Purple Mountain’s Majesty [Encore Publication]: Including mountains in your images

Whether we’re traveling halfway around the world or just a few miles from home, we travel photographers get excited about including mountains in our images.  Mountainous landscapes can provide so many of the most basic elements we look for in a great photograph: beautiful light, compelling composition, exquisite textures, and an authentic sense of place.  In this post we will cover some of the fundamental techniques for capturing great images of mountains.

As with most kinds of photography, it all begins with beautiful light.  Whenever possible, try to shoot mountain landscapes near sunrise or sunset, or when something interesting is happening with the weather conditions.  The quality of light tends to be best during these times.  You’re more likely to capture lovely colors on the peaks and in the sky, and the image is more apt to give a sense of depth and drama than during the middle hours of the day.

Shooting from the deck at our lodge in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, I had to miss most of an excellent dinner to capture Lago Grey with its mountains and glaciers during the “golden hour” just before sunset.  The lovely interplay of colors and textures, from the sky to the peaks and to the icebergs and water, made the resulting image worth the effort.  Buy this photo

When shooting mountain landscapes, it is usually a good idea to bracket your exposure.  With the camera fixed on a sturdy tripod, compose your scene and then shoot a series of images, each with a slightly different exposure.  Many cameras have settings to automate the process of bracketing.  The two main benefits of exposure bracketing are raising the odds you’ll have a perfectly exposed image and allowing you to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image from several different exposures.  See this post for a refresher on how to use exposure bracketing: Post on Exposure Bracketing.

This HDR image of Yosemite National Park’s peaks reflected in the Merced River was created from a series of different exposures made using bracketing.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I made a series of seven shots, each one exposed 2/3 of a stop brighter than the previous one.  Buy this photo

I’m often asked how to make mountain images that really “pop”.  Why are some photographs of mountain landscapes so dynamic and compelling, with intriguing contrast between the peaks and the sky?  Of course, there are many elements that go into the making of an excellent image, but there is a “secret sauce” that can dramatically improve many mountain images: the polarizing filter.  Properly using a circular polarizing filter on your lens can emphasize the contrasting parts of the rock, snow, and/or ice on the mountains and can also add drama to the clouds and sky.  Every image shown in this post was made with a polarizer.  Be sure to adjust the filter by turning its outer ring until you see the effect you want to achieve.  Usually this involves rotating the filter’s ring until you see the maximum polarizing effect possible and then dialing it back a little (or a lot) until you achieve a balance between added drama and a natural look.  Experience helps here.  Check out this post on the use of filters, including polarizers: Post on Filters.

This image of a rare lenticular cloud forming on the summit of Osorno Volcano in Argentinian Patagonia was made using a polarizing filter to bring out the cloud formation and darken the sky.  Buy this photo

Mountain colors can be glorious, but also consider converting some mountain images to black-and-white during post-processing.  Rendering in black-and-white can emphasize the textures on the crags and peaks of a mountain and can also lend drama to the foreground and sky.  Shots captured with a polarizing filter will usually result in more intriguing monochrome images.  When converting to black-and-white during post-processing, be sure to play around with the contrast and individual color channel sliders until you achieve the result you want.  For more info on black-and-white photography, check out this post: Post on Black and White Photography.

This shot of a rock dome in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows area is striking when rendered in black-and-white.  Buy this photo

Sometimes when we’re traveling we don’t have the option of returning to a gorgeous mountain location when the lighting is perfect.  Don’t let the flat lighting of a bright mid-day sun stop you from shooting the local peaks.  Great images can be made at any time of day.  Just make sure to follow the main techniques outlined in this post: compose well, use a polarizing filter, and bracket your exposure.

Patagonian peaks captured on our way out of Torres del Paine National Park.  Because we didn’t have the option of returning at the golden hour, I made this image in the harsh mid-day sun.  With careful attention to composition and the use of a polarizing filter and exposure bracketing, I was able to make a favorite image in spite of the less than perfect lighting conditions.  Buy this photo

What are your go-to methods when shooting mountain scenery?  What are your favorite mountain locations?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box here.

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

 

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!

 

Focus on Cuba [Rewritten for new policies]: Go to Cuba now while you still can

Cuba is a remarkable destination for travel photographers!  This small island has all the iconic images we expect–beautiful but crumbling art deco buildings, American cars from the late 1950s, unspoiled Caribbean beaches–but there are so many more opportunities to connect with and photograph a culture and a nation that is undergoing very rapid change.

Lovers embrace on Havana’s Malecon at sunset.  Buy this photo

European and Latin American travelers already know about Cuba’s charms and have been coming here for decades.  But to many Americans, Cuba has felt off-limits, a destination forbidden by our government.  I’m going to steer clear of the political issues in this post, but it must be noted that President Trump’s recent orders to tighten Cuba travel restrictions previously relaxed under the Obama administration will make it more difficult once again to visit.  The recent changes do not outlaw all travel to Cuba, but most Americans will need to visit under an official “People-to-People Cultural Exchange” program.  The operators of these programs may have to revise their itineraries due to new prohibitions against travel to any facilities owned by the Cuban military, and the prices of these programs may rise as regularly scheduled commercial flights to the island could revert to more expensive charter flights.  But it is still quite straightforward, and 100% legal, for US residents to visit Cuba under one of these People-to-People programs.

I do not recommend trying to circumvent the licensing requirements.  This can lead to lots of trouble for the unlicensed American traveler later down the road: hefty fines, lots of questions to be answered, and restrictions on one’s future travel possibilities.  Instead, go with one of the many travel companies who operate People-to-People Cultural Exchanges.  These are legal trips licensed by the US government for the purposes of the people from the US and Cuba getting to know each other.  These trips do require that most of the traveler’s time be spent interacting with Cuban people of all walks of life, but isn’t that what we travel photographers seek, anyway?

We spent a delightful 1.5 weeks on one of these cultural exchange programs run by Grand Circle Foundation.  They offer a variety of different Cuban itineraries, and we would have preferred one of the longer ones, but schedule limitations required us to take the shorter trip.  This itinerary brought us to the capital Havana and to the rural Viñales Valley, the center of tobacco production and ecotourism on the island.  Here are some highlights from this travel photographer’s perspective.


Our small group was invited to attend a rehearsal by Opera de la Calle.  Held in a decrepit art deco building in downtown Havana, the spirited performance combined song, dance, and performance art.  Buy this photo


Getting to know some of the locals while visiting the exuberant art installation by Jose Fuster known as Fusterlandia.  Buy this photo

We left Havana’s vibrant urban vibe for a three-day excursion to the rural Viñales Valley.  Exploring this famed tobacco-producing region from our base at an eco-tourism village within a sustainable agricultural collective, we enjoyed hiking through terrain unlike any we’d seen elsewhere, taking in views of local wildlife and flowers along the way.

The picturesque Viñales Valley is noted for its mogotes, dramatic hilly outcroppings.  Buy this photo

 

Tobacco farmer Benito enjoying the fruit of his labor.  Buy this photo

Cuba’s national bird, the brightly colored Tocororo.  Buy this photo

The warm and engaging proprietor of Maria’s Cafe surveys her domain.  Buy this photo

During a Viñales Valley elementary school visit, we met the staff and great  kids in the classrooms!  Three classes for different ages shared one old church building.  Buy this photo

We got to know a friendly and enterprising rural family during a home-hosted dinner.  This is their typical family transportation.  Buy this photo

Back in Havana, we strolled through the city’s Old Town.  Buy this photo

A special performance of Santeria singing and dance.  Santeria combines Roman Catholicism with African religions to form a uniquely Cuban hybrid.  Buy this photo

This selection of photos barely scratches the surface of all the wonderful, unique photographic opportunities awaiting you in Cuba now.  Go soon, though, because for better or for worse, this nation is transitioning quickly into a very different future.

A few years ago, the first commercial flight from the US to Cuba in over 50 years had just taken off from Florida: NY Times on US flights to Cuba.  For many Cubans, this seemed like the dawn of a new era that would mean a partial easing of a great deal of economic hardship suffered under the US embargo.  Instead, we are seeing a regression of US/Cuban relations to a situation more like the Cold War era policy.  It’s anybody’s guess as to how this situation will evolve over the coming years.  On the one hand, it’s possible a new US or Cuban administration could open up relations considerably, leading to huge continuing changes in Cuban society.  On the other hand, we could see further tightening on travel to Cuba, making it very difficult for Americans to visit at all.  I’m eager to visit again in a few years to meet more Cuban people and observe how their lives have changed in the interim.  But if you prefer to visit–and photograph–tiny colorful sidewalk cafes rather than Starbucks, authentic cultural interactions rather than slickly produced touristic shows, and wide open vistas rather than lavish resort developments, then now is the time to book your trip to Cuba!  Depending on the political environment, now could even be your last chance to visit for some years.

Have you been to Cuba?  What surprised you there?  What were some of your favorite photographic subjects?  If you haven’t been yet, what images do you associate with this island nation?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Focus on Dublin [Encore Publication]: Ireland’s main city overflows with Guinness, literature, history, and music

We began our rambles through Ireland and Scotland with a whirlwind two-day stay in Dublin.  The capital of the Republic of Ireland, Dublin is well known as the home of Guinness beer and for its literary and historical legacy, but perhaps less known as a remarkable hub of live music and contemporary fine dining.  It’s also a marvelous place to make images that highlight the old and the new elements of this vibrant city.  Here’s a brief photo essay along with some discussion of how the images were made.

Perhaps the world’s grandest study hall, Trinity College’s Long Room is a stately palace to higher learning.  Located next to the vault housing the famous Book of Kells (where photography is not permitted), the Long Room is best photographed with a wide-angle lens using natural light.  Here I shot from one end of the hall looking up at the ceiling and upper gallery.  Be careful to watch your horizons when making an architectural image from such an angle.  Buy this photo

Live trad (traditional Irish folk) music is a staple of Dublin nightlife, and nowhere is it better than at the famed O’Donoghue Pub, where in the 1960’s bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folks music revival.  Irish pubs are convivial and interactive places, where you can mingle with the performers and other locals.

To make portraits of the musicians, sit close to the “stage” (there’s rarely a true stage in the formal sense, but rather a performer’s area) and shoot with a fast normal or portrait lens using a high ISO setting.  It helps to get to know a few of the players during their breaks.  Buy this photo

Dublin is a world-class literary city, with ties to James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, G. B. Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Seamus Heaney, among many other literary greats.  We took, and highly recommend, a literary walking tour led by scholar, author, and actor Colm Quilligan.  There are many photo opportunities to be found during this informative walk.  You can learn more about Colm’s walking tours here: http://www.dublinpubcrawl.com/writerswalk.htm.

A self-portrait made at The Duke Pub, where many of Dublin’s great authors took their liquid inspiration.  Remember to include yourself in some images, but always look for unusual perspectives.  Buy this photo

A park sculpture commemorates  the Great Famine of the 1840s.  To bring out the textures, I converted this image to black-and-white using Lightroom’s color channel tools, and boosted the contrast slightly.  Buy this photo

Dublin Castle dates from early Anglo-Norman times, and a guided tour provides a sweeping history of Dublin from its origins through the present day.

To photograph the Castle and Dublin’s other architectural gems, use a wide-angle lens.  Watch out for cluttered foregrounds and keep an eye on the lines at the edges of the frame, as it is tricky to avoid distortion when shooting up with a wide lens.  Here I also used a polarizing filter to add contrast to a rather bleak scene.  Buy this photo

The chapel within Dublin Castle offers many photographic possibilities.  Seek out the details in a place like this.  Here I’ve captured the beautiful (but, alas, no longer functioning) pipe organ.  I brought out the shadow detail and increased the vibrance during post-processing.  Buy this photo

It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that Ireland’s biggest attraction is the Guinness Storehouse.  While it’s easy to dismiss sites like this one–essentially a theme park dedicated to a beer brand–that would be a mistake.  The self-guided tour is fascinating for its historical, cultural, and architectural facets, and the view from the top-floor Gravity Bar (with an included pint of Guinness) is the best in Dublin.

The Guinness Storehouse was converted into a museum and tourist attraction, but happily they have retained much of the old brewing machinery, which makes a great photographic subject.  I used a touch of flash here to saturate the colors.  Buy this photo

My wife Mary pulls a perfect pint of Guinness.  It’s more fun to include traveling companions when they’re doing something locally inspired and interesting.  I used natural light with a fast portrait lens and relatively high ISO setting.  The cluttered background isn’t as distracting as it could be, because it documents the bustle of the place.  Buy this photo

Parting shot on our last night in Dublin.  Another trad music session.  This one (which also incorporates a self-portrait) was shot at the Cobblestone Pub.  It was an informal sit-in session, so I had the chance to chat with and really get to know several of the musicians before shooting their portraits.  Buy this photo

Have you visited Dublin?  What do you consider essential activities–and photographic subjects–in this city?  Please share your comments here.

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

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 the 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.

Revisiting Your Old Friends [Encore Publication]: Take a fresh look at your older images with new postprocessing

In today’s digital photography world, images are made as much in post-processing as they are in the camera.  We only get one chance at creating the image in the camera: the choices we make to compose the image, focus, expose, and fire the shutter at just the right moment are behind us the instant the shutter is released.  But the choices we make after the fact, using image processing software such as Adobe Lightroom, can be revisited as many times as we wish.  Because Lightroom is a non-destructive editor, meaning it keeps the original image file intact and just records the editing choices we make in its catalog, we can return to the image again and again, making slightly or entirely different choices.

When I return from a trip, I try to select the best raw image files and apply some post-processing within a few days.  That’s so I don’t agonize endlessly about creative choices, which would severely increase the turnaround time for sharing the images with the world.  But increasingly I find it is a good practice to return with a fresh eye to images I made some time ago, applying some different post-processing choices to render the image differently.

There are three scenarios under which I often revisit my older images:

      • The images are very old and were shot using film in the pre-digitial era.  In this scenario, scan the transparency (slide), negative, or print and then apply post-processing to the digital scan.

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Here’s the original scan of a 35mm color slide (transparency) shot during a 1991 trek in Nepal’s Anapurna region.  The image is grainy and the background behind the girls’ heads is distracting.  I decided to clean it up a bit using Lightroom.

NepalWith just a few minutes of tweaking using Lightroom, I was able to crop the image for more dramatic impact, render a true black background, reduce the grainy noise in the shadow areas, and enhance the saturation of the colors.  Buy this photo

    • The images were shot digitally but were made before I started routinely using image-processing software such as Lightroom.  In these cases, I like to apply post-processing to see what artistic options I may have missed in the earlier digital years.

This old Scandinavian stave church was shot as a color image in 2005.  It is so high-contrast that it appears nearly monochromatic on the display screen.  It’s a striking image, but looking at it today I wondered how much more effective it would be as a true black-and-white photo, so I decided to revisit the image using Lightroom.

Here’s the same digital image file, but converted to black-and-white using Lightroom’s color channel processing module.  I boosted the contrast even further and then adjusted each color’s saturation in the black-and-white mix to achieve the exquisite texture of the snow on the ancient building’s roof.  Buy this photo

  • The images are more recent, but I want to make some new creative choices.  Here the idea is to render the image in a different way to achieve a different end result.  For example, an image I initially processed in color may turn out to make a lovely black-and-white photo.  Or perhaps I crop a crowd scene to emphasize just one or a few of the people within it.  The choices are nearly limitless.

Reviewing my favorite images from a recent trip to New Orleans, I saw this shot of a characteristic French Quarter balcony and realized it would be even more powerful if certain colors were more saturated.

A brief session in Lightroom’s Develop module was all it took to boost the saturation of the blue and red channels and to adjust the shadow and black point tonalities.  The resulting image more closely reproduces the emotional experience I recall when viewing this scene live.  Buy this photo

Take a look at some of your older images.  Which ones would you like to revisit and give a fresh new look?  Do you regularly return to work on your library of existing images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about post-processing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Post-Processing.

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/.

 

Panama’s “First Cry of Independence” Celebrations [Encore Publication]: 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.

Cool, Calm, and Composed [Encore Publication]: All the technology in the world can’t replace your vision when composing images

Photographic composition is the process of determining which elements to include in the image and how to combine them in an artistically pleasing way.

What makes a great photograph?  You’ll hear many different answers to this question from different people, but to me a great photograph needs to integrate at least three of these four elements: compelling subject, beautiful light, flawless technical execution, and thoughtful composition.  Assuming we can find a great subject and either find or manufacture lovely lighting, the technology in modern cameras can assist us in certain technical matters such as exposure and focus.  But even the best of today’s AI technology can’t replace the artist’s vision when it comes to photographic composition.  For more of my musings on the application of AI to photography, see yesterday’s post: Post on AI and Photography.

Today’s post presents a quick primer on some of the guidelines that can help us compose our images.  But keep in mind that there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to composition.  The photographer must choose which “rules” to use when composing, and when to break some rules.

      • Rule of Thirds: One of the first compositional tools most beginning photographers learn is the so-called Rule of Thirds, which states that strong composition is achieved by placing key elements along the imaginary lines that divide the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally; better yet, try to place the most important parts of the subject at the intersection of a pair of these lines.  This portrait I made of two sisters in Arusha, Tanzania, places each sister’s dominant eye at an intersection point of two of the imaginary dividing lines.

Tanzania Buy this photo

          • Leading Lines: Another tool to aid in composing strong images is using the natural lines in the image to draw the viewer’s eye into the frame.  This landscape made while hiking part of the Sheep’s Head Way in southwestern Ireland incorporates the leading lines of the ancient stone wall, the rainbow, and the coastline to draw the eye down to the sea, over the rainbow, and across the coast.

 Buy this photo

          • Framing Elements: Using natural frames within the image to set off the main subject can be a useful technique.  Look for doors and windows in a population center, or for natural arches, trees, and other landforms in a natural setting.  This night landscape made in Yosemite National Park frames the Milky Way within a ring of trees and granite walls.

 Buy this photo

          • Point-of-View: Think about how the different elements in the image will appear in the perspective of your location.  I could have shot this portrait of a man with his duck at a street fair in San Francisco straight on with them both looking into the lens.  Instead, I chose a viewpoint that was very close to the duck’s head, shooting up from its perspective and relegating the human to the background and edge of the frame, nearly out of focus.  This changes the nature of the portrait to a more humorous and offbeat tone, which matched the occasion of the How Weird Street Faire.

USA Buy this photo

          • Background: Always be at least as aware of your background as your foreground subject matter.  Careful choice of background to support your image’s overall theme is one of the surest ways to elevate your image.  In many cases it is desirable to have a clean, uncluttered background, but for this image of the San Francisco Pride Parade, I wanted the background to support the theme of solidarity and strength in numbers.  While the main subject in the front is the only element in crisp focus, the layers of marchers with flags behind him supports the concept he is not alone.

 Buy this photo

        • Patterns: Composing an image around a recurring pattern can add considerable dramatic impact.  I framed this image of miners’ cottages in Svalbard, Norway by isolating the repeating pattern of houses, each in a different vivid color, against the stark white of the snow and bleak sky.

 Buy this photo

  • Symmetry: Images with symmetry along one or more dimensions are often striking and artistically pleasing.  The subject can have natural symmetry, such as in a face, or can be framed with its reflection to create symmetry.  I framed this image of a resting alligator with its reflection in the Louisiana bayou waters to create a dramatic symmetry.

 Buy this photo

Keep these guidelines in mind as you choose how to compose your images, but remember that which one(s) you apply will depend on the image, that its okay to break the rules, and that ultimately you are the artist and what you envision, not what the rules state, is correct for you.

What guidelines help you compose your best images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Black-and-White to the Rescue [Encore Publication]: Converting a noisy or strangely colored image to monochrome can save the day

In a recent post (Post on Circus Automatic), I shared several practical tips for shooting fast-moving indoor performances, using a circus performance as an example.  While I was happy with many of my images from that evening’s shoot, I discussed how the single-colored LED lights now used at many indoor performances can impart an unnatural color cast to photos that can be hard to correct in post-processing.  In today’s post, I show how converting these images to black-and-white can overcome some of the limitations of shooting under these adverse lighting conditions, with the added bonus that the noise imparted to the images (from having to shoot at a very high ISO setting) can also be less noticeable in black-and-white conversions.

First, a little background explanation on why these LED lights are so troublesome for the photographer to work with.  When we refer to the resolution, or number of pixels, in our camera’s sensor, that number is actually the total count of three different kinds of pixels, each kind sensitive to only one of the three primary colors (red, blue, and green).  Without going into the nitty-gritty technical details, suffice it to say that in most camera sensors, about 50% of the pixels record only green data, about 25% only red data, and about 25% only blue data.  My camera (the Nikon D810) is said to have a resolution of 36.3 megapixels (MP), but if my subject is lit by a single-colored red LED, in reality only about 9 MP of resolution is recorded.  The other two color channels will essentially contain no data.  This is bad for several reasons, most notably because the image will be cast unnaturally toward the red color channel and because its effective resolution will be low.

There’s very little we can do in post-processing to recover from the loss of resolution during capture, but we can adjust the color temperature to try to correct a little bit of the strange color cast.  Converting the image to black-and-white, though, can restore the image to a more natural appearance by masking the color cast.  This can be aided by using Lightroom’s contrast and color control sliders to adjust the balance of the black-and-white version until it appears closest to a normal tone.

Consider the following two versions of the same shot.  The first version is in color, and even after adjusting the color temperature and contrast, there is still a distracting red color cast.  There is also some noise apparent in the image as a result of the high ISO setting required to freeze the acrobats’ motion.

The color version of this image appears unnatural even after adjusting color temperature, due to the lighting which consisted of a red-colored LED array.

Now, take a look at the black-and-white version of the same image.  Creating this version required careful attention to the balance of each color and contrast setting to make the final image.  The good news: the monochrome image appears much more natural to the eye than does the color version.  The skin tones seem less artificial, and the curtain in the background does not distract as much.  Furthermore, there is less noise apparent in the black-and-white version.
The same shot appears more natural and less noisy when converted to a black-and-white photo.  Buy this photo

This next shot appears much more acceptable in its color version.  During a live performance, the lighting often changes drastically from one moment to the next, and in this image the LED lights didn’t impart as harsh a red cast as in the previous image.  Furthermore, the aerialist was dressed entirely in red and was working with red ropes, so what red color cast was present does not appear as unnatural.

This image is highly effective when presented in full color.  Buy this photo

While I like this image for its dramatic power and strikingly vibrant red colors, let’s take a look at a black-and-white conversion for comparison.  The monochrome version lacks the visceral impact of the strident red color, but it benefits from a more natural tone, a quasi-documentary look and feel, and a nice clean black background.  In this case, the black-and-white conversion doesn’t so much rescue the image as change the kind of feeling it elicits.  I like both versions.
The black-and-white version is cleaner and evokes a very different set of emotions than does the color version.  Buy this photo

When you are forced to shoot under very difficult lighting conditions, try converting to black-and-white during post-processing.  It just might rescue some of your images and can evoke a very different feel in other images.

For a refresher on the black-and-white conversion process and when you may want to use it, read this post: Post on B&W Conversion.

During post-processing, have you been able to rescue or improve images shot under challenging lighting conditions?  Did you convert to black-and-white, or use different techniques?  Please share your experiences here.

Focus on Carnival in Madeira [Encore Publication]: This tiny Portuguese island group celebrates a vibrant and unique Mardi Gras

When we think about Mardi Gras carnivals, most often the first locations that come to mind are Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and perhaps Trinidad.  But the start of the Lenten season is celebrated in many parts of the world with the outpouring of dance, music, color, and joy known as Carnival.  While each region’s celebrations have a few elements in common–typically the all include grand parades with samba dancers and floats, all decorated in lavish costumes–there are many notable regional differences.  For example, in my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Carnaval SF is unique for its array of “comparsas” (samba school contingents) representing the cultural traditions of all of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as parts of Asia.

This year I had the great pleasure of capturing Mardi Gras Carnival images on assignment in Funchal, capital of the tiny island group of Madeira.  While politically a part of Portugal, Madeira is located off the coast of Morocco in North Africa and has a decidedly different cultural flair than what is found in mainland Portugal.  Samba and Carnival were essentially invented by African slaves in Brazil while it was a Portuguese colony, and the samba parade traditions have migrated back to Portugal where celebrations are held throughout the country.  Given its location between Africa and Europe, Madeira combines distinct cultural traditions from both regions and offers a special flavor of Carnival that I found exhilarating.  And best of all, the celebrations roll on over a whole week with numerous events, retaining a true local flavor with few tourists.

Today’s post features some of my favorite images from this year’s Carnival events on Madeira.  If you’d like to see more photos, or to purchase a few, please visit https://www.kadlerphotography.com/Travel-Photography/Madeira-Carnival/.  I am grateful to the Madeira Promotion Bureau for their assistance providing access to the Carnival events.  Enjoy!

I hope you enjoyed these images from this year’s Carnival events on Madeira.  Visit https://www.kadlerphotography.com/Travel-Photography/Madeira-Carnival/ to see more photos.  Again, a big thank-you to the Madeira Promotion Bureau for their assistance providing access to the Carnival events.
Have you discovered any less known locations for Carnival celebrations?  Please share your experiences and your photos here!

Focus on Total Solar Eclipse in Chile: A photo essay of images from Chile and Easter Island

Having just returned from leading a 2.5-week photography tour through Chile and Easter Island and including the July 2 total solar eclipse, I’d like to share a few favorite images. You can find the full photo gallery here: https://www.kadlerphotography.com/Travel-Photography/Chile-Eclipse.

Santiago Cathedral’s tower reflected in the windows of a modern glass office building.
Glorious cityscape of Valparaiso.
We were fortunate to visit Valparaiso on the day of the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul.
We were fortunate to visit Valparaiso on the day of the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul.
We were fortunate to visit Valparaiso on the day of the Festival of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Sea lion sibling rivalry.
The diamond ring effect signals the start of the 2.5-minute period of totality.
A timelapse montage showing the path of the sun across the sky during the entire solar eclipse and through to sunset.
What we do on photography tours.
Glorious landscape around the Miscanti Lagoon.
Three species of native pink flamingo live in the Atacama Salt Flat.
Pattern and texture on the Atacama Salt Flat.
Three species of native pink flamingo live in the Atacama Salt Flat.
We were so fortunate to travel during a new moon in winter to the Atacama Desert. There’s no better combination of time and place for viewing (and photographing) the Milky Way.
Tatio Geyser Field.
Old church in the village of Machuca.
Valley of the Moon.
We enjoyed a breathtaking sunset at Kari Viewpoint in the Atacama Desert.
Group portrait of the entire Photography Tour team in front of the seven Mo’ai of Ahu Akivi on Easter Island.
Orongo Crater.
Gorgeous sunset over the ocean behind mo’ai.
Ahu Tongariki is the largest ceremonial platform on Easter Island, once holding 16 mo’ai. After the mo’ai were toppled during a period of civil unrest and then, more recently, devastated by a tsunami, 15 of them were reconstructed with help from Japan.
Traditional Rapa Nui face painting on Anakena Beach.
Vai Te Mihi performed a show of traditional Rapa Nui dance and music.
Vai Te Mihi performed a show of traditional Rapa Nui dance and music.
Vai Te Mihi performed a show of traditional Rapa Nui dance and music.
Worth the 3 AM wakeup call! A once in a lifetime opportunity to photograph the Milky Way above mo’ai on Easter Island. We had a bit of cloud cover, but overall I was very pleased with the resulting images.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sampling of images from this amazing adventure. Please check out the full gallery here: https://www.kadlerphotography.com/Travel-Photography/Chile-Eclipse. And please join me for upcoming photography tours and workshops around the world: https://www.meetup.com/TravelPhotographyWorkshops/.

Revealing Portraits [Encore Publication]: Inspirational women of India are struggling to empower themselves and others

Travel photography is about more than simply recording what we see and do during our trips.  It is more important even than creating art from our experiences while traveling.  I believe travel photography also has an important role to play in documenting and communicating to broad audiences the present situation facing underrepresented, repressed, and abused communities, and advocating for change to improve on the present situation.

Today’s post illustrates this point.  In a series of four portraits made during my recent travels in the north of India, I document several of the serious struggles faced by the girls and women of India–abuse of street children, poverty and lack of education, forced early marriage, and acid attacks–and show how these brave young women are working to empower themselves and others like them to end these abuses.

First, we meet a 17-year-old girl from the slums of New Delhi.  Let’s call her Sheela (the NGO supporting her work has requested that I not use her real time in order to protect her identity).  Sheela is the principal organizer of 10,000 street kids from similar slums across the sprawling city.  She helped start a newspaper, called Balaknama, to give a voice to the street kids and expose their stories of child labor exploitation, police harassment, and physical abuse.  Through her efforts and those of other kids from the streets, the editors who advise them, and the NGO that funds them, Balaknama has helped improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable residents of Delhi.  My portrait of Sheela is set in Balaknama’s offices and shows her calm and inspiring strength.  Lit by available light only, this image was made with a fast prime portrait lens, shot from a low angle so as not to condescend to the subject, and using a wide aperture to soften the background.  The feeling this image evokes is one of quiet power and a strong drive to expose and right the wrongs of her society.

Sheela, a 17-year-old resident of Delhi’s slums, organizes 10,000 street kids and reports for a newspaper run by and for the street children of the city.  Buy this photo

Next, we meet a girl who was born into poverty in Delhi and was forced at an early age to beg to earn money for her family.  Let’s call her Anika.  School was not an option for her.  However, Anika found a way to earn more and to avoid begging by selling bead necklaces on the streets of the city.  The portrait shows the contrast of her daily life: hopeful yet exhausted, bright yet uneducated, strong yet vulnerable.  This portrait was made using natural light with just a touch of fill flash to accentuate the saturated colors of her outfit and her wares.  The emphasis was placed on Anika by use of the fill flash, by exposing for her face, and by blowing out the overexposed background.

Anika is one of Delhi’s poorer residents.  Unable to attend school, she sells beaded jewelry to make a few rupees for her family.  Buy this photo

In a small village in rural Rajasthan, we met Parma at her modest house.  Forced to marry at the age of 11, Parma had four daughters at an early age.  She is fiercely committed to ensuring her daughters receive a good education so that they will have more options than she had.  Parma made the brave decision to become one of the first women to join a cooperative formed to allow women of the village to learn to make handicrafts in order to earn money for their families.  She and her husband faced considerable scorn from neighbors and relatives over her decision to earn her own income, but now many other village women have seen the success of this program and have also joined.  Parma is proud to have learned to sign her name and read a few words, thanks to her older daughters’ having taught her.  My portrait shows Parma in her kitchen with her third daughter preparing tea in the background and a neighbor child just in front of her.  The image radiates beauty, dignity, strength, and resolve.  In this environmental portrait, I wanted to portray Parma in relation to her home, her family, and her community, so I placed her in the center, exposing and focusing on her face, and allowing her daughter to be clearly identifiable yet slightly out of focus.

Parma, a child bride, vowed to educate her four daughters and works in a women’s cooperative to earn extra money to fulfill her promise.  Buy this photo

Finally, we meet Rupa at Sheroe’s Cafe in Agra.  Sheroes’ 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, seek legal justice against her attacker, and access the surgical care required to reconstruct her face. The courage and resilience shown by Rupa and the other 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.  My portrait of Rupa is powerful because it doesn’t shy away from her scars but allows her courage, resilience, and beauty to shine through.  I got in close to Rupa using an 85-mm prime portrait lens and composed a head-and-shoulders image from eye level.  I exposed for her face and blouse, which she designed herself, bringing out the vibrant saturated colors.  A shallow depth-of-field ensured that Rupa’s face would be emphasized while the background would be soft.

Rupa was brutally attacked with acid by a relative when she was just 15 years old.  Rather than hide at home her whole life, she was empowered by the Stop Acid Attacks organization to live independently, fight for justice, and advocate to end acid attacks across India and Southeast Asia.  Buy this photo

I hope this series of portraits of four brave young women in India will inspire you, as their subjects inspired me, to advocate for improving women’s rights in this part of the world.  And more broadly, I hope you’ll recognize the power that travel photography has to give voice to the unheard and to fight for social change in the places where we travel.

Have you made the opportunity to advocate for change through your images?  Please share your story here!

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

 

Focus on How Weird Street Faire [Encore Publication]: A case study on simple techniques to capture winning images of festivals

As a professional travel photographer, I shoot regularly in nearly all genres of photography.  A typical day on the road might include shooting landscapes, wildlife, cityscapes, portraits, action (sports, dance, performance), and nighttime photography.  While I enjoy all types of shooting, my great joy as a photographer is capturing portraits of the people I meet.  Whether close to home or halfway around the world, getting to know the people and learning about their culture through making portraits of them is a wonderful experience.  And there’s no better way to capture images of many amazing people in a short time than by attending local festivals.  People tend to be their best selves at special celebrations like festivals and street fairs.  They dress exuberantly, dance with abandon, make new friends quickly, and (nearly always) are overjoyed to pose for photos.

I shoot about a hundred festivals and other special events every year, so I’ve learned a few tips about how to make the best images during these occasions.  In today’s post I share some simple but effective techniques for capturing great portraits at festivals and other gatherings, using San Francisco’s recent How Weird Street Faire as a case study.  How Weird is a vibrant and colorful, only-in-SF, annual celebration of individuality, tolerance, music, art, and hula hoops.  Read on to see some of my favorite images from this year’s festival, presented along with some discussion of how they were made.  To view more of my images, or to buy some, check out this gallery: How Weird photo gallery.

I see a lot of fellow photographers at events like How Weird shooting with huge telephotos and even tripods, like they’re after images of wildlife on a Kenyan safari.  In my opinion, they are missing the point.  We’re making portraits of people here, so use a normal or moderate telephoto portrait lens, preferably a fast prime lens, ditch the tripod and monopod at home, and get in close to chat with and get to know the people you’re photographing.  When you interact with people, you get a sense of what makes them special, allowing both you and them to capture that special trait in your photos.  Random sniping from far away with a long telephoto will yield far more bland and generic photos.  All of my images at How Weird Street Faire were made with a single camera body and one lens, my trusty 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.  Sometimes simple is better, especially when it comes to capturing people at fast-moving events.

Larger groups can be challenging to capture in portraits, particularly in bustling spaces like those of a festival.  When they couple I was chatting with suddenly ran into a friend and they had a group hug, I quickly stepped back a few paces and made this expressive and engaging portrait.  It’s okay to break the rules sometimes–here, one of the subject’s faces is completely obscured and another’s is partially obscured, yet the portrait works because it captures the energy and affection of the moment.

When photographers argue that the “street photography” approach (candidly sneaking images of people who aren’t aware they’re present) is the best for capturing people’s true essence, I show them images like this one.  This wholly genuine and unguarded moment of the girl dancing was made with her full knowledge and permission.  The trick is to chat with the subject and get their permission for photography first, then to lay back for a while and let them go back to what they were doing.  After a few minutes, they’ll nearly forget you’re there and they will reveal their true selves.  But unlike shots you sneak without permission, now you have a subject happy to have you photographing them, and you can take your time and not have to rush your work in order to hide your shooting from them.

Often we see only the most obvious subjects at crowded, chaotic events like festivals.  It’s easy to spend all our time shooting people dancing, partying, and displaying their costumes, but I try always to look for the more hidden people and infrastructure that support the event.  This DJ was partially hidden atop the big dance stage and behind the banks of speakers, but she made a fun subject for this portrait.

Don’t be afraid to get in close.  This portrait really pops because the tight composition allows us to focus our attention on the symmetry and color of the subject’s hair and costume.  

The interactions between people are at least as much fun to observe and capture as the individuals themselves.  I had chatted with and photographed a group of people for a few minutes when I observed this fun interaction, so I stepped back and framed some shots of the two young people together.

While post-processing my images after the shoot, I decided to render this one in monochrome to achieve a gritty urban street scene sort of feel.  Often color can distract from the power of an image, so always consider which of your images could benefit from conversion to black-and-white.

In ordinary daily life, I find that perhaps two-thirds of people are willing to have their portrait made if the photographer spends some time getting to know them first and then asks politely.  But at a festival, nearly everyone is excited about posing for portraits.  The trick is to capture scenes where they show you their underlying personalities a bit, rather than just striking a cliched pose for the camera.  To achieve that here, I spent a few minutes shooting, asking the couple to pose in different styles and have fun with it.

Putting it all together.  Here’s a summary of the basic techniques I use when shooting portraits at festivals:  1) Use a fast prime normal or portrait lens.  2) Set your camera for a fast shutter speed (1/500 second or faster is good for dancing and other fast action), wide aperture (f/2.5 or wider is ideal except for large groups) to isolate the subject, and an ISO appropriate to the lighting of the scene (I used ISO 100 the whole day due to the bright outdoor light).  3) Get to know your subject before shooting, let them relax, and capture them during an authentic moment.  4) Try to compose the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible; of course, this is often difficult at crowded festivals.  5) During post-processing, crop to clean up the scene and then vignette just a touch to further clean up busy backgrounds.

I hope this discussion of techniques to capture portraits during festivals has been helpful.  The best way to learn these techniques and to find your own style is to shoot and shoot some more!

Please leave a comment with your own thoughts and tips about how to make great images of people at celebrations.

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

Focus on Svalbard [Encore Publication]: Breathtaking beauty at the top of the world

My wife and I area avid eclipse chasers.  One of the joys of seeking out total solar eclipses is their geographic dispersion: each total eclipse can be viewed only from a narrow band of land or sea whose swatch could cut across any corner of the globe.  This means the dedicated eclipse junkie could, and eventually will, end up traveling to nearly any given remote spot on the planet.  In March, 2015, we had the opportunity to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse in Longyearbyen, the only population center in Svalbard, the vast island in the Norwegian Arctic.  This wonderful trip was conducted by A Classic Tour Collection (http://aclassictour.com/travel-company/), specialists in eclipse tours. Home to more polar bears than humans, Svalbard is a place of remarkable pristine beauty located closer to the North Pole than it is to mainland Norway.

In a previous post I provided a primer on eclipse photography.  You can review that post here: Post on Eclipse Photography.  And don’t forget to book your travel for the upcoming Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.

Today’s post focuses on Svalbard’s photographic treasures.  The village of Longyearbyen itself is very distinctive.  The world’s northernmost permanent settlement, it was built to enable the mining industry in the region.  The landscape and architecture are very unusual and starkly beautiful.

This row of miner’s cottages, each painted a vibrant color, makes a nice subject.  I overexposed the foreground and background snow to emphasize the richly saturated colors of the houses.  Buy this photo

Any Arctic location affords the possibility of seeing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).  The conditions must align properly: dark sky, clear weather, and it helps to be near a peak in the solar cycle.  While I’ve seen more impressive displays in the past, the aurora we observed in Svalbard was still impressive.

To capture the Northern Lights, use a fast wide-angle lens and a sturdy tripod.  As a starting point for exposure, try an ISO setting of about 800 and shutter speeds from about 4-15 seconds.  Experiment to see what works best.  Buy this photo

The stark icy landscapes surrounding Longyearbyen are otherworldly.  I photographed this glacier-covered mountain near sunset, and we enjoyed the excitement of climbing it the next day.

To make this image of an icy butte on the outskirts of the village, I used a tripod and exposed using spot metering for the rocky parts of the mountain.  Buy this photo

When shooting in very cold climates like Svalbard in March, it’s important to keep both your gear and yourself safe and functional.  Check out this post on shooting in extreme conditions: Post on Extreme Conditions.

One of the trip highlights was a polar bear safari by snowmobile.  Zipping along pristine ice fields at speeds up to 75 km/hour while the Arctic sun slowly set was thrilling.  Our turnaround point was an old campsite on the shore of the Barents Sea.  It truly felt like the edge of the world.  Due to an incident earlier in the day, in which a group of campers was attacked by a polar bear and forced to shoot it, we did not encounter any of the skittish bears that night.  We did, however, see the doomed animal’s footprints in the fresh snow.

My wife hikes alongside the tracks of a polar bear shot to death earlier the same day.  This dramatic image was made in near total darkness, so I was forced to use flash as the main lighting source.  In these situations, I dial down the power of the flash by at least one stop and try to position it for maximum dramatic impact.  Buy this photo

One of my favorite images from the trip, this was made on the shore of the Barents Sea at sunset.  Landscapes like this one need to be composed especially carefully to best showcase elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background.  I chose a vantage point low to the ground to emphasize the ice floes.  While I also experimented with using a bit of fill flash, I preferred this image with natural light only.  Buy this photo

On eclipse day, there is a palpable air of excitement.  Here is a shot of astronomer and leading eclipse expert Jay Pasachoff preparing for the eclipse along with one of his students.

Even during an exciting event like a total solar eclipse, it’s important to remember to document the people and activities in your group.  Buy this photo

The diamond ring effect signals the start of the period of totality.  Buy this photo

After the eclipse viewing, we enjoyed a dogsled ride back to Longyearbyen village.  I wanted to capture the feeling of exhilaration as the dogs pulled us rapidly along the snow fields into a wide-open horizon.  To capture that emotion, I shot from the perspective of the rider, handheld, using a fast shutter speed and a fairly wide focal length.  Buy this photo

Wildlife is a favorite genre of photography in nearly any region.  During our ascent of a glacier-covered mountain, we were fortunate to observe several Svalbard reindeer, the world’s smallest subspecies.  I used a telephoto lens and exposed for the animal’s fur, as using an auto mode would have underexposed the main subject due to the bright snowy background.  Buy this photo

Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost settlement, so it stands to reason it would contain the world’s northernmost church.  Care must be taken when photographing architecture using a wide-angle lens not to distort the perspective.  Buy this photo

Your intrepid author photographing the total solar eclipse.  Buy this photo

Parting shot: After returning from Svalbard, I created this montage of several images each depicting a different phase of the eclipse.  Buy this photo

I hope this article inspires you to want to visit Svalbard.  While extra effort is required to visit the world’s most remote and extreme destinations, the returns are enormous in terms of the beauty and unique photographic experiences.

Have you visited Svalbard or other Arctic destinations?  What was most memorable?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Focus on Tourettes without Regrets [Encore Publication]: Adventures shooting a long-running underground performance event in Oakland

When I’m not traveling, I am fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there is never any shortage of amazing photographic subjects.  In a typical week I conduct about 3-4 shoots and I’m always on the lookout for new experiences that will enhance the diversity of my portfolio.  Recently I was invited to shoot the latest monthly show of Tourettes without Regrets, a long-running underground performance held in Oakland, California.  Attracting an extremely diverse and hip young audience, Tourettes presents a completely different variety show each month that can be described as equal parts comedy, poetry slam, circus, battle rap, and burlesque.  While the show is remarkably edgy and raucous (this is a PG-13 rated blog, so you’ll have to visit my main portfolio website to see many of the edgier images), in true Bay Area style it never puts anyone down and instead celebrates all of our differences.  A hot, smoke-filled, jam-packed warehouse, entirely dark save for a few bizarrely colored LED spotlights, is not an environment that is particularly photography-friendly, but I was able to make some nice images through perseverance and creative post-processing.  In this post, I share some of my favorite images along with a bit of discussion about how they were made.

Emcee and Tourettes without Regrets curator, Jamie, introduces the show.  The warehouse was so packed with young spectators that I had to shoot around them with a moderate, fast telephoto lens.  In post-processing, I cropped the image to remove unwanted elements and adjusted the shadow tones to darken the background.  Buy this photo

This month, the show’s theme was “F*** Valentine’s Day”, so each act consisted of a pair of performers.  These two ladies presented an aerial act that was mesmerizing but challenging to shoot due to the long distance to the subject, low light conditions, and strangely colored LED spotlights.  I cropped the image in post-processing and converted it to black-and-white to avoid the strange color cast.  Buy this photo

This skit depicts a woman breaking up with her boyfriend, who then tries to win her back with tears, money, and even a marriage proposal.  Nothing works, until he begins to treat her poorly, at which point she decides she wants him, after all.  The image captures an apt moment in the drama.  Buy this photo

A Crocodile Dundee-style knife thrower and his lovely assistant prepare to terrify a volunteer from the audience.  To capture this act I had to use a high ISO setting and fast lens due to the low lighting and the requirement for a fast shutter speed.  During post-processing, I converted to black-and-white, increased the contrast and adjusted the color channels to enhance the dramatic feel, applied noise reduction to reduce problems associated with the high ISO setting, and cropped to remove extraneous elements.  Buy this photo

A hip hop dancer amazes the crowd.  A fast shutter speed was essential to freeze the motion.  Obviously, to achieve a fast shutter speed, I needed to use a fast lens and high ISO setting.  Shoot lots of frames in situations like this one, because you can never be sure when the best exact instant will present itself.  Buy this photo

This scene from a battle rap, where two freestyle rappers trade insults, captures the essence of their interaction.  Note the shallow depth-of-field places the emphasis on the performer not rapping at the time, with only the outstretched left arm of the other rapper in focus.  I then converted to black-and-white to remove the color cast and cropped tightly using a square aspect ration to achieve an edgy Instagram-style image.  Buy this photo

What are some of your favorite subjects to shoot in your neck of the woods?  What events epitomize for you the area in which you live?  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 Cultural Arts Tour of Myanmar: Capture unique images of an endangered traditional performing arts culture

Dear Readers,

From January 3-11, I plan to join a special tour of Myanmar as the photographer for a not-for-profit organization working to preserve Burmese traditional performing arts that are rapidly vanishing. This tour includes unique experiences of meeting the master artists and their students behind-the-scenes. Having last traveled and photographed in Myanmar a few months ago, I share Arts Mandalay Foundation’s urgent mission to preserve these ancient cultural traditions. I’m expecting that my images, which I am shooting pro-bono, will help the NGO in their mission to train the next generation of performers and save these cultural treasures from extinction.

There are still spaces available on the tour. While I’m not officially running this as a photography tour (and will not profit directly from it), enthusiasts who join the trip will be shooting alongside me and I will be offering some informal photography instruction in the field. I’m also working with the director to set up some extra photo shoots for me with the traditional artists, and some of these shoots may be opened up to other photographers joining this tour.

Please join us! Whether you’re a photography enthusiast or not, this tour will be very special. More info here: Backstage Myanmar Cultural Tour.  Let me know if you have questions or are interested in booking.

Kyle

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.

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part II [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Our itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.

Yesterday’s and today’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.  Yesterday’s post featured Part I, and today’s post comprises Part II.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  Kids are great fun to photograph.  The key to making authentic portraits of kids, as of adults, is to make a personal connection before starting to shoot.  Get to know your subjects first, be playful and interactive, and only then take out your gear.

School was not in session due to parent conferences when we visited the mountain village of Buon Chuoi, so many of the schoolkids were playing in the courtyard.  I captured this portrait of a girl with her little brother during a game of marbles.

Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe.  This is one of my favorite portraits from the whole trip, because it truly captures the spirit of the subject, offers a rare view into rural Vietnamese village life, is illuminated by lovely natural light, and represents a memorable and striking image.

Kho Chil boys run after our tractor as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village.  Not all portraits need to capture a stock-still subject.  This portrait gains its vitality through the boys’ motion, and its jaunty, slightly off-kilter composition adds to the sense of kinetic energy.

Dalat is much cooler than the rest of Vietnam. This mom and her daughter are dressed appropriately for the higher elevations.  Busy backgrounds can distract from a good portrait, but here I mitigated some of the distraction by using a shallow depth-of-field and by applying a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages.  Good street photography is characterized by capturing just the right viewpoint, framing, and moment (what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment”) when the people and the space come together, and I believe I caught that conjunction nicely here.

A young Buddhist monk-in-training.  Often, the person appearing in a portrait is more colorful than the background elements, but here the opposite is the case.

At Saigon’s Post Office, I asked this lovely young woman to model the traditional Vietnamese costume, the ao dai.  I made no attempt through depth-of-field, supplemental lighting, or vignetting, to set off the model from the cluttered background.  That’s because I wanted to feature the glorious French colonial architecture of the post office as much as the model posing before it.

Preparing to board our sampan on the Mekong Delta.  The weather was overcast and rainy, so I used a slower shutter speed (1/50 second) and fairly wide aperture (f/4) to saturate the colors.

Ben Tre Village is famous for its coconut plantations.  We enjoyed coconut meat, coconut milk, coconut whiskey, and of course coconut candy.  I used a small amount of fill flash to fill in the shadows on the subject’s face and to help set her off from the background.

A stall-keeper at Saigon’s bustling central market.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture along with a high ISO setting in order to soften the busy background.

Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these former Viet Cong fighters. They lived for years in the Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground.  This portrait is effective because it captures the officer in a candid moment with beautiful available lighting and sets him against a solid colored background.

We visited a farm outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, where women still thresh rice by hand.  The farm family’s six-year-old daughter stopped by to check us out.  

We are welcomed to a small village outside of Siem Reap by this elder.  I made an environmental portrait showing her in the context of her work weaving baskets.  The image works very well because the composition is intimate and engaging, telling the subject’s story in a concise way, and because the simple solid contrasting color of the wall behind her offsets her colorful clothes in a pleasing manner.

Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge Tonle Sap Lake.  I made this image of a local family in their houseboat as we sailed by.  By placing the family in the context of their home and daily activities, the image serves to capture a slice of life rather than to feature any individual member of the household.

A monk pauses to reflect outside the Angkor Wat temple complex.  I spoke with him (using our guide as a translator) to make a personal connection and to obtain his permission to make the portrait.  The contrasting colors and textures of the monk and the temple buildings, as well as the leading lines that guide the viewer’s eye from front to back, make this a memorable portrait.  I made the image using natural light only and incorporated a polarizing filter to deepen the colors and add drama to the sky.

At a home-hosted lunch in rural Kravan Village, I made portraits of the whole family. Here is the oldest daughter, Lia, a flight attendant and gracious hostess.  Classic portrait techniques applied here: make a personal connection first, use a fast prime 85mm lens at a wide aperture, and light the subject with the most beautiful light available in the situation.  

I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances.  During live performances, use of flash is almost always prohibited (and almost always rude), so use a fast prime lens, a high ISO setting, and a steady hand.

We learned about the traditional folding of flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine in Siem Reap.  The young daughter of the flower stall owner folded these flowers herself.  While a bit on the busy side, this portrait succeeds by capturing a riot of colors and an intriguing story.

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Missed Part I of this story in yesterday’s post?  You can read it here: Part I of this story.

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part I [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

My wife and I recently returned from an amazing 3.5-week adventure traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia.  Our itinerary took us from the bustling capital of Hanoi to the glorious mountains jutting skyward from Halong Bay, then to the former imperial capital of Hue and the quaint festival city of Hoi An, on to the mountain retreat of Dalat and to modern Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and finally to the indescribable temple complexes at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  While it was wonderful to view the region’s gorgeous landscapes and fabled monuments, what made this adventure truly unforgettable for us was its many opportunities to interact with Vietnamese and Cambodian people from all walks of life: a Buddhist nun, an older couple whose homes were confiscated by the Communist Party, a former South Vietnamese soldier who survived the re-education camps and rose to become major of his village, eager students at Dalat’s rapidly growing university, former Viet Cong fighters, and ethnic minority hill tribes rarely contacted by outsiders.

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.

Here is Part I, and tomorrow’s post will feature Part II.

Street portrait of a little girl petting a small dog in a Hanoi store.  While still a source a food in Vietnam, dogs are becoming more common as pets in urban areas.  This image was shot from a cyclo-rickshaw, a great way to travel in urban areas of Southeast Asia and an especially good platform for street photography, as this way you travel at eye level of people on the street but will not be noticed as you pass by.

Motor scooters are the major form of transportation in Vietnam’s cities. Whole families of three, four, and even five people commonly share rides.  I’m always looking for striking color palettes, and here I loved the family’s vibrant colored clothing, each person wearing a different colored mask.

Phan Tranh Liem is one of the few remaining practitioners of the 1000-year-old Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry. He makes his own puppets, creates the shows, and performs them with his wife.  I made this environmental portrait of Mr. Phan, surrounded by a few of his puppet creations, in the workshop of his Hanoi home.

At a local market outside of Hanoi. Dog meat is a local delicacy (and quite pricey).

In the village of Tho Ha, 20 miles north of Hanoi, we visited the home of a family who make rice paper, the main occupation in the village. Spring rolls are extremely popular throughout Vietnam, so there is high demand for rice paper.  An environmental portrait is framed to include not only the subject but also enough of the surroundings to give the viewer a sense of the subject’s life.

The head of the household plays a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument.

In the village of Bat Trang outside of Hanoi, we visited the home of Mr. Duc and his wife.  After the war, their homes were seized and they were persecuted as “landlord oppressors” even though they had never exploited others.  They recovered one of their houses decades later.  It can be a challenge to make a candid portrait of a couple.  Here I used a fast normal (50mm) prime lens with a medium aperture so that both wife and husband would be rendered in fairly sharp focus but without requiring a very slow shutter speed or very high ISO setting.

En route to the Hanoi Airport for our flight to Hue, we stopped to say hello to several farmers harvesting rice by hand.  A good portrait doesn’t need to include the face of the subject, nor even the subject’s head at all.  This portrait works because of the strong composition and lovely color palette, and one feels a connection to the subject even without seeing her face.

We had a lovely visit with a Buddhist nun at the Dieu Thanh Pagoda in Hue. It was fascinating to learn about her life in the convent and her decision process to give up worldly life as a young teen.  To make her portrait, preparation was important.  I had my gear all set up while we were having our discussion, so that when we were comfortable together I could simply ask if it was okay to make her portrait and then shoot without interruption.

Aboard a “dragon boat” on Hue’s Perfume River, we attended a private performance of a cultural show featuring traditional Hue song and dance.  A fast prime portrait lens (85mm) allowed me to shoot this musician using available light with a shallow depth-of-field to offset him from the background.

Hoi An is a charming city adorned everywhere with colorful lanterns. This bride and groom were posing for photos, so (with the permission of the couple and their photographer) I jumped in and captured this portrait.

I chatted with these twin three-year-old cuties and their Mom as we browsed in her shop.  With young kids, it’s important they feel at ease before you start shooting, and you should then shoot many frames quickly in order to increase the likelihood of getting one that captures the mood well.

Hoi An’s central marketplace is a wonderful space to capture portraits of the many vendors selling traditional wares.  The natural light was lovely, but required some finesse due to the bright background relative to the dim lighting on the subjects.

At My Son Sanctuary, site of the most significant ruins from the Champa Kingdom, we attended a performance of ancient Cham dance.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture and a high ISO sensitivity setting so that I could capture the dancers using a fast shutter speed.  In addition, I used a touch of off-camera fill-in flash, not as the primary light but to fill in the shadow areas and obtain more color saturation.

Outside our restaurant in Nha Trang, our waitress checks her messages.  I was drawn to this framing because it succinctly captures the modern life of young working urban Vietnamese people.  

Fascinating discussion with Xom Gio Village’s chief, a former South Vietnamese soldier and survivor of the re-education camps who managed to work his way up to a high-level position after the war.  To capture this striking portrait, I used a fast prime lens almost wide-open to cast the background into soft focus, and I waited for dramatic moments during our conversation to shoot.

The wife of Xom Gio Village’s chief.  I used the same technique, described above, as for the portrait of her husband.  This portrait has a lovely color scheme, beautiful framing, and nice bokeh (the soft, out-of-focus parts of the background).

The beautiful city of Dalat, high in the mountains, has been a favorite escape from the tropical heat since French colonial times.  We spent a lovely afternoon with students from Dalat University. I had the opportunity to get to know English teacher Trung and his bright young students Nhi , Diễm, and Giang.  For this portrait, we were joined by my wife and several students she accompanied.  To include yourself in a group portrait, first set up the camera carefully, then either mount it on a tripod and trigger it remotely or ask a trusted person to release the shutter for you.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Look for Part II of this story in tomorrow’s post!

A Good Camera Store is Hard to Find [Encore Publication]: Can anything be done to prevent the extinction of pro camera stores?

Dear Readers:

I’m republishing this post because I recently had an experience that reminded me of what is lost when we have no good local camera stores in our neighborhoods.  Two weeks ago, during a shoot for a local theater company, I found myself unable to remove the remote flash cable from my camera’s hot shoe.  I tried for hours to find a way to get it off, but to no avail.  It seems the locking pin on the flash cord’s hot shoe contact had broken and was stuck in place.  Since our local neighborhood camera store (Keeble & Shuchat; read on to get the full story) had closed, I brought the camera to the next best store in my area.  They had no trained repair technicians, so they had to package up the camera and ship it to Nikon.  Two weeks later, I just received the estimate: $350 to remove the broken accessory from my camera.  And they may not be able to return to me in time for a critical travel shoot I have scheduled in three weeks’ time, for which I will need both of my Nikon D810 bodies.  I’m confident that good ol’ K&S could have done this repair inexpensively and quickly in-house.  There is a great deal that is lost when our specialized and passionate local merchants are forced out of business.  Please read on for more!

Kyle

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A few months ago, the doors closed permanently at one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s few remaining pro camera shops, Keeble & Shuchat of Palo Alto.  After 51 years of providing sales of a tremendous range of fairly priced photographic gear, friendly service, lifesaving repairs, and informative classes, this local institution was forced to shut down.  The story is a familiar one, and extends beyond the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond the photography sector.  Local brick-and-mortar stores nationwide and in all sectors of the retail economy are being forced out of business due to severe price competition with online and big-box retailers and rising commercial real estate prices.  Over the last few years, my neighborhood has lost the last of its independent coffee shops, bookstores, and movie theaters, and it now seems that camera stores oriented toward enthusiast and professional photographers are also going the way of the dodo bird.

I’m sad about the closure of Keeble & Schuchat because there really is no substitute store within an hour’s drive of my house, and because I knew several of the staff there and don’t know what they’ll do next.  But at the same time, I share some of the blame over their closing.  I was a regular in their store, where I browsed their range of new gear and asked all manner of questions of the friendly and helpful staff.  I made it a point to buy a few doodads at K&S, and I attended paid classes there from time to time.  I depended on them for the repair and maintenance of most of my gear.

But whenever it came time to drop some big bucks on a new pro camera or lens, guess what?  I always purchased from a big online retailer like Amazon or B&H.  I’m sure many other serious photographers behave similarly.  It’s hard to justify paying a 10-20% price premium as well as the local 9.25% sales tax in my county when we’re already stretching to afford the gear in the first place.  It’s very tempting to save so much money with just a few clicks in our web browser.  But something significant is lost when we drive away the local experts who sell books, cameras, or cappuccinos in our neighborhoods.  We lose the local merchant’s accumulated knowledge and the passion for the category we love.  For us photographers, that means there soon won’t be many places we can go locally to chat about the merits or drawbacks of some new piece of gear, to repair or maintain our existing gear, or to learn from people who share our passion for image-making.

When my main portrait lens had some dirt stuck between the inner elements that was causing a speck to appear on all my images, and I observed this on the day before a major portrait shoot for two clients, I took the lens to K&S and their tech diagnosed and repaired it while I waited.  He charged me the whopping sum of $10 for his efforts.  Why?  Because he also was a working photographer and he knew the importance of getting this problem solved quickly and without impacting the clients.  We may save a few dollars by buying our gear online, but what is lost by the mass shift from local stores to e-commerce sites?  I’d better be thinking about what I’m going to do the next time I need an urgent repair done, because there is no longer anywhere reliable to go within an hour’s drive of my home.

How about you?  Please share your thoughts on the value or lack thereof of having experienced, passionate tradespeople in our neighborhoods?  Is it worth spending extra cash to ensure we preserve access to these local stores?  Or do you have a different viewpoint?

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I See a Red Door and I Want to Paint It Black [Encore Publication]: When a black-and-white image is better than color, and how to convert to B&W

Back in the day, a photographer had to choose in advance whether to shoot with color film or black-and-white film.  Conversions from color to B&W were cumbersome and expensive, and conversions from B&W to color were essentially impossible.  During the film era, I typically shot exclusively using color transparency film while traveling, and reserved B&W photography for particularly artistic shoots near home.

Thankfully, in today’s digital world, we no longer have to commit ourselves in advance to monochrome vs. color images.  It’s now a simple procedure to convert our color images to B&W during post-processing.  And that’s a great blessing, because there are plenty of times when a black-and-white photo is better than a color photo.

Consider the image of the alligator at the start of this post.  One of my favorite photos, this one works just fine in color, too.  But the real power of the image is revealed in B&W through the striking textures of the alligator’s skin as seen above the water and as reflected off the water’s surface.  The background above the water fades to a deep, nearly true, black, with the background of the water itself rendered slightly less darkly and showing some nice ripples of motion.  Black-and-white photography is especially powerful when there are contrasts of pattern, texture, and background as in this image.  Buy this photo

When else might we want to render an image in B&W?

Portraits made in monochrome have a timeless look that evokes the earlier years of photography, and this rendering can also bring out the true nature of the subject.  There’s a lovely look to the skin tones and hair when displayed in B&W, and there are fewer distracting elements from the color of clothing or background objects.

This portrait takes on a vintage, timeless look when shown in B&W.  Our eye can focus on the model’s face and hair without the distractions of the colors in her sweater or the building.  There’s almost a street photography kind of documentary quality to this image in monochrome that is lost when viewed in color.  Buy this photo

Color can be distracting in an image where we want to emphasize the essence of a person or place.  In this portrait I made recently for a couple who are fellow musicians and friends of mine, we had beautiful “golden hour” light to work with, and the background and clothing worked well in color.  But converted to B&W, this image really places the emphasis on the couple without the distractions of the color cast in the reflections off the eyeglasses or of the mixed lighting in the background.

In this portrait, black-and-white presentation places the viewer’s attention squarely on the the couple and their instruments, without distractions from the multiple colors of the clothing and background components.  (Client photo not available for purchase.)

When you’re shooting under “mixed lighting”, which means there are multiple light sources with different color temperatures (i.e., some light sources are warmer and others are cooler), converting the image to B&W can be a real problem solver.  Consider the image below, made in Bruges at night.  The light from the street lamps was warmer than the light coming from the spotlights on various buildings, and there was also a bright moon that night, so when seen in color the photo would look less appealing due to the contrasting of the color temperatures in the different parts of the image.  But viewed in B&W, it brings out the grandeur of the old buildings and the beauty of the reflections in the waters of the canal, without the distractions of the color casts.

This image of Bruges at night, when processed in B&W, removes the contrasting color temperatures of the multiple different light sources and allows the viewer to enjoy the stately old buildings with consistent tone and texture.  Buy this photo

Now that we’ve covered a few of the many situations in which a black-and-white image is preferable over a color image, let’s look at how to convert from color to B&W.  There are many ways to perform this conversion, but I recommend it be done using the Color Adjustments settings in the Develop module of Adobe Lightroom.  Here’s how:

Click on the “B&W” tab above the individual color channel sliders, and then adjust the mix of how the colors are blended by increasing or decreasing each color’s slider to see how the black-and-white image looks.  I find that I often have to readjust the contrast slider at this point to get the image looking its best in black-and-white.

For more on using Lightroom to post-process your images, check out my previous post: Previous post on using Lightroom to post-process images.

I do not recommend using your camera’s built-in black-and-white mode, as you will then lose the color information in the image file.  I also do not suggest using the settings some cameras have to make a copy of the image in B&W, because in most cases the camera’s built-in software will not do a very good job of rendering the image in monochrome.  For the best results, either use Lightroom or a dedicated black-and-white conversion application such as Silver Efex Pro 2 from Nik Software, which is available as a plug-in for Lightroom or Photoshop.

Want to read other posts about travel photography techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/

What do you love about a black-and-white image?  When do you convert an image to B&W rather than share it in color?  Any tips or tricks for how to make great B&W photos?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box!

 

Focus on New Orleans [Encore Publication]: This iconic US city pulsates with jazz, creole, and historic beauty

Some places are magnets that draw us back again and again.  I’ve made at least a dozen visits to New Orleans and each time, I find something new.  It’s an iconic US city that also defies easy categorization.  Home to unique and cutting-edge forms of music, cuisine, and culture, it is also steeped in a grand historic past that evokes France, Spain, Africa, and the Deep South of the US.  Quite simply, there is no other place like New Orleans, and nowhere else do travel photographers find more charismatic subjects.  Here are a few of my favorite images from a recent visit to NOLA, along with a few words about what they depict and how they were made.

Aside from Paris, I can’t think of any other city that has influenced the cocktail more than New Orleans.  Here I captured my older daughter enjoying a classic NOLA libation during dinner on our first night in the Big Easy.  I used only natural light and selected a large aperture to soften the background.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!  Buy this photo

It’s boozy, vomit-filled, sophomoric, touristy, overpriced, and downright awful, but Bourbon Street is a part of the landscape and is worth a quick walk-by.  At night, its neon assault can almost seem romantic.  This shot was handheld using a high ISO setting and a small aperture for greater depth of field.  Buy this photo

The lovely Spanish colonial architecture of the French Quarter cries out to be photographed.  I made this shot of a wrought iron balcony using a telephoto lens and enhanced the color vibrancy during post-processing.  Buy this photo

It’s the tiny cheap eateries as much as the temples of haute gastronomy that keep New Orleans at the top of the list of cities for dining.  Be sure to grab some po’ boys, beignets, or muffulettas at these humbler places, and bring your camera to catch some of the action.  This image of workers in a po’ boy shop was shot from the hip, street photography style, using a high ISO to allow for a quick shutter speed.  Buy this photo

New Orleans is rightly famous for its jazz, which seems to seep through every crack in the pavement of the city and can be heard in places humble or elevated.  None is better than the iconic Preservation Hall.  As with many performance venues, this hall allows photography without flash, but it is always better to ask permission first and to be discrete during shows.  Use a fast lens and high ISO setting to allow a fast shutter speed.  Buy this photo

A short trip outside of the city quickly reminds you that New Orleans is a part of the American Deep South.  This image was shot from an airboat plying the bayous of Jean Lafitte National Historic Preserve.  I metered the exposure on the lush vegetation lining the waterway so as to avoid overexposure from the bright reflections.  Buy this photo

I captured this image of an alligator seeking the sun on an overcast winter’s day by framing tightly around the gator and its reflection.  In post-processing, I cropped to emphasize the symmetry of reptile and reflection and converted the image to black-and-white, while increasing its contrast a bit.  Buy this photo

I’m a big fan of food photography, especially when the plate is as strikingly beautiful as this one served at Brigtsen’s Restaurant.  I framed the shot tightly with a fast prime lens and a wide aperture to reduce the depth of field.  Buy this photo

Wherever we travel, we should make images that bring out a sense of place.  This image of my daughters strolling in the Garden District works because it captures the iconic symbols of this neighborhood–the stately mansions and live oak trees–while being a bit playful and framed in an unexpected way.  And as I’ve said many times, remember to capture your travel companions in some of your shots.  Buy this photo

Have you visited New Orleans with a camera in hand?  Please share your experiences.  Where do you like to visit and what do you like to shoot?

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

Comic Relief [Encore Publication]: A photo essay of images from SF Comic Con 2018

As a professional travel photographer, I’m at my happiest when I get to seek out new cultural experiences and work with the people I meet to capture their culture in images.  Sometimes this discovery takes place halfway around the world, and other times it happens very close to home.  This weekend I had the opportunity to make portraits at San Francisco Comic Con 2018 of some of the thousands of attendees who portray their favorite comic book characters.  This was my introduction to the culture of “cosplay”, where people dress up as characters and bring them to life through their performances.  Many cosplayers design and make their own costumes, a laborious process, and interpret the characters’ personalities through their acting abilities.  I was extremely impressed by the wide range of costumes, props, and makeup as well as the cosplayers’ passion and skill.  Comic Cons are also fun events to shoot because the cosplayers love to have their work captured in images.

In today’s post I present some of my favorite images from SF Comic Con 2018 in the form of a photo essay.  Note that all of these images and many others from this event are available to view and purchase on my website.  Click on any image to see a larger version on my site.

A few words about how these images were made:

  1. Any convention is a crowded and bustling affair, and comic cons are no exception.  To achieve as uncluttered a background as possible for my portraits, I engaged cosplayers in conversation and then asked them if they would pose in a less crowded area for a portrait.  Nearly everyone said yes, because they are thrilled to be photographed in costume.  I would then direct them to a wall, alcove, or other fairly clean background before starting to shoot.
  2. My gear was very simple.  I shot with a single DSLR body and just one lens, a 24-85mm “walkaround” zoom.
  3. I shot with available light only.  While quite a few photographers in attendance were using flash or even dedicated studio lights, in my opinion that was a miscalculation because the fluorescent lighting in the convention center was challenging to match with a flash.  This situation results in “mixed lighting”, where the subject is lit by lights of very different color temperatures.  It is often unappealing to look at and difficult to post-process.
  4. I used a high ISO setting, a moderate aperture, and a fairly fast shutter speed.
  5. For variety, I captured a range of poses from full-body to half-length to headshots.  I tried to include all of the subjects’ elaborate props.  If they were part of a group, I captured both group and individual portraits.
  6. This type of shoot requires an intensive effort in post-processing.  I adjusted color balance carefully to try to gain a pleasing and accurate tonal range given the unattractive fluorescent lighting under which the photos were shot.  I processed for a “high key” (bright subject against white background) effect so as to render the venue’s ugly walls as true white.  With effort, harsh shadows can also be reduced during post-processing.

I hope you enjoyed viewing these images from my first foray into capturing cosplayers as much as I enjoyed making them.  I will surely be seeking out and shooting upcoming comic cons, as these are among the more rewarding events to cover.

Have you shot comic cons or cosplay events?  Please share your experiences and your tips and tricks here.

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

Camera Pixels App [Encore Publication]: Significant improvements in the new version make this a best-in-class app

Note: It’s been over a year since I first posted  this updated review.  I still find the Camera Pixels app to be a top-performing app in its class, and I still use it regularly to take manual control of my iPhone camera, so thought I’d post the review again now.

I’ve posted repeatedly about the importance of understanding how to take manual control of your camera in order to make images that are properly exposed and focused.  Whether you are using a professional DSLR, an advanced full-frame mirrorless ILC, a compact point-and-shoot, or the camera built into your smart phone, there is no way you will get consistently acceptable results if you leave the camera’s settings to its auto mode.  See this post for an overview: Post on Beyond the Auto Mode.

About three months ago, I posted a review of an early version of an iPhone app called “Camera Pixels”.  In that review, I found the app to be a very promising concept due to its advanced DSLR-like features and intuitive controls, but I couldn’t fully endorse it in the earlier version because I found several bugs and interface quirks.  You can read that earlier review here: Previous review of early version of Camera Pixels app.  Since that review was published, I have had several discussions with the Camera Pixels support team to detail my concerns about the various issues I found.

For the past two days I have been testing a new version of the Camera Pixels app, and I can now recommend it wholeheartedly.  The new release preserves the advanced features and (relatively) simple interface of the earlier version, but it has addressed all of the significant issues I outlined in my review of the previous release.  Specifically:

  • the image flicker in the “viewfinder” area of the screen has been eliminated,
  • the bracketing of exposures now retains the proper requested spacing (unless at a physical limit of a setting),
  • there is a new “Pro View” mode that keeps the manual settings toolbar always on the screen so any manual overrides are immediately apparent, and
  • the controls to separate the exposure point from the focus point are now more intuitive.

Like the “Manual” camera app that I’ve been using for years and the “ProCam 4” app that has been my go-to camera control app for the past several months, the new “Camera Pixels” app allows the manual selection of ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation, and focus distance (note that the iPhone camera’s lens has a fixed aperture, so F-stop cannot be manually set).  Also like the Manual app and the ProCam 4 app, Camera Pixels allows images to be captured using RAW mode, which has a great many advantages over capture in JPEG format (see this post for more information: Post on RAW Capture).  And all three of these camera apps display a histogram to assist in setting exposure properly.  

In addition, both Camera Pixels and ProCam 4 (but not Manual) offer some very useful advanced camera control capabilities, including the following:

  • Shutter Priority: You can choose an exposure mode in which you select the shutter speed first and the app will set the appropriate ISO.
  • Exposure Bracketing: You can shoot a series of four shots at different exposures to increase the likelihood that one of them will be at the best exposure for the lighting conditions.  The series of shots can also be combined using HDR tools found in Lightroom, Photoshop, and other editing software into a single image with a higher range of tones from very dark to very bright.
  • White Balance: You can adjust white balance in the app, which is often preferable to having to adjust it in your RAW files during post-processing.
  • Virtual Horizon: The display can show you when the horizon is level.
  • Slow Shutter Options: You can select long fixed shutter speeds as well as bulb mode to keep the shutter open for as long as you’d like.
  • RAW+JPEG: You can choose to store the image in both RAW and JPEG formats.

With all this incremental functionality, your little phone’s camera begins to behave a lot like a more advanced standalone camera.  While the iPhone’s camera, with its small sensor and its tiny fixed-aperture non-interchangeable lens, still cannot compare to a professional or enthusiast DSLR or ILC camera, the results using an advanced manual camera control app such as Camera Pixels or ProCam 4 are vastly improved compared to using the phone’s native camera app.  At iTunes App Store pricing of $2.99 for Camera Pixels or $4.99 (temporarily reduced to $1.99) for ProCam 4, either of these apps is a great buy and a serious enhancement to the iPhone’s built-in camera.

There are some significant differences between Camera Pixels and ProCam 4.  ProCam 4 offers advanced image editing capabilities, while Camera Pixels does not.  However, Camera Pixels offers more flexible exposure bracketing options, the ability to separate exposure point from focus point, a better histogram, and more advanced RAW and video shooting options.  And a significant advantage of the new Camera Pixels app over ProCam 4 is its simple and intuitive user interface for setting and resetting the manual camera control features such as exposure compensation, shutter priority, and ISO priority.  In fact, the Camera Pixels app comes the closest I’ve ever found to the user interface of an advanced DSLR or mirrorless camera.

One note to enhance the usability of the Camera Pixels app: As far as I can tell, there is no built-in help content in the app itself, but there is a very useful online user guide available from the app’s developers.  You can find the user guide here: Camera Pixels app user guide.

In summary, the new Camera Pixels app is a great concept that comes closest of any camera control app I’ve found to the look-and-feel of an advanced standalone camera.  With the greatly improved new release, Camera Pixels has become the best option I’ve found for iPhone users wishing to control the phone’s built-in camera like an advanced DSLR or mirrorless standalone camera.  I now fully recommend this app, and I plan to use it as my first choice for advanced control of my iPhone’s camera.

Here’s the link to the Camera Pixels app on the Apple App Store: Camera Pixels app.

What app do you use to control your phone’s camera?  What do you like and dislike about it?  Please share your thoughts here.

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