Will Photography Soon Be Obsolete? [Encore Publicaton]: Musings on AI as artist

A friend recently pondered via a social media post whether we will have photography as we know it in the future, or if artificial intelligence (AI) will soon generate all of our images.  With tens of millions of people now capturing snapshots on their phones’ cameras and instantly applying AI-generated filters to enhance or modify the images, we can certainly observe an increasing trend toward computer involvement in the making of photos.  But I don’t believe AI will replace the artist’s eye in the making of fine-art photographs for quite some time to come.  Here are a few semi-random musings on this theme.

A machine can certainly generate bad art.  In college in the mid-1980s, I wrote a program for my Computer Science final exam that composed musical canons (pieces in which each voice plays the same melody together, but starting at different times).  My code used a semi-random configuration of musical intervals as the opening melody, then applied a simplified set of the rules of counterpoint (how musical lines are allowed to fit together) to complete the canon.  I received an “A” for this project, but truth to tell, any listener familiar with classical music could instantly discern that the pieces composed by my program weren’t anything like the lovely canons written by Telemann, for example.  In other words, my AI didn’t pass the Turing Test.

In the more than 30 years since I wrote that program, AI has progressed by leaps and bounds.  Computers can now generate poetry, classical and jazz music, and even paintings that many non-experts judge as products of human artistic creativity.  I’m fascinated by the progress, but so far the best of the AI-generated “art” is really just imitation and trickery: it takes a seed of something original such as a photograph or a melody, and transforms it using a set of complex rules that could be described as a pre-programmed artistic style into something pleasant enough but not inspiring.

In his landmark 1979 book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” Douglas Hofstadter amazed the world by demonstrating comparable interlocking themes of grace and elegance among the very different disciplines of mathematics, visual art, and music.  He even speculated on the ability of machines to create works of great insight.  But Hofstadter’s proposed approach differed from that of the AI field that has developed since then in that he favored teaching machines to create via an understanding of how the human mind creates, as opposed to today’s AI approach of taking mountains of data and throwing brute force calculations at it.  To my eye, ear, and mind, this brute force method is the reason most of today’s attempts to artificially emulate the creative process are not insightful and do not add anything to their genres.  And so far, the vast majority of these attempts fail their respective Turing Tests.  That is, humans can tell it is a machine and not a human generating the “art.”

Applying these musings to the art of photography, what do see today?  To be sure, more images are being generated today than ever before in human history, and the art of photography is being devalued by its sheer pervasiveness.  Everyone captures images now, and most of them believe that makes them photographers.  While photographers have always required the involvement of a machine in the creation of their art, good photographers have always relied on their artistic vision, the so-called artist’s eye, to create images that are special.  I don’t believe that all the Meitu and similar AI filters that abound today are creating any photographic art that adds insight or helps interpret the world around us.

One very central component in photography is composition.  How does the photographer choose what elements to include in the image, and how will these elements be combined?  Read my recent post on composition here: Post on Composition.  This vital aspect of photography does use some “rules”, such as the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Framing Elements, Point of View, Foreground/Background, and Symmetry and Patterns.  Rules, of course, can be programmed into an AI so that the machine can emulate the way humans create.  But in photographic composition, the “rules” are really just guidelines for getting started.  A good photographer knows when to break the rules for artistic impact.

Even the dumbest devices are capable of generating images.  Security cameras can capture images that we would consider to be rudimentary documentary photographs.  Given long enough, a security camera might accidentally capture what we would consider to be a good street photography image, because after capturing millions of dull scenes, sooner or later the camera will catch a random alignment of interesting elements.  It’s like thousands of monkeys typing random characters: given enough time, one of them will coincidentally type out a Shakespeare sonnet or even a full play.  As wearable computing devices become more pervasive, many people’s lives will be documented in real-time via the capture of millions of images.  Some of these may be interesting to their friends and perhaps the general public.  A few may even have artistic value.  But true artistry isn’t characterized by coincidence.

I don’t doubt that eventually we will get to the point where machines can create images as good as much of what humans can create.  I think we’ll get there, but it will take a long, long time.  And in the meantime, the role of photographer as artist, experimenter, and interpreter of the world around us will continue to be central to our society’s need for communication and expression.

What do you think about the future of photography?  Will we soon see machines creating much of our imagery?  How about our good, artistic imagery?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Join Me on a Photography Tour Including Total Solar Eclipse in Chile: Experience and photograph a total solar eclipse during a photo tour of Chile and Easter Island

Dear Readers,

Note: There are still a few spaces available on this epic photographic journey!  Please book soon to ensure you will have the chance to photograph a total solar eclipse as well as many other wonders of Chile and Easter Island.

I am thrilled to be leading a remarkable photography tour during the summer of 2019 that features a comprehensive photographic itinerary through Chile and Easter Island, including the rare opportunity to observe and capture images of a total solar eclipse, one of the most spectacular natural events visible on Earth.  Learn more and book your space here: Chile Eclipse Photography Tour.

From Jun. 27 through Jul. 10, 2019, join our small group of photography enthusiasts and experience the thrill of shooting a total solar eclipse as well as capturing the full range of Chile’s spectacular beauty including a visit to fabled Easter Island. Chile is a dream destination for travel photographers, offering breathtaking scenery, unique wildlife, unparalleled astrophotography, and fascinating cultural encounters. We’ve planned this unique itinerary to provide ample opportunities to capture unforgettable images that you won’t find in travel brochures and on postcards.

Our extraordinary photographic journey will take us from the historic and vibrant capital city of Santiago and colorful Valparaiso, to La Serena and Isla Damas for in-depth workshops on eclipse photography in preparation for capturing extraordinary images of the total solar eclipse in this region, then on to the stark otherworldly beauty of the Atacama Desert with the darkest skies on Earth that are perfect for astrophotography, and finally to mystical Easter Island where we’ll have the opportunity to meet and photograph the native Rapa Nui people in exclusive photo shoots we have customized to capture a strong sense of the people and the place.

Award-winning professional travel photographer Kyle Adler will be shooting alongside tour participants and will provide personalized in-the-field instruction. During our optional informal workshops, we’ll review our recent images, plan our shot list for upcoming locations, and cover techniques to make the best images possible. Topics will be tailored to the group’s interests and may cover any aspects of travel photography from shot planning to capture technique, and on to post-processing and image sharing. Unlike most photography tours, we will place a special emphasis on learning to use the camera as a bridge to enhanced understanding of the land and people we visit. Photographers of any level will see their images improve, and non-photographer friends and family are also most welcome to join this tour. You can make memorable images using whatever camera gear you wish to bring; it is not necessary to invest in specialized gear.

To learn more or to book this tour, please visit Eclipse Photography Tour in Chile.

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.

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.

Chromatica App [Encore Publication]: Simple, intuitive, and affordable, this new iPhone camera control app is a winner

LR chromatica screenshot-

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

There are dozens of camera control apps available for the iPhone, and it can be confusing to figure out which one is right for you.  In the past, I’ve reviewed the following apps: Manual (see post on Manual app), ProCam 4 (see post on ProCam 4 app), and Camera Pixels (see post on Camera Pixels app).  In today’s post I offer a first look at a new app, Chromatica, from the same company that developed Camera Pixels.

Chromatica, priced at an appealing $2.99 on the Apple App Store, is aimed for a middle market of photographers who want more manual control than the camera’s native (built-in) app can provide but without the complexity of more enthusiast-level apps, such as Camera Pixels or ProCam 5 (the successor to ProCam 4).  It competes with other mid-level camera control apps such as Manual, though it is priced at $1 less.  My initial testing of the new Chromatica app found it to be a very worthy tool for most users to take control of their iPhone photography without the expense or complexity of the more advanced apps.  Chromatica has a very simple and intuitive interface, offers the ability to shoot in RAW mode for much higher quality images, and provides the basic required functionality to take manual control over your camera.  It doesn’t offer the full suite of bells and whistles found in the more sophisticated apps, but it’s still a powerful tool that makes the iPhone camera act much more like a DSLR or mirrorless camera while providing a clean and simple user interface.

Chromatica’s features include the ability to shoot in either auto or one of several manual modes such as Shutter Priority and ISO Priority.  It’s quite easy to realize which mode you’re in and to return to auto mode when you’re done taking manual control over the camera; the same cannot be said of some other camera control apps I’ve used.  Another essential feature is the ability to separate the exposure and focus points, so that exposure can be set based on one part of the image while focus is set on another part.  There doesn’t seem to be any user manual or in-app help function to explain this feature, so here’s how it works: simply touch the screen with two fingers and you’ll see a circle and a square appear.  Move the circle to the point in the image where you want to set exposure, and move the square to the point where you want to set focus.  Other useful features include an exposure histogram to show you the range of brightness levels in your shot, and exposure clipping to flag the areas of the image that are too bright or too dim.  Chromatica includes full optical stabilization in RAW mode as well as focus peaking to aid in manual focus operations.

What you won’t find in Chromatica, but for most photo-making purposes won’t miss, are advanced image-editing tools (instead, find these in your favorite standalone image editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop), exposure bracketing, and long-exposure camera control modes.  Other more sophisticated apps do offer these and more features, but at the expense of higher cost and greater complexity.

In short, Chromatica does exactly what it’s designed to do: make it simple and quick to manually control your phone’s camera and make the most of it’s capabilities.  For most casual and enthusiast photographers, this is good enough when using a phone’s camera.  I typically shoot with professional DSLR gear costing many thousands of dollars when I need pro-level results, but I love the convenience and ease of grabbing some quick shots with my phone, and in the future I am likely to use Chromatica to control the phone’s camera when it’s a straightforward capture.  I’ll continue to use Camera Pixels and ProCam 5 when I require more advanced features to control the phone.

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

For reference, here are some popular iPhone camera control apps along with their price and brief notes:

  • Native iOS Camera app (Free): Comes built-in with the iPhone.  Does not allow RAW capture, manual control of the camera, or any advanced features, but does allow the separation of focus and exposure points.
  • Camera Pixels Lite (Free): An entry-level version of Camera Pixels that offers basic camera control features but does not allow RAW capture.
  • Manual ($3.99): Another entry-level app that is really starting to show its age.  Offers basic camera control features including RAW capture, but lacks more advanced features and is difficult to use.
  • Chromatica ($2.99): A great value and very easy to use, this app offers camera control features, RAW capture, and a few more advanced features.
  • Camera Pixels ($3.99): A powerful manual control app with a very wide range of features, it remains quite intuitive to use.
  • ProCam 5 ($5.99): A very powerful app with a wide range of camera control features plus more sophisticated functionality typically associated with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.  Also includes a full suite of image editing tools.  It can be difficult to use.  Note: I’ve only tested the older ProCam 4.
  • Pro Camera ($5.99): A popular higher-end app with a full range of features.  Note: I’ve not yet tested this app.

 

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

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

 

I Feel Like a Kid in a Candy Store [Encore Publication]: Capturing the spectacular SF Movement Arts Festival

As an official photographer once again for this year’s SF Movement Arts Festival, last Friday I had the privilege and pleasure of capturing images of most of the more than 300 talented and diverse performers who participated in this year’s amazing event. If you live in the SF Bay Area and missed it, this year there will also be a summer version, presented in July.

This epic event of breathtaking beauty and scope brings together many of my favorite choreographers and dancers–those with whom I collaborate throughout the year, their younger students, and some who I’ve never met before–representing a tremendous range of movement practices and dance styles, and throws them all into the grand interior spaces of San Francisco’s iconic Grace Cathedral. My assignment, truly a labor of love, is to stay all day and all night: for the rehearsals, side photo shoots, and the performance, in an effort to capture images of nearly every performer in the festival. Truly, I feel like a kid in a candy store, having the opportunity to make images with so many amazing movement practitioners in this ethereal space, all in one day.

Today’s post, presented as a simple photo essay, shares some of my favorite images from this mind-boggling event. All I will add in the way of technical notes are a few points my regular readers will already know to expect from me:

  • When shooting fast-moving action in a relatively dark space, use as fast a lens as you can given your focal length needs, boost your camera’s ISO sensitivity setting to as high as you can get away with, and choose an aperture as wide as possible given the depth-of-field you seek
  • Choose a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze the performers’ movement, unless you’re intending to create an artistic motion blur
  • Watch your backgrounds: what’s behind your main subject is as or more important than your subject itself, so try to choose a pleasing or less distracting background whenever possible, and keep your horizons level
  • Compose your images with an eye toward putting your viewer within the performance to experience the beauty, athleticism, and grace first-hand
  • Shoot lots of images because the performers’ body postures, gestures, and facial expressions will change in an instant and you want to be sure to capture a few frames that bring out their very best.

You can view and purchase all of the images in this post, and many more, by visiting my web gallery here: SFMAF Photo Gallery .

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small sampler of images from the incredible SF Movement Arts Festival. You can view and purchase all of these and many more by visiting my web gallery here: SFMAF Photo Gallery .

Do you have a favorite festival or cultural event that inspires and excites you so thoroughly that you feel you could photograph it every day? What are your go-to techniques for capturing images at these events? Please share your thoughts here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showing us how the midday meal is prepared. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Embera family pose for a portrait. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two main tools available at this time:

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

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

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

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

A “Fixer” for the Rest of Us [Encore Publication]: How you can leverage local resources to shoot like a pro

How do professional travel photographers on assignment create those amazing, make-your-jaw-drop images?  You know, the photos we see when browsing the pages of a major travel magazine or website?  There are several advantages the pros have, including technique honed over decades of practice, state-of-the-art equipment (with prices to match), and the ability to spend a lot of time at the same location, returning again and again until the time of day, lighting, weather conditions, and subject matter are perfectly aligned for a great shot.  But one advantage available to the pros can be borrowed, at least in part, by the rest of us who love travel photography, too.  That is the use of a “fixer,” a local expert who knows the region, the language, the culture, and the way to get things done, and whose expertise helps the travel photographer get those incredible shots.

While we were visiting a carpet weaving collective in Goreme, Turkey, our group’s trip leader introduced me to this worker who was enjoying a cup of Turkish coffee during her break.  Buy this photo

If you are traveling on a group trip run by a good travel company, you may already may have a fixer working to make your experience (including your photographic experience) as rewarding as possible.  The operator will likely have chosen an itinerary that will get you off the beaten path and into the settings where unusual and powerful images can be made.  They will have arranged your accommodations and transportation well in advance of your departure.  The company should have planned some activities and excursions that will allow you to interact with local people and see how they truly live.  And best of all, they have provided you with a local expert, often called a trip leader or program director, who knows the lay of the land, speaks the local language(s), and can facilitate your getting the kinds of shots you want.  This is of paramount importance when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own, which I believe is the best part of traveling as a photographer.

For example, I made the above portrait after being introduced to the young worker at a carpet weaving collective by our trip leader in Turkey.  He translated so that she and I could get to know each other a little bit first, and then asked her if I could make her portrait.  It is certainly possible (I’ve done this countless times) to ask for yourself by using sign language, pointing to your camera, and smiling a lot, but having a local person with you can be a great help.

Sometimes, knowing where to go to seek out authentic cultural interactions works magic.  I captured this shot of our host family during a home-hosted lunch on an estancia (ranch) in Patagonia.

Our hosts, Chango and his extended family, were happy to pose for a portrait after we enjoyed their hospitality on their Patagonian ranch.  A local guide and good travel company can help arrange these kinds of authentic interactions.  Buy this photo


Visiting a rural elementary school in Tanzania afforded us the chance to meet kids in the classroom.  This type of experience would be hard to arrange while traveling independently, but a good group leader or guide can facilitate meaningful interactions with local people.  Buy this photo

When the trip is scheduled specifically to attend a special event, it is especially vital to have a good leader who is adept at working with local professionals to plan all the details.  For example, it was quite a major logistical feat to get a large group of scientists and photographers into place to study and view a total solar eclipse in a part of the world as remote and forbidding as Svalbard.  Our trip leader partnered with an astrophysicist who is a world authority on eclipses, beginning years in advance of the solar event, to ensure we had the best chance possible of clear weather conditions and the right vantage point from which to study and photograph the eclipse.  This is the sort of value that an expert fixer brings when you book a trip with one of the top companies.

Our eclipse expert and one of his students set up their gear on the morning of the total solar eclipse in Svalbard.  Buy this photo

To be sure, there are some compromises required for group travel, and having access to a shared program director is not the same as having a dedicated personal fixer to arrange your photo shoots for you.  I like to travel independently in places with developed infrastructure and where I can readily bridge the cultural or language gaps myself.  That said, I also love to travel in small groups run by excellent travel companies, in large part because their planning, coupled with the knowledge of the local trip leader, helps me make those memorable images.

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

Have you had a situation where you got your shot thanks to the knowledge of a local expert?  How do you arrange your travel when you’re visiting remote parts of the world or when you want to have lots of interaction within a culture very different from your own?  I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!  Please respond via the comment box.

Photography as a Bridge to Local Culture [Encore Publication]: Your camera is a great tool for meeting local people and learning about culture

I’ve heard certain travelers grumble that photography inhibits deep cultural learning and interaction when we visit new places.  Our cameras, this line of reasoning goes, isolate us from the local people we’re trying to get to know.  The lens, they believe, acts as a distancing device to turn locals into subjects and travelers into tourists.

I disagree emphatically!  Your camera is a great tool for meeting local people and learning about culture, immersing yourself even more deeply in the spirit of the place and the lives of the people who live there.  But only if you use it in the right way.  Allow me to explain.

While the local customs and even the laws governing whom it is acceptable to photograph, and when or where it is okay to make an image of them, do vary from place to place, there are a few common-sense guidelines that will help us travelers engage in a friendly, curious manner instead of upsetting people and causing social discord.  Here are a few key guidelines to keep in mind.

    • The Golden Rule: If it’s not okay in your home country, it’s probably not okay in other parts of the world.  Would you appreciate a stranger running up to you on your front lawn and shoving a lens in your face?  I’m guessing, no.  So please don’t behave in that way toward people in other places.
    • Make a portrait, don’t take a portrait: Get to know your subject first as a person, even if just for a brief exchange.  While there are occasionally situations where the moment or the expression will be lost by approaching your subject before shooting, I find that most of the time I make better images as well as have more meaningful interactions, when I say hello and ask the person first.

USA

I chatted for a while with these samba dancers as they were celebrating just after San Francisco’s Carnaval parade.  Getting to know them first made it easy to ask permission for a portrait. Buy this photo

    • Approach children with sensitivity: Kids can be amazing photographic subjects!  They are often uninhibited in front of the camera and they portray cultural practices and lifestyle in a relatable, endearing way.  But it’s especially important to understand when it’s okay to make a portrait with them.  While traveling in South Africa, I saw first-hand what can happen when travelers misunderstand social norms.  A fellow traveler in my group saw a young boy playing near where we were waiting for a border crossing.  She shouted excitedly, “Soooo cute!,” and rushed up to the child, camera extended toward his face, to take his picture.  In an instant the boy’s father ran over, irate, and yelled at me (he mistakenly thought I was the fellow traveler’s father), “How would you like it if we came to your country and started taking pictures of your children?”  A few minutes later I explained privately to the offending traveler why her actions caused a negative reaction.  She had no idea this behavior wasn’t okay.  When in doubt, refer to the Golden Rule, above.

Kashgar, China

We visited the old town in Kashgar just before the Chinese government began demolishing the homes there and relocating the mostly ethnic Uighur people.  It was and remains a complicated social situation, but I was fortunate to be able to make this memorable portrait of a young Uighur girl in traditional clothing sitting in front of her soon-to-be-destroyed family house.  I approached her mother first to make sure it was okay to photograph the girl.  Her expression of pride mixed with apprehension is what I feel makes this image strong.  Buy this photo

    • Getting to know you: It may seem difficult to talk with a stranger from a very different culture who likely speaks a very different language from our own.  For us introverts, it seems like even more of a challenge.  But I’ve learned a few tricks and tips that make it much easier to get to know a person before photographing them.  Learn a few words of the local language.  Just saying “hello” or “good day” can be a great icebreaker.  It’s a fairly universal gesture to point to your camera and extend your arm gently toward your hopeful subject to inquire, “Is it okay if I take your picture?”  Just as happens in our home countries, a subject may say no, but most of the time people are happy to be photographed if you are polite, respectful, and try to interact with them first.  A trip leader, guide, or local friend can often be a great help by introducing you to the person you’d like to photograph.

Turkey

At the start of our trip through Turkey, I asked our trip leader to introduce me to people we felt would be good portrait subjects.  With his help I was able to overcome the language and cultural difference and capture this striking portrait of an employee at a carpet weaving cooperative.  Buy this photo

    • How close is too close?: In most situations it is fine to make an image that includes a large group of people, none of whom will be too prominent in the photo.  For close-up images, though, in which an individual person or small group of people will be the obvious subject, it is best to ask first.
    • Money matters: When there is a commercial transaction between you and your subject, it often paves the way to ask to make their portrait.  I’ve had good experiences photographing local street vendors, musicians, artisans, and shopkeepers after purchasing their wares or tipping them for their services.  And of course it is usually fine to photograph singers, dancers, and musicians in a performance you have paid to attend, as long as local rules about photography are obeyed (sometimes you will have to pay extra for a license to photograph, and frequently flash is not permitted).  But it can become a slippery slope when people begin to expect to be paid just for having travelers photograph them.  In Peru we had many people, including young children, dress in traditional costumes and approach us to pose in photos for money.  In an Argentinian mountain village we were even asked to pay to photograph a gentleman’s Saint Bernard dogs.  In these situations, you’ll have to exercise your best judgment.
    • When can you shoot first and ask questions later?: It’s rare, but on occasion you will encounter situations when the “decisive moment” will be lost if you ask for permission to shoot.  This is another judgment call.  Just like when shooting street photography at home, I consider several factors when deciding whether to make an image of a stranger in a different part of the world.  When I do see an amazing expression, gesture, or moment and decide to capture it before getting to know the subject, I will usually approach them and show them the image on the camera’s display, attempting to query whether it’s okay.  A smile and an easygoing, open gesture can help when approaching.  If the response is clearly negative, I delete the image on the spot and in front of the subject. Again, see the Golden Rule, above, and keep in mind that courtesy and respect make all the difference.

Cuba

This was one of those situations when I shot first and asked questions later.  The proprietor of Maria’s Cafe in an eco-village in Cuba’s rural Vinales Valley was standing on a balcony above the cafe surveying the activity below.  I loved the way her contemplative expression and relaxed gesture were framed by the saturated Caribbean colors of the doorway, so I made this image right from our table.  Later, when Maria came down to talk with customers, I showed her the photo and she was pleased with it.  Buy this photo

Beyond these general guidelines, there are local variations.  Do get to know the customs that prevail in the countries and regions you plan to visit.  For example, in some cultures it is acceptable to stand very close to others when conversing, while in other cultures the social boundaries are much more pronounced.  Sometimes it is fine to approach a child directly, but in other cases the first contact should be made with the parent or teacher.  There’s quite a bit of local variation in the amount of small-talk people engage in before getting down to business.  Knowing the local customs not only helps you make better portraits of the people you meet, but will also encourage deeper interactions and mutual respect.

In my experience, the camera is a wonderful bridge that enhances, rather than detracts from, making meaningful cultural connections with people while traveling.  Just try to do it the right way!

Want to read other posts about what to shoot during your travels?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/

Do you have a good story to share about your experiences, positive or otherwise, in photographing people you met during your travels?  What’s your approach to making portraits while abroad?  How has photography enhanced your cultural interactions?  Please post your thoughts in the comment box.

The Best Auto Mode You’ve Never Heard Of [Encore Publication]: What is manual mode with auto ISO, and when should you use it?

I’ve written often in “To Travel Hopefully” about the importance of learning to go beyond your camera’s full “Auto Mode,” in order to be able to control the exposure of your images.  Frequently I like to shoot in full “Manual Mode” so as to be able to choose both my shutter speed and my aperture for full creative control.  But in rapidly changing lighting conditions, it is a real challenge to stay in full manual mode, and it’s a big help to allow the camera’s exposure programs to choose the best overall exposure from image to image.  There are a few ways to do this.  In between the full auto mode and full manual control, there are two common semi-automatic exposure program modes that most photographers are aware of, namely Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes.  In today’s post I introduce another exposure mode that few photographers are aware of, but that can give the best of both worlds: automatic exposure setting while retaining full manual control over both aperture and shutter speed.  This exposure mode is called “Manual Mode with Auto ISO.”

It’s important to be able to control shutter speed because that’s the mechanism by which we can freeze action or allow it to blur for creative effect.  It’s equally important to retain control over aperture because this is the means by which we can increase depth-of-field to keep everything in focus or decrease depth-of-field to soften the background.  But there’s a third side to the exposure triangle beyond shutter speed and aperture.  This third parameter is our ISO setting.  Several years ago, most camera sensors weren’t very good at handling noise at very high ISO settings, so we took a risk of ending up with very noisy images if we used our camera’s Auto ISO setting.  Not so today.  Many modern sensors are quite adept at capturing nearly noiseless images at ISO settings up to at least 3200 and often to 6400 or even a lot higher.  So the stigma that “serious” photographers have historically attached to using the Auto ISO setting should really be laid to rest.

That happy development allows us to use a mode called “Manual Mode with Auto ISO,” in which we set the camera’s exposure program to “M” or full manual mode but also enable the camera’s Auto ISO setting.  By doing so we can preserve full control over both our shutter speed and our aperture, but also allow the camera to choose the best ISO setting to give a good overall exposure as lighting conditions change.  Making this mode even more appealing, most cameras let us select the highest ISO setting (say, 6400) that we’re willing to allow.  So if the lighting level gets sufficiently dim, the ISO won’t go so high as to introduce a lot of noise into the image; instead, we just select a slower shutter speed and/or a wider aperture.

A good example of when it makes sense to use Manual Mode with Auto ISO is when shooting a street fair or an outdoor sporting event.  In these situations the lighting can change quickly depending on the cloud cover, what direction we’re shooting, and the subject and type of image we’re making.  The following three images were all shot at last year’s Carnaval San Francisco, a big street festival and parade.  It was a sunny day, but much of the parade route was in open shade, and depending on the subject there were times when I wanted to use some fill flash.  To freeze the motion, I needed a fast shutter speed, and to isolate my main subject I usually wanted a wide aperture.  Using Manual Mode, I could choose both of these settings.  But because the light conditions were ever-changing, coupling the use of Auto ISO with Manual Mode allowed the camera to adapt the exposure to the light levels for each image.

Full direct sunlight on the main subject made for very bright lighting.  Buy this photo

Open shade with a touch of fill flash required slightly different settings.  Buy this photo

A close-up portrait made in cross-lighting needed yet another exposure level.  Buy this photo

The next time you’re shooting in a shifting lighting environment yet also want to preserve full control over both shutter speed and aperture, try Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  It’s not covered in most cameras’ instruction manuals, but it can be a big problem-solver in many situations.

Do you use Manual Mode with Auto ISO to control exposure?  Do you have other tips for how to adapt to changing lighting conditions without handing over the creative control to your camera?  Please share your experiences here.

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

 

Focus on Vietnam and Cambodia [Encore Publication]: One of the friendliest and most beautiful regions in the world, offering surprises at every turn

A monk pauses to reflect outside Angkor Wat.  After asking his permission, I positioned myself at his level and captured the portrait using a narrow aperture (high F-stop number) so as to keep the temple in focus in the background.  Buy this image

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

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

Our north-to-south adventure began in the capital and second largest city, Hanoi.  Hanoi strikes a lovely balance between bustling modernity and soulful history.  Steeped in French Colonial architecture, the city has an old-world charm, and the busy streets are shared by countless commuters on motor scooters and vendors selling their wares from the backs of their bicycles.

A Hanoi street scene.  The city’s cyclo-rickshaws are a great way to photograph local people because you are shooting from eye level and from a relatively stealthy vantage point.  Have the camera set up in advance with a fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture so as not to miss any good shots.  Good street photography requires capturing just the right moment when the people and the places come together in a meaningful way, such as these young people enjoying a meal in front of the advertisement promising such a lifestyle.  Buy this image

Phan Tranh Liem is one of the few remaining practitioners of the 1000-year-old Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry. He makes his own puppets, creates the shows, and performs them with his wife in their home in Hanoi.  To make an environmental portrait like this one, back up a bit to include the elements of the subject’s life in addition to the subject themselves.  Here I used a fast normal prime lens at a high ISO sensitivity setting and a touch of off-camera flash.  Buy this image

The village of Tho Ha is 20 miles north of Hanoi but worlds different culturally. We visited the home of a family who make rice paper, the main occupation in the village. Spring rolls are extremely popular throughout Vietnam, so there is high demand for rice paper.  Here, travel companion Mary C. tries her hand at the local craft.  Buy this image

Lion dancers perform for the Hanoi crowds in the days leading up to the harvest moon.  Handheld photography of fast-moving action after dark is challenging due to the need for a fast shutter speed in low-light conditions.  Don’t be afraid to crank up your camera’s sensitivity (ISO) setting.  You can reduce most of the resulting noise using software later.  Buy this image

Leaving behind the urban bustle of Hanoi, we drove to the shore of UNESCO World Heritage Site Halong Bay, where we boarded a traditional wooden junk for an overnight cruise.  Halong Bay boasts some of the most dramatic landscapes anywhere in the world, with more than 1600 jagged mountains jutting straight up out of its emerald waters.  This is a travel photographer’s dream location.

Don’t forget to include yourself in some of your images.  To make this portrait of my wife and me, I set up the camera in advance and then asked a fellow traveler to compose and shoot the image.  Buy this image

Glorious as Halong Bay’s mountainous scenery appears on its own, to make a great landscape image there should be other elements in the frame, too.  Here I waited for a traditional fishing boat to sail across the frame, using a deep depth-of-field (high F-stop number) to allow the whole scene from foreground to background to be rendered in sharp focus.  Buy this image

I hired the captain of our junk to take out the skiff at 5 AM in order to photograph sunrise on Halong Bay.  Any photograph is only as good as the light striking the camera’s sensor, and the light is nearly always best near sunrise and sunset, so sometimes it’s necessary to forego a good night’s sleep in order to capture that “golden hour” light.  Buy this image

En route to the Hanoi Airport for our flight to Hue, we stopped to say hello to several farmers harvesting rice by hand.  Careful attention to composition can make or break a wide-angle portrait like this one.  I found a vantage point that lined up the two farmers and included some of the beautiful green hues of the rice harvest.  Buy this image

We then flew to Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam.  This was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty during a period of great cultural and economic flourishing.  The food, architecture, and performing arts in Hue are unique and very appealing.

Hue’s landmark Thien Mu Pagoda is best photographed from the banks of the Perfume River.  Whenever shooting tall architectural subjects using a wide-angle lens, pay careful attention to the vertical lines, as lens distortion can cause the subject to appear to be leaning.  Buy this image

We had a lovely visit with a Buddhist nun at the convent of the Dieu Thanh Pagoda in Hue. It was fascinating to learn about her life in the convent and her decision process to give up worldly life as a young teen.  This is the sort of meaningful encounter that would be nearly impossible to set up if one were traveling on one’s own.  After obtaining her permission, I made this portrait using natural light only (no flash) and a fast prime portrait lens.  To capture really great portraits, it’s important to spend some time first getting to know your subject and putting them at ease.  Buy this image

En route from Hue to Hoi An, we visited a Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is a rapidly growing religion in Southeast Asia that integrates teachings from many other world religions.  We were fortunate to have the priest himself tell us about the faith.  I chose a wide-angle lens and high ISO sensitivity setting to capture this image of the priest in the temple’s ornate sanctuary.  Buy this image

Our next destination, Hoi An, is a charming town adorned with tens of thousands of brightly colored lanterns, giving it a festive appearance year-round.  Hoi An is also the gateway to the remarkable Champa Kingdom ruins at My Son.

Hoi An’s traditional central marketplace is a photographer’s candy store, filled with wonderful portrait subjects.  I shot this image of a food vendor using natural light only: she was busy and couldn’t be bothered to pose, so it was important to have the camera set up in advance with a high ISO and a fast shutter speed.  Buy this image

Traditional fishing practices on the Thu Bon River, just outside of Hoi An.  During post-processing, I increased the image’s vibrance a little bit to help saturate the colors.  Buy this image

At My Son Sanctuary, site of the most significant ruins from the Champa Kingdom, we attended a performance of ancient Cham dance.  To capture this image of the lovely dancers, I used a fast portrait lens with a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to freeze the motion and help isolate the dancers from the background.  To further emphasize the dancers and to saturate the colors in their costumes, I added just a touch of fill-in flash.  Buy this image

Heading further south, we next flew from Hoi An to Nha Trang.  The many rivers and rural villages in the area afforded us the opportunity to experience village life and even to visit a floating fishing village.

Visiting Dien Phu Kindergarten outside Nha Trang gave us a chance to learn about Vietnam’s education system.  Here the kids greet us as we arrive.  Buy this image

We had a fascinating discussion with the chief of Xom Gio Village, a former South Vietnamese soldier and survivor of the re-education camps who managed to work his way up to a high-level position after the war.  The key to making portraits that truly capture the spirit of the subject is to get to know them first, have your camera all set up in advance, take your time, and shoot plenty of images.  I used a fast portrait lens with a wide aperture to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this image

Our next stop was Dalat, a mountain retreat popular since French colonial times as a respite from the tropical heat found in most of Vietnam.  Our stay in Dalat was extremely memorable thanks to a visit with university students, a home-hosted dinner with a local family, tours of the region’s thriving agricultural industry, and a side trip to a mountainous village that is home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority.

We spent a lovely afternoon with students from Dalat University. I had the opportunity to get to know English teacher Trung and his bright young students Nhi , Diễm, and Giang.  For this photo we were joined by my wife and several other students.  Buy this image

Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe.  Buy this image

Boys from the Kho Chil hill tribe run after our tractor (a “Vietnamese limousine”) as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village.  A fast shutter speed and jaunty camera angle give this image its frenetic and playful appeal.  Buy this image

In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda outside of Dalat, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages.  When I saw this special juxtaposition lining up, I moved into a favorable position to capture it and waited for the perfect moment.  Buy this image

Our final destination in Vietnam before flying to Cambodia was the largest city and financial hub of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  A chaotic metropolis of 13 million people, Ho Chi Minh City is thoroughly modern yet holds remnants of a colonial past.  It is also the location of many of the iconic photographs taken during the Vietnam War.

Saigon’s splendid Central Post Office.  Good interior photographs should have a symmetry and leading lines that direct the viewer’s eye around the image.  I used a wide-angle lens to compose this image, shot parallel to the ground so as not to introduce too much distortion.  Buy this image

The food was uniformly delicious throughout Vietnam, from the most elegant French-Vietnamese fusion restaurants to the lowliest pho shops.  The simple but perfect pho we enjoyed in this small shop in Saigon was the best I’ve ever tasted.  To photograph food, get in close and compose so as to include some contrasting elements of colors and shapes.  Buy this image

Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these three former Viet Cong fighters.  They lived for years in the subterranean Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground.  Our travel companion Don, pictured with them here, is a Vietnam War veteran. It was very moving to witness his experience meeting these former enemy fighters.  Buy this image

Leaving Ho Chi Minh City behind, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Travelers come to Cambodia primarily to see the justifiably famous Angkor temple complexes, but there is so much more to this beautiful country.  We were fortunate to have time also to explore the rural villages in the region and to get to know some of the people there.

In a small village outside of Siem Reap, an elder greets us.  This portrait is a favorite of mine because of the beauty and personality of the subject, but it’s also successful because the background is clean and uncluttered.  Always pay attention to your backgrounds, especially when shooting people and wildlife, as unwanted background elements can distract from the power of the image.  Buy this image

Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge freshwater Tonle Sap Lake, we got a closeup view of lives lived entirely on the water.  As we floated by this family’s houseboat, I captured this image of their daily life.  Buy this image

At last, we toured the world wonder of Angkor Wat.  I’m always on the lookout for unusual vantage points to shoot iconic monuments, so as to avoid the dreaded “postcard shots”.  Here, I framed the temple complex in the window of an ancient outbuilding across the moat from Angkor Wat.  The compositional elements from front to back include the window frame, the Cambodian people sitting on the wall, the reflection in the water, and the temple itself.  Buy this image

Angkor Wat Temple is by far the most visited of the temple complexes around Angkor, but the others are well worth a trip.  Unlike Angkor Wat, which has been cleared of vegetation and excavated, the nearby Ta Prohm Temple has been left mostly in a state of nature.  A key scene in one of the “Indiana Jones” movies was filmed here.  Buy this image

I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances.  When shooting indoor dance performances, I use one of three different fast prime (non-zoom) lenses, opened up to a wide aperture, and a high ISO sensitivity setting.  This ensures a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action even in the low light conditions of an indoor venue, since flash is almost never allowed during live performances.  Buy this image

In Siem Reap we learned about the traditional art of folding flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine.  The young daughter of the flower stall owner demonstrates with these flowers she folded herself.  Buy this image

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

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

 

Decent Exposure [Encore Publication]: Mastering exposure is key to getting great images

Of all the primary elements a photographer controls–composition, focus, the moment the shutter is released, and of course the choice of the subject–none is more critical to making a great image than setting a proper exposure.  Some corrections to a poorly exposed image can be made in post-processing, and there are occasionally good artistic reasons to override the norms of exposure in order to evoke a certain mood in an image by making it darker or brighter than usual, but before we can effectively make these exceptional choices it is necessary to learn the basics of setting an appropriate exposure.

Let’s begin by defining exposure and the elements that comprise it.  Simply put, exposure refers to the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor and therefore how light or dark the resulting image will appear.  Four components together determine the exposure: 1) the brightness of the light reflecting off the subject and reaching the front of the lens, 2) the aperture setting on the lens (how wide or narrow is the opening of the lens), 3) the shutter speed setting (how long is the camera’s shutter open to allow light to strike the sensor), and 4) the sensitivity setting of the camera’s sensor.  We don’t always have control over the first component, but the other three are within our control using our camera’s settings.

Many photographers simply set their camera on Auto mode and let the camera’s built-in meter make its best guess as to how the image should be exposed.  That method can work well under certain conditions, but it is highly prone to errors.  For example, if your main subject is strongly backlit, the camera’s meter will expose for the average brightness in the scene and will underexpose the subject.  This is why so often we see underexposed photos of people standing outside in bright sunlight.

Although I compensated for the strong backlighting in this image of a Tibetan family enjoying a midday picnic, their faces are still quite shadowy, indicating a bit brighter exposure would have been better still.  Buy this photo

Fortunately, there are several easy methods to achieve a correct exposure even under challenging lighting conditions.  Here are a few that I use frequently:

  1. Set the camera’s metering mode to Spot Metering: By default most cameras’ metering systems use a sophisticated pattern-matching algorithm that measures how bright or dark each area of the image is and makes its best guess about a workable exposure based on similar scenes in the camera’s database.  Most cameras allow you to select a simpler metering mode called Spot Metering, that just measures the light at the central point in the image or another point that you select.  If you choose Spot Metering and select the measuring point to be right where your main subject is, you should get just the right exposure.
  2. Dial in some exposure compensation: Most cameras let you override the meter’s exposure setting by dialing in a compensation setting to lighten or darken the image.  If your subject is backlit, you will likely want to increase the exposure by one to two stops (each “stop” of additional exposure represents a doubling of the amount of light reaching the sensor).  The camera’s display should show something like “+1 EV” to alert you that you’ve dialed in 1 extra stop of exposure, and the number changes as you change the compensation setting.  Just be sure to set the exposure compensation back to zero when you’re done using it.
  3. Go fully manual: To gain complete control over your camera’s exposure settings, choose the meter’s Manual mode.  Then you can change all three exposure elements (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) until the image appears properly exposed when you review it on your camera’s display.
  4. Use flash to increase the lighting on your main subject: One good way to achieve proper exposure with a backlit subject is to increase lighting on the subject itself, so that there is no longer such a difference in brightness between the subject and the background.  Your camera’s built-in flash may be strong enough to pull off this trick, but it often helps to have a more powerful flash unit with you.  There are some other reasons why you may not want to use flash as a main source of light on your subject, so this method should be used sparingly.  A reflector can be used instead of flash to reflect some of the sun’s light onto the front of your subject.

For this photo shoot with a musician friend, I shot into the light so she wouldn’t have to squint into the sun and also so that we’d have a beautiful rim light from the sun around her hair.  To pull this off, I used manual mode and selected the proper exposure for her face.  I employed a reflector to bounce some sunlight back onto her face and trumpet.  [Client image not for sale.]

Similar methods can be used for other challenging lighting conditions besides backlighting.  If the subject is a brighter or darker color than the “neutral gray” your camera’s meter uses for a standard, then you need to dial in more or less exposure as appropriate.  My black cat Dragonfly, for example, requires an especially dark exposure to override the meter from thinking he’s a gray cat and choosing too bright an exposure.  Similarly, a white polar bear will need additional exposure to stop the meter from underexposing what it assumes to be a gray bear.

When photographing a black subject, reduce the exposure to compensate for the light meter’s mistaken assumption that the subject is a neutral gray color.  Buy this photo

Whatever method you use to choose your exposure, be sure to take a look at the resulting image using your camera’s monitor.  Does the main subject appear to be properly exposed, or is it still too dark or perhaps too bright?  If your camera offers a histogram display, learn how it works and use it to check your exposure in tricky lighting conditions.  I’ll write a future post specifically about the histogram, as it is a very useful and often overlooked feature.

With some attention to the exposure of your images and use of some of the techniques described here, you can achieve a correctly exposed image nearly all of the time.  After mastering the essentials of exposure, you will have more keepers and fewer images in the virtual trash can, and you can even begin to break the rules for artistic effect.

Want to see more posts on photographic techniques?  You can find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

What lighting situations do you find the trickiest?  What techniques do you use to ensure properly exposed images?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Things We Carry [Encore Publication]: Basic Gear for Travel Photography, Part II

Kyle Adler photographer travel photography

Let’s pick up the gear discussion where we left off on the recent post.  Last time, we covered cameras and lenses.  Now we’ll talk about flashes, tripods, accessories, bags, and other essential kit.

Flash Units

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases that can be 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 flexible control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you will 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.

Tripods

For most travel situations, you’ll want a lightweight tripod that folds up to a nice portable size but still offers enough stability for most uses.  There are times, though, when I need to bring along my heavy and bulky professional tripod.  Whatever tripod you choose, be sure to fit it with a good quality head (ball heads provide a lot of flexibility and ease of use for travelers) and remember to take along the plate that attaches the tripod to your camera, if required.

My go-to lightweight travel tripod is the Manfrotto Be Free.  It folds up to an incredibly small size yet affords a surprising amount of stability.  The included ball head works well but is difficult to adjust for sensitivity.  This tripod is designed to fit into a special pouch in my favorite travel photography backpack, also made by Manfrotto.

The SLIK 615-315 is a great tripod for use close to home or on trips where you will have constant vehicle support.  It’s very solid, supports a tremendous amount of weight, and can be adjusted for nearly any shooting situation.  I recommend you fit it with a good ball head for maximum flexibility.

A monopod can be a real problem solver when you need more stability than handholding or resting your camera on a vehicle or table will afford, but you can’t carry or use a full tripod.  I use the Manfrotto 681B model.

Accessories

We photographers love our toys!  While it is easy to get carried away and purchase every cool accessory that comes along, I will try to limit the recommendations here to a handful of truly essential items.  And don’t forget the little things like lens cleaning cloths, a blower brush for dust, and of course extra batteries and chargers for your camera and flash.

Three kinds of filters are essential gear for most photographers.  I’ll cover each type below.  Note that you must use a filter that is the correct size to attach to your lens.

It’s a good idea to keep a UV filter attached to your lenses at all times, as this helps protect the front element of the lens from scratches.  Use a good quality filter, though, as the poorer ones can affect image quality.  I would recommend removing the UV filter when shooting with certain other combinations of filters, as the edges of the image can be cut off (vignetting) with too thick a stack of filters on the end of the lens.  I’ve had good luck with Hoya UV filters.

The second must-have type of filter is the circular polarizer.  A polarizing filter can reduce glaring reflections and can darken skies and enhance natural colors.  This little gadget is almost a secret weapon for making images that really pop.  Again, I like the Hoya products, which are thin, well made, and perform as they should.

The final essential filter is the neutral density filter.  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.

Another essential is a good remote release for your camera.  I know plenty of photographers who still use the good old trusty wired (or cable) releases.  I like to be able to move away from the camera when shooting remotely, so I favor a wireless release such as the RFN-4s Wireless Remote Shutter Release.

Smartphones

Most of us would never consider leaving home without our phone, and there are additional good reasons to carry yours with you when you are photographing at home or around the globe.  First, the cameras in today’s better phones are now good enough to make quite good images.  I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the main camera, and even the selfie camera, on my Apple iPhone 6S.  But your phone is also an essential photography tool because there are some very good apps to help you plan, shoot, and share your images.  There are too many to list here, but I’ll plan a future post to share some of my favorites.

Bags

Aside from cameras and lenses, no other category of gear gets photographers arguing quite so heatedly as bags.  For a travel photographer, your bag must be highly protective and durable yet lightweight, fit your gear well but with the flexibility to change out kit as needed, and preferably not advertise that you have expensive camera equipment inside.  The choice of what bag to use is a very personal one, but I’m still going to recommend my three favorites.

For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It will almost always be accepted as carryon on flights, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.

My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.

For carrying just a few pieces of gear around town or close to home or hotel, a shoulder bag can work well.  This is the best setup for quickly accessing your gear while shooting, but it can be tiring to carry the weight across one side of your body if you have a lot of trekking to do.

Software

For post-processing my images, I use both Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop Elements.  I can do 90% of my processing using just Lightroom, but occasionally I do need the added power of Photoshop.  While I still use the perpetual license software versions, by now most photographers have gone over to the monthly licensing structure that Adobe calls the Creative Cloud.

What gear can’t you live without?  Have you discovered any little gadgets that improve your images or make life easier for photographers?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.  I’d love to get your ideas!

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

The Things We Carry [Encore Publication]: Basic Gear for Travel Photography, Part I

In today’s post, we’ll cover cameras and lenses.  I’ll post again soon with Part II, which will discuss flash units, tripods, accessories, bags, and other essential gear.

One of the biggest challenges we face as travel photographers is what gear to carry with us.  On the one hand, we have to be ready for anything.  It’s quite possible we will have to shoot landscapes, wildlife, portraits, architecture, indoor performances, and night scenes, often all on the same day.  On the other hand, there’s a practical limit to how much we can carry without being turned away by airline personnel or damaging our bodies.  And who really wants to travel with 75 pounds of photo kit?

Here is my basic setup for travel.  Note that my gear is suitable for a professional or enthusiast photographer on a not-unlimited budget (my wife keeps me from getting carried away).  There are less expensive alternatives for most of the gear I carry, and those on unlimited budgets can spend much, much more than this.  I will adjust what I bring depending on the specifics of the trip.  For a safari in East Africa, that 500mm lens is essential, but I wouldn’t want to lug it on a hiking trip in Ireland.  On a trip to view a total solar eclipse, I’ll need that rock solid but very heavy professional tripod, but on most trips my lightweight travel tripod is good enough, thank you.  But the following list of items comprises the core of my basic travel gear.

Cameras

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to your choice of camera.  These days, even a simple point-and-shoot camera or a smartphone camera is capable of making very good images.  But if you’re willing to carry a bit more weight and to learn how to use it before you take it on your first trip, a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera or a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera will give you much more flexibility.  I use a DSLR, but more and more of my photographer friends are switching over to mirrorless cameras.  It’s really a matter of personal choice, and if you’re not planning to carry a lot of specialized (and heavy) lenses with you, the smaller size and lighter weight of a mirrorless camera may make up for the loss of certain features.  For very photo-intensive trips where it would be impossible to replace a lost or broken camera, such as an African safari, I will pack two DSLR camera bodies, but often I take a chance and bring just one.  Whatever camera you take on your trip, make sure you know how to use all its features and have tested it thoroughly before you leave, and if you’ve been using it for a while, have it cleaned in advance of your departure.  Note that while I am a Nikon shooter, comparable gear is available from Canon for DSLR afficianadoes.  In the high-end mirrorless arena, Sony’s Alpha a7R II is favored by many professionals and enthusiasts.

My go-to camera is the Nikon D810.  This is a professional model and not for beginners, but it really does do it all.  The resolution is extraordinary, it performs superbly in very low-light situations, the autofocus is fast and flexible, it’s continuous burst shooting speed is good enough, and I love the feel of the camera in my hands and the control it offers over all settings quickly.  I’ve put this baby through hell and high water, but it always comes through for me.

Lenses

For beginning users of interchangeable lens cameras, or for seasoned photographers who need to travel light, a small and lightweight “walkaround lens” may be all that you need to bring for a day’s shooting.  Mine is the Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 lens.  It’s a good value for a well-built if not quite professional grade lens, and while not particularly fast, it does offer vibration reduction which allows you to shoot at slower shutter speeds while controlling for camera shake.  I recommend this lens for users of cameras with full-frame sensors who want a small, light, and fairly durable lens for those situations when you want to be ready for most anything.

It’s a good idea to have a wide-angle zoom lens for landscapes, architecture, and other situations where you need to include a lot of area in the frame or want a more uncluttered or exaggerated perspective.  I use the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens for this purpose.  It’s got great image quality and is well built, but it is rather heavy and bulky.

A telephoto zoom lens is a must-have for most travel photographers, as it allows you to shoot many wildlife subjects as well as emphasize details in all subjects you encounter.  A longer lens also can be used to provide a compressed perspective that makes far-away subjects appear to be closer to foreground subjects; this perspective can be very powerful in landscape images.  My primary tele zoom is the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens.  While this lens is built on aging technology and doesn’t always feel as solid as more professional lenses, it is relatively small and lightweight, fairly inexpensive, and provides a very effective vibration reduction function.  This lens has been a staple in my bag for many years, during which time I’ve used it to capture some of my favorite images.

 

You may never need a super-telephoto lens.  They tend to be expensive, bulky, and heavy, and on many trips you won’t need it.  But for those trips when you expect to encounter lots of wildlife or want to capture astronomical events like an eclipse or transit of a planet, a very long lens is essential.  Mine 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.

So far, we’ve talked about zoom lenses.  It’s also a good idea to carry a few prime (fixed focal length) lenses.  These tend to be faster, higher quality, and less expensive than zoom lenses in the same category.  The downside, of course, is that you have to “zoom with your feet,” that is, find a vantage point that works to compose your image without benefit of changing the lens’ focal length.

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 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 astrophotography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

 

Stay tuned for Part II of our gear discussion, to be posted soon on this same Bat Channel.

What’s your go-to camera and which are your indispensable lenses?  Add your thoughts to the comment box at the end of this post!

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

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” ~Maya Angelou [Encore Publication]: How to make great portraits while traveling or near home

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” ~Maya Angelou

I have long believed that travel equates to growth; that we cannot know our place in the world until we have experienced the lives of people in many different places.  Of all the joys of travel photography, to me the greatest is having the chance to meet people from very different backgrounds, to get to know them for a few minutes or for much longer, and to collaborate with them to make memorable images.

A recurring theme in this forum will be how to use our cameras as a bridge to learn about and to share insights into other cultures.  But the emphasis of this particular post is on the technical elements of creating portraits.  These techniques apply as well to shooting portraits across the street from our home as to making great people images halfway around the world.

Most portraits that we see published in magazines or photography books were made in the studio, where the photographer has complete control over the lighting and background, and often is working with a professional model.  But when we’re traveling, there’s often only a moment after getting to know a person and receiving their permission to photograph them, during which to set up our gear and shoot.  We have to live with whatever lighting is available and often must make do with a cluttered background.  To make this portrait of a woman enjoying a coffee break at a carpet-weaving collective in Turkey, I wanted to give the image a soft, flattering look and to bring out the rich, saturated colors of her clothing.  I chose a smaller than usual aperture to provide greater depth-of-field, so that the old house itself became part of the environment.  To accommodate the soft and dim natural indoor lighting, I used a higher ISO setting and a slower shutter speed.

Turkey This portrait set in a weaving collective in Turkey evokes a sense of place and a mood of quiet repose.  Buy this photo 

While trekking in Nepal, we stopped to rest at a teahouse where these two sisters were also taking a break along their journey.  I wished them “Namaste,” or well wishes, and they responded with a traditional hand gesture of greeting.  This image was made long before the digital era on a film camera with a normal lens and natural lighting only (had I had a flash unit handy, it would have helped to bring out the girls’ hair against the dark background).  I love the warmth of the girls’ expressions and the simple but bright colors of their dresses set off against the black background of the teahouse’s interior.

NepalA friendly welcome from these two young sisters at a rural teahouse in Nepal.  Buy this photo

Sometimes we want to tell the viewer more about our subject than what is possible in a simple close-up portrait.  An environmental portrait allows us to include more than just the subject by zooming out and bringing in other elements.  I photographed this maker of traditional Turkish instruments in his workshop while he tested a nearly-completed Bağlama, surrounded by other partially made instruments.  To my eye, the resulting portrait is more compelling than a close-up because it shows the subject in his environment.  To make this portrait, I used a wider focal-length and a narrower aperture so as to have more of the environmental elements in the frame and in focus.

TurkeyAn environmental portrait of a maker of traditional Turkish musical instruments.  Buy this photo

A portrait doesn’t have to portray a stock-still person posing for the camera.  Some of my favorite portraits evoke a strong sense of motion.  I made this portrait of a samba dancer during the Carnaval San Francisco annual parade by getting in close and shooting with a medium-length telephoto lens set to a small aperture to soften the background.  I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action (although sometimes a slower shutter speed can be used to create a nice blurred effect).  In post-processing, I cropped the image to further isolate the dancer and emphasize the grace of the motion.

USA This dancer in a Brazilian Samba krewe was captured in a tight composition that was further cropped in post-processing to give a strong sense of motion.  Buy this photo

Keep an eye on the total composition when framing a portrait.  It’s more than just a matter of framing the subject within the image: other considerations include the background and the overall flow of the viewer’s eye across the image.  In this portrait of the proprietor of Maria’s Cafe in rural Cuba, I composed the image to use the brightly colored door, balcony, staircase, and tree to frame the subject herself.

CubaComposing a portrait involves thinking about the background and the viewer’s overall experience in looking across the image.  Buy this photo

A really good portrait should tell a story about the subject.  Here, Cuban tobacco farmer Benito relaxes in his drying barn with a cigar he just rolled from his tobacco harvest.  I got in close and used the natural light of his cigar lighter and the diffused sunlight within the barn, with no flash added.

CubaThis portrait of a Cuban tobacco farmer tells a story about who he is and what he does.  Buy this photo  

Consider the angle from which you shoot a portrait, as it has a strong influence on the emotional response of the viewer.  Most of the time we want to shoot a head shot or head-and-shoulders shot from a height midway between the top and bottom of the image, but to make this portrait of sisters on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania, I chose to shoot from slightly above.  It’s a fine line between giving a sense of vulnerability and causing the image to seem condescending, but I like this photo in part because I feel the unusual vantage point evokes a strong sense of emotion.

TanzaniaAn unusual shooting angle can enhance a portrait, but be careful not to overdo this effect.  Buy this photo

Another rule meant to be broken is freezing the action of a portrait’s subject.  During a fitness photoshoot with my friend Crystal, I shot mostly with a fast shutter speed to freeze her while she worked out.  But for this image, we wanted a blurred effect to create a sense of her forward motion while running, so I used a slower shutter speed.

A slower shutter speed can be used to give more sense of motion to a rapidly moving subject.  Buy this photo

Sometimes a perspective change can work wonders for a portrait.  In this image of the chief of a remote village in Swaziland, I got down low and shot with a wide-angle lens to portray her in the context of the hut behind her and the gourds she holds in her hands.  A wide view in a portrait can lead to less-flattering likenesses, so this effect should be used sparingly.

SwazilandA wide-angle lens and unusual perspective shooting from low to the ground lend this portrait of a Swaziland village leader a sense of connection to the place.  Buy this photo

A note on gear: My go-to portrait lens is the 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.  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.

Which of your portraits do you find most memorable, and why?  How did you create them?  Please share your thoughts here.

Please read this post for my essential tips on how to photograph people while traveling: Post on Travel Portraiture.

Post-Processing without Post-Traumatic Stress [Encore Publication]: A pro’s case study on quick and simple workflow for large batches of images

As a working professional photographer, I wouldn’t trade my job for any other in the world.  I get to travel the world while capturing images of the diversity of cultures, landscapes, foods, events, and wildlife it has to offer.  And when I’m not traveling, I have the opportunity to document so many wonderful people and events in my own San Francisco Bay Area neighborhood.  Every job, not matter how wonderful, has its challenges.  In this digital age, we photographers are often faced with workflow challenges: how do we cull 10,000 images from a big shoot down to a manageable number, post-process the best ones so that they’ll look their best, and distribute them quickly to the client?  Today’s post offers one professional’s take on a quick and simple workflow that meets these challenges, delivering wonderful images to the client in a short period of time while (hopefully) preserving the sanity of the photographer.

I recently had the opportunity to capture two dress rehearsals and two performances of Dance Identity’s annual Spotlight production, showcasing 250 students and company dancers in 22 numbers.  I shot nearly 10,000 images, culled them down to about 700, post-processed, and delivered a gallery to the client, all within 24 hours of the final show.  Here’s how.

To illustrate the workflow, we’ll use as a case study the annual Spotlight production of local dance school and company Dance Identity.  To document their 250 dancers in 22 dance numbers, I shot both dress rehearsals and both performances, as well as capturing dancers backstage and during candid moments.  I captured some group shots of all the performers, instructors, and crew.  And to get the big picture, I even shot from the catwalks at the top of the theater down onto the stage.  In all, I shot nearly 10,000 images, which I culled to about 700 of the best photos, each of which required individual attention in post-processing.  I delivered a gallery with these top images to the client within 24 hours of the end of the final show.  Needless to say, without an efficient workflow this challenge would have been crushing.  Here’s how I did it.  The process I share here will be helpful for enthusiast photographers as well as pros.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re delivering your images to a paying client or to your friends and family.  When it’s crunch time and you have to turn around thousands of images from a shoot very quickly, this is a workflow that gets results.

Every image is different, but for large-scale shoots it is important to have a workflow that is streamlined so much of the processing can be done in an automated fashion.

Step 1: Culling Your Images

After each shoot, if there’s time before the next one starts, I review and begin to cull my images.  There are some advantages to culling on a bigger screen, but to save time during big events like Dance Identity’s Spotlight production, I cull right on my camera’s LCD screen.  Sure, some excellent images will be discarded using this approach, but with 10,000 images to get through quickly, it’s impractical to upload all of them to a PC and rank them all in a tool like Lightroom.  I zoom in on the images when required in order to get a closer look at focus, facial expressions, etc., and I use the camera’s histogram to check exposure.  I delete liberally as I go, keeping only the best images for a second review on the laptop.  In the case of the Dance Identity shoots, I culled in-camera from 10,000 down to about 1500 images.

With so many similar images to choose from, the culling process needs to be quick and dirty.  I do it using my camera’s LCD screen, transferring only the best images to the laptop for further culling and processing.

Step 2: Post-Processing

After culling down to a manageable number of images, but ensuring that the selected photos still represent all the dance numbers and all the performers, as well as a range of styles (group shots, motion shots, closeups, etc.), it’s time to post-process.  I use Lightroom nearly exclusively as the tool for this job when it’s a large-scale shoot.  Lightroom is optimized for the professional photographer’s workflow, and its presets, synchronization tools, and intuitive layout allow photographers to get the job done quickly and properly.

First, I import the selected images into Lightroom, using a preset to automatically adjust white balance, exposure, and noise reduction to the subject, in this case a fast-moving dance performance shot in an indoor theater.  For example, I use the import preset and/or synchronization capability in the Develop module to quickly apply noise reduction for all the shots made at high ISO settings (1600 and above).

Next, I turn off synchronization and go through each image individually in the Develop module, fine-tuning the settings for that specific image.  With many hundreds of images to fine-tune, I can only spend about thirty seconds on each one, so the workflow has to be very straightforward.  Typically I use the crop tool first, as this will be required for nearly every image.  I use the straightening tool within the crop toolset, selecting a line (such as a line on the stage or the bottom of the theater’s curtain) that I want to align with the top and bottom of the image.  Then I crop the image to highlight the subject in the most powerful way.  Sometimes I turn off the aspect ratio lock and set the image’s proportions manually, but most of the time I try to work with the aspect ratio as shot in the camera.  After straightening and cropping the image, I do some fine adjustments on the exposure and color settings, and then apply any needed effects such as post-crop vignetting or conversion to black-and-white.  Rarely, I may have to apply some selective adjustments such as brightening just one part of the image or removing a distracting background, but this slows down the workflow and should only be used when required.

Each image should be quickly straightened and cropped, then color and exposure settings (like the black point in the image above) can be applied to show the subject most effectively.  

Step 3: Delivering the Final Images

Once all the selected images have been processed, it’s time to deliver them to the client.  It can save time and simplify the workflow to use Lightroom’s Publish module to send your images directly to the platform you plan to use to deliver them.  My website is powered by SmugMug, which integrates well with Lightroom.  However, in the case of the Dance Identity shoots, I exported the top images to my PC’s hard drive, then uploaded the files from there to a new gallery on my website.  It’s your call as to which method you like to use.  In either case, once your final image files have been uploaded to your platform, it’s a good idea to apply security settings such as watermarking, right-click protection, and passwords to protect the images from misuse.  This is also the time to apply keywording so that you, your clients, and the public can find the images now and in the future.  Finally, communicate the availability of the final images, the access method, and the pricing to your client.

Delivering your images to a high quality platform quickly is a requirement to meet client needs in today’s world of fast-paced digital media.

So, there you have it: A quick but effective workflow to go from many thousands of raw images down to a few dozen or a few hundred beautifully processed photos, delivered to the client quickly and professionally.  And the best part is that you, the photographer, can retain at least some of your sanity in the process.  Of course, if you’re preparing fine art images for a major competition or exhibition, you’ll want to labor painstakingly over each one, hand-crafting every element of the image until you get it perfect.  But when you’ve got many, many raw images that need to be delivered promptly, this process is a workmanlike way to get the job done!

Take a bow!  You’ve married art with process engineering to deliver high-quality images to your client in a minimum amount of time.

Whether you’re a pro shooting for a paying client or an enthusiast shooting for family and friends, this basic workflow will get your images looking great and in the hands of those who want to see them in the shortest possible time.

What tips and tricks do your use when processing very large batches of images?  Please share your suggestions here!

Want to see more posts about image post-processing?  Find them all here: Posts about post-processing.

Focus on Tahiti Dance Fete [Encore Publication]: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

The travel photographer must be prepared to shoot under challenging circumstances, because often we have little control over the conditions in the field.  We may plan our travel years in advance to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse, only to wake up on the morning of the eclipse to find the sky is totally overcast.  Or we could make arrangements months ahead to be at a major cultural festival, but learn upon arrival that the area we’re shooting from is hundreds of yards from the action.  These things happen, but the professional photographer still needs to get her shot.  So, what can be done to persevere and increase our odds of getting usable images under adversity?  The answer, of course, depends on the specific circumstances of each shoot, but there are some general tips I can offer.  Today’s post presents a case study based on my recent shoot of the solo dance competition at the Tahiti Fete in San Jose, California.

The dancers made lovely subjects, but the shooting conditions were very challenging.  Read on to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation.  Buy this photo

Upon arrival at the dance competition, I realized immediately that this shoot would be challenging.  It was held in a cramped hotel convention room with a makeshift stage, rows of folding chairs for spectators, insufficient lighting of poor color quality, and a bank of judges blocking most of the view of the stage.  To make matters worse, the room was packed with people, many of whom stood up to cheer on their friends, and the only available seats were near the far end of the room.  An extra challenge was thrown into the mix by the cluttered and unattractive background behind the performers on the stage.

Cluttered backgrounds are a significant obstacle, but good images can still be made in these situations.  Buy this photo

What can be done to mitigate against a cluttered background?  I shot plenty of images of each dancer to increase the likelihood that I could eliminate some of the more distracting background elements while still capturing the excitement, grace, and colors of the dancing.  This image was the best I could capture of this particular dancer, so I committed to it in post-processing.  I cropped the image to avoid the most distracting elements, adjusted the exposure curves, contrast, and sharpness of the background to de-emphasize it, and applied some post-crop vignetting to ensure the dancer would be highlighted.

When using a very high ISO, some noise will result.  This doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Buy this photo

The lighting was very dim at this venue.  Because I was shooting from far away, I needed to use a long telephoto lens, which limited me to a small aperture and no possibility of using flash.  Nonetheless, a fast shutter speed was required in order to freeze the fast action of the Polynesian dancing.  This combination (low lighting, small aperture, and fast shutter speed) leaves no option other than a very high ISO setting.  I shot the above image at ISO 6400.  Even with an excellent professional camera sensor, such a high ISO will generate some noise in the image.  Noise can often be reduced to acceptable levels during post-processing.  But for this particular image, I was aiming for a soft, painterly feel.  The visual effect of high contrast, soft colors, and a bit of visual noise here gives the feel of an impressionistic rendering.  For this expressive Tahitian subject, I was very happy to have a Gauguin-esque style shine through in the final image.

 Cut out elements that don’t work.  Buy this photo

To make the above image, I cropped out distracting portions such as the judges’ heads in the foreground and an ugly door and wall in the background.  The resulting aspect ratio is non-standard, but works well for this image.  I desaturated the background and used post-crop vignetting to focus attention on the dancer.

 


Black-and-white renderings can be more forgiving when color quality is low.  Buy this photo

This image portrays a lovely subject but the lighting was especially poor.  Realizing I couldn’t do much to mitigate the strange color cast resulting from the artificial lights, I converted the image to monochrome, boosted the contrast, and adjusted the color channel mix to render a pleasing and elegant final image.  Check out this post to learn how black-and-white conversion can be used to save the day when color temperatures or image noise are problems: Post on B&W conversion to save strangely colored images.

Bringing it all together: This image works nicely in spite of all the challenges present at the shoot, including foreground obstacles, dim and low quality lighting, a far-away vantage point, and a cluttered background.  Buy this photo

In spite of multiple significant technical issues, I was able to make some striking images of the lovely dancers at this Tahitian festival.  Hopefully, the tips presented here will help when you next are faced with a challenging shoot.  The most important thing is to keep shooting as best you can while in the field.  There are multiple methods you can use in post-processing to mitigate against the shooting challenges and end up with images you will be proud of.

What techniques do you use when faced with difficult shooting conditions?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Focus on Amsterdam, Bruges, and Copenhagen [Encore Publication]: Canal cities of Northern Europe

On a recent independent driving trip through Northern Europe, my wife and I covered a lot of kilometers in our new Volvo, from the factory in Sweden through Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium.  In this post, I hone in on the ABC’s of European canal cities: Amsterdam, Bruges, and Copenhagen, three of the most photogenic places you’re ever likely to visit.  I share some highlights in the order we visited these cities, beginning with Copenhagen, Denmark; then on to Bruges, Belgium; and ending up in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Familiar sights, such as Christiansborg Palace, seat of the Danish Parliament, can transform by night.  To make this image, I set up a tripod on a bridge crossing the canal and framed the shot to capture the building along with its reflection.  Buy this photo

Our hotel in Copenhagen was right on the harbor, or Nyhaven.  This was the view from our window.  Buy this photo

When photographing iconic subjects, like Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue, try to avoid the postcard image clichés.  Here, I framed the statue from an unusual perspective and used a very wide aperture to throw the less attractive background into soft focus.  While the subject is still recognizable, to my eye it’s more contemplative and serene than in conventional photos. Buy this photo

Bruges is a gloriously beautiful city, and at its most lovely by night.  This image was shot from a bridge over a small canal, with the camera on a tripod and a fairly wide focal length to capture the reflection in the water.  I converted the image to black-and-white using Lightroom in post-processing.  Buy this photo

Instead of just shooting up at the famous Belfort tower in Markt square, turn the tables and shoot down on the square from the top of the tower.  I love the colorful façades of the old houses on the square in this tight crop looking down.  Buy this photo

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Don’t forget to capture some shots of yourself wherever you travel.  It’s easy to get lost in the splendor of a city like Bruges, and to return home with hundreds or thousands of images of lovely medieval buildings, but you want to have a few that include your traveling companions.  Ask another competent photographer to compose the shot for you (after setting up your camera exactly the way you want), or set up the camera on a tripod and shoot with a remote release or self-timer.  Buy this photo

Amsterdam is another canal city filled with gorgeous subjects for photography.  And like Bruges and Copenhagen, Amsterdam is at its most lovely by night.  I captured this impressionistic night scene of Amsterdam’s Westerkerk (West Church) reflected in the waters of the Prinsengracht Canal.  Buy this photo

Museum art makes a great photographic subject.  Just be sure to understand the museum’s policy on photography and never use flash.  I love Jan Steen’s painting, “The Merry Family”, because it reminds me of dinnertime in my household.  In Holland, unruly families are still referred to as “Steen families.”  I consider it a compliment.  Buy this photo

Amsterdam’s most visited sight remains the so-called “Red Light District,” which actually features some of the city’s most beautiful old canal houses.  The working women in this area do not take kindly to being photographed through the windows, so don’t try this unless you want your camera to end up at the bottom of the canal.  Instead, set up a tripod on a bridge and shoot the bustling crowds as they wander the stately old neighborhood.  Buy this photo

These three atmospheric old cities, with their beautiful canals, lovely architecture, and iconic sights, offer remarkable photographic opportunities.  Visit, get lost along the ancient waterways, and keep on shooting!

Have you visited Amsterdam, Bruges, Copenhagen, or any of Europe’s other great canal cities such as Venice?  What were your favorite experiences and images from the trip?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

Want to read about more travel photography destinations?  Find all of the destination posts here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/destinations/.

 

Baggage Claim: A photographer’s guide to how to pack for a trip

 Special trips often require specialized gear.  To photograph the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015, I had to pack a heavy professional tripod, 500mm super-telephoto lens, a remote release capable of functioning in extreme cold, and a custom-made solar filter.  Thankfully, most trips are easier to pack for.  Buy this photo

Packing is never the most fun part of a trip, and the special challenges we travel photographers face can be particularly vexing.  But with a few guidelines and some common sense, we can easily bring along just what photo gear we’re likely to need and still be able to make room for some socks and underwear.  Here is my very opinionated guide to how to pack for any length and type of trip.

    1. What type of trip are you taking?
      • If it’s a driving trip directly from your home, you can bring all the gear your heart desires.  Just be sure not to leave valuables in plain sight in the car when you step away for more than a moment (thieves love camera gear), and make sure you have a shoulder bag or backpack to carry just what you need for car-free excursions.
      • If you’re flying (unless you have your own private jet, in which case you also need to make room for me on your next trip), you’re going to have to reduce the gear you carry to just the essentials.  It is possible to customize the foam insert in a hard-sided case to hold your photography gear, and then you can check this bag in the hold of the aircraft, but this requires some effort to prepare the case for your specific gear and then you will likely find the case quite heavy to lug around for the land portion of your trip.  And woe to you if your bag is misrouted, lost, or stolen.  I recommend packing a carry-on item that meets your carrier’s size requirements and filling it with just the most essential gear you’ll need on your trip.  More on that topic in a moment.
      •  For most purposes, a backpack is a good packing solution.  There are many styles available for photo gear, but my favorites are these two:
        1.  For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It is almost always accepted as carry-on, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.
        2. My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.
    2. What types of shooting will you be doing on the trip?
      • Will wildlife or astrophotography be involved?  If so, you’re going to have to strain your back, anger the airline staff, and enlist your travel partner to help, because there’s really no substitute for a long and heavy super-telephoto lens in this situation.  When I’m on safari or chasing a solar eclipse, I pack my massive 500mm lens into the larger of my two backpacks and accept my fate.  You’ll realize it was worth the effort when you get home and are able to share your amazing photos of a leopard in a tree or the sun’s corona on full display during a total solar eclipse.
      • For most other types of trips, you won’t need to pack a really long lens.  My general rule is to pack a range of zoom lenses that covers from fairly wide (about 16mm) through fairly long (about 300mm), including a couple of fast prime lenses for when the light is low and/or the very best optical quality is required.
    3. How much redundancy do you need on the trip?
      • Always bring a backup battery (or several) and a backup battery charger.  Murphy’s Rule as applied to travel photography guarantees that batteries will die just as you frame the shot of a lifetime.  Bring at least one extra.  And chargers are left in hotel rooms or in tented camps on the Serengeti with some regularity, and they tend to get fried when plugged into unusual power grids, so bring an extra one with you.
      • Don’t forget the little things.  Pack several power adapters of the type used in the countries where you’ll be traveling.  These get lost easily and can be hard to replace while traveling.  Bring twice as many memory cards as you think you’ll require; it’s easy to fill them up when you get to shooting a mountain gorilla or carnaval dancers.  If you plan to back up to a laptop or external hard drive, bring extra connecting cables.  While traveling, I back up to a second type of memory card using my camera’s second card slot, so I bring quite a few memory cards of both types with me.
      • Lenses are heavy and expensive, but they sometimes stop working, so if you’re on a particularly important trip you may want to bring several lenses in overlapping focal lengths.  That is, you could bring a wide-angle zoom lens and a wide-angle prime lens, plus a walkaround zoom lens and a “normal” prime lens (about 50mm for a full size sensor or about 35mm for a crop sensor), plus a telephoto zoom lens and a telephoto prime lens or two telephoto zooms with overlapping ranges.
      • If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build your portfolio with very special and irreplaceable images, I recommend bringing a backup camera in addition to your primary camera.  For a recent safari trip in East Africa, I brought two DSLR bodies as well as quite a few lenses so that I’d have a backup solution to any single point of failure.  The more exotic your destination, the more likely that dust, wind, salt, extreme heat or cold, and heavy shocks or drops will damage your gear, so for those amazing one-of-a-kind trips I suggest biting the bullet and carrying backups for any gear that could fail.
    4. What accessories do you need to accompany the rest of your gear?
      • Attach a UV filter to each of your lenses before you leave and keep it on to protect the front element of the lens throughout your trip.
      • Carry a polarizing filter and a range of neutral density filters in the correct diameters to fit at least your wide-angle lens and your walkaround lens.
      • For more on filters, read this post: Post on Filters
      • A flash unit is helpful to have on most trips, unless you’re sure there will be ample natural light or you’re willing to use your camera’s built-in flash.
      • A good lightweight travel tripod with a head and mounting plate that suit your needs is essential gear on many trips.
      • Don’t forget any special-purpose gear that you need for just this type of trip.  When I travel to see a solar eclipse, for example, I need to be sure I bring my solar filter that attaches to my super-telephoto lens.  I also need to bring my heavy-duty professional tripod instead of the lightweight one I typically carry on trips.
    5. How will you be shooting from day to day during the trip?
      • If you’ll have constant vehicle support or won’t be going far from your hotel, you may be able to make do with just the bag you brought on the plane.  Or you can bring along a small shoulder bag to carry just a few items for the day’s shoot.
      • Most of my trips involve considerable hiking and public transportation from day to day, so I either carry everything in my smaller backpack or bring it along in checked baggage during the flight.  Then I can transfer just the gear I need for each day’s shoot into the smaller pack, which makes life easier when hiking 10 or so miles per day.

For a safari you will need a long lens to capture small or distant wildlife.  I recommend bringing a beanbag for camera support instead of a tripod, as the latter cannot be used in a safari vehicle.  Be sure to bring an extra camera and lenses, and carry more batteries and memory cards than you think you’ll need.  Buy this photo

Of course, if you use a mirrorless camera with only a couple of compact lenses or an advanced point-and-shoot camera, you do not have to worry about many of these items, but still be sure to review the list above to ensure you bring all required accessories.

With an overall strategy tailored to your itinerary and shooting style, and careful attention to execution to ensure you don’t forget anything, it’s really not that difficult to pack just what gear you’ll need in a way that will allow you to enjoy your trip when you’re not shooting.  After all, travel is about gaining experiences, and not all of those experiences can or should be photographed.  Pack for your photography, but also for your overall travel enjoyment.

What are your hacks for packing your photo gear for a trip?  Please share your tips and tricks in the comments box here.