“Building” Your Portfolio [Encore Publication]: Architecture gives local flavor and makes a great subject for your photography

Travel photography is exciting in large part because it encompasses all types of subjects.  In a single day while traveling, we may have the opportunity to shoot landscapes of the scenery around us, portraits of the people we meet, wildlife images of the fauna in the region, night images after the sun goes down, and photos of the local architecture.  I’ve already covered how to shoot most of these subjects in previous posts.  Today we’ll focus on how to make compelling images of architecture, which includes both the exteriors and interiors of the buildings we encounter.

For architectural photography, it is essential to carry a good wide-angle lens.  While I’m a big fan of prime (fixed focal-length) lenses, architecture is one subject where a zoom lens comes in very handy.  That’s because it can be difficult to change our vantage point when shooting large buildings in crowded urban environments.  And when photographing buildings, the widest end of the zoom range should be quite wide, indeed.  I recommend a lens that can zoom out to 16mm (for full-frame cameras) or even wider.  The lens doesn’t have to be particularly fast, because buildings do not tend to move quickly and we can use a tripod to steady the camera for longer exposure times, but it must be of very high optical quality for architecture photography.  Cheaper wide-angle lenses are prone to several kinds of distortion that can lend an unprofessional appearance to photos of buildings.  I recommend ponying up for a good professional quality wide-angle zoom lens with a range of somewhere around 16-35mm, or even a fast 14-24mm lens if you have the budget for it.

I use the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens for architecture shoots.  It’s got great image quality and is very solid and well built, but at f/4 it is not super fast, and it is rather heavy and bulky.

When shooting the exterior of a building with a wide-angle lens, we need to make an effort not to distort the lines of the building or its surroundings.  A wide-angle lens, especially when pointed upward, has the tendency to exaggerate features so that parallel lines appear to be divergent.  If you have the option of moving to a higher vantage point so you can shoot parallel to the ground instead of upward at the subject, this distortion can be greatly reduced.  But for those frequent situations when you have no choice but to look up at a building from the street level, try to zoom out so that the entire subject can be included in the frame without pointing the lens too far upward.  This image of a stately old building in Buenos Aires was made with the camera pointed nearly parallel to the ground so that even though a very wide focal length was required to fit the building in the frame, there is relatively little distortion of the perspective.
When using a wide-angle lens from street level, try to keep the camera pointed parallel to the ground to avoid severe distortion of the building’s lines.  Buy this photo

In contrast, the next image was shot from a vantage point at the same elevation as the subject, the world’s northernmost church.  I climbed a snowy hill in front of Svalbard’s chapel to attain the same height as the center of the building, so that I could hold the camera exactly level to the ground and still include equal amounts of the church above and below the center of the image.  This minimized the distortion and resulted in a more natural rendering of this fascinating building.

To make this photo of Svalbard’s church, I chose a vantage point at the same elevation as the midpoint of the building, minimizing distortion.  Buy this photo

I like to seek interesting colors and recurring patterns in architecture.  The miners’ houses in Svalbard made an intriguing subject because they were lined up in an even line of identical structures, but they varied in color.  To make the image more compelling, I moved across the street and shot with a moderate telephoto lens (65mm) to compress the scene and make the houses appear closer together.  I based the exposure on the light reflected from the paint on the houses, so that the snow in front of and behind the buildings was nearly blown out.  In post-processing I increased the vibrance slightly to bring out the bold colors in this scene.

Look for architectural scenes featuring interesting patterns and colors, such as this view of miners’ cottages in Svalbard surrounded by snow.  Buy this photo

Sometimes the most effective images of architecture hone in on the details rather than including the whole of the building.  I’m always on the lookout for a characteristic or unusual feature of the buildings around me. In New Orleans’s French Quarter, I framed this shot of a lovely wrought iron balcony using a long telephoto lens so that only this one feature of the building was included.

Zoom in on just the most characteristic or compelling features of a building to make an arresting image of the details rather than the whole building.  Buy this photo

Shooting interiors of buildings poses some of the same challenges as shooting their exteriors.  In particular, since a wide-angle lens is most often required and is frequently pointed upward, it is important to look at the edges of the viewfinder to try to minimize distortion of the building’s lines.  To make this wide-angle image of the inside of a grand mosque in Istanbul, I kept the camera level using a tripod and the camera’s virtual horizon function.  There was still a good deal of distortion around the edges of the upper part of the scene, but I was able to control this to some degree by adjusting the images perspective using Lightroom software during post-processing.

This image of the interior of a mosque in Istanbul shows some distortion, but I was able to keep it under control by shooting level to the floor and adjusting the vertical lines using post-processing software.  Buy this photo

Do you have tips for shooting the interiors and exteriors of buildings?  Please share them here.

Want to read more posts about how to capture amazing images while traveling?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

Focus on FREEdom DANCEfest [Encore Publication]: Images from the second annual free festival of new work by emerging artists

Whether I’m halfway around the world or near home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I love to capture images of the performing arts.  Perhaps more than any other art form, dance distills the culture of its place and its time down to its essence.  This past weekend, I had the opportunity to shoot the second annual FREEdom DANCEfest, a free festival showcasing new work by emerging professional choreographers and dancers.  Today’s post presents some of my favorite images from the dress rehearsal and performance of the fifteen new pieces highlighted at the festival.

A few technical notes on how these images were made:

  1. For fast-moving action in low light conditions, use of a fast prime lens is advisable in order to allow use of a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion.  I used two DSLR bodies, one fitted with a 50mm f/1.4 “normal” lens and the other with an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.
  2. A high ISO sensitivity setting and a wide aperture (low f-stop number) are often both required to allow fast shutter speeds in dim lighting.  Don’t be afraid to boost the ISO to 3200, 6400, or even higher if your camera’s sensor can handle it.  Any resulting digital noise can be reduced later during post-processing.
  3. Always be aware of the background and lighting as well as the action of your primary subject.  It is the interplay of all of these compositional elements that makes your final image.  Most of the time the goal is a clean and uncluttered background, but once in a while (see the third image below, for example) the contrast between the background or lighting and the subject can actually enhance the impact of the image.
  4. Shoot plenty of frames to ensure you capture just the right moments.  I shot more than 5000 images of this one-day event and culled them down to about 100 that were delivered to the client.
  5. Occasionally a slow shutter speed can be used to blur the motion intentionally as a creative choice.  I’ve included a few such images in today’s post.
  6. During post-processing of performance images, my most common adjustments are applying noise reduction, adjusting color balance and lighting curves, cropping, and straightening horizons.  Sometimes I also apply a bit of post-crop vignetting to emphasize the subject and reduce clutter in the background.

I hope you have enjoyed these images and that they (along with my technical notes) will inspire your own performing arts photo shoots! While gear and technique do play a role in capturing great dance images, by far the most important element is the photographer’s eye.  A great dance image should artistically capture a special moment during the performance and should emphasize the choreographer’s and dancer’s physical ability, grace, hard work, and joy!

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your own stories and tips for capturing live performances in images.

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

Luck Favors the Prepared [Encore Publication]: Tools for planning your shot

It was Louis Pasteur who said, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”  We usually hear the quote paraphrased as, “Luck favors the prepared.”  For travel photographers, there is often a great deal of luck involved in capturing a truly great image, but there are some very useful tools that we can use to help us plan to be in the right place at the right time with the right gear.  Let’s look at just a few of my favorites.

I’ll start with a quick review of the most obvious resources.  I would never plan an hour-long photo shoot, let alone a month-long trip to a far-flung travel destination, without doing some research.  What are the must-see locations, and what dates and times of day are perfect for each one?  What are the events or activities that most authentically represent the locations I am visiting?  Is there a livestock market, a street festival, or a religious celebration taking place while I’m in the region?  How can I build an itinerary that best incorporates all of these locations?  Great resources for this type of research include guidebooks (online and hardcopy), online review sites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp, mapping and navigation apps (Google Maps is still my all-around favorite, but several others have their own advantages), and local weather sites.  I like to build my itinerary by customizing an online map to show all of the locations I’d like to visit, then creating a routing that links the locations in the proper order.  If travel by air, rail, bus, or boat is involved, I research those schedules and fares to determine the best way to get from one place to the next.  Airline consolidation sites such as Orbitz can be quite helpful for finding the best flights at the best prices.  If the itinerary has been pre-planned by a travel company, then I will still do most of this background research to better understand the locations we’ll be visiting.

Once I know where I’ll be going and what events I plan to shoot, I develop a shot list.  Some photographers craft very detailed and specific shot lists, but I like to keep it quite flexible and informal, often simply jotting down my ideas in the calendar event on my phone that is associated with each planned shoot.  After all, if I adhere too closely to a shot list, I will just end up with the same images that hundreds or thousands of other visitors have captured after doing the same research.  Serendipity and the artist’s eye have their place in travel photography, too.  The research phase can also inform me as to what clothing, gear, and other essentials I should bring to each location.

Now I’d like to introduce three smartphone apps that I consider indispensable for travel photography.  First, there’s Photo Pills, an app that incorporates several essential tools into one package.  I use Photo Pills for planning shots where I need to know how to get all the elements, including location, date, and time of day, to come together.  For example, during the Perseid Meteor Shower, I wanted to find a dark sky location with a nice foreground and a view toward the galactic core of our Milky Way.  This way, I could capture images including the meteor shower, the Milky Way, and the pretty landscape in the foreground.  I had a location in mind, a beautiful spot where there isn’t too much light pollution and with a gorgeous view over a reservoir and the Santa Cruz Mountains.  The Planner tool in Photo Pills allowed me to visualize the foreground as viewed by my phone’s camera, superimposed against the Milky Way as it would appear on different days and times of day.  I planned the shot for a certain time on each of several consecutive days, confirmed that the Milky Way would be rising in the desired direction and that the nearly full moon would have already set, and then waited for clear weather.  The first night of the meteor shower was cloudy, but the second night was the charm, and I was able to capture this striking image.
Using the Photo Pills app on my smartphone, I was able to plan in advance for a location, date, and time that would maximize the chances of capturing the Perseid Meteor Shower and Milky Way over the lovely Crystal Springs Reservoir.  Buy this photo

Here’s a screenshot of the Planner tool in Photo Pills that I used to prepare for this shoot.

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The Photo Pills app has a number of tools to help plan and execute your shots.

Another useful app for planning the best locations, dates, and times for your shoots is TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris).  I find this tool to be especially helpful for visualizing the path of the sun and moon across the field of view for any location I select.  This app is very powerful, and I have only scratched the surface of what it can do to predict and prepare for photo opportunities.

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The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a powerful tool for planning any outdoor photo shoots.

A final app I will mention here is called Easy Release.  Sometimes (read this post for details about model releases), we need a model release when a person or several people are clearly identifiable in a photo.  I know some photographers who carry hardcopy model releases with them wherever they travel, but I find this to be cumbersome and impractical when on the road shooting.  Instead, I use Easy Release on my phone, so I’m always ready to quickly prepare a release for a new friend to sign when they appear in my images.  Even though the app has the ability to translate the text of the release into several languages, there are situations in which it isn’t reasonable to try to explain to a local person what’s in the release and why it’s required.  Furthermore, I consider it to be exploitative if the person can’t reasonably be expected to understand what’s in the document or why they should be signing it.  But there are times when having immediate access to a model release that can be prepared, signed, and stored right on my phone is a big advantage.

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Easy Release is a convenient tool for creating, signing, sharing, and storing model releases when a person is clearly identifiable in photos.

With proper planning using readily available resources and various apps including the ones I’ve presented here, we can be better prepared to maximize our chances of capturing memorable images.  Happy shooting, and remember that luck favors the prepared!

Do you have a favorite tool you use to plan for your photo adventures?  How have you used this tool to get your shot?  Please share your experiences here.

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

Focus on Dance Brigade’s “Gracias a la Vida: Love in a Bitter Time” [Encore Publication]: Creative approaches to shooting inspiring performances

Recently, I had the privilege of shooting the dress rehearsal for a new show highlighting 40 years of activism through the arts, presented by San Francisco feminist and multi-cultural dance company, Dance Brigade.  Their work was extremely powerful and moving.  Not only was it artistically and technically astonishing, but the show was truly inspiring as a testament to the power of artists fighting for social justice.  In the current era we need this power to be wielded widely and wisely to balance the widespread injustice all around us.

When shooting work as inspiring as this, I often choose less traditional and more creative approaches to presenting my images.  In short, the medium should match the message, so when the message is as powerful as Dance Brigade’s performance, I believe the medium should rise to the occasion.  So, in addition to making some traditional documentary images shot looking directly toward the performers with an eye toward capturing the obvious, I also strove to capture some different and unusual perspectives on the performance.  I present some of them in the post with short descriptions of my intent for each image.

The usual rules for shooting a live indoor performance still apply.  Gain permission to shoot in advance directly from the show’s producer.  Use a fast lens and high ISO setting so as to be able to preserve a fast shutter speed to freeze action while still avoiding use of flash, which distracts performers and crew.  Turn off your LCD display and check your images only when there’s a break in the action.  Use the quietest shutter mode your camera supports.  And never use a tripod or monopod unless you have explicit permission from the producer.

Wait for the telling moment: There are instants during live performances that distill the overall message down to its essence.  Seek those moments.  Buy this photo

Tell a story: Just as a good performance is designed to reveal key messages to the audience at the appropriate time, so should the photographer capture images that disclose the underlying narrative.  This image of the climax from a piece on the plight of refugees captures the essence of the story.  Buy this photo

Find an unusual perspective: When shooting behind-the-scenes such as at a dress rehearsal, you have the opportunity to find just the right combination of vantage point and lens to make your images really pop.  This image was made from the lip of the stage.  I had to lean forward across the front of the stage and shoot upward.  I love this shot because it captures the artist from her eye level just at a decisive moment in the drama.  Buy this photo

Document the power of the performance: This piece started quietly and worked up slowly to a frenzy of pent-up anger and activism.  I found the best vantage point and waited for the perfect moment.  Buy this photo

Know when to break the basic rules of composition: Sure, most of the time you want to avoid cutting a performer’s head off.  But I saw the latent energy inherent in the unorthodox framing of this image.  By shooting from the static artist’s level and capturing only part of the jumping artist’s body, I transformed the image into a bolder statement that supported the message of the piece.  Buy this photo

Gain perspective: Not every image needs to include the whole environment.  Sometimes it’s more powerful to capture just the salient part.  Buy this photo

Capture a moment of pure joy: Shoot lots of images so that you can choose the ones that really make an impact.  The bold colors, shallow depth-of-field, and simple composition of this image work to emphasize the dancer’s aura of joyful triumph.  Buy this photo

Use black-and-white: This image cried out for me to convert it to monochrome.  Its raw documentary power and gritty, graphic nature are more compelling in black-and-white.  Buy this photo

Don’t be afraid to use selective focus: It’s okay for certain elements of your subject not to be in sharp focus.  I chose a narrow depth-of-field in order to obtain selective focus on just the performers in the middle of this triumphant circle.  The soft focus on the dancers in the foreground and far background only serve to enhance the dramatic power of the image.  Buy this photo

I hope this essay provides some ideas for how to shoot creative images that amplify the power of your message.  Modern digital photography provides us with so many tools for making images that go beyond the pure documentary function to also enchant our viewers with imagination.  A performance as moving as Dance Brigade’s “Gracias a la Vida: Love in a Bitter Time” deserves more than a straightforward narrative capture.  I tried to make some images that supported their messaging with a creative visual style.  Continue to capture the obvious message in your images, but keep shooting to go beyond the documentary.  Go wild, and see what you can achieve!

How do you go beyond the obvious to capture images that pop?  Please share your ideas here?

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

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Faces of Myanmar [Encore Publication], Part II: Showcasing the Diversity of Burma’s People

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

Yesterday’s and today’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Myanmar trip.  Yesterday’s post featured Part I, and today’s post comprises Part II.

A fascinating visit to Myawaddy Nunnery, where we had the opportunity to meet some of the more than 200 novice nuns who study there.  I composed this image to include the contrasting colors of the novices’ pink robes against the painted carved teak facade of the building.

Portrait of the abbess at Myawaddy Nunnery.  The lovely “bokeh”, or soft quality of the out-of-focus background elements, is created by using a very wide aperture on a lens known for having this property (in this case, an 85mm f/1.8 prime lens).  Even when traveling, it’s important to have the right lens for the right job.

The Mingun Bell, 13 feet high and weighing 90 tons, is the world’s second largest functioning bell.

A delightful visit to the Aye Yeik Mon Girls’ Orphanage. We were heartbroken to learn the stories of some of the abandoned girls who live here, but were uplifted to see the wonderful care and guidance they are receiving there now.

I had the opportunity to get to know 15-year-old Phyu Phyu at the Aye Yeik Mon Girls’ Orphanage. Abandoned by her mother at an early age, Phyu Phyu’s early life was challenging, but she has flourished under the care of the nuns at Aye Yeik Mon and is planning to continue her education and to enter a professional career.

We were invited into the Mandalay home of Oma and his family. His mother was a restaurant owner and chef for many years, so we were treated to an amazing Burmese meal.  It can be challenging to make portraits of groups, especially when young children are involved.  I shot several frames and chose one where the young boys are looking (nearly) directly at the lens, settling for some of the other family members to be looking elsewhere.

Kuthodaw Paya is called the world’s largest book because the entire canon of early Buddhist scripture is recorded on carved stone tablets housed in its hundreds of pagodas.  These young local women wanted me to pose for a selfie with them, so I asked them to return the favor.  Their brightly colored longyis (traditional Burmese attire) stand out nicely against the drab background of the pagoda behind them.

A quiet moment at the entrance to Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery.  I used spot-metering based on the woman’s clothing so as to achieve proper exposure given the much brighter background.

A stop at the Kalaw morning market to purchase the produce for our visit to Myin Ma Htie village.

We visited the village monastery in Myin Ma Htie and met with the monk there.

On arrival at Myin Ma Htie, we are greeted by villagers who will be our hosts.  This portrait was carefully composed to provide nice soft natural lighting on the girl and to frame her in a pleasing way within the surrounding area.

Traditional spinning methods to create yarn from lotus plant fiber.  I was struck by the symmetry and the bright color of the yarn in this scene.  

A worker in a cheroot workshop demonstrates her craft. She makes about 1000 of these small and inexpensive cigars every day.  To make this portrait, I used my go-to 85mm portrait lens at a wide aperture and added just a small amount of balanced fill flash to evenly expose the subject’s face.

The Phaung Daw Oo Paya is one of Burma’s most sacred sites. Dating to the 11th century, this pagoda houses the four remaining Buddha statues that enclose relics from the body of the Buddha. Worshipers add a little gold leaf to these statues when they visit, so that today the shape cannot even be recognized as that of the Buddha.

A fisherman on Inle Lake demonstrates the ancient style of fishing with a netted basket.  I framed the shot through the fabric of the net to add texture and visual interest.

Meeting members of the Padaung ethnic minority, whose women are famous for wearing heavy brass coils to make their necks look longer.  This 18-year-old Padaung girl proudly wears the brass coils on her neck as a symbol of ethnic identity. She told us her younger sister chooses not to wear the ornaments as she goes to a Burman school where most of the other students are not Padaung. The tradition was often scorned as backwards during the military regime, but now young Padaung women are again often choosing to practice it.

Have you visited Myanmar?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Myanmar are available for viewing or purchase here: Myanmar image gallery.

Missed Part I of this story in yesterday’s post?  You can read it here: Part I of this story.

Faces of Myanmar, Part I [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the Diversity of Burma’s People

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

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Myanmar trip.

Here is Part I, and tomorrow’s post will feature Part II.

A worshiper at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda. I’m always on the lookout for ways to include local people when shooting monuments and other landmarks.  The human element adds great visual interest to travel images and also personalizes the photo, transforming a generic scene into a story.

We were shown around the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue by one of the 17 remaining members of Myanmar’s only Jewish community.  Environmental portraits like this one include not only the person but also some other elements that help tell the person’s story, in this case the Torahs at the ark of the synagogue.

A worshiper at Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Burma.  At least 90% of the time I include people as a main element in my images, I obtain permission from them first.  I find that this approach, as well as being friendlier than shooting first and asking questions later, tends to lead to better portraits as there is an interpersonal connection between the subject and the photographer.  However, there are certain instances when asking first could interrupt the subject’s activities or negatively impact the dynamic being captured.  For this photo, I made no attempt to hide that I was shooting the woman, but I didn’t interrupt her meditation, either.

Armies of volunteer sweepers make the rounds at Shwedagon Pagoda to ensure the temple is kept spotless.  To shoot this large and fast-moving group, I positioned myself at a scenic spot, configured my camera’s setting in advance, then waited for the volunteers to move into position.

Rangoon’s Inya Lake, site of the former military junta’s brutal response to the 8888 uprisings and the Saffron Revolution, is now a peaceful place where young people picnic, make music, and go on dates.  When shooting strongly backlit subjects, be sure to use spot metering or exposure compensation unless you’re trying to create a silhouette.  

Street vendor in Yangon.

A fascinating visit to an informal housing settlement inhabited by people displaced by the devastating 2008 typhoon. A decade later they are still living in squalid conditions in bamboo huts with no running water. Here, children are filling containers with water from the lake and carrying 40 kg (88 pounds) of water, often more than their body weight, several miles to their families’ homes. This image is a favorite because it effectively combines the contrasting moods of the scenic beauty of the region with the hardship of the people living there.

As curious about me as I am about her, a young dweller in the informal settlement comes to say “mingalaba”.  I used a fairly narrow aperture to create enough depth-of-field allow some of the background to be emphasized in addition to the girl.

A traditional Burmese dance performance showcases the dancers’ grace and the beauty of their costumes.  Always look for an uncluttered background when composing and be sure to capture multiple shots so that one will be timed just right.

At the village market in Nyaung-U in the Bagan region.  I introduced myself to the vendor and received permission to make her portrait. At first she appeared stilted and posed, but as she tended to other customers and got accustomed to my being there, she returned to a natural state.

Escaping steam nearly obscures a worker at a Bagan workshop where pone ye gyi (a popular flavored soybean sauce) is made.  A portrait can become much more visually interesting when composed in an unexpected fashion.

The matriarch shows us around her family’s paper workshop where they make ceremonial fans for weddings and other events.  I made this image using my classic portrait technique: using a fast portrait lens (85mm f/1.8) nearly wide open to emphasize the subject, and choosing a location with nice soft lighting and as uncluttered a background as possible.

One of the family’s daughters kindly poses for a portrait. She wears thanaka, the tree bark paste that most Burmese women, and quite a few men, apply to their faces daily.

We had been invited by villagers to attend a Buddhist initiation ceremony, so we rose early and traveled to their village. The boys in the back row are preparing to start their service as novice monks in a monastery. All Buddhist boys in Myanmar are required to perform this service at some point during their childhood.  The girls in the front row are some of their sisters who are celebrating their ritual ear piercing.

The boys paraded through the village to the monastery on horseback, while the girls and some of the parents rode oxcarts.  Another classic portrait using a fast prime lens at a wide aperture to soften the background, this image also was made with a touch of balanced fill-in flash to reduce shadows on the subject’s face.

During an excursion to Phaw Saw Village outside Bagan, we met this artisan.

 

Have you visited Myanmar?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Myanmar are available for viewing or purchase here: Myanmar image gallery.

Look for Part II of this story in tomorrow’s post!

 

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part II [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

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

Yesterday’s and today’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.  Yesterday’s post featured Part I, and today’s post comprises Part II.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  Kids are great fun to photograph.  The key to making authentic portraits of kids, as of adults, is to make a personal connection before starting to shoot.  Get to know your subjects first, be playful and interactive, and only then take out your gear.

School was not in session due to parent conferences when we visited the mountain village of Buon Chuoi, so many of the schoolkids were playing in the courtyard.  I captured this portrait of a girl with her little brother during a game of marbles.

Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe.  This is one of my favorite portraits from the whole trip, because it truly captures the spirit of the subject, offers a rare view into rural Vietnamese village life, is illuminated by lovely natural light, and represents a memorable and striking image.

Kho Chil boys run after our tractor as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village.  Not all portraits need to capture a stock-still subject.  This portrait gains its vitality through the boys’ motion, and its jaunty, slightly off-kilter composition adds to the sense of kinetic energy.

Dalat is much cooler than the rest of Vietnam. This mom and her daughter are dressed appropriately for the higher elevations.  Busy backgrounds can distract from a good portrait, but here I mitigated some of the distraction by using a shallow depth-of-field and by applying a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages.  Good street photography is characterized by capturing just the right viewpoint, framing, and moment (what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment”) when the people and the space come together, and I believe I caught that conjunction nicely here.

A young Buddhist monk-in-training.  Often, the person appearing in a portrait is more colorful than the background elements, but here the opposite is the case.

At Saigon’s Post Office, I asked this lovely young woman to model the traditional Vietnamese costume, the ao dai.  I made no attempt through depth-of-field, supplemental lighting, or vignetting, to set off the model from the cluttered background.  That’s because I wanted to feature the glorious French colonial architecture of the post office as much as the model posing before it.

Preparing to board our sampan on the Mekong Delta.  The weather was overcast and rainy, so I used a slower shutter speed (1/50 second) and fairly wide aperture (f/4) to saturate the colors.

Ben Tre Village is famous for its coconut plantations.  We enjoyed coconut meat, coconut milk, coconut whiskey, and of course coconut candy.  I used a small amount of fill flash to fill in the shadows on the subject’s face and to help set her off from the background.

A stall-keeper at Saigon’s bustling central market.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture along with a high ISO setting in order to soften the busy background.

Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these former Viet Cong fighters. They lived for years in the Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground.  This portrait is effective because it captures the officer in a candid moment with beautiful available lighting and sets him against a solid colored background.

We visited a farm outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, where women still thresh rice by hand.  The farm family’s six-year-old daughter stopped by to check us out.  

We are welcomed to a small village outside of Siem Reap by this elder.  I made an environmental portrait showing her in the context of her work weaving baskets.  The image works very well because the composition is intimate and engaging, telling the subject’s story in a concise way, and because the simple solid contrasting color of the wall behind her offsets her colorful clothes in a pleasing manner.

Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge Tonle Sap Lake.  I made this image of a local family in their houseboat as we sailed by.  By placing the family in the context of their home and daily activities, the image serves to capture a slice of life rather than to feature any individual member of the household.

A monk pauses to reflect outside the Angkor Wat temple complex.  I spoke with him (using our guide as a translator) to make a personal connection and to obtain his permission to make the portrait.  The contrasting colors and textures of the monk and the temple buildings, as well as the leading lines that guide the viewer’s eye from front to back, make this a memorable portrait.  I made the image using natural light only and incorporated a polarizing filter to deepen the colors and add drama to the sky.

At a home-hosted lunch in rural Kravan Village, I made portraits of the whole family. Here is the oldest daughter, Lia, a flight attendant and gracious hostess.  Classic portrait techniques applied here: make a personal connection first, use a fast prime 85mm lens at a wide aperture, and light the subject with the most beautiful light available in the situation.  

I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances.  During live performances, use of flash is almost always prohibited (and almost always rude), so use a fast prime lens, a high ISO setting, and a steady hand.

We learned about the traditional folding of flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine in Siem Reap.  The young daughter of the flower stall owner folded these flowers herself.  While a bit on the busy side, this portrait succeeds by capturing a riot of colors and an intriguing story.

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Missed Part I of this story in yesterday’s post?  You can read it here: Part I of this story.

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part I [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

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

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.

Here is Part I, and tomorrow’s post will feature Part II.

Street portrait of a little girl petting a small dog in a Hanoi store.  While still a source a food in Vietnam, dogs are becoming more common as pets in urban areas.  This image was shot from a cyclo-rickshaw, a great way to travel in urban areas of Southeast Asia and an especially good platform for street photography, as this way you travel at eye level of people on the street but will not be noticed as you pass by.

Motor scooters are the major form of transportation in Vietnam’s cities. Whole families of three, four, and even five people commonly share rides.  I’m always looking for striking color palettes, and here I loved the family’s vibrant colored clothing, each person wearing a different colored mask.

Phan Tranh Liem is one of the few remaining practitioners of the 1000-year-old Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry. He makes his own puppets, creates the shows, and performs them with his wife.  I made this environmental portrait of Mr. Phan, surrounded by a few of his puppet creations, in the workshop of his Hanoi home.

At a local market outside of Hanoi. Dog meat is a local delicacy (and quite pricey).

In the village of Tho Ha, 20 miles north of Hanoi, we visited the home of a family who make rice paper, the main occupation in the village. Spring rolls are extremely popular throughout Vietnam, so there is high demand for rice paper.  An environmental portrait is framed to include not only the subject but also enough of the surroundings to give the viewer a sense of the subject’s life.

The head of the household plays a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument.

In the village of Bat Trang outside of Hanoi, we visited the home of Mr. Duc and his wife.  After the war, their homes were seized and they were persecuted as “landlord oppressors” even though they had never exploited others.  They recovered one of their houses decades later.  It can be a challenge to make a candid portrait of a couple.  Here I used a fast normal (50mm) prime lens with a medium aperture so that both wife and husband would be rendered in fairly sharp focus but without requiring a very slow shutter speed or very high ISO setting.

En route to the Hanoi Airport for our flight to Hue, we stopped to say hello to several farmers harvesting rice by hand.  A good portrait doesn’t need to include the face of the subject, nor even the subject’s head at all.  This portrait works because of the strong composition and lovely color palette, and one feels a connection to the subject even without seeing her face.

We had a lovely visit with a Buddhist nun at the Dieu Thanh Pagoda in Hue. It was fascinating to learn about her life in the convent and her decision process to give up worldly life as a young teen.  To make her portrait, preparation was important.  I had my gear all set up while we were having our discussion, so that when we were comfortable together I could simply ask if it was okay to make her portrait and then shoot without interruption.

Aboard a “dragon boat” on Hue’s Perfume River, we attended a private performance of a cultural show featuring traditional Hue song and dance.  A fast prime portrait lens (85mm) allowed me to shoot this musician using available light with a shallow depth-of-field to offset him from the background.

Hoi An is a charming city adorned everywhere with colorful lanterns. This bride and groom were posing for photos, so (with the permission of the couple and their photographer) I jumped in and captured this portrait.

I chatted with these twin three-year-old cuties and their Mom as we browsed in her shop.  With young kids, it’s important they feel at ease before you start shooting, and you should then shoot many frames quickly in order to increase the likelihood of getting one that captures the mood well.

Hoi An’s central marketplace is a wonderful space to capture portraits of the many vendors selling traditional wares.  The natural light was lovely, but required some finesse due to the bright background relative to the dim lighting on the subjects.

At My Son Sanctuary, site of the most significant ruins from the Champa Kingdom, we attended a performance of ancient Cham dance.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture and a high ISO sensitivity setting so that I could capture the dancers using a fast shutter speed.  In addition, I used a touch of off-camera fill-in flash, not as the primary light but to fill in the shadow areas and obtain more color saturation.

Outside our restaurant in Nha Trang, our waitress checks her messages.  I was drawn to this framing because it succinctly captures the modern life of young working urban Vietnamese people.  

Fascinating discussion with Xom Gio Village’s chief, a former South Vietnamese soldier and survivor of the re-education camps who managed to work his way up to a high-level position after the war.  To capture this striking portrait, I used a fast prime lens almost wide-open to cast the background into soft focus, and I waited for dramatic moments during our conversation to shoot.

The wife of Xom Gio Village’s chief.  I used the same technique, described above, as for the portrait of her husband.  This portrait has a lovely color scheme, beautiful framing, and nice bokeh (the soft, out-of-focus parts of the background).

The beautiful city of Dalat, high in the mountains, has been a favorite escape from the tropical heat since French colonial times.  We spent a lovely afternoon with students from Dalat University. I had the opportunity to get to know English teacher Trung and his bright young students Nhi , Diễm, and Giang.  For this portrait, we were joined by my wife and several students she accompanied.  To include yourself in a group portrait, first set up the camera carefully, then either mount it on a tripod and trigger it remotely or ask a trusted person to release the shutter for you.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Look for Part II of this story in tomorrow’s post!

New Year’s Resolutions [Encore Publication]: My opinionated list of the top 5 promises all travel photographers should make and keep

Personally, I’m not a big fan of new year’s resolutions.  Common sense dictates that if we really want to make change in our lives, we should resolve to take specific steps toward that change every day.  Promises we make on December 31 each year will most likely be broken by January 15.  That’s certainly what I’ve observed over many years on the running trails and gyms where I’ve run or worked out daily.  A huge surge in attendance begins on January 1 and dissipates within about two weeks.

So I waited a couple of weeks to share my thoughts on what we travel photographers should resolve to do differently.  Since these aren’t technically “new year’s resolutions,” it’s my hope that these practices will stick.

  1. Book that once-in-a-lifetime trip now:
    Visit that exotic destination you’ve always wanted to see!  Buy this photo
    That travel photography “bucket list” needs to be emptied before you kick the proverbial bucket.  I know too many people who always found excuses to put off taking the trips they most desired, until it became too late for them.  The kids are too young, my job is too demanding right now, I can’t afford the cost.  I’ve made these excuses, too.  But the one thing we can’t live a full life without and can’t ever lose once we’ve attained it is experience.  Every trip I’ve taken helped me grow as a person and as a photographer, and also helped me grow closer to my family and other travel companions.  So book that trip today and go this year.  You won’t regret it.
  2. Just get out there and shoot:
    USAThere are countless exciting subjects for your photography within a few miles of your home.  Buy this photo
    Even professional travel photographers can’t be on a lengthy shoot in an exotic part of the globe all the time.  So, book those once (or a few times) in a lifetime trips as soon as feasible, but in the meantime find some wonderful local attractions where you can hone your craft by making compelling images.  I love to shoot little-known local cultural events such as street fairs and performances of dance, theater, and music.  It’s also a great pleasure to find scenic spots near home where we can make some striking landscape images that haven’t been shot thousands of times before.  Remember, you’re the local expert near your home, so seek out frequent opportunities to shoot in your own community.
  3.  Learn to use your camera as a tool to bridge the gap between your culture and the culture of the land you’re visiting:
    CubaPhotography can bring us closer to the people we meet on our journeys.  Buy this photo
    Instead of letting your photography separate you from the people you’ve come to learn from, resolve to turn your image-making into an opportunity to meet more people and get to know them more deeply.  Check out my pillar post on how to do this: Post on Photography as a Cultural Bridging Tool.
  4. Approach wildlife with respect:
    The more we learn about and respect the fauna we encounter during our travels, the healthier they will emerge from the experience (and the better our images will turn out).  Buy this photo
    A photo safari is a life-changing experience and should be on every travel photographer’s list.  But just as our cameras can be used either to alienate local people or to bond with them, so can photographing animals be used to harm them or to respect and help preserve them.  Read this post for more detailed tips (Post on Wildlife Photography), but in the meantime I will summarize by emphasizing the importance of prioritizing the animal’s welfare ahead of our desire to get an amazing shot of it.  Getting too close to wildlife will stress the animal and could even cause it to become lunch (or cause a predator to starve by losing its meal).  The more we get to know a species’ behavior before encountering it in the wild, the better our images will be and the healthier the animal will emerge from the encounter.
  5. Continually improve technique:
    I strive to hone my technique with every shoot.  Buy this photo
    There are more important elements in photography than technique, but a mastery of technique does help us make the images we want, so I always work to improve mine.  If you haven’t already gained the confidence to shoot in manual mode, start learning now.  Remember that while cameras have become very smart, they aren’t artists and they can’t know what the photographer is trying to achieve, so learn to take control of your camera’s settings today.  Here’s a short post listing five key techniques that will help your images stand out: Post on Top Five photography “hacks”.

So, resolve to take that trip of a lifetime, shoot locally while you’re waiting for it, learn to use your camera as a tool to interact beneficially with the people and the wildlife you meet during your travels, and work to hone your technique.  I’ll be doing the same!  Happy trails in 2017.

What do you resolve to do in 2017?  Please share your thoughts here.

Focus on Balaknama [Encore Publication]: Making portraits that go beyond documentation to help Delhi’s street kids

During a recent trip through the north of India, I had the opportunity to meet with the advisors and some of the young staff at the Balaknama Newspaper, a project to empower the street kids of New Delhi.  I’ve long been interested in the plight of the street kids who live in Delhi’s sprawling slums and have historically been terribly mistreated at the hands of exploitative child labor bosses, a corrupt police force, and often their own abusive families, so this visit was important to me personally.  In this post I share some of the images I made of the kids who risk their own safety to expose the abuses against the young people in their community, and I also discuss how to go beyond the purely documentary function of portrait photography to give your portraits more power.

The images I share here are published with permission from Balaknama’s editor and the NGO who supports the project.  However, I will not share the location of the offices nor the real names of the kids who work there, in order to protect their identities.

The power of a portrait to advocate for social change depends primarily on its ability to go beyond simple documentation and to reveal the personality, background, and/or motivation of the subject.  For this shoot, I wanted to convey the passion and bravery of the young reporters.  I shot with available light only (no flash) in order to capture the intimate and urgent mood of the work the kids are doing.  I used several lenses for different perspectives, but most of the images were made using a fast prime portrait lens.  My shooting perspective was from a low angle so as not to give the appearance of looking down on the subjects.  People appear more empowered when the camera observes them from the perspective of their peers–it should appear as though the viewer is a part of the conversation.

This 17-year-old reporter is also the primary organizer of more than 10,000 of Delhi’s street kids.  I wanted to capture her intensity and focus in this portrait, so I got in close with a medium-length portrait lens and shot from the perspective of a participant in the conversation.  A wide aperture (low F-stop number) is helpful to isolate the subject from the background.  Buy this photo

The “decisive moment.”  I shot several frames of this young reporter as he described the horrific abuses of his peers in the slums of New Delhi, in order to maximize the chances of capturing just the right instant.  I love this image, which to me appears to emulate the drama and body language of Francisco Goya’s famous painting, “The Executions of the Third of May, 1808”.

This powerful portrait has a painterly feel and freezes the tension and drama of the harrowing stories retold by the young reporter.  Buy this photo

The interaction between the students at the newspaper is an important theme.  Here I worked to capture the girls’ engagement with each other and with the overall discussion.  Buy this photo

Language barriers are less important than many photographers believe them to be.  A simple “thumbs-up” gesture evoked a playful response from these young Balaknama staffers, providing a light moment during the intensity of our conversation.  Buy this photo

As I’ve often written in To Travel Hopefully, it’s important to remember to include your own group in some of your images.  While I most likely won’t publish this image in my stories about Balaknama, I am happy to have this documentation of my fellow travelers as we interacted with the students and staff at the newspaper.

For large group shots in tight spaces, use a wide-angle lens.  This was shot with a Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens at its widest setting, giving the viewer a sense of the setting as well as the people there.  Buy this photo

I wanted to capture a final portrait of the two primary student organizers as we left the newspaper’s offices, so I asked them to pose together during our walk through the neighborhood.  This gives a sense of the environment in which they live and work.  I got in close using a wide aperture to soften the background, but I also chose a background that would inform the viewer about the kids’ environment.  Buy this photo

Do you have techniques for making powerful portraits that go beyond pure documentation to advocate for the people and causes in the images?  Please share your thoughts here!

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

Focus on FREEdom DANCEfest: Images from the second annual free festival of new work by emerging artists

Whether I’m halfway around the world or near home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I love to capture images of the performing arts.  Perhaps more than any other art form, dance distills the culture of its place and its time down to its essence.  This past weekend, I had the opportunity to shoot the second annual FREEdom DANCEfest, a free festival showcasing new work by emerging professional choreographers and dancers.  Today’s post presents some of my favorite images from the dress rehearsal and performance of the fifteen new pieces highlighted at the festival.

A few technical notes on how these images were made:

  1. For fast-moving action in low light conditions, use of a fast prime lens is advisable in order to allow use of a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion.  I used two DSLR bodies, one fitted with a 50mm f/1.4 “normal” lens and the other with an 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.
  2. A high ISO sensitivity setting and a wide aperture (low f-stop number) are often both required to allow fast shutter speeds in dim lighting.  Don’t be afraid to boost the ISO to 3200, 6400, or even higher if your camera’s sensor can handle it.  Any resulting digital noise can be reduced later during post-processing.
  3. Always be aware of the background and lighting as well as the action of your primary subject.  It is the interplay of all of these compositional elements that makes your final image.  Most of the time the goal is a clean and uncluttered background, but once in a while (see the third image below, for example) the contrast between the background or lighting and the subject can actually enhance the impact of the image.
  4. Shoot plenty of frames to ensure you capture just the right moments.  I shot more than 5000 images of this one-day event and culled them down to about 100 that were delivered to the client.
  5. Occasionally a slow shutter speed can be used to blur the motion intentionally as a creative choice.  I’ve included a few such images in today’s post.
  6. During post-processing of performance images, my most common adjustments are applying noise reduction, adjusting color balance and lighting curves, cropping, and straightening horizons.  Sometimes I also apply a bit of post-crop vignetting to emphasize the subject and reduce clutter in the background.

I hope you have enjoyed these images and that they (along with my technical notes) will inspire your own performing arts photo shoots! While gear and technique do play a role in capturing great dance images, by far the most important element is the photographer’s eye.  A great dance image should artistically capture a special moment during the performance and should emphasize the choreographer’s and dancer’s physical ability, grace, hard work, and joy!

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your own stories and tips for capturing live performances in images.

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

Architecture in Ireland and Scotland [Encore Publication]: From Neolithic to today, Ireland has remarkable buildings; here’s how to capture them

During our recent travels in Dublin, hiking across southwestern Ireland, and visiting Edinburgh, we encountered fascinating architecture at every turn.  From ruined farmhouses to stately manor houses, and from Neolithic-era “beehive huts” made of stone to modern fishing shacks, there is a wealth of diversity in the buildings in this region.  Here I present some images of the architecture we saw during our rambles, along with a few words about each.

Dublin’s Trinity College is one of the oldest universities in the world.  Famous as the home of the ancient Book of Kells, the college also boasts the Long Room, quite possibly the grandest study hall in the world.  This image was made with a wide-angle lens using only available light.  I used a relatively high ISO setting so that I could choose a small aperture for greater depth-of-field while still using a fast enough shutter speed to handhold the camera.  Buy this photo

Another perspective on the Long Room, this image captures only the upper gallery, emphasizing the repeating patterns of the ladders, arches, and shelves.  During post-processing I decided to render the photo in black-and-white to bring out the texture and pattern.  Buy this photo

An architectural photo doesn’t have to isolate the building from its surroundings.  I combined a shot of Dublin’s famous Olympia Theatre with a street scene by framing the theater and waiting for an interesting cast of characters to walk by.  Buy this photo

Dublin Castle was built during the Anglo-Norman period and has witnessed nearly the entire history of the city.  It is an austere but not particularly pretty building.  To capture this image I shot with a wide-angle lens and a polarizing filter to bring out the texture of the stonework and to attempt to enhance a rather undramatic grey sky.  Buy this photo

The interior of Dublin Castle is prettier than its exterior.  This shot was handheld, as tripods are not allowed inside.  I used a fast normal lens, but even with a high ISO setting the light was sufficiently low that I had to use a large aperture, resulting in a shallow depth-of-field.  Although the foreground objects are not in sharp focus, I think this scene works rather well to capture a sense of the place.  Buy this photo

In the remote and beautiful Gougane Barra Forest Park lie the ruins of a Sixth Century abbey founded by St. Finbarr.  To make this image, I shot from inside one of the cells where the monks lived, looking outward toward the ruins of the abbey walls and altar.  From this perspective the viewer gets a sense of what it would have been like to live a mostly solitary and austere life here many centuries ago.  Buy this photo

On the same tiny island where the ruined abbey is located on Gougane Barra, there is a more modern but quite lovely church.  We spent some time getting to know the American bride and groom who were celebrating their wedding here, and I shot them in front of the little chapel looking across the lake from the mainland.  Including people in the context of the building makes architectural photography more relatable and compelling.  Buy this photo

Hiking along the remote Sheep’s Head Way, we came across this old farmhouse.  I framed the image with an extreme wide-angle lens to lend it an interesting perspective, and I used a circular polarizing filter to saturate the colors of the building and to enhance the sky and lawn.  Buy this photo

The stately Bantry House lies at the end of the Sheep’s Head Way and has been owned by the same family since 1750.  This photo was made from the top of the hundred steps leading through the gardens and up a hill behind the house.  It’s a lovely vantage point from which to photograph the mansion, its gardens, and the gorgeous harbor and mountains in the background.  A polarizing filter was used to add drama to the sky and to saturate the colors of the water and gardens.  Buy this photo

This old farmhouse is now an interpretive center and shop open to the public to give a sense of what rural Irish life was like a century ago.  The front of the house is especially charming when framed to include the rustic surroundings.  Buy this photo

We started our walk in Killarney National Park at the lovely Derrycunnihy Church.  I framed this scene from a low angle looking slightly upward at the church and using a wide-angle lens.  The perspective gives a sense of the stark isolation of the church in this very remote wilderness setting.  As always when shooting upward with a wide-angle lens, one must take care not to distort the lines of the image too severely.  Buy this photo

Along the Gap of Dunloe we hiked past this bucolic scene around a ruined farmhouse.  I framed the image to include the horse carts and the rutted pathway.  Buy this photo

The Wild Atlantic Way showcases some of the most scenic views in all of Ireland as it winds through rolling hills toward the remote Blasket Islands.  Along the way the observant hiker will see dozens of strangely shaped stone enclosures called beehive huts, some of which date back to the Neolithic Period.  This image was shot with a telephoto lens to highlight the beehive huts and to compress the distance between the huts and the Blasket Islands dotting the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.  Buy this photo

The quaint seaside village of Dingle is chock full of charming stone houses with brightly painted doors and windows.  Because it was pouring rain all day and I was recovering from an illness, I brought only my phone’s camera.  Even so, I was able to make some nice images of the houses by using the Manual app to take control of the phone’s camera.  Buy this photo

Edinburgh, Scotland has a tremendous variety of architecture, which could be the subject of a separate post.  For today, I’ll close with this image of the ruins of the ancient abbey at Holyroodhouse at the end of the Royal Mile.  I shot with a wide-angle lens using a small aperture to maximize the depth-of-field and taking care to keep the horizon level so as not to distort the lines of the archways any more than necessary.  Buy this photo

For a refresher on architecture photography, check out this post: Post on Architecture Photography.

What are your favorite destinations for architecture?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

Faces of Myanmar [Encore Publication], Part II: Showcasing the Diversity of Burma’s People

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

Yesterday’s and today’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Myanmar trip.  Yesterday’s post featured Part I, and today’s post comprises Part II.

A fascinating visit to Myawaddy Nunnery, where we had the opportunity to meet some of the more than 200 novice nuns who study there.  I composed this image to include the contrasting colors of the novices’ pink robes against the painted carved teak facade of the building.

Portrait of the abbess at Myawaddy Nunnery.  The lovely “bokeh”, or soft quality of the out-of-focus background elements, is created by using a very wide aperture on a lens known for having this property (in this case, an 85mm f/1.8 prime lens).  Even when traveling, it’s important to have the right lens for the right job.

The Mingun Bell, 13 feet high and weighing 90 tons, is the world’s second largest functioning bell.

A delightful visit to the Aye Yeik Mon Girls’ Orphanage. We were heartbroken to learn the stories of some of the abandoned girls who live here, but were uplifted to see the wonderful care and guidance they are receiving there now.

I had the opportunity to get to know 15-year-old Phyu Phyu at the Aye Yeik Mon Girls’ Orphanage. Abandoned by her mother at an early age, Phyu Phyu’s early life was challenging, but she has flourished under the care of the nuns at Aye Yeik Mon and is planning to continue her education and to enter a professional career.

We were invited into the Mandalay home of Oma and his family. His mother was a restaurant owner and chef for many years, so we were treated to an amazing Burmese meal.  It can be challenging to make portraits of groups, especially when young children are involved.  I shot several frames and chose one where the young boys are looking (nearly) directly at the lens, settling for some of the other family members to be looking elsewhere.

Kuthodaw Paya is called the world’s largest book because the entire canon of early Buddhist scripture is recorded on carved stone tablets housed in its hundreds of pagodas.  These young local women wanted me to pose for a selfie with them, so I asked them to return the favor.  Their brightly colored longyis (traditional Burmese attire) stand out nicely against the drab background of the pagoda behind them.

A quiet moment at the entrance to Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery.  I used spot-metering based on the woman’s clothing so as to achieve proper exposure given the much brighter background.

A stop at the Kalaw morning market to purchase the produce for our visit to Myin Ma Htie village.

We visited the village monastery in Myin Ma Htie and met with the monk there.

On arrival at Myin Ma Htie, we are greeted by villagers who will be our hosts.  This portrait was carefully composed to provide nice soft natural lighting on the girl and to frame her in a pleasing way within the surrounding area.

Traditional spinning methods to create yarn from lotus plant fiber.  I was struck by the symmetry and the bright color of the yarn in this scene.  

A worker in a cheroot workshop demonstrates her craft. She makes about 1000 of these small and inexpensive cigars every day.  To make this portrait, I used my go-to 85mm portrait lens at a wide aperture and added just a small amount of balanced fill flash to evenly expose the subject’s face.

The Phaung Daw Oo Paya is one of Burma’s most sacred sites. Dating to the 11th century, this pagoda houses the four remaining Buddha statues that enclose relics from the body of the Buddha. Worshipers add a little gold leaf to these statues when they visit, so that today the shape cannot even be recognized as that of the Buddha.

A fisherman on Inle Lake demonstrates the ancient style of fishing with a netted basket.  I framed the shot through the fabric of the net to add texture and visual interest.

Meeting members of the Padaung ethnic minority, whose women are famous for wearing heavy brass coils to make their necks look longer.  This 18-year-old Padaung girl proudly wears the brass coils on her neck as a symbol of ethnic identity. She told us her younger sister chooses not to wear the ornaments as she goes to a Burman school where most of the other students are not Padaung. The tradition was often scorned as backwards during the military regime, but now young Padaung women are again often choosing to practice it.

Have you visited Myanmar?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Myanmar are available for viewing or purchase here: Myanmar image gallery.

Missed Part I of this story in yesterday’s post?  You can read it here: Part I of this story.

Faces of Myanmar, Part I [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the Diversity of Burma’s People

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

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Myanmar trip.

Here is Part I, and tomorrow’s post will feature Part II.

A worshiper at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda. I’m always on the lookout for ways to include local people when shooting monuments and other landmarks.  The human element adds great visual interest to travel images and also personalizes the photo, transforming a generic scene into a story.

We were shown around the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue by one of the 17 remaining members of Myanmar’s only Jewish community.  Environmental portraits like this one include not only the person but also some other elements that help tell the person’s story, in this case the Torahs at the ark of the synagogue.

A worshiper at Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Burma.  At least 90% of the time I include people as a main element in my images, I obtain permission from them first.  I find that this approach, as well as being friendlier than shooting first and asking questions later, tends to lead to better portraits as there is an interpersonal connection between the subject and the photographer.  However, there are certain instances when asking first could interrupt the subject’s activities or negatively impact the dynamic being captured.  For this photo, I made no attempt to hide that I was shooting the woman, but I didn’t interrupt her meditation, either.

Armies of volunteer sweepers make the rounds at Shwedagon Pagoda to ensure the temple is kept spotless.  To shoot this large and fast-moving group, I positioned myself at a scenic spot, configured my camera’s setting in advance, then waited for the volunteers to move into position.

Rangoon’s Inya Lake, site of the former military junta’s brutal response to the 8888 uprisings and the Saffron Revolution, is now a peaceful place where young people picnic, make music, and go on dates.  When shooting strongly backlit subjects, be sure to use spot metering or exposure compensation unless you’re trying to create a silhouette.  

Street vendor in Yangon.

A fascinating visit to an informal housing settlement inhabited by people displaced by the devastating 2008 typhoon. A decade later they are still living in squalid conditions in bamboo huts with no running water. Here, children are filling containers with water from the lake and carrying 40 kg (88 pounds) of water, often more than their body weight, several miles to their families’ homes. This image is a favorite because it effectively combines the contrasting moods of the scenic beauty of the region with the hardship of the people living there.

As curious about me as I am about her, a young dweller in the informal settlement comes to say “mingalaba”.  I used a fairly narrow aperture to create enough depth-of-field allow some of the background to be emphasized in addition to the girl.

A traditional Burmese dance performance showcases the dancers’ grace and the beauty of their costumes.  Always look for an uncluttered background when composing and be sure to capture multiple shots so that one will be timed just right.

At the village market in Nyaung-U in the Bagan region.  I introduced myself to the vendor and received permission to make her portrait. At first she appeared stilted and posed, but as she tended to other customers and got accustomed to my being there, she returned to a natural state.

Escaping steam nearly obscures a worker at a Bagan workshop where pone ye gyi (a popular flavored soybean sauce) is made.  A portrait can become much more visually interesting when composed in an unexpected fashion.

The matriarch shows us around her family’s paper workshop where they make ceremonial fans for weddings and other events.  I made this image using my classic portrait technique: using a fast portrait lens (85mm f/1.8) nearly wide open to emphasize the subject, and choosing a location with nice soft lighting and as uncluttered a background as possible.

One of the family’s daughters kindly poses for a portrait. She wears thanaka, the tree bark paste that most Burmese women, and quite a few men, apply to their faces daily.

We had been invited by villagers to attend a Buddhist initiation ceremony, so we rose early and traveled to their village. The boys in the back row are preparing to start their service as novice monks in a monastery. All Buddhist boys in Myanmar are required to perform this service at some point during their childhood.  The girls in the front row are some of their sisters who are celebrating their ritual ear piercing.

The boys paraded through the village to the monastery on horseback, while the girls and some of the parents rode oxcarts.  Another classic portrait using a fast prime lens at a wide aperture to soften the background, this image also was made with a touch of balanced fill-in flash to reduce shadows on the subject’s face.

During an excursion to Phaw Saw Village outside Bagan, we met this artisan.

 

Have you visited Myanmar?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Myanmar are available for viewing or purchase here: Myanmar image gallery.

Look for Part II of this story in tomorrow’s post!

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Culling Your Images

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

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

Step 2: Post-Processing

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Delivering the Final Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faces of Myanmar, Part II: Showcasing the Diversity of Burma’s People

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

Yesterday’s and today’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Myanmar trip.  Yesterday’s post featured Part I, and today’s post comprises Part II.

A fascinating visit to Myawaddy Nunnery, where we had the opportunity to meet some of the more than 200 novice nuns who study there.  I composed this image to include the contrasting colors of the novices’ pink robes against the painted carved teak facade of the building.

Portrait of the abbess at Myawaddy Nunnery.  The lovely “bokeh”, or soft quality of the out-of-focus background elements, is created by using a very wide aperture on a lens known for having this property (in this case, an 85mm f/1.8 prime lens).  Even when traveling, it’s important to have the right lens for the right job.

The Mingun Bell, 13 feet high and weighing 90 tons, is the world’s second largest functioning bell.

A delightful visit to the Aye Yeik Mon Girls’ Orphanage. We were heartbroken to learn the stories of some of the abandoned girls who live here, but were uplifted to see the wonderful care and guidance they are receiving there now.

I had the opportunity to get to know 15-year-old Phyu Phyu at the Aye Yeik Mon Girls’ Orphanage. Abandoned by her mother at an early age, Phyu Phyu’s early life was challenging, but she has flourished under the care of the nuns at Aye Yeik Mon and is planning to continue her education and to enter a professional career.

We were invited into the Mandalay home of Oma and his family. His mother was a restaurant owner and chef for many years, so we were treated to an amazing Burmese meal.  It can be challenging to make portraits of groups, especially when young children are involved.  I shot several frames and chose one where the young boys are looking (nearly) directly at the lens, settling for some of the other family members to be looking elsewhere.

Kuthodaw Paya is called the world’s largest book because the entire canon of early Buddhist scripture is recorded on carved stone tablets housed in its hundreds of pagodas.  These young local women wanted me to pose for a selfie with them, so I asked them to return the favor.  Their brightly colored longyis (traditional Burmese attire) stand out nicely against the drab background of the pagoda behind them.

A quiet moment at the entrance to Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery.  I used spot-metering based on the woman’s clothing so as to achieve proper exposure given the much brighter background.

A stop at the Kalaw morning market to purchase the produce for our visit to Myin Ma Htie village.

We visited the village monastery in Myin Ma Htie and met with the monk there.

On arrival at Myin Ma Htie, we are greeted by villagers who will be our hosts.  This portrait was carefully composed to provide nice soft natural lighting on the girl and to frame her in a pleasing way within the surrounding area.

Traditional spinning methods to create yarn from lotus plant fiber.  I was struck by the symmetry and the bright color of the yarn in this scene.  

A worker in a cheroot workshop demonstrates her craft. She makes about 1000 of these small and inexpensive cigars every day.  To make this portrait, I used my go-to 85mm portrait lens at a wide aperture and added just a small amount of balanced fill flash to evenly expose the subject’s face.

The Phaung Daw Oo Paya is one of Burma’s most sacred sites. Dating to the 11th century, this pagoda houses the four remaining Buddha statues that enclose relics from the body of the Buddha. Worshipers add a little gold leaf to these statues when they visit, so that today the shape cannot even be recognized as that of the Buddha.

A fisherman on Inle Lake demonstrates the ancient style of fishing with a netted basket.  I framed the shot through the fabric of the net to add texture and visual interest.

Meeting members of the Padaung ethnic minority, whose women are famous for wearing heavy brass coils to make their necks look longer.  This 18-year-old Padaung girl proudly wears the brass coils on her neck as a symbol of ethnic identity. She told us her younger sister chooses not to wear the ornaments as she goes to a Burman school where most of the other students are not Padaung. The tradition was often scorned as backwards during the military regime, but now young Padaung women are again often choosing to practice it.

Have you visited Myanmar?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Myanmar are available for viewing or purchase here: Myanmar image gallery.

Missed Part I of this story in yesterday’s post?  You can read it here: Part I of this story.

Faces of Myanmar, Part I: Showcasing the Diversity of Burma’s People

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

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Myanmar trip.

Here is Part I, and tomorrow’s post will feature Part II.

A worshiper at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda. I’m always on the lookout for ways to include local people when shooting monuments and other landmarks.  The human element adds great visual interest to travel images and also personalizes the photo, transforming a generic scene into a story.

We were shown around the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue by one of the 17 remaining members of Myanmar’s only Jewish community.  Environmental portraits like this one include not only the person but also some other elements that help tell the person’s story, in this case the Torahs at the ark of the synagogue.

A worshiper at Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Burma.  At least 90% of the time I include people as a main element in my images, I obtain permission from them first.  I find that this approach, as well as being friendlier than shooting first and asking questions later, tends to lead to better portraits as there is an interpersonal connection between the subject and the photographer.  However, there are certain instances when asking first could interrupt the subject’s activities or negatively impact the dynamic being captured.  For this photo, I made no attempt to hide that I was shooting the woman, but I didn’t interrupt her meditation, either.

Armies of volunteer sweepers make the rounds at Shwedagon Pagoda to ensure the temple is kept spotless.  To shoot this large and fast-moving group, I positioned myself at a scenic spot, configured my camera’s setting in advance, then waited for the volunteers to move into position.

Rangoon’s Inya Lake, site of the former military junta’s brutal response to the 8888 uprisings and the Saffron Revolution, is now a peaceful place where young people picnic, make music, and go on dates.  When shooting strongly backlit subjects, be sure to use spot metering or exposure compensation unless you’re trying to create a silhouette.  

Street vendor in Yangon.

A fascinating visit to an informal housing settlement inhabited by people displaced by the devastating 2008 typhoon. A decade later they are still living in squalid conditions in bamboo huts with no running water. Here, children are filling containers with water from the lake and carrying 40 kg (88 pounds) of water, often more than their body weight, several miles to their families’ homes. This image is a favorite because it effectively combines the contrasting moods of the scenic beauty of the region with the hardship of the people living there.

As curious about me as I am about her, a young dweller in the informal settlement comes to say “mingalaba”.  I used a fairly narrow aperture to create enough depth-of-field allow some of the background to be emphasized in addition to the girl.

A traditional Burmese dance performance showcases the dancers’ grace and the beauty of their costumes.  Always look for an uncluttered background when composing and be sure to capture multiple shots so that one will be timed just right.

At the village market in Nyaung-U in the Bagan region.  I introduced myself to the vendor and received permission to make her portrait. At first she appeared stilted and posed, but as she tended to other customers and got accustomed to my being there, she returned to a natural state.

Escaping steam nearly obscures a worker at a Bagan workshop where pone ye gyi (a popular flavored soybean sauce) is made.  A portrait can become much more visually interesting when composed in an unexpected fashion.

The matriarch shows us around her family’s paper workshop where they make ceremonial fans for weddings and other events.  I made this image using my classic portrait technique: using a fast portrait lens (85mm f/1.8) nearly wide open to emphasize the subject, and choosing a location with nice soft lighting and as uncluttered a background as possible.

One of the family’s daughters kindly poses for a portrait. She wears thanaka, the tree bark paste that most Burmese women, and quite a few men, apply to their faces daily.

We had been invited by villagers to attend a Buddhist initiation ceremony, so we rose early and traveled to their village. The boys in the back row are preparing to start their service as novice monks in a monastery. All Buddhist boys in Myanmar are required to perform this service at some point during their childhood.  The girls in the front row are some of their sisters who are celebrating their ritual ear piercing.

The boys paraded through the village to the monastery on horseback, while the girls and some of the parents rode oxcarts.  Another classic portrait using a fast prime lens at a wide aperture to soften the background, this image also was made with a touch of balanced fill-in flash to reduce shadows on the subject’s face.

During an excursion to Phaw Saw Village outside Bagan, we met this artisan.

 

Have you visited Myanmar?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Myanmar are available for viewing or purchase here: Myanmar image gallery.

Look for Part II of this story in tomorrow’s post!

 

Focus on SF Pride Parade and Festival [Encore Publication]: Some images of this year’s San Francisco LGBTQ pride events

It’s no surprise that San Francisco hosts one of the world’s oldest and largest LGBTQ Pride events in the world.  Each year, the parade and festival grow bigger and better attended.  SF Pride is one of my favorite annual events in my home region, the SF Bay Area, and while I find it gratifying to see the mainstream acceptance of this event, it’s also a bit disconcerting to see this once edgy and over-the-top celebration partly subsumed into a blander, more corporate culture.  In today’s post, I share some of my favorite images from this year’s Pride Parade and Festival.  The goal is to showcase the incredible diversity of the participants and observers at this grand celebration, along with a few words about how the images were made.


The theme of this year’s parade is Resist.  It’s a worthy goal given that gains celebrated over the last 50+ years are being systematically and broadly undone by all branches of the US federal government.  In this image, I wanted to capture an establishing shot of the large parade contingent without losing the personal element, so I used a medium lens and composed to include the first few rows of marchers.  Buy this photo

To personalize the message of activism, I focused on an individual marcher.  I used a fast portrait lens set to a wide aperture to defocus the background, and I included the bright pride flag carried over the subject’s head.  Buy this photo

Another individual portrait, this image sets off the subject from the background through use of tight composition and shallow depth-of-field.  Buy this photo

I captured the joy of the young “marcher” by getting in close and shooting at a very wide aperture, so only the young girl’s face is in sharp focus while all other foreground and background elements are soft.  Buy this photo

A touch of post-crop vignetting applied in Lightroom during post-processing helps emphasize the sheer exuberance in this image.  Buy this photo

At a huge event such as SF Pride, with more than half a million participants and spectators, it’s important to capture some intimate images in order to emphasize the impact on individual people’s lives.  Here I’ve used an 85mm portrait lens to share a private moment during a big public event.  Buy this photo

Another intimate couple’s portrait, this image is awash in the colors of the pride flag and the marchers’ clothing.  Careful attention to composition and selective focus help bring out the private moment within the context of the larger contingent.  Buy this photo

I’m not usually a big fan of selective colorizing, but sometimes its use is appropriate.  When I pre-visualized this image of a parade spectator dressed in white, I imagined the entire scene in black-and-white except for the vivid rainbow colors of the pride symbol.  It’s an easy effect to achieve during post-processing in Lightroom.  Simply select the part of the image you want to remain in color using the Radial Filter tool, and then remove the color from everywhere else in the image by bringing the Saturation slider down to zero.  Buy this photo

To convey the grand scale of the event, I shot from a low angle and composed to include several rows of festival participants with San Francisco’s City Hall in the background.  Buy this photo

What are some of your favorite celebrations, and how do you capture their diversity in your images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

It’s All in the Telling [Encore Publication]: Sharing images as a photo essay can help tell a story

When we share our images from a trip or from an event close to home, we become more than photographers; we become storytellers.  An individual image can tell a powerful story all by itself, and most of the best ones do.  But presenting a series of related images in the form of a photo essay is a great way to share a story with your viewers.  Each image serves a purpose in the structure of a photo essay, just as each sentence or paragraph does in a written essay.  In this post, I will revisit last weekend’s Sacramento Super Spartan Race (see Post on Spartan Race), taking the same 12 images from the earlier post but rearranging them in the form of a rudimentary photo essay.  We’ll discuss the purpose of each major type of image in creating the essay.  [Note: I am borrowing some of the organizational concepts presented in CUNY’s Photojournalism course materials at this site: http://photo.journalism.cuny.edu/week-5/.]

Establishing Shot: Usually the first image in a photo essay, the establishing shot should draw in the viewer by presenting the big picture.

The establishing shot sets the context of the essay.  Here I use an image of large contingents of athletes running over the hills.  I shot from a distance, using a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and emphasize the massive scale of the race.  Buy this photo

Alternatively, we could use the starting line image as our establishing shot.  Some essays lend themselves well to a chronological telling, in which case it’s good to start at the beginning.  In the case of this specific event, I prefer the establishing shot to be a big-picture overview of many athletes in the middle of their course.

The starting line is a good place to set the stage for your photo essay if you will be using a chronological method of telling the story.  Buy this photo

Portraits: Often the biggest portion of the photo essay, portraits tell the story through images of some of the people who are involved.  The portraits can be tight head-shots, full-body shots, or environmental portraits that show the setting as well as the person.  I like to use a combination of all of these compositional methods.  And it’s also fine to use a mix of posed shots and candids.  Variety can improve some photo essays, although in other cases you may opt for a consistent look-and-feel for many of your images so the mash-up of styles doesn’t distract the viewer from the story.

This environmental portrait shows the athlete in the context of the monkey bars obstacle, with other athletes and the background included in the frame.  Buy this photo

Portraits of athletes don’t have to be in the cliche pose of standing, legs apart, on the ground flexing their biceps.  Athletes are happy to pose in the midst of whatever they’re doing when they see a photographer nearby.  Buy this photo

Not all portraits have to show the subject’s face.  This environmental portrait works because it shows us what the athletes are doing from their point of view.  Buy this photo

This posed portrait is framed rather tightly, showing the power and the elation of the athletes after finishing the race.  The background, while bright and busy, is not overly distracting.  Buy this photo

For powerful portraits, I like to seek out people who have something special to say.  This racer stopped for a moment so I could make a portrait.  His flag makes a nice counterpoint to the rolling hills and featureless sky in the background.  Buy this photo

Interaction: Most photo essays can benefit from at least one shot showing the interaction between different people in the story.

Although Spartan Race athletes are fierce competitors, they also make an effort to support one another and cheer their fellow racers on.  I enjoy capturing these interactions because these moments often tell a strong story visually.  Buy this photo

This shot of kids playing in the shower area at the end of the race shows another type of interaction.  Buy this photo

Close-Up: It’s helpful to include some images that show the little details.  In the case of this particular event, I don’t have many close-up shots, so I’ll include this one fairly tight portrait as a placeholder.  It would be great to include a true close-up shot showing just the athlete’s gloved hands as she grasps the rope, perhaps with part of her face in the background, for example.  This could be done by tightly cropping this image.

This tight portrait shows great action and emotion.  While it’s not a true close-up image, which ordinarily would show only a few details rather than the full person, it can serve a similar function in the essay by focusing the viewer’s attention on a small specific part of the race.  Buy this photo

Closer: This will be the last image in the photo essay, so it needs to be a strong one.  It could be a climactic moment or, if the story is being told chronologically, an image made at the end of the race.  I’ll include two possible closing shots here.  The first captures an athlete jumping over the fire at the finish line; it’s both dramatic and symbolizes the end of the event.  The second shows a classic Spartan Race moment, where the athletes have to carry heavy buckets of sand along a muddy, hilly course; this image could make a good closer because it evokes a quintessentially Spartan Race sense of emotion.

The finish line itself is a dramatic vantage point.  In this particular race, athletes must jump over a line of fire to finish the course.  Buy this photo

An iconic Spartan Race image.  I captured the strenuous activity of carrying buckets filled with sand by shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens.  Buy this photo

Have you presented your images in the form of a photo essay?  How did you structure it?  What advice can you share for fellow photographers who would like to use this format?

Want to read more posts about sharing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Sharing.

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part II [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

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

Yesterday’s and today’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.  Yesterday’s post featured Part I, and today’s post comprises Part II.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  Kids are great fun to photograph.  The key to making authentic portraits of kids, as of adults, is to make a personal connection before starting to shoot.  Get to know your subjects first, be playful and interactive, and only then take out your gear.

School was not in session due to parent conferences when we visited the mountain village of Buon Chuoi, so many of the schoolkids were playing in the courtyard.  I captured this portrait of a girl with her little brother during a game of marbles.

Visiting the village chief’s home in Buon Chuoi Village. His wife, in her eighties, still passes most days by weaving while smoking her pipe.  This is one of my favorite portraits from the whole trip, because it truly captures the spirit of the subject, offers a rare view into rural Vietnamese village life, is illuminated by lovely natural light, and represents a memorable and striking image.

Kho Chil boys run after our tractor as we descend from Buon Chuoi Village.  Not all portraits need to capture a stock-still subject.  This portrait gains its vitality through the boys’ motion, and its jaunty, slightly off-kilter composition adds to the sense of kinetic energy.

Dalat is much cooler than the rest of Vietnam. This mom and her daughter are dressed appropriately for the higher elevations.  Busy backgrounds can distract from a good portrait, but here I mitigated some of the distraction by using a shallow depth-of-field and by applying a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

In the courtyard of the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, Lady Buddha observes this young woman checking her text messages.  Good street photography is characterized by capturing just the right viewpoint, framing, and moment (what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “The Decisive Moment”) when the people and the space come together, and I believe I caught that conjunction nicely here.

A young Buddhist monk-in-training.  Often, the person appearing in a portrait is more colorful than the background elements, but here the opposite is the case.

At Saigon’s Post Office, I asked this lovely young woman to model the traditional Vietnamese costume, the ao dai.  I made no attempt through depth-of-field, supplemental lighting, or vignetting, to set off the model from the cluttered background.  That’s because I wanted to feature the glorious French colonial architecture of the post office as much as the model posing before it.

Preparing to board our sampan on the Mekong Delta.  The weather was overcast and rainy, so I used a slower shutter speed (1/50 second) and fairly wide aperture (f/4) to saturate the colors.

Ben Tre Village is famous for its coconut plantations.  We enjoyed coconut meat, coconut milk, coconut whiskey, and of course coconut candy.  I used a small amount of fill flash to fill in the shadows on the subject’s face and to help set her off from the background.

A stall-keeper at Saigon’s bustling central market.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture along with a high ISO setting in order to soften the busy background.

Very interesting learning about the wartime experiences of these former Viet Cong fighters. They lived for years in the Cu Chi Tunnels, which they considered much safer than being exposed to US bombing and infantry attacks above ground.  This portrait is effective because it captures the officer in a candid moment with beautiful available lighting and sets him against a solid colored background.

We visited a farm outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, where women still thresh rice by hand.  The farm family’s six-year-old daughter stopped by to check us out.  

We are welcomed to a small village outside of Siem Reap by this elder.  I made an environmental portrait showing her in the context of her work weaving baskets.  The image works very well because the composition is intimate and engaging, telling the subject’s story in a concise way, and because the simple solid contrasting color of the wall behind her offsets her colorful clothes in a pleasing manner.

Visiting the floating village of Mechrey on the huge Tonle Sap Lake.  I made this image of a local family in their houseboat as we sailed by.  By placing the family in the context of their home and daily activities, the image serves to capture a slice of life rather than to feature any individual member of the household.

A monk pauses to reflect outside the Angkor Wat temple complex.  I spoke with him (using our guide as a translator) to make a personal connection and to obtain his permission to make the portrait.  The contrasting colors and textures of the monk and the temple buildings, as well as the leading lines that guide the viewer’s eye from front to back, make this a memorable portrait.  I made the image using natural light only and incorporated a polarizing filter to deepen the colors and add drama to the sky.

At a home-hosted lunch in rural Kravan Village, I made portraits of the whole family. Here is the oldest daughter, Lia, a flight attendant and gracious hostess.  Classic portrait techniques applied here: make a personal connection first, use a fast prime 85mm lens at a wide aperture, and light the subject with the most beautiful light available in the situation.  

I arranged a visit to a performance of traditional Cambodian Apsara dance. In the days of Khmer empire, only the king and queen were allowed to see these dances.  During live performances, use of flash is almost always prohibited (and almost always rude), so use a fast prime lens, a high ISO setting, and a steady hand.

We learned about the traditional folding of flowers to present at the Buddhist Ang Chorm Shrine in Siem Reap.  The young daughter of the flower stall owner folded these flowers herself.  While a bit on the busy side, this portrait succeeds by capturing a riot of colors and an intriguing story.

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Missed Part I of this story in yesterday’s post?  You can read it here: Part I of this story.

Faces of Vietnam and Cambodia, Part I [Encore Publication]: Showcasing the diversity of Vietnam and Cambodia’s people

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

Today’s and tomorrow’s posts showcase some of my favorite portraits, some of them not yet previously published, featuring a wide range of people we met during our adventure.  The portraits will be presented as a photo essay, but I will include brief descriptions of each and occasionally some commentary about how they were made.  You can click on any of these images to view or purchase them and many more from the Vietnam and Cambodia trip.

Here is Part I, and tomorrow’s post will feature Part II.

Street portrait of a little girl petting a small dog in a Hanoi store.  While still a source a food in Vietnam, dogs are becoming more common as pets in urban areas.  This image was shot from a cyclo-rickshaw, a great way to travel in urban areas of Southeast Asia and an especially good platform for street photography, as this way you travel at eye level of people on the street but will not be noticed as you pass by.

Motor scooters are the major form of transportation in Vietnam’s cities. Whole families of three, four, and even five people commonly share rides.  I’m always looking for striking color palettes, and here I loved the family’s vibrant colored clothing, each person wearing a different colored mask.

Phan Tranh Liem is one of the few remaining practitioners of the 1000-year-old Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry. He makes his own puppets, creates the shows, and performs them with his wife.  I made this environmental portrait of Mr. Phan, surrounded by a few of his puppet creations, in the workshop of his Hanoi home.

At a local market outside of Hanoi. Dog meat is a local delicacy (and quite pricey).

In the village of Tho Ha, 20 miles north of Hanoi, we visited the home of a family who make rice paper, the main occupation in the village. Spring rolls are extremely popular throughout Vietnam, so there is high demand for rice paper.  An environmental portrait is framed to include not only the subject but also enough of the surroundings to give the viewer a sense of the subject’s life.

The head of the household plays a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument.

In the village of Bat Trang outside of Hanoi, we visited the home of Mr. Duc and his wife.  After the war, their homes were seized and they were persecuted as “landlord oppressors” even though they had never exploited others.  They recovered one of their houses decades later.  It can be a challenge to make a candid portrait of a couple.  Here I used a fast normal (50mm) prime lens with a medium aperture so that both wife and husband would be rendered in fairly sharp focus but without requiring a very slow shutter speed or very high ISO setting.

En route to the Hanoi Airport for our flight to Hue, we stopped to say hello to several farmers harvesting rice by hand.  A good portrait doesn’t need to include the face of the subject, nor even the subject’s head at all.  This portrait works because of the strong composition and lovely color palette, and one feels a connection to the subject even without seeing her face.

We had a lovely visit with a Buddhist nun at the Dieu Thanh Pagoda in Hue. It was fascinating to learn about her life in the convent and her decision process to give up worldly life as a young teen.  To make her portrait, preparation was important.  I had my gear all set up while we were having our discussion, so that when we were comfortable together I could simply ask if it was okay to make her portrait and then shoot without interruption.

Aboard a “dragon boat” on Hue’s Perfume River, we attended a private performance of a cultural show featuring traditional Hue song and dance.  A fast prime portrait lens (85mm) allowed me to shoot this musician using available light with a shallow depth-of-field to offset him from the background.

Hoi An is a charming city adorned everywhere with colorful lanterns. This bride and groom were posing for photos, so (with the permission of the couple and their photographer) I jumped in and captured this portrait.

I chatted with these twin three-year-old cuties and their Mom as we browsed in her shop.  With young kids, it’s important they feel at ease before you start shooting, and you should then shoot many frames quickly in order to increase the likelihood of getting one that captures the mood well.

Hoi An’s central marketplace is a wonderful space to capture portraits of the many vendors selling traditional wares.  The natural light was lovely, but required some finesse due to the bright background relative to the dim lighting on the subjects.

At My Son Sanctuary, site of the most significant ruins from the Champa Kingdom, we attended a performance of ancient Cham dance.  I used a fast portrait lens at a wide aperture and a high ISO sensitivity setting so that I could capture the dancers using a fast shutter speed.  In addition, I used a touch of off-camera fill-in flash, not as the primary light but to fill in the shadow areas and obtain more color saturation.

Outside our restaurant in Nha Trang, our waitress checks her messages.  I was drawn to this framing because it succinctly captures the modern life of young working urban Vietnamese people.  

Fascinating discussion with Xom Gio Village’s chief, a former South Vietnamese soldier and survivor of the re-education camps who managed to work his way up to a high-level position after the war.  To capture this striking portrait, I used a fast prime lens almost wide-open to cast the background into soft focus, and I waited for dramatic moments during our conversation to shoot.

The wife of Xom Gio Village’s chief.  I used the same technique, described above, as for the portrait of her husband.  This portrait has a lovely color scheme, beautiful framing, and nice bokeh (the soft, out-of-focus parts of the background).

The beautiful city of Dalat, high in the mountains, has been a favorite escape from the tropical heat since French colonial times.  We spent a lovely afternoon with students from Dalat University. I had the opportunity to get to know English teacher Trung and his bright young students Nhi , Diễm, and Giang.  For this portrait, we were joined by my wife and several students she accompanied.  To include yourself in a group portrait, first set up the camera carefully, then either mount it on a tripod and trigger it remotely or ask a trusted person to release the shutter for you.

A wonderful visit to village of Buon Chuoi, home to the Kho Chil ethnic minority. We were among the very few foreigners ever to visit this hill tribe area.  

Have you visited Vietnam or Cambodia?  What were your favorite photographic subjects?  Please leave your thoughts here.

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

All of these photos and many more from Vietnam and Cambodia are available for viewing or purchase here: Vietnam and Cambodia image gallery.

Look for Part II of this story in tomorrow’s post!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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