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

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

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

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

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

Tanzania Buy this photo

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

 Buy this photo

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

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

USA Buy this photo

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

 Buy this photo

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

 Buy this photo

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

 Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Peripheral Vision: Divergent Travel Photography” exhibition opens today

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I think my current favorite lens of all (including primes and zooms) is my Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human being.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh”, or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

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

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

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

 

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.

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

Note: For the first time, this year there will be a summer version of the SF Movement Arts Festival! If you live in the SF Bay Area, please plan to attend this amazing event on July 19 at Grace Cathedral.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two main tools available at this time:

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

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

The Berlin Chapter [Encore Publication]: Updates on my ongoing Human/Machine Dance Project

Last summer I began a passion project in collaboration with choreographer, dancer, and Fulbright Scholar Carly Lave with the goal of exploring how the human body moves and how we humans will be transformed by increasing immersion into advanced technologies, including virtual reality, robotics, and interconnectivity.  I was delighted when one of my images from this project was recognized by my being named one of three Emerging Pros in Digital Photo Pro Magazine’s biannual awards.  The image was the overall winner in this international competition’s “Fashion & Beauty” category.

In an earlier post I shared a few favorite images from the California-based photo shoots that Carly and I conducted last summer.  In today’s post I’ll share a few new images from our recent photo shoots conducted in Berlin, Germany, where Carly is spending the year as a Fulbright Scholar.

Der Temporaum in Berlin: Flug

“Der Temporaum in Berlin: Flug”.  Carly takes flight while exploring a virtual world. The very real world she inhabits here is a shared workspace for artists in a Soviet-era neighborhood of the former East Berlin.  To capture the fast action of Carly’s leap, I used a fast prime lens nearly wide open so as to achieve a fast shutter speed while shooting at a relatively low ISO.

 

Der Temporaum in Berlin: Tanzen

“Der Temporaum in Berlin: Tanzen”.  Carly dances within a shared workspace for artists in a Soviet-era neighborhood of the former East Berlin.  To create the soft, intimate feel of this portrait, I used a prime portrait lens (85mm) at a wide aperture (f/2.0) to allow the lovely light streaming through the window to illuminate Carly and to throw the background into soft focus.  Composition is very important to the success of intimate portraits, so I was careful to frame Carly’s body within the lines of the window casement and using the soft white curtains to provide a pleasing and non-distracting background.

 

Tempelhofer Feld I

“Tempelhofer Feld I”.  The virtual and physical worlds collide on a defunct runway at the pre-WWII airport of Tempelhofer, now a recreational space in the south of Berlin.  Working on location in outdoor settings can be tricky and success may be dependent on weather conditions and other factors.  Carly and I conducted this shoot during a gathering storm, making for a dramatic sky that complemented our theme and the industrial setting very nicely.  The accompanying challenges we experienced were very high winds, shifting light, and very little time to shoot before the sky opened up in a barrage of pelting rain and hail.  Fortunately we were able to “get our shot” before getting soaked to the bone.  I framed this image to give prominence not only to Carly but also to the old airfield’s runway and to the stormy sky.

Der Temporaum in Berlin: Schwarz und Weiß

“Der Temporaum in Berlin: Schwarz und Weiß”.  While I liked the way this image looked in color, my visual concept of the scene called for high-contrast black-and-white to give it an antique graphic-arts feel that seemed to suit the historically drab East Berlin setting.  During post-processing I converted the image to monochrome and increased the contrast, adjusting the tone and color curves until I achieved just the effect I was seeking.

Der Temporaum in Berlin: Virtuell

“Der Temporaum in Berlin: Virtuell”.  Carly explores a virtual world. The very real world she inhabits here is a shared workspace for artists in a Soviet-era neighborhood of the former East Berlin.  Using a fast prime lens at a very wide aperture setting, I intentionally limited the depth-of-field to such an extreme that Carly’s hands as well as the background were thrown into soft focus.  I like the effect this has on leading the viewer’s eye from the outstretched arms to Carly’s head and upper body, then around to the bleak industrial background.  The view thereby experiences some of the sense of exploration in the space where Carly is feeling her way.

Tempelhofer Feld II

“Tempelhofer Feld II”.  This image was made in a similar fashion to the previous one at the same location, except that here I gained a different perspective by backing further away from Carly as well as crouching down to the ground.  The resulting effect is one of precariousness rather than one of steadfastness in the earlier image.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA

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

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

Kashgar, China

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

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

Turkey

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

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

Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Kyle Adler photographer travel photography

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

Flash Units

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

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

Tripods

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

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

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

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

Accessories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smartphones

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

Bags

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

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

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

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

Software

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

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

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