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

Note: If you live in the SF Bay Area, please plan to attend the 2020 installment of this amazing event on January 24 at Grace Cathedral.

As an official photographer once again for this year’s SF Movement Arts Festival, I look forward to the privilege and pleasure of capturing images of most of the more than 300 talented and diverse performers who will participate in this year’s version of this amazing event. If you live in the SF Bay Area, please plan to attend this coming Friday, January 24.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lightroom’s Develop module

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

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

lightroom develop module

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

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

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

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

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

Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More wonderful face art.  Buy this photo

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

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

Elegant and beautiful!  Buy this photo

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stripped Down to the Bare Essentials [Encore Publication]: Cupid’s Undie Run supports Children’s Tumor Foundation

I’m fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where fun, crazy, photogenic events–planned and spontaneous–occur nearly continuously.  But the zany and colorful annual event known as Cupid’s Undie Run, for which participants strip down to their underwear and run through the city’s streets to raise money for Children’s Tumor Foundation, is actually held in dozens of cities around the world.  The San Francisco version was quite small this year, in spite of 60-degree mostly sunny weather, but it was as energetic, irreverent, and just plain fun as ever.  Today’s post features a few of my favorite images from this Valentine’s Day inspired event.  This time, it’s just for fun; I’m not going to annotate the images with a lot of detailed information about how they were made.  Enjoy, and consider supporting this valuable charitable cause: Children’s Tumor Foundation.

In between rounds of margaritas, a quick run along San Francisco’s waterfront.  Buy this photo

Happily, the weather was unseasonably warm and dry.  Buy this photo

The “finish line” is the front door of the pub.  Buy this photo

It wouldn’t be Cupid’s Undie Run without Cupid.  Buy this photo

Speaks for itself.  Buy this photo

A quick reminder about how to make a stunning portrait: 1) find soft and appealing lighting, 2) get in close with a medium portrait lens, 3) select a wide aperture for shallow depth-of-field.  Buy this photo

I love this town!  Buy this photo

Look for this fun event in your town next year around Valentine’s Day.  And, whether you’re traveling around the world or right in your home town, seek out those fun and quirky happenings that yield eye-catching images.

What are some of your favorite events to shoot, and why?

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

 

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

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

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

img_3497

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

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

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

img_3493

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

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

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

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

img_3494

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

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

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

Focus on the Embera People [Encore Publication]: 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street vendor in Yangon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Revealing Portraits [Encore Publication]: Inspirational women of India are struggling to empower themselves and others

Travel photography is about more than simply recording what we see and do during our trips.  It is more important even than creating art from our experiences while traveling.  I believe travel photography also has an important role to play in documenting and communicating to broad audiences the present situation facing underrepresented, repressed, and abused communities, and advocating for change to improve on the present situation.

Today’s post illustrates this point.  In a series of four portraits made during my recent travels in the north of India, I document several of the serious struggles faced by the girls and women of India–abuse of street children, poverty and lack of education, forced early marriage, and acid attacks–and show how these brave young women are working to empower themselves and others like them to end these abuses.

First, we meet a 17-year-old girl from the slums of New Delhi.  Let’s call her Sheela (the NGO supporting her work has requested that I not use her real time in order to protect her identity).  Sheela is the principal organizer of 10,000 street kids from similar slums across the sprawling city.  She helped start a newspaper, called Balaknama, to give a voice to the street kids and expose their stories of child labor exploitation, police harassment, and physical abuse.  Through her efforts and those of other kids from the streets, the editors who advise them, and the NGO that funds them, Balaknama has helped improve the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable residents of Delhi.  My portrait of Sheela is set in Balaknama’s offices and shows her calm and inspiring strength.  Lit by available light only, this image was made with a fast prime portrait lens, shot from a low angle so as not to condescend to the subject, and using a wide aperture to soften the background.  The feeling this image evokes is one of quiet power and a strong drive to expose and right the wrongs of her society.

Sheela, a 17-year-old resident of Delhi’s slums, organizes 10,000 street kids and reports for a newspaper run by and for the street children of the city.  Buy this photo

Next, we meet a girl who was born into poverty in Delhi and was forced at an early age to beg to earn money for her family.  Let’s call her Anika.  School was not an option for her.  However, Anika found a way to earn more and to avoid begging by selling bead necklaces on the streets of the city.  The portrait shows the contrast of her daily life: hopeful yet exhausted, bright yet uneducated, strong yet vulnerable.  This portrait was made using natural light with just a touch of fill flash to accentuate the saturated colors of her outfit and her wares.  The emphasis was placed on Anika by use of the fill flash, by exposing for her face, and by blowing out the overexposed background.

Anika is one of Delhi’s poorer residents.  Unable to attend school, she sells beaded jewelry to make a few rupees for her family.  Buy this photo

In a small village in rural Rajasthan, we met Parma at her modest house.  Forced to marry at the age of 11, Parma had four daughters at an early age.  She is fiercely committed to ensuring her daughters receive a good education so that they will have more options than she had.  Parma made the brave decision to become one of the first women to join a cooperative formed to allow women of the village to learn to make handicrafts in order to earn money for their families.  She and her husband faced considerable scorn from neighbors and relatives over her decision to earn her own income, but now many other village women have seen the success of this program and have also joined.  Parma is proud to have learned to sign her name and read a few words, thanks to her older daughters’ having taught her.  My portrait shows Parma in her kitchen with her third daughter preparing tea in the background and a neighbor child just in front of her.  The image radiates beauty, dignity, strength, and resolve.  In this environmental portrait, I wanted to portray Parma in relation to her home, her family, and her community, so I placed her in the center, exposing and focusing on her face, and allowing her daughter to be clearly identifiable yet slightly out of focus.

Parma, a child bride, vowed to educate her four daughters and works in a women’s cooperative to earn extra money to fulfill her promise.  Buy this photo

Finally, we meet Rupa at Sheroe’s Cafe in Agra.  Sheroes’ is a project founded by and for the women of India who are survivors of acid attacks. We were so inspired by meeting Rupa and learning about her story and her road to physical and emotional recovery after her brutal attack at the age of 15 by her stepmother.  Through this project, Rupa has gained the confidence and independence to leave home, meet other survivors and activists, build a business as a clothing designer, seek legal justice against her attacker, and access the surgical care required to reconstruct her face. The courage and resilience shown by Rupa and the other women we met at the cafe moved us to want to help their cause to educate people and improve the treatment of India’s women.  My portrait of Rupa is powerful because it doesn’t shy away from her scars but allows her courage, resilience, and beauty to shine through.  I got in close to Rupa using an 85-mm prime portrait lens and composed a head-and-shoulders image from eye level.  I exposed for her face and blouse, which she designed herself, bringing out the vibrant saturated colors.  A shallow depth-of-field ensured that Rupa’s face would be emphasized while the background would be soft.

Rupa was brutally attacked with acid by a relative when she was just 15 years old.  Rather than hide at home her whole life, she was empowered by the Stop Acid Attacks organization to live independently, fight for justice, and advocate to end acid attacks across India and Southeast Asia.  Buy this photo

I hope this series of portraits of four brave young women in India will inspire you, as their subjects inspired me, to advocate for improving women’s rights in this part of the world.  And more broadly, I hope you’ll recognize the power that travel photography has to give voice to the unheard and to fight for social change in the places where we travel.

Have you made the opportunity to advocate for change through your images?  Please share your story here!

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

 

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.

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

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

So this year, ahead of the new year’s holiday, I’m re-posting my earlier thoughts on what we travel photographers should resolve to do differently.  In the three years since I originally posted this article, I actually have made progress against all five resolutions.  

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

So, resolve to take that trip of a lifetime, shoot locally while you’re waiting for it, learn to use your camera as a tool to interact beneficially with the people and the wildlife you meet during your travels, and work to hone your technique.  I’ll be doing the same!  Happy trails in 2020.

What do you resolve to do in 2020?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_3452

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

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

img_3453

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

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

img_3454

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

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

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

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

Focus on Vietnamese Tet Festival [Encore Publication]: A vibrant lunar new year celebration in America’s largest Vietnamese community

Most Americans are familiar with the Chinese New Year festivities that usher in the lunar new year in late January or early February, but most are not as aware of the Vietnamese cultural celebration of the start of the lunar year.  Called Tet, the Vietnamese new year’s festival has its own distinctive, bright, and colorful symbols and traditions.  By far the biggest Vietnamese community in the USA is in San Jose, California, which not coincidentally also hosts the largest Tet Festival each year in the US.  I’m fortunate to live quite near San Jose, and on the day of the Tet Festival I was already collaborating with a favorite model in a studio one city north of there, so I decided to drop by and shoot the Festival.  I’m very glad I did.  Today’s post presents some of my favorite images from the festival in the form of a simple photo essay.  I’ve included some discussion about how the images were made.

Welcome to the Tet Festival!  When shooting symbolic items, always check your background and find a point-of-view that is clean and compelling.  Buy this photo

An unusual cultural juxtaposition: Vietnamese belly dancing.  Here I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion and a relatively wide aperture to soften the background.  Capturing the right moment in the dance pattern is important, but it’s equally essential to capture the right facial gesture and eye contact.  Buy this photo

What’s scarier than a clown?  A drunken clown.  This fellow came out on stage with a bottle of beer and a bottle of whiskey, both of which he proceeded to drink onstage.  My wife and I suspect that this was an object lesson for the children in the audience, but we’re not certain.  Buy this photo

The fashion show of people watching the fashion show on stage.  Whether shooting landscapes, people, wildlife, or urban scenes, always remember to look in all directions.  Sometimes the most interesting subject lies in the opposite direction from the one you thought you were shooting.  Buy this photo

To capture this candid moment of young kids trying out the Vietnamese drums, I used a medium telephoto lens.  Most of the time I prefer to approach subjects before photographing them, but occasionally it’s preferable to shoot first and ask questions later, so as to capture the subject without self-awareness.  Buy this photo

Wearing many hats!  Buy this photo

This traditional Vietnamese dance troupe performed a series of dances, each representing one of the seasons of the year.  This was their Spring Dance.  The vibrant colors of the costumes and props contribute greatly to this portrait.  It’s also important to compose and crop the image carefully to achieve a pleasing result.  Buy this photo

Summer dance.  Buy this photo

I love this portrait thanks to the dancer’s look of contemplation and concentration.  To make an effective portrait in spite of the cluttered background, I used a medium telephoto lens set to a wide aperture to set the subject off from the background.  I also cropped the image in post-processing to remove extraneous background objects.  Buy this photo

Parting shot: A favorite portrait of a traditional Vietnamese dancer.  Buy this photo

What are your favorite cultural events and celebrations?  Please share your thoughts on how to successfully photograph them.

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

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

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

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

Der Temporaum in Berlin: Flug

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

 

Der Temporaum in Berlin: Tanzen

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

 

Tempelhofer Feld I

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

Der Temporaum in Berlin: Schwarz und Weiß

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

Der Temporaum in Berlin: Virtuell

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

Tempelhofer Feld II

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting Your Old Friends [Encore Publication]: Take a fresh look at your older images with new postprocessing

In today’s digital photography world, images are made as much in post-processing as they are in the camera.  We only get one chance at creating the image in the camera: the choices we make to compose the image, focus, expose, and fire the shutter at just the right moment are behind us the instant the shutter is released.  But the choices we make after the fact, using image processing software such as Adobe Lightroom, can be revisited as many times as we wish.  Because Lightroom is a non-destructive editor, meaning it keeps the original image file intact and just records the editing choices we make in its catalog, we can return to the image again and again, making slightly or entirely different choices.

When I return from a trip, I try to select the best raw image files and apply some post-processing within a few days.  That’s so I don’t agonize endlessly about creative choices, which would severely increase the turnaround time for sharing the images with the world.  But increasingly I find it is a good practice to return with a fresh eye to images I made some time ago, applying some different post-processing choices to render the image differently.

There are three scenarios under which I often revisit my older images:

      • The images are very old and were shot using film in the pre-digitial era.  In this scenario, scan the transparency (slide), negative, or print and then apply post-processing to the digital scan.

lr-00559_s_r13akqwcgmq0559

Here’s the original scan of a 35mm color slide (transparency) shot during a 1991 trek in Nepal’s Anapurna region.  The image is grainy and the background behind the girls’ heads is distracting.  I decided to clean it up a bit using Lightroom.

NepalWith just a few minutes of tweaking using Lightroom, I was able to crop the image for more dramatic impact, render a true black background, reduce the grainy noise in the shadow areas, and enhance the saturation of the colors.  Buy this photo

    • The images were shot digitally but were made before I started routinely using image-processing software such as Lightroom.  In these cases, I like to apply post-processing to see what artistic options I may have missed in the earlier digital years.

This old Scandinavian stave church was shot as a color image in 2005.  It is so high-contrast that it appears nearly monochromatic on the display screen.  It’s a striking image, but looking at it today I wondered how much more effective it would be as a true black-and-white photo, so I decided to revisit the image using Lightroom.

Here’s the same digital image file, but converted to black-and-white using Lightroom’s color channel processing module.  I boosted the contrast even further and then adjusted each color’s saturation in the black-and-white mix to achieve the exquisite texture of the snow on the ancient building’s roof.  Buy this photo

  • The images are more recent, but I want to make some new creative choices.  Here the idea is to render the image in a different way to achieve a different end result.  For example, an image I initially processed in color may turn out to make a lovely black-and-white photo.  Or perhaps I crop a crowd scene to emphasize just one or a few of the people within it.  The choices are nearly limitless.

Reviewing my favorite images from a recent trip to New Orleans, I saw this shot of a characteristic French Quarter balcony and realized it would be even more powerful if certain colors were more saturated.

A brief session in Lightroom’s Develop module was all it took to boost the saturation of the blue and red channels and to adjust the shadow and black point tonalities.  The resulting image more closely reproduces the emotional experience I recall when viewing this scene live.  Buy this photo

Take a look at some of your older images.  Which ones would you like to revisit and give a fresh new look?  Do you regularly return to work on your library of existing images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Panama’s “First Cry of Independence” Celebrations [Encore Publication]: Serendipitous timing allowed me to capture images of a rarely seen festival

Departing Panama City for the historic and folkloric region of the Azuero Peninsula, we were very fortunate to arrive in the little town of Chitre on the day they celebrate Panama’s “First Cry of Independence”. The push for independence from Spain began here, then spread to the rest of the country. Whether halfway around the world or right in my home town, I’m always thrilled to have the chance to capture the special energy and tradition of a festival or celebration. The excitement is even greater when the festival, like this one, is off the tourist track and seen by very few people other than locals.  In today’s post I share some favorite images from the first two days of this festival, along with some notes about how they were made. Click on any of the images to visit my Panama photo gallery, where you can browse and purchase many more images from this remarkable country.

It’s a good idea to grab some “establishing shots” when photographing any festival or other large event. These images are made from a longer distance and/or with a wider lens than the close-up images that constitute the bulk of most portfolios. The establishing shots give a sense of scale so the viewer can understand the context for the other images. Here I used a slightly wide-angle lens to frame some of the parade participants against the lovely colonial church in the town’s main square.

Because festivals are very busy events, it’s important to look for clean backgrounds insofar as possible.  To make this portrait of two young Panamanians dressed in the national costume known as the pollera, I composed so as to minimize clutter in the background and also used a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to render the background in soft focus.  Too often photographers compose based only on the main subject, but a clean background is at least as important to the success of the image than an interesting foreground subject.

Not all portraits need to include the subject’s full face. I shot this colorfully attired marcher in profile so as to give a sense of color and motion, while revealing only one side of her face.

This young participant shows off her traditional Panamanian costume called a pollera. A wide aperture sets her off from the other participants in the background, while a fast shutter speed freezes the motion of her swirling pollera.

In this image I captured the whole contingent of young women in their variously colored polleras. The lighting conditions were harsh, so I set the exposure manually be metering on the fabric of their costumes. In post-processing I had to adjust the highlights and shadows to ensure the subjects were evenly illuminated.

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

To make this portrait of a participant wearing a fanciful mask, I asked him to pose in a somewhat less cluttered spot, then made the image using a very shallow depth-of-field to emphasize the mask and throw the background into very soft focus.

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

Sometimes it can be effective to embrace rather than avoid a cluttered background and to include it as part of the overall mood of the scene. That was my approach in making this image. I got in relatively close to the dancers in the foreground, using a moderate aperture setting to render the background crowds of spectators in soft focus, but still easy to discern. This gives the viewer a sense of being a part of the bigger celebration even while observing this intimate scene featuring the young couple.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this photo essay on the first days of Panama’s independence celebrations. Have you experienced a little known local festival or celebration? Please share your experiences by leaving a comment here.

Portraits from Irish Pubs [Encore Publication]: Ireland’s trad music scene is a visual as well as an aural treat

The Republic of Ireland has undergone tremendous social and financial changes over the last 20 years.  It’s now indisputably a modern global society with a strong diversified economic engine.  Yet it’s also a happy truth that today, as in days of old, the pub remains at the center of Irish social life.  Far more than a simple watering hole, the local Irish pub, whether in the center of cosmopolitan Dublin or in a tiny coastal fishing village, is a gathering place where stories are shared, traditional music is played, old friends catch up, and new friends are made.  Oh, and a pint or two might just be downed.

Many pubs feature live traditional, or “trad,” music on a nightly basis.  The casual informality of Ireland’s pub scene allows local amateur musicians to sit in with seasoned pros and pass down the songs from old to young.  Members of the “audience” (it’s hard to distinguish between performers and audience when the sessions are so participatory) are invited to step up to the “stage” (usually just a table covered with pints of beer) to sing a song at any time.  This informality allows the travel photographer to get to know these wonderful musicians over a few pints and to make authentic portraits without feeling like we’re intruding.

Today’s post is a simple photo essay featuring portraits I made of musicians and fellow customers at a variety of pubs across Ireland (plus one in Scotland).  I will forgo the usual technical details except to remind you that when shooting portraits in low-light settings where the use of flash is impossible, that a good fast portrait lens should be used along with a high ISO setting.

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

This young singer and fiddler who we met at Dublin’s famous O’Donoghue’s Pub was already a seasoned pro.  In this portrait I sought to capture her expressiveness with hand gestures.  Even without hearing her sing, the viewer can tell that she is expert at weaving stories.  Buy this photo

O’Donoghue’s is widely known as the spot where bands such as the Dubliners sparked the Irish folk music revival in the 1960s.  This band carries on the tradition, sharing songs old and new.  With a wide aperture comes shallow depth-of-field, so when photographing several people at one time you may have to choose which part of the image will be in focus.  Here I wanted to place the emphasis on the guitarist, so the other players are in softer focus.  Buy this photo

Another of Dublin’s great spots for trad music is the Cobblestone Pub.  On this night they were holding a very casual session, where all musicians were invited to come and play some tunes together.  The informality gave me a chance to get to know most of the players over the course of the evening and to make portraits without feeling like an intruder.  Again, the shallow depth-of-field required artistic choices about which subject would be in sharp focus and which would be in softer focus.  Buy this photo

In lively Kenmare, we wandered into a pub where a fabulous folksinger was performing many of the Irish songs I remember from childhood in Boston.  I chatted with Pat during his set breaks and bought a couple of his CDs.  He was a great subject for some expressive portraits, too.  Buy this photo

We didn’t have to leave our hotel on our first night in Killarney to hear some wonderful trad music.  This trio played many of our favorite songs right in the hotel’s pub, and they got most of the audience up to sing and dance along.  Buy this photo

Surprisingly, we heard only one rendition of Cockles and Mussels (aka “Sweet Molly Malone”) during our whole stay in Ireland.  This brave soul stood up in front of the crowd to sing that old standard.  Buy this photo

There’s nothing like watching an Irish crowd respond to the playing and singing of “The Wild Rover” to get one’s blood pumping.  Be ready to capture action in the “audience” as well as on the “stage.”  Buy this photo

Our second night in Killarney brought us into the center of town to an old and lively pub.  The table next to ours had four generations of a local family in attendance, each enjoying the musical set in their own way.  The oldest generation was my favorite.  Buy this photo

I got to know this fiddler over the course of the evening in Killarney.  During the break between sets she was kind enough to let me make her portrait.  It can be difficult in these crowded settings to avoid a cluttered background, but using a wide aperture for a shallow depth-of-field can help, as can careful post-processing.  Buy this photo

Elements I look for when making a portrait are faces with character and colorful details.  I found both with this accordion player and his beautiful instrument.  Buy this photo

 

The tiny fishing hamlet of Dingle has a population of just 1900 people, yet it somehow supports 52 lively pubs.  My kind of town!  Over pints of ale and shots of local whiskey in this colorful old pub, we made new friends from across the street and from as far away as Newfoundland.  This portrait of a musician was made almost entirely with light from the fireplace.  Buy this photo

The Scottish traditional music scene is as vibrant as Ireland’s, as evidenced by this band we heard at Edinburgh’s Sandy Bell’s Pub.  This place was bustling and extremely crowded.  The cluttered background somehow doesn’t detract too much from the power of this portrait.  Buy this photo

Have you traveled in Ireland or Scotland?  Do you have favorite portraits of the generous and friendly people you encountered there?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

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