priests thank the river Ganges for providing purification.  This colorful ritual provided a fitting ending to our memorable 2.5-week visit through the north of India.  Buy this photo

Have you visited India?  Please share your fondest (and least fond) memories here, along with your thoughts about how to capture India’s vibrant diverse scenes in images.

Want to read more posts about travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts on Destinations.

Photographic Blasphemy [Encore Publication]: Why you don’t need a tripod for most travel photography

Warning: The following assertion will sound heretical to many photography enthusiasts.  Stop reading now if you can’t handle the truth :-).

I’m going to say it.  You don’t need to carry a tripod for most travel photography situations.  There, I’ve said it.

This is blasphemy to many photographers.  After all, for the past 15 years or so, the badge of a “serious” photographer has been this three-legged object we stick between our camera and the ground.  Most scenic overlooks and other landscape photography-friendly locations have been positively flooded by a veritable sea of tripods in recent years.  I’ve seen viewpoints so clogged by tripods that photographers and even (heaven forbid) non-photographers are forced to elbow their way through just to get a place to stand to watch the sunrise, sunset, or other pretty happening.  For years, I have carried at least a lightweight tripod, and occasionally a heavy-duty professional tripod, with me to nearly every shoot, which for me is usually about two per day.  It’s become an ingrained behavior, a knee-jerk reaction, for most photographers.  But why, exactly?

During my recent travels in India, I made many wonderful images in all genres of photography.  I used a lot of gear to do so.  One item I didn’t use: a tripod.  Buy this photo

There are times when a tripod is necessary.  In very low-light situations, such as true nighttime scenes, most astrophotography, and some indoor shoots, it is essential to mount the camera on a sturdy tripod.  When a very long shutter speed is required for a specific effect, such as blurring water in a waterfall or shooting a dancer using rear-curtain sync flash, then you really do need a tripod.  We can even include shoots where several images will be combined using software to make a high dynamic range (HDR) or panoramic image in the category where a tripod is helpful (though, I would argue, not really essential anymore, given how good software has become at stitching overlapping images together).

But so many other times, a tripod is not only not an asset but actually becomes a liability.  Travel photographers must be very mindful of the size and weight of the gear we carry on our adventures.  Every item we bring has to be considered in terms of its value: will the space it takes up in our limited carry-on baggage allotment and its weight on our back every step of our trip be worthwhile in terms of its usefulness in making the best possible images?  A tripod, even a lightweight travel tripod, is a relatively large and heavy piece of gear.  There are other items we need to leave at home in order to make room for a tripod.

I recently returned from a 2.5-week journey through the north of India.  I brought as much gear as I could reasonably fit in carry-on for the international and internal Indian flights.  It weighed a lot, and I had to lug much of the gear I brought on the trip each day on my back through 115-degree heat, sometimes up steep hills to the top of ancient forts.  At the end of the trip, I contemplated my usage of each item I carried.  Both DSLR camera bodies, every lens (even the massive 500mm super-telephoto which I required to make great images of far-off tigers), the speedlights, both battery chargers, and all remote releases, cables, filters, cleaning supplies, etc. were used at some point during the trip.  The one item I never once needed: you guessed it, the tripod!

True, India is a very densely populated country where most sites do not allow tripods or, if they are allowed, the crowds are too thick to deploy them.  And there was ample bright sunlight at most of our locations to handhold the camera.

But I would argue that a tripod is simply not needed for many travel photography situations in general.  These days, a camera’s sensor is so fast and noise-free, and the camera’s resolution so high, that camera shake for most landscape photography settings is a much smaller risk than motion of the subject itself.  My Nikon D810 has a resolution of nearly 37 MB, so if a single tree branch or sometimes even a single leaf moves, I can see it in the image.  A tripod is no more going to stop a leaf from moving than could the ancient viking king Canute stop the tide from coming in (a story frequently misused in modern times, by the way).

From now on, when I pack for a day’s shoot or a month-long journey, I’m going to seriously consider whether I’ll need a tripod and will pack one (or two) only when I can reasonably expect to need it.

What about you?  Do you always carry a tripod, or do you consider its appropriateness before you travel?  If you always carry it, do you always need it?  Would you bring some other piece of gear along if you didn’t have to make space for the tripod?  Please share your thoughts on this controversial topic here!

Want to read more posts about photographic gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

Panama’s “First Cry of Independence” Celebrations: Serendipitous timing allowed me to capture images of a rarely seen festival

Departing Panama City for the historic and folkloric region of the Azuero Peninsula, we were very fortunate to arrive in the little town of Chitre on the day they celebrate Panama’s “First Cry of Independence”. The push for independence from Spain began here, then spread to the rest of the country. Whether halfway around the world or right in my home town, I’m always thrilled to have the chance to capture the special energy and tradition of a festival or celebration. The excitement is even greater when the festival, like this one, is off the tourist track and seen by very few people other than locals.  In today’s post I share some favorite images from the first two days of this festival, along with some notes about how they were made. Click on any of the images to visit my Panama photo gallery, where you can browse and purchase many more images from this remarkable country.

It’s a good idea to grab some “establishing shots” when photographing any festival or other large event. These images are made from a longer distance and/or with a wider lens than the close-up images that constitute the bulk of most portfolios. The establishing shots give a sense of scale so the viewer can understand the context for the other images. Here I used a slightly wide-angle lens to frame some of the parade participants against the lovely colonial church in the town’s main square.

Because festivals are very busy events, it’s important to look for clean backgrounds insofar as possible.  To make this portrait of two young Panamanians dressed in the national costume known as the pollera, I composed so as to minimize clutter in the background and also used a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to render the background in soft focus.  Too often photographers compose based only on the main subject, but a clean background is at least as important to the success of the image than an interesting foreground subject.

Not all portraits need to include the subject’s full face. I shot this colorfully attired marcher in profile so as to give a sense of color and motion, while revealing only one side of her face.

This young participant shows off her traditional Panamanian costume called a pollera. A wide aperture sets her off from the other participants in the background, while a fast shutter speed freezes the motion of her swirling pollera.

In this image I captured the whole contingent of young women in their variously colored polleras. The lighting conditions were harsh, so I set the exposure manually be metering on the fabric of their costumes. In post-processing I had to adjust the highlights and shadows to ensure the subjects were evenly illuminated.

The second day of independence festivities are celebrated in the small town of Villa de los Santos. I asked this parade participant to pose for a portrait in a spot with a clean background and lovely soft lighting, then got in close with a fast prime portrait lens set to a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to throw the background out of focus.  Soft lighting (which can be obtained by shooting near sunrise or sunset, or by moving the subject into a shaded area) makes vivid colors truly pop and flatters the subject of your portrait.

To make this portrait of a participant wearing a fanciful mask, I asked him to pose in a somewhat less cluttered spot, then made the image using a very shallow depth-of-field to emphasize the mask and throw the background into very soft focus.

The “First Cry of Independence” festivities last well into the night.  The extremely low-light conditions offer a photographer’s dilemma: either continue to shoot using only available light (and accept the added visual noise and motion blur) or switch to using flash (and live with its short coverage distance, artificial color cast, and distraction to the subjects).  I chose to work with just available light, boosting my camera’s ISO sensitivity setting to as high as I could get away with and using a fast prime lens at a very wide aperture to gather as much light as possible, which in turn allowed the use of a reasonably fast shutter speed.  The results are lovely: sharp dancers in the foreground with just a touch of motion blur, soft focus on the dancers and buildings in the background, and a soft and painterly feel for the scene that to me feels quintessentially Panamanian.

Sometimes it can be effective to embrace rather than avoid a cluttered background and to include it as part of the overall mood of the scene. That was my approach in making this image. I got in relatively close to the dancers in the foreground, using a moderate aperture setting to render the background crowds of spectators in soft focus, but still easy to discern. This gives the viewer a sense of being a part of the bigger celebration even while observing this intimate scene featuring the young couple.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this photo essay on the first days of Panama’s independence celebrations. Have you experienced a little known local festival or celebration? Please share your experiences by leaving a comment here.

“To Travel Hopefully” News Flash! I am honored to be named a winner of Digital Photo Pro’s Emerging Pro Photo Competition

Dear Readers,

I am thrilled to have been named one of the three winners in Digital Photo Pro Magazine’s prestigious biannual Emerging Pro Photo Competition.  DPP is the leading journal for professional photographers.  Every two years they select three photographers as their Emerging Professionals out of many thousands of entrants.  One of the images from my Human/Machine Dance Project, an ongoing collaboration with the amazingly talented dancer, choreographer, and Fulbright Scholar Carly Lave, was the winner in the Fashion & Beauty category and was also awarded the Third Prize in the overall competition.  I’m feeling very honored and humbled by this happy news.

Thank you for your incredible support thus far.  Check out the next issue (March/April) of Digital Photo Pro’s print edition at your local newsstand to see my winning image on a special two-page spread.  Please invite your friends and family members who are also passionate about travel and/or photography to join us here at To Travel Hopefully.  Here’s to the many further travel photography adventures we will share together!

Cheers,

Kyle Adler

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright [Encore Publication]: In search of the elusive royal bengal tiger in India’s Ranthambore National Park

Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it requires some special knowledge and gear, plenty of time, and lots of luck.  I’ve posted on this topic before, specifically about wildlife photography gear (Post on Wildlife Photography Gear) and about sensitivity to the wildlife we’re shooting (Post on Approaching Wildlife).  Today’s post is a case study on my recent wildlife safari in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India.  The park is famous for its population of wild royal bengal tigers, but even with its high concentration of the big cats, it is rare to see them.  We were fortunate to encounter two tigers during our game drives, one a female who was stalking prey at some distance from us across a meadow, the other a large male who was close to us but obstructed by dense jungle vegetation.

I was rewarded with a few marvelous images of the female tiger, my favorite of which is this one:

The money shot!  After weeks of planning, days of travel, hours of driving on rough tracks, and minutes of shooting, I had bagged several hundred images of this remarkable female tiger.  A few of the images had the required combination of tack-sharp focus, uncluttered background, and appealing view of the animal.  Buy this photo

Making an image like this requires careful planning to be in the right place at the right time.  In our case, our travel company lined up the logistics and hired an expert guide and driver, which certainly helps, but it is still necessary to prepare for a photo safari like this.  It requires some knowledge of the behavior of the wildlife you are seeking.  It calls for having the right gear and knowing how to use it under time pressure and without hesitating.  And it requires shooting a whole lot of frames in rapid succession, because most will not turn out perfectly.

To capture most wildlife, a long telephoto lens is a necessity.  My go-to long lens for wildlife photography is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

Stability is very important when shooting a moving subject far away using a super-telephoto lens.  During most game drives around the world, a tripod or monopod cannot be used due to space constraints in the vehicle.  I will often use a beanbag to support the camera and lens, but on our canter (a large open vehicle that seats more than 20 people) in Ranthambore National Park, even that could not be used, as there is no surface to support the beanbag.  So the only option here is to shoot handheld.  Fortunately, the lens has good image stabilization built in, but it is also important to use good shooting technique and a very fast shutter speed.  Remember to keep one hand under the lens to support it, the other hand on the grip of the camera, and both elbows firmly pressed against your sides.  Gently squeeze the shutter release.  I recommend setting your camera to continuous shooting mode if it has this feature, as this will maximize the number of images you can capture as well as avoiding the camera shake from having to press the shutter release repeatedly.

To control exposure when shooting wildlife, I usually use Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  This little-known but extremely useful exposure mode allows you to set both shutter speed (which needs to be fast enough to avoid camera shake and to freeze the animal’s motion) and aperture (which I like to keep close to wide-open in order to soften the background), while adjusting the ISO to keep the exposure correct during changing lighting conditions.  To learn more about this technique, read this post: Post on Manual Mode with Auto ISO.

Shoot many images while encountering the animal in the field.  Keep them all on your memory card (which, of course, you should back up to another medium) until you have the opportunity to carefully cull them down to the ones that are technically adequate.  Finally, during post-processing, you can select the few images that are both technically acceptable (tack-sharp focus, proper exposure) and artistically appealing (the subject looks great, the background is uncluttered and attractive).  These selected images should then be carefully cropped and adjusted for exposure, contrast, and color balance.

There you have it.  The effort that goes into making just a handful of really excellent wildlife images is disproportionate to the workload involved in most tasks we do, and the frustrations are many, but the rewards when it all goes well and we have a wonderful portrait of the animal in hand make it all worthwhile.

What are your favorite wildlife photography techniques?  Please share them in the comment box.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Twenty Years of World-Class Hip Hop Dance [Encore Publication]: Capturing the groundbreaking SF International Hip Hop Dance Fest

I’m honored to be a photographer for the twentieth anniversary production of the world-class SF International Hip Hop Dance Fest.  If you think hip hop dance is just about b-boys and b-girls, this festival will broaden your horizons to the diverse array of hip hop, from jaw-dropping acrobatics to artistic and subtly activist choreography.

As a photographer specializing in travel and cultural documentation, I love having the opportunity to capture images from a wide range of nations and cultural styles, so each year I’m eager to shoot the diverse participants in this show who come from all over the world and represent many different faces of hip hop dance.

Today’s post consists of a photo essay of a few favorite performance images from this  year’s festival.  Note that all of the images appearing in this post and many more can be viewed and purchased in this gallery.

First, a few notes about the making of these images:

  1. During dress rehearsals the photographer is free to roam about the theater, often including the backstage area, apron and wings, and even onstage with the performers.  This mobility is not possible during live performances.  As a result, there are more creative possibilities during the rehearsals, so that’s when I seek out the most exciting and dramatic shooting concepts.  Unfortunately, this year I was traveling on assignment in Panama during the festival’s dress rehearsal dates, so I was able only to capture images from the live performances.
  2. When shooting fast-moving performances in very low light situations, I like to use mostly fast prime lenses coupled with a high ISO setting to allow a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the motion.  In the case of these particular performances, I also needed to use a long telephoto zoom lens due to being assigned seats quite far from the stage.
  3. Theatrical productions often use mixed temperature lighting that can be challenging for photography because of the strange and complicated color casts that often result.  Sometimes this can be fixed in post-processing, but often I choose to convert to monochrome to avoid unpleasant and unnatural color casts.
  4. The difference between adequate dance photography and excellent dance photography is all about the dramatic purpose.  I try to adapt my shooting and post-processing style to suit the dramatic intent of each moment during the show.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sampling of images from the remarkable SF International Hip Hop Dance Fest.  It’s a challenge and a genuine joy to have the opportunity to make images of important large-scale dance productions such as this one.  Thank you for reading, and please share your thoughts and questions about today’s post here.

Note that all of the images appearing in this post and many more can be viewed and purchased in this gallery.

Focus on Myanmar [Encore Publication]: Burma is a fabled destination for travel photographers and is more accessible now than in many years


Iconic Burmese scene: An Intha fisherman with the tools of his trade as the sun sets on Inle Lake.  We hired a boat captain at sunset to position us so that we could photograph the fishermen silhouetted by the setting sun with the mountain behind. 

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 2.5-week adventure traveling through Burma.  Our itinerary took us from the main city of Yangon to the vast plains gleaming with ancient pagodas in Bagan; then to the former imperial capital and cultural hub of Mandalay; on to Kalaw, the gateway to many hill tribes of the region; and finally to Inle Lake, well known for its picturesque floating gardens and for the Inthe people with their unique traditional style of fishing.  While it was wonderful to view Burma’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled temples, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Myanmar people from many ethnic groups and all walks of life: Buddhist monks and nuns, villagers displaced by a typhoon 10 years ago who are still living in temporary bamboo huts with no running water, the Paduang hill tribe whose women traditionally wear heavy brass plates on their necks, an octogenarian master of the dying art form of Burmese marionette theater, young boys celebrating their initiation as novice monks, and the delightful girls who have found a caring home at an orphanage in Mandalay.  Burma is a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious pagodas, gorgeous vistas, and friendly, diverse cultures.

Our Burmese adventure began in the largest city, Yangon, also known by its former colonial name of Rangoon.  Rangoon strikes a lovely balance between bustling modernity and soulful history.  Steeped in British Colonial architecture, the city has an old-world charm, and its busy streets connect neighborhoods shared peacefully by many ethnic groups and religions as they wend their way around countless ancient pagodas.  When many of us think about travel to Burma, the first thing that comes to mind is often the dire news coverage of the terrible mistreatment of the Rohingya people in the northern part of Rakhine State (which is not visited on this trip).  While I left Myanmar with a deeper understanding of the complexity of this conflict and still have the impression that the government needs to do more to end this appalling humanitarian nightmare quickly, I can also say that as a traveler on this adventure you will feel safe, you will get to know some of the friendliest people you’ve ever met, and you will see Buddhists and Muslims living in harmony in many other parts of the country.

Just arrived in Yangon (Rangoon), we visited Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda, which houses one of the world’s largest reclining Buddha statues.  To make this image of a worshiper praying in front of the statue, I fitted a fast wide-angle lens, composed carefully so as not to distort the lines, and used a narrow aperture to achieve enough depth-of-field so the entire scene would be in focus.  These choices require use of a high ISO sensitivity. 

 Armies of volunteer sweepers make the rounds at Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s holiest Buddhist site, to ensure the temple is kept spotless.  It can be hard to photograph large moving groups of people while maintaining good composition.  I positioned myself ahead of the group and composed the shot to capture the pagoda in the background, allowing the sweeping team to walk into my frame.  I had already requested permission from their leader to photograph the group.

 

A fascinating visit to an informal housing settlement inhabited by people displaced by the devastating 2008 typhoon. A decade later they are still living in squalid conditions in bamboo huts with no running water. Here, children are filling containers with water from the lake and carrying 40 kg (88 pounds) of water, often more than their body weight, several miles to their families’ homes.  I love this image because it combines scenic beauty with a poignant human story, achieving a strong sense of place.  Using a wide-angle lens, I composed the scene around the lake and sky before the children entered the frame.  Timing was important here to ensure the children and their reflections were composed harmoniously.  It can help to take several shots of such scenes to increase the likelihood that one will be perfectly composed.

Not accustomed to visitors, these boys from the “bamboo village” are checking me out as much as I am them. I got down low to be at eye level with the boys and used a narrow aperture to maximize depth-of-field.  Some of the kids had never seen photos of themselves before, so I made sure to let them all see my images on the camera’s display. 

From Rangoon, we flew to Bagan in the center part of Myanmar.  Bagan is remarkable for its wide plains strewn with thousands of golden pagodas, some very ancient, that glimmer especially beautifully in the early morning and late evening light.  If you are offered the opportunity to take a hot air balloon ride over Bagan, do not miss it.  This was our fifth hot air balloon excursion to date, but easily the most dramatic and memorable one.

Bagan splendor: as we soar silently over the plain in the gondola of our hot air balloon, the early morning light reflects off hundreds of golden temples as the mist slowly burns off the ground.  A wide-angle lens and a fast shutter speed are required to capture a sprawling vista such as this one from a moving vehicle.  I typically underexpose scenes containing mist or fog so as not to lose the details in the shadows.  Exposure can be adjusted later during post-processing.

Escaping steam nearly obscures a worker at a Bagan workshop where pone ye gyi (a popular flavored soybean sauce) is made.  Always be on the lookout for unusual ways to compose portraits.  I enjoy environmental portraits that include not only the person’s face and body but also their surroundings.  These images tell a more complete story about the subject: where do they live, what do they do, how do they do it?

The patriarch’s daughter shows us around her family’s paper workshop where they make ceremonial fans for weddings and other events.  She wears thanaka, the tree bark paste that most Burmese women, and quite a few men, apply to their faces daily. In addition to serving as a form of cultural identity, the thanaka also functions as sunscreen.  For classic portraits like this one, I use a fast portrait lens, specifically an 85mm f/1.8 lens, which is perfect for rendering super sharp focus on the subject while beautifully softening the background to really emphasize the person.  To achieve this lovely effect, use a wide aperture to obtain a narrow depth-of-field, and of course try to find a spot with beautiful soft lighting and an uncluttered background.

The moon rises over an ancient pagoda in the Bagan region.  Whenever possible, try to make landscape images early in the morning or late in the afternoon during the so-called “golden hour”, when the soft sunlight casts a lovely glow.  I used a telephoto lens to compress the temple spires with the moon in the background.

We had been invited by villagers to attend a Buddhist initiation ceremony, so a few of us rose early and traveled to their village. This portrait depicts one of the village boys who are preparing to start their service as novice monks in the local monastery. All Buddhist boys in Myanmar are required to perform this service at some point during their childhood.  I applied the same portrait-making techniques for this image as for the previous image.  Always take several shots to increase your chances of getting one with the perfect expression.

Leaving Bagan behind, we traveled next to Mandalay, the capital city of the last Burmese kings and still in many ways its spiritual capital.  Some of our most unforgettable cultural encounters were here.

A fascinating visit to Myawaddy Nunnery, where we had the opportunity to meet some of the more than 200 novice nuns who study there.  As the nuns filed by us on their way to lunch, I was immediately drawn to the juxtaposition of the colors: the girls’ pink robes against the gold and teak work of the nunnery building.  I found a good vantage point and composed carefully to capture procession of the nuns as a “leading line” to draw the viewer’s eye back to the entrance of the convent and then up and back across the galleries of the convent.

Sunset at the U Bein footbridge in the ancient royal capital of Amarapura, just outside of Mandalay.  The U Bein is the world’s longest wooden bridge and is especially beautiful at sunset.  We hired a small boat to row us to the center of the lake in a good position to photograph the bridge silhoutted by the setting sun.  To capture as much of the very long bridge as possible, I used a very wide (16mm) lens, which left a lot of space with sky at the top and water at the bottom of the frame.  In post-processing, I cropped the image to this non-standard aspect ratio to include the bridge, the sun, and their reflections in the lake but removing the empty space above and below.  Remember to consider all aspects ratios for your photos; sometimes, unusual proportions work best.

An octogenarian monk walks a prayerful circuit around the ruins of the massive Mingun Paya, severely damaged by an earthquake about 200 years ago.  Had it not been left unfinished and then mostly collapsed by the earthquake, Mingun would be by far the world’s largest pagoda today.  I had already asked the monk’s permission to photograph him, so I waited by a corner of the path around the temple until he walked into the frame.  With such a large space as this, care must be taken when composing so as not to have distracting elements in the background.

A delightful visit to the Aye Yeik Mon Girls’ Orphanage was a highlight of our trip. We were heartbroken to learn the stories of some of the formerly abandoned girls who live here, but were uplifted to see the wonderful care and guidance they are receiving there now.  Here, my wife Mary hugs one of her new friends farewell as we prepare to depart the orphanage.  To catch these fleeting lovely moments, the photographer has to be all set up and ready in advance.  I had my trusty portrait lens on the camera and all the settings made before the encounter, so when the moment arrived all I had to do was shoot.

For our home-hosted dinner, we were invited into the Mandalay home of Oma and his family. His mother was a restaurant owner and chef for many years, so we were treated to an amazing Burmese meal.  In this portrait I wanted to capture several members of the family as well as the setting of their home, so I used a wide-angle lens.  Because it was fairly dark and a narrow aperture was required for depth-of-field, I used a touch of fill-in flash.  The trick when using flash is to get the flash unit off of the camera (I use a cord to connect the flash to the camera, but a remote control can also be used) and to use less flash output than your camera’s meter tells you to use.  This approach will yield natural-looking results even with use of the flash.

A quiet moment at the entrance to Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery.  I’m always looking for dramatic and unusual ways to frame my images.  Here the ornately carved teak door to the monastery became a lovely device to frame this young woman (from whom I had already obtained permission to photograph her) wearing a vividly colored longyi, the traditional attire in Myanmar.  It can be tricky to set exposure correctly in severely backlit images like this one.  Don’t rely on your camera’s meter to get it right, but instead use spot-metering if your camera offers this feature to set the exposure based on the most important part of the composition, in this case the woman’s garment.

We arranged a visit to a marionette show in Mandalay. One of the few companies continuing to practice this ancient tradition, Mandalay Marionette Theatre is headed by an 84-year-old puppet master who is teaching younger people the dying art form.  Our seats were quite far back in the small theater building, so I used a medium telephoto lens.  Because the stage was quite dark and the lens quite slow, and because a fast shutter speed was required to freeze the action, I had to use a very high ISO sensitivity setting.  Many modern cameras handle low-light situations well, so don’t be afraid to boost up the ISO setting when necessary.  You can remove most of the resulting noise from image later during post-processing. 

Reluctantly we departed Mandalay and from there drove through the village of Myin Ma Htie for a Day in the Life experience before spending a day exploring Kalaw, the gateway town for those venturing into the hill tribe area.  After Kalaw, we continued to the Inle Lake region where we had the opportunity to interact with members of the ethnic minority hill tribes who have been living there for centuries.

Visiting one of the few remaining fabric workshops where lotus plant fiber is woven into textile products. This worker uses traditional spinning methods to create yarn from the lotus fiber.  I was struck by the symmetry of the large and smaller spinning wheels on either side and by the vibrant color of the yarn.  To capture this image, which was made using natural window light only, I knelt on the floor and shot with a moderate wide-angle lens, ensuring I composed for the symmetry and exposed for the woman’s face.

The houses along the shores of Inle Lake are built on stilts to allow for the rise and fall of the water level during the year.  Nearly all exploring in this region is done by small motorized dugout boats, so care must be taken when composing and shooting.  If your camera or lens has an image stabilization feature, you’ll want to use it when shooting from moving vessels.  It’s also important to watch the lines in your image (the lines could be the horizon, the lakeshore, or a building, for example) in order to keep them level, so as to avoid the subject appearing to “fall off” one side of the frame.

Meeting members of the Padaung ethnic minority, whose women are famous for wearing heavy brass coils to make their necks look longer. This 18-year-old Padaung girl proudly wears the brass coils on her neck as a symbol of ethnic identity. She told us her younger sister chooses not to wear the ornaments as she goes to a Burman school where most of the other students are not Padaung. The tradition was often scorned as backwards during the recent military regime, but now young Padaung women are again often choosing to practice it.  The methods I used to make this portrait should sound familiar by now: choose a spot with soft and pleasant lighting and an uncluttered background, and shoot with a fast prime portrait lens using a wide aperture to soften the background.

Glorious temple complex above Inthein Village.  I was interested to note that a large group of travelers from National Geographic Expeditions was also there, led by another professional travel photographer, but they were all shooting the tops of the spires using telephoto lenses.  To me, the real story here was the harmonious whole of the temple, so I took the opposite appraoch and shot with an ultrawide-angle lens, getting down low to include as much sky as possible in the background.

After an inspirational three days on Inle Lake, we flew back to Rangoon for a quick half-day stop before returning home.  This gave us the chance to visit some of the sites in the city that we had missed at the start of the adventure or to revisit some that we especially enjoyed.

Back in Yangon for our final day before flying out to Hong Kong, we visited the large central Bogyoke Aung San Market, also known as Scott Market. In this image, a group of young novice nuns meanders through the thousands of stalls asking for alms.  I waited at the entrance to this shop and composed the image there, capturing the varied expressions on the girls’ faces as they walked and chanted.  The situation was tricky because the lighting was mixed (part sunlight and part ghastly fluorescent light) and the shop was cluttered, but I did the best I could to emphasize the nuns in the composition and correct for white balance during post-processing.

Have you visited Myanmar?  Please share your thoughts about this destination: what to see and do, and how to capture memorable images from this remarkable place.

Want to read more posts about travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

The Raw Truth [Encore Publication]: Why you should always shoot in RAW mode

Editor’s Note: Since publishing the original version of this post several months ago, I have made a major change to my workflow and now shoot in RAW format only (i.e., with no JPEG version saved in addition to the RAW version of each image).  Shooting RAW+JPEG was a crutch that I used for a couple of years as I transitioned from JPEG to RAW format, but I realized I never use the JPEG files right out of the camera, and saving duplicate JPEG files takes a lot of disk space and time.  Please read my update in this recent post: Post on RAW vs. RAW+JPEG.  The original post on RAW mode follows:

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For many years after I took the plunge into digital photography, I had my camera set to store image files in the JPEG format only.  I now realize that during those years I was throwing away a lot of very valuable information with every photo I made.  There are two main reasons for this information loss.  First, the JPEG format does not store the detailed data for each pixel in the camera’s sensor but instead does some processing according to your settings and then saves only stripped-down information from each area of your image.  Second, the JPEG standard is what’s referred to as a “lossy” format; every time it is opened and resaved, the image loses more detailed data.  Once your image data is thrown away, you cannot retrieve it.

By contrast, the RAW file format keeps all the data your camera’s sensor “sees” for every pixel in the image.  Yes, RAW files are bigger and take a bit longer to store on your camera’s memory card than JPEG files, and yes, they take up more space on the memory card and on your PC’s hard drive later.  For those early years of digital photography, I avoided shooting in RAW mode because I was concerned about having reduced shooting speed and storage space for these monster-sized files.  I also was concerned that it would be too much work to shoot in RAW mode because RAW images require post-processing in order to look their best.  I now realize that I had been making a big mistake.  Shooting in RAW all the time, even when high speed is needed for action shots, ensures that you’ll always have the most image data to work with later.  You will be able to crop your images more tightly, print them to larger sizes, and especially important, refine the exposure and color with far more control if they were shot in RAW format rather than in JPEG or other compressed formats.

I now shoot nearly exclusively using my camera’s setting to save files as both RAW and JPEG.  Having the JPEG version of each image can be helpful if I want to share the photo right out of the camera.  It will look pretty decent without any post-processing because the JPEG file is stored with all of the camera’s settings for white balance, sharpening, and so on.  But when I come home from a trip, I always do my post-processing on the best images using RAW files exclusively.  Because the RAW format stores so much more information about the color and brightness of every single pixel of the image, I have much more freedom in how I choose to develop the image using my editing software (typically Adobe Lightroom, but occasionally I also use Adobe Photoshop).

Below, I show two files of the same image of my wife and me by a “fairy chimney” rock formation in Cappadocia, Turkey, both processed in exactly same the same way in Lightroom, but the first one was originally saved by the camera as a JPEG while the second was originally saved in RAW mode.  While the differences may be subtle at the size and resolution shown in this post, you can still make out more details in the RAW file, especially in areas shrouded in shadow.  The color of the sky is deeper.  Colors and shapes are rendered with more accuracy.  And of course, if we needed to crop or enlarge these images to a much bigger size, the quality of the JPEG file would deteriorate much sooner than would the RAW file.

 The JPEG version of this image.

 The RAW version of the same image.

I recommend shooting in RAW+JPEG all the time, unless you know you will need the slightly faster shooting speed or extra storage space of JPEG alone.  Doing so will give you the best of both worlds: a quick and easy JPEG to share right out of the camera, and the much more detailed data in the RAW file from which to bring out the nuances in color, texture, and exposure later during post-processing.  If you use JPEG alone, you’ll be throwing away image information you may wish you had later.

Do you shoot in RAW mode?  If so, what do you like about it?  If not, why not?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Portrait Photography Gear [Encore Publication]: Affordable kit for making great portraits

Whether in my home town or traveling around the world, I love to shoot portraits.  There is something magical about creating an image that captures the essence of a person.  It can be daunting for many photographers to describe what gear they think is required to make professional-quality portraits: we often visualize a fully equipped studio with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end lights, modifiers, and backgrounds.  The reality is that we can make portraits of publication quality, shot on location and using kit that costs far less.  Here I outline a basic setup that is portable enough to pack on nearly any trip and costs only a few hundred dollars (not including your basic DSLR or mirrorless camera body).

Really all you need to get great people photos is a good portrait lens and a little know-how.  Make sure to set exposure and focus on your subject’s face.  I often use my camera’s Spot metering mode to get the correct exposure in tricky lighting conditions, such as when the subject is backlit.  In these conditions, it can also be helpful to fill in any harsh shadows on the subject’s face by using a touch of flash with a diffuser attached or a reflector.  That’s really all the gear you need: camera with portrait lens, flash unit, and a reflector kit.  Let’s look at the gear and basic techniques.

My indispensable portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  I shoot at least three-quarters of all my portraits, whether in the studio or on location, using this one piece of glass.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a person.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This portrait of a grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco was made with natural light using an 85mm lens at a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus.  Because no flash or reflector was used, there are some shadows on the subject’s faces, but I like the shallow depth of field that really emphasizes the subjects, and this would have been difficult to achieve with the slower shutter speed required to synchronize with a flash.  Also, carrying a reflector through the hustle and bustle of a chaotic street fair can be impractical.  I’m very pleased with this image even with a few shadows.

This portrait was shot using natural light only.  Some shadows are visible on the faces, but the effect is not unpleasant, and the soft focus from shooting without a flash is very effective.  Buy this photo

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases it is good enough to provide some fill-in lighting for backlit subjects or even to serve as a main light in very dark situations.  But for more control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you likely want to have a separate flash unit.  I use the Nikon SB-910, which is powerful and flexible enough for most settings.  It has been discontinued and replaced by the Nikon SB-5000, but the older model is often still available.

Whatever flash you use, it is best to attach a diffuser of some sort to soften the otherwise very harsh light of the flash.  I also keep my camera set to lower the flash output by 1 stop, and I only override this setting occasionally.  Flash is often best when used sparingly.

This next image was shot at the same location as the previous one, but here I used an off-camera flash with diffuser to provide fill lighting on the subjects’ faces, thus reducing the shadows.  The only downside of using flash on location is that a slower shutter speed (typically about 1/160 of a second or slower) must be used, which in turn requires a smaller aperture (here it is f/8), and this can lead to more distraction from in-focus backgrounds.  I could have mitigated this problem by attaching a neutral density filter to block some of the light and allow a larger aperture.

This group portrait was made under similar conditions to the previous image, but here a fill flash was used to soften the shadows.  Buy this photo

An inexpensive accessory can provide the best of both worlds for on-location portraiture.  For less than $20 you can purchase a reflector kit with a variety of different colored reflectors and diffusers.  The reflectors are used to bounce some of the sun’s light back onto the face of the subject, thereby filling in any harsh shadows, while allowing you to shoot at any combination of aperture and shutter speed you choose in order to soften the background.  Each color of reflector imparts a different mood to the image.  An added bonus is that you can preview the precise effect the reflector has in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen.  Really the only downside of using a reflector in the field is that they are bulky to carry and often require an assistant to hold in place while you shoot.

This is the reflector kit I carry with me to most portrait shoots.  It’s high quality, very portable, and affordable.

This portrait was made by metering off the face of the model, choosing a wide aperture to blur the background, and bouncing some sunlight onto her face using the gold reflector from the kit mentioned above.

Using a reflector to bounce sunlight onto your subject’s face can reduce shadows while allowing you to retain full control over your aperture and shutter speed.  Buy this photo

There you have it: my formula for getting professional-looking portraits in the field with relatively inexpensive gear that’s easy to carry and use.

What is your favorite gear for portraiture?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Interested in other posts about photography gear?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/gear/.

 

Focus on the Embera People [Encore Publication]: Capturing enchanting images of an ancient traditional way of life

During our recent travels in Panama, my wife and I navigated up the Chagres River via dugout canoe to meet the Embera indigenous people.  This fascinating in-depth encounter offered a window into an ancient culture that has mostly disappeared from Central America as indigenous groups have been forced to resettle on national parklands where their traditional fishing and hunting practices are not permitted.  Our Embera hosts are able to continue to live in the traditional manner by sharing their culture with visitors like us.  Our lovely day spent with the Embera villagers included preparing and enjoying a traditional meal, visiting the two-room schoolhouse (supported by Grand Circle Foundation), exploring the village, learning about their government and way of life, and observing and participating in traditional singing and dancing.  We will never forget this experience.  In the spirit of sharing, today’s post is a photo essay featuring images from this special day.  Click on any of the images to visit the Panama photo gallery on my website, where many more photos are available to view or possibly to purchase.

Traveling up the Chagres River via dugout canoe to meet the Embera indigenous people. 

This lovely Embera mom and daughter greet us on arrival at their village.

The Embera people lead us up the hill from the river to their village.

To make this portrait of a young Embera woman, I asked her to move a few feet to an area with pleasant lighting and an uncluttered background, then shot using a fast prime portrait lens (85mm f/1.8) at a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus.  

Showing us how the midday meal is prepared. 

We enjoyed a wonderful visit to the two-room schoolhouse in the Embera village.  As we shared songs and dances with the schoolkids, I made this portrait using only available light, intentionally blurring the girl’s hands to impart a sense of motion.

One of our group brought along simple dolls to hand out to the Embera children.  Group portraits can be tricky in general, but are very challenging when the subjects are young children.  My advice is to capture plenty of shots over a period of several minutes, interacting with the kids all the while.  This allows the children to relax around the photographer, and maximizes the likelihood of getting a few really good images.

I’m never happier than when I can experience and photography traditional cultural performances (singing, dancing, theater, puppetry, etc.).  Our new Embera friends were kind enough to show us some of their tradition of song and dance.  I find that the preparations for these performances are often as or more fascinating than the performances themselves.  Here, a young boy practices his drumming for the upcoming show.

In preparation for the singing and dancing performance, this Embera teen prepares her younger brother and sister by applying tattoos using the juice of the jagua plant.   

I got to know this Embera teen as she helped prepare her sisters and brother for the traditional dance ceremony.  We chatted and I captured photos of her preparations as she applied tattoos to her siblings using the juice of the jagua plant.  It’s always a good practice to get to know your subject before making a portrait.  Doing so will help put them at ease and allow you the opportunity to capture their true personality.  To make the portrait, I asked the girl to move outside of the hut to a spot with open shade and a pleasing background, then captured the moment using a fast portrait lens and a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to get that lovely “bokeh” (artistic quality in the out-of-focus background areas).

This little one is all tuckered out even before the dance celebration begins.  To make portraits more intimate and personal, try to isolate the subject using narrow depth-of-field and a simple, non-distracting background. 

An impromptu soccer match in the green open area of the village. 

View of the Embera village from the top of a nearby hill.   

An Embera family pose for a portrait. 

At the conclusion of our day in the Embera village, all the people of the village came out to demonstrate traditional singing and dancing for us.  For large group portraits, it’s often best to work with a slightly wide-angle lens, but not so wide as to cause distortion.  I chose a narrow aperture (high f-stop number) so that all of the people and the surrounding village landscape would be in sharp focus.  Shooting from the same level as your subject has the effect of seeming to place your viewer within the scene rather than (literally) looking down on the action.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this photographic tour of our day spent with the Embera people in their small village located far up the Chagres River from Panama’s main city.

Do you have a memorable experience of meeting a group of people willing to share their traditional culture?  Please share your experience by leaving a comment here!

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts about what to shoot.

Celebration Time, Come On [Encore Publication]: How to shoot festivals, street fairs, and other celebrations

As a professional travel photographer, I have to be prepared at any given time to shoot in nearly every genre of photography.  Landscapes, urban scenes, street photography, night and astrophotography, sports, wildlife, and portraiture are all stock-in-trade, and I love them all!  But when I’m asked what my favorite photographic genre is, I reply that I love portraying living culture the most of all.  Making images of people celebrating their culture, especially when those images convey a sense of place, is my top objective when I shoot, whether I’m halfway around the world or near home.

Culture can be expressed in small everyday elements of dress, gesture, and environment.  But celebrations such as festivals, street fairs, religious observances, arts, and sports show us culture writ large.  It is these outpourings of color, sounds, motion, and ritual that show us how people are different and yet similar all around the world.  And of all the celebrations I shoot regularly, my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval San Francisco.  So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to shoot striking images of cultural celebrations, using Carnaval SF as an example.

This year’s Carnaval was held this past Sunday.  But I was privileged to be “embedded” with several of the comparsas, or Carnaval groups, during the months leading up to the big parade day.  This allowed me the opportunity to get to know the leaders and dancers in these groups, making very special images of the preparations for Carnaval.  While I won’t be including any of those behind-the-scenes images in today’s post, the images of the parade day itself did benefit from my having had the chance to get to know the members of these groups over the months leading up to the day.  We’ll include some discussion of this observation in the post.

I’d like to start with an observation on gear.  I see a lot of fellow photographers shooting at events like Carnaval with way too much gear.  When I say too much gear, I mean more gear than is good for them or for the participants and observers of the festival.  Several photographers had two or three DSLR bodies mounted with enormous zoom lenses and attached to large strobes with huge diffusers.  Some used monopods and a few even tried to set up tripods for this rapidly moving and crowded event.  I brought a single DSLR with two light and fast prime lenses (a 50mm “normal” lens, and an 85mm portrait lens).  That’s it.  I never mounted a zoom lens during the whole day of shooting and I never used any artificial light.  And of course I went handheld the whole day; there’s really no safe or practical way to use a tripod at a crowded and mobile event.  All 2500 images I made that day used just that compact kit, and I’m very happy with the results.

It’s a good idea to arrive well before the scheduled start time.  Often, the best images of the day will be the ones you make during the preparations rather than during the event itself.  For this image of a leader of the Viva la Diva group, who I knew well from working with them over the last few months, I got in close with an 85mm portrait lens and allowed her elaborate headdress to fill the entire frame.  Buy this photo

Try to include some of the elements surrounding the people in the celebration.  A portrait that shows a person or people within their surroundings is called an “environmental portrait,” and often these tell us more about the person and the culture than do close-ups.  Buy this photo

Seek out the key people in a celebration, such as the King of Carnaval shown here.  He has such an amazing presence that all I had to do was find the right vantage point and shoot away.  I always look for uncluttered backgrounds when making portraits, so the background doesn’t distract much from the image.  Buy this photo

Kids make wonderful subjects during celebrations, especially during those moments when they forget the camera is there and are completely uninhibited.  Buy this photo

Try to choose backgrounds that complement your subject without competing with it.  I asked this samba dancer to pose by a street mural whose bright blues complemented her own costume.  Buy this photo

Group portraits can be challenging.  It’s difficult during the chaos of a celebration to get everyone’s eyes on the camera.  Try to find a vantage point that flatters everyone in the image (for full-body portraits, it’s often best to shoot from the level of the middle of the body, not from head level), choose an uncluttered and undistracting background, and select an aperture that gives just enough depth-of-field to keep all the people in focus while softening the background.  Buy this photo

To make close-up portraits during the actual celebration (in this case, a parade), it is not necessary to use a long telephoto lens.  Shooting with a long lens means you’re “taking” the portrait, not “making” the portrait.  You simply can’t interact with your subject while shooting from far away.  I prefer to use a prime normal or portrait lens so that I can interact with my subject and make an image where his personality shines through.  It helped here that I knew the members of this group from our interactions over the last few months.  Buy this photo

Another reason to use a fast prime lens is that you can choose a very wide aperture (here, F/2.0 using an F/1.4 lens) to get tack-sharp focus on the subject’s face while softening the background and sometimes other parts of the body.  Here I wanted to emphasize the pointing gesture by having the fingers so close as to be out of focus, while the dancer’s face and body are in sharp focus.  Buy this photo

For images that really pop, use a large aperture (small F-stop number) to soften the background and separate the subject from the other people and objects around him.  Buy this photo

During the chaos and cacophony of an urban celebration, it’s nice to find those quiet moments, too.  While most festival dances are joyous and boisterous, this Latin American folkloric dance is quiet and mournful.  I wanted the portrait to reflect that mood, so I shot from the side as if walking next to the dancer and caught the quiet gesture of holding the white handkerchief.  Again, a large aperture was used to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this photo

I look for scenes where participants are just being themselves.  These girls were having a blast, marching and chatting with each other, but they also were interacting with the crowd.  I got down nearly to the ground so as to shoot from their level and framed the image so as to emphasize the color and pattern of their costumes.  Buy this photo

Most images of parades are shot from straight ahead looking backward onto the subjects.  You’ll observe in this post that most of my images are not made from that perspective, but occasionally it does work to frame a great scene, such as this delightful image of a salsa dancing couple.  Buy this photo

It can be challenging to include a whole parade contingent in one shot.  Here I was able to frame the whole group in formation, including some of the lovely San Francisco houses on the steep hill behind, by running ahead to the truck in front of the dancers and getting as much distance as I could between me and them.  I shot with an 85mm lens and selected a small aperture (large F-number) so as to keep all of the dancers and the background in focus.  Buy this photo

With bold and colorful costumes, some subjects cry out for a big striking close-up.  When this dancer stopped to interact with me, I got in close with a portrait lens and captured him full-frame.  Buy this photo

Don’t shy away from using non-standard aspect ratios.  To include the whole Muito Quente contingent, I moved back from the dancers and captured the whole width of the street, then in post-processing I cropped to keep the full width but remove the unwanted foreground and background portions.  Buy this photo

Again, it is helpful to know the participants in advance of the performance.  I had been working with the Muito Quente group for several months before the parade, which made it more natural to interact with each of the dancers and make the best images possible.  Buy this photo

Always shoot in RAW mode for maximum flexibility.  A few words about post-processing: Using Lightroom, I make small adjustments to the color and contrast curves so as to emphasize the subject.  A little boost to the vibrance (but not so much as to make the image appear unnatural) and a touch of post-crop vignetting can really make the image pop.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it’s okay to break the usual rules of composition.  A portrait is not supposed to be cropped at the joints, such as at the knee, but here it works because the dancer’s ornate flowing dress gives a sense of motion and fluidity in the bottom of the frame.  Buy this photo

Even in a fast-moving parade, find the opportunities to have your subject stop for a moment and interact with you.  The resulting images will convey much more personality that way, even if the personage is fully masked.  Buy this photo

We’ll close with this moment of sheer Carnaval magic.  It’s such a wonderful feeling when all the elements come together to make a memorable image.  This portrait uses most of the techniques we’ve discussed in today’s post–careful composition, bright vibrant colors, a perfect moment, sharp subject with soft background–and conveys a strong sense of personality, culture, and place.  And that is what Carnaval, and cultural celebrations in general, are all about!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite cultural celebrations?  How do you make images that capture their essence?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling or close to home?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

It’s All in the Telling [Encore Publication]: Sharing images as a photo essay can help tell a story

When we share our images from a trip or from an event close to home, we become more than photographers; we become storytellers.  An individual image can tell a powerful story all by itself, and most of the best ones do.  But presenting a series of related images in the form of a photo essay is a great way to share a story with your viewers.  Each image serves a purpose in the structure of a photo essay, just as each sentence or paragraph does in a written essay.  In this post, I will revisit last weekend’s Sacramento Super Spartan Race (see Post on Spartan Race), taking the same 12 images from the earlier post but rearranging them in the form of a rudimentary photo essay.  We’ll discuss the purpose of each major type of image in creating the essay.  [Note: I am borrowing some of the organizational concepts presented in CUNY’s Photojournalism course materials at this site: http://photo.journalism.cuny.edu/week-5/.]

Establishing Shot: Usually the first image in a photo essay, the establishing shot should draw in the viewer by presenting the big picture.

The establishing shot sets the context of the essay.  Here I use an image of large contingents of athletes running over the hills.  I shot from a distance, using a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and emphasize the massive scale of the race.  Buy this photo

Alternatively, we could use the starting line image as our establishing shot.  Some essays lend themselves well to a chronological telling, in which case it’s good to start at the beginning.  In the case of this specific event, I prefer the establishing shot to be a big-picture overview of many athletes in the middle of their course.

The starting line is a good place to set the stage for your photo essay if you will be using a chronological method of telling the story.  Buy this photo

Portraits: Often the biggest portion of the photo essay, portraits tell the story through images of some of the people who are involved.  The portraits can be tight head-shots, full-body shots, or environmental portraits that show the setting as well as the person.  I like to use a combination of all of these compositional methods.  And it’s also fine to use a mix of posed shots and candids.  Variety can improve some photo essays, although in other cases you may opt for a consistent look-and-feel for many of your images so the mash-up of styles doesn’t distract the viewer from the story.

This environmental portrait shows the athlete in the context of the monkey bars obstacle, with other athletes and the background included in the frame.  Buy this photo

Portraits of athletes don’t have to be in the cliche pose of standing, legs apart, on the ground flexing their biceps.  Athletes are happy to pose in the midst of whatever they’re doing when they see a photographer nearby.  Buy this photo

Not all portraits have to show the subject’s face.  This environmental portrait works because it shows us what the athletes are doing from their point of view.  Buy this photo

This posed portrait is framed rather tightly, showing the power and the elation of the athletes after finishing the race.  The background, while bright and busy, is not overly distracting.  Buy this photo

For powerful portraits, I like to seek out people who have something special to say.  This racer stopped for a moment so I could make a portrait.  His flag makes a nice counterpoint to the rolling hills and featureless sky in the background.  Buy this photo

Interaction: Most photo essays can benefit from at least one shot showing the interaction between different people in the story.

Although Spartan Race athletes are fierce competitors, they also make an effort to support one another and cheer their fellow racers on.  I enjoy capturing these interactions because these moments often tell a strong story visually.  Buy this photo

This shot of kids playing in the shower area at the end of the race shows another type of interaction.  Buy this photo

Close-Up: It’s helpful to include some images that show the little details.  In the case of this particular event, I don’t have many close-up shots, so I’ll include this one fairly tight portrait as a placeholder.  It would be great to include a true close-up shot showing just the athlete’s gloved hands as she grasps the rope, perhaps with part of her face in the background, for example.  This could be done by tightly cropping this image.

This tight portrait shows great action and emotion.  While it’s not a true close-up image, which ordinarily would show only a few details rather than the full person, it can serve a similar function in the essay by focusing the viewer’s attention on a small specific part of the race.  Buy this photo

Closer: This will be the last image in the photo essay, so it needs to be a strong one.  It could be a climactic moment or, if the story is being told chronologically, an image made at the end of the race.  I’ll include two possible closing shots here.  The first captures an athlete jumping over the fire at the finish line; it’s both dramatic and symbolizes the end of the event.  The second shows a classic Spartan Race moment, where the athletes have to carry heavy buckets of sand along a muddy, hilly course; this image could make a good closer because it evokes a quintessentially Spartan Race sense of emotion.

The finish line itself is a dramatic vantage point.  In this particular race, athletes must jump over a line of fire to finish the course.  Buy this photo

An iconic Spartan Race image.  I captured the strenuous activity of carrying buckets filled with sand by shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens.  Buy this photo

Have you presented your images in the form of a photo essay?  How did you structure it?  What advice can you share for fellow photographers who would like to use this format?

Want to read more posts about sharing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Sharing.

The Harsh Realities [Encore Publication]: How to shoot in extreme conditions

Travel is exciting because it exposes us to new environments from which we can learn about the diversity of the world and our own place within it.  But travel also can expose our expensive and sensitive photo gear to extreme conditions.  Heat, cold, humidity, dryness, wind, dust, sand, salt, water, and physical shocks are among the harsh realities of travel photography.  Let’s examine some of these hazards and discuss how to mitigate the potential harm.

  • Cold: Extremely low temperatures can cause all kinds of problems with modern electronics, including cameras.  Batteries don’t hold their charges very well in frigid conditions, so you need to carry extra batteries and keep them warm in your pocket or inside your parka.  Also expect to be recharging them more frequently than in warmer climes.  The LCD displays on your camera (and other devices such as your smartphone) can stop working partially or completely in very cold temperatures.  I’ve found there isn’t much that can be done when this happens except to try to gently warm the device, but that can be difficult when in the field shooting.  Fortunately, most of the time the display will return to normal functioning when it warms up.  Remember that very cold air is usually also very dry air, so be careful of condensation when getting out of the cold and returning to the warmth of an indoor environment.  The moisture that condenses on the inside of our lenses and electronic equipment can be damaging, so it’s best to let the gear warm up again while inside a sealed bag to prevent excessive condensation.  A large freezer-style bag works well for this purpose; just remember to place your camera and lens in the bag before coming inside from the cold.  Avoid lens changes in extreme cold conditions whenever possible.
  • Extreme cold, such as in Svalbard, can cause problems with the operation of batteries and LCD displays, and with condensation.  Buy this photo
  • Humidity: Excessive humidity can also cause condensation and fogging of the glass surfaces and displays on your gear.  In very humid conditions there is lots of moisture in the air, while in air conditioned vehicles and hotel rooms there is less moisture.  That means your lenses and LCDs will likely fog up quickly after leaving the air conditioned comfort of your hotel or vehicle.  To mitigate this problem, try to store your gear in an area that is less air conditioned, such as a storage area or bathroom.  And when you leave your hotel or car, keep the gear inside your camera bag to help prevent the buildup of moisture.
  • Wind and Dust: Recall that we’ve discussed many times in other posts the need to keep a UV (or haze) filter permanently attached to all lenses.  This protects the lenses from scratching damage, but has the secondary effect of protecting against dust building up on the front surface of the lens.  Dusty areas are also a good place to keep your lens cap on except when you are actually shooting.  Rule Number 1 in dusty environments is never, ever to change lenses outside unless it is absolutely necessary.  I like to carry two camera bodies with different lenses so that I can shoot with both lenses without the need to change in the field.  And if you do get dust on the camera’s viewfinder, lens, LCD, or mirror, you should have a good blower brush and soft lens cloth with you so you can clean it off.  I do not recommend trying to clean your camera’s sensor yourself unless you are confident you have the skills and equipment to do it properly.  Instead, turn on your camera’s sensor-cleaning function, if it has one, to try to prevent dust buildup, and heed the caution never to change lenses in dusty or windy environments.  A few small specks of dust on the sensor can even be removed in post-processing, although this becomes very difficult if the sensor is badly marred by the stuff.  I have a friend who is an ophthalmologist as well as an avid photographer, and he is one of the few people I know who will clean his own camera’s sensor.  I have a wonderful photo of him in full surgical regalia, using a microscope and surgical instruments to do the job.  For the rest of us, bring the camera to a good repair shop after your trip ends and before the next big adventure begins.
  • Physical Shocks: Travel is the school of hard knocks for camera gear.  Safari vehicles, “puddle hopper” bush planes, and long bus rides over bumpy roads are the norm for adventure travelers.  Once the gear takes a punishing blow that damages it, there is very little to be done in the field.  My best advice is to carry your gear in a very good padded bag with snug fittings around each piece, and to bring a backup camera body and lenses in overlapping ranges of focal lengths to ensure redundancy in the event of a mishap.

Game drives while on safari are near the top of every photographer’s “bucket list,” but the harsh realities of jolts, dust, and humid heat can threaten your sensitive camera gear.  Buy this photo

There’s an old saying, “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay at home on the porch.”  If we were the types of photographers who wanted to avoid all these hazards, we’d just stay at home, right?  But travel photographers are the adventurous sort, and we consider these risks to be a cost of the intense pleasure we derive from shooting all kinds of fascinating subjects in new environments all around the world.  Plan well to minimize problems, bring extra gear for redundancy, and when something does go wrong keep a positive attitude: you’ll be well rewarded when you get home and have unique images as a souvenir of your efforts!

When have you faced extreme conditions for your shoots, and how did you overcome them?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

 

Focus on Asha Stanford Holi [Encore Publication] : Capturing the colors, joy, and exuberance of an iconic Indian celebration held close to home

I love all aspects of travel photography, but the moments I truly live for are when I have the opportunity to experience and to capture images of the world’s most exuberant celebrations.  The iconic Indian festival of Holi, celebrated annually throughout India in huge cities and small villages alike, is one of my absolute favorites.  This year I had the chance to shoot a large and vibrant Holi celebration without the need to fly for 30 hours to get to India.  As an official photographer for Asha Stanford’s Holi festival, I got to document all the color, joy, and revelry of a large, world-class Holi event, all within 20 minutes drive from my home.  In today’s post, I share some favorite images from the event along with some brief remarks about how each was made.  Note that all of these images and many more are available to view and purchase on my website–get there by clicking on any of the images here.

With colored powder and often sheets of water flying everywhere, Holi is by design a messy and mischievous celebration.  Protect yourself when “playing Holi” by wearing clothes you can part with after the event and by covering your camera body and lens with a rain sleeve.  Here’s the one I use, which is excellent–inexpensive, easy to use and very protective of the gear:

Note that even when using a high-quality rain cover like this one, the front end of the lens is still exposed, so be sure to protect your lens’ front element with a UV or Haze filter.  And to be extra safe, I brought only one camera body and only a single lens, which was an inexpensive but versatile “walk-around” travel zoom lens.

Crowded festivals, by their nature, have cluttered backgrounds.  When making portraits in such environments, I do try to reduce the clutter by choosing the background carefully, but capturing the moment is more important and in any case, it is futile trying to wait for completely uncluttered backgrounds.  In post-processing, some of the clutter can be minimized through careful cropping and the application of just a bit of post-crop vignetting.  Use too much vignetting, though, and the image begins to take on an artificial appearance.

To capture fast action, you obviously want to choose a fast shutter speed.  That’s no problem when shooting in bright sunshine such as we had during this Holi celebration.  Still, I choose a moderately high ISO (400) to ensure I could retain fast shutter speeds even when in the shade or when using a small aperture to maximize depth-of-field.

Get in close!  Portraits often are most effective when they emphasize a specific detail rather than show the entire environment.  To further emphasize that specific detail, try to select a wide aperture (low f-stop number) in order to obtain shallow depth-of-field.  I had only a relatively slow “walk-around” zoom lens with me, so for close-up portraits I shot wide open at f/4.5–not great for isolating the subject, but better than shooting at an even smaller aperture.  In typically less adverse environments, I would be shooting with a much faster portrait lens, most likely my favorite 85mm f/1.8 prime lens:

 

When your subject is backlit (the main light coming from behind), as is often the case when shooting outdoors in bright sunlight, be sure to choose exposure based on the main subject.  Here I used my camera’s spot metering mode to set the exposure based on the clothing of one of the people in the group, but it’s also fine to get your exposure by zooming in or walking up close to the group and then to set that exposure manually on your camera.  You can also use your camera’s exposure compensation control to dial up the automatic exposure by about 1.5 or 2 stops, but I recommend not trying to use automatic exposure modes in general.  If you use the exposure your camera’s auto mode chooses for you and your subject is strongly backlit, your image will be underexposed by typically 1.5-2 stops or even more.

I’m always on the lookout for great moments to capture.  When I saw this dad playing with his young daughter, I composed the frame around the two of them and started shooting continuously so as to get a shot at just the right instant.  During post-processing, I cropped the image to show only the portion that portrays the thrill and joy of the playful pair.

Careful composition is always important in photography, but it’s easy to forget this point during the heat of the moment when shooting in bustling and chaotic environments.  To compose this image, I framed it to get the splash of color from the two friends’ “high-five” moment right in front of the big sign boldly pronouncing, “COLOR”.  That’s a Holi moment.

One of the keys to successfully documenting huge festivals is finding the small, intimate moments.  Big, sweeping crowd shots showing chaotic motion are important to document, but it’s capturing those small interpersonal interactions that really make your portfolio shine.  I used as wide an aperture as I had available in order to cast the busy background in soft focus.

Performances are often a part of festivals, and these are wonderful fun to capture.  I’ve posted many times on the techniques required to make great images of performing arts, so I won’t repeat myself here.  Just be sure to compose appropriately, set the exposure correctly (challenging to do in direct sunlight), and shoot lots of images to be sure of capturing a few excellent ones.

The climactic moment of the Holi celebration comes near the end, when all the revelers simultaneous throw handfuls of colored powder high into the air.  Be ready for these big moments by preparing all your gear and composing all elements of the shot beforehand.  

To capture the sweeping scale of really big celebrations, sometimes it helps to make a panoramic image.  Some cameras can do this automatically in-the-camera, but I find those images don’t turn out very well, so I make panoramas manually by shooting a series of overlapping images that span the scene.  In theory this is quite simple.  Just take a series of photos starting from the far left side of the scene, then panning the camera a little bit to the right so the next photo just overlaps with the previous one, and so on until you reach the far right side of the scene.  You then use software such as Lightroom or Photoshop to stitch the separate, overlapping photos together into a single sweeping image.  In practice, this can be quite difficult.  I find the software often takes an extremely long time to process a panoramic image and sometimes even crashes while attempting to do so.  If you have a more powerful computer than I have, you may have an easier time with this process.  

Parting shot: When I see a great subject for a portrait, I will interact with him or her, get to know them a bit, then begin shooting with their permission.  Over time and in the heat of a celebration, they will forget I’m even there, but the resulting images will be better for the time spent interacting with the person first.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this photo essay and brief notes about how to shoot festivals and celebrations.  Whether we’re close to home or halfway around the world, such festive gatherings truly define the culture of the celebrants and make amazing photographic subjects.  If you’d like to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling or near home, find them all here: Posts about what to shoot.

What are your favorite celebrations to shoot, and how do you capture images there?  Please share your thoughts here!

 

The Great American Eclipse [Encore Publication]: How I captured the recent total solar eclipse

Dear Readers,

The next total solar eclipse will be visible in parts of Argentina and Chile on July 2, 2019.  Please join my small-group photography tour through Chile and Easter Island including observing and photographing the eclipse from our exclusive viewing location in Chile.  For more information or to book your place, visit the tour’s page: Chilean Eclipse Photo Tour.

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I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to observe and photograph four total solar eclipses all around the world.   A few weeks ago, I drove with my family to Salem, Oregon to photograph the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.  I delivered a lecture on eclipse photography before an audience of about 400 eclipse chasers and scientists, and I was also interviewed by the New York Times.  But most important, I was able to capture some amazing images of the big event!  In today’s post, I share a few of those images and discuss how they were made.

For tips about how to make close-up portraits of the sun during an eclipse, check out this post: Post on Eclipse Photography.  My best advice is to use a very sturdy tripod, turn off vibration reduction or image stabilization on your longest telephoto lens, manually focus before the start of the eclipse (and use a piece of tape to hold your lens’ focus ring in place), use ISO 400 and f/11, and bracket your exposures to ensure you’ll have some that are well exposed.  Of course, you will need to use a proper solar filter over the front end of your lens for the entire eclipse except during the brief period of totality.  Buy this photo

As totality approaches, the sun becomes much less bright and your exposure will change dramatically.  You may have to boost your ISO setting and/or open your aperture to capture these last partial stages before totality.  Buy this photo

It’s important to know exactly when totality will begin.  Set a timer to be sure you don’t miss it.  I like to remove the solar filters from all my lenses about 1 minute before the start of totality.  Then I am ready and waiting for the diamond ring effect to signal the beginning of totality, and I’m ready to shoot and capture this beautiful moment.  Just be sure you don’t look directly at the sun through your lens after removing your filter until the diamond ring effect has taken place, or you could damage your eyes or your camera’s sensor.  Buy this photo

It is especially important to bracket exposures during totality, because the range of brightness values between the bright inner corona and the dim outer corona is too great for any camera’s sensor to capture in one image.  By shooting a series of several different exposures, you can combine them during post-processing using HDR (high dynamic range) software, allowing for all the subtle beauty of the corona to be captured.  This favorite image of totality shows colorful prominences, ethereal streamers, and the rarely seen “earthshine effect” whereby the surface detail of the moon is lit entirely by sunlight reflecting off the earth.  Buy this photo

The second diamond ring effect occurs moments after the end of totality.  This HDR image combines seven of my bracketed exposures, yielding an image of breathtaking beauty.  Buy this photo

Get creative about displaying your images after you get home.  This montage was made from 15 of my favorite images to show the progression of the eclipse from partial stages through the diamond ring effect, into totality, and back again.  Buy this photo

I used a second camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on a tripod and controlled by an intervalometer (timer) to shoot a bracketed set of exposures every 30 seconds during the whole eclipse.  In post-processing, I combined the images into a time lapse montage showing the movement of the sun across the sky in different stages of the eclipse.  Note that I am standing in the foreground operating my other camera, the LCD screen on which clearly shows a closeup image of the sun during totality.  Buy this photo

Did you observe and/or photograph the Great American Eclipse of 2017?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

 

2018: A Photographic Retrospective

Dear Readers,

My second year as a full-time professional photographer has flown by. In addition to major travels in Myanmar, Iceland, and Panama, I also had the opportunity to shoot more than 150 local SF Bay Area festivals, street fairs, performances, sporting events, and breaking news stories. Travel photography is my primary specialty: I lead photography tours in destinations around the world, shoot on assignment for travel companies, and place my images in magazines and on travel websites. While not traveling, I freelance for local newspapers, shoot for private clients (commercial and personal), and teach local workshops and classes. A second specialty has become capturing powerful images of performing arts for musicians, dancers, and theater companies. My photography website has logged more than 3 million page views, and I also publish a daily travel photography blog. I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on projects with several wonderful artists, including an ongoing collaboration with talented dancer, choreographer, and Fulbright scholar Carly Lave on the intersection of advanced technology with human motion.





I was honored to have been named a finalist in the prestigious Emerging Professional Photographer competition run by Digital Photo Pro Magazine (wish me luck in the final round of judging!), and several of my images were selected as favorites by National Geographic’s photo editors and published in social media by LensCulture. My work was exhibited in several group shows and a solo show in the SF Bay Area.




It’s been a thrilling transitional year, and I’m very excited to continue my artistic and business growth in 2019. Please contact me to discuss booking me for any of your photography needs in the coming year, or if you’re interested in improving your own photography through workshops in SF or destinations around the world in 2019. I hope you enjoy this sampler of some of my favorite images from the past year!









Sneak Preview [Encore Publication]: Behind the scenes on my ongoing Human/Machine Dance Project

How does the human body move when interacting with artificial intelligence technologies? This is the question that my collaborator Carly Lave embarks on a year-long Fulbright grant to research. A talented dancer, choreographer, and scholar, Carly will present her research findings in visual form via a self-choreographed dance solo performance. I approached her to collaborate on a photography series informed by her research goals and artistry as a dancer. We explored several visual themes, each related to the timely question of how we humans will be transformed by increasing immersion into advanced technologies, including virtual reality, robotics, and interconnectivity. To complete this ongoing project, we will continue to collaborate across two continents during Carly’s research fellowship. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I’d like to share a few early images from this work-in-process along with some words about how they were made.  It can be tricky to imagine a visual concept and realize it via photography, and all the more challenging when the concept is abstract like the ones Carly and I selected.  I’ll present four of our initial concepts, each illustrated with an image and a description of the techniques required to execute it.

  1. Virtual Reality Motion Study: Virtual meets reality as Carly’s body floats through the physical world while her motion is informed by her interactions with the virtual world playing inside her headset.This concept sounds simple but is quite difficult to execute photographically.  We wanted to capture Carly’s physical motion in the real world as she reacts to the experience of the VR world.  Images like these require a long time exposure (here about 15 seconds), which in turn necessitates shooting in a darkened photography studio.  I used a black backdrop and continuous LED lighting to illuminate Carly as she moved across the studio, with a single studio strobe light at the front right part of the set to capture her final pose at the end of the exposure.  The strobe was set to trigger as the camera’s shutter closed at the end of each shot (“rear curtain sync”).  Using this technique, Carly’s motion can be traced during the whole exposure but the vivid exposure is what we see last.  Considerable post-processing is then required to clean up the scene.
  2. Interconnectivity: Carly shared, “I found myself visualizing my body wrapped in cables coiled around my limbs and torso. I was thinking about the body in relation to embedded systems here, and how now all of our world is connected through cables either in the air or sea.”To shoot this visual concept, we used a dance studio with a mirrored wall.  Using different angles to obtain a variety of perspectives, I shot both Carly and her reflection as she improvised motion along the wall.  The technique conveys the impression of the interconnectedness between a human and a similar being across a network.  Post-processing was required to remove clutter and render the background as white.
  3. Human (de-)Evolution Series: A whimsical re-imagining of the classic ape-to-human evolution series, this montage asks us to consider whether technology contributes to or detracts from human evolution.This striking montage is actually quite straightforward to execute.  In a photography studio against a black backdrop, I shot images of Carly in each stage of the evolution series and then combined them using layers in Photoshop.
  4. Robotic Motion: Machines often perform the same tasks traditionally undertaken by humans, but the robot’s motion is constrained by its programming. How might the human dancer’s motion become similarly constrained if her movement is choreographed by programming instructions?For this concept, my job was fairly easy and Carly had to do the heavy lifting.  She choreographed movement indicative of robotic motion while I captured a series of images using a studio strobe light and a black fabric backdrop.

I hope this behind-the-scenes peek at my ongoing passion project will help inspire your own creative process.  It’s important to be personally and deeply invested in a project before you begin.  Select your partner(s) carefully and plan thoroughly.  Then the process becomes joyful and exhilarating as you begin to bring your concept to life!

Have you carried out a photography project?  Please share your key learnings–positive and otherwise–here!

Want to read more posts about what to photography while traveling or near home?  Find them all here: Posts about What to Shoot.

 

Focus on Panama [Encore Publication]: A man, a plan, a canal Panama, but so very much more


Iconic Panamanian scene: Nearly every visitor to Panama comes, at least in part, to see the canal, one of the wonders of the modern world.  Although our small vessel was able to transit the canal using the original 1914 lock system, we had the opportunity to visit the newly expanded 2016 lock system that can accommodate some of the world’s largest ships.  We observed this super container ship carrying more than 10,000 shipping containers each the size of a tractor-trailer truck as she transited the new lock system.  The massive scale of this scene makes it challenging to photograph.  Compose too tightly and you lose the grand sense of scale; compose too wide and you lose the dramatic impact.  I opted to capture this enormous vessel fully enclosed by the gargantuan lock chamber with the entrance to the Caribbean (Atlantic) waters and the modern Atlantic Bridge in the background.

My wife and I recently returned from a lovely two-week adventure traveling through Panama.  Our itinerary took us from the capital of Panama City to the historic and folkloric Azuero Peninsula, then up the Chagres River via dugout canoe for an in-depth encounter with the Embera indigenous people, followed by transiting the entire length of the Panama Canal aboard our 24-passenger catamaran, and ending with a visit to the remarkable rainforest of San Lorenzo National Park before returning to Panama City.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Panama’s people of diverse backgrounds and trades.  We discovered that Panama is much more than just a canal: it’s a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, unparalleled biodiversity, centuries-old cultural traditions, and friendly people.

Our Panamanian adventure began in the largest city, Panama City.  While small relative to other major Latin American cities, Panama City is growing and thriving, juxtaposing a modern vibrant energy on top of a lovely historic Spanish-colonial old town.

Old meets new in Panama City as the Old Quarter ruins lie in the shadow of newer developments. To capture this juxtaposition of ancient against modern, I composed using a wide-angle lens and a low vantage point so that the skyline appears to grow suddenly from behind the ruins.  A narrow aperture (high f-stop number) allows both foreground and background to be in sharp focus.

Wildlife is abundant nearly everywhere in a rainforest climate zone, so our cameras should already be ready.  On the outskirts of Panama City, we observed this lovely iguana. I crouched down very low to shoot from the same level as the iguana, using a long telephoto set to a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to soften the background.  It’s important to shoot many frames of wildlife subjects to maximize the likelihood of capturing a few really strong shots.  This image appeals because the iguana appears to be smiling at us.

Lovely view over Panama City from the roof garden of our hotel.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water.  When composing busy images like this one, I seek a sense of harmony and balance between the different elements.  It’s also helpful to avoid the use of extremely wide-angle lenses and to keep the horizon level so as to minimize distortion of the vertical lines.

Food is an important aspect of travel, so it’s fun to make some images of the dishes we try, such as this whimsical presentation of ceviche in a local Panama City restaurant.  Photographing food in restaurant or home settings can be challenging due to poor lighting and cluttered backgrounds.  Here I removed some of the clutter from the table and shot from a 45-degree angle, which works well for many food presentations (shooting from directly above almost never flatters the dish).

A highlight of our stay in Panama City was getting to explore the neighborhood of El Chorrillo, nearly completely destroyed during the 1989 US invasion to oust Manuel Noriega.  Nearly three decades later, much of this neighborhood is still in shambles and its residents are divided on whether such destruction was justified.  I feel it’s a privilege to observe and photograph peoples’ homes during times of regeneration, so it’s important to explore and shoot photos with a high degree of respect for those who live in the neighborhood, speaking with residents and obtaining their permission before capturing images.

Departing Panama City for the historic and folkloric region of the Azuero Peninsula, we were very fortunate to arrive in the little town of Chitre on the day they celebrate Panama’s “First Cry of Independence”. The push for independence from Spain began here, then spread to the rest of the country.

Whether halfway around the world or right in my home town, I’m always thrilled to have the chance to capture the special energy and tradition of a festival or celebration.  Because festivals are very busy events, it’s important to look for clean backgrounds insofar as possible.  To make this portrait of two young Panamanians dressed in the national costume known as the pollera, I composed so as to minimize clutter in the background and also used a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to render the background in soft focus.  Too often photographers compose based only on the main subject, but a clean background is at least as important to the success of the image than an interesting foreground subject.

In the village of Las Tablas we visited a pollera-making workshop run by a husband and wife team. These intricately embroidered costumes can each cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years to make. The owners’ niece and son made adorable models for their work.  I asked them to move a few steps away from the cluttered area where they were standing so we could frame the portrait with the lovely traditional Panamanian window in the background.

Local fishermen ferried us from the mainland to the lovely Iguana Island for a day of snorkeling, hiking, and relaxing at the beach.  A strange sighting: this hermit crab re-purposed the discarded head of a child’s doll for its new shell.  I did not have a macro lens with me, so I used the closest focusing lens in my bag and got as close as possible, later cropping the image further during post-processing.

The second day of independence festivities are celebrated in the small town of Villa de los Santos. I asked this parade participant to pose for a portrait in a spot with a clean background and lovely soft lighting, then got in close with a fast prime portrait lens set to a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to throw the background out of focus.  Soft lighting (which can be obtained by shooting near sunrise or sunset, or by moving the subject into a shaded area) makes vivid colors truly pop and flatters the subject of your portrait.

The “First Cry of Independence” festivities last well into the night.  The extremely low-light conditions offer a photographer’s dilemma: either continue to shoot using only available light (and accept the added visual noise and motion blur) or switch to using flash (and live with its short coverage distance, artificial color cast, and distraction to the subjects).  I chose to work with just available light, boosting my camera’s ISO sensitivity setting to as high as I could get away with and using a fast prime lens at a very wide aperture to gather as much light as possible, which in turn allowed the use of a reasonably fast shutter speed.  The results are lovely: sharp dancers in the foreground with just a touch of motion blur, soft focus on the dancers and buildings in the background, and a soft and painterly feel for the scene that to me feels quintessentially Panamanian.

As we prepared to depart the Azuero Peninsula, we visited the mask-making workshop of renowned artisan Dario.  Even avid photographers enjoy returning home with at least a few photos of themselves and their loved ones, so I set up the camera and asked a fellow traveler to capture the shot.  Expect to spend some time fixing the composition and exposure in post-processing if your designated photographer is not very experienced.

After spending a few days on the Azuero Peninsula, we navigated up the Chagres River via dugout canoe to meet the Embera indigenous people.  This fascinating in-depth encounter offered a window into an ancient culture that has mostly disappeared from Central America as indigenous groups have been forced to resettle on national parklands where their traditional fishing and hunting practices are not permitted.  Our Embera hosts are able to continue to live in the traditional manner by sharing their culture with visitors like us.  Our lovely day spent with the Embera villagers included preparing and enjoying a traditional meal, visiting the two-room schoolhouse (supported by Grand Circle Foundation), exploring the village, learning about their government and way of life, and observing and participating in traditional singing and dancing.  We will never forget this experience.

We enjoyed a wonderful visit to the two-room schoolhouse in the Embera village.  As we shared songs and dances with the schoolkids, I made this portrait using only available light, intentionally blurring the girl’s hands to impart a sense of motion.

I got to know this Embera teen as she helped prepare her sisters and brother for the traditional dance ceremony.  We chatted and I captured photos of her preparations as she applied tattoos to her siblings using the juice of the jagua plant.  It’s always a good practice to get to know your subject before making a portrait.  Doing so will help put them at ease and allow you the opportunity to capture their true personality.  To make the portrait, I asked the girl to move outside of the hut to a spot with open shade and a pleasing background, then captured the moment using a fast portrait lens and a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to get that lovely “bokeh” (artistic quality in the out-of-focus background areas).

At the conclusion of our day in the Embera village, all the people of the village came out to demonstrate traditional singing and dancing for us.  For large group portraits, it’s often best to work with a slightly wide-angle lens, but not so wide as to cause distortion.  I chose a narrow aperture (high f-stop number) so that all of the people and the surrounding village landscape would be in sharp focus.  Shooting from the same level as your subject has the effect of seeming to place your viewer within the scene rather than (literally) looking down on the action.

A brief jaunt back to Panama City put us in position to board our 24-passenger catamaran, the M/S Discovery, for our three-day transit of the Panama Canal.

Strolling near our hotel, we happened upon these two brightly-colored toucans in a tree.  Using the longest telephoto lens at my disposal, I made the shot handheld with a fast shutter speed to minimize camera shake.  If your camera or lens has built-in image stabilization (also sometimes called vibration reduction), this modern feature can be very useful in avoiding blurring caused by camera shake.

Setting sail on the Panama Canal, we pass the Frank Gehry designed Biodiversity Museum with the Panama City skyline in the background.  Cityscapes can be great fun to photograph.  Attention should be paid to composing the image to include the most interesting urban features while eliminating extraneous and distracting elements.  A polarizing filter can help reduce reflection and enhance the color and texture of clouds and water.  And it’s always a good practice to keep the horizon line nice and level.

A spider monkey feeds in a tree on an island in Gatun Lake, highest point along the Panama Canal.  Photographing an animal in the low light of the rainforest canopy, and from a moving boat, is a challenge.  I boosted the camera’s ISO sensitivity setting and used the fastest aperture setting available on this lens to render a sharp image of the monkey in motion.

Transiting the Atlantic locks near the end of the Panama Canal.  This scene conveys the hustle and bustle of this hectic waterway without too many distracting elements.  I composed to include two relatively large ships in separate chambers of the locks along with the Canal Authority’s apparatus and our own ship’s Panamanian flag.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Panama photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Panama?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.