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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street vendor in Yangon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

A few technical notes on how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Relief: A photo essay of images from SF Comic Con 2018

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

Approach with Care [Encore Publication]: Sensitive photographic practices help keep wildlife wild and healthy

Photographing wildlife in its natural habitat is one of the most exciting and rewarding activities I can imagine.  From researching the species’ behavior to seeking it (sometimes for days) in the field, to that wonderful moment its image is captured on our memory card and to the thrill of viewing that image when we return from the field, there’s something truly magical about this genre of photography.

Observing and photographing animals in the wild, such as this rare wildcat along Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, is thrilling.  Strive to put the animal’s welfare ahead of your image-making.  Buy this photo

Done properly, wildlife photography can have zero to very modest negative impact on the creatures whose images we capture.  In fact, photographers have done a great deal over the decades to help preserve wildlife through sharing images that inspire local people, governments, and the public to protect endangered species.

But by stalking and encroaching on a species’ territory, we photographers also put wildlife at risk of harm.  Improperly engaging with animals with the intent of photographing them can cause a predator to starve by allowing its prey to escape, cause another creature to become prey by distracting it from its natural wariness, stress the animal to harmful levels, or acclimatize them to being around humans.

Here are some important guidelines for photographing wildlife in as safe a manner as possible:

  1. Do your homework: The more you know before you set out to encounter a creature, the less likely you are to cause it harm inadvertently.  If you will be going with a safari or tour, research the outfit first to make sure they follow the highest ethical standards.  Get to know the behavior of the species you are seeking.  What is their daily and seasonal routine?  Where is their habitat?  What do they eat and what eats them?  What is a safe distance from which to view them?
  2. Keep a respectful distance: As kids we were told to keep away from wildlife for our safety, but as photographers we also need to consider how far away we must stay in order not to cause the animals undue stress.  Knowing where their meal ticket comes from, some safari and tour operators are willing to break park or preserve rules and approach the animals very closely so their clients can get great photos.  Do not encourage this.  Aside from the harm this stress can cause the animal, a stressed animal will look stressed in your photo and is more likely to bolt and leave you with no photo at all.  So, use a long telephoto lens, keep your distance, and both your subject and your images will be the better for it.
  3. Show special respect for the young: Baby animals are extremely vulnerable and should be treated with special care.  If you are traveling with a tour, defer to your guide’s knowledge.  If you’re on your own, be sure you’ve done your homework first, and err on the side of caution.Young animals, such as this baby baboon in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, should be photographed with special care.  I made this image using a long telephoto lens and shot from a safari vehicle parked at a respectful distance.  Buy this photo
  4. No kidding–don’t feed the animals: It seems almost too obvious to have to state, and yet nearly every day I encounter humans attempting to feed wildlife.  In Yosemite National Park, a number of bears must be killed each year because they have become dependent on humans for food.  At your local city park, you’ll probably observe people trying to feed the birds or squirrels.  And of course there are the big news stories (the recent major one was about the killing of the beloved Cecil the Lion) about hunters baiting animals with food.  A well placed and properly maintained bird feeder in the backyard may be okay, but no other attempts should be made to feed wildlife.
  5. Come back another time: In today’s networked world, word about rare animal sightings travels quickly.  If you hear about a sighting while traveling or near home, chances are many other photographers and watchers have also heard about it.  Multitudes of humans crowding around an animal will put it under undue stress and will also ensure you won’t make a great portrait of it.  Come back another time when there are fewer other people.  No photo opportunity is so irreplaceable that we should put the wildlife at risk.

With a little knowledge and courtesy, photographers can make great wildlife images while helping preserve and protect their subjects and keeping the wildlife wild.  Conversely, without respect or information about the local fauna, we run the risk of putting them at grave risk.  As the saying goes, make good choices!

The world’s smallest species of reindeer, the Svalbard reindeer is at risk due to global climate change.  Cautious and respectful photographers can use their images to help protect and preserve at-risk species.  Buy this photo

Do you have best practices about shooting (with a camera, that is) wildlife in the field?  Have you observed human behavior–positive or negative–that serves as an example?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling or 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.

 

The Camera Eats First [Encore Publication]: How to make delicious images of local food specialties

A big part of the joy of travel is learning about the local food and drink.  For the travel photographer, local culinary specialties represent a cornucopia of image possibilities.  In this post, we’ll look at some food images and discuss a few tips and tricks to make delectable photos of the victuals we meet while traveling.  Warning: Do not read this post while hungry.

When photographing plated food, it’s best to get in close.  Shoot straight down or at a slightly oblique angle, and always check your background to ensure it is as uncluttered as possible.  Be aware of your focal point and depth of field (how much of the image is in focus) so that the most important part(s) of your image are sharp.

For this photo of a cheese plate in Burgundy, France, I got in close to the subject and chose a small aperture to ensure all the different cheeses were sharply in focus.  Buy this photo

Don’t forget that  specialty drinks are also a big part of local culture.  For example, in Argentina the deep love of mate (pronounced MAH-tay), a local infusion, becomes almost a religious practice.  This image of the mate service engages all the senses with its bright colors, contrasting textures, and suggestion of the smell and taste of the drink. To capture a sense of the Argentinian obsession with mate, I shot this image of the serving of the drink with all its components.  I wanted to include some of the environment around the mate tray as well.  The scene was lit with natural light, which further saturated the bright colors.

Argentina’s national obsession, mate.  Buy this photo

Always be on the lookout for local dishes that are unusual or exotic to our own sensibilities.  This image of the local Peruvian specialty cuy, or guinea pig, has sold well on American and European stock photography sites because the main ingredient is so unfamiliar to our palettes.  I love the saturated colors and the humor inherent in the guinea pigs holding peppers in their mouths.  The ocher wall makes a lovely background to offset the colors of the dish.  To capture this image of Peruvian cuy served during a home-hosted lunch, I got in close as the hostess held up her dish, ensuring that the ocher wall behind was all that was visible in the background.  I chose a wide aperture to slightly blur one of the guinea pigs and the wall.  I used natural lighting with just a kiss of off-camera flash to accentuate the highlights.

 Cuy (guinea pig) is a Peruvian delicacy.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it is the ingredients rather than the final dish that are most interesting.  While on a shore excursion on the Greek island of Rhodes, my family saw these beautiful octopuses hanging to dry in the sun.  After photographing them, we ordered a plate of grilled octopus.  We very nearly missed the sailing of our ship, as the taverna’s cook took her time to grill the dish, but it was absolutely worth it!

Obviously, natural light was the way to go with this image.  I wanted to get in close, but not too tight, so that the lovely Rhodes scenery would be partly visible behind the drying octopus.  I used a medium-wide aperture to slightly soften the background.  Buy this photo

What’s even better than food images?  Portraits of local people making or serving the food!  Here’s a shot of a server holding up a tray of Istanbul’s best baklava.  The background is a bit cluttered, but I like this image for its blending of the beautiful dessert tray with the pride of the man serving it.

Often a street vendor, cook, or restaurant server will be reluctant to have their portrait made but will be happy to pose with their wares.  For this portrait of an Istanbul baklava server, I chose a wide-angle lens and got in very close to the food tray to emphasize the baklava while including the server in the composition.  Just natural light and balanced fill flash were used as lighting.  Buy this photo

Street markets are a wonderful source of travel images.  They tend to be bright, colorful, exotic, and characteristic of the location.  Be aware that some vendors will expect you to buy something if you want to photograph their wares.

I like the contrasting colors in this shot of Istanbul’s ancient Spice Market.  Buy this photo

Nearly every culture around the world has its own version of barbecue, and in my broad and diverse travel experience, it’s all good.  Here’s a photo of whole branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) fish being grilled topside by the captain of our small wooden sailing ship on the Turquoise Coast of Turkey.  It was nearly completely dark, so I lit this image using light from the burning coals and a touch of flash.  A relatively high ISO was required to balance the low natural light with the need for a small enough aperture to keep the whole subject in focus.

Whole fish on the grill aboard a gulet yacht in Turkey.  Buy this photo

Sometimes a local cuisine is all about diversity, such as the Dutch-Indonesian specialty rijsttafel (rice table).  Some presentations of rijsttafel in Amsterdam involve over a hundred different tiny plates, each containing a different food preparation.  To capture this tapestry of tastes, I stood on the bench and shot obliquely onto the table top, including as much of the spread as I could.

Indonesian rijsttafel served in Amsterdam.  Note that in restaurants at night we have little or no control over the artificial lighting, which can sometimes lead to an unnatural color cast on the food.  Shoot in RAW format so you can adjust the color balance during post-processing when you get home.  Buy this photo

I grew up in New England, and after traveling to more than 100 countries around the world I can say with authority that few meals can beat a good old-fashioned New England clambake with lobster.  To capture this iconic image, I shot up close and directly toward the lobster, using a normal lens with a medium aperture.  This allowed most of the meal to be sharply focused, but with some falloff in sharpness toward the edges in order to emphasize the Maine event.  The contrasting colors between lobster, clams, and corn make for a pleasing composition.

A lobster clambake in Maine showcases the contrasting colors and textures of this delicious meal.  Buy this photo

As a parting shot, I’ll leave you with this image of French haute cuisine.  The gloriously prepared and plated fish course at Paul Bocuse’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant made a fun subject because it is whimsical and artistic at the same time.  The available lighting was soft and subdued for artificial light, so no flash was needed.  I shot some closer compositions of just the plate, but preferred this one with some of the table setting included.

Bon appétit!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite food photos?  Do you have tips on how to make food images really pop?  Please share your comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Focus on Sacramento Spartan Race [Encore Publication]: Covering a Spartan Race can be an endurance event

Some events are just plain fun to shoot from beginning to end.  One of my favorite types of sporting events to cover is the Spartan Race.  Basically a combination of long-distance running with a supersized obstacle course, a Spartan Race is an extreme athletic event that attracts thousands of athletes from elite to weekend warrior.  I enjoy shooting these races because they offer so many exciting elements: color, drama, showmanship, grit, stamina, and humor.  Adding to the photographic fun quotient are the glorious natural surroundings, the photogenic and extraordinarily fit athletes, and the wide range of athletic rigors required of them.

In this post I’ll present some of my images from this past weekend’s Super Spartan Race held near Sacramento, California.  I will also share some tips on how to capture the best of a big and sprawling event like this one.

The Spartan Race organization recognizes and welcomes professional and enthusiast photographers more readily than do many US sporting authorities.  For any large sporting event, I apply several weeks in advance for a media (or press) pass so that I can bring in all my gear, shoot in all areas including those off-limits to spectators, gain free or reduced-price entrance and parking, and access VIP areas.  I’ve found the Spartan Race organizers to be quite helpful and understanding of what working photographers do.

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Yours truly with media badge.  This pass is important for the professional, as it allows access to otherwise off-limits areas and lets athletes and officials know you’re a working photographer.

One point to keep in mind when covering an endurance event spread out over long distances is that as a photographer, you will experience some portion of the rigors the athletes face.  The Super Spartan Race traverses a course about 8 miles long over steep and often muddy hills, interspersed with a couple of dozen obstacles of different types.  While I don’t typically try to cover all of the obstacles, it’s important to get a reasonable sample of the different challenges, so I do usually hike quite a few miles during the course of the day.  Photographers with a media pass have access to the whole course, but there are no special roads or ramps to get us there.  We have to trek up and down the same hills, through the same mud, and over the same terrain as the athletes do.  So come prepared for a bit of a workout!

The starting line is a good place to set the stage for your photo essay.  There is usually a DJ and music to get the athletes pumped up for the race.  Everyone is fresh, clean, and excited at this early stage.  Buy this photo

In addition to portraits and close-ups of individual athletes, it’s important to capture some establishing shots to set the context of the race.  I like to get some images of large contingents of athletes running over the hills.  I shoot from a distance, but often use a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and emphasize the massive scale of these races.  Buy this photo

When shooting individual athletes on the obstacles, use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and a relatively small aperture to blur the background.  Buy this photo

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

After finishing the course, athletes gather in the festival area.  This is a great place to make portraits.  The athletes are exhausted and muddy but in a celebratory mood.  Buy this photo

Spartan athletes in the festival area display strength as well as excitement for having completed the race.  Buy this photo

The finish line itself is a dramatic vantage point.  In this particular race, athletes must jump over a line of fire to finish the course.  I shot from a low perspective to emphasize the height of the jump, and used a fast shutter speed and small aperture to freeze the moment and isolate the athlete from the background.  Buy this photo

This image works so well because the shooting angle looking upward from below emphasizes the athlete’s power, and because the timing captured her expression at just the perfect moment.  I shot many frames to increase the likelihood of capturing the right moment, and, once again, I chose a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion along with a small aperture to blur the background.  Buy this photo

The shower area at the end of the race was taken over by hordes of kids who used the hoses for water play.  Humorous moments like this one lend a playful element to the day’s portfolio of images.  Buy this photo

An iconic Spartan Race image.  I captured the strenuous activity of carrying buckets filled with sand by shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens.  This technique compresses the perspective to include more athletes in the frame while still showing the strain on their faces.  Buy this photo

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

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

What are your favorite sporting events to shoot?  Do you have tips you can share for making great images of athletes?

Want to read more posts about what to shoot while traveling?  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 Dia de los Muertos [Encore Publication]: When a local festival takes you around the world

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

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

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

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

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

More wonderful face art.  Buy this photo

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

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

Elegant and beautiful!  Buy this photo

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

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

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

 

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/.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street vendor in Yangon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few technical notes on how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street vendor in Yangon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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