2017: A Photographic Retrospective

My first year as a full-time professional photographer has flown by. In addition to major travels to India, London, Oregon (to cover the total solar eclipse), Vietnam, and Cambodia, I also had the opportunity to shoot more than 150 local SF Bay Area festivals, street fairs, performances, sporting events, and breaking news stories.

Travel photography is my primary specialty: I lead photography tours in destinations around the world and place my own images in magazines, newspapers, and travel websites. While not traveling, I freelance for local newspapers and shoot for private clients including musicians, dancers, and theater companies.

My photography website has logged nearly 2 million page views, and I also publish a daily travel photography blog. I was honored to have been named a winner of the prestigious international competition Travel Photographer of the Year and a finalist for National Geographic’s Travel Photography competition. In Salem, Oregon for the eclipse, I delivered a lecture to an audience of 400 eclipse chasers and was interviewed by the New York Times.

It’s been a thrilling transitional year, and I’m very excited to continue my artistic and business growth in 2018. Thank you so much for your ongoing support.

Please enjoy this small sampler of some of my favorite images from the past year!  2017 Year in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Focus on 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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

Every Day I Write the Book [Encore Publication]: Even in the digital world, there’s a place for a hardcover photo book from your trip

In the brave new digital world, we have a lot of ways to share our travel photos after (and sometimes even before) we return from the trip: social media, on-screen slideshows, video montages, and of course the enduringly popular paper print.  Even with all of these very immediate sharing options, one of my favorite formats for preserving my travel images is the hardcopy photo book, and today there are more choices than ever before regarding how to create these wonderful keepsakes.

Our living room bookshelf and coffee table are home to more than a dozen photo books, each one showcasing the images and preserving the often fleeting memories of the details of a major trip we’ve taken.  Here’s why I love this method of sharing travel photography and how to create your own photo books.


The leather cover of a photo book showcasing our recent travels in Turkey.

Why create a photo book?  Over time, new digital formats replace existing ones, and the very old ones become obsolete.  Within about 20 years, it is quite likely that none of our present formats of storing data will still be readable.  The printed page has much more staying power.  It is estimated that photos printed on high quality paper using high quality inks, and stored away from direct sunlight, can last for 100 years.  I’m a big fan of framed prints, as well, but a photo book is more cost-effective and space-efficient as a means to preserve many more photos than we could easily hang on our walls.  And because photo books can include customized captions to accompany the included images, they’re a great reference source for refreshing our memories about what we saw, when, and where.  Finally, photo books look great and are fun conversation-starters to tell the story of our travels when friends and family come to visit.

How do you create a photo book?  There are a number of methods, but unless you are a scrapbooker or handy with bookbinding, all of them involve sending your specifications and images to a vendor that will print the book, bind it, and mail it to you.  Some software packages, including Lightroom, have built-in modules for creating photo books.  And most photo sharing websites, including SmugMug (a fabulous site used by many professionals including me), Snapfish, Shutterfly, and Apple Photos, allow you to create and purchase photo books from your images.  These services vary in features, price, and quality, so shop carefully.  Most of my past photo books were created using Snapfish, but I am transitioning to using Lightroom’s and SmugMug’s services instead.  I will report on the results in a future post.


Good book-creation software should allow you to choose from a wide range of formats on each page to display one or several photos plus text.

The basic process works similarly for any of these services.  You specify the book size, cover material, paper quality, printing quality, and other basic parameters for your book.  Then, you fill the pages of the book with your photos, specifying the layout you want for each page.  You can add captions for individual images or series of images, and you may be able to add various special effects.  At the end of the process, you place your order for the book to be printed and mailed to you.  Using the service offered by Blurb, which is available via SmugMug and Lightroom, you can self-publish a large or small print run of books and make them available for sale on Amazon or directly on your own website.

lightroom-book-moduleThe process of creating a photo book using Lightroom’s Book module (shown here) is fairly straightforward.  It’s even more intuitive using an online service such as Snapfish or Shutterfly.

When you receive your photo book a few days after placing your order, you’ll have a keepsake suitable for sharing with visitors and for preserving your own precious travel memories.


A two-page spread in our Turkey photo book showcases several images of the incredible rock formations in the Cappadocia region.

Have you created photo books from your travel images?  Which service did you use and how was your experience?  Please share your thoughts here.

Interested in reading more posts about sharing your travel images?  Click here to see them all: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/share/.

Focus on Tanzania [Encore Publication]: Every wildlife photographer’s dream destination

There are very few destinations more exciting to us travel photographers than East Africa.  My family’s 2.5-week trip to Tanzania, with a brief stroll into Kenya, was a dream come true.  Operated by Overseas Adventure Travel, the adventure began with a pre-trip excursion to the Kilimanjaro region, then moved on to the regional capital city of Arusha and to safaris in Tarangire National Park, Olduvai Gorge, Serengeti National Park, and Ngorongoro Crater.  It goes without saying that the wildlife photography in Tanzania is second-to-none, but we found the authentic cultural interactions with the nomadic Maasai and other local people to be a highlight of the trip.

The usually shy Mount Kilimanjaro made a brief appearance as we awaited sunset near our lodge.  The glaciers that adorn this iconic landform are melting quickly as a result of climate change, so this is a place to visit soon.  I used a polarizing filter on a medium telephoto lens to reduce the haze and bring out the texture of the mountain, and I framed the shot through some branches near our campfire.

Mount Kilimanjaro lit by alpenglow.  Buy this photo

On a game drive in the Kilimanjaro region, we encountered this lovely lilac-breasted roller.  To capture this image, I used a long telephoto lens (500mm, which was equivalent to 750mm when fitted on this camera) and stabilized it on a beanbag that I rested on the top of the safari vehicle.  This is a very important accessory to bring with you on a safari, as you cannot fit a tripod in a safari vehicle and a monopod is awkward.  While the beanbag that I use is no longer available, this one is well reviewed by photographers and represents a good value.

Lilac breasted roller captured with a 500mm lens in the Kilimanjaro region.  Buy this photo

The cultural learning and interaction was a big part of this trip.  Here my older daughter is greeted by a young Maasai woman as we arrived at their settlement.  The Maasai are nomadic herders, usually moving from place to place to pasture their cattle throughout the seasons of the year.  It was a fascinating opportunity to meet them and learn about their way of life, and to make portraits with the Maasai people we met.

A warm welcome as we arrived at the first of two Maasai villages visited during our trip.  Buy this photo

I had a fun interaction with this young Maasai boy by showing him the images as I shot his portrait in various places around the village.  He had not seen many photos of himself.  Here he is posing in front of his family’s house.

A Maasai boy by his family’s shelter.  Buy this photo

Our visit to the bustling city of Arusha was intended to be a staging point for the game viewing excursions to follow, but we found Arusha to be a very interesting cultural crossroads.  Here is a shot of what passes for a towing service in the area, a broken-down van being pulled to a service station on top of a donkey cart.  Always be on the lookout for serendipitous moments like this one when you travel!

A street scene in Arusha, the region’s largest city.  Buy this photo

Along the road from Arusha to Tarangire National Park, we stopped to chat with a group of several young Maasai men.  They had recently undergone the ritual circumcision ceremony that marked an important milestone on their journey to become warriors.  For the next six months they would wear the special face paint while they underwent their final training.  Our local guide was very helpful in facilitating our conversation.  Through him, I asked this man’s permission to make a portrait.  This was shot with a moderate telephoto lens and a wide aperture to soften the background.

A young man nears the end of his journey to becoming a Maasai warrior.  Buy this photo

Tarangire National Park is a gem of a nature preserve that is often overlooked by visitors to Tanzania.  Be sure to visit Tarangire if at all possible!  Here’s a shot of a baby baboon in a group of baboons we were observing there.  When shooting backlit wildlife, use your camera’s spot metering mode with the focus point on the animal, so your camera won’t underexpose the main subject.

A playful baby baboon in Tarangire National Park.  Buy this photo

We stopped for a visit to a second Maasai settlement, very different from our first Maasai encounter.  This second group of Maasai were only semi-nomadic and lived much of the year in a more permanent settlement.  While their way of life was a bit less precarious, and included public education and solid housing, they still lacked a source of safe drinking water, a common problem in East Africa.  We presented the chief with a water filter we had purchased in Arusha, for use by the whole village.  This group portrait was made of the villagers when they accepted our gift of the water filter.

Maasai villagers with their new water filter.  Buy this photo

Serengeti National Park is the stuff we travel photographers’ dreams are made of!  Along with game walks and game drives in open safari vehicles, we also had the chance to soar silently above the Endless Plains in a hot air balloon.  This is an amazing way to view the migrations of the herds and the predators and scavengers that tag along.  This image was made by shooting down from the basket of our balloon toward a balloon closer to the ground.  You can see the trees and herds of wildebeest on the plains below.

Safari by hot air balloon.  Buy this photo

Of the hundreds of animal species we encountered, including so much more than just the Big Five, the leopard was one of the most elusive.  Here we spotted (as it were) a leopard napping in a tree in Seregenti National Park.  This shot was made with a long telephoto lens resting on a beanbag in our safari vehicle.  My go-to lens for wildlife photography is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

A sleepy leopard yawns in a tree above the Endless Plains of Serengeti National Park.  Buy this photo

The migration of the herds is an annual event across the combined national parks of Serengeti in Tanzania and Maasai Mara in Kenya.  It’s a spectacular sight as millions of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles slowly migrate across plains and rivers, occasionally being eaten by the predators who follow them.  To give a sense of the scale and the action, in this image I zoomed in on a group of wildebeest with a telephoto lens so as to compress the scene.

A small vignette from the massive migration of the herds across the East African plain.  Buy this photo

We were very fortunate to come across this quiet scene of a lioness with her newborn cubs.  We watched from a distance so as not to disturb this family as she cleaned and played with her two cubs, them mewing like housecats all the while.  The light was low in this glen, and the long telephoto lens was slow, so I stabilized it on a beanbag and shot at a higher ISO setting to allow for a reasonably fast shutter speed.  There was some noise in the image as a result of the high ISO (camera sensors weren’t as good at high sensitivities back in 2012), but I did my best to reduce the noise during post-processing.

A mother lion spends some quality time with her cubs.  Buy this photo

We visited a primary school in a small community.  This was one of the first schools in Tanzania to serve breakfast and lunch to students who walk miles each way to school and would have to double their daily walking distance if they had to return home midday for lunch.  My daughter enjoyed talking with students about their daily lessons.

Visiting a classroom at a rural primary school.  Buy this photo

Farewell to Tanzania!  My family enjoys a glorious African sunrise at our tented camp located right inside the national park.

A Serengeti sunrise.  Buy this photo

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

Have you visited East Africa?  What were the highlights of your trip?  Please share your comments here.

Happy Holidays!: Scenes from Bethlehem AD 2017

There’s a fun annual event in nearby Redwood City, California called Bethlehem AD that puts on perhaps the nation’s largest re-imagining of the nativity scene.  Replete with Roman centurions, townspeople, craftsmen, dancers, bakers, camels, alpacas, and of course the holy family, some wise men, and a heavenly host of angels, this lavish staging of the nativity is a photographic treat.

For today’s holiday-themed post, I present a few favorite images from this year’s event.  All images were made using a Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens at various apertures, 1/60-1/250 second, ISO 6400, and a touch of fill-flash from an off-camera Nikon speedlight connected via a Nikon flash cord.  Click on any image’s preview to view it full-sized and, if desired, to purchase it via my website.  Enjoy, and happy holidays!

What are your favorite holiday traditions to photograph?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Filtered Down to the Essentials [Encore Publication]: Why you should always have these filters in your bag

Filters are the Rodney Dangerfield of photographic gear: They don’t get enough respect.  Most photographers will begin to salivate when talking about the latest camera bodies or lenses and even plates or heads for our tripods, but we tend to think of filters as pedestrian items, if we think about them at all.  I nearly always make room in my bag for several filters, and I believe that using them properly is more important than what camera or even which lens I choose.  Let’s look into why these affordable little accessories are so important.

Three kinds of filters are essential gear for most photographers.  I’ll cover each type here.  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 (also known as a haze filter) attached to your lenses at all times, as this helps protect the front element of the lens from fingerprints, moisture, and even scratches.  In addition to offering some physical protection for your lens, a good UV filter can also improve image quality when there is atmospheric haze or moisture in the air.  Use a good quality filter, though, as some can adversely affect your 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.  In most cases, use of a UV filter does not affect the exposure more than about half a stop, so they can be used in most lighting conditions. I’ve had good luck with Hoya UV filters.  Always be sure to look at the specifications for your lens before buying any screw-on filter, because the diameter of the filter thread must match the size of the lens.

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.

It takes a bit of practice to learn to use a polarizing filter properly.  While looking through your camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen, turn the outer part of the filter slowly to see the effect.  The greater the angle between the light source (typically the sun) and the shooting direction, the bigger the effect of turning the outer ring of the filter.  You will observe as you rotate the outer ring of the filter that the sky, clouds, and any bodies of water will transform quite dramatically.  When you see the effect you like best, overshoot a little bit and then rotate the outer ring back to where you want it.  In most cases, I recommend not using the maximum amount of polarizing effect when there are reflections from water or glass, because you usually want some of these reflections to be visible in your final image, but this is art, not science, so you get to choose the effect you want.  Note that using a polarizing filter will cost you about 2-3 stops of exposure.  You will have to use a slower shutter speed and/or faster ISO or wider aperture, so use a steady tripod if the lighting conditions are dim.

Here’s an example of a shooting situation in which a polarizing filter can really make an image pop.  For this shot of the imposing peaks in Southern Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park, I rotated the polarizer to about 2/3 of its maximum effect to darken the sky, make the clouds more dramatic, and bring out the bright sheer faces of the granite peaks.

A circular polarizing filter makes a big difference when shooting mountains, skies, and/or bodies of water.  Buy this photo

The final essential filter is the neutral density (ND) 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.  ND filters come in different strengths as designated by the number in the filter’s specifications.  For example, an ND2 filter blocks 1/2 the light for a one-stop reduction in exposure, while an ND8 filter blocks 7/8 of the light for a three-stop reduction in exposure.  It’s a good idea to carry a range of ND filters for each lens you plan to use in the field.  A newer type of ND filter even allows for variable adjustment of the strength of the ND effect with just one filter, but these tend to be expensive.

A classic example of a situation in which you’d want to use an ND filter is when shooting moving water in bright lighting conditions.  You may want to use a longer shutter speed to blur the water, but even at your camera’s lowest ISO setting and your lens’ smallest aperture there could still be too much light for a slow shutter speed.  Mounting an ND8 filter to your lens will allow you to use a shutter speed eight times longer than without the filter, so for example you could move from shooting at 1/30 of a second to 1/4 of a second.

Here’s a photo of my younger daughter by a waterfall in Yosemite National Park.  The image was made in the early afternoon under very bright sunlight, bright enough that even using my camera’s slowest native ISO sensitivity and my lens’s most narrow aperture, I would still have had to use a shutter speed of 1/60 of a second, which would have frozen the water in the falls.  Using an ND8 filter, however, I was able to slow down the shutter speed to 1/8 of a second, long enough to impart a nice blur to the falling water.

 Use of a neutral density filter allowed me to blur the falling water even under very bright lighting conditions.  Buy this photo

I recommend carrying a kit containing several ND filters of different strengths for each lens you plan to use for landscape images.  Once again, make sure the diameter of the filter matches the diameter of the lens you intend to fit it to.

Note that there’s another type of ND filter called the “graduated ND filter,” and this filter varies the light-blocking effect from one end of the filter to the other end.  I used to use this type of filter quite often, but in this digital era I find it usually works just as well to simulate the effect of a graduated ND filter using post-processing software later.

Armed with these three types of filters, you will be prepared to create the images you have in your mind, even under challenging shooting conditions.  Happily, filters are small, light, and not terribly expensive, making them one of the better values we photographers can find.

Which filters do you always carry, and when have you found them most useful?  Any tips or tricks on how to use filters for the best results?  Please leave a comment in the box after this post to share your thoughts.

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


Getting Oriented [Encore Publication]: Shooting vertically as well as horizontally expands your artistic vision

Who says a portrait image has to be shot in portrait orientation, or that a landscape photo must be shot using landscape orientation?  Rules are meant to be broken, and they call it “artistic license” for a reason.  I would estimate that a third of my people images are shot in landscape (horizontal) orientation, and that a third of my landscape images are shot in portrait (vertical) orientation.  It’s always a good idea to shoot at least a few frames in both orientations so you can decide later which ones work best for your artistic vision.  Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Laura is one of my all-time favorite models (she also creates all her own costumes and does her own hair and makeup), and she looks great framed in any orientation, but I think her remarkable inventiveness is shown to good advantage in this composition using landscape orientation.  Buy this photo

It’s a cliché that people pictures should be composed vertically, so that we can fill the whole frame with the model’s head or full body.  A lot of the time this portrait orientation works well.  But there are some good reasons to shoot people images using landscape orientation as well as portrait orientation.

First, sometimes the model’s pose or the environmental elements around the model favor a horizontal image.  When traveling, I like to shoot environmental portraits that show us more than just the person by including elements of his or her home, livelihood, or lifestyle.

Second, we need to think about how the image will be used.  If I’m shooting publicity photos for musicians, for example, I know they need horizontal images at least as often as vertical images, so as to meet the requirements for the venues and promoters with whom they work.  Magazines and billboards often require landscape orientation, as well.  Even more prosaic uses of our photos, such as Facebook or LinkedIn cover photos, must be oriented horizontally.

Third, some portraits just cry out artistically to be framed in landscape orientation.  The image of the model Laura, above, for example, just works better to my eye in horizontal format, because the negative space behind her leads the viewer’s eye to admire her remarkably creative style, and leaving the lower part of her body and her dress out of the image allows us to focus on her expressive face.

By the same token, there are some good reasons to shoot landscape images in portrait orientation.

First, there could be some limitations to the left or right of the frame that, when shot horizontally, could distract from the power of the image we want to create.  Think about a coastal landscape with a glorious sunset sky and delightful foreground elements such as rocks with water flowing around them, but to the left of our vantage point there’s an unattractive pile of litter.  Frame the image in portrait orientation and avoid the problem.

Second, there are publication media where portrait orientation is required.  Knowing where the image is likely to be published will dictate the orientation in which we shoot.  A card or trifold brochure, for example, will likely require a vertical shot.

Third, again, consider your creative vision.  This night landscape of the Milky Way over Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome also worked beautifully in the more traditional landscape orientation, but here I shot the same scene using portrait orientation to frame the granite mountains with a circle of trees and to create a leading line using the Milky Way’s galactic core to bring the viewer’s eye around the valley’s landforms and the night sky.

This night shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley works especially well in portrait orientation because the pine trees create a frame around the leading line of the galactic core.  Buy this photo

Whenever possible, remember to mix it up and shoot with the non-standard orientation for at least a few frames.  You may find your best shots–and the most marketable ones for placement in certain forums–are the ones you make using the unconventional orientation.

Do you have a favorite image that you shot using the opposite orientation from the expected one?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to learn some more photographic techniques?  Here’s a list of all my posts dealing with the technical aspects of travel photography: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/


Beyond the Postcard Shot [Encore Publication]: Some sites are so iconic, you have to think differently to get a unique shot

Much of the joy of travel photography is seeking out and capturing images of little-known places and the ordinary daily lives of the people who live in them.  But when we’re traveling it is also inevitable that we’ll come face to face with the world’s most famous, overexposed, iconic sites.  You know, those places that are so often documented and discussed that we automatically associate them with the city or country where they are located.  London has Big Ben, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge, Tibet has Potala Palace, India has the Taj Mahal, Cambodia has the Angkor Wat temple complex, and so on.  These sites have been photographed and shared so many millions of times that they are ingrained in our visual memories.  But there are ways we can approach and photograph the world’s iconic sites so as to avoid the “postcard shots” and create something different.  In today’s post, we’ll explore a few methods you can use to make less familiar images of the world’s most familiar locations.

Focus on part rather than the whole: Instead of capturing an iconic site such as London’s Big Ben with a normal or wide-angle lens to include the whole structure, try using a longer lens or getting up close to capture just a portion.

Big Ben is nearly always photographed from a distance using a normal or wide-angle lens to include the whole tower.  Here I used a medium telephoto lens looking up at the clock’s face to emphasize some of the detail on the facade.  Buy this photo

Embrace the crowds: Instead of working to remove the hordes of visitors from images of iconic locations, sometimes it is effective to embrace the crowds.  This can create a “nod and a wink”, self-referential photo that tells the viewer we all know this site is a tourist draw.  In this image of Stonehenge, I used a wide-angle lens to include not only the monoliths but also the long line of visitors who have come to see them.

Intentionally including the hordes of visitors in some of our images can give a different effect from the usual photos in which we attempt to remove the people.  Buy this photo

Try a different time of day: Many of the world’s most famous sites are associated with a specific time of day or lighting conditions.  The Golden Gate Bridge, for example, is often photographed at sunset or as the banks of fog roll over it.  Tibet’s Potala Palace is usually pictured by day.  So, for a different view of this lovely temple/palace complex, I visited it by night.  The resulting images offer a different mood from the postcard shots.

A different time of day can yield very different images from the usual ones.  Here, Potala Palace is captured by night, a seldom seen view that offers a very different mood than the postcard pictures.  Buy this photo

Incorporate unexpected visual elements: We associate certain visual themes with iconic locations, so surprise your viewers by including unexpected elements in your images.  I especially enjoy incorporating anachronistic visuals, such as a Buddhist monk speaking on a cell phone (though even that is becoming something of a cliche these days).  In this image of Delhi’s iconic Qutub Minar, I framed the shot first and then waited for the jetliner to enter the frame just behind the minaret.

Including non-contextual visual references in our shots of iconic sites can surprise the viewer.  This image of Delhi’s ancient Qutub Minar minaret incorporates a modern jet airplane for a mashup of old and new.  Buy this photo

Find a different vantage point: The Taj Mahal is a gloriously lovely building, but its true beauty is often overlooked by photographing it straight on from the iconic vantage point across the reflecting pool at the main entrance to the site.  Instead, try capturing the Taj from an unusual vantage point, such as the Moonlight Garden across the river from the back of the Taj.  The resulting image will surprise the viewer by offering a less-seen perspective and by framing the iconic site in an unusual context.

This image of the back side of India’s iconic Taj Mahal was made from the Moonlight Garden across the river.  Freed from the usual framing of the front of the Taj with its reflection in the pool, the viewer can truly appreciate the gracious beauty of the structure itself.  Buy this photo

Next time you visit one of the world’s most overexposed sites, try making some images using one of more of these new approaches to surprise the viewer with something different.  Avoid the cliches by emphasizing just certain portions of the site or by including crowds or non-contextual elements in your images.  Shoot from a different vantage point or at an unexpected time of day.  There’s really no need to add one more to the heap of millions of identical photos of these places, so go wild and try something unique!

How have you created unusual images of the world’s most iconic locations?  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.

Planning a Shoot [Encore Publication]: A case study in planning and executing a photo shoot

Whether traveling or near home, some of our best photo opportunities occur spontaneously.  Serendipity is part of the fun of photography, but another big part of the photographer’s craft is to carefully plan and professionally execute a photo shoot.  Using a recent shoot in which I collaborated with professional dancer Molly as a case study, in this post I’ll cover the essential elements of planning and conducting a shoot.

Good planning is key to ensuring a fun, safe, and efficient shoot as well as obtaining the desired artistic outcome.  Buy this photo

Elements to Consider When Planning a Shoot:

  • What is the theme or mood?  The artistic concept will inform all the other elements of the shoot.  For the shoot with Molly, we decided on an edgy, urban theme.  Based on that choice, the decisions about location, timing, gear, technique, and post-processing all flowed consistently.

We chose a gritty, urban theme for this shoot, and all other decisions flowed from that choice.  Buy this photo

  • Where is the location?  Often one of the most challenging aspects of planning a shoot is scouting for a suitable location.  The location, of course, should support the theme of the shoot.  It also needs to be accessible, safe (for this shoot, we rejected shooting on or near railroad tracks for safety reasons), and suitable for making the type of images desired.  There are also legal considerations, as in most cases permission is required to shoot on private property and even some public spaces require permission for commercial uses.  Molly and I eventually decided on using the old barracks at the decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco and the adjacent Crissy Field recreation area.  This space was accessible, relatively safe, provided a gritty and urban mood, and afforded sufficient working room for both dancer and photographer.
  • When should the shoot be scheduled?  Obviously, the date and time scheduled need to work for all parties involved.  These parties include not only the model(s) and photographer, but also other client(s) and often an assistant.  Equally important is ensuring the timing supports your artistic choices.  The season of the year and the time of day should offer the best chances of obtaining the lighting you desire.  The scheduled time should also work as well as possible with respect to other considerations such as opening hours of the chosen space, traffic and volume of other people in the location, and even tides, snowfall amounts, or other environmental factors.  Molly and I chose to shoot in the “golden hour” just before sunset on a Sunday to ensure good lighting and access to the location.
  • What gear and techniques should be used?  After choosing the theme and the supporting logistical elements, it’s time to select the techniques desired to capture the images and the gear required to execute.  Elements to consider include lighting (I prefer to work with available light and reflectors/diffusers whenever possible, but sometimes speedlights or portable studio lights are required), lenses (it’s often best to bring a range of lenses for different perspectives), props, and accessories (will you need to stabilize with a tripod, or perhaps you’ll require neutral density filters to obtain the shutter speed and/or aperture you want?).  In the shoot with Molly, I used the camera handheld at mostly fast shutter speeds and low camera angles with fast prime lenses to get that edgy look.

To capture the fast motion of the dancing and to support the urban theme, I worked handheld with fast prime lenses and low camera angles.  Buy this photo

  • How should the images be post-processed?  Again, the overall artistic concept should inform decisions about post-processing.  For this shoot, I aimed for a high-contrast, slightly grainy look and also converted several of the images to black-and-white.
  • How will the images be distributed and used?  All parties should agree before the shoot on how the images will be shared and/or sold.  To protect both model and photographer, it’s a good idea to sign a model release.  For more information on model releases, see this post: Post on Model Releases.

With attention to planning and execution, a photo shoot will be more enjoyable and productive and the artistic results will be better.  Buy this photo

Do you have tips and tricks you use when preparing for your shoots?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Focus on Ireland [Encore Publication]: The Emerald Isle offers unique landscapes and culture

We’re recently returned from a two-week adventure in Ireland and Scotland.  Our itinerary sandwiched a week of hiking in the glorious southwestern regions of Ireland (Counties Kerry and Cork) in between brief stays in the major cities of Dublin and Edinburgh.  The photographic opportunities in these regions are remarkable, with lovely landscapes, historic architecture, and a generous friendly culture evident everywhere.  I provide an overview in the form of a photo essay in today’s post, and upcoming posts will feature more details on specific places or types of subjects from the trip.

The Irish pub remains a central focus of life on the Emerald Isle.  In cities and tiny rural villages, the pubs are places for people to come together and catch up with old friends, make new friends, listen to live traditional music, and of course drink a pint or two.  This image was made in Dublin’s famed O’Donoghue’s Pub, where in the 1960s bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folk music revival.
To make portraits in pubs, where the lighting is dim and the use of flash is out of the question, use a fast lens and a high ISO setting.  You need a shutter speed of at least 1/80 of a second to get a reasonably sharp image of musicians at work.  Buy this photo

It may come as a surprise (or not) to learn that Ireland’s most popular attraction is the Guinness Storehouse tour in Dublin.  Here my wife pulls a perfect pint of the “black stuff,” which we then enjoyed in the Gravity Bar atop the storehouse with views overlooking all of Dublin.

Another low-light shot, this image was made with ambient light only, using a fast lens and relatively high ISO.  Remember to capture some shots of your traveling companions.  Buy this photo

I highly recommend a visit to the very remote Gougane Barra peninsula.  There’s only one hotel, which offers outstanding food and views over a tiny island with a picturesque church and the ruins of a Sixth Century monastery.  A photographer’s paradise!

St. Finbarr’s Church stands on a tiny island on the Gougane Barra Peninsula.  To make this image, I shot in the early morning when the quality of light was compelling, got down low to include the rushes in the lake, and used a polarizing filter to bring out the textures in the water and sky.  Buy this photo

Don’t put away your gear when the sun sets!  On a rare clear night in rural Ireland, the photography is stunning.  Here’s an image of the Milky Way sprawling above the ruins of St. Finbarr’s Abbey, a Sixth Century monastery.

To capture the Milky Way, use a sturdy tripod and a relatively fast lens with a high ISO setting.  In most cases, a shutter speed of 20-25 seconds is best, but here I used a somewhat shorter exposure to avoid having the cross appear washed out in the site’s artificial light.  Buy this photo

We then hiked a portion of the long-distance Sheep’s Head Way.  You’ll rarely encounter completely clear skies while walking in Ireland, but the changeable conditions can create opportunities for glorious landscapes.  This lovely image was made just as the rain let up and the sun poked out, generating a vivid rainbow that spanned over the green fields and ancient walls.

Here I used my go-to landscape lens, the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens, fitted with a good circular polarizing filter.  I adjusted the angle of the polarizer carefully to enhance the sky without weakening the refraction of the rainbow.  I got down low to the ground to include the leading line from the old wall.  Other compositional elements include the sheep in the field and the dramatic clouds in the sky.  Buy this photo

At the end of the Sheep’s Head Way sits the lovely Bantry House, owned by the family since 1750.  Climb the hill behind the house to capture the house and its gardens with the harbor behind.  Buy this photo

On our way to the start of our next day’s hike in Killarney National Park, we stopped at a viewpoint called Priest’s Leap for this lovely view.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: remember to include yourself and your travel companions in some of your images.  Set up the camera and either mount it on a tripod or show another person how to release the shutter.  For more on how to make images including yourself, read this post: Post on Including Yourself

This image at Priest’s Leap was made using a normal lens with polarizing filter, stopped down to maximize depth-of-field.  Buy this photo

Ireland is filled with forests that exude a sense of mystery and magic.  Look for the little things as you walk: a flower or shamrock, a moss-covered tree, a tiny stream.  All that rain has the happy side-effect of making Ireland the greenest place I’ve ever seen.

Slow down and seek out the little natural details around you, like this moss-covered tree in Killarney National Park.  Buy this photo

The legendary Gap of Dunloe outside of Killarney stretches for eight miles through mountains and valleys, along streams and by ancient farmhouses.  It can be traversed by horse-drawn carriages called “jaunting cars,” but the intrepid photographer will want to hike it instead.

The Gap of Dunloe offers compelling photographic subjects like this stream flowing in a valley surrounded by mountains.  A good wide-angle lens with a polarizing filter brings out the color and texture in such a landscape, even on a “soft day” like this one.  Buy this photo

We spent every evening in Ireland visiting a pub or two.  These pubs differ in character, but all reflect the generous and friendly local culture, and many offer live music.

At a pub in Killarney, I was chatting with this fiddler during a break between sets, and made this portrait using natural light with a fast portrait lens, a wide aperture, and a high ISO.  Buy this photo

My essential portrait lens:

We were fortunate to stay two nights in Killarney at the wonderful Lake Hotel.  The hotel grounds include the ruins of an ancient castle situated on a lake with mountains behind.  During breakfast on our second morning, I noticed the cloud cover had lifted but there was still mist hanging on the side of the hills around the lake.  I ran up to our room, grabbed my thirty pounds of camera gear, and rushed outside to capture the ruins with the mist enshrouding the lake and mountains.

There was no time to set up a tripod as the warming sun was burning away the magical mist on the lake, so I shot this image handheld.  Buy this photo

Our final day’s hike was the beautiful Wild Atlantic Way from Ventry to Dunquin.  The lovely views of the Atlantic are punctuated with green fields dotted with odd “beehive huts,” some dating back to the Neolithic Period.
To make this landscape incorporating ancient stone beehive huts and walls, I shot down across the fields to the sea, being sure to keep the horizon level.  Buy this photo

The picturesque Blasket Islands were home to a community of Irish-speaking farmer-fishermen until they were forced to evacuate in 1953.  This is one of Ireland’s most gorgeous stretches of coastline, captured here using a wide-angle lens with polarizer.  Rotate the filter until the sky is dark and dramatic.  Buy this photo

After Ireland, we spent a few days in Edinburgh, Scotland.  This image was shot along the Royal Mile.

Be on the lookout for unusual perspectives.  This image juxtaposes the different colors and textures of  the statue in the foreground with the cathedral in the background.  Buy this photo

Dining is an essential part of any trip, and Edinburgh offers many opportunities to savor the new Scottish cuisine.  This lovely smoked salmon plate (with accompanying wee dram of whisky) was captured at the Tower Restaurant atop the Scottish National Museum.

For more about how to shoot food images, read this post: Post on Food Photography.      Buy this photo

I hope this post inspires you to visit Ireland and Scotland.  Look for posts over the next few days with more details about the trip and images.

If you’d like to read more posts about photographic destinations, you can find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/destinations/

Have you visited Ireland?  What did you find most memorable?  Any tips on photographing this enchanted place?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box after this post.

Focus on Dia de los Muertos [Encore Publication]: When a local festival takes you around the world

Sometimes you can attend a local event and feel as though you’re transported to a far-off part of the world, or even feel like you’re traveling across a wide cultural tableau of a whole region.  That’s how I felt while shooting the recent Dia de los Muertas (Day of the Dead) celebrations in downtown San Jose.  Although I had traveled only half an hour from my house, this festival celebrating life and honoring departed relatives took me on a cultural and historic journey across all of Latin America and beyond.  In today’s post I will present a simple photo essay featuring some of my favorite images from this festival.
An Aztec dancer helps convene the day’s celebrations.  Buy this photo

The Aztec fire dance’s origins date back to pre-Columbian times.  Buy this photo

This shrine, erected on the back of a pickup truck, is dedicated to the memory of the owner’s deceased father and brother.  Buy this photo

The “elegant skull” face painting is an element of Day of the Dead celebrations in several Latin American countries.  Buy this photo

These lovely ladies awoke at 5 AM to paint their own faces and those of their family members.  Buy this photo

More wonderful face art.  Buy this photo

I love the cultural juxtaposition of Hello Kitty with Day of the Dead.  Buy this photo

Although this portrait of a couple also worked well in color, I love the dramatic impact it makes when converted to a high-contrast black-and-white image.  Buy this photo

Elegant and beautiful!  Buy this photo

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief compilation of images from this recent festival and that it inspires you to seek out Day of the Dead celebrations near your own home.

What are some of your favorite cultural traditions?  Have you captured these traditions using your camera?  Please share your experiences in the comments box.

Want to see other posts about what to shoot while traveling and near home?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People Pictures Beyond the Selfie [Encore Publication]: Why selfies don’t make great images, and how to get really good pictures including yourself

Several times in the pages of “To Travel Hopefully,” I’ve emphasized the importance of including yourself and your travel companions in some of your images.  Not only will you and your friends enjoy seeing yourselves captured in these travel photos, but the inclusion of people in travel images gives a sense of scale to the places you visited and tells a more compelling narrative than would be possible in photos without people.

The standard way of including yourself in a photo these days is to use your phone’s selfie camera, but there are a number of reasons why taking selfies is not the best way to capture your own likeness in an image.  First, the sensor in the front-facing (“selfie”) camera on your phone very likely has a much lower resolution than does the phone’s regular camera, so the picture quality is lower.  Second, it’s difficult to properly compose a photo when holding the camera out at arm’s (or selfie stick’s) length, let alone to smoothly release the shutter.  Third, the perspective imparted to the image when the camera is held above in selfie fashion is distorted and often unflattering.  It’s really quite unlikely that you’ll get professional quality images of people using the selfie technique.

A selfie doesn’t allow you to properly compose your image, is awkward to shoot, and uses a low-quality image sensor.  Instead, mount your camera on a tripod, compose the image exactly the way you want it, and release the shutter remotely or with the camera’s self-timer.  Or enlist the help of another photographer.  Buy this photo

Fortunately, there are better ways of including yourself in your photos, and they’re not difficult to implement.  The two most straightforward methods are placing the camera on a tripod and triggering the shutter with a self-timer or remote release, and setting up the camera for another person to shoot handheld.

The basic setup is the same for either method.  Have the other people you want included in the photo stand in the desired location.  If you’re the only person present, make a note of where your body will be placed in the composition.  Then compose your image from the best vantage point, with the camera either mounted on a tripod or handheld.  Configure your camera’s settings (focus, exposure, flash, etc.) the way you prefer, and test the settings by shooting a few frames without yourself in the image.  Then move into your predetermined position in the frame and either fire the shutter remotely with the self-timer or remote release, or ask another person to push the shutter button for you.

If you do choose to have another person press the shutter release button for you, you need to be thinking about two things: 1) ensure they know how to operate the camera and won’t run away with it, and 2) be aware that in many countries and regions the person who pushes the button owns the copyright for the image even if they did not contribute artistically to making it.  I prefer to use a tripod and remote release whenever practical, so as to have a higher likelihood of capturing the image I envision and to avoid any question as to who owns the copyright.

Do you have a favorite method for including yourself in your photos?  Please share your ideas in the comment box.

Want to see more posts on how to shoot while traveling?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/.

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.


Dispatches Magazine Story [Encore Publication]: My article on travel photography in Patagonia is published by a leading travel magazine

Dear Readers,

As a travel photographer and writer, I strive to place my stories and images in magazines, newspapers, and websites for travel companies.  My piece on travel photography in Patagonia was just published in Dispatches Magazine.  Dispatches is the quarterly glossy print magazine from Overseas Adventure Travel, one of the largest travel companies in the USA.

I also appreciate the introduction from Overseas Adventure Travel’s Vice Chairman and travel industry leader, Harriet Lewis: “Kyle Adler belongs behind a lens. In the hands of a master, a camera can actually create connections with local people and bring their culture to life. Kyle is a 10-time O.A.T. traveler, and he creates stunning photo narratives of his trips.”

Please take a look!  And thanks, as always, for your great support.

Read Kyle’s article in Dispatches Magazine

Warm Regards,


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.

Focus on Turkey [Encore Publication]: Spectacular photographic opportunities abound in this troubled nation

In the fall of 2015, my wife and I traveled throughout Turkey on a 2.5-week journey that included adventures in Istanbul, Cappadocia, the Turquoise Coast, and Ephesus.  We traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) in the company of a local Turkish trip leader, and we had a wonderful, safe experience.  In today’s post I share our experiences and some of my favorite images from this spectacular but troubled nation.

First, a few words about safety.   Even when we traveled in September and October of 2015, there were concerns about the safety of travel in Turkey.  We did not visit the far southeastern regions of Turkey due to the ongoing violence between various factions from ISIS, Kurdish separatist groups, and the Turkish government.  There was a bombing with many casualties in Ankara while we were visiting a different part of Turkey.  Since our trip, the situation has deteriorated as a result of an escalating crisis in and around the border with Syria, terrorist actions throughout the country, and the broad government crackdown in the wake of the attempted coup earlier this year.  OAT, the company we traveled with, has since suspended all of their trips to Turkey.  Tourism in Turkey is being devastated by the concerns of safety on the ground.

So why would anyone want to go to Turkey?  The cultural, historic, and natural appeals of this destination are undeniable.  It is a travel photographer’s paradise.  And safety is a relative term.  I’ve traveled in over 100 countries and many of them were considered “unsafe” when I visited, but my only two close encounters with real terrorism were in supposedly “safe” cities: a bombing in Tokyo and a mass shooting in Los Angeles.  I felt safer in Turkey late last year than I do in many other parts of the world.  That said, the situation on the ground has deteriorated since I visited, tours to Turkey are becoming hard to find, and only you can decide on your tolerance for risk.  So perhaps wait for more order to return to Turkey before traveling there to make your own images, but in any case you can enjoy my images from this fascinating and gloriously beautiful part of the world.

Our adventure began in Istanbul, an ancient city situated at the border between Europe and Asia.  Its place as a crossroads of history from Roman times through the Byzantine Era, the Ottoman Empire, and the modern Turkish republic is apparent as you stroll its winding streets and ply its crowded waterways.  The are opportunities to make great images everywhere in the city.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, the foremost Byzantine church, is nearly 1500 years old.  When shooting grand architectural sites from up-close, it’s a challenge to try to avoid distortion due to perspective and the necessity of using a wide-angle lens.  Here I kept the horizon level with the ground to avoid excessive distortion.  Buy this photo

The best baklava in Istanbul?  Perhaps.  I certainly didn’t taste any better baklava in the city, and believe me, I tried a lot of baklava.  To make this portrait, I asked our trip leader to introduce me to the baker, who was happy to pose with his wares.  This was shot with natural light and just a touch of fill flash.  Buy this photo

View of the Galata Tower from across the Bosphorous.  Buy this photo

After Istanbul, we traveled to the central region of Cappadocia, famous for its “fairy chimneys,” natural spires formed by the erosion of soft tufa rock.  This region is a veritable dream for travel photographers!

Upon arriving in Cappadocia, we were thrilled to learn our hotel room was inside an ancient cave dwelling.  (Not to worry, it had been recently remodeled.)  When shooting interiors, it’s usually best to use a fast wide-angle lens and to compose the image carefully so as to gain the viewing perspective you want.  Buy this photo

The Goreme Open Air Museum comprises dozens of ancient Byzantine churches carved out of the tufa rock.  Remember to capture some images that include yourself and your travel companions.  Refer to this post for more practical tips about making great self-portraits while traveling: Post on Self Portraits.  To make this image, I set up the camera on a lightweight travel tripod, composed it by having my wife stand in front of the “fairy chimney” church, then joined her in the frame and triggered the camera using a remote release.  Buy this photo

The soft tufa stone formations look almost like sand dunes in the late afternoon glow.  I shot in RAW mode (as always!) and underexposed slightly to allow for a higher-contrast image during post-processing.  Careful cropping also helps a striking landscape really pop.  Buy this photo

We awoke at 5:30 AM to the sight out our cave-hotel’s window of hundreds of hot air balloons launching about the fairy chimneys.  I jumped out of bed, barely remembering to throw some clothes on, before running out the our balcony to set up a tripod and capture this amazing scene.  I exposed for the rock formations and allowed the balloons to be partially silhouetted.  Buy this photo

We visited a school in the region, always a favorite activity during our travels.  While I also made quite a few images in the classrooms with the kids and teachers, I like the unusual perspective in this image.  It was shot from outside the school building as the kids came to the windows to wave goodbye.  Buy this photo

We took a very memorable hot air balloon ride at dawn over Cappadocia’s otherworldly landscape.  I made this image looking down from our gondola at three other balloons in various stages of preparing to launch.  The amphitheaters of soft tufa rock can be seen in the middle-ground and the rising sun in the far background.  Buy this photo

At a rug-weaving cooperative, this woman enjoys a cup of Turkish coffee during her break.  I was drawn by her colorful clothes and enigmatic smile.  I asked our trip leader to introduce us and inquire if it was okay for me to make a portrait.  Shooting quickly with natural light only, no time to set up a tripod, and a too-slow lens mounted on the camera, I had to boost the ISO setting quite high.  Fortunately, I was able to reduce much of the noise in the image during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Hiking up to the top of Uchisar Castle, the highest elevation in Cappadocia.  Buy this photo

We had the chance to watch a whirling dervish ceremony.  The Samazens, followers of Mevlana Rumi, are a mystical Sufi order who practice the ritual we witnessed.  To capture the sense of motion, I used a slower shutter speed to blur the participants.  Buy this photo

The Mevlana Museum houses the monastery and tomb of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, the mystic who founded the “Whirling Dervish” sect.  This image captures the incredible workmanship on the interior of the monastery, especially around Rumi’s tomb.  Flashes and tripods are not allowed inside the tomb, so I had to use a fast lens and high ISO setting to handhold the camera.  Buy this photo

We departed Cappadocia and drove to Antalya, the gateway to the southern Mediterranean region known as the Turquoise Coast.  Antalya boasts an ancient Roman harbor and a fascinating archaeological museum.

We happened upon an interesting scene when several archaeologists and their students attempted to match a recently excavated statuary head to a body already in the museum.  Always be on the lookout for serendipitous scenes, which often make the most memorable images from a trip.  Buy this photo

These Lycian house-tombs were carved into the cliffs centuries before the Romans arrived at Myra.  Buy this photo

We boarded our gulet, a traditional Turkish wooden sailing yacht, for a four-day cruise along the Turquoise Coast.  Each day offered a wonderful photographic tapestry of great images, as we sailed, hiked, swam, and dined.

Kayakoy is a ghost town, a Greek village abandoned when the Turks expelled Greeks after their war for independence in the early 20th century.  Turks living in Greece were also expelled the same year.  Buy this photo

My wife Mary spotted this rare wildcat, which looked to us a bit like our local Californian bobcat, along one of our daily hikes.  I changed lenses very quickly while slowly approaching the cat, then captured this portrait using a medium telephoto just moments before he slipped into the brush.  Buy this photo

A riverboat took us from our gulet yacht to the ancient Lycian site of Caunos.  This image of a beautiful kingfisher along the side of the river was captured using a long telephoto lens and a fast shutter speed to allow for handholding the camera on a rocking boat.  Buy this photo

On our last full day in Turkey, we finally got to visit the splendid ruins of Ephesus, a major Roman city in the region.

The ruins at Ephesus include the incomparable Library of Celsus, pictured here in a self-portrait of my wife and me.  To achieve the broad depth-of-field required to ensure both the people and the buildings were in sharp focus, I used a small aperture (large F-stop number).  Major archaeological sites are often packed with other visitors, so try to find vantage points that allow the crowds to appear small in comparison to your main subjects.  Buy this photo

Throughout Turkey, the food was vibrant, simple, and delicious.  Our final day’s lunch, in a beautiful village in the mountains, consisted of course after course of delightful meze (appetizers).  Buy this photo

Turkey is a remarkable destination for travel photography.  Let us hope its current troubles will soon be a thing of the past and that safe and affordable travel will again be available there.

Have you visited Turkey?  What were your most memorable experiences there?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Baggage Claim [Encore Publication]: 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.  For more on shooting in extreme conditions, read this post: Post on Extreme Conditions
    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.

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

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.


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.


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.


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on Shotgun Players [Encore Publication]: Making exciting images from a cold reading of a script requires good timing

Documenting the creative process in the performing arts is one of my favorite photographic subjects.  Whether it be with dancers, actors, musicians, or any other artist, I love capturing the progression from beginning to final performance.

Tonight I was fortunate to be invited by a longtime favorite local theater company, Shotgun Players, to shoot their first cold reading of the script for their new production, “Nora.”  Based on Ibsen’s masterpiece, “A Doll’s House,” this production is much needed during these troubled times in the US.  Tonight’s reading was wonderfully executed.  Introduced by a presentation by the director, the actors and stage manager interpreted the entire script with lots of dramatic affect and emotion.  I can only imagine how superb the final production will be if the cast could develop this much excitement from a cold reading!  I’ve also been invited to shoot the dress rehearsal, so I’ll report back with more images in about six weeks.  The production of “Nora” runs from March 16 through April 16 in Berkeley, California.

The problem with photographing an unstaged script reading is that it is not inherently a compelling visual event.  As exciting as a good reading can be for the live audience, a group of actors in street clothes sitting at a table reading from sheets of paper, and with no props, set, or lighting, can be a flat subject for images.  To handle a situation like this, I suggest paying extremely close attention to the exact timing of your shutter releases so as to catch those telling moments where the actors are interacting vividly.  It’s also a good idea to mix it up a little, so that the portfolio of images contains several different vantage points, perspectives, and other compositional tools.  In today’s post, we’ll look at some of my images from tonight’s reading and discuss how they were made.

Selective focus can be quite effective in setting off one person or element from the others.  Here I used a very wide aperture (f/1.8) to emphasize the stage manager in front against the soft background of the actor and table behind her.  Note that while it’s always important to be very conscious of your backgrounds while shooting, in a visually stark situation like a script reading you should work extra hard to keep the background as simple and undistracting as possible.  Buy this photo

I try to include all the key people in any event I shoot.  It would be easy to capture only the actors reading the script, but I also made several images of the director (shown here), the stage manager, and the event organizer.  Buy this photo

Timing is everything when it comes to photographing a visually simple event like a play reading, classical music rehearsal, or lecture.  Try to wait for the moment of greatest emotional interaction.    Buy this photo

There’s no rule that says all your images have to conform to the aspect ratio of your camera’s sensor.  Here I cropped the image to a longer aspect ratio to include more of the actors and their interactions.  It has almost a “Last Supper” feel to it.  Buy this photo

Series work well to add excitement to your image gallery.  This image and the next one together depict the climactic moments of the play, when the husband first shouts at his wife and she screams back at him, finally having gained some power in the relationship.  Buy this photo

This final image is the second in the series described above.  I love the intensity of both actors’ postures and expressions.  If the cold reading can be this dramatic, I can hardly wait for the final run of the show!  Buy this photo

What techniques do you use when shooting subjects that have less visual impact than the usual ones?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Focus on ODC Interspaceology Dance Pilot: Capturing the new work of six inspiring choreographers

This past weekend I had the privilege of capturing the new work of six inspiring San Francisco Bay Area choreographers as the official photographer for ODC’s 69th dance pilot program.  Because the six pieces differed substantially in their style, content, dance technique, lighting, and staging, this dress rehearsal shoot makes a good case study in live performance capture techniques.  In today’s post I share some favorite images of each of the pieces along with some brief notes about how they were made.

“Ofrenda” by Carmen Roman:

Performing arts photography need not always show the performers.  Sometimes it adds depth to a performance capture to include some images of costumes, props, venue, or lighting without the performers.  This image shows the altar-like centerpiece, including the Peruvian folkloric masks, before the dancers entered.

This piece was performed outdoors on the street in front of the theater.  It was natural to use some street photography techniques, such as waiting for the people to interact with the setting in an interesting way.   

Because it was held in near-darkness, I had to use some flash to capture the piece.  In these situations, I use an off-camera speedlight, handheld, and attached to the camera with a flash cord.  I nearly always dial down the flash output by one stop so the lighting appears more natural.

“work/force” by Katelyn Hanes:

Try to capture moments when dramatic tension peaks.  In this image, the viewer can feel the conflicting pull that is central to the piece.  Using a fast shutter speed is essential with fast-moving performances, and since lighting is usually dim and available light must be used with no supplemental lighting, it is helpful to use a fast prime lens at a wide aperture and a high ISO setting on the camera.

In post-processing, I look for aspect ratios that best tell the story for each image.  Sometimes that means changing from a landscape to a portrait orientation or vice-versa, and/or cropping to a non-standard aspect ratio.

“Engineering Ephemeral” by Alexandre Munz:

There can be drama in stillness as well as in motion.  This emotional piece had some contemplative moments that tell the story as well as the more active portions.

Dance is about gesture and facial expression, too.  This image captures the choreographer/dancer in a reflection of emotional pain, which to me speaks to a strong storyline.  

“Interbeings” by Carly Lave:

This piece treated the interaction between a human and an artificial intelligence, so I wanted to document their initial encounter.  The dramatic lighting of a single spotlight splits the frame into portions of light and shadow.  To capture the image I had in my mind, I had to move to the center of the stage (made possible because this was a dress rehearsal, not a live performance with an audience) and to lie down on the floor to get a low shooting angle.

Most of the time, performing arts images should be tack-sharp, but for artistic effect it is sometimes desirable to give a sense of the motion by blurring the performer using a slow shutter speed.  To make this image, I switched to a slower ISO setting and a narrower aperture in order to obtain a very slow shutter speed (1.6 seconds).  Because it was shot handheld, I had to hold the camera very steady so as not to blur the background too much.

“Confab” by Arina Hunter:

I’ve worked with Arina several times before and so I have a good feeling for her style.  To capture her new piece, I knew I’d need to have two camera bodies at the ready, one with a 50mm lens and the other with an 85mm lens, so that I could switch between expressive close-ups and exciting action shots.  This image hightens the drama by combining a moment of tension with beautiful lighting and a clean black background.

The best technique for capturing exciting, fast-moving performances is to shoot plenty of images.  I shot a series of images in rapid succession to catch this perfect moment in one of them.  A very fast shutter speed is required, so I used a high ISO setting and a fast prime lens at a wide aperture.

Arina’s gestures and facial expressions are varied and compelling.  To obtain this personal perspective, I shot from her level flat on the floor, and to ensure sharp focus on her whole body I used a moderate aperture setting (f/2.8), requiring a very high ISO setting (6400).  

“ReeLs” by Dana Genshaft:

It can be a challenge to capture multiple dancers moving rapidly in a small space.  Rather than always compose so that the performers are all lined up in a single row like a picket fence, I like to compose images where they are layered.  This image creates a sense of the tension between the dancers by showing the foreground dancer in fast motion, slightly blurred, offset against the background dancers in an instant of stasis.

This image is composed with the dancers all in a row, but the composition works well because the lines of the performers’ bodies leads the viewer’s eye from one side of the frame to the other. 

So, there you have it.  It was a true joy documenting this ODC dance pilot program and getting to know the talented choreographers and dancers.  I’ve described a number of different techniques that can be used, among others, to capture images as vibrant and varied as the performers themselves.

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your favorite techniques for capturing live performances at home or while traveling.

Remember that you can see any of these images in a larger size on my website by clicking on them and that they all are available for purchase there.

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