Meteoric Rise: How to shoot the Perseid, Geminid, and other meteor showers

The next two nights (Dec. 13-15) offer a treat to landscape and night photographers around the world.  This time period is the peak of the Geminid Meteor Shower, which, along with the Perseid Meteor Shower (peaking around August 12-14), affords the best opportunity of the year for seeing meteor activity.

While it’s still technically tricky to make great images of a meteor shower, today’s technology certainly makes it possible for those of us without astronomical budgets to do so.  I shot some nice images of last summer’s Perseid shower and would be out there shooting the Geminids the next two nights except that the cloud cover here in the San Francisco Bay Area is expected to be 95-100%.  Here’s a composite of several images I shot last August of the Perseids.

A composite image made up of one long exposure for the lake, mountain, and trees, plus several 25-second exposures capturing the individual meteors I observed over a 2-hour period.  Buy this photo

Most of the techniques you need for capturing a meteor shower are the same as for capturing the Milky Way.  Review my post from a few weeks ago for a refresher course: Post on Milky Way Photography.

The special challenge when shooting a meteor shower is that meteors can occur anywhere in the sky.  Even with a very wide-angle lens, such as a 14mm or 16mm lens on a full-frame camera, only a small portion of the sky can be covered.  As we are limited to a maximum exposure time of about 25-30 seconds with a 14mm or 16mm lens so as to avoid blurring the stars into star trails, it’s clear that we have to shoot a lot of consecutive images to be likely to capture several meteors throughout the night.  We then use software such as Photoshop to combine the images in which meteors are visible into a single composite image showing all of the meteor activity we captured during the night.

A good tutorial on shooting meteor showers, illustrated with amazing images by Glenn Randall, can be found here: Glenn Randall post on photographing meteor showers.

Have you photographed a meteor shower?  What techniques did you use?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

The Best Auto Mode You’ve Never Heard Of: What is manual mode with auto ISO, and when should you use it?

I’ve written often in “To Travel Hopefully” about the importance of learning to go beyond your camera’s full “Auto Mode,” in order to be able to control the exposure of your images.  Frequently I like to shoot in full “Manual Mode” so as to be able to choose both my shutter speed and my aperture for full creative control.  But in rapidly changing lighting conditions, it is a real challenge to stay in full manual mode, and it’s a big help to allow the camera’s exposure programs to choose the best overall exposure from image to image.  There are a few ways to do this.  In between the full auto mode and full manual control, there are two common semi-automatic exposure program modes that most photographers are aware of, namely Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes.  In today’s post I introduce another exposure mode that few photographers are aware of, but that can give the best of both worlds: automatic exposure setting while retaining full manual control over both aperture and shutter speed.  This exposure mode is called “Manual Mode with Auto ISO.”

It’s important to be able to control shutter speed because that’s the mechanism by which we can freeze action or allow it to blur for creative effect.  It’s equally important to retain control over aperture because this is the means by which we can increase depth-of-field to keep everything in focus or decrease depth-of-field to soften the background.  But there’s a third side to the exposure triangle beyond shutter speed and aperture.  This third parameter is our ISO setting.  Several years ago, most camera sensors weren’t very good at handling noise at very high ISO settings, so we took a risk of ending up with very noisy images if we used our camera’s Auto ISO setting.  Not so today.  Many modern sensors are quite adept at capturing nearly noiseless images at ISO settings up to at least 3200 and often to 6400 or even a lot higher.  So the stigma that “serious” photographers have historically attached to using the Auto ISO setting should really be laid to rest.

That happy development allows us to use a mode called “Manual Mode with Auto ISO,” in which we set the camera’s exposure program to “M” or full manual mode but also enable the camera’s Auto ISO setting.  By doing so we can preserve full control over both our shutter speed and our aperture, but also allow the camera to choose the best ISO setting to give a good overall exposure as lighting conditions change.  Making this mode even more appealing, most cameras let us select the highest ISO setting (say, 6400) that we’re willing to allow.  So if the lighting level gets sufficiently dim, the ISO won’t go so high as to introduce a lot of noise into the image; instead, we just select a slower shutter speed and/or a wider aperture.

A good example of when it makes sense to use Manual Mode with Auto ISO is when shooting a street fair or an outdoor sporting event.  In these situations the lighting can change quickly depending on the cloud cover, what direction we’re shooting, and the subject and type of image we’re making.  The following three images were all shot at this year’s Carnaval San Francisco, a big street festival and parade.  It was a sunny day, but much of the parade route was in open shade, and depending on the subject there were times when I wanted to use some fill flash.  To freeze the motion, I needed a fast shutter speed, and to isolate my main subject I usually wanted a wide aperture.  Using Manual Mode, I could choose both of these settings.  But because the light conditions were ever-changing, coupling the use of Auto ISO with Manual Mode allowed the camera to adapt the exposure to the light levels for each image.

Full direct sunlight on the main subject made for very bright lighting.  Buy this photo

Open shade with a touch of fill flash required slightly different settings.  Buy this photo

A close-up portrait made in cross-lighting needed yet another exposure level.  Buy this photo

The next time you’re shooting in a shifting lighting environment yet also want to preserve full control over both shutter speed and aperture, try Manual Mode with Auto ISO.  It’s not covered in most cameras’ instruction manuals, but it can be a big problem-solver in many situations.

Do you use Manual Mode with Auto ISO to control exposure?  Do you have other tips for how to adapt to changing lighting conditions without handing over the creative control to your camera?  Please share your experiences here.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Focus on New Orleans [Encore Publication]: This iconic US city pulsates with jazz, creole, and historic beauty

Some places are magnets that draw us back again and again.  I’ve made at least a dozen visits to New Orleans and each time, I find something new.  It’s an iconic US city that also defies easy categorization.  Home to unique and cutting-edge forms of music, cuisine, and culture, it is also steeped in a grand historic past that evokes France, Spain, Africa, and the Deep South of the US.  Quite simply, there is no other place like New Orleans, and nowhere else do travel photographers find more charismatic subjects.  Here are a few of my favorite images from a recent visit to NOLA, along with a few words about what they depict and how they were made.

Aside from Paris, I can’t think of any other city that has influenced the cocktail more than New Orleans.  Here I captured my older daughter enjoying a classic NOLA libation during dinner on our first night in the Big Easy.  I used only natural light and selected a large aperture to soften the background.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!  Buy this photo

It’s boozy, vomit-filled, sophomoric, touristy, overpriced, and downright awful, but Bourbon Street is a part of the landscape and is worth a quick walk-by.  At night, it’s neon assault can almost seem romantic.  This shot was handheld using a high ISO setting and a small aperture for greater depth of field.  Buy this photo

The lovely Spanish colonial architecture of the French Quarter cries out to be photographed.  I made this shot of a wrought iron balcony using a telephoto lens and enhanced the color vibrancy during post-processing.  Buy this photo

It’s the tiny cheap eateries as much as the temples of haute gastronomy that keep New Orleans at the top of the list of cities for dining.  Be sure to grab some po’ boys, beignets, or muffulettas at these humbler places, and bring your camera to catch some of the action.  This image of workers in a po’ boy shop was shot from the hip, street photography style, using a high ISO to allow for a quick shutter speed.  Buy this photo

New Orleans is rightly famous for its jazz, which seems to seep through every crack in the pavement of the city and can be heard in places humble or elevated.  None is better than the iconic Preservation Hall.  As with many performance venues, this hall allows photography without flash, but it is always better to ask permission first and to be discrete during shows.  Use a fast lens and high ISO setting to allow a fast shutter speed.  Buy this photo

A short trip outside of the city quickly reminds you that New Orleans is a part of the American Deep South.  This image was shot from an airboat plying the bayous of Jean Lafitte National Historic Preserve.  I metered the exposure on the lush vegetation lining the waterway so as to avoid overexposure from the bright reflections.  Buy this photo

I captured this image of an alligator seeking the sun on an overcast winter’s day by framing tightly around the gator and its reflection.  In post-processing, I cropped to emphasize the symmetry of reptile and reflection and converted the image to black-and-white, while increasing its contrast a bit.  Buy this photo

I’m a big fan of food photography, especially when the plate is as strikingly beautiful as this one served at Brigtsen’s Restaurant.  I framed the shot tightly with a fast prime lens and a wide aperture to reduce the depth of field.  Buy this photo

Wherever we travel, we should make images that bring out a sense of place.  This image of my daughters strolling in the Garden District works because it captures the iconic symbols of this neighborhood–the stately mansions and live oak trees–while being a bit playful and framed in an unexpected way.  And as I’ve said many times, remember to capture your travel companions in some of your shots.  Buy this photo

Have you visited New Orleans with a camera in hand?  Please share your experiences.  Where do you like to visit and what do you like to shoot?

Want to read more posts about travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts on Destinations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Travel Hopefully is Taking the Day Off: Please help support this site

Dear Reader,

To Travel Hopefully is taking the day off, but don’t worry, we’ll be back with fresh new content soon.

In the meantime, please take a look at the helpful travel photography tips and inspiring images in our archived posts.  Just select a category (Destinations, Gear, Techniques, Travel, etc.) from the right nav bar, or choose a month under Archives, and browse to your heart’s content.

While you’re here, take a moment to tell your friends and family about us.  Anyone who enjoys travel and wants to improve their photography will find great daily content here, including inspiring images from around the world and tips and tricks for making the best possible photos.  You can email any post or share it via social media with the click of one of the buttons at the end of each post.  And if you enjoy To Travel Hopefully, please click in the right nav bar to subscribe via email or RSS feed, so you won’t miss a single post.

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Bracketing: Hedging Your Bets [Encore Publication]: In challenging shooting conditions, exposure bracketing is a great insurance policy

In the old film days of photography, it would be days or even weeks after shooting before we could see the results.  I would routinely use a procedure called “bracketing” to make a series of shots, each at a slightly different exposure, to increase the odds that one would come out decently exposed.  Even today, when digital photography allows us to see the results immediately, there are two good reasons to employ the exposure bracketing technique: 1) it can be hard to assess on a small LCD screen in bright daylight and while in the excitement of shooting whether the exposure is really correct, and 2) when the contrast between the brighter and dimmer parts of the scene is high we may want to stitch several different exposures together using software to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image later.

Tricky subjects, like this tiny Svalbard reindeer against a glacier background, benefit greatly from exposure bracketing.  From a series of 5, 7, or even 9 images shot at slightly different exposures, you can choose the one with the correct exposure for the conditions.  Buy this photo

So there are still good reasons to use exposure bracketing, and fortunately, it is quite easy to employ this technique.  Here’s how.

If possible, mount your camera on a tripod when using bracketing so it won’t move between exposures.  Then you can combine several of the exposures into an HDR image later if desired.

If your camera has a bracketing button or menu item, use it to specify how many shots you want to take (I usually shoot 5 or 7 different exposures when bracketing) and how much you want to vary the exposure between each shot and the next (often I choose a 1-stop difference).  If your camera lacks this feature, you can still use bracketing by manually adjusting the exposure between each shot and the next; just use your camera’s exposure compensation control to dial in first -2 stops, then -1 stop, then 0, then +1 stop, and finally +2 stops.

I like to set my camera for continuous shooting while bracketing.  That way, I just hold down the remote shutter release and the camera shoots all 5 or 7 exposures in rapid succession.  But it’s fine to shoot each frame individually in single release mode, if you prefer.

There are some subtleties to think about when employing exposure bracketing.  Some cameras let you choose whether to vary the aperture, the shutter speed, or the ISO setting, while holding the other two settings constant.  In most cases, I prefer to vary the shutter speed and hold the aperture and ISO settings constant, because changing the aperture affects the images’s depth-of-field, and changing the ISO setting can affect the noise in the image.

Later, during post-processing, you review the images and choose the one that is properly exposed.  Or if the scene is very high contrast, you can use photo editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop to stitch several frames in your series together into an HDR image, which ensures good exposure from the brightest to the darkest tones in your photo.

Several exposures were shot using bracketing and then combined in Photoshop to create this HDR  image.  All tones from the darkest shadows on the mountain walls to the brightest highlights on the icebergs and lake are properly exposed in the final image.  Buy this photo

Have you used exposure bracketing techniques?  What are your best practices?  Do you use this process mostly for selecting the best exposure or for creating HDR images?  Please share your thoughts here.

Are you interested in learning new travel photography techniques?  Follow this link to see all the posts on techniques: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

Cards, Calendars, and Keepsakes: Oh, My!: Ways to share your images beyond social media and prints

With the holidays fast approaching, now is a great time to think about creative ways to share your favorite images as gifts for family and friends or perhaps to enhance your own home.  Most commonly we share images via social media and, for more special occasions, as prints.  Review this classic post for a list of 10 ideas for sharing your images: Post on Image-Sharing Ideas.   

In today’s post, I discuss three of these methods that are particularly festive and well-suited to the holiday season: cards, calendars, and keepsakes.

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A  likeness of one of the earliest holiday cards my wife and I created.  The original version was in black-and-white and had a humorous caption at the bottom.  This version was made more recently using a modern digital process.

Cards: For the entire 31 years we’ve been together, my wife and I have sent our families and friends custom-made holiday cards.  We created our first card in 1986, the year we started dating.  The process was extremely complicated back then.  We had to take the photograph using a film camera, send the film to a lab for processing, wait for the prints to be mailed back to us, select the image we wanted to use, cut the print down to the right size, tape it onto a printed template we had to design ourselves using a primitive word processor, and photocopy it onto card stock at a graphics store.  It was strictly a black-and-white affair because color copying was very expensive in that era.  Even for black-and-white cards, the cost was quite high.

Today, the process is vastly simpler and less expensive, and the quality very high.  There are countless companies that will take your photo files and caption information, blend them with a design you choose from their library of sometimes up to hundreds of choices, and create an attractive customized card for a range of occasions.  Shop around carefully before selecting one, because price, quality, and flexibility vary tremendously.  My current favorite is Snapfish.  Even though I no longer use Snapfish to host my image galleries, I continue to create and order photo cards from this site because it offers a good range of card designs, reasonably high printing quality, and affordable pricing.  There are often very deep discounts available at Snapfish and other photo sharing sites.  Try using a search engine to find discount or coupon codes.  I rarely pay more than 60% of the listed price.

When creating a card on any platform, there are a few basic steps to follow.  First, you choose the card design from a library of choices.  There may be only a few designs for some types of occasions, but for the winter holidays there are usually dozens to choose from.  Then you upload your images if they’re not already on the site, and select where you want them to go in the card template.  Next, you add captions to customize the card.  You may be able to include a return address on the envelopes shipped with the cards.  Be sure to review your card carefully before ordering.  The final step is to place your order by specifying the quantity (per-unit prices usually drop when ordering larger quantities), shipping address, and payment information.

Calendars: Photo calendars make great holiday gifts because they are personal, functional, and seasonal (the weeks before the start of the new year is typically when your loved ones will be looking for a calendar).  Every year I create a calendar with images that present the past year in review.  I send it to several family members and keep one for my own home and one for my office.  As with cards, calendars can be ordered from a wide variety of companies with differing levels of quality and cost, so shop around.

Creating a calendar is similar to making a card.  You choose a size and design, upload your images, and lay them out on the calendar template.  Some sites allow you to further customize your calendar by including special dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, and other events important to your family or friends.  The better companies let you include a photo to represent each special date during the year, and will save these dates for creating new calendars in future years.  The ordering process for calendars is similar to that for cards: review the calendar and then place the order.  Again, you may be able to find discount or coupon codes that will substantially lower your cost.

Keepsakes: These days, it seems that images can be reproduced on nearly any type of item you can imagine.  This variety translates into a high likelihood of finding something for everyone on your gift list.  I use SmugMug, the platform that powers my online professional photography business, for nearly all of the keepsakes I order as gifts, and my clients also have been happy with their purchases of these items.  There’s a wide array of keepsake items to choose from, each customized with your image(s), including coffee mugs, coasters, smartphone cases, playing cards, desk organizers, and stickers.

To make a keepsake, simply upload your photo(s) if they’re not already on the site, select the type of item you want to order, ensure the image is cropped and/or sized appropriately for the item, and go through the checkout procedure.

This holiday season, get creative.  Share your images on holiday cards, calendars, and a range of keepsakes.  It’s never been as easy or inexpensive to make these items as it is right now, so have fun and experiment.

What are your favorite ways to share you images during the holiday season?  Please add a comment with your ideas.

Want to read more posts about sharing your images?  Find them all here: Posts on Sharing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on Naatak Mela ’16: Five short plays in five different Indian languages

Last night I was privileged to be invited by Naatak, America’s preeminent Indian theater company, to shoot their annual festival of short plays, Mela ’16.  I’m a loyal follower of Naatak, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to photograph this exciting production.  Mela ’16 runs through today, December 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What performances excite you?  Have you attended, or photographed, events that informed you about diverse cultural experiences?  Please share your thoughts here.

Focus on CounterPulse Performing Diaspora: Performances that speak to cultural tradition and transformation

Last night I was privileged to be invited by CounterPulse to shoot their annual artist residency program, Performing Diaspora.  Located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, CounterPulse is an essential local arts organization that gives a voice to performing artists whose message would otherwise not be heard.  I’ve been a fan for a while, and this was my first opportunity to photography one of their performances.  Performing Diaspora 2016 runs through December 4.

The program is comprised of two pieces, each designed and choreographed by an artist-in-residence and each presenting a theme related to the links between cultural tradition and transformation, between keeping tradition alive and assimilating.  I found both pieces to be very powerful and moving.  In this post, I share a few images from the event along with a few words describing the main themes I gleaned from the evening.  And of course there are some tips about how to make good images under these challenging shooting conditions.

The first piece, “silbihan,” was conceived, directed, and danced by Filipino-American artist Samantha “SAMMAY” Penaflor Dizon.  Layering dance with voiceover, music, and projected video, this piece traces a journey from the traditional culture of the Philippines to life today in the USA.  The key message I took away is that our cultural underpinnings are within each of us, and when the time is right we will discover how they inform and inspire us.

Artist SAMMAY dances in front of a projected video depicting traditional life in the Philippines.  To make this image, I used a fast portrait lens and high ISO setting to allow a reasonably fast shutter speed in the low light conditions of the theater.  Care needs to be taken in these situations to render the color balance acceptably in the mixed lighting conditions.  Buy this photo

Later in her piece, SAMMAY, now resplendent in bright traditional dance attire with cape, resolves the tension from the earlier segments in a whirl of color and motion.  Here it was important to find a suitable shutter speed that would freeze most of her motion but still allow some of her gestures to be captured as a blur.  Buy this photo

The second and final piece in the program is entitled “unending.”  Choreographed, danced, and directed by dana e. fitchett, the work also incorporates three additional dancers and music in a wide range of styles.  I enjoyed this piece for its sheer physicality and also for the message of tension giving rise to hope that we all can support each other regardless of our backgrounds.

Director dana e. fitchett expresses her themes through patterns of movement.  The mixed LED lighting was especially challenging in this piece, so in post-processing of my RAW image files I paid careful attention to color balance in an attempt to render colors as naturally as I could.  Buy this photo

The patterns established by artist dana early in her piece progress into larger patterns with the addition of several more dancers.  Themes I took away include tension resolving into acceptance and support.  Here I capture a particular moment when the performers are moving from opposition to synchronicity.  Buy this photo

To me, CounterPulse holds a special place in the vibrant and varied San Francisco Bay Area arts scene because they encourage experimentation and interpretation of cultural diversity.  Performing Diaspora 2016 is a terrific program featuring talented artists who deserve to be seen and heard.  As a photographer, I feel privileged when my work can further valuable causes such as theirs.  If you live in the SF Bay Area, please try to attend one of the remaining shows.

What performances move you?  Have you attended, or photographed, events that inspired you to open your mind to new ways of thinking?  Please share your thoughts here.

 

I See a Little Silhouetta of a Man [Encore Publication]: Intentionally underexposing your subject can create dramatic images

A silhouette is an image rendered as a solid shape of a single color with its edges showing the outline of the subject.  In photography this is a rather easy effect to achieve.  Simply by underexposing the subject by several stops, all the shadow detail is lost and the subject will appear as an outline in black.  This technique can yield dramatic, powerful images if used properly and sparingly.

When the subject is already backlit, just expose for the background and then dial down the exposure by approximately two stops.  This image of a man fishing off the seawall at the Malecon in Havana, Cuba works effectively as a silhouette.  The subject was strongly backlit by the late afternoon sun reflecting off the ocean, so I exposed for the water and compensated by another two stops.  The resulting photo is more evocative of the mood of quiet contemplation than it would be had I exposed for the fisherman.

This shot of a man fishing off a sea in Havana is rendered more powerfully with the subject in silhouette.  Buy this photo

During a studio shoot with a yoga and fitness model, we decided to try something different.  We turned off the main light and the fill light that ordinarily illuminate the model, and instead turned up the intensity of the lights on the white backdrop.  The resulting images showed the model in full silhouette as she dances and performs yoga poses.

In the studio, turning off the primary lights and increasing the brightness of the back lights yields a true silhouette.  This image is striking because it reduces the model’s form to an outline, emphasizing her motion.  Buy this photo

The silhouette is a simple technique you can use to get creative in your photography.  Experiment away–memory cards are cheap!

When do use the silhouette as a photographic technique?  Please share your tips here.

Want to see more posts on techniques?  Find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

Portrait Photography Gear [Encore Publication]: Affordable kit for making great portraits

Whether in my home town or traveling around the world, I love to shoot portraits.  There is something magical about creating an image that captures the essence of a person.  It can be daunting for many photographers to describe what gear they think is required to make professional-quality portraits: we often visualize a fully equipped studio with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of high-end lights, modifiers, and backgrounds.  The reality is that we can make portraits of publication quality, shot on location and using kit that costs far less.  Here I outline a basic setup that is portable enough to pack on nearly any trip and costs only a few hundred dollars (not including your basic DSLR or mirrorless camera body).

Really all you need to get great people photos is a good portrait lens and a little know-how.  Make sure to set exposure and focus on your subject’s face.  I often use my camera’s Spot metering mode to get the correct exposure in tricky lighting conditions, such as when the subject is backlit.  In these conditions, it can also be helpful to fill in any harsh shadows on the subject’s face by using a touch of flash with a diffuser attached or a reflector.  That’s really all the gear you need: camera with portrait lens, flash unit, and a reflector kit.  Let’s look at the gear and basic techniques.

My indispensable portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens.  I shoot at least three-quarters of all my portraits, whether in the studio or on location, using this one piece of glass.  This is a classic portrait lens and provides a flattering perspective and great image quality when your subject is a person.  But this lens also shines for nature and action photography where you don’t need a really long focal length.  It renders really lovely “bokeh,” or the soft quality of the out-of-focus parts of the image.

This portrait of a grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco was made with natural light using an 85mm lens at a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus.  Because no flash or reflector was used, there are some shadows on the subject’s faces, but I like the shallow depth of field that really emphasizes the subjects, and this would have been difficult to achieve with the slower shutter speed required to synchronize with a flash.  Also, carrying a reflector through the hustle and bustle of a chaotic street fair can be impractical.  I’m very pleased with this image even with a few shadows.

This portrait was shot using natural light only.  Some shadows are visible on the faces, but the effect is not unpleasant, and the soft focus from shooting without a flash is very effective.  Buy this photo

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases it is good enough to provide some fill-in lighting for backlit subjects or even to serve as a main light in very dark situations.  But for more control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you likely want to have a separate flash unit.  I use the Nikon SB-910, which is powerful and flexible enough for most settings.  It has been discontinued and replaced by the Nikon SB-5000, but the older model is often still available.

Whatever flash you use, it is best to attach a diffuser of some sort to soften the otherwise very harsh light of the flash.  I also keep my camera set to lower the flash output by 1 stop, and I only override this setting occasionally.  Flash is often best when used sparingly.

This next image was shot at the same location as the previous one, but here I used an off-camera flash with diffuser to provide fill lighting on the subjects’ faces, thus reducing the shadows.  The only downside of using flash on location is that a slower shutter speed (typically about 1/160 of a second or slower) must be used, which in turn requires a smaller aperture (here it is f/8), and this can lead to more distraction from in-focus backgrounds.  I could have mitigated this problem by attaching a neutral density filter to block some of the light and allow a larger aperture.

This group portrait was made under similar conditions to the previous image, but here a fill flash was used to soften the shadows.  Buy this photo

An inexpensive accessory can provide the best of both worlds for on-location portraiture.  For less than $20 you can purchase a reflector kit with a variety of different colored reflectors and diffusers.  The reflectors are used to bounce some of the sun’s light back onto the face of the subject, thereby filling in any harsh shadows, while allowing you to shoot at any combination of aperture and shutter speed you choose in order to soften the background.  Each color of reflector imparts a different mood to the image.  An added bonus is that you can preview the precise effect the reflector has in your viewfinder or on your LCD screen.  Really the only downside of using a reflector in the field is that they are bulky to carry and often require an assistant to hold in place while you shoot.

This is the reflector kit I carry with me to most portrait shoots.  It’s high quality, very portable, and affordable.

This portrait was made by metering off the face of the model, choosing a wide aperture to blur the background, and bouncing some sunlight onto her face using the gold reflector from the kit mentioned above.

Using a reflector to bounce sunlight onto your subject’s face can reduce shadows while allowing you to retain full control over your aperture and shutter speed.  Buy this photo

There you have it: my formula for getting professional-looking portraits in the field with relatively inexpensive gear that’s easy to carry and use.

What is your favorite gear for portraiture?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Interested in other posts about photography gear?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/gear/.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Analog Efex Pro

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

Color Efex Pro

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

Silver Efex Pro

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

Viveza

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

HDR Efex Pro

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

Sharpener Pro

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

Dfine

Improve your images with noise reduction tailored to your camera.

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

Holiday Special: Please support To Travel Hopefully by purchasing some images at special holiday prices

Holiday Special Gallery

Dear Readers,

Since I launched To Travel Hopefully a few months ago, it has been my privilege to share my travel experiences, philosophy, and images from around the world.  Our goal is to travel with sensitivity and curiosity, learn to use our cameras as tools for closer cultural understanding, and share and advocate our travel experiences with greater power.  To continue this project into 2017 and beyond, your support is needed!  If you’ve enjoyed the images, stories, and technical advice presented in To Travel Hopefully, then please tell your friends about us.  You can also help today by considering purchasing some images from my portfolio.

As we enter the holiday season, I am offering a special promotion on my full portfolio of fine art photography.  Many of you have asked me over the last few months—as I began the career transition from the corporate world to the professional pursuit of my longtime passion for photography—how you can purchase my images.  From now until the end of the year, I am offering discounted pricing of up to 75% off my usual rates.  That means, to give a few examples, that you can purchase a 4×6” print for just $1.99, a coffee mug for $15.99, a set of four coasters for $31.99, a box of ten 5×7” folded holiday cards customized with your personal greetings for $34.99, a mahogany desk organizer for $39.99, custom-made cases for iPhones or Android phones starting at $39.99, or an 8×10” stretched canvas wall art piece for $75.99.  Many other items and sizes are also available, and this promotion applies to any image in my portfolio.  I will also donate 10% of profits to Heifer International, an excellent charitable organization that is fighting to end world hunger and poverty.                           

The printing is done by one of the top professional photo labs in the country.  I use this lab for my own account and for all work on behalf of my clients, so I can vouch for their quality.  They also offer a high-quality framing service for your convenience (these options are available at checkout), although I do not personally share in the revenue or profit for that.

While this promotion applies to all images on my website, you may want to start by checking out this gallery showcasing a few of my favorite images that I’ve hand-selected for holiday shopping: Holiday Special Gallery.

Please take a look at the gallery and let me know if you have any questions about the story behind any specific images.  I’m always delighted to discuss my photos and to suggest additional images you might like.  I hope you find some images that you feel would make great gifts for friends or a nice addition to your own home.  There’s something here for everyone and for all price ranges.  Thank you so much for supporting To Travel Hopefully!

With Warmest Regards,

Kyle

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Decent Exposure [Encore Publication]: Mastering exposure is key to getting great images

Of all the primary elements a photographer controls–composition, focus, the moment the shutter is released, and of course the choice of the subject–none is more critical to making a great image than setting a proper exposure.  Some corrections to a poorly exposed image can be made in post-processing, and there are occasionally good artistic reasons to override the norms of exposure in order to evoke a certain mood in an image by making it darker or brighter than usual, but before we can effectively make these exceptional choices it is necessary to learn the basics of setting an appropriate exposure.

Let’s begin by defining exposure and the elements that comprise it.  Simply put, exposure refers to the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor and therefore how light or dark the resulting image will appear.  Four components together determine the exposure: 1) the brightness of the light reflecting off the subject and reaching the front of the lens, 2) the aperture setting on the lens (how wide or narrow is the opening of the lens), 3) the shutter speed setting (how long is the camera’s shutter open to allow light to strike the sensor), and 4) the sensitivity setting of the camera’s sensor.  We don’t always have control over the first component, but the other three are within our control using our camera’s settings.

Many photographers simply set their camera on Auto mode and let the camera’s built-in meter make its best guess as to how the image should be exposed.  That method can work well under certain conditions, but it is highly prone to errors.  For example, if your main subject is strongly backlit, the camera’s meter will expose for the average brightness in the scene and will underexpose the subject.  This is why so often we see underexposed photos of people standing outside in bright sunlight.

Although I compensated for the strong backlighting in this image of a Tibetan family enjoying a midday picnic, their faces are still quite shadowy, indicating a bit brighter exposure would have been better still.  Buy this photo

Fortunately, there are several easy methods to achieve a correct exposure even under challenging lighting conditions.  Here are a few that I use frequently:

  1. Set the camera’s metering mode to Spot Metering: By default most cameras’ metering systems use a sophisticated pattern-matching algorithm that measures how bright or dark each area of the image is and makes its best guess about a workable exposure based on similar scenes in the camera’s database.  Most cameras allow you to select a simpler metering mode called Spot Metering, that just measures the light at the central point in the image or another point that you select.  If you choose Spot Metering and select the measuring point to be right where your main subject is, you should get just the right exposure.
  2. Dial in some exposure compensation: Most cameras let you override the meter’s exposure setting by dialing in a compensation setting to lighten or darken the image.  If your subject is backlit, you will likely want to increase the exposure by one to two stops (each “stop” of additional exposure represents a doubling of the amount of light reaching the sensor).  The camera’s display should show something like “+1 EV” to alert you that you’ve dialed in 1 extra stop of exposure, and the number changes as you change the compensation setting.  Just be sure to set the exposure compensation back to zero when you’re done using it.
  3. Go fully manual: To gain complete control over your camera’s exposure settings, choose the meter’s Manual mode.  Then you can change all three exposure elements (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) until the image appears properly exposed when you review it on your camera’s display.
  4. Use flash to increase the lighting on your main subject: One good way to achieve proper exposure with a backlit subject is to increase lighting on the subject itself, so that there is no longer such a difference in brightness between the subject and the background.  Your camera’s built-in flash may be strong enough to pull off this trick, but it often helps to have a more powerful flash unit with you.  There are some other reasons why you may not want to use flash as a main source of light on your subject, so this method should be used sparingly.  A reflector can be used instead of flash to reflect some of the sun’s light onto the front of your subject.

For this photo shoot with a musician friend, I shot into the light so she wouldn’t have to squint into the sun and also so that we’d have a beautiful rim light from the sun around her hair.  To pull this off, I used manual mode and selected the proper exposure for her face.  I employed a reflector to bounce some sunlight back onto her face and trumpet.  [Client image not for sale.]

Similar methods can be used for other challenging lighting conditions besides backlighting.  If the subject is a brighter or darker color than the “neutral gray” your camera’s meter uses for a standard, then you need to dial in more or less exposure as appropriate.  My black cat Dragonfly, for example, requires an especially dark exposure to override the meter from thinking he’s a gray cat and choosing too bright an exposure.  Similarly, a white polar bear will need additional exposure to stop the meter from underexposing what it assumes to be a gray bear.

When photographing a black subject, reduce the exposure to compensate for the light meter’s mistaken assumption that the subject is a neutral gray color.  Buy this photo

Whatever method you use to choose your exposure, be sure to take a look at the resulting image using your camera’s monitor.  Does the main subject appear to be properly exposed, or is it still too dark or perhaps too bright?  If your camera offers a histogram display, learn how it works and use it to check your exposure in tricky lighting conditions.  I’ll write a future post specifically about the histogram, as it is a very useful and often overlooked feature.

With some attention to the exposure of your images and use of some of the techniques described here, you can achieve a correctly exposed image nearly all of the time.  After mastering the essentials of exposure, you will have more keepers and fewer images in the virtual trash can, and you can even begin to break the rules for artistic effect.

Want to see more posts on photographic techniques?  You can find them all here: Posts on Techniques.

What lighting situations do you find the trickiest?  What techniques do you use to ensure properly exposed images?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

Focus on Tanzania [Encore Publication]: Every wildlife photographer’s dream destination

There are very few destinations more exciting to us travel photographers than East Africa.  My family’s 2.5-week trip to Tanzania, with a brief stroll into Kenya, was a dream come true.  Operated by Overseas Adventure Travel, the adventure began with a pre-trip excursion to the Kilimanjaro region, then moved on to the regional capital city of Arusha and to safaris in Tarangire National Park, Olduvai Gorge, Serengeti National Park, and Ngorongoro Crater.  It goes without saying that the wildlife photography in Tanzania is second-to-none, but we found the authentic cultural interactions with the nomadic Maasai and other local people to be a highlight of the trip.

The usually shy Mount Kilimanjaro made a brief appearance as we awaited sunset near our lodge.  The glaciers that adorn this iconic landform are melting quickly as a result of climate change, so this is a place to visit soon.  I used a polarizing filter on a medium telephoto lens to reduce the haze and bring out the texture of the mountain, and I framed the shot through some branches near our campfire.

Mount Kilimanjaro lit by alpenglow.  Buy this photo

On a game drive in the Kilimanjaro region, we encountered this lovely lilac-breasted roller.  To capture this image, I used a long telephoto lens (500mm, which was equivalent to 750mm when fitted on this camera) and stabilized it on a beanbag that I rested on the top of the safari vehicle.  This is a very important accessory to bring with you on a safari, as you cannot fit a tripod in a safari vehicle and a monopod is awkward.  While the beanbag that I use is no longer available, this one is well reviewed by photographers and represents a good value.


Lilac breasted roller captured with a 500mm lens in the Kilimanjaro region.  Buy this photo

The cultural learning and interaction was a big part of this trip.  Here my older daughter is greeted by a young Maasai woman as we arrived at their settlement.  The Maasai are nomadic herders, usually moving from place to place to pasture their cattle throughout the seasons of the year.  It was a fascinating opportunity to meet them and learn about their way of life, and to make portraits with the Maasai people we met.

A warm welcome as we arrived at the first of two Maasai villages visited during our trip.  Buy this photo

I had a fun interaction with this young Maasai boy by showing him the images as I shot his portrait in various places around the village.  He had not seen many photos of himself.  Here he is posing in front of his family’s house.

A Maasai boy by his family’s shelter.  Buy this photo

Our visit to the bustling city of Arusha was intended to be a staging point for the game viewing excursions to follow, but we found Arusha to be a very interesting cultural crossroads.  Here is a shot of what passes for a towing service in the area, a broken-down van being pulled to a service station on top of a donkey cart.  Always be on the lookout for serendipitous moments like this one when you travel!

A street scene in Arusha, the region’s largest city.  Buy this photo

Along the road from Arusha to Tarangire National Park, we stopped to chat with a group of several young Maasai men.  They had recently undergone the ritual circumcision ceremony that marked an important milestone on their journey to become warriors.  For the next six months they would wear the special face paint while they underwent their final training.  Our local guide was very helpful in facilitating our conversation.  Through him, I asked this man’s permission to make a portrait.  This was shot with a moderate telephoto lens and a wide aperture to soften the background.

A young man nears the end of his journey to becoming a Maasai warrior.  Buy this photo

Tarangire National Park is a gem of a nature preserve that is often overlooked by visitors to Tanzania.  Be sure to visit Tarangire if at all possible!  Here’s a shot of a baby baboon in a group of baboons we were observing there.  When shooting backlit wildlife, use your camera’s spot metering mode with the focus point on the animal, so your camera won’t underexpose the main subject.

A playful baby baboon in Tarangire National Park.  Buy this photo

We stopped for a visit to a second Maasai settlement, very different from our first Maasai encounter.  This second group of Maasai were only semi-nomadic and lived much of the year in a more permanent settlement.  While their way of life was a bit less precarious, and included public education and solid housing, they still lacked a source of safe drinking water, a common problem in East Africa.  We presented the chief with a water filter we had purchased in Arusha, for use by the whole village.  This group portrait was made of the villagers when they accepted our gift of the water filter.

Maasai villagers with their new water filter.  Buy this photo

Serengeti National Park is the stuff we travel photographers’ dreams are made of!  Along with game walks and game drives in open safari vehicles, we also had the chance to soar silently above the Endless Plains in a hot air balloon.  This is an amazing way to view the migrations of the herds and the predators and scavengers that tag along.  This image was made by shooting down from the basket of our balloon toward a balloon closer to the ground.  You can see the trees and herds of wildebeest on the plains below.

Safari by hot air balloon.  Buy this photo

Of the hundreds of animal species we encountered, including so much more than just the Big Five, the leopard was one of the most elusive.  Here we spotted (as it were) a leopard napping in a tree in Seregenti National Park.  This shot was made with a long telephoto lens resting on a beanbag in our safari vehicle.  My go-to lens for wildlife photography is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

A sleepy leopard yawns in a tree above the Endless Plains of Serengeti National Park.  Buy this photo

The migration of the herds is an annual event across the combined national parks of Serengeti in Tanzania and Maasai Mara in Kenya.  It’s a spectacular sight as millions of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles slowly migrate across plains and rivers, occasionally being eaten by the predators who follow them.  To give a sense of the scale and the action, in this image I zoomed in on a group of wildebeest with a telephoto lens so as to compress the scene.

A small vignette from the massive migration of the herds across the East African plain.  Buy this photo

We were very fortunate to come across this quiet scene of a lioness with her newborn cubs.  We watched from a distance so as not to disturb this family as she cleaned and played with her two cubs, them mewing like housecats all the while.  The light was low in this glen, and the long telephoto lens was slow, so I stabilized it on a beanbag and shot at a higher ISO setting to allow for a reasonably fast shutter speed.  There was some noise in the image as a result of the high ISO (camera sensors weren’t as good at high sensitivities back in 2012), but I did my best to reduce the noise during post-processing.

A mother lion spends some quality time with her cubs.  Buy this photo

We visited a primary school in a small community.  This was one of the first schools in Tanzania to serve breakfast and lunch to students who walk miles each way to school and would have to double their daily walking distance if they had to return home midday for lunch.  My daughter enjoyed talking with students about their daily lessons.

Visiting a classroom at a rural primary school.  Buy this photo

Farewell to Tanzania!  My family enjoys a glorious African sunrise at our tented camp located right inside the national park.

A Serengeti sunrise.  Buy this photo

Want to see posts on other travel photography destinations?  See them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/destinations/.

Have you visited East Africa?  What were the highlights of your trip?  Please share your comments here.

To Travel Hopefully is Taking the Day Off: Happy Thanksgiving to our readers in the US

Dear Reader,

To Travel Hopefully is taking the day off, but don’t worry, we’ll be back with fresh new content soon.  To our readers in the US, here’s wishing you a very happy Thanksgiving holiday weekend with your family and friends!

In the meantime, please take a look at the helpful travel photography tips and inspiring images in our archived posts.  Just select a category (Destinations, Gear, Techniques, Travel, etc.) from the right nav bar, or choose a month under Archives, and browse to your heart’s content.

While you’re here, take a moment to tell your friends and family about us.  Anyone who enjoys travel and wants to improve their photography will find great daily content here, including inspiring images from around the world and tips and tricks for making the best possible photos.  You can email any post or share it via social media with the click of one of the buttons at the end of each post.  And if you enjoy To Travel Hopefully, please click in the right nav bar to subscribe via email or RSS feed, so you won’t miss a single post.

And finally, please consider supporting this site by purchasing some of my photos, browsing for some great gear via the Amazon links, or clicking on some of the ads that interest you.

Thank you for visiting To Travel Hopefully!  Without your support, this project cannot continue providing you with daily content including inspiring travel photos and tips and tricks for making great images.

Warm regards,

Kyle Adler

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on Cuba [Encore Publication]: Go to Cuba now before it becomes ordinary

Cuba is a remarkable destination for travel photographers!  This small island has all the iconic images we expect–beautiful but crumbling art deco buildings, American cars from the late 1950s, unspoiled Caribbean beaches–but there are so many more opportunities to connect with and photograph a culture and a nation that is undergoing very rapid change.

Lovers embrace on Havana’s Malecon at sunset.  Buy this photo

European and Latin American travelers already know about Cuba’s charms and have been coming here for decades.  But to many Americans, Cuba has felt off-limits, a destination forbidden by our government.  I’m going to steer clear of the political issues in this post, but suffice it to say that the Obama administration’s recent relaxing of Cuba travel restrictions now makes this unique island nation a travel destination within the reach of most Americans.  I do not recommend trying to circumvent the licensing requirements.  This can lead to lots of trouble for the unlicensed American traveler later down the road: hefty fines, lots of questions to be answered, and restrictions on one’s future travel possibilities.  Instead, go with one of the many travel companies who operate People-to-People Cultural Exchanges.  These are legal trips licensed by the US government for the purposes of the people from the US and Cuba getting to know each other.  These trips do require that most of the traveler’s time be spent interacting with Cuban people of all walks of life, but isn’t that what we travel photographers seek, anyway?

We spent a delightful 1.5 weeks on one of these cultural exchange programs run by Grand Circle Foundation.  They offer a variety of different Cuban itineraries, and we would have preferred one of the longer ones, but schedule limitations required us to take the shorter trip.  This itinerary brought us to the capital Havana and to the rural Viñales Valley, the center of tobacco production and ecotourism on the island.  Here are some highlights from this travel photographer’s perspective.


Our small group was invited to attend a rehearsal by Opera de la Calle.  Held in a decrepit art deco building in downtown Havana, the spirited performance combined song, dance, and performance art.  Buy this photo


Getting to know some of the locals while visiting the exuberant art installation by Jose Fuster known as Fusterlandia.  Buy this photo

We left Havana’s vibrant urban vibe for a three-day excursion to the rural Viñales Valley.  Exploring this famed tobacco-producing region from our base at an eco-tourism village within a sustainable agricultural collective, we enjoyed hiking through terrain unlike any we’d seen elsewhere, taking in views of local wildlife and flowers along the way.

The picturesque Viñales Valley is noted for its mogotes, dramatic hilly outcroppings.  Buy this photo

 

Tobacco farmer Benito enjoying the fruit of his labor.  Buy this photo

Cuba’s national bird, the brightly colored Tocororo.  Buy this photo

The warm and engaging proprietor of Maria’s Cafe surveys her domain.  Buy this photo

During a Viñales Valley elementary school visit, we met the staff and great  kids in the classrooms!  Three classes for different ages shared one old church building.  Buy this photo

We got to know a friendly and enterprising rural family during a home-hosted dinner.  This is their typical family transportation.  Buy this photo

Back in Havana, we strolled through the city’s Old Town.  Buy this photo

A special performance of Santeria singing and dance.  Santeria combines Roman Catholicism with African religions to form a uniquely Cuban hybrid.  Buy this photo

This selection of photos barely scratches the surface of all the wonderful, unique photographic opportunities awaiting you in Cuba now.  Go soon, though, because for better or for worse, this nation is transitioning quickly into a very different future.

As I write this post, the first commercial flight from the US to Cuba in over 50 years has just taken off from Florida: NY Times on US flights to Cuba.  For many Cubans, the dawn of this new era will mean a partial easing of a great deal of economic hardship suffered under the US embargo.  I’m eager to visit again in a few years to meet more Cuban people and observe how their lives have changed in the interim.  But if you prefer to visit–and photograph–tiny colorful sidewalk cafes rather than Starbucks, authentic cultural interactions rather than slickly produced touristic shows, and wide open vistas rather than lavish resort developments, then now is the time to book your trip to Cuba!

Have you been to Cuba?  What surprised you there?  What were some of your favorite photographic subjects?  If you haven’t been yet, what images do you associate with this island nation?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Top Tips for Great Travel Images [Encore Publication]: These five simple “hacks” will result in more professional images

Festivals and street fairs can be challenging to shoot due to backgrounds cluttered with people, buildings, and cars.  To make this portrait of grandmother and granddaughter at Carnaval San Francisco, I got down low so that most of the background was covered by the cloth of the costume, and I used a wide aperture to throw the hectic street scene into soft focus.  Buy this photo

The web is positively overflowing with “life hacks,” simple tips and tricks to save us all time and effort and to achieve better results.  Some lists are better than others, but it is in the spirit of these lists that I bring you this compilation of five simple travel photography hacks.  These techniques are not difficult and do not require expensive gear.  They work equally well for your photography whether traveling or at home.  And I promise that if you follow them, your images will improve.  The pros do these things almost automatically; to them, it’s hygiene, like tooth brushing.  If you read no other post about photography, read this one.

  1. Avoid cluttered backgrounds: So often the travel images of a professional stand out from those of amateurs simply because they took careful notice of what was in the background while composing the shot.  Try to frame your subject against a clean backdrop such as a dark-colored wall or the sky.  If there’s no way to avoid including some clutter in the background, at least use a wide aperture (low F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus.
  2. Watch your horizon: Frequently, we’re so intent on composing the main subject within our viewfinder that we forget to check whether the camera is level before firing the shutter.  An uneven horizon can give the impression of vertigo, like the subject is going to fall out of the frame.  Some cameras have a virtual horizon function to show you whether the horizontal and vertical axes are level, but whether you use it or not, be sure to check visually that the edge of the image looks correct.
  3. Achieve sharp focus: The one characteristic of an image that even the most inexperienced viewer can identify immediately, and one that’s almost impossible to fix in post-processing, is poor focus.  Today’s cameras are so easy to use that we often overlook this most basic element.  The camera can’t know for sure what subject you intend to have in focus; it can only make its best guess.  So take the extra fraction of a second while composing your image to move the camera’s focus point onto the main subject.  Or use a small aperture (high F-stop number) to provide a wide depth of field so that essentially everything is in focus.
  4. Choose the correct exposure: Another very basic element of any photograph, exposure can only be correctly chosen by the photographer, not by the camera.  Your camera’s Auto mode can be fooled very easily by many tricky situations, most commonly by backlighting of the subject.  It’s fine to use the camera’s guess as a starting point, but nearly every camera (including smartphone cameras) have a way to manually override this guess, so learn how to do this and add in about a stop or so of extra exposure if your subject is backlit, more if the backlighting is severe.
  5. Turn off the darned flash: Nearly every camera has a mode where it fires the flash automatically if it determines the extra light is needed.  This is rarely a good thing.  Far better to turn off the auto flash setting and make your own decision about when to use the flash.  Otherwise, your low-light images could end up with an eerie, unnatural color cast or your far-away subject could be underexposed (a flash typically lights an object only a few feet away from the camera, so why fire the flash when you’re photographing an object hundreds of yards or even miles away?).  Worse, if you are shooting through glass or another reflective surface, your flash reflects off the surface, ruining your whole image.  Worse still, your flash may blind everyone else near you in a very dim setting, damage sensitive artwork, or scare or anger nearby wildlife.  I’ve seen countless visitors ejected from museums, zoos and aquariums, and other wonderful destinations because they hadn’t figured out how to override their camera’s auto flash setting.  Just turn off the darned flash, and use it manually when appropriate.

Learn these simple techniques and follow them whenever you shoot, and you’ll start making images that stand out from the crowd.  Remember, you, and not the technology inside your camera, are the creative force behind your images.

While this image of a yurt in the remote mountainous region between China and Tajikistan succeeds in spite of (or perhaps because of) the off-kilter horizon, it serves as a good reminder to check the horizons at the edge of our photos.  Buy this photo

What are your favorite tips and tricks to ensure you make the best images possible?  Please share here!

Focus on Amsterdam, Bruges, and Copenhagen [Encore Publication]: Canal cities of Northern Europe

On a recent independent driving trip through Northern Europe, my wife and I covered a lot of kilometers in our new Volvo, from the factory in Sweden through Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium.  In this post, I hone in on the ABC’s of European canal cities: Amsterdam, Bruges, and Copenhagen, three of the most photogenic places you’re ever likely to visit.  I share some highlights in the order we visited these cities, beginning with Copenhagen, Denmark; then on to Bruges, Belgium; and ending up in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Familiar sights, such as Christiansborg Palace, seat of the Danish Parliament, can transform by night.  To make this image, I set up a tripod on a bridge crossing the canal and framed the shot to capture the building along with its reflection.  Buy this photo

Our hotel in Copenhagen was right on the harbor, or Nyhaven.  This was the view from our window.  Buy this photo

When photographing iconic subjects, like Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue, try to avoid the postcard image clichés.  Here, I framed the statue from an unusual perspective and used a very wide aperture to throw the less attractive background into soft focus.  While the subject is still recognizable, to my eye it’s more contemplative and serene than in conventional photos. Buy this photo

Bruges is a gloriously beautiful city, and at its most lovely by night.  This image was shot from a bridge over a small canal, with the camera on a tripod and a fairly wide focal length to capture the reflection in the water.  I converted the image to black-and-white using Lightroom in post-processing.  Buy this photo

Instead of just shooting up at the famous Belfort tower in Markt square, turn the tables and shoot down on the square from the top of the tower.  I love the colorful façades of the old houses on the square in this tight crop looking down.  Buy this photo

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Don’t forget to capture some shots of yourself wherever you travel.  It’s easy to get lost in the splendor of a city like Bruges, and to return home with hundreds or thousands of images of lovely medieval buildings, but you want to have a few that include your traveling companions.  Ask another competent photographer to compose the shot for you (after setting up your camera exactly the way you want), or set up the camera on a tripod and shoot with a remote release or self-timer.  Buy this photo

Amsterdam is another canal city filled with gorgeous subjects for photography.  And like Bruges and Copenhagen, Amsterdam is at its most lovely by night.  I captured this impressionistic night scene of Amsterdam’s Westerkerk (West Church) reflected in the waters of the Prinsengracht Canal.  Buy this photo

Museum art makes a great photographic subject.  Just be sure to understand the museum’s policy on photography and never use flash.  I love Jan Steen’s painting, “The Merry Family”, because it reminds me of dinnertime in my household.  In Holland, unruly families are still referred to as “Steen families.”  I consider it a compliment.  Buy this photo

Amsterdam’s most visited sight remains the so-called “Red Light District,” which actually features some of the city’s most beautiful old canal houses.  The working women in this area do not take kindly to being photographed through the windows, so don’t try this unless you want your camera to end up at the bottom of the canal.  Instead, set up a tripod on a bridge and shoot the bustling crowds as they wander the stately old neighborhood.  Buy this photo

These three atmospheric old cities, with their beautiful canals, lovely architecture, and iconic sights, offer remarkable photographic opportunities.  Visit, get lost along the ancient waterways, and keep on shooting!

Have you visited Amsterdam, Bruges, Copenhagen, or any of Europe’s other great canal cities such as Venice?  What were your favorite experiences and images from the trip?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.

Want to read about more travel photography destinations?  Find all of the destination posts here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/destinations/.

“To Travel Hopefully” News Flash!: I am honored to be named a finalist in Travel Photographer of the Year competition

Dear Readers,

I am thrilled to have been named a finalist for the prestigious Travel Photographer of the Year award. TPOTY is considered by many in the industry to be the premier international travel photography competition.  Tens of thousands of entrants from 123 countries have been culled in two rounds of judging down to a shortlist of several dozen photographers.  I am the only American finalist in the Wildlife and Nature category.  Feeling very honored and humbled by this happy validation of my recent career change.  Please send your positive thoughts as we enter the third and final round of judging.  I’ll keep you posted.  If you’d like to learn more about TPOTY, here’s a link to their site: Travel Photographer of the Year.

Thank you for your incredible support thus far.  Please invite your friends and family members who are also passionate about travel and/or photography to join us.  Here’s to the many further travel photography adventures we will share together!

Cheers,

Kyle Adler