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.

“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 SAFEhouse Resident Artist Workshop [Encore Publication]: Documenting three very different and exciting new dance pieces

Recently I had the privilege of shooting both the tech rehearsal and first performances of three new dance pieces by very different, wonderfully talented, resident artists at San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  SAFEhouse is a unique program that incubates emerging artists by giving them studio space, expert guidance, and public performances so they can grow and develop new work.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know each of the resident artists and having the opportunity to experience and document their pieces.

Each artist and work created a very different emotional affect, so I worked hard to shape my images according to how the performances made me feel.  As photographers we have the capability, like a painter or poet or dancer, to create our art in accordance with our emotions.  This is a point that is too easily forgotten when we’re out in the field shooting.  Today’s post shares a few of my favorite images of the tech rehearsal and performance for each of the artists, along with some brief discussion of how the images were made.

Dancer mia simonovic rehearses her highly improvisational new piece, “residue1”.  I loved her brave and fluid expression through motion of the feelings and sensations that were passing through her in the moment.  This work requires not only real-time improvisation but also the courage to be completely vulnerable on stage.  To capture the spirit of her piece, I made a series of images (one of which is shown here) of mia dancing with her own shadow.  I felt this image would be expressed most authentically in black-and-white, so I made the conversion to monochrome during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Seeking another method to capture the elusive and transient spirit of mia’s piece in a still image, I decided to try a series of images using a slower ISO and shutter speed to create some motion blur.  To enhance this effect, during post-processing I increased the contrast and vibrance until the visual impact came close to matching the emotional impact I felt during her piece.  Buy this photo

The next artist was Arina Hunter.  Her piece, “Dyspnea,” was unusual in that, instead of using a prerecorded sound score, she accompanied her motion entirely with sounds made by her own body.  Because these vocalizations and body percussion sounds were very soft compared to amplified music, I was able to make only a few images during her performance so as not to disturb the audience members.  Fortunately, I was able to capture many nice images during Arina’s tech rehearsal.  This one nicely captures her lovely expressive hand motions and facial gestures.  Buy this photo

Arina’s piece was very physical and covered a wide range of moves, poses, and expressions.  Here I captured her floor work by getting lying down on the floor of the stage myself so that I was shooting at the same level as her face.  Buy this photo

The final piece was presented by Maligrad Contemporary Dance Company, directed and choreographed by Molly Fletcher Lynch-Seaver.  This powerful performance spoke to me of violence and our complicity in standing by while it happens.  I wanted to capture this scene the way I felt it, which was like a gang rumble out of the movie “West Side Story,” so I shot straight into the action, allowing the brick walls and girders to frame the image, and converted to black-and-white during post-processing.  Buy this photo

This image was made near the end of Maligrad’s tech rehearsal.  When composing an image in which there’s a lot going on, I find it helps to think like a painter, specifically asking myself, “what elements do I want in the image vs. not in the image, and how do I want to arrange them?”  Buy this photo

During Arina’s live performance, I was only able to capture a handful of images due to the quiet sound score.  This was a favorite, as it reflects her expressive gestures in face, hands, and body.  Buy this photo

Because mia’s piece is so improvisational, it unfolded very differently in the live performance than in the tech rehearsal.  Knowing this in advance, and also knowing I could not move around during the performance like I could during the rehearsal, I just let myself be moved by her work, capturing the moments that spoke most strongly to me.  This image was made by shooting straight on but has a nice, soft visual appeal that matches her contemplative motion.  Buy this photo

This image, made during Maligrad’s live performance, is another example of the choices we photographers must make when framing a scene that includes multiple elements at different distances to the camera.  I chose to emphasize the dancer in the foreground by using a very narrow depth-of-field (low F-stop number), because I felt the story here was her pain at observing the warlike behavior of the background dancers.  Buy this photo

The final performance of the new works by these three artists-in-residence was Feb. 9, but if you live in the S.F. Bay Area you can follow their work and also look for other upcoming events at SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my images and that I was able to provide a sense of how to shape our images to match the emotional feelings evoked by a performance.

How do you transform your emotions into images?  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.

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/.

Focus on Naatak “Airport Insecurity” [Encore Publication]: America’s premier Indian theater company launches a very timely show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaks for itself.  Buy this photo

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

I love this town!  Buy this photo

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

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

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

Focus on Mardi Gras SF [Encore Publication]: New Orleans and Latin American colors and sounds in San Francisco

Anyone who reads “To Travel Hopefully” at least occasionally knows that I’m a major lover of street fairs and festivals.  Nowhere else can you capture the colors, sounds, flavors, and feel of a city’s local culture as readily.  I’m fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there are literally hundreds of diverse and fascinating festivals each year.  Probably my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval celebration, a pan-Latin outpouring of samba dancing, music, color, culture, and even cars.  Anyone in San Francisco can tell you that Carnaval here takes place in late May, thanks to the rather chilly weather that prevails during the more traditional carnival season around Mardi Gras in February.  But Carnaval SF has a lesser-known cousin, Mardi Gras SF, that does indeed take place at the same time Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Martinique, and other places around the world.  Today’s post focuses on yesterday’s Mardi Gras celebrations all around the city of San Francisco, during which the music, traditions, costumes, and dancing of the world’s more famous carnivals comes to California for one crazy night.

New Orleans style mummers dance along with the dixieland music in a parade in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.  I wanted to capture a sense of the chaos even while making a portrait of just these two revelers, so I used a shallow depth-of-field to throw the closer woman into slightly softer focus.  Buy this photo

At this time of day there was enough natural light remaining to make this portrait without any fill flash.  During post-processing in the Lightroom application, I adjusted the contrast and exposure, enhanced the vibrance, and used just a touch of post-crop vignetting to bring out the main subject.  Buy this photo

The classic Victorian townhouses known as “painted ladies” attest that this scene is taking place in San Francisco, but the foreground subject is pure French Quarter.  To gain this perspective on the scene, I climbed on top of a bench and used a wide-angle lens.  I was careful to keep the camera level so as not to distort the image, and I further corrected the perspective during post-processing.  Buy this photo

I rushed across town to the Mission District, an historically Latino neighborhood, where a different sort of parade was beginning.  This parade is styled as much on the Latin American carnival traditions as on the New Orleans creole traditions.  This portrait documenting the preparations of one of my favorite Carnaval groups, Viva la Diva, was made as the parade was forming.  I used an off-camera fill flash with its power dialed down by one stop to saturate the colors and set off the main subject from the background.  Buy this photo

I loved this reveler’s carnival mask, so I asked her if I could make a portrait.  I used a classic 85mm portrait lens and got in close to minimize clutter in the background, using a bit of off-camera fill flash.  Buy this photo

Another example of a portrait shot close to the subject using a touch of fill flash.  I use an effective and inexpensive cord to tether my speedlight to the camera’s hot-shoe, while I hand-hold the flash off to the side and away from the camera.  To learn more about this gear and technique, read this earlier post: Post on Off-Camera Flash.  Buy this photo

I have been working with the group Viva la Diva for several weeks already to document their preparations for San Francisco’s big Carnaval parade in late May, so I made certain to capture these lovely ladies during the smaller Mardi Gras celebrations.  Once again, the secrets to making a stunning portrait are to establish rapport with your subject, use a moderate and fast portrait lens, get in close, use a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus, throw in a touch of fill flash to isolate your subject even more, and shoot several frames to ensure you capture just the right moment.  It takes practice, but it really isn’t that difficult, and the results are truly eye-catching.  Buy this photo

Kids are great fun to photograph.  This group of youngsters from a nearby school wanted to dance with the Viva la Diva samba dancers.  I got down low so as to shoot them from their eye level, and I held the flash up high so as to light them evenly and without harsh shadows.  Buy this photo

Viva la Diva!  Even though by this time of the evening there was effectively no ambient light, I was still able to capture a portrait of the Divas without the glaring artificial color cast that is typical with images lit mostly by flash.  The keys to success here are to use a diffuser on the flash head, get the flash off-camera, hold it very close to your subject to soften the lighting further, and adjust in post-processing.  Buy this photo

Do you have favorite local events you love to shoot?  Which ones, and what techniques do you use?  Please share your stories here.

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

 

Focus on 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 today’s Dia de los Muertas (Day of the Dead) celebrations in downtown San Jose.  Although I had traveled only half an hour from my house, this festival celebrating life and honoring departed relatives took me on a cultural and historic journey across all of Latin America and beyond.  In today’s post I will present a simple photo essay featuring some of my favorite images from this festival.
An Aztec dancer helps convene the day’s celebrations.  Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

More wonderful face art.  Buy this photo

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

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

Elegant and beautiful!  Buy this photo

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief compilation of images from today’s 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/

Sweet Release [Encore Publication]: What is a model release and when do you need one?

We photographers are passionate about many aspects of our trade.  We love the artistic expression, that feeling of capturing a special moment that otherwise would be lost to time, even the gear we use to make images.  But one aspect of the trade that few of us–professionals and amateurs alike–enjoy thinking about is the legal side of making and selling images.  And one legal element about which we need to be knowledgeable is the model release.  Unless you never plan to make any images in which any person is recognizable, you should learn what a model release is and when you may need to use one.

First, a disclaimer: I am not an attorney and the advice I provide in this post is not intended to replace consultation with a competent lawyer.  What I provide here is just some practical advice I’ve acquired over the years, in which course I’ve made plenty of mistakes.  And you should also be aware that laws governing when you can photograph a person and how that image can be used vary from country to country and even among states or provinces within some countries.  With these points made, let’s explore the basic concept of a model release and when you may need one.

In the simplest terms, a model release is a legal agreement between a photographer and any person who will be recognizable in images made by the photographer.  It spells out the conditions under which the image can be published and often specifies the compensation to which the model is entitled.  In the US, a valid model release must be signed and dated by the photographer, the model, and a witness.  If the model is a minor child, a parent or legal guardian also must sign.  This agreement protects the photographer against being sued for defaming or cheating the model, but equally it protects the model from being taken advantage of.


When I work with a professional model, like Laura here, I always obtain a signed release before the photo shoot.  This practice ensures she will be properly compensated and protected against inappropriate uses of her likeness, while I and any publisher will be protected against defamation claims by the model.  Having the release means I have more flexibility as to how the image can be used later.  Buy this photo

So, when do you need a model release?  Here are some situations (not an exhaustive list) in which you should have one:

  • A person can be recognized in your image.  Note that personally identifiable information doesn’t derive only from a direct likeness of the person’s face.  He or she could also be recognized from a special feature such as a tattoo or from the context such as a clearly identifiable location.
  • … AND … one or more of the following statements is true:
    • You may wish to sell the image for commercial purposes such as advertising or use in a business’s publicity or promotion.
    • You may wish to enter the image in a competition or contest.  Check the specific competition’s rules; some require a model release whenever a person is clearly identifiable in the photo, while others do not.
    • You may wish to provide the image (even if you’re not compensated) for other people to use in a context you can’t control.  A model release protects you and those who obtain a license to use your image from being sued by the model for using their likeness in a way that they don’t approve.

In contrast, there are plenty of situations in which you don’t need to have a signed model release.  Some of these include:

  • One or many people appear in the image but none is recognizable.  The subjects may be far away from the vantage point or they may all be obscured or facing away from the camera.  As long as they cannot be identified individually, there is no need for a model release.
  • You plan to use the image only for your own portfolio.
  • You plan to use the image only for editorial purposes.  If your photo is published in a newspaper, magazine, or website where the primary purpose is editorial rather than commercial, a release is not required.  Imagine if every reporter had to get a signed release before publishing the likeness of every person appearing in any news outlet.  This would have a chilling effect on journalism, which is a pillar of a free and democratic society.  So in most cases, if your photo will be used for editorial purposes (that is, it will appear in a newspaper or magazine’s news section rather than in an advertising section), then you and the outlet’s publishers don’t need a release.
  • The images can be considered fine art photography.  Photos can be published and sold without express permission from the person appearing in them if the primary purpose is fine art.  In the US, case law upholds artistic expression as a form of First Amendment free speech in most cases.

Kashgar, China
Images with news value, such as this one made of a Uighur girl in Kashgar’s Old Town days before her home was to be demolished by the Chinese government, may be published and sold for editorial purposes with no requirement for a signed model release.  Buy this photo

When you do believe that a model release would be helpful given your intended future use of an image, it is quite a simple task to obtain one.  Some photographers carry printed forms with them so they can ask a subject to sign their release as needed.  I use an app on my smartphone called “Easy Release,” which you can purchase for $9.99 on the iTunes Store: Easy Release app for iPhone.  This app simplifies the process of creating a model release, getting it signed by your model and yourself, sending it to others, and storing and managing it for future use.

Because “To Travel Hopefully” primarily treats the subject of travel photography, I want to share my own philosophy when it comes to asking for a model release while traveling.  Even if you understand the laws of the country in which you are shooting, there are potential ethical issues in asking your subject to sign a legal document that he or she probably can’t understand.  You may be able to get the text of the document translated into your subject’s local language, but even then the context of the agreement may not make sense to somebody from a very different culture than our own.  I try to exercise good judgment when it comes to compensating the people I photograph when traveling overseas and to how I use the images later.  You may want to read or reread my pillar post on photography as a bridge to local culture: Post on Travel Portraiture.

Many photographers, models, and publishers misunderstand the conditions under which a model release is or is not required, so there’s a lot of misinformation out there.  Please consider my points here as just a starting point for learning more about this topic.

What are your best practices regarding when and how to use a model release?  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.

 

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.

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 Shotgun Players [Encore Publication]: Making exciting images from a cold reading of a script requires good timing

Documenting the creative process in the performing arts is one of my favorite photographic subjects.  Whether it be with dancers, actors, musicians, or any other artist, I love capturing the progression from beginning to final performance.

Tonight I was fortunate to be invited by a longtime favorite local theater company, Shotgun Players, to shoot their first cold reading of the script for their new production, “Nora.”  Based on Ibsen’s masterpiece, “A Doll’s House,” this production is much needed during these troubled times in the US.  Tonight’s reading was wonderfully executed.  Introduced by a presentation by the director, the actors and stage manager interpreted the entire script with lots of dramatic affect and emotion.  I can only imagine how superb the final production will be if the cast could develop this much excitement from a cold reading!  I’ve also been invited to shoot the dress rehearsal, so I’ll report back with more images in about six weeks.  The production of “Nora” runs from March 16 through April 16 in Berkeley, California.

The problem with photographing an unstaged script reading is that it is not inherently a compelling visual event.  As exciting as a good reading can be for the live audience, a group of actors in street clothes sitting at a table reading from sheets of paper, and with no props, set, or lighting, can be a flat subject for images.  To handle a situation like this, I suggest paying extremely close attention to the exact timing of your shutter releases so as to catch those telling moments where the actors are interacting vividly.  It’s also a good idea to mix it up a little, so that the portfolio of images contains several different vantage points, perspectives, and other compositional tools.  In today’s post, we’ll look at some of my images from tonight’s reading and discuss how they were made.

Selective focus can be quite effective in setting off one person or element from the others.  Here I used a very wide aperture (f/1.8) to emphasize the stage manager in front against the soft background of the actor and table behind her.  Note that while it’s always important to be very conscious of your backgrounds while shooting, in a visually stark situation like a script reading you should work extra hard to keep the background as simple and undistracting as possible.  Buy this photo

I try to include all the key people in any event I shoot.  It would be easy to capture only the actors reading the script, but I also made several images of the director (shown here), the stage manager, and the event organizer.  Buy this photo

Timing is everything when it comes to photographing a visually simple event like a play reading, classical music rehearsal, or lecture.  Try to wait for the moment of greatest emotional interaction.    Buy this photo

There’s no rule that says all your images have to conform to the aspect ratio of your camera’s sensor.  Here I cropped the image to a longer aspect ratio to include more of the actors and their interactions.  It has almost a “Last Supper” feel to it.  Buy this photo

Series work well to add excitement to your image gallery.  This image and the next one together depict the climactic moments of the play, when the husband first shouts at his wife and she screams back at him, finally having gained some power in the relationship.  Buy this photo

This final image is the second in the series described above.  I love the intensity of both actors’ postures and expressions.  If the cold reading can be this dramatic, I can hardly wait for the final run of the show!  Buy this photo

What techniques do you use when shooting subjects that have less visual impact than the usual ones?  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.

Focus on Mardi Gras SF: New Orleans and Latin American colors and sounds in San Francisco

Anyone who reads “To Travel Hopefully” at least occasionally knows that I’m a major lover of street fairs and festivals.  Nowhere else can you capture the colors, sounds, flavors, and feel of a city’s local culture as readily.  I’m fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there are literally hundreds of diverse and fascinating festivals each year.  Probably my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval celebration, a pan-Latin outpouring of samba dancing, music, color, culture, and even cars.  Anyone in San Francisco can tell you that Carnaval here takes place in late May, thanks to the rather chilly weather that prevails during the more traditional carnival season around Mardi Gras in February.  But Carnaval SF has a lesser-known cousin, Mardi Gras SF, that does indeed take place at the same time Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Martinique, and other places around the world.  Today’s post focuses on yesterday’s Mardi Gras celebrations all around the city of San Francisco, during which the music, traditions, costumes, and dancing of the world’s more famous carnivals comes to California for one crazy night.

New Orleans style mummers dance along with the dixieland music in a parade in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.  I wanted to capture a sense of the chaos even while making a portrait of just these two revelers, so I used a shallow depth-of-field to throw the closer woman into slightly softer focus.  Buy this photo

At this time of day there was enough natural light remaining to make this portrait without any fill flash.  During post-processing in the Lightroom application, I adjusted the contrast and exposure, enhanced the vibrance, and used just a touch of post-crop vignetting to bring out the main subject.  Buy this photo

The classic Victorian townhouses known as “painted ladies” attest that this scene is taking place in San Francisco, but the foreground subject is pure French Quarter.  To gain this perspective on the scene, I climbed on top of a bench and used a wide-angle lens.  I was careful to keep the camera level so as not to distort the image, and I further corrected the perspective during post-processing.  Buy this photo

I rushed across town to the Mission District, an historically Latino neighborhood, where a different sort of parade was beginning.  This parade is styled as much on the Latin American carnival traditions as on the New Orleans creole traditions.  This portrait documenting the preparations of one of my favorite Carnaval groups, Viva la Diva, was made as the parade was forming.  I used an off-camera fill flash with its power dialed down by one stop to saturate the colors and set off the main subject from the background.  Buy this photo

I loved this reveler’s carnival mask, so I asked her if I could make a portrait.  I used a classic 85mm portrait lens and got in close to minimize clutter in the background, using a bit of off-camera fill flash.  Buy this photo

Another example of a portrait shot close to the subject using a touch of fill flash.  I use an effective and inexpensive cord to tether my speedlight to the camera’s hot-shoe, while I hand-hold the flash off to the side and away from the camera.  To learn more about this gear and technique, read this earlier post: Post on Off-Camera Flash.  Buy this photo

I have been working with the group Viva la Diva for several weeks already to document their preparations for San Francisco’s big Carnaval parade in late May, so I made certain to capture these lovely ladies during the smaller Mardi Gras celebrations.  Once again, the secrets to making a stunning portrait are to establish rapport with your subject, use a moderate and fast portrait lens, get in close, use a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus, throw in a touch of fill flash to isolate your subject even more, and shoot several frames to ensure you capture just the right moment.  It takes practice, but it really isn’t that difficult, and the results are truly eye-catching.  Buy this photo

Kids are great fun to photograph.  This group of youngsters from a nearby school wanted to dance with the Viva la Diva samba dancers.  I got down low so as to shoot them from their eye level, and I held the flash up high so as to light them evenly and without harsh shadows.  Buy this photo

Viva la Diva!  Even though by this time of the evening there was effectively no ambient light, I was still able to capture a portrait of the Divas without the glaring artificial color cast that is typical with images lit mostly by flash.  The keys to success here are to use a diffuser on the flash head, get the flash off-camera, hold it very close to your subject to soften the lighting further, and adjust in post-processing.  Buy this photo

Do you have favorite local events you love to shoot?  Which ones, and what techniques do you use?  Please share your stories here.

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

Focus on SAFEhouse Resident Artist Workshop [Encore Publication]: Documenting three very different and exciting new dance pieces

Recently I had the privilege of shooting both the tech rehearsal and first performances of three new dance pieces by very different, wonderfully talented, resident artists at San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  SAFEhouse is a unique program that incubates emerging artists by giving them studio space, expert guidance, and public performances so they can grow and develop new work.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know each of the resident artists and having the opportunity to experience and document their pieces.

Each artist and work created a very different emotional affect, so I worked hard to shape my images according to how the performances made me feel.  As photographers we have the capability, like a painter or poet or dancer, to create our art in accordance with our emotions.  This is a point that is too easily forgotten when we’re out in the field shooting.  Today’s post shares a few of my favorite images of the tech rehearsal and performance for each of the artists, along with some brief discussion of how the images were made.

Dancer mia simonovic rehearses her highly improvisational new piece, “residue1”.  I loved her brave and fluid expression through motion of the feelings and sensations that were passing through her in the moment.  This work requires not only real-time improvisation but also the courage to be completely vulnerable on stage.  To capture the spirit of her piece, I made a series of images (one of which is shown here) of mia dancing with her own shadow.  I felt this image would be expressed most authentically in black-and-white, so I made the conversion to monochrome during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Seeking another method to capture the elusive and transient spirit of mia’s piece in a still image, I decided to try a series of images using a slower ISO and shutter speed to create some motion blur.  To enhance this effect, during post-processing I increased the contrast and vibrance until the visual impact came close to matching the emotional impact I felt during her piece.  Buy this photo

The next artist was Arina Hunter.  Her piece, “Dyspnea,” was unusual in that, instead of using a prerecorded sound score, she accompanied her motion entirely with sounds made by her own body.  Because these vocalizations and body percussion sounds were very soft compared to amplified music, I was able to make only a few images during her performance so as not to disturb the audience members.  Fortunately, I was able to capture many nice images during Arina’s tech rehearsal.  This one nicely captures her lovely expressive hand motions and facial gestures.  Buy this photo

Arina’s piece was very physical and covered a wide range of moves, poses, and expressions.  Here I captured her floor work by getting lying down on the floor of the stage myself so that I was shooting at the same level as her face.  Buy this photo

The final piece was presented by Maligrad Contemporary Dance Company, directed and choreographed by Molly Fletcher Lynch-Seaver.  This powerful performance spoke to me of violence and our complicity in standing by while it happens.  I wanted to capture this scene the way I felt it, which was like a gang rumble out of the movie “West Side Story,” so I shot straight into the action, allowing the brick walls and girders to frame the image, and converted to black-and-white during post-processing.  Buy this photo

This image was made near the end of Maligrad’s tech rehearsal.  When composing an image in which there’s a lot going on, I find it helps to think like a painter, specifically asking myself, “what elements do I want in the image vs. not in the image, and how do I want to arrange them?”  Buy this photo

During Arina’s live performance, I was only able to capture a handful of images due to the quiet sound score.  This was a favorite, as it reflects her expressive gestures in face, hands, and body.  Buy this photo

Because mia’s piece is so improvisational, it unfolded very differently in the live performance than in the tech rehearsal.  Knowing this in advance, and also knowing I could not move around during the performance like I could during the rehearsal, I just let myself be moved by her work, capturing the moments that spoke most strongly to me.  This image was made by shooting straight on but has a nice, soft visual appeal that matches her contemplative motion.  Buy this photo

This image, made during Maligrad’s live performance, is another example of the choices we photographers must make when framing a scene that includes multiple elements at different distances to the camera.  I chose to emphasize the dancer in the foreground by using a very narrow depth-of-field (low F-stop number), because I felt the story here was her pain at observing the warlike behavior of the background dancers.  Buy this photo

The final performance of the new works by these three artists-in-residence was Feb. 9, but if you live in the S.F. Bay Area you can follow their work and also look for other upcoming events at SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my images and that I was able to provide a sense of how to shape our images to match the emotional feelings evoked by a performance.

How do you transform your emotions into images?  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.

Focus on Naatak “Airport Insecurity”: America’s premier Indian theater company launches a very timely show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Focus on Naatak Mela ’16 [Encore Publication]: Five short plays in five different Indian languages

Note: Naatak’s next production, “Airport Insecurity,” runs from Feb. 24 through Mar. 4, 2017.  You can find more information here: Naatak “Airport Insecurity”.

Last December I was privileged to be invited by Naatak, America’s preeminent Indian theater company, to shoot their annual festival of short plays, Mela ’16.  I’m a loyal follower of Naatak, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to photograph this exciting production.

The program is comprised of five short plays, each performed by a different cast and in a different Indian language.  I found all five plays to be powerful and vibrant, and truly enjoyed their diversity.  It was also a treat to get to know some of the cast, directors, and staff at Naatak.  In this post, I share a few images from the event along with some tips about photographing live indoor performances.

The lighting at Mela ’16 is first-rate, probably the best I’ve ever encountered when shooting live indoor performances.  This aids photography in two ways: 1) The color balance appears quite natural, and 2) The lighting is bright enough that you can shoot using a fast shutter speed and still keep noise to a minimum by choosing a reasonable ISO setting.

The first play, “Immortal,” is presented in Bengali and is based on a short story by Satyajit Ray.  It’s a mystery involving the unexpected death of a prominent scientist and treats themes of intellectual property rights, scientific ethics, and of course a love triangle.

With good continuous tungsten lighting handled by a talented tech staff, live indoor performances are a joy to shoot.  I used a fast normal lens and a fast portrait lens, both of them primes, so I could select a fast enough shutter speed to freeze action and still choose a slow enough ISO setting to minimize noise.  Buy this photo

The second play, “The Goat Slaughter Game,” is presented in Tamil and based on a short story by well known children’s author Roald Dahl.  It reminded me of an Agatha Christie mystery, but I won’t divulge which one so as not to give anything away.

During action scenes, try to anticipate the “decisive moment” when the drama unfolds.  When something key is happening, shoot liberally so as to maximize chances of capturing just the right instant.  This image is powerful because it captures the instant around which the whole play hinges, and because the fast shutter speed freezes that moment and the shallow depth-of-field isolates each of the two characters.  Buy this photo

The third play, “Look How Artfully I protected You,” is presented in Gujarati and based on a work by George Bernard Shaw.  This little farce is packed with drama and action, Bollywood-style.  The costumes and set provide vibrant colors and contrasts.  I loved shooting this piece.

Once again, the key to making memorable images of performances is to capture just the right instant where the dramatic tension is high.  In this image, the woman is trying to defuse a fight between her husband and her lover.  In post-processing, I cropped the image slightly so as to increase the tension and maximize the storytelling potential.  Buy this photo

The fourth play, “Logging Out,” is presented in Marathi and written by Dharmakiri Sumant.  It tells the story of a boy and girl falling in love, but with the twist that the girl wants to keep their relationship online and not meet in real life.  This piece was the most challenging to shoot because the two actors are physically separated within different areas of the stage and because the lighting was often very dim.

In low-light situations, shoot with a large aperture (small f-stop number) and a high ISO setting, and wait for moments when the action slows down to prevent motion blurring.  I like the moody atmosphere of this image, which reflects the loneliness of life online.  Buy this photo

The final play, “The Mud Wall,” is presented in Hindi and written by Narendra Kohli.  This was my favorite piece of the evening because it deals with many themes of modern Indian life, including wealth, class, bureaucracy, family dynamics, and treatment of women.  It was also a joy to photograph because it had so much dramatic action and tension.

This may be my favorite image from the whole event.  I love the dramatic tension and the irony of the slogan on the sign above the terrified family.  The usual tips apply here: use a fast lens, a fast shutter speed, and a reasonable ISO setting; frame the shot in advance on the area where the action will occur; and shoot many images.  In post-processing, I cropped a bit for dramatic effect and lowered the black point so that the backdrop appears completely black for more contrast with the actors.  Buy this photo

Mela ’16 is an exciting event and also very educational for those of us not intimately familiar with the varied cultures of India.  Since I can’t travel all the time, I try to seek out global learning experiences in my own backyard, and Naatak delivers on this promise.  If you live in the SF Bay Area, I encourage you to attend the final performance today.  And not to worry, each play is presented with easy-to-read supertitles in English, just in case your Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, or Hindi are not up to snuff.

What performances excite you?  Have you attended, or photographed, events that informed you about diverse cultural experiences?  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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wearing many hats!  Buy this photo

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

Summer dance.  Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaks for itself.  Buy this photo

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

I love this town!  Buy this photo

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

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

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

Focus on SAFEhouse Resident Artist Workshop: Documenting three very different and emotionally moving new dance pieces

Last night I had the privilege of shooting both the tech rehearsal and first performances of three new dance pieces by very different, wonderfully talented, resident artists at San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  SAFEhouse is a unique program that incubates emerging artists by giving them studio space, expert guidance, and public performances so they can grow and develop new work.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know each of the resident artists and having the opportunity to experience and document their pieces.

Each artist and work created a very different emotional affect, so I worked hard to shape my images according to how the performances made me feel.  As photographers we have the capability, like a painter or poet or dancer, to create our art in accordance with our emotions.  This is a point that is too easily forgotten when we’re out in the field shooting.  Today’s post shares a few of my favorite images of the tech rehearsal and performance for each of the artists, along with some brief discussion of how the images were made.

Dancer mia simonovic rehearses her highly improvisational new piece, “residue1”.  I loved her brave and fluid expression through motion of the feelings and sensations that were passing through her in the moment.  This work requires not only real-time improvisation but also the courage to be completely vulnerable on stage.  To capture the spirit of her piece, I made a series of images (one of which is shown here) of mia dancing with her own shadow.  I felt this image would be expressed most authentically in black-and-white, so I made the conversion to monochrome during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Seeking another method to capture the elusive and transient spirit of mia’s piece in a still image, I decided to try a series of images using a slower ISO and shutter speed to create some motion blur.  To enhance this effect, during post-processing I increased the contrast and vibrance until the visual impact came close to matching the emotional impact I felt during her piece.  Buy this photo

The next artist was Arina Hunter.  Her piece, “Dyspnea,” was unusual in that, instead of using a prerecorded sound score, she accompanied her motion entirely with sounds made by her own body.  Because these vocalizations and body percussion sounds were very soft compared to amplified music, I was able to make only a few images during her performance so as not to disturb the audience members.  Fortunately, I was able to capture many nice images during Arina’s tech rehearsal.  This one nicely captures her lovely expressive hand motions and facial gestures.  Buy this photo

Arina’s piece was very physical and covered a wide range of moves, poses, and expressions.  Here I captured her floor work by getting lying down on the floor of the stage myself so that I was shooting at the same level as her face.  Buy this photo

The final piece was presented by Maligrad Contemporary Dance Company, directed and choreographed by Molly Fletcher Lynch-Seaver.  This powerful performance spoke to me of violence and our complicity in standing by while it happens.  I wanted to capture this scene the way I felt it, which was like a gang rumble out of the movie “West Side Story,” so I shot straight into the action, allowing the brick walls and girders to frame the image, and converted to black-and-white during post-processing.  Buy this photo

This image was made near the end of Maligrad’s tech rehearsal.  When composing an image in which there’s a lot going on, I find it helps to think like a painter, specifically asking myself, “what elements do I want in the image vs. not in the image, and how do I want to arrange them?”  Buy this photo

During Arina’s live performance, I was only able to capture a handful of images due to the quiet sound score.  This was a favorite, as it reflects her expressive gestures in face, hands, and body.  Buy this photo

Because mia’s piece is so improvisational, it unfolded very differently in the live performance than in the tech rehearsal.  Knowing this in advance, and also knowing I could not move around during the performance like I could during the rehearsal, I just let myself be moved by her work, capturing the moments that spoke most strongly to me.  This image was made by shooting straight on but has a nice, soft visual appeal that matches her contemplative motion.  Buy this photo

This image, made during Maligrad’s live performance, is another example of the choices we photographers must make when framing a scene that includes multiple elements at different distances to the camera.  I chose to emphasize the dancer in the foreground by using a very narrow depth-of-field (low F-stop number), because I felt the story here was her pain at observing the warlike behavior of the background dancers.  Buy this photo

The final performance of the new works by these three artists-in-residence was Feb. 9, but if you live in the S.F. Bay Area you can follow their work and also look for other upcoming events at SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my images and that I was able to provide a sense of how to shape our images to match the emotional feelings evoked by a performance.

How do you transform your emotions into images?  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.

 

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

This weekend, 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.

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 feel 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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on Tourettes without Regrets: Adventures shooting a long-running underground performance event in Oakland

When I’m not traveling, I am fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there is never any shortage of amazing photographic subjects.  In a typical week I conduct about 3-4 shoots and I’m always on the lookout for new experiences that will enhance the diversity of my portfolio.  Recently I was invited to shoot the latest monthly show of Tourettes without Regrets, a long-running underground performance held in Oakland, California.  Attracting an extremely diverse and hip young audience, Tourettes presents a completely different variety show each month that can be described as equal parts comedy, poetry slam, circus, battle rap, and burlesque.  While the show is remarkably edgy and raucous (this is a PG-13 rated blog, so you’ll have to visit my main portfolio website to see many of the edgier images), in true Bay Area style it never puts anyone down and instead celebrates all of our differences.  A hot, smoke-filled, jam-packed warehouse, entirely dark save for a few bizarrely colored LED spotlights, is not an environment that is particularly photography-friendly, but I was able to make some nice images through perseverance and creative post-processing.  In this post, I share some of my favorite images along with a bit of discussion about how they were made.

Emcee and Tourettes without Regrets curator, Jamie, introduces the show.  The warehouse was so packed with young spectators that I had to shoot around them with a moderate, fast telephoto lens.  In post-processing, I cropped the image to remove unwanted elements and adjusted the shadow tones to darken the background.  Buy this photo

This month, the show’s theme was “F*** Valentine’s Day”, so each act consisted of a pair of performers.  These two ladies presented an aerial act that was mesmerizing but challenging to shoot due to the long distance to the subject, low light conditions, and strangely colored LED spotlights.  I cropped the image in post-processing and converted it to black-and-white to avoid the strange color cast.  Buy this photo

This skit depicts a woman breaking up with her boyfriend, who then tries to win her back with tears, money, and even a marriage proposal.  Nothing works, until he begins to treat her poorly, at which point she decides she wants him, after all.  The image captures an apt moment in the drama.  Buy this photo

A Crocodile Dundee-style knife thrower and his lovely assistant prepare to terrify a volunteer from the audience.  To capture this act I had to use a high ISO setting and fast lens due to the low lighting and the requirement for a fast shutter speed.  During post-processing, I converted to black-and-white, increased the contrast and adjusted the color channels to enhance the dramatic feel, applied noise reduction to reduce problems associated with the high ISO setting, and cropped to remove extraneous elements.  Buy this photo

A hip hop dancer amazes the crowd.  A fast shutter speed was essential to freeze the motion.  Obviously, to achieve a fast shutter speed, I needed to use a fast lens and high ISO setting.  Shoot lots of frames in situations like this one, because you can never be sure when the best exact instant will present itself.  Buy this photo

This scene from a battle rap, where two freestyle rappers trade insults, captures the essence of their interaction.  Note the shallow depth-of-field places the emphasis on the performer not rapping at the time, with only the outstretched left arm of the other rapper in focus.  I then converted to black-and-white to remove the color cast and cropped tightly using a square aspect ration to achieve an edgy Instagram-style image.  Buy this photo

What are some of your favorite subjects to shoot in your neck of the woods?  What events epitomize for you the area in which you live?  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.

Focus on Shotgun Players: Making exciting images from a cold reading of a script requires good timing

Documenting the creative process in the performing arts is one of my favorite photographic subjects.  Whether it be with dancers, actors, musicians, or any other artist, I love capturing the progression from beginning to final performance.

Tonight I was fortunate to be invited by a longtime favorite local theater company, Shotgun Players, to shoot their first cold reading of the script for their new production, “Nora.”  Based on Ibsen’s masterpiece, “A Doll’s House,” this production is much needed during these troubled times in the US.  Tonight’s reading was wonderfully executed.  Introduced by a presentation by the director, the actors and stage manager interpreted the entire script with lots of dramatic affect and emotion.  I can only imagine how superb the final production will be if the cast could develop this much excitement from a cold reading!  I’ve also been invited to shoot the dress rehearsal, so I’ll report back with more images in about six weeks.  The production of “Nora” runs from March 16 through April 16 in Berkeley, California.

The problem with photographing an unstaged script reading is that it is not inherently a compelling visual event.  As exciting as a good reading can be for the live audience, a group of actors in street clothes sitting at a table reading from sheets of paper, and with no props, set, or lighting, can be a flat subject for images.  To handle a situation like this, I suggest paying extremely close attention to the exact timing of your shutter releases so as to catch those telling moments where the actors are interacting vividly.  It’s also a good idea to mix it up a little, so that the portfolio of images contains several different vantage points, perspectives, and other compositional tools.  In today’s post, we’ll look at some of my images from tonight’s reading and discuss how they were made.

Selective focus can be quite effective in setting off one person or element from the others.  Here I used a very wide aperture (f/1.8) to emphasize the stage manager in front against the soft background of the actor and table behind her.  Note that while it’s always important to be very conscious of your backgrounds while shooting, in a visually stark situation like a script reading you should work extra hard to keep the background as simple and undistracting as possible.  Buy this photo

I try to include all the key people in any event I shoot.  It would be easy to capture only the actors reading the script, but I also made several images of the director (shown here), the stage manager, and the event organizer.  Buy this photo

Timing is everything when it comes to photographing a visually simple event like a play reading, classical music rehearsal, or lecture.  Try to wait for the moment of greatest emotional interaction.    Buy this photo

There’s no rule that says all your images have to conform to the aspect ratio of your camera’s sensor.  Here I cropped the image to a longer aspect ratio to include more of the actors and their interactions.  It has almost a “Last Supper” feel to it.  Buy this photo

Series work well to add excitement to your image gallery.  This image and the next one together depict the climactic moments of the play, when the husband first shouts at his wife and she screams back at him, finally having gained some power in the relationship.  Buy this photo

This final image is the second in the series described above.  I love the intensity of both actors’ postures and expressions.  If the cold reading can be this dramatic, I can hardly wait for the final run of the show!  Buy this photo

What techniques do you use when shooting subjects that have less visual impact than the usual ones?  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.