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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As an official photographer once again for this year’s SF Movement Arts Festival, last Friday I had the privilege and pleasure of capturing images of most of the more than 300 talented and diverse performers who participated in this year’s amazing event. If you live in the SF Bay Area and missed it, this year there will also be a summer version, presented in July.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

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/.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As an official photographer once again for this year’s SF Movement Arts Festival, last Friday I had the privilege and pleasure of capturing images of most of the more than 300 talented and diverse performers who participated in this year’s amazing event. If you live in the SF Bay Area and missed it, this year there will also be a summer version, presented in July.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on the Embera People [Encore Publication]: Capturing enchanting images of an ancient traditional way of life

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

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

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

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

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

Showing us how the midday meal is prepared. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Embera family pose for a portrait. 

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As an official photographer once again for this year’s SF Movement Arts Festival, last Friday I had the privilege and pleasure of capturing images of most of the more than 300 talented and diverse performers who participated in this year’s amazing event. If you live in the SF Bay Area and missed it, this year there will also be a summer version, presented in July.

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

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

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

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

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

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