Capturing the Creative Process [Encore Publication]: How to document an artist’s work using your own artistic vision

Capturing images of the performing arts is a specialty of mine, as well as one of my absolute favorite genres of photography.  But as gratifying as I find documenting live performances of dance, music, or theater, there’s a whole higher level of photographic joy available from capturing the artist’s creative process before their work reaches a public audience.  Today’s post focuses on a recent behind-the-scenes shoot that I did for a friend and longtime collaborator, Arina Hunter.

I arranged to shoot her dress rehearsal just before the first of two public performances as part of San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Arts RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) program.  Arina was preparing to perform an untitled work-in-progress which was quite complicated technically, so it was fascinating to watch her process of making artistic decisions and readying herself and the technical crew for the evening’s show.

Read on to see some of my favorite images from the rehearsal, accompanied by a few thoughts about my own artistic and technical process that went into the capture of Arina’s work.

All of these images are available for sale on my website.  Just click on any image to view them in the online gallery.

The creative process is about more than just practicing for a performance.  Try to include some wider views depicting the artist’s full environment including equipment, sets, and performance space.

The flip side is that it’s also important to get up-close and to capture the physical work that goes into preparing for a performance.

Shoot plenty of frames to maximize the chances of capturing the “decisive moment” when the artist’s work comes together as an integrated whole.

Typically there are several different moods evoked in a single piece of art.  This image captures a vulnerability and poignancy that informed Arina’s work even as much of her physical performance exudes strength.  Finding the right perspective to convey each mood is key to making successful images.

When post-processing my images, I ask myself how can my own technique best convey the artist’s intention.  For this image I decided a monochrome conversion would best render Arina’s physicality at this precise moment during her process.  Freeing the viewer from the anchor of color perception, a black-and-white image is graphic and timeless and allows us to focus on what is elemental: form, contrast, shadow, and light.  

I shot this image from a low perspective near the ground so as to juxtapose Arina’s body with the projected video image on the wall.  Always look for a different perspectives while shooting that can create compositions to get across your intent.

Another example of perspective: To make this image I climbed on top of a chair and shot down on Arina in her performance space. 

Sometimes the details convey the story better than the whole.  This closeup of Arina’s paint-covered hand framed by colorful canvas makes a powerful summary of her performance piece.

Today’s post has been a bit more conceptual and less technical than most of my posts.  The purpose is to get you thinking about how our own art of photography can be harnessed to capture the creative process of other artists.  The next time you are privileged to get to shoot an artist at work, think about how you can apply elements such as composition, perspective, color, texture, empty space, motion, and stasis to capture compelling images of the artist’s own vision!

Do you have techniques you’ve used to document other artists’ creative process?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

Focus on Yosemite National Park [Encore Publication]: A photographer’s dream, Yosemite offers so much more than the postcard views

Those of us who live in the San Francisco Bay Area can count many blessings, but one I am most thankful for is our fairly close proximity to Yosemite National Park.  The second oldest national park in the US, Yosemite is a photographer’s dream.  Since the days when Ansel Adams helped make the park famous through his masterful landscape photography, shutterbugs of all stripes have been flocking there to try to capture some of its indescribable beauty.  Most of us will never be an Ansel Adams, but that doesn’t stop me from returning to Yosemite at least once per year to give it my best shot, as it were.

Without doubt, there are many iconic views in the park that are relatively easy for even novice photographers to render.  There is majesty in the panorama over Yosemite Valley as seen from the famous Tunnel View lookout.  One doesn’t even have to venture off the main park road to shoot a nice image of Half Dome or El Capitan.  But Yosemite offers so much more to the photographer who’s willing to look a bit more closely, to hike a little instead of jumping out of a car to shoot, or to come to a spot at unusual times, including the middle of the night.

In this post, I’ll share a few images I made in Yosemite National Park over the past year, but none of them will be a postcard-type shot that you’ve seen 1000 times before.  And we’ll talk a bit about how to find and capture these less discovered views.

While hiking in the Tuolumne Meadows area, 5000 feet above Yosemite Valley, we were caught in a freak hailstorm at the remote Dog Lake.  Instead of throwing a rain cover over my gear and running for shelter like a normal person would do, I set up my kit and started shooting.  This image plays off the contrasts between the peaceful and violent sides of nature and between the light and the shade.  It is a composite of several different shots made at different exposures, put together in Lightroom’s HDR (high dynamic range) merging tool.

Yosemite offers unusual and dramatic views to those willing to get away from the roads and brave some harsher conditions.  Buy this photo

Another less-visited attraction in the park is the wonderful Chilnualna Falls.  The lower waterfall is actually quite an easy hike from the parking area at the trailhead, and its little swimming hole makes for a refreshing break on a hot summer’s day.  Here’s a shot of my younger daughter enjoying a dip in the swimming hole just under the falls.  To blur the water, I used a slow shutter speed, which could only be achieved in the harsh mid-day light by attaching neutral-density filters to the lens.  Neutral-density (ND) filters are an essential accessory for the landscape photographer, because they block most of the available light from reaching the camera’s sensor, allowing you to use a slower shutter speed to blur motion and/or a wider aperture to throw the background out of focus.

These reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor, so you can use slower shutter speeds to blur motion, or so you can use a wider aperture to get a shallow depth-of-field, even in bright sunlight.

A neutral-density filter allows a nicely blurred shot of the waterfall at Chilnualna Falls.  Buy this photo

Another lovely hike in the high country of Tuolumne Meadows is Cathedral Lakes.  On our way back from these pristine and remote lakes, we passed this granite rock dome.  I used a polarizing filter on a wide-angle lens to bring out the details on the surface of the rock and to lend more drama to the sky.  Then, in post-processing, I converted the image to black-and-white to emphasize the remarkable texture of the granite slab’s surface.  For more discussion about converting images to black-and-white, take a look at my earlier post: B&W Photography post.

Using a polarizing filter can darken and add drama to skies, reduce unwanted reflections, and render stunning detail on shiny surfaces.  Converting an image to black-and-white can bring out the textures and patterns that may be less prominent when viewed in a color image.  Buy this photo

Just because a place is glorious in its own right doesn’t mean we can’t include people in our photos.  Putting humans in a landscape adds a personal touch, provides a sense of scale, and often tells a more compelling story than would an image of the same place without people.  Here I’ve included my daughters in a landscape from the incomparable summit of Sentinel Dome.

Including people in landscapes layers a human narrative on top of the natural story.  I like the added color, and humor, from the addition of my daughters in their college logo hats.  I’ve chosen a wide aperture to soften the focus on the lovely background.  Buy this photo

You don’t have to stop shooting when the sun sets.  Some of the most wonderful images of Yosemite are made after dark.  I came to this spot not far from the edge of the meadow in Yosemite Valley, and right on the bank of the Merced River, quite late at night when the sky was very dark.  I set up my camera and wide-angle lens on a tripod and made a 25-second exposure at a high sensitivity (ISO) setting.  The resulting image shows the spectacle of the Milky Way arched above the terrestrial grandeur of Half Dome and other Yosemite landforms.  For more discussion of capturing the Milky Way, visit this post: Milky Way photography post.

A favorite image of mine: The Milky Way above Half Dome.  Note that not every landscape image needs to be in “landscape orientation”.  Buy this photo

Next time you are fortunate enough to visit Yosemite National Park, try to discover some new places, visit favorite places during less-visited times of the day (or night), and include some people for a human component to the story.  Your images will stand out from the millions of others made in this glorious park!

Do you have a favorite photographic experience from Yosemite to share?  Please leave a comment to let us know.

Want to see more posts on great travel photography destinations?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/destinations/.

 

Mardi Gras SF 2018 [Encore Publication]: A case study on shooting action in low light

San Francisco has been celebrating Carnaval for 40 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve been documenting this wonderful event.  The anniversary season officially kicked off last night with San Francisco’s take on Mardi Gras.  I covered the small parade through SF’s historic Mission District and also the performances of several comparsas (like krewes or samba schools) at one of the event’s venues.  Today’s post showcases some of my favorite images from this year’s Mardi Gras while also serving as a case study for shooting fast action in extremely low light conditions.

Taking the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” remember that when shooting action in low light it is okay occasionally to intentionally allow some motion blur to emphasize the movement.  Here I achieved a soft painterly effect by choosing a slower shutter speed to capture this image of a young dancer mustering for the parade.

The use of flash is required for much low-light action photography, but that doesn’t mean your images have to be harsh or unnatural looking.  A few hints: 1) Get the flash off your camera using a flash cord or remote control; 2) Use balanced fill flash instead of automatic flash for a more realistic look; 3) Dial down the flash’s power by using flash exposure compensation (I use -1 stop most of the time); 4) These settings often will require that you use a high ISO setting and a fast lens.

Use a fast prime lens to achieve a fast shutter speed along with a relatively shallow aperture to freeze and isolate your subject.  Most of these images were made with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

In post-processing your images, consider these tips: 1) Apply some noise reduction to mitigate the digital noise associated with high-ISO shooting; 2) Adjust the white balance to render the colors you remember from the shoot (always shoot in RAW mode if possible to allow setting the white balance during post-processing); 3) Apply a touch of post-crop vignetting to emphasize your subject and reduce background clutter.

For group shots, try to find an uncluttered background and pose everyone as tightly as possible so that your fill flash will illuminate them evenly.  Don’t use a wide-angle lens for group shots!  Sure, doing so will make it easier to fit in all the subjects, but it also provides a very unflattering perspective for most people.  Here I shot with a 50mm “normal” lens and moved back to fit in the entire group.

Portraits work very well using balanced fill-flash techniques.  Be sure to find an uncluttered background and get the flash unit off the camera.  Here I bounced the flash off the awning of a building to achieve a soft effect relatively unencumbered by shadows.

By applying some of these techniques, you can capture fast-moving action even under extremely low-light conditions and still achieve realistic looking and flattering results.

Do you have suggestions for shooting action in low light?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts about techniques.  And remember that all the images featured in this post as well as thousands more are available for viewing or purchase on my website–just click on any photo to view it in more detail.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Portraits from Irish Pubs [Encore Publication]: Ireland’s trad music scene is a visual as well as an aural treat

The Republic of Ireland has undergone tremendous social and financial changes over the last 20 years.  It’s now indisputably a modern global society with a strong diversified economic engine.  Yet it’s also a happy truth that today, as in days of old, the pub remains at the center of Irish social life.  Far more than a simple watering hole, the local Irish pub, whether in the center of cosmopolitan Dublin or in a tiny coastal fishing village, is a gathering place where stories are shared, traditional music is played, old friends catch up, and new friends are made.  Oh, and a pint or two might just be downed.

Many pubs feature live traditional, or “trad,” music on a nightly basis.  The casual informality of Ireland’s pub scene allows local amateur musicians to sit in with seasoned pros and pass down the songs from old to young.  Members of the “audience” (it’s hard to distinguish between performers and audience when the sessions are so participatory) are invited to step up to the “stage” (usually just a table covered with pints of beer) to sing a song at any time.  This informality allows the travel photographer to get to know these wonderful musicians over a few pints and to make authentic portraits without feeling like we’re intruding.

Today’s post is a simple photo essay featuring portraits I made of musicians and fellow customers at a variety of pubs across Ireland (plus one in Scotland).  I will forgo the usual technical details except to remind you that when shooting portraits in low-light settings where the use of flash is impossible, that a good fast portrait lens should be used along with a high ISO setting.

My current favorite lens of all is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  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 young singer and fiddler who we met at Dublin’s famous O’Donoghue’s Pub was already a seasoned pro.  In this portrait I sought to capture her expressiveness with hand gestures.  Even without hearing her sing, the viewer can tell that she is expert at weaving stories.  Buy this photo

O’Donoghue’s is widely known as the spot where bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folk music revival in the 1960s.  This band carries on the tradition, sharing songs old and new.  With a wide aperture comes shallow depth-of-field, so when photographing several people at one time you may have to choose which part of the image will be in focus.  Here I wanted to place the emphasis on the guitarist, so the other players are in softer focus.  Buy this photo

Another of Dublin’s great spots for trad music is the Cobblestone Pub.  On this night they were holding a very casual session, where all musicians were invited to come and play some tunes together.  The informality gave me a chance to get to know most of the players over the course of the evening and to make portraits without feeling like an intruder.  Again, the shallow depth-of-field required artistic choices about which subject would be in sharp focus and which would be in softer focus.  Buy this photo

In lively Kenmare, we wandered into a pub where a fabulous folksinger was performing many of the Irish songs I remember from childhood in Boston.  I chatted with Pat during his set breaks and bought a couple of his CDs.  He was a great subject for some expressive portraits, too.  Buy this photo

We didn’t have to leave our hotel on our first night in Killarney to hear some wonderful trad music.  This trio played many of our favorite songs right in the hotel’s pub, and they got most of the audience up to sing and dance along.  Buy this photo

Surprisingly, we heard only one rendition of Cockles and Mussels (aka “Sweet Molly Malone”) during our whole stay in Ireland.  This brave soul stood up in front of the crowd to sing that old standard.  Buy this photo

There’s nothing like watching an Irish crowd respond to the playing and singing of “The Wild Rover” to get one’s blood pumping.  Be ready to capture action in the “audience” as well as on the “stage.”  Buy this photo

Our second night in Killarney brought us into the center of town to an old and lively pub.  The table next to ours had four generations of a local family in attendance, each enjoying the musical set in their own way.  The oldest generation was my favorite.  Buy this photo

I got to know this fiddler over the course of the evening in Killarney.  During the break between sets she was kind enough to let me make her portrait.  It can be difficult in these crowded settings to avoid a cluttered background, but using a wide aperture for a shallow depth-of-field can help, as can careful post-processing.  Buy this photo

Elements I look for when making a portrait are faces with character and colorful details.  I found both with this accordion player and his beautiful instrument.  Buy this photo

 

The tiny fishing hamlet of Dingle has a population of just 1900 people, yet it somehow supports 52 lively pubs.  My kind of town!  Over pints of ale and shots of local whiskey in this colorful old pub, we made new friends from across the street and from as far away as Newfoundland.  This portrait of a musician was made almost entirely with light from the fireplace.  Buy this photo

The Scottish traditional music scene is as vibrant as Ireland’s, as evidenced by this band we heard at Edinburgh’s Sandy Bell’s Pub.  This place was bustling and extremely crowded.  The cluttered background somehow doesn’t detract too much from the power of this portrait.  Buy this photo

Have you traveled in Ireland or Scotland?  Do you have favorite portraits of the generous and friendly people you encountered there?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

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

The Camera Eats First [Encore Publication]: How to make delicious images of local food specialties

A big part of the joy of travel is learning about the local food and drink.  For the travel photographer, local culinary specialties represent a cornucopia of image possibilities.  In this post, we’ll look at some food images and discuss a few tips and tricks to make delectable photos of the victuals we meet while traveling.  Warning: Do not read this post while hungry.

When photographing plated food, it’s best to get in close.  Shoot straight down or at a slightly oblique angle, and always check your background to ensure it is as uncluttered as possible.  Be aware of your focal point and depth of field (how much of the image is in focus) so that the most important part(s) of your image are sharp.

For this photo of a cheese plate in Burgundy, France, I got in close to the subject and chose a small aperture to ensure all the different cheeses were sharply in focus.  Buy this photo

Don’t forget that  specialty drinks are also a big part of local culture.  For example, in Argentina the deep love of mate (pronounced MAH-tay), a local infusion, becomes almost a religious practice.  This image of the mate service engages all the senses with its bright colors, contrasting textures, and suggestion of the smell and taste of the drink. To capture a sense of the Argentinian obsession with mate, I shot this image of the serving of the drink with all its components.  I wanted to include some of the environment around the mate tray as well.  The scene was lit with natural light, which further saturated the bright colors.

Argentina’s national obsession, mate.  Buy this photo

Always be on the lookout for local dishes that are unusual or exotic to our own sensibilities.  This image of the local Peruvian specialty cuy, or guinea pig, has sold well on American and European stock photography sites because the main ingredient is so unfamiliar to our palettes.  I love the saturated colors and the humor inherent in the guinea pigs holding peppers in their mouths.  The ocher wall makes a lovely background to offset the colors of the dish.  To capture this image of Peruvian cuy served during a home-hosted lunch, I got in close as the hostess held up her dish, ensuring that the ocher wall behind was all that was visible in the background.  I chose a wide aperture to slightly blur one of the guinea pigs and the wall.  I used natural lighting with just a kiss of off-camera flash to accentuate the highlights.

 Cuy (guinea pig) is a Peruvian delicacy.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it is the ingredients rather than the final dish that are most interesting.  While on a shore excursion on the Greek island of Rhodes, my family saw these beautiful octopuses hanging to dry in the sun.  After photographing them, we ordered a plate of grilled octopus.  We very nearly missed the sailing of our ship, as the taverna’s cook took her time to grill the dish, but it was absolutely worth it!

Obviously, natural light was the way to go with this image.  I wanted to get in close, but not too tight, so that the lovely Rhodes scenery would be partly visible behind the drying octopus.  I used a medium-wide aperture to slightly soften the background.  Buy this photo

What’s even better than food images?  Portraits of local people making or serving the food!  Here’s a shot of a server holding up a tray of Istanbul’s best baklava.  The background is a bit cluttered, but I like this image for its blending of the beautiful dessert tray with the pride of the man serving it.

Often a street vendor, cook, or restaurant server will be reluctant to have their portrait made but will be happy to pose with their wares.  For this portrait of an Istanbul baklava server, I chose a wide-angle lens and got in very close to the food tray to emphasize the baklava while including the server in the composition.  Just natural light and balanced fill flash were used as lighting.  Buy this photo

Street markets are a wonderful source of travel images.  They tend to be bright, colorful, exotic, and characteristic of the location.  Be aware that some vendors will expect you to buy something if you want to photograph their wares.

I like the contrasting colors in this shot of Istanbul’s ancient Spice Market.  Buy this photo

Nearly every culture around the world has its own version of barbecue, and in my broad and diverse travel experience, it’s all good.  Here’s a photo of whole branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) fish being grilled topside by the captain of our small wooden sailing ship on the Turquoise Coast of Turkey.  It was nearly completely dark, so I lit this image using light from the burning coals and a touch of flash.  A relatively high ISO was required to balance the low natural light with the need for a small enough aperture to keep the whole subject in focus.

Whole fish on the grill aboard a gulet yacht in Turkey.  Buy this photo

Sometimes a local cuisine is all about diversity, such as the Dutch-Indonesian specialty rijsttafel (rice table).  Some presentations of rijsttafel in Amsterdam involve over a hundred different tiny plates, each containing a different food preparation.  To capture this tapestry of tastes, I stood on the bench and shot obliquely onto the table top, including as much of the spread as I could.

Indonesian rijsttafel served in Amsterdam.  Note that in restaurants at night we have little or no control over the artificial lighting, which can sometimes lead to an unnatural color cast on the food.  Shoot in RAW format so you can adjust the color balance during post-processing when you get home.  Buy this photo

I grew up in New England, and after traveling to more than 100 countries around the world I can say with authority that few meals can beat a good old-fashioned New England clambake with lobster.  To capture this iconic image, I shot up close and directly toward the lobster, using a normal lens with a medium aperture.  This allowed most of the meal to be sharply focused, but with some falloff in sharpness toward the edges in order to emphasize the Maine event.  The contrasting colors between lobster, clams, and corn make for a pleasing composition.

A lobster clambake in Maine showcases the contrasting colors and textures of this delicious meal.  Buy this photo

As a parting shot, I’ll leave you with this image of French haute cuisine.  The gloriously prepared and plated fish course at Paul Bocuse’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant made a fun subject because it is whimsical and artistic at the same time.  The available lighting was soft and subdued for artificial light, so no flash was needed.  I shot some closer compositions of just the plate, but preferred this one with some of the table setting included.

Bon appétit!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite food photos?  Do you have tips on how to make food images really pop?  Please share your comments.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet Release [Encore Publication]: What is a model release and when do you need one?

We photographers are passionate about many aspects of our trade.  We love the artistic expression, that feeling of capturing a special moment that otherwise would be lost to time, even the gear we use to make images.  But one aspect of the trade that few of us–professionals and amateurs alike–enjoy thinking about is the legal side of making and selling images.  And one legal element about which we need to be knowledgeable is the model release.  Unless you never plan to make any images in which any person is recognizable, you should learn what a model release is and when you may need to use one.

First, a disclaimer: I am not an attorney and the advice I provide in this post is not intended to replace consultation with a competent lawyer.  What I provide here is just some practical advice I’ve acquired over the years, in which course I’ve made plenty of mistakes.  And you should also be aware that laws governing when you can photograph a person and how that image can be used vary from country to country and even among states or provinces within some countries.  With these points made, let’s explore the basic concept of a model release and when you may need one.

In the simplest terms, a model release is a legal agreement between a photographer and any person who will be recognizable in images made by the photographer.  It spells out the conditions under which the image can be published and often specifies the compensation to which the model is entitled.  In the US, a valid model release must be signed and dated by the photographer, the model, and a witness.  If the model is a minor child, a parent or legal guardian also must sign.  This agreement protects the photographer against being sued for defaming or cheating the model, but equally it protects the model from being taken advantage of.


When I work with a professional model, like Laura here, I always obtain a signed release before the photo shoot.  This practice ensures she will be properly compensated and protected against inappropriate uses of her likeness, while I and any publisher will be protected against defamation claims by the model.  Having the release means I have more flexibility as to how the image can be used later.  Buy this photo

So, when do you need a model release?  Here are some situations (not an exhaustive list) in which you should have one:

  • A person can be recognized in your image.  Note that personally identifiable information doesn’t derive only from a direct likeness of the person’s face.  He or she could also be recognized from a special feature such as a tattoo or from the context such as a clearly identifiable location.
  • … AND … one or more of the following statements is true:
    • You may wish to sell the image for commercial purposes such as advertising or use in a business’s publicity or promotion.
    • You may wish to enter the image in a competition or contest.  Check the specific competition’s rules; some require a model release whenever a person is clearly identifiable in the photo, while others do not.
    • You may wish to provide the image (even if you’re not compensated) for other people to use in a context you can’t control.  A model release protects you and those who obtain a license to use your image from being sued by the model for using their likeness in a way that they don’t approve.

In contrast, there are plenty of situations in which you don’t need to have a signed model release.  Some of these include:

  • One or many people appear in the image but none is recognizable.  The subjects may be far away from the vantage point or they may all be obscured or facing away from the camera.  As long as they cannot be identified individually, there is no need for a model release.
  • You plan to use the image only for your own portfolio.
  • You plan to use the image only for editorial purposes.  If your photo is published in a newspaper, magazine, or website where the primary purpose is editorial rather than commercial, a release is not required.  Imagine if every reporter had to get a signed release before publishing the likeness of every person appearing in any news outlet.  This would have a chilling effect on journalism, which is a pillar of a free and democratic society.  So in most cases, if your photo will be used for editorial purposes (that is, it will appear in a newspaper or magazine’s news section rather than in an advertising section), then you and the outlet’s publishers don’t need a release.
  • The images can be considered fine art photography.  Photos can be published and sold without express permission from the person appearing in them if the primary purpose is fine art.  In the US, case law upholds artistic expression as a form of First Amendment free speech in most cases.

Kashgar, China
Images with news value, such as this one made of a Uighur girl in Kashgar’s Old Town days before her home was to be demolished by the Chinese government, may be published and sold for editorial purposes with no requirement for a signed model release.  Buy this photo

When you do believe that a model release would be helpful given your intended future use of an image, it is quite a simple task to obtain one.  Some photographers carry printed forms with them so they can ask a subject to sign their release as needed.  I use an app on my smartphone called “Easy Release,” which you can purchase for $9.99 on the iTunes Store: Easy Release app for iPhone.  This app simplifies the process of creating a model release; getting it signed by your model, yourself, and a witness; sending it to others; and storing and managing it for future use.

Because “To Travel Hopefully” primarily treats the subject of travel photography, I want to share my own philosophy when it comes to asking for a model release while traveling.  Even if you understand the laws of the country in which you are shooting, there are potential ethical issues in asking your subject to sign a legal document that he or she probably can’t understand.  You may be able to get the text of the document translated into your subject’s local language, but even then the context of the agreement may not make sense to somebody from a very different culture than our own.  I try to exercise good judgment when it comes to compensating the people I photograph when traveling overseas and to how I use the images later.  You may want to read or reread my pillar post on photography as a bridge to local culture: Post on Travel Portraiture.

Many photographers, models, and publishers misunderstand the conditions under which a model release is or is not required, so there’s a lot of misinformation out there.  Please consider my points here as just a starting point for learning more about this topic.

What are your best practices regarding when and how to use a model release?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

Focus on Iceland [Encore Publication]: A world-class landscape photography destination

Iconic Icelandic scene: The lovely Gullfoss Waterfall can be viewed from three different levels to obtain different perspectives on these dramatic falls.  To capture this image, I climbed to the top level, secured the camera and wide-angle lens on a sturdy tripod, and attached a neutral-density filter to allow a long exposure even in the harsh midday lighting.  I shot a series of seven exposures, each one stop apart, and then combined them into a single image using image-processing software.  This technique, called High Dynamic Range (or HDR), allows a single image to show a wide range of tonal values from extremely dark to extremely bright. 

My two daughters, my wife, and I recently returned from an inspiring two-week adventure traveling through Iceland.  Our itinerary took us from the main city of Reykjavik to the scenic Snaefellsness Peninsula’s volcanic landscape, then up to Iceland’s far north just below the Arctic Circle, down to the southern coast dotted with geothermal fields and spectacular waterfalls, and ending with a visit to Iceland’s premier attraction, the Blue Lagoon.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Iceland’s Nordic culture and Viking roots from Icelanders of all backgrounds and trades.  Iceland is a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, otherworldly natural features, and friendly people.

Our Icelandic adventure began in the largest city, Reykjavik.  While small relative to other major world capitals, Reykjavik is modern, well-functioning, and ambitious in its development.  Its harbor-side location lends the city a strong measure of natural beauty.

Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall is Iceland’s premier home for the arts.  The brightly colored glass façade of the building was inspired by Iceland’s volcanic landscape.  While it’s tempting in architectural photography to use a wide-angle lens in order to include the entire building, I find it’s often more interesting to use a moderate telephoto lens in order to emphasize just a part of the whole.  This abstract image takes the viewer’s eye along the multicolored façade with its varied patterns of texture and reflections.

A big part of the joy of travel photography is using our camera as a tool to get to know the people we meet.  While we shared a city bus ride with a group of schoolkids out on a field trip to visit the National Museum, this little boy and I were playing a game of virtual peekaboo, resulting in this unorthodox portrait.

Stunning view over Reykjavik and its harbor from the top of the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water. 

Departing Reykjavik for the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we traversed a fabled landscape first discovered by the early Viking settlers.

A short hike took us to the summit of Mount Helgafell, a sacred hill about 250 feet high.  When composing landscape photos, keep in mind two useful tools, the Rule of Thirds, and the principle of Leading Lines.  Both are used in this image.  The Rule of Thirds suggests placing key elements of the image along the lines that cut 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the frame in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  And Leading Lines draw the viewer’s eye across the frame to rest on the most important spots.

The coastal town of Stykkisholmur sits on the coast along the scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  There we came across this curious house with windows at street level and a doorway at the second story level.  Often the most memorable photos are made of the strange places we happen upon during our wanderings.

During a visit to a horse farm, we saw a demonstration of all five gaits (one more than other breeds) that Icelandic horses are capable of.  So smooth is the Icelandic horse’s cantor that you could, if you like, enjoy a mug of beer while riding.

Even a dreadful rain storm couldn’t spoil images of Godafoss Waterfall.  Meaning “waterfall of the pagan gods,” the falls received their name when the leader of Iceland’s parliament decided that the country should adopt Christianity as the official religion in AD 1000.  Informally, Icelanders were still allowed to practice pagan rites in private, but the head of parliament made a symbolic gesture of throwing most of his pagan statues into the falls.  Waterfalls are wonderful subjects for landscape photography, but they should be treated with care and patience.  A sturdy tripod is essential for holding the camera steady during the long exposures required to lend a dramatic blur to the turbulent water.  Here I fitted the camera with a wide-angle lens and a neutral-density filter, which blocks out most of the light and allows a slow shutter speed even in broad daylight.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I used a cable release to trigger the shutter in order to avoid shaking the camera.  During post-processing I decided to convert this image to black-and-white in order to remove the distraction of the color and really emphasize the dramatic effect of the roiling water.

Sometimes we get the best photos by turning our lens on small and easily overlooked features.  The volcanic soil at Lake Myvatn makes a fertile habitat for colorful lichens.  There were hundreds of other visitors present during our visit to Lake Myvatn, but nobody else noticed the vibrant natural display just below our feet.  The amazing palette of colors in this image is entirely natural. 

This abstract image shows the facade of the Lutheran church at the Laufas turf houses.  I was struck by the textures and patterns of the architecture, so I used a telephoto lens to crop the composition so as to show only a part of the building, then converted to black-and-white during post-processing to simplify the presentation.

The Laufas turf houses were built over a period of several hundred years for wealthy families, and included all the comforts of contemporary living.  When photographing architecture with a wide-angle lens, it’s important to keep the camera level so as to avoid excessive distortion of the vertical lines. 

Leaving behind the lovely Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we headed north to reach Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city located just a few miles below the Arctic Circle.

In Akureyri, just a few miles below the Arctic Circle, we enjoyed the warmth of a wonderful home-hosted dinner.  Our hosts were both professional musicians, and they performed an impromptu concert for us after dinner.

Suited up for the cold and wind, our group boarded a vessel for a whale watching excursion in Dalvik.  I made this portrait of our on-board naturalist, a true native Icelander, using a moderate telephoto lens.

There are so many wonderful subjects to capture during our travels that it’s important to remember to shoot a few of ourselves.  Because our daughters, in their early 20s, don’t get to travel with us very often, we cherish the few photos we have featuring all of us together as a family.  To grab this fun shot of our human family interacting with a family of trolls, I configured all of the camera’s settings before handing the camera to a fellow traveler in our group who triggered the shutter.

A short flight from Iceland’s far north back down to Reykjavik positions us to explore the famed Golden Circle, a road connecting Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal region, and Gullfoss Waterfall.

At Thingvellir National Park, we hiked along the rift zone where two tectonic plates (the Eurasian and the North American) are drifting apart.  It’s hard to capture the majesty of dramatic and varied geological features, so I like to combine several layers of landforms in the image.  From top to bottom, this composition captures the sky, the rocky rift zone, and the ropey lava in the foreground.

Visiting the Geysir geothermal area, from which all geysers derive their name.  Along with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and Calistoga’s geyser, Iceland’s Strokkur is one of just a few regularly erupting geysers in the world.  A hard truth in travel photography is that we can’t control the weather and often we can’t control the time of day when we visit certain locations, so we have to make do with what we’re given.  To make the best photo possible given the poor contrast between the geyser’s eruption and the cloudy sky, I stepped back several hundred yards to include the observers, the dramatic clouds, and the mountainous background in the composition.

An excursion via super truck (a large four-wheel drive vehicle with the tires partly deflated) afforded us the opportunity to explore the otherwise inaccessible glacial terrain, including hiking into this otherworldly ice cave.

My daughters, who only recently attained legal drinking age, enjoy a shot of local Icelandic vodka chilled with glacial ice during our hike into an ice cave.  In the dim lighting inside the cave, use of a flash is required to light a portrait, but to avoid firing the flash too close to the axis of the lens, I attached a flash unit to my camera via a remote flash cord.  This simple and inexpensive accessory makes a huge difference when using flash lighting.

Our ATV tour took us off-road across the volcanic landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula.

On our last full day in Iceland before flying back home, we visited the legendary Blue Lagoon spa near Reykjavik.  Crowded, expensive, and touristy, it is nonetheless supremely relaxing and lots of fun.  This spa is also a very social place where it’s easy to meet—and photograph—visitors from all over the world.

The one site that nobody sets foot in Iceland without visiting is the Blue Lagoon.  During our time there, I made portraits of several visitors from different parts of the world.  It’s important to spend some time chatting with and getting to know your subject before making their portrait.  This practice is partly due to courtesy (it’s rude to shoot photos of people without their permission), but it also yields better images because your subject will relax and show you their true self after they get to know you.

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

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

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

 

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/.

Bracketing: Hedging Your Bets [Encore Publication]: In challenging shooting conditions, exposure bracketing is a great insurance policy

In the old film days of photography, it would be days or even weeks after shooting before we could see the results.  I would routinely use a procedure called “bracketing” to make a series of shots, each at a slightly different exposure, to increase the odds that one would come out decently exposed.  Even today, when digital photography allows us to see the results immediately, there are two good reasons to employ the exposure bracketing technique: 1) it can be hard to assess on a small LCD screen in bright daylight and while in the excitement of shooting whether the exposure is really correct, and 2) when the contrast between the brighter and dimmer parts of the scene is high we may want to stitch several different exposures together using software to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image later.

Tricky subjects, like this tiny Svalbard reindeer against a glacier background, benefit greatly from exposure bracketing.  From a series of 5, 7, or even 9 images shot at slightly different exposures, you can choose the one with the correct exposure for the conditions.  Buy this photo

So there are still good reasons to use exposure bracketing, and fortunately, it is quite easy to employ this technique.  Here’s how.

If possible, mount your camera on a tripod when using bracketing so it won’t move between exposures.  Then you can combine several of the exposures into an HDR image later if desired.

If your camera has a bracketing button or menu item, use it to specify how many shots you want to take (I usually shoot 5 or 7 different exposures when bracketing) and how much you want to vary the exposure between each shot and the next (often I choose a 1-stop difference).  If your camera lacks this feature, you can still use bracketing by manually adjusting the exposure between each shot and the next; just use your camera’s exposure compensation control to dial in first -2 stops, then -1 stop, then 0, then +1 stop, and finally +2 stops.

I like to set my camera for continuous shooting while bracketing.  That way, I just hold down the remote shutter release and the camera shoots all 5 or 7 exposures in rapid succession.  But it’s fine to shoot each frame individually in single release mode, if you prefer.

There are some subtleties to think about when employing exposure bracketing.  Some cameras let you choose whether to vary the aperture, the shutter speed, or the ISO setting, while holding the other two settings constant.  In most cases, I prefer to vary the shutter speed and hold the aperture and ISO settings constant, because changing the aperture affects the images’s depth-of-field, and changing the ISO setting can affect the noise in the image.

Later, during post-processing, you review the images and choose the one that is properly exposed.  Or if the scene is very high contrast, you can use photo editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop to stitch several frames in your series together into an HDR image, which ensures good exposure from the brightest to the darkest tones in your photo.

Several exposures were shot using bracketing and then combined in Photoshop to create this HDR  image.  All tones from the darkest shadows on the mountain walls to the brightest highlights on the icebergs and lake are properly exposed in the final image.  Buy this photo

Have you used exposure bracketing techniques?  What are your best practices?  Do you use this process mostly for selecting the best exposure or for creating HDR images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Are you interested in learning new travel photography techniques?  Follow this link to see all the posts on techniques: Posts on Techniques.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Sharpest Tack in the Box [Encore Publication]: How to achieve sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to see more articles about techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

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

So excited for this year’s SF International Hip Hop Dance Fest, coming next weekend!  To whet our appetites, please enjoy this repost on last year’s festival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capturing a Sense of Place [Encore Publication]: A case study on how to integrate the natural surroundings into a creative photo shoot

Whether halfway around the world or in my own backyard, I strive to capture a strong sense of place in my work.  Most often we associate “sense of place” with images of indigenous people living close to the land, but this sensibility can be extended to incorporate the local natural surroundings into any creative images.  As I collaborate with local people close to my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m always seeking ways to integrate the intense beauty of our landscapes into my work.  Today’s post is a case study on this theme based on a recent shoot I did with a favorite movement practitioner, mia.

mia is an amazingly intuitive artist who improvises her movement by sensing the energy of the space around her, so we chose a glorious and deserted stretch of the central California coastline near sunset for our shoot.  We built in plenty of time, more than two hours, and I gave mia lots of space to move with very little direction on my part.  I had all my gear ready and was wearing beach attire myself so I could just let her create her art while following her and capturing her expressive movement using my own creative approach.

In the following images, presented as a photo essay with just brief captions explaining how they were made, I share the results of this collaboration.  You can view or purchase all of these images and many more in this gallery: mia beach shoot photo gallery.

My gear was simple: two camera bodies, one with a fast prime normal lens (and occasionally with a fast prime portrait lens), the other with a wide-angle zoom lens.  Obviously, these optics were selected so that I could alternate between capturing mia up close and documenting her motion within the broader environment.  All images were made with natural light only and were handheld.  A general piece of advice is to shoot lots of frames to ensure capturing your model during the moments when they express just the right sensibility, gesture, or emotion.  Memory card storage space is cheap and abundant, so always shoot more images than you think you need.

Using the wide-angle lens, I captured images of mia interacting with the space around her.  This “environmental portrait” technique helps create a strong sense of place.

Even with the glorious color palette of a California coastline near sunset, there were times I chose to render the images in black-and-white to achieve a timeless graphics art look.

Environmental portraits, full-body shots, and head shots are not the only options when shooting creative portraits.  Here I chose to capture only mia’s legs as she traced a circle in the wet sand.  Sometimes the part can be more interesting than the whole.

Shooting from a low angle just above the water, I captured a powerful vision of mia interacting with the ocean.  Obviously one has to be careful of one’s gear when choosing to shoot so close to salt water, but I love the resulting image made from this perspective.

Not every image needs to be tack sharp.  I like to create a sense of motion by using a slow shutter speed to blur the movement.  Here I was able to achieve a slow enough shutter speed by using my camera’s slowest native ISO setting along with a very small aperture setting, but sometimes in very bright light a neutral density filter has to be used.

Note that when shooting a backlit subject it is crucial to choose an exposure based on the light coming from the model rather than allowing your camera’s meter to choose the exposure for you (unless you are trying to create a silhouette).  Two techniques suitable for this situation are spot-metering on your subject’s body or dialing in at least two stops of exposure compensation.

As sunset approached, I shot a series of images using both wide-angle and closeup perspectives.  This shot nicely captures mia from a medium distance, close enough to see some detail in her expression while far enough away to include some sense of place.

The setting sun can evoke very powerful emotions.  It can be risky to include the sun in your images, so tread carefully.  Careless shooting into the sun can cause permanent damage to both the photographer’s eyes and the camera’s sensor.  This image was made moments before sunset under conditions I assessed to be safe, but if in doubt do not ever shoot into the sun.  

A wide-angle capture suggests mia’s celebratory motion as the sun sets, but she appears relatively small within this awe-inspiring natural environment.

At the moment of sunset, a parting shot is made where mia bids farewell to the day.  I chose an exposure partway between silhouette and spot-metering on mia’s body so as to show some detail on her expression while allowing the ocean and sky to shine.

I hope you’ve found these images to be inspiring and the associated tips to be helpful.  Now go out in your own neck of the woods make some images that integrate a sense of place into your favorite subjects!

Do you have techniques you use to infuse your local images with a strong sense of place?  Please share them here.

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

“Peripheral Vision: Divergent Travel Photography” exhibition opens today

Dear Readers,

Two of my pieces are included in a juried exhibition of travel photography opening today at Santa Cruz Art League. More info can be found here: https://scal.org/exhibition/peripheral-vision-divergent-travel-photography/. If you live nearby, please plan to drop by to see the work of several talented photographers any time the gallery is open between now and Jan. 12. There is also an artists’ reception at 6 PM on Dec. 6. Thanks for your support of local artists!

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.

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/.

 

Top Tips for Great Travel Images [Encore Publication]: These five simple “hacks” will result in more professional images

Festivals and street fairs can be challenging to shoot due to backgrounds cluttered with people, buildings, and cars.  To make this portrait of grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco, I got down low so that most of the background was covered by the cloth of the costume, and I used a wide aperture to throw the hectic street scene into soft focus.  Buy this photo

The web is positively overflowing with “life hacks,” simple tips and tricks to save us all time and effort and to achieve better results.  Some lists are better than others, but it is in the spirit of these lists that I bring you this compilation of five simple travel photography hacks.  These techniques are not difficult and do not require expensive gear.  They work equally well for your photography whether traveling or at home.  And I promise that if you follow them, your images will improve.  The pros do these things almost automatically; to them, it’s hygiene, like tooth brushing.  If you read no other post about photography, read this one.

  1. Avoid cluttered backgrounds: So often the travel images of a professional stand out from those of amateurs simply because they took careful notice of what was in the background while composing the shot.  Try to frame your subject against a clean backdrop such as a dark-colored wall or the sky.  If there’s no way to avoid including some clutter in the background, at least use a wide aperture (low F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus.  I’m always reminding my students–and myself–to pay at least as much attention to composing the background as the main subject.
  2. Watch your horizon: Frequently, we’re so intent on composing the main subject within our viewfinder that we forget to check whether the camera is level before firing the shutter.  An uneven horizon can give the impression of vertigo, like the subject is going to fall out of the frame.  Some cameras have a virtual horizon function to show you whether the horizontal and vertical axes are level, but whether you use it or not, be sure to check visually that the edge of the image looks correct.
  3. Achieve sharp focus: The one characteristic of an image that even the most inexperienced viewer can identify immediately, and one that’s almost impossible to fix in post-processing, is poor focus.  Today’s cameras are so easy to use that we often overlook this most basic element.  The camera can’t know for sure what subject you intend to have in focus; it can only make its best guess.  So take the extra fraction of a second while composing your image to move the camera’s focus point onto the main subject (even smartphone cameras have this capability).  Or use a small aperture (high F-stop number) to provide a wide depth of field so that essentially everything is in focus.
  4. Choose the correct exposure: Another very basic element of any photograph, exposure can only be correctly chosen by the photographer, not by the camera.  Your camera’s Auto mode can be fooled very easily by many tricky situations, most commonly by backlighting of the subject.  It’s fine to use the camera’s guess as a starting point, but nearly every camera (including smartphone cameras) have a way to manually override this guess, so learn how to do this and add in about a stop or two of extra exposure if your subject is backlit, more if the backlighting is severe.
  5. Turn off the darned flash: Nearly every camera has a mode where it fires the flash automatically if it determines the extra light is needed.  This is rarely a good thing.  Far better to turn off the auto flash setting and make your own decision about when to use the flash.  Otherwise, your low-light images could end up with an eerie, unnatural color cast or your far-away subject could be underexposed (a flash typically lights an object only a few feet away from the camera, so why fire the flash when you’re photographing an object hundreds of yards or even miles away?).  Worse, if you are shooting through glass or another reflective surface, your flash reflects off the surface, ruining your whole image.  Worse still, your flash may blind everyone else near you in a very dim setting, damage sensitive artwork, or scare or anger nearby wildlife.  I’ve seen countless visitors ejected from museums, zoos and aquariums, and other wonderful destinations because they hadn’t figured out how to override their camera’s auto flash setting.  Just turn off the darned flash, and use it manually when appropriate.

Learn these simple techniques and follow them whenever you shoot, and you’ll start making images that stand out from the crowd.  Remember, you, and not the technology inside your camera, are the creative force behind your images.

While this image of a yurt in the remote mountainous region between China and Tajikistan succeeds in spite of (or perhaps because of) the off-kilter horizon, it serves as a good reminder to check the horizons at the edge of our photos.  Buy this photo

What are your favorite tips and tricks to ensure you make the best images possible?  Please share here!

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

Prime Time [Encore Publication]: Why a prime lens is often better than a zoom

Most photographers make most of their images using a zoom lens.  Aside from smartphone cameras, which typically feature a fixed focal-length lens, nearly every camera today comes with a zoom lens attached.  Most point-and-shoot and compact cameras do not have interchangeable lenses, so the zoom lens that comes with the camera is the only choice, while most mirrorless and DSLR cameras have interchangeable lenses.  That means these more advanced cameras offer the choice of using a broad range of different lenses, including both zoom and prime (fixed focal-length) lenses.  While many photographers own one or several prime lenses, from my observation the vast majority shoot nearly all of their images using one of their zoom lenses instead.  In today’s post, I make the case for using prime lenses in many, or even most, shooting situations.

This portrait of a Delhi girl outside India’s largest mosque is lovely and effective, but because I didn’t have time to change lenses and was forced to use my slower walkaround zoom lens, the depth-of-field is quite deep, making for a somewhat distracting background.  Buy this photo

Zoom lenses have one clear advantage over prime lenses: they offer a range of focal lengths, which helps the photographer compose the image without having to walk closer to or farther away from the subject.  But even here I would argue that in most cases it aids creativity to “zoom with the feet,” or walk around to compose the best shot.  Even when this isn’t possible, a high-resolution digital image can easily be cropped in post-processing to achieve the composition the photographer had in mind.

But prime lenses have many advantages over zoom lenses.  First, they are nearly always sharper and generally higher quality than zooms, because they don’t require extra internal glass elements to enable the zooming.  While zoom lenses have improved in optical quality over recent years, it remains the case that prime lenses offer a quality advantage.  Second, prime lenses are typically smaller and lighter than zooms.  This is a blessing especially to travel photographers.  Third, primes are less expensive than zooms of similar optical and build quality.  That means you can buy two or three different prime lenses for the price of one zoom lens covering a similar range of focal lengths.  And fourth, primes are usually faster (i.e., offer a wider maximum aperture size) than zooms.  This last point is a big advantage for many types of shooting, because a wide aperture (small F-number) lets in more light, allowing use of faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings in low-light conditions.  This is a real boon for nighttime and astro-photography.  A wide aperture also results in shallow depth-of-field, which emphasizes the main subject by softening the focus of the background.  The best lenses offer a pleasing “bokeh”, or pleasant blurring of the out-of-focus elements of the image.  This effect makes for extremely effective portraits as well as wildlife images, but is also useful for other types of photography.


This portrait, made with my current favorite lens, an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens, offers very sharp focus on the subject’s face and pleasing bokeh, or soft blurring of the out-of-focus background.  It would not have been possible to make this portrait using a zoom lens because the maximum aperture would be too small to achieve the soft background effect.  Buy this photo

I shoot a lot of performing arts events (dance, music, theater), which typically take place indoors where the light is very dim and frequently feature fast-moving action requiring a fast shutter speed.  Using a prime lens allows me to shoot at an action-freezing shutter speed without having to use extremely high ISO settings that introduce noise into the images.  And again, the pleasantly blurred backgrounds help set off the very sharp main subject for a striking overall effect.

I captured this image of a samba dancer at a dress rehearsal under very low-light conditions.  Using my 85mm f/1.8 prime portrait lens, I was able to freeze the motion using a fast shutter speed, keep the ISO at a reasonable level to avoid noise, and render a nice soft background.  Buy this photo

I would estimate that most enthusiast and professional photographers shoot about 80% of their images using zoom lenses.  My own usage pattern is the opposite, that is, I shoot about 80% of my images using prime lenses.  For some purposes, a zoom lens is still required, but it’s surprising how often we can achieve better results using a prime.  Prime lenses are smaller, lighter, less expensive, higher quality, and faster than zoom lenses.  I encourage you to dig out your prime lenses if you have a few, or borrow, rent, or buy one or two (remember, they are much less expensive than comparable zoom lenses) and try shooting with them exclusively, or at least much of the time, for a week or two.  Compare your images made with the primes vs. the ones made with zooms and come to your own conclusions.  If you’re like me, you’ll find that a prime lens is the right tool for most photographic jobs.

Here are my three favorite prime lenses, a “normal” lens, a medium telephoto or “portrait” lens, and a wide-angle lens:

If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera.  I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens.  This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.

I think my current favorite lens of all (including primes and zooms) is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  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.

A wide-angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astro-photography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

What are your preferences regarding use of prime vs. zoom lenses, and why?  Please share your experiences in the comments box.

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