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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Calibration Time, Come On! [Encore Publication]: Why you should color-calibrate your display devices and how to do it

We tend to take for granted that the colors we perceive when we look at a scene will be captured faithfully by our camera’s sensor and the lens in front of it, and then rendered accurately in every stage of processing thereafter, from the memory card to the computer and to all our displays including laptops, tablets, smartphones, TVs, projectors, and even on these same types of displays owned by our friends with whom we share our images.  (We also expect prints made from our images to faithfully reproduce the colors from our camera’s sensor, but that is a story for another day.)

As photographers, we want to ensure the colors in our final images reflect as best we can the original colors we perceived when first framing the scene.  With proper color-calibration of the display screens we use to process our images, we can keep the colors as true and accurate as possible.  Buy this photo

The reality is that every step of the process of capturing, processing, and sharing an image leads to changes in the rendition of the colors.  No device can fully represent every intensity of every color that the human eye can see.  Camera manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure the colors captured by the camera’s sensor are as accurate as possible when you attach a lens made by the same company.  And when you use software such as Lightroom or Photoshop to post-process your images, you may take great pains to ensure the colors you see on your screen look very close to what you remember you saw when you shot the image in the first place.  But without careful attention, the final image we see later on our various display screens can look very different from device to device.  That’s because every type of display, and even every individual screen, has a unique way of representing every color.  So your PC’s monitor will display any given color just a bit differently than your phone’s screen will show that color.  And your friend’s phone’s screen will look a bit different, still (even if it’s the exact same brand and model as yours).

Fortunately, there is a simple and quite affordable way to standardize the representation of colors across all your devices.  It’s called color calibration, and for less than the cost of a good polarizing filter, say about $100, you can purchase a little doodad that can calibrate all your displays.  I use the X-Rite ColorMunki, which can be had for about $110 at retail.

To use a color calibration device, you install some software on your display(s) and then place the device on your display screen.  The software cycles the screen through displaying a wide range of colors, which are read and recorded by the calibration device.  Finally, the needed adjustments to bring your screen’s settings into line so they render colors as accurately as possible are saved in a special file.  From this point on, whenever your display device is started up, it reads the configuration information in that file and renders colors as closely to their actual appearance as it is physically capable of doing.

Because our eyes perceive colors differently in different ambient light conditions, you’ll want to have your calibration device take an ambient light reading for the typical lighting conditions that will be present while you’re using each display.  For example, if you use your laptop PC mostly when bright daylight is streaming into your kitchen, you’ll want to calibrate when those conditions are present.  You can even save different versions of the configuration file for different lighting conditions.

And because display devices do change over time, it’s a good idea to re-calibrate each device every few weeks to control for that.

If you’re serious about your photography, you want your images to look great not only on your own display screen(s), but also when viewed by other people on other types of devices or on the printed page.  Using a reliable color-calibration device helps ensure the colors in your images remain as accurate as possible through all the stages of processing and sharing until they leave your personal control.  This is a good practice that all photographers should employ.

How do you control for color accuracy in your images?  Please share your methods here!

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

 

Focus on Naatak’s “Toba Tek Singh”: America’s premier Indian theater company launches its grandest show ever

Naatak Indian Theater’s newest and largest production, Toba Tek Singh, opened on July 9 and will run through July 29, 2017.  This grand musical treats the serious topic of the forced Indian/Pakistani separation of 1948 in a lighthearted manner, by examining the issue from the perspective of lunatics in an asylum.  If you live in or will be visiting the San Francisco Bay Area during this show’s run, I highly recommend your attending a performance.  For more information or to order tickets, visit: Naatak Toba Tek Singh.

I had the privilege of shooting the tech rehearsal and the opening night.  Today’s post shares some of my favorite images from the both the tech rehearsal and the first performance, including some behind-the-scenes shots of the actors and crew.  I will refrain from providing commentary on the action in each image, so as not to spoil the narrative. I will, however, provide a few technical tips regarding how the images were made.

When shooting a performance accompanied by live music, try to include the musicians in some of your images.  As a musician myself, I’m aware that these key contributors to stage performances are often overlooked.  Here I captured the wonderful traditional Indian musicians during the tech rehearsal, using a fast normal lens and rendered in a wide aspect ration to include the entire ensemble.  Buy this photo

Part of the excitement of a live performance is the backstage preparation.  With permission from the director or producer, you may be able to go backstage and shoot the cast and crew as they do their costumes, hair, and makeup.  Here I got in close with a normal lens and used a touch of fill flash (off-camera) to saturate the colors and fill in any shadows.  Buy this photo

This show is great fun in part because it is filled with the spectacular antics of the lunatics in an insane asylum parodying the political events of their day.  To capture the sense of lunacy, it’s important to make many images to ensure some will record the perfect moment.  Buy this photo

Rendering this dramatic image in black-and-white gives it a pseudo-journalistic feel and harks back to the era in which the play is set.  Buy this photo

The dancers in this production were more than ornamental; their motion was the physical embodiment of the geopolitical partition between India and Pakistan.  Here I captured the lovely colorful symmetry of their dance with fabrics.  Buy this photo

My basic technique when shooting indoor performances is to use a fast prime lens (either a normal lens or a portrait lens) set to a relatively wide aperture (typically about f/2.2) along with a fast shutter speed (about 1/500 second) and a high ISO setting (around 1600).  This simple technique works very well for capturing fast action in low-light situations.  Many photographers work with zoom lenses at live performances, but I find the faster prime lenses give me an edge in terms of speed, brightness, and sharpness.  Cropping can be used in post-processing to achieve the best composition.  Buy this photo

Curtain call!  I like to shoot curtain calls with a normal lens from as far back in the theater is necessary to fit in the entire cast.  The wide aspect ratio shown here makes for a pleasing way of including everyone without too much distracting background.  Buy this photo

Always be on the lookout for an interesting and unusual perspective.  I shot these last two images from the lighting catwalk overlooking the stage from high above.  Of course, you must obtain permission first and follow all safety rules to shoot from such a vantage point.  The benefit: a whole new way of seeing the action on the stage!  Buy this photo

This image of the curtain call from the catwalk provides an arresting, bird’s-eye view of the final moments of the show.  Buy this photo

How do you translate dramatic performances into still images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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.

 

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.

 

Baggage Claim [Encore Publication]: A photographer’s guide to how to pack for a trip

 Special trips often require specialized gear.  To photograph the total solar eclipse in Svalbard in 2015, I had to pack a heavy professional tripod, 500mm super-telephoto lens, a remote release capable of functioning in extreme cold, and a custom-made solar filter.  Thankfully, most trips are easier to pack for.  Buy this photo

Packing is never the most fun part of a trip, and the special challenges we travel photographers face can be particularly vexing.  But with a few guidelines and some common sense, we can easily bring along just what photo gear we’re likely to need and still be able to make room for some socks and underwear.  Here is my very opinionated guide to how to pack for any length and type of trip.

    1. What type of trip are you taking?
      • If it’s a driving trip directly from your home, you can bring all the gear your heart desires.  Just be sure not to leave valuables in plain sight in the car when you step away for more than a moment (thieves love camera gear), and make sure you have a shoulder bag or backpack to carry just what you need for car-free excursions.
      • If you’re flying (unless you have your own private jet, in which case you also need to make room for me on your next trip), you’re going to have to reduce the gear you carry to just the essentials.  It is possible to customize the foam insert in a hard-sided case to hold your photography gear, and then you can check this bag in the hold of the aircraft, but this requires some effort to prepare the case for your specific gear and then you will likely find the case quite heavy to lug around for the land portion of your trip.  And woe to you if your bag is misrouted, lost, or stolen.  I recommend packing a carry-on item that meets your carrier’s size requirements and filling it with just the most essential gear you’ll need on your trip.  More on that topic in a moment.
      •  For most purposes, a backpack is a good packing solution.  There are many styles available for photo gear, but my favorites are these two:
        1.  For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It is almost always accepted as carry-on, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.
        2. My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.
    2. What types of shooting will you be doing on the trip?
      • Will wildlife or astrophotography be involved?  If so, you’re going to have to strain your back, anger the airline staff, and enlist your travel partner to help, because there’s really no substitute for a long and heavy super-telephoto lens in this situation.  When I’m on safari or chasing a solar eclipse, I pack my massive 500mm lens into the larger of my two backpacks and accept my fate.  You’ll realize it was worth the effort when you get home and are able to share your amazing photos of a leopard in a tree or the sun’s corona on full display during a total solar eclipse.
      • For most other types of trips, you won’t need to pack a really long lens.  My general rule is to pack a range of zoom lenses that covers from fairly wide (about 16mm) through fairly long (about 300mm), including a couple of fast prime lenses for when the light is low and/or the very best optical quality is required.
    3. How much redundancy do you need on the trip?
      • Always bring a backup battery (or several) and a backup battery charger.  Murphy’s Rule as applied to travel photography guarantees that batteries will die just as you frame the shot of a lifetime.  Bring at least one extra.  And chargers are left in hotel rooms or in tented camps on the Serengeti with some regularity, and they tend to get fried when plugged into unusual power grids, so bring an extra one with you.
      • Don’t forget the little things.  Pack several power adapters of the type used in the countries where you’ll be traveling.  These get lost easily and can be hard to replace while traveling.  Bring twice as many memory cards as you think you’ll require; it’s easy to fill them up when you get to shooting a mountain gorilla or carnaval dancers.  If you plan to back up to a laptop or external hard drive, bring extra connecting cables.  While traveling, I back up to a second type of memory card using my camera’s second card slot, so I bring quite a few memory cards of both types with me.
      • Lenses are heavy and expensive, but they sometimes stop working, so if you’re on a particularly important trip you may want to bring several lenses in overlapping focal lengths.  That is, you could bring a wide-angle zoom lens and a wide-angle prime lens, plus a walkaround zoom lens and a “normal” prime lens (about 50mm for a full size sensor or about 35mm for a crop sensor), plus a telephoto zoom lens and a telephoto prime lens or two telephoto zooms with overlapping ranges.
      • If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build your portfolio with very special and irreplaceable images, I recommend bringing a backup camera in addition to your primary camera.  For a recent safari trip in East Africa, I brought two DSLR bodies as well as quite a few lenses so that I’d have a backup solution to any single point of failure.  The more exotic your destination, the more likely that dust, wind, salt, extreme heat or cold, and heavy shocks or drops will damage your gear, so for those amazing one-of-a-kind trips I suggest biting the bullet and carrying backups for any gear that could fail.  For more on shooting in extreme conditions, read this post: Post on Extreme Conditions
    4. What accessories do you need to accompany the rest of your gear?
      • Attach a UV filter to each of your lenses before you leave and keep it on to protect the front element of the lens throughout your trip.
      • Carry a polarizing filter and a range of neutral density filters in the correct diameters to fit at least your wide-angle lens and your walkaround lens.
      • For more on filters, read this post: Post on Filters
      • A flash unit is helpful to have on most trips, unless you’re sure there will be ample natural light or you’re willing to use your camera’s built-in flash.
      • A good lightweight travel tripod with a head and mounting plate that suit your needs is essential gear on many trips.
      • Don’t forget any special-purpose gear that you need for just this type of trip.  When I travel to see a solar eclipse, for example, I need to be sure I bring my solar filter that attaches to my super-telephoto lens.  I also need to bring my heavy-duty professional tripod instead of the lightweight one I typically carry on trips.
    5. How will you be shooting from day to day during the trip?
      • If you’ll have constant vehicle support or won’t be going far from your hotel, you may be able to make do with just the bag you brought on the plane.  Or you can bring along a small shoulder bag to carry just a few items for the day’s shoot.
      • Most of my trips involve considerable hiking and public transportation from day to day, so I either carry everything in my smaller backpack or bring it along in checked baggage during the flight.  Then I can transfer just the gear I need for each day’s shoot into the smaller pack, which makes life easier when hiking 10 or so miles per day.

For a safari you will need a long lens to capture small or distant wildlife.  I recommend bringing a beanbag for camera support instead of a tripod, as the latter cannot be used in a safari vehicle.  Be sure to bring an extra camera and lenses, and carry more batteries and memory cards than you think you’ll need.  Buy this photo

Of course, if you use a mirrorless camera with only a couple of compact lenses or an advanced point-and-shoot camera, you do not have to worry about many of these items, but still be sure to review the list above to ensure you bring all required accessories.

With an overall strategy tailored to your itinerary and shooting style, and careful attention to execution to ensure you don’t forget anything, it’s really not that difficult to pack just what gear you’ll need in a way that will allow you to enjoy your trip when you’re not shooting.  After all, travel is about gaining experiences, and not all of those experiences can or should be photographed.  Pack for your photography, but also for your overall travel enjoyment.

What are your hacks for packing your photo gear for a trip?  Please share your tips and tricks in the comments box here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Nik of Time [Encore Publication]: Google’s Nik Collection offers leading-edge image editing tools for free

In 2012, Nik Software, a small company known for their image processing tools that emulated the look and feel of using old film, was quietly acquired by a somewhat larger company known as Google.  This past spring, Google announced they were making the entire suite of Nik tools available for free to all users.  I’m just getting around to testing this suite of image editing software now, and from what I’ve seen so far its capabilities are leading-edge and would be well worth spending hundreds of dollars to obtain.  It doesn’t do everything, but what it does, it does better than tools such as Photoshop and Lightroom, each of which costs a good deal of money.  That Nik’s great capabilities are available for download completely gratis is a wonderful gift from the folks at Google, and I strongly recommend you give them a try.

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

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

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

Analog Efex Pro

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

Color Efex Pro

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

Silver Efex Pro

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

Viveza

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

HDR Efex Pro

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

Sharpener Pro

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

Dfine

Improve your images with noise reduction tailored to your camera.

So far, I’ve played around with just three of these tools.
Silver Efex Pro did a very good job of converting my test images to monochrome.  I’m pretty good at using Lightroom’s tools to convert color images to black-and-white, but they take a lot of practice to master.  In Nik’s Silver Efex module I was able to make some good choices very quickly.  For those who want to fine-tune their black-and-white conversions, there are very good tools for detailed control over the process.
I used Nik’s Dfine module to attempt to reduce noise in a favorite shot of the Milky Way over Yosemite Valley’s Half Dome.  The results of my quick trial looked comparable to what I had done in Lightroom, but I suspect if I took the time to learn the Nik tool more thoroughly, I could end up with even better results.
Finally, I tested Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tool.  This little gem is a joy to use.  Just select the series of shots from which you want to build an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image, export them to HDR Efex, and click a couple of buttons to generate the base HRD image there.  My default image looked pretty good, but the Nik tool has a wide range of presets that allow you to generate different HDR effects with the click of a button.  I tried several of these presets until I found one that perfectly suited the scene.  A few more small tweaks using the detailed adjustment sliders, and I was ready to save the HDR image back into Lightroom.  In the past I have been very disappointed with Lightroom’s built-in HDR tools, and only slightly more satisfied with Photoshop’s HDR module, but the Nik HDR Efex Pro plugin does an amazing job.  It’s both easier to use and generates better results than the other HDR software I’ve used.  Specifically, the Nik tool does a much better job than the other tools at producing natural-looking colors and at removing the “ghosting” effects from when the underlying images are just a little bit different from one another.  Now I’m eager to find the time to go back to some of my favorite HDR images and rebuild them using the Nik software!
For comparison, here is a favorite HDR image of mine, first shown after processing in Photoshop’s HDR tools and then shown after processing in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro tools.
lrwm-lowres-5884This HDR image of Lago Grey with its glacier and the peaks of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was processed using Photoshop’s HDR tools.  The colors appear unnaturally saturated and parts of the image (especially the tops of the mountains and the brush in the foreground) show some ghosting effects.
lrwm-lowres-5880-5884-hdrnikThis version was processed using the Nik Collection’s HDR Efex Pro tools.  The colors look much more natural and all parts of the image appear sharp and free from ghosting.
I am looking forward to revisiting many of my favorite images and reprocessing them using the Nik Collection’s tools.  I highly recommend this versatile, easy-to-use, and powerful suite of image editing modules.  And the price can’t be beat.
Have you used the Nik Collection for your own photography?  What do you like and dislike?  Please share your thoughts here.
Want to read more posts about post-processing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Post-Processing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

USA

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

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

Kashgar, China

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

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

Turkey

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

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

Cuba

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on NAATAK Indian Theater: America’s premier Indian theater company launches a very timely show

Dear Readers:

Naatak’s newest and largest production, Toba Tek Singh, will open on July 9 and run through July 29, 2017.  This grand musical will treat the serious topic of the forced Indian/Pakistani separation of 1948 in a lighthearted manner, by examining the issue from the perspective of a lunatic asylum.  If you live in or will be visiting the San Francisco Bay Area during this show’s run, I highly recommend your attending a performance.  I will be shooting the tech rehearsal and the opening night, and I will post some images then.  For more information or to order tickets, visit: Naatak Toba Tek Singh.

In the meantime, please read on to see some images of NAATAK’s last production along with my tips on how to make images of live theater.

Kyle

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Recently I had the privilege of shooting the tech rehearsal for Naatak’s production, “Airport Insecurity.”  This is a vibrant and engaging show that is also very timely given what’s been going on in the news lately regarding immigration and several nations’ misguided attempts to secure their borders.  Naatak is America’s largest Indian theater company and I’ve been a fan for many years.  If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, do try to catch a performance of the show, which runs through March 4 at Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto.  You can learn more at Naatak’s website: Naatak “Airport Insecurity”.

Today’s post shares some of my favorite images from the tech rehearsal, including some behind-the-scenes shots of the actors preparing and the crew finishing the sets.  Although the play is based on a true story about an Indian-American techie stranded in a German airport, I will refrain from providing commentary on the action in each image, so as not to spoil the narrative. I will, however, provide a few technical tips regarding how the images were made.

Often the most compelling images of a theater production are not the ones made on-stage.  I always try to capture the backstory and behind-the-scenes activities, like this impromptu moment during make-up.  Buy this photo

It would be distracting and even potentially dangerous to use flash when construction is under way, so I used a fast prime lens and a high ISO setting to capture this image using available light.  Buy this photo

When possible, such as during a tech or dress rehearsal, I like to get down onto the floor of the stage to capture the action from a unique viewpoint.  Buy this photo

Sometimes a medium telephoto lens provides just the right perspective, in this case intimate without being intrusive.  Buy this photo

Careful attention to timing and to composition can elevate still images of theater. Buy this photo 

To capture this emotion-packed scene, I got in close using a medium telephoto lens and shot from the perspective of someone witnessing the interaction in the same room.  Buy this photo

I’ve said it before and will doubtless say it again: Shoot plenty of images in a continuous sequence to increase the odds of capturing just the right moment.  Buy this photo

To portray the couple’s sadness over their physical separation, I shot from the apron of the stage near the husband and chose a wide aperture so as to render the far-away wife in soft focus.  Buy this photo

A moment of celebration captured using a fast shutter speed.  To execute images with fast shutter speeds using available light only, I needed to use a fast lens nearly wide-open and a high ISO setting.  Buy this photo

The play’s final scene provides a sense of closure, so I wanted the image to be warm and reassuring.  The most pleasing perspective when making full-body images is frequently obtained by shooting parallel to the middle of the subject’s body.  Buy this photo

Curtain call!  I don’t like the distortion introduced when shooting a cast with a wide-angle lens, so to fit the entire cast in the frame using a normal lens, I moved to the back of the auditorium.  Buy this photo

How do you translate dramatic performances into still images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling and near home?  Find them all here: Posts on 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 I waited a couple of weeks to share my thoughts on what we travel photographers should resolve to do differently.  Since these aren’t technically “new year’s resolutions,” it’s my hope that these practices will stick.

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Celebration Time, Come On: 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.