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

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

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

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

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

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

Showing us how the midday meal is prepared. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Embera family pose for a portrait. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sports Roundup [Encore Publication]: How to get amazing shots at sporting events

Whether we’re traveling afar or close to home, sporting events make for exciting photography.  The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat (credit: ABC’s Wide World of Sports), the heroic effort, and the little moments of humor and repose amidst the adrenaline rush of competition: all of these elements can be captured in images of athletic events.

While every sport has its own rhythm and rules, there are certain techniques that apply across a wide range of sports photography situations.  Let’s take a look at a few situations and discuss how to get the best images given the inherent challenges.  Note that these photos were all made during outdoor sporting events; there are special challenges with many indoor sports, such as basketball or hockey, because the action remains just as fast but there is less light to work with, and the artificial lighting can impart an unnatural color cast.  But that’s a topic for a different post.

Whatever the sport, I like to shoot from different perspectives, from wide to very close.  The wider views show the environment as well as the athletes, so these make good establishing shots.  But often the most compelling and dramatic sports images are the tight compositions, because they portray the athletes in a very personal and relatable way.

Below are two shots of the same rowing crew during the same race at a high school regatta.  The first image was composed from slightly farther away and with a less extreme focal length (300mm), so the resulting composition is more environmental.  It shows not only all the rowers and the coxswain in the shell, but also the width of the river and the surrounding scenery.  This shot establishes the setting and gives the big picture.
Environmental shot of a crew racing at a rowing regatta.  Buy this photo

Now here’s the same crew, but captured from a closer vantage point and using a longer focal length lens (750mm).  This perspective isolates the athletes from the background and shows their expressions and postures.  There’s certainly more drama here, at the expense of some insight into the environment.

A tighter shot of the same crew in the same race.  Buy this photo

There are exceptions, such as when you choose to blur the motion to give a sense of the athlete’s grace, but as rule you want to use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action in sports photography.  Very often that means shooting at 1/1000 of a second or even faster.  Choose the Shutter Priority mode on your camera to gain control over the shutter speed, and be sure to select a high enough ISO setting to allow the shutter speed you require.  If your camera has different auto-focus settings, you may find it helpful to choose a single-point focus setting if you know where the action will be, or a dynamic focus setting if the location of the action changes very quickly.  For this image of a professional beach volleyball tournament, I chose single-point auto-focus so I could select the exact spot where the players would be jumping.  I also find the best way to capture a great image in fast-moving sports (as with wildlife photography) is to set the camera to continuous or burst mode and continue to shoot rapidly through the action.  That way, you’ll have several different images to choose from, and with luck at least one will have caught that “decisive moment.”

A fast shutter speed and single-point auto-focus allow the fast action of a beach volleyball competition to be captured precisely.  Buy this photo

My favorite sports images portray the human element in a very personal way.  This photo from a Spartan Race (an extreme athletic event that combines long-distance running with a supersized obstacle course) captures the strength and the struggle of the athlete as he nears the end of a long race through the 100-degree California desert.  Keys to success in making this image were shooting from a vantage point low to the ground, using a medium-length prime telephoto lens with a large aperture to soften the background, and waiting for just the right moment.

An endurance athlete completes an obstacle near the end of a Spartan Race.  Buy this photo

The fun of shooting a sporting event doesn’t end when the competition is over.  Be sure to capture the dramatic and often humorous moments during award ceremonies and downtime during and after the action.

These athletes have finished their Spartan Race and strike a humorous pose at the finish line.  Buy this photo

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

What sports do you enjoy shooting?  Do you have tips on how to get great sports images?  Please leave a comment in the box after this post.

 

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

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

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

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

There are two main tools available at this time:

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

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

Sneak Preview [Encore Publication]: Behind the scenes on my ongoing Human/Machine Dance Project

How does the human body move when interacting with artificial intelligence technologies? This is the question that my collaborator Carly Lave embarks on a year-long Fulbright grant to research. A talented dancer, choreographer, and scholar, Carly will present her research findings in visual form via a self-choreographed dance solo performance. I approached her to collaborate on a photography series informed by her research goals and artistry as a dancer. We explored several visual themes, each related to the timely question of how we humans will be transformed by increasing immersion into advanced technologies, including virtual reality, robotics, and interconnectivity. To complete this ongoing project, we will continue to collaborate across two continents during Carly’s research fellowship. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I’d like to share a few early images from this work-in-process along with some words about how they were made.  It can be tricky to imagine a visual concept and realize it via photography, and all the more challenging when the concept is abstract like the ones Carly and I selected.  I’ll present four of our initial concepts, each illustrated with an image and a description of the techniques required to execute it.

  1. Virtual Reality Motion Study: Virtual meets reality as Carly’s body floats through the physical world while her motion is informed by her interactions with the virtual world playing inside her headset.This concept sounds simple but is quite difficult to execute photographically.  We wanted to capture Carly’s physical motion in the real world as she reacts to the experience of the VR world.  Images like these require a long time exposure (here about 15 seconds), which in turn necessitates shooting in a darkened photography studio.  I used a black backdrop and continuous LED lighting to illuminate Carly as she moved across the studio, with a single studio strobe light at the front right part of the set to capture her final pose at the end of the exposure.  The strobe was set to trigger as the camera’s shutter closed at the end of each shot (“rear curtain sync”).  Using this technique, Carly’s motion can be traced during the whole exposure but the vivid exposure is what we see last.  Considerable post-processing is then required to clean up the scene.
  2. Interconnectivity: Carly shared, “I found myself visualizing my body wrapped in cables coiled around my limbs and torso. I was thinking about the body in relation to embedded systems here, and how now all of our world is connected through cables either in the air or sea.”To shoot this visual concept, we used a dance studio with a mirrored wall.  Using different angles to obtain a variety of perspectives, I shot both Carly and her reflection as she improvised motion along the wall.  The technique conveys the impression of the interconnectedness between a human and a similar being across a network.  Post-processing was required to remove clutter and render the background as white.
  3. Human (de-)Evolution Series: A whimsical re-imagining of the classic ape-to-human evolution series, this montage asks us to consider whether technology contributes to or detracts from human evolution.This striking montage is actually quite straightforward to execute.  In a photography studio against a black backdrop, I shot images of Carly in each stage of the evolution series and then combined them using layers in Photoshop.
  4. Robotic Motion: Machines often perform the same tasks traditionally undertaken by humans, but the robot’s motion is constrained by its programming. How might the human dancer’s motion become similarly constrained if her movement is choreographed by programming instructions?For this concept, my job was fairly easy and Carly had to do the heavy lifting.  She choreographed movement indicative of robotic motion while I captured a series of images using a studio strobe light and a black fabric backdrop.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Nik of Time [Updated]: Now owned by DxO, the Nik Collection offers leading-edge image editing tools

Note: In 2017 Google announced that they would no longer provide support for the Nik suite of tools.  That meant you can still download the latest version of Nik, but it may not work with the other software you are running.  Many in the photography community were concerned because sooner or later as we upgrade our other software, Nik will cease working for us.  Fortunately, a company called DxO purchased the Nik suite of tools from Google a few months after Google ceased supporting the software, and just this month DxO announced their first Nik release.  Read on for more details about the Nik tools and DxO’s new release.

In 2012, Nik Software, a small company known for their image processing tools that emulated the look and feel of using old film, was quietly acquired by a somewhat larger company known as Google.  Google announced they were making the entire suite of Nik tools available for free to all users.  As mentioned above, Google ceased supporting the Nik suite as of 2017, but the software was quickly purchased by DxO who just announced their first release.  The good news is that with this new release the photography community now has a reasonable assurance that these industry-leading image editing tools will be supported well into the future.  The bad news is that the Nik suite is no longer free; DxO is charging $69 to download the software.  That’s still less than the $150 that Google charged users for this software prior to 2016, and it’s a very reasonable price for software of this scope and quality.

For photographers who wish to access the Nik tool set and don’t already own it, or for photographers for whom the tool set has ceased working, I recommend downloading the new release from DxO’s website now, as the introductory price of $50 will increase to $69 at the end of June, 2018.  For those of us who already have the software installed and for whom it’s still working just fine, I don’t see a need to upgrade to the paid version right now  That’s because the new release, while more stable and better documented than the free older version from Google, does contain the same tools with the same functionality.  Personally, I will choose to wait until a new O/S or Lightroom upgrade forces my hand.  But I am very pleased to know that these wonderful editing tools will continue to be supported and developed into the future!

Here are my notes from the past two years of using the Nik suite of image editing software tools.  Its capabilities are leading-edge and would be well worth spending hundreds of dollars to obtain.  It doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does better than tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom, each of which costs a good deal of money.  That Nik’s great capabilities are available for download for less than $70 is a wonderful value, and I strongly recommend you give them a try.

It’s important to note that the Nik Collection of software tools is not intended to be standalone image processing software.  It consists of a set of plugins, each specialized for a different specific purpose, that must be accessed by a general-purpose image editing application such as Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture.  I use Lightroom for nearly all of my post-processing, so I used that application to access the Nik Collection.

Once you have your general image editing application installed, then you can download the Nik Collection modules at the DxO website listed above.  When you are working in your application of choice, you will then have access to the various Nik Collection tools in the editing menus.  For example, when I select an image in Lightroom, I can access six of the seven Nik modules by pulling down the “Photo” menu and then pulling down the “Edit In” sub-menu.  One of the Nik modules, the HDR Efex tool, is accessed instead under the “File” and “Export with Preset” menu choices.

These are the seven Nik Collection modules included in the download:

Analog Efex Pro

Explore the look and feel of classic cameras, films, and lenses.

Color Efex Pro

A comprehensive set of filters for color correction, retouching, and creative effects.

Silver Efex Pro

Master the art of black-and-white photography with darkroom-inspired controls.

Viveza

Selectively adjust the color and tonality of your images without complicated masks or selections.

HDR Efex Pro

From natural to artistic, explore the full potential of HDR photography.

Sharpener Pro

Bring out hidden details consistently with the professional’s choice for image sharpening.

Dfine

Improve your images with noise reduction tailored to your camera.

So far, I’ve played around with just three of these tools.
Silver Efex Pro did a very good job of converting my test images to monochrome.  I’m pretty good at using Lightroom’s tools to convert color images to black-and-white, but they take a lot of practice to master.  In Nik’s Silver Efex module I was able to make some good choices very quickly.  For those who want to fine-tune their black-and-white conversions, there are very good tools for detailed control over the process.
I used Nik’s Dfine module to attempt to reduce noise in a favorite shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome.  The results of my quick trial looked comparable to what I had done in Lightroom, but I suspect if I took the time to learn the Nik tool more thoroughly, I could end up with even better results.
Finally, I tested Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tool.  This little gem is a joy to use.  Just select the series of shots from which you want to build an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image, export them to HDR Efex, and click a couple of buttons to generate the base HRD image there.  My default image looked pretty good, but the Nik tool has a wide range of presets that allow you to generate different HDR effects with the click of a button.  I tried several of these presets until I found one that perfectly suited the scene.  A few more small tweaks using the detailed adjustment sliders, and I was ready to save the HDR image back into Lightroom.  In the past I have been very disappointed with Lightroom’s built-in HDR tools, and only slightly more satisfied with Photoshop’s HDR module, but the Nik HDR Efex Pro plugin does an amazing job.  It’s both easier to use and generates better results than the other HDR software I’ve used.  Specifically, the Nik tool does a much better job than the other tools at producing natural-looking colors and at removing the “ghosting” effects from when the underlying images are just a little bit different from one another.  Now I’m eager to find the time to go back to some of my favorite HDR images and rebuild them using the Nik software!
For comparison, here is a favorite HDR image of mine, first shown after processing in Photoshop’s HDR tools and then shown after processing in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tools.
lrwm-lowres-5884This HDR image of Lago Grey with its glacier and the peaks of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was processed using Photoshop’s HDR tools.  The colors appear unnaturally saturated and parts of the image (especially the tops of the mountains and the brush in the foreground) show some ghosting effects.
lrwm-lowres-5880-5884-hdrnikThis version was processed using the Nik Collection’s HDR Efex Pro tools.  The colors look much more natural and all parts of the image appear sharp and free from ghosting.
I am looking forward to revisiting many of my favorite images and reprocessing them using the Nik Collection’s tools.  I highly recommend this versatile, easy-to-use, and powerful suite of image editing modules.
Have you used the Nik Collection for your own photography?  What do you like and dislike?  Please share your thoughts here.
Want to read more posts about post-processing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Post-Processing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How have you created unusual images of the world’s most iconic locations?  Please share your thoughts here!

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

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

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

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

Elements to Consider When Planning a Shoot:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on 2018 SF Pride Parade [Encore Publication]: Capturing diversity, purpose, and intimacy

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 what I love the most about this exuberant celebration is its remarkable focus on the central human values of diversity, inclusion, activism, hope, and love.  In today’s post, I share some of my favorite images from this year’s Pride Parade, along with a few words about how the images were made.  The goal is to showcase the incredible diversity and sense of social purpose of the participants and observers at this grand celebration, while also striving to capture the small, more intimate, moments.  Remember that you can view–and purchase–all of these images as well as many more by clicking on any of the images in this post.

In a frenzied environment like that of most festivals, parades, and street fairs, it can be a challenge to make a nice clean portrait with an uncluttered background.  Sometimes it’s possible to relocate the subject to an area with a clean and clutter-free background, but most often (as with this portrait) that isn’t feasible.  In those cases, my best practices are to use a moderate telephoto “portrait” lens, select a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus, get in close to the subject, and use a touch of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.  

Huge festivals and celebrations such as SF Pride can be overwhelming, with hundreds of thousands of participants and observers present.  I strive to capture the smaller, more intimate, moments within this gigantic environment.  Here I captured a beautiful portrait of two participants sharing their love, which I think encapsulates the entire meaning of Pride events around the world.  I had been chatting with these two people and had obtained their permission to photograph them before making this image.  I used a medium telephoto “portrait” lens and got in close to isolate the couple from the busy background.

Color and texture play a huge role in photographic composition and expression.  As photographers, we’re very aware of these factors when we compose landscapes or nature scenes, but even when making a portrait, we should always be considering the mood evoked by the colors, patterns, and textures in the scene.  I love this portrait for its moody use of the similar shades of orange-red offset against the multiple colors of the flowers and the cigarette.  This is an image that tells a story, but that also leaves most of the story untold.

Another intimate portrait, this one made of a young woman doing yoga poses while waiting to march in the parade.  She had an adorable sense of humor and expressive face, which, coupled with her offbeat outfit, made a great closeup portrait.  Don’t be afraid to get in close to your subject, but always get to know them and ask permission first.

An iconic Pride scene, this portrait was made with a longer telephoto lens, its use made necessary by the greater distance to the parade float in the middle of a wide street.  While I prefer to get up-close and personal with my subjects, and to get to know them before shooting, sometimes we have to shoot from farther away, such as during a fast-moving and crowded parade.  It’s therefore important to have the gear and expertise to make portraits from any range.  Even when shooting from farther away, though, my key portrait rules still apply: try to capture the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible, use a wide aperture to isolate the main subject from the background, and apply a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

It can be tricky to try to capture nudity in a tasteful way suitable for sharing and selling to broad audiences.  I spent some time chatting with these two activists to get to know them and to understand their cause–overturning San Francisco’s ban on public nudity–before starting to shoot.  Even though they had given me permission to photograph them nude (which is an important courtesy all photographers should follow, although no permission is legally required to photograph people in a public space in the US), my market for images containing graphic nudity is small, so I strive to capture scenes that tell the story but with implied nudity rather than graphic nudity.  Here I found a vantage point that allowed the subjects’ arms to strategically cover certain parts of their bodies.  The resulting portrait conveys the story of their purpose and gets across the idea of their nudity, but is still shareable and sell-able to a broad market.

Another close-up portrait, using the same techniques I shared earlier in this post.

Another of my favorite portraits from the day, this one also tells a small-scale, intimate story, conveyed by getting in close and isolating the subjects from the busy background.  The end result is a sense that these two people are celebrating their own story, even in the midst of the bustling celebration going on around them.

I met this young woman in a very crowded space, but fortunately I had the opportunity to walk her to a less cluttered space to make her portrait.  I’m always on the lookout for quieter and cleaner spaces when shooting festivals and celebrations.  A few steps was all it took for us to find this simple, clean background, allowing the portrait to really pop.

Group portraits pose a special challenge in busy public spaces: how to capture all the group members in crisp focus while also trying to isolate them from the cluttered background.  Here I used a medium aperture to keep the people in sharp focus while slightly softening the background, but since a very wide aperture cannot be used for groups, the softening effect will be mild.  As a result, it’s especially important when making these group portraits to seek an interesting, complementary, or clean background.

As their float passed by in the staging and assembly area before the official start of the parade, I observed an opportunity to capture this quiet scene of one woman helping to apply her friend’s makeup.  I used a moderate telephoto lens and shot several frames to increase the odds of getting a clean and interesting shot.

When making portraits of kids or seated people, it’s a good practice to get down to their level.  Getting in close is also usually an effective technique, both to isolate the subject and to capture a sense of their spirit.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA

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

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

Kashgar, China

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

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

Turkey

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

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

Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

Sneak Preview [Encore Publication]: Behind the scenes on my ongoing Human/Machine Dance Project

How does the human body move when interacting with artificial intelligence technologies? This is the question that my collaborator Carly Lave embarks on a year-long Fulbright grant to research. A talented dancer, choreographer, and scholar, Carly will present her research findings in visual form via a self-choreographed dance solo performance. I approached her to collaborate on a photography series informed by her research goals and artistry as a dancer. We explored several visual themes, each related to the timely question of how we humans will be transformed by increasing immersion into advanced technologies, including virtual reality, robotics, and interconnectivity. To complete this ongoing project, we will continue to collaborate across two continents during Carly’s research fellowship. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I’d like to share a few early images from this work-in-process along with some words about how they were made.  It can be tricky to imagine a visual concept and realize it via photography, and all the more challenging when the concept is abstract like the ones Carly and I selected.  I’ll present four of our initial concepts, each illustrated with an image and a description of the techniques required to execute it.

  1. Virtual Reality Motion Study: Virtual meets reality as Carly’s body floats through the physical world while her motion is informed by her interactions with the virtual world playing inside her headset.This concept sounds simple but is quite difficult to execute photographically.  We wanted to capture Carly’s physical motion in the real world as she reacts to the experience of the VR world.  Images like these require a long time exposure (here about 15 seconds), which in turn necessitates shooting in a darkened photography studio.  I used a black backdrop and continuous LED lighting to illuminate Carly as she moved across the studio, with a single studio strobe light at the front right part of the set to capture her final pose at the end of the exposure.  The strobe was set to trigger as the camera’s shutter closed at the end of each shot (“rear curtain sync”).  Using this technique, Carly’s motion can be traced during the whole exposure but the vivid exposure is what we see last.  Considerable post-processing is then required to clean up the scene.
  2. Interconnectivity: Carly shared, “I found myself visualizing my body wrapped in cables coiled around my limbs and torso. I was thinking about the body in relation to embedded systems here, and how now all of our world is connected through cables either in the air or sea.”To shoot this visual concept, we used a dance studio with a mirrored wall.  Using different angles to obtain a variety of perspectives, I shot both Carly and her reflection as she improvised motion along the wall.  The technique conveys the impression of the interconnectedness between a human and a similar being across a network.  Post-processing was required to remove clutter and render the background as white.
  3. Human (de-)Evolution Series: A whimsical re-imagining of the classic ape-to-human evolution series, this montage asks us to consider whether technology contributes to or detracts from human evolution.This striking montage is actually quite straightforward to execute.  In a photography studio against a black backdrop, I shot images of Carly in each stage of the evolution series and then combined them using layers in Photoshop.
  4. Robotic Motion: Machines often perform the same tasks traditionally undertaken by humans, but the robot’s motion is constrained by its programming. How might the human dancer’s motion become similarly constrained if her movement is choreographed by programming instructions?For this concept, my job was fairly easy and Carly had to do the heavy lifting.  She choreographed movement indicative of robotic motion while I captured a series of images using a studio strobe light and a black fabric backdrop.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

There are two main tools available at this time:

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

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

“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.

Cards, Calendars, and Keepsakes: Oh, My! [Encore Publication]: Ways to share your images beyond social media and prints

With the holidays fast approaching, now is a great time to think about creative ways to share your favorite images as gifts for family and friends or perhaps to enhance your own home.  Most commonly we share images via social media and, for more special occasions, as prints.  Review this classic post for a list of 10 ideas for sharing your images: Post on Image-Sharing Ideas.   

In today’s post, I discuss three of these methods that are particularly festive and well-suited to the holiday season: cards, calendars, and keepsakes.

5x7folded
A  likeness of one of the earliest holiday cards my wife and I created.  The original version was in black-and-white and had a humorous caption at the bottom.  This version was made more recently using a modern digital process.

Cards: For the entire 31 years we’ve been together, my wife and I have sent our families and friends custom-made holiday cards.  We created our first card in 1986, the year we started dating.  The process was extremely complicated back then.  We had to take the photograph using a film camera, send the film to a lab for processing, wait for the prints to be mailed back to us, select the image we wanted to use, cut the print down to the right size, tape it onto a printed template we had to design ourselves using a primitive word processor, and photocopy it onto card stock at a graphics store.  It was strictly a black-and-white affair because color copying was very expensive in that era.  Even for black-and-white cards, the cost was quite high.

Today, the process is vastly simpler and less expensive, and the quality very high.  There are countless companies that will take your photo files and caption information, blend them with a design you choose from their library of sometimes up to hundreds of choices, and create an attractive customized card for a range of occasions.  Shop around carefully before selecting one, because price, quality, and flexibility vary tremendously.  My current favorite is Snapfish.  Even though I no longer use Snapfish to host my image galleries, I continue to create and order photo cards from this site because it offers a good range of card designs, reasonably high printing quality, and affordable pricing.  There are often very deep discounts available at Snapfish and other photo sharing sites.  Try using a search engine to find discount or coupon codes.  I rarely pay more than 60% of the listed price.

When creating a card on any platform, there are a few basic steps to follow.  First, you choose the card design from a library of choices.  There may be only a few designs for some types of occasions, but for the winter holidays there are usually dozens to choose from.  Then you upload your images if they’re not already on the site, and select where you want them to go in the card template.  Next, you add captions to customize the card.  You may be able to include a return address on the envelopes shipped with the cards.  Be sure to review your card carefully before ordering.  The final step is to place your order by specifying the quantity (per-unit prices usually drop when ordering larger quantities), shipping address, and payment information.

Calendars: Photo calendars make great holiday gifts because they are personal, functional, and seasonal (the weeks before the start of the new year is typically when your loved ones will be looking for a calendar).  Every year I create a calendar with images that present the past year in review.  I send it to several family members and keep one for my own home and one for my office.  As with cards, calendars can be ordered from a wide variety of companies with differing levels of quality and cost, so shop around.

Creating a calendar is similar to making a card.  You choose a size and design, upload your images, and lay them out on the calendar template.  Some sites allow you to further customize your calendar by including special dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, and other events important to your family or friends.  The better companies let you include a photo to represent each special date during the year, and will save these dates for creating new calendars in future years.  The ordering process for calendars is similar to that for cards: review the calendar and then place the order.  Again, you may be able to find discount or coupon codes that will substantially lower your cost.

Keepsakes: These days, it seems that images can be reproduced on nearly any type of item you can imagine.  This variety translates into a high likelihood of finding something for everyone on your gift list.  I use SmugMug, the platform that powers my online professional photography business, for nearly all of the keepsakes I order as gifts, and my clients also have been happy with their purchases of these items.  There’s a wide array of keepsake items to choose from, each customized with your image(s), including coffee mugs, coasters, smartphone cases, playing cards, desk organizers, and stickers.

To make a keepsake, simply upload your photo(s) if they’re not already on the site, select the type of item you want to order, ensure the image is cropped and/or sized appropriately for the item, and go through the checkout procedure.

This holiday season, get creative.  Share your images on holiday cards, calendars, and a range of keepsakes.  It’s never been as easy or inexpensive to make these items as it is right now, so have fun and experiment.

What are your favorite ways to share you images during the holiday season?  Please add a comment with your ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A note on gear: My go-to portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a human.  I use it for nearly all of my portrait work these days.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Culling Your Images

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

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

Step 2: Post-Processing

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Delivering the Final Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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