Amazing Landscapes [Encore Publication]: How to make images that capture the spirit of the place

I love landscape photography.  To create a really successful landscape image, several elements have to converge: the lighting must have a pleasing quality, objects in the foreground and/or middle ground should be intriguing, leading lines should take the viewer on a journey through the image, and (usually) the sky must be dramatic and compelling.  I shoot a lot more mediocre landscapes than great ones, but when all the stars align (sometimes literally, during astrophotography shoots) and all those compositional elements are in place, the results can be amazing.

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite landscape images and talk about how they were made.
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While traveling in Svalbard to view the total solar eclipse of March 2015, my wife and I booked a safari via snowmobile to search for polar bears.  We covered 80 miles by snowmobile, much of that after dark.  The temperature averaged -5 degrees, with wind chill about 25 below zero Fahrenheit.  We rode out to an area now used as a campground, where an early settler and his wife lived a century ago.  This was glorious, otherworldly scenery encompassing ice fields, mountains, and the icy Barents Sea.  Svalbard is located so far north (closer to the North Pole than to mainland Norway) that the sunsets last for hours, so I set up my gear at the edge of the Barents Sea, composed the frame so that the eye is led out to the horizon by the slabs of ice and the range of mountains, and waited for the best light.  A polarizing filter added some drama to the sky.  A very long exposure was not necessary because there was no point to trying in blur the frozen water.  I shot several frames before the light became too dim and the temperature too bitter to continue.  This shot was the keeper!

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This landscape was shot during a recent trip through Turkey and is a good example of how sometimes we photographers just get lucky.  On arriving in the Cappadocian village of Üçhisar, we were thrilled to learn our hotel room was inside an ancient cave dwelling.  We awoke at 5:30 AM the next morning to the sight out our cave-hotel’s window of hundreds of hot air balloons launching above the “fairy chimneys” that dominate the Cappadocian landscape.  I got (mostly) dressed and rushed out onto our balcony, set up the camera on the lightweight travel tripod I carried on the trip, put on a wide-angle zoom lens, and started shooting as the sun rose.  I bracketed the exposure but because the light was perfect in this one shot, I did not end up combining multiple exposures into an HDR (high dynamic range) image.  Instead, this shot, one of the first of the morning’s session, was the clear choice.

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Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is catnip for landscape photographers.  There are so many glorious subjects here that you can go crazy trying to photograph everything.  But Patagonian weather is notoriously changeable, and group travel doesn’t always afford photographers the chance to shoot at the right place at the right time of day with the right weather.  Fortunately, on our second night at the lodge on Lago Gray, I could see all the conditions were lining up for an epic image.  I skipped most of an excellent dinner so that I could set up my gear on the deck: camera with wide-angle lens, polarizing filter, steady tripod, and remote release.  I framed the image with a nice balance between sky, mountains, glaciers, lake, and foreground foliage.  And I started shooting.  I bracketed the exposure with 7-shot bursts, each one stop apart.  Later, in postprocessing, I combined a few of the shots from one burst into an HDR (high dynamic range) image using Lightroom’s photomerge feature.

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Closer to home, Yosemite is another photographer’s dream location.  While hiking to Dog Lake in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows area, a freak hailstorm hit.  Suddenly the sky was hurling hailstones in biblical style and the formerly placid surface of the lake turned black with the force of the pelting ice.  What’s a photographer to do?  Start shooting, of course!  A tripod was impractical under these conditions, so I used a relatively fast shutter speed and shot handheld.  I took a series of bracketed exposures and combined them later using Lightroom into an HDR (high dynamic range) image.  For me, this image works because of the tension between the peaceful foreground of tree trunk and reeds, contrasted with the ominous sky and turbulent water.  The fallen tree and edge of the grasses provide nice leading lines from the peaceful to the violent portions of the frame.

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Another California landscape, this image was shot in the gorgeous Point Lobos reserve on California’s Central Coast.  As sunset neared, I set up camera and tripod right on the beach, shooting down onto the rocks and Pacific Ocean.  I used a neutral density filter to allow a very long exposure so that the water would blur.  I also attached a polarizing filter in an attempt to darken the sky and add drama to the image, but having two filters on the wide-angle lens did lead to some vignetting (the blocking of light at the edges of the photo), which I had to crop out in postprocessing.  This image was made from a single exposure with only minor adjustments to bring out the shadow details and saturate the colors.

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This year’s Perseid Meteor Shower was more active than we’ve seen in many years.  At the peak night of the shower, I headed out to a spot where a break in the trees allows a view over Crystal Springs Reservoir and the Santa Cruz Mountains.  We waited until about 2 AM so that the meteor activity was at a peak and the lights of the nearby towns were no longer bright.  Shooting with a wide-angle lens and a heavy professional tripod, I framed the image to include a pleasing foreground with trees, reservoir, and mountains, with most of the frame covering the dark sky.  I used a star finder app to shoot toward the galactic core of the Milky Way.  I set the camera to make 25-second exposures at f/4 and ISO 1600.  At this focal length, exposures longer than 25 seconds will cause the stars to appear blurry due to the motion of the earth.  And then I just kept shooting, one exposure after another, for nearly two hours.  Four meteors passed through the part of the sky in my image area during this time, and I combined the images that included them into one merged image using a software application called StarStaX.  While I like this image a lot, it could have been improved by finding a darker sky area (the lights from a nearby city caused the orange glow at the top of the mountains) and by bringing out the Milky Way a bit more prominently.  Now I know what to do during next year’s Perseid Shower!

A good wide-angle zoom lens is a must for landscape photography.  Many of the images featured in this post were shot with my Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens.  It’s got great image quality and is well built, and I find it’s a great alternative (except perhaps for astrophotography where the extra speed is required) to the popular but very expensive Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8.

Want to see more articles on how to shoot travel images?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/

Now I’d love to hear from you!  What are your favorite landscape images, and why?  To what lengths have you gone to capture landscape photos?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

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

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

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.

Focus on Chile and Argentina [Encore Publication]: Rugged mountain landscapes and distinctive cultural experiences abound

Our wonderful 3.5-week adventure took us from Santiago, where we visited our older daughter, to fabled Easter Island, sophisticated Buenos Aires, the mystical island of Chiloe, and then through much of Southern Patagonia.  For much of this itinerary we were traveling with a local leader and a small group of fellow travelers on a trip operated by Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT).  The knowledge of our local trip leader coupled with the small group size allowed us to travel to largely untouristed areas and to engage in authentic cultural interactions that would not have been easy to set up on our own and would have been impractical to include on larger group trips.  Such a format offers amazing opportunities for photographers, as it provides access to an array of experiences beyond the “postcard-type” shots.  From home-hosted meals to wildlife encounters to hiking across glaciers and on the slopes of a volcano, this trip packed a lot of memorable moments–and images–into just a few weeks’ time.

Easter Island is a small and extremely remote island, accessible via daily flights from Santiago.  It is, of course, famed for the monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people centuries ago, called moai, that are scattered across the island.  But there is a lot more to Easter Island than the moai, including a distinctive Polynesian culture and a wealth of natural beauty.

When photographing iconic sites like this grouping of moai on Easter Island, look for a different perspective.  Here, I have framed the image from an unusual vantage point, shooting with a telephoto lens to compress the moai so that they appear closer together and more imposing than they would if framed from directly in front.   Buy this photo on my website

From Easter Island we traveled to Argentina’s capital city of Buenos Aires.  This city has a high-energy feel, offers a huge array of food specialties, and is graced with stately European style avenues and architecture.

 

Buenos Aires’ colorful and historic barrio (neighborhood) of La Boca is the birthplace of the tango.  To give a sense of the dance’s motion, I shot with a slightly slower shutter speed.  The rich colors of La Boca can be brought out in post-processing with subtle adjustments to the vibrance and/or saturation tools in image editing software such as Lightroom.  Buy this photo on my website

A stay in the Alpine style village of San Carlos de Bariloche included fascinating interactions with Hans, who as a German boy growing up in Bariloche uncovered his father’s Nazi past and wrote several scholarly books about Nazis living in Argentina; and with Christina, a Mapuche Indian grandmother, civil rights activist, and jewelry maker.  We then crossed overland toward the border with Chile, stopping en route for a home-hosted lunch of grilled lamb and for some horseback ridingon a family estancia (ranch).

Chango, the family patriarch, saddles up the horses for a ranch ride.  An environmental portrait includes not only the person who is the subject of the portrait, but also enough of the surroundings to give a deeper sense of who the person is.  A classic portrait lens would also work nicely for a shot like this one, but to emphasize the relationship between man and horse, and to give some separation between the subject and the background, I chose a longer telephoto lens.  Buy this photo on my website


An otherworldly sight: a lenticular cloud forms on the summit of Osorno Volcano as we were hiking on the slopes.  To capture high-contrast scenes like this one, it often helps to underexpose by about one stop to preserve the detail in the highlights.  Then the shadow detail can be brought back later during post-processing. Buy this photo on my website

The same Osorno Volcano viewed from Vicente Perez Rosales National Park.  To blur the water, I placed the camera on a steady tripod and used a longer shutter speed.  Attaching a neutral density filter to the lens can help by reducing the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor, thus allowing a longer shutter speed even in bright daylight. Buy this photo on my website

A ferry crossing from mainland Chile brought us to the island of Chiloe for an overnight stay.  Chiloe exudes a strong sense of its mystical past and is characterized by colorful houses rising on stilts out of the water.

Characteristic brightly colored Chilote houses built on stilts.  Choose a vantage point from which the houses can be framed in a pleasing manner, shoot with a wide angle lens to include more of the houses, and add a bit of vibrance in post-processing to bring out the saturated colors. Buy this photo on my website

The island of Chiloe includes a fascinating bird preserve reachable by small boat.  Here is a penguin couple out strolling in their formal wear.  To stabilize the camera and long telephoto lens while shooting from a heavily rocking small boat, use a fast shutter speed (choosing a higher ISO can help), turn on vibration reduction if your lens or camera offers it, and release the shutter at the instant when the boat reaches the top of its cycle of rocking.  It’s helpful to use a monopod if you have one (I didn’t) and to shoot a continuous burst of images so that you are more likely to get a good sharp one. Buy this photo on my website

After traveling south all the way to the Strait of Magellan (the farthest south I have ever stood, with Antarctica the only land mass below it), we continued northwest until we reached Torres del Paine National Park, any photographer’s dream destination.  The photographic possibilities here are endless, with rugged mountains meeting brilliant blue glaciers and clear lakes.  We had the opportunity to view this breathtaking beauty from various hikes and by boat.

Blue ice on Lago Grey’s glacier imitates the mountain peaks soaring behind.  I used a polarizing filter on the lens to bring out the intense blues in the glacier and sky, but had to be careful not to remove too much of the reflection in the water of the lake. Buy this photo on my website

Alpenglow lights the peaks behind Lago Grey and its glacier.  To make this image, I had to forego much of a really good dinner by shooting through the mealtime out on the deck of our lodge.  With the camera on a steady tripod, I shot a series of images using different exposures, a process known as bracketing.  Later, these shots can be blended together using the high dynamic range (HDR) tools in software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Buy this photo on my website

Heading out of Torres del Paine through the heart of Patagonia, our adventure was not yet over.  We still had another national park (Los Glacieres) to visit on the Argentinian side before returning to Buenos Aires for our farewell dinner and our flights back home.

Patagonian Paradise.  Don’t forget to include yourself and your traveling companions in some of your images.  This one, made as we headed out of Torres del Paine National Park, made a great holiday card. Buy this photo on my website

Have you visited Patagonia, the capital cities of Argentina and Chile, Easter Island, or Chiloe Island?  What did you find most memorable?  Please add your suggestions for places to visit or subjects to shoot.  Just enter your thoughts in the comment box.

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

 

When You Get Back Home [Encore Publication]: An introduction to the essentials of postprocessing

You may want to share some of your favorite images with friends and family right out of the camera while you’re still traveling, and as long as you’re not sharing so broadly that potential thieves may be alerted to your absence from home, that’s a fine thing to do.  To enable immediate and easy sharing, you can choose the setting available on many cameras to shoot both RAW and JPG files; the JPG images will often look pretty decent for sharing when they come straight from the camera, and you still have your much more detailed image data saved in the RAW files.

But when you get home from your trip, it’s worth making the effort to catalog and post-process the RAW files of your favorite images so that they will look their very best and so you will be organized for finding them in the future.  I’ll cover how to organize your catalog of images in a later post, but for now let’s take a look at the essentials of post-processing.

There are many software applications available to perform these tasks, but I strongly encourage you to check out Adobe Lightroom.  I use this tool, and nearly all professional and enthusiast photographers I know also use it.  You can license it along with other Adobe software on a pay-per-month basis as part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud, but it can also be purchased with a perpetual license (i.e., you purchase the software once and can use it forever), which is how I acquired it.

Once you have Lightroom installed on your PC, it’s easy to import your images from your camera’s memory card or from your PC’s hard drive and to organize your catalog of images using the software’s Library module.  When your images are in your Lightroom catalog, the software allows you to perform all post-processing you desire using its Develop module.  After shooting the image, my second-favorite part of the digital photography process is enhancing the the image in the Develop module.  The software package even gets its name, Lightroom, as the new digital equivalent of the work we older photographers formerly had to do in the darkroom, such as dodging, burning, and cropping our film negatives to get the images looking their best.

As an example of how a little post-processing can dramatically enhance an image, let’s take a look at a night shot I made of Copenhagen’s Christiansborg Palace, the seat of the Danish Parliament.  Here’s the “Before” picture:


Lightroom’s Develop module

The beauty of Lightroom’s method is that it doesn’t actually change your original image files as you edit them.  Instead Lightroom saves a roadmap of the various edits you make and stores this list of adjustments along with a pointer to the original file.  This is called “non-destructive editing”, and it allows you to edit your images to your heart’s content without overwriting or changing the originals at all.  You can go back as many times as you want later to revisit your edits and change them again and again.

Let’s look at this process in more detail.  Here is the basic Lightroom Develop module screen:

lightroom develop module

The left bar shows a thumbnail of the image you’re working on and a list of the most recent edits you have made.  The central part of the screen shows a larger version of your image and this can be zoomed in and out to work on details or the whole image.  The right bar has a histogram (a graph showing how many pixels in the image are at each brightness level from totally black to totally white) at the top, then a toolbar from which you can choose some of the editing tools quickly, and then a large area with sliders (only some of which are shown in this screenshot) that you move left or right to adjust various elements of your image.  The editing tools in Lightroom are comprehensive enough that I find I very rarely need to import an image into Adobe Photoshop to make really sophisticated edits; nearly all of the time, I can perform all of my post-processing using only Lightroom.

Some photographers spend a lot of time making major enhancements to their images, but I like to try to adjust my camera’s settings precisely enough that the image is made in the camera the way I envisioned it when shooting, so that I need to make only minor adjustments in post-processing.  While the exact steps of post-processing will be different for every image, here is my basic workflow (note that for the most part, I work from the top to the bottom of the adjustment tools found in the right bar):

  1. Adjust the white balance as needed.  Remember my advice to always shoot in RAW mode.  One of the advantages of RAW files is that you can adjust the white balance in post-processing, regardless of what your camera’s white balance controls were set for while you were shooting the image.  In JPG files you have much less control over the white balance after the fact.  Just choose a different preset white balance type (such as Daylight, Shade, or Flash) from Lightroom’s menu, or create a custom white balance yourself.
  2. Adjust the exposure as needed.  Use the histogram and the image preview pane to lighten or darken the whole image until it looks best.
  3. Adjust the contrast as needed.  Increasing contrast gives more separation between the darkest and lightest portions of the image, while decreasing contrast does the opposite.  I find that most images require the contrast to be increased slightly to moderately.
  4. Adjust the highlights and shadows as needed.  Highlights are the brighter parts of the image, and I find that often these need to be reduced in brightness to regain some detail that may have been lost in the camera.  Shadows are the darker parts of the image, and often these need to be made brighter to bring out lost shadow detail.  After the highlights and shadows have been adjusted, you may need to adjust the whites and blacks (very brightest and very darkest points in your image) if there are extremes of contrast present.  Most of the time I do not need to change the white and black points.
  5. Adjust the clarity as needed.  The clarity slider changes the contrast of the middle tones (neither the darker nor the lighter parts) of the image.  Usually images need a subtle increase in clarity to bring out the details in the texture.  Don’t overuse this tool or the image can become unnatural looking.
  6. Adjust the vibrance and/or saturation as needed.  Both of these sliders will change the concentration of the colors in your image, but vibrance tries to avoid changing the color of skin tones so images with people will often look more natural after increasing the vibrance than after increasing saturation.  Occasionally you might need to make adjustments to both vibrance and saturation, but usually I find a subtle increase in vibrance is sufficient.  Again, don’t overuse these tools or your image will start to look exaggerated and surreal (unless you’re going for those effects).
  7. Adjust the concentration of individual colors as needed.  Each color channel has its own slider to increase or decrease its saturation.  I don’t use these sliders often, but occasionally you may want to increase or decrease the saturation of just a single color.  For example, when shooting a landscape with sky or water, you may want to increase the blue saturation to bring out those parts of the image.
  8. If you want to work on your image in black-and-white, the color channels area is the tool I use to do the conversion from color to monochrome.  Click on the “B&W” tab above the individual color channel sliders, and then adjust the mix of how the colors are blended by increasing or decreasing each color’s slider to see how the black-and-white image looks.  I find that I often have to readjust the contrast slider at this point to get the image looking its best in black-and-white.
  9. There is some sharpening already applied to your image file by default, but if it looks too soft in the important areas, you can dial in some additional sharpening.
  10. When the image you’re editing was shot at a high ISO (sensitivity) and/or a very long shutter speed, there will likely be some noise in the image.  This can be managed somewhat in Lightroom’s noise reduction tool.
  11. Under basic lens corrections I will usually select all three of the check box items.  Lightroom knows how most camera and lens combinations work and can eliminate many of the optical glitches that would otherwise show up in the image.  Under manual lens corrections, I may need to rotate the image if the horizon wasn’t level when it was shot.
  12. All of the above adjustments affect the entire image.  After completing these adjustments, it’s time to make any selective adjustments that affect only a selected part of the image.  These selective adjustment tools can be found in the toolbar just below the histogram.
  13. Of these selective adjustment tools, the most generally useful is the cropping tool, which of course allows you to remove unwanted portions of the image on the sides, top, or bottom.  It’s always best to try to compose the image correctly in the camera, but cropping is often still needed in post-processing.
  14. The spot removal, filters, and adjustment brush are more complicated selective adjustment tools that can easily be subjects of additional posts in their own right.

These steps usually won’t all be needed for any one image.  If you have several images that were shot under similar conditions, you can select them all in the Library module and turn on Auto Sync, which then allows you to make the adjustments only once and apply them to all the selected images.  Another big time saver is creating your own presets, which are saved routines that you can call at the click of a button to automate tasks that would otherwise have taken multiple steps.  Unlike Photoshop, Lightroom was designed by Adobe specifically for photographers to use, so it is set up in such a way as to make life much easier for us to organize, edit, and share our images.

Here is the “After” version of our sample image of Copenhagen by night.  You can see how a few simple edits during post-processing can really make an image pop.

Buy this photo

I hope you’ve found this very basic introduction to the essentials of post-processing to be helpful.  Now it’s your turn.  What are your go-to techniques in editing your images?  Do you have tips and tricks that you’ve found make your life easier after you return from a trip?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Focus on the Embera People: Capturing enchanting images of an ancient traditional way of life

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

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

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

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

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

Showing us how the midday meal is prepared. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Embera family pose for a portrait. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

LR chromatica screenshot-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Focus on Panama [Encore Publication]: A man, a plan, a canal Panama, but so very much more


Iconic Panamanian scene: Nearly every visitor to Panama comes, at least in part, to see the canal, one of the wonders of the modern world.  Although our small vessel was able to transit the canal using the original 1914 lock system, we had the opportunity to visit the newly expanded 2016 lock system that can accommodate some of the world’s largest ships.  We observed this super container ship carrying more than 10,000 shipping containers each the size of a tractor-trailer truck as she transited the new lock system.  The massive scale of this scene makes it challenging to photograph.  Compose too tightly and you lose the grand sense of scale; compose too wide and you lose the dramatic impact.  I opted to capture this enormous vessel fully enclosed by the gargantuan lock chamber with the entrance to the Caribbean (Atlantic) waters and the modern Atlantic Bridge in the background.

My wife and I recently returned from a lovely two-week adventure traveling through Panama.  Our itinerary took us from the capital of Panama City to the historic and folkloric Azuero Peninsula, then up the Chagres River via dugout canoe for an in-depth encounter with the Embera indigenous people, followed by transiting the entire length of the Panama Canal aboard our 24-passenger catamaran, and ending with a visit to the remarkable rainforest of San Lorenzo National Park before returning to Panama City.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Panama’s people of diverse backgrounds and trades.  We discovered that Panama is much more than just a canal: it’s a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, unparalleled biodiversity, centuries-old cultural traditions, and friendly people.

Our Panamanian adventure began in the largest city, Panama City.  While small relative to other major Latin American cities, Panama City is growing and thriving, juxtaposing a modern vibrant energy on top of a lovely historic Spanish-colonial old town.

Old meets new in Panama City as the Old Quarter ruins lie in the shadow of newer developments. To capture this juxtaposition of ancient against modern, I composed using a wide-angle lens and a low vantage point so that the skyline appears to grow suddenly from behind the ruins.  A narrow aperture (high f-stop number) allows both foreground and background to be in sharp focus.

Wildlife is abundant nearly everywhere in a rainforest climate zone, so our cameras should already be ready.  On the outskirts of Panama City, we observed this lovely iguana. I crouched down very low to shoot from the same level as the iguana, using a long telephoto set to a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to soften the background.  It’s important to shoot many frames of wildlife subjects to maximize the likelihood of capturing a few really strong shots.  This image appeals because the iguana appears to be smiling at us.

Lovely view over Panama City from the roof garden of our hotel.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water.  When composing busy images like this one, I seek a sense of harmony and balance between the different elements.  It’s also helpful to avoid the use of extremely wide-angle lenses and to keep the horizon level so as to minimize distortion of the vertical lines.

Food is an important aspect of travel, so it’s fun to make some images of the dishes we try, such as this whimsical presentation of ceviche in a local Panama City restaurant.  Photographing food in restaurant or home settings can be challenging due to poor lighting and cluttered backgrounds.  Here I removed some of the clutter from the table and shot from a 45-degree angle, which works well for many food presentations (shooting from directly above almost never flatters the dish).

A highlight of our stay in Panama City was getting to explore the neighborhood of El Chorrillo, nearly completely destroyed during the 1989 US invasion to oust Manuel Noriega.  Nearly three decades later, much of this neighborhood is still in shambles and its residents are divided on whether such destruction was justified.  I feel it’s a privilege to observe and photograph peoples’ homes during times of regeneration, so it’s important to explore and shoot photos with a high degree of respect for those who live in the neighborhood, speaking with residents and obtaining their permission before capturing images.

Departing Panama City for the historic and folkloric region of the Azuero Peninsula, we were very fortunate to arrive in the little town of Chitre on the day they celebrate Panama’s “First Cry of Independence”. The push for independence from Spain began here, then spread to the rest of the country.

Whether halfway around the world or right in my home town, I’m always thrilled to have the chance to capture the special energy and tradition of a festival or celebration.  Because festivals are very busy events, it’s important to look for clean backgrounds insofar as possible.  To make this portrait of two young Panamanians dressed in the national costume known as the pollera, I composed so as to minimize clutter in the background and also used a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to render the background in soft focus.  Too often photographers compose based only on the main subject, but a clean background is at least as important to the success of the image than an interesting foreground subject.

In the village of Las Tablas we visited a pollera-making workshop run by a husband and wife team. These intricately embroidered costumes can each cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years to make. The owners’ niece and son made adorable models for their work.  I asked them to move a few steps away from the cluttered area where they were standing so we could frame the portrait with the lovely traditional Panamanian window in the background.

Local fishermen ferried us from the mainland to the lovely Iguana Island for a day of snorkeling, hiking, and relaxing at the beach.  A strange sighting: this hermit crab re-purposed the discarded head of a child’s doll for its new shell.  I did not have a macro lens with me, so I used the closest focusing lens in my bag and got as close as possible, later cropping the image further during post-processing.

The second day of independence festivities are celebrated in the small town of Villa de los Santos. I asked this parade participant to pose for a portrait in a spot with a clean background and lovely soft lighting, then got in close with a fast prime portrait lens set to a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to throw the background out of focus.  Soft lighting (which can be obtained by shooting near sunrise or sunset, or by moving the subject into a shaded area) makes vivid colors truly pop and flatters the subject of your portrait.

The “First Cry of Independence” festivities last well into the night.  The extremely low-light conditions offer a photographer’s dilemma: either continue to shoot using only available light (and accept the added visual noise and motion blur) or switch to using flash (and live with its short coverage distance, artificial color cast, and distraction to the subjects).  I chose to work with just available light, boosting my camera’s ISO sensitivity setting to as high as I could get away with and using a fast prime lens at a very wide aperture to gather as much light as possible, which in turn allowed the use of a reasonably fast shutter speed.  The results are lovely: sharp dancers in the foreground with just a touch of motion blur, soft focus on the dancers and buildings in the background, and a soft and painterly feel for the scene that to me feels quintessentially Panamanian.

As we prepared to depart the Azuero Peninsula, we visited the mask-making workshop of renowned artisan Dario.  Even avid photographers enjoy returning home with at least a few photos of themselves and their loved ones, so I set up the camera and asked a fellow traveler to capture the shot.  Expect to spend some time fixing the composition and exposure in post-processing if your designated photographer is not very experienced.

After spending a few days on the Azuero Peninsula, we navigated up the Chagres River via dugout canoe to meet the Embera indigenous people.  This fascinating in-depth encounter offered a window into an ancient culture that has mostly disappeared from Central America as indigenous groups have been forced to resettle on national parklands where their traditional fishing and hunting practices are not permitted.  Our Embera hosts are able to continue to live in the traditional manner by sharing their culture with visitors like us.  Our lovely day spent with the Embera villagers included preparing and enjoying a traditional meal, visiting the two-room schoolhouse (supported by Grand Circle Foundation), exploring the village, learning about their government and way of life, and observing and participating in traditional singing and dancing.  We will never forget this experience.

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

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

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

A brief jaunt back to Panama City put us in position to board our 24-passenger catamaran, the M/S Discovery, for our three-day transit of the Panama Canal.

Strolling near our hotel, we happened upon these two brightly-colored toucans in a tree.  Using the longest telephoto lens at my disposal, I made the shot handheld with a fast shutter speed to minimize camera shake.  If your camera or lens has built-in image stabilization (also sometimes called vibration reduction), this modern feature can be very useful in avoiding blurring caused by camera shake.

Setting sail on the Panama Canal, we pass the Frank Gehry designed Biodiversity Museum with the Panama City skyline in the background.  Cityscapes can be great fun to photograph.  Attention should be paid to composing the image to include the most interesting urban features while eliminating extraneous and distracting elements.  A polarizing filter can help reduce reflection and enhance the color and texture of clouds and water.  And it’s always a good practice to keep the horizon line nice and level.

A spider monkey feeds in a tree on an island in Gatun Lake, highest point along the Panama Canal.  Photographing an animal in the low light of the rainforest canopy, and from a moving boat, is a challenge.  I boosted the camera’s ISO sensitivity setting and used the fastest aperture setting available on this lens to render a sharp image of the monkey in motion.

Transiting the Atlantic locks near the end of the Panama Canal.  This scene conveys the hustle and bustle of this hectic waterway without too many distracting elements.  I composed to include two relatively large ships in separate chambers of the locks along with the Canal Authority’s apparatus and our own ship’s Panamanian flag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“To Travel Hopefully” News Flash! I am honored to be named a finalist in Digital Photo Pro’s Emerging Pro Photo Competition

Dear Readers,

I am thrilled to have been named a finalist in Digital Photo Pro Magazine’s prestigious annual Emerging Pro Photo Competition.  DPP is the leading journal for professional photographers.  Many thousands of entrants have been culled down to a shortlist of about 10-20 photographers.  Feeling very honored and humbled by this happy news.  Please send your positive thoughts as we enter the final round of judging.  I’ll keep you posted.

Thank you for your incredible support thus far.  Please invite your friends and family members who are also passionate about travel and/or photography to join us at To Travel Hopefully.  Here’s to the many further travel photography adventures we will share together!

Cheers,

Kyle Adler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Focus on the Embera People: Capturing enchanting images of an ancient traditional way of life

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

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

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

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

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

Showing us how the midday meal is prepared. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Embera family pose for a portrait. 

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

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

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

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

Wildlife and Safari Gear [Encore Publication]: Basic equipment to capture wildlife while traveling or close to home

Wildlife photography is one of the most exciting and rewarding pursuits I know, but it is also very challenging.  Whether on safari in far-flung wilderness regions around the world or in a park or zoo near home, capturing great images of the local fauna requires plenty of patience, a little bit of luck, and some specialized gear.  This post outlines the basic equipment needed for wildlife photography.

Sometimes we get lucky.  This alligator was seeking what little sunshine was available on an overcast winter’s day on the bayou in Louisiana.  He stayed sufficiently still that I was able to capture this image by handholding a medium telephoto lens from our airboat.  Buy this photo

Occasionally, a critter may scamper, fly, or swim right up to where the photographer happens to be standing, but in the vast majority of cases, if we want to capture a really moving and uninhibited portrait of an animal, we need a long telephoto lens.  Working with “big glass” not only fills more of the frame with the main subject, but it has the added benefit of allowing the photographer to shoot from a vantage point far enough away from the animal so as not to frighten it.  It’s also very important when photographing wildlife that we make every effort to keep the wildlife wild, and using a long lens keeps us at a sufficient distance that the creatures we’re observing are less likely to become accustomed to the sight, sound, and smell of humans.

I like to carry both a medium telephoto and a long telephoto when shooting wildlife, so as to be prepared for a variety of situations.  My medium lens of choice is the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens.  While this lens is built on aging technology and doesn’t always feel as solid as more professional lenses, it is relatively small and lightweight, fairly inexpensive, and provides a very effective vibration reduction function.  This lens has been a staple in my bag for many years, during which time I’ve used it to capture some of my favorite images.

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

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

When shooting far-off and often rapidly moving animal subjects with big glass, it is important to have a good means of stabilizing the camera.  Depending on the shooting situation, I use either a lightweight tripod or a beanbag support.

A lightweight travel tripod is perfect for those situations when you have plenty of space and plenty of time in one place.  I like the Manfrotto Be Free travel tripod.  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.

For situations when you will be on the move much of the time, such as on game drives using safari vehicles, a beanbag support is extremely useful, as you cannot fit a tripod in a safari vehicle and a monopod is awkward.  The bag can be emptied for convenient travel and then filled with “beans” (usually synthetic) upon arrival.   It is placed on top of the safari vehicle while shooting, with the camera and long lens resting on the beanbag.  While the beanbag that I use is no longer available, this one is well reviewed by photographers and represents a good value.

 

A sleepy leopard yawns in a tree above the Endless Plains of Serengeti National Park.  This image was captured using a 500mm lens resting on a beanbag support placed on the roof of our safari vehicle.  Buy this photo

With a couple of good telephoto lenses, including one long one, and a couple of good options for stabilizing them, you will be armed with the right basic tools for bringing home truly memorable images of the wildlife you encounter on your travels.  Happy hunting!

What are your favorite wildlife subjects and locations, and what gear do you use to capture them?  Please share your experiences here.

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

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

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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