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Kyle Adler

 

The Things We Carry [Encore Publication]: Basic Gear for Travel Photography, Part II

Kyle Adler photographer travel photography

Let’s pick up the gear discussion where we left off on the recent post.  Last time, we covered cameras and lenses.  Now we’ll talk about flashes, tripods, accessories, bags, and other essential kit.

Flash Units

Your camera most likely has a built-in flash, and in many cases that can be 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 flexible control over how much light you want, the quality of that light, and where that light comes from and goes to, you will 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.

Tripods

For most travel situations, you’ll want a lightweight tripod that folds up to a nice portable size but still offers enough stability for most uses.  There are times, though, when I need to bring along my heavy and bulky professional tripod.  Whatever tripod you choose, be sure to fit it with a good quality head (ball heads provide a lot of flexibility and ease of use for travelers) and remember to take along the plate that attaches the tripod to your camera, if required.

My go-to lightweight travel tripod is the Manfrotto Be Free.  It folds up to an incredibly small size yet affords a surprising amount of stability.  The included ball head works well but is difficult to adjust for sensitivity.  This tripod is designed to fit into a special pouch in my favorite travel photography backpack, also made by Manfrotto.

The SLIK 615-315 is a great tripod for use close to home or on trips where you will have constant vehicle support.  It’s very solid, supports a tremendous amount of weight, and can be adjusted for nearly any shooting situation.  I recommend you fit it with a good ball head for maximum flexibility.

A monopod can be a real problem solver when you need more stability than handholding or resting your camera on a vehicle or table will afford, but you can’t carry or use a full tripod.  I use the Manfrotto 681B model.

Accessories

We photographers love our toys!  While it is easy to get carried away and purchase every cool accessory that comes along, I will try to limit the recommendations here to a handful of truly essential items.  And don’t forget the little things like lens cleaning cloths, a blower brush for dust, and of course extra batteries and chargers for your camera and flash.

Three kinds of filters are essential gear for most photographers.  I’ll cover each type below.  Note that you must use a filter that is the correct size to attach to your lens.

It’s a good idea to keep a UV filter attached to your lenses at all times, as this helps protect the front element of the lens from scratches.  Use a good quality filter, though, as the poorer ones can affect image quality.  I would recommend removing the UV filter when shooting with certain other combinations of filters, as the edges of the image can be cut off (vignetting) with too thick a stack of filters on the end of the lens.  I’ve had good luck with Hoya UV filters.

The second must-have type of filter is the circular polarizer.  A polarizing filter can reduce glaring reflections and can darken skies and enhance natural colors.  This little gadget is almost a secret weapon for making images that really pop.  Again, I like the Hoya products, which are thin, well made, and perform as they should.

The final essential filter is the neutral density filter.  These reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor, so you can use slower shutter speeds to blur motion, or so you can use a wider aperture to get a shallow depth-of-field, even in bright sunlight.

Another essential is a good remote release for your camera.  I know plenty of photographers who still use the good old trusty wired (or cable) releases.  I like to be able to move away from the camera when shooting remotely, so I favor a wireless release such as the RFN-4s Wireless Remote Shutter Release.

Smartphones

Most of us would never consider leaving home without our phone, and there are additional good reasons to carry yours with you when you are photographing at home or around the globe.  First, the cameras in today’s better phones are now good enough to make quite good images.  I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the main camera, and even the selfie camera, on my Apple iPhone 6S.  But your phone is also an essential photography tool because there are some very good apps to help you plan, shoot, and share your images.  There are too many to list here, but I’ll plan a future post to share some of my favorites.

Bags

Aside from cameras and lenses, no other category of gear gets photographers arguing quite so heatedly as bags.  For a travel photographer, your bag must be highly protective and durable yet lightweight, fit your gear well but with the flexibility to change out kit as needed, and preferably not advertise that you have expensive camera equipment inside.  The choice of what bag to use is a very personal one, but I’m still going to recommend my three favorites.

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 will almost always be accepted as carryon on flights, 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.

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.

For carrying just a few pieces of gear around town or close to home or hotel, a shoulder bag can work well.  This is the best setup for quickly accessing your gear while shooting, but it can be tiring to carry the weight across one side of your body if you have a lot of trekking to do.

Software

For post-processing my images, I use both Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop Elements.  I can do 90% of my processing using just Lightroom, but occasionally I do need the added power of Photoshop.  While I still use the perpetual license software versions, by now most photographers have gone over to the monthly licensing structure that Adobe calls the Creative Cloud.

What gear can’t you live without?  Have you discovered any little gadgets that improve your images or make life easier for photographers?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box.  I’d love to get your ideas!

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

 

The Things We Carry [Encore Publication]: Basic Gear for Travel Photography, Part I

In today’s post, we’ll cover cameras and lenses.  I’ll post again soon with Part II, which will discuss flash units, tripods, accessories, bags, and other essential gear.

One of the biggest challenges we face as travel photographers is what gear to carry with us.  On the one hand, we have to be ready for anything.  It’s quite possible we will have to shoot landscapes, wildlife, portraits, architecture, indoor performances, and night scenes, often all on the same day.  On the other hand, there’s a practical limit to how much we can carry without being turned away by airline personnel or damaging our bodies.  And who really wants to travel with 75 pounds of photo kit?

Here is my basic setup for travel.  Note that my gear is suitable for a professional or enthusiast photographer on a not-unlimited budget (my wife keeps me from getting carried away).  There are less expensive alternatives for most of the gear I carry, and those on unlimited budgets can spend much, much more than this.  I will adjust what I bring depending on the specifics of the trip.  For a safari in East Africa, that 500mm lens is essential, but I wouldn’t want to lug it on a hiking trip in Ireland.  On a trip to view a total solar eclipse, I’ll need that rock solid but very heavy professional tripod, but on most trips my lightweight travel tripod is good enough, thank you.  But the following list of items comprises the core of my basic travel gear.

Cameras

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to your choice of camera.  These days, even a simple point-and-shoot camera or a smartphone camera is capable of making very good images.  But if you’re willing to carry a bit more weight and to learn how to use it before you take it on your first trip, a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera or a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera will give you much more flexibility.  I use a DSLR, but more and more of my photographer friends are switching over to mirrorless cameras.  It’s really a matter of personal choice, and if you’re not planning to carry a lot of specialized (and heavy) lenses with you, the smaller size and lighter weight of a mirrorless camera may make up for the loss of certain features.  For very photo-intensive trips where it would be impossible to replace a lost or broken camera, such as an African safari, I will pack two DSLR camera bodies, but often I take a chance and bring just one.  Whatever camera you take on your trip, make sure you know how to use all its features and have tested it thoroughly before you leave, and if you’ve been using it for a while, have it cleaned in advance of your departure.  Note that while I am a Nikon shooter, comparable gear is available from Canon for DSLR afficianadoes.  In the high-end mirrorless arena, Sony’s Alpha a7R II is favored by many professionals and enthusiasts.

My go-to camera is the Nikon D810.  This is a professional model and not for beginners, but it really does do it all.  The resolution is extraordinary, it performs superbly in very low-light situations, the autofocus is fast and flexible, it’s continuous burst shooting speed is good enough, and I love the feel of the camera in my hands and the control it offers over all settings quickly.  I’ve put this baby through hell and high water, but it always comes through for me.

Lenses

For beginning users of interchangeable lens cameras, or for seasoned photographers who need to travel light, a small and lightweight “walkaround lens” may be all that you need to bring for a day’s shooting.  Mine is the Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 lens.  It’s a good value for a well-built if not quite professional grade lens, and while not particularly fast, it does offer vibration reduction which allows you to shoot at slower shutter speeds while controlling for camera shake.  I recommend this lens for users of cameras with full-frame sensors who want a small, light, and fairly durable lens for those situations when you want to be ready for most anything.

It’s a good idea to have a wide-angle zoom lens for landscapes, architecture, and other situations where you need to include a lot of area in the frame or want a more uncluttered or exaggerated perspective.  I use the Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens for this purpose.  It’s got great image quality and is well built, but it is rather heavy and bulky.

A telephoto zoom lens is a must-have for most travel photographers, as it allows you to shoot many wildlife subjects as well as emphasize details in all subjects you encounter.  A longer lens also can be used to provide a compressed perspective that makes far-away subjects appear to be closer to foreground subjects; this perspective can be very powerful in landscape images.  My primary tele zoom is the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens.  While this lens is built on aging technology and doesn’t always feel as solid as more professional lenses, it is relatively small and lightweight, fairly inexpensive, and provides a very effective vibration reduction function.  This lens has been a staple in my bag for many years, during which time I’ve used it to capture some of my favorite images.

 

You may never need a super-telephoto lens.  They tend to be expensive, bulky, and heavy, and on many trips you won’t need it.  But for those trips when you expect to encounter lots of wildlife or want to capture astronomical events like an eclipse or transit of a planet, a very long lens is essential.  Mine 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.

So far, we’ve talked about zoom lenses.  It’s also a good idea to carry a few prime (fixed focal length) lenses.  These tend to be faster, higher quality, and less expensive than zoom lenses in the same category.  The downside, of course, is that you have to “zoom with your feet,” that is, find a vantage point that works to compose your image without benefit of changing the lens’ focal length.

If you pack only one prime lens, it most likely will be a “normal” lens, that is one with a focal length of about 50mm for a full-frame camera or about 35mm for a crop-sensor camera.  I carry the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens.  This is the one I use in very low-light situations or to get a really shallow depth-of-field.

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

A wide angle prime lens can be useful for landscapes, architecture and interiors, and astrophotography, among other purposes.  I like the Nikon 24mm f/1.8.

 

Stay tuned for Part II of our gear discussion, to be posted soon on this same Bat Channel.

What’s your go-to camera and which are your indispensable lenses?  Add your thoughts to the comment box at the end of this post!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you transform your emotions into images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

Focus on Svalbard [Encore Publication]: Breathtaking beauty at the top of the world

My wife and I area avid eclipse chasers.  One of the joys of seeking out total solar eclipses is their geographic dispersion: each total eclipse can be viewed only from a narrow band of land or sea whose swatch could cut across any corner of the globe.  This means the dedicated eclipse junkie could, and eventually will, end up traveling to nearly any given remote spot on the planet.  In March, 2015, we had the opportunity to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse in Longyearbyen, the only population center in Svalbard, the vast island in the Norwegian Arctic.  This wonderful trip was conducted by A Classic Tour Collection (http://aclassictour.com/travel-company/), specialists in eclipse tours. Home to more polar bears than humans, Svalbard is a place of remarkable pristine beauty located closer to the North Pole than it is to mainland Norway.

In a previous post I provided a primer on eclipse photography.  You can review that post here: Post on Eclipse Photography.  And don’t forget you can join my wife and me for our photography tour including the total solar eclipse and the Pacific Northwest in August-September 2017: Eclipse and Pacific Northwest Photography Tour.

Today’s post focuses on Svalbard’s photographic treasures.  The village of Longyearbyen itself is very distinctive.  The world’s northernmost permanent settlement, it was built to enable the mining industry in the region.  The landscape and architecture are very unusual and starkly beautiful.

This row of miner’s cottages, each painted a vibrant color, makes a nice subject.  I overexposed the foreground and background snow to emphasize the richly saturated colors of the houses.  Buy this photo

Any Arctic location affords the possibility of seeing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).  The conditions must align properly: dark sky, clear weather, and it helps to be near a peak in the solar cycle.  While I’ve seen more impressive displays in the past, the aurora we observed in Svalbard was still impressive.

To capture the Northern Lights, use a fast wide-angle lens and a sturdy tripod.  As a starting point for exposure, try an ISO setting of about 800 and shutter speeds from about 4-15 seconds.  Experiment to see what works best.  Buy this photo

The stark icy landscapes surrounding Longyearbyen are otherworldly.  I photographed this glacier-covered mountain near sunset, and we enjoyed the excitement of climbing it the next day.

To make this image of an icy butte on the outskirts of the village, I used a tripod and exposed using spot metering for the rocky parts of the mountain.  Buy this photo

When shooting in very cold climates like Svalbard in March, it’s important to keep both your gear and yourself safe and functional.  Check out this post on shooting in extreme conditions: Post on Extreme Conditions.

One of the trip highlights was a polar bear safari by snowmobile.  Zipping along pristine ice fields at speeds up to 75 km/hour while the Arctic sun slowly set was thrilling.  Our turnaround point was an old campsite on the shore of the Barents Sea.  It truly felt like the edge of the world.  Due to an incident earlier in the day, in which a group of campers was attacked by a polar bear and forced to shoot it, we did not encounter any of the skittish bears that night.  We did, however, see the doomed animal’s footprints in the fresh snow.

My wife hikes alongside the tracks of a polar bear shot to death earlier the same day.  This dramatic image was made in near total darkness, so I was forced to use flash as the main lighting source.  In these situations, I dial down the power of the flash by at least one stop and try to position it for maximum dramatic impact.  Buy this photo

One of my favorite images from the trip, this was made on the shore of the Barents Sea at sunset.  Landscapes like this one need to be composed especially carefully to best showcase elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background.  I chose a vantage point low to the ground to emphasize the ice floes.  While I also experimented with using a bit of fill flash, I preferred this image with natural light only.  Buy this photo

On eclipse day, there is a palpable air of excitement.  Here is a shot of astronomer and leading eclipse expert Jay Pasachoff preparing for the eclipse along with one of his students.

Even during an exciting event like a total solar eclipse, it’s important to remember to document the people and activities in your group.  Buy this photo

The diamond ring effect signals the start of the period of totality.  Buy this photo

After the eclipse viewing, we enjoyed a dogsled ride back to Longyearbyen village.  I wanted to capture the feeling of exhilaration as the dogs pulled us rapidly along the snow fields into a wide-open horizon.  To capture that emotion, I shot from the perspective of the rider, handheld, using a fast shutter speed and a fairly wide focal length.  Buy this photo

Wildlife is a favorite genre of photography in nearly any region.  During our ascent of a glacier-covered mountain, we were fortunate to observe several Svalbard reindeer, the world’s smallest subspecies.  I used a telephoto lens and exposed for the animal’s fur, as using an auto mode would have underexposed the main subject due to the bright snowy background.  Buy this photo

Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost settlement, so it stands to reason it would contain the world’s northernmost church.  Care must be taken when photographing architecture using a wide-angle lens not to distort the perspective.  Buy this photo

Your intrepid author photographing the total solar eclipse.  Buy this photo

Parting shot: After returning from Svalbard, I created this montage of several images each depicting a different phase of the eclipse.  Buy this photo

I hope this article inspires you to want to visit Svalbard.  While extra effort is required to visit the world’s most remote and extreme destinations, the returns are enormous in terms of the beauty and unique photographic experiences.

Have you visited Svalbard or other Arctic destinations?  What was most memorable?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To JPEG or Not to JPEG: For many RAW shooters there is no need to use RAW+JPG

Regular readers of To Travel Hopefully already know that I always shoot in RAW mode, and most likely you do, too.  I’ve written repeatedly about the major advantages of RAW vs. JPEG format.  For a refresher, here’s a good summary post on the topic: Post on RAW Mode.  I concluded this previous post with a recommendation to shoot in RAW+JPEG mode, where the camera writes out the image data in both its native RAW format and in the familiar but problematic JPEG mode.  Here’s the relevant paragraph from that older post:

I recommend shooting in RAW+JPEG all the time, unless you know you will need the slightly faster shooting speed or extra storage space of JPEG alone.  Doing so will give you the best of both worlds: a quick and easy JPEG to share right out of the camera, and the much more detailed data in the RAW file from which to bring out the nuances in color, texture, and exposure later during post-processing.  If you use JPEG alone, you’ll be throwing away image information you may wish you had later.

But right now, I’m in the middle of making a major transition in my workflow.  I’ve stopped shooting in RAW+JPEG mode and am now storing my images only as RAW files.  Moreover, I’m cleaning up my PC’s hard drive by revisiting many of my directories from shoots over the past few years and deleting all of the original JPEG files (obviously, I am keeping the JPEGs that I exported from Lightroom after post-processing the original RAW files).

Why would I do such a thing, you may ask?  There are several major reasons:

  • I don’t end up using the JPEG files: Shooting in RAW+JPEG had become a crutch for me.  I had been using this mode because I was afraid of not having JPEG versions of all my images, in case I decided post-processing the RAW files was too much work or if I wanted to share certain images right out of the camera.  But I’ve been realizing that I never share JPEGs right after shooting.  They just don’t look good enough for most professional work, so I need to post-process the good ones before delivering them to anyone.  You may have clients who need to see some rough JPEGs immediately after the shoot.  I know some wedding photographers who promise this immediate preview to their clients.  But I don’t have this requirement, so the JPEGs were just sitting on my hard drive, unused, forever.  And it’s so easy to export quick-and-dirty JPEG files from Lightroom shortly after the shoot.
  • Duplicate JPEG files slow down shooting: The RAW+JPEG mode tells the camera to write out two different formats for every image you shoot.  This slows down your shooting by bogging down the camera’s processor, and it also fills up the camera’s buffer more quickly, requiring a disruptively long wait to resume shooting.  It also fills up memory cards more quickly.  While JPEG sizes vary from image to image due to compression algorithms, I find they average about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of my camera’s RAW files.  That’s a lot of extra space on the memory card, so I have to stop shooting to change cards more often.
  • Duplicate JPEG files take up a lot of disk space: Even though my main laptop PC has a 1.5 TB hard disk drive, I find it is always filling up, which considerably slows down workflow and requires bothersome housekeeping to clean up.  Storing unneeded JPEG versions of my many tens of thousands of images wastes a lot of disk space.
  • Those JPEGs slow down workflow: Even though Lightroom has a useful option to import only the RAW version into your catalog, and it keeps track of the duplicate JPEG version of the same image, having both files on your hard drive still slows down post-processing and image maintenance tasks.

I know that some photographers really do need to have JPEG files of their images.  They may be delivering images right out of the camera via a wireless connection to a cloud server that supports only JPEG format.  They may not get to post-processing for some time after the shoot and want to remember what the image looked like with the camera’s settings applied (although here one should note that Lightroom and other RAW viewers will access your camera’s settings via the thumbnail image embedded within your image’s RAW file).  They may really love their camera’s black-and-white conversion tool or other in-camera editing tools, which work only with the JPEG format.  There are quite a few situations in which you may truly require a JPEG version of your images.  But I haven’t encountered these situations in my own recent work and don’t expect to in the foreseeable future.

So, that’s the backstory on why I’m moving from shooting RAW+JPEG to RAW only.  I’m even taking the drastic step of going back to recent shoot directories on my PC and deleting the original JPEG versions of the images.  I’ll report back in a few weeks to provide an update on how this works out for me.  In the meantime, if you’re shooting in RAW+JPEG mode, you may also want to think about whether doing so genuinely helps your workflow or simply is wasting your resources.

Do you shoot RAW+JPEG, RAW only, or some different format?  Why?  Please share your experiences here.

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

 

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.

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.

My holiday special promotion ended on Dec. 31, but I have lowered most of my regular prices considerably.  Fine art prints and novelty items are available in a wide variety of sizes and price ranges for nearly every image in my portfolio.  Please take a look at Featured Photos to see a sampling of my images available for purchase.

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

 

Focus on Turkey [Encore Publication]: Spectacular photographic opportunities abound in this troubled nation

In the fall of 2015, my wife and I traveled throughout Turkey on a 2.5-week journey that included adventures in Istanbul, Cappadocia, the Turquoise Coast, and Ephesus.  We traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) in the company of a local Turkish trip leader, and we had a wonderful, safe experience.  In today’s post I share our experiences and some of my favorite images from this spectacular but troubled nation.

First, a few words about safety.   Even when we traveled in September and October of 2015, there were concerns about the safety of travel in Turkey.  We did not visit the far southeastern regions of Turkey due to the ongoing violence between various factions from ISIS, Kurdish separatist groups, and the Turkish government.  There was a bombing with many casualties in Ankara while we were visiting a different part of Turkey.  Since our trip, the situation has deteriorated as a result of an escalating crisis in and around the border with Syria, terrorist actions throughout the country, and the broad government crackdown in the wake of the attempted coup earlier this year.  OAT, the company we traveled with, has since suspended all of their trips to Turkey.  Tourism in Turkey is being devastated by the concerns of safety on the ground.

So why would anyone want to go to Turkey?  The cultural, historic, and natural appeals of this destination are undeniable.  It is a travel photographer’s paradise.  And safety is a relative term.  I’ve traveled in over 100 countries and many of them were considered “unsafe” when I visited, but my only two close encounters with real terrorism were in supposedly “safe” cities: a bombing in Tokyo and a mass shooting in Los Angeles.  I felt safer in Turkey late last year than I do in many other parts of the world.  That said, the situation on the ground has deteriorated since I visited, tours to Turkey are becoming hard to find, and only you can decide on your tolerance for risk.  So perhaps wait for more order to return to Turkey before traveling there to make your own images, but in any case you can enjoy my images from this fascinating and gloriously beautiful part of the world.

Our adventure began in Istanbul, an ancient city situated at the border between Europe and Asia.  Its place as a crossroads of history from Roman times through the Byzantine Era, the Ottoman Empire, and the modern Turkish republic is apparent as you stroll its winding streets and ply its crowded waterways.  The are opportunities to make great images everywhere in the city.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, the foremost Byzantine church, is nearly 1500 years old.  When shooting grand architectural sites from up-close, it’s a challenge to try to avoid distortion due to perspective and the necessity of using a wide-angle lens.  Here I kept the horizon level with the ground to avoid excessive distortion.  Buy this photo

The best baklava in Istanbul?  Perhaps.  I certainly didn’t taste any better baklava in the city, and believe me, I tried a lot of baklava.  To make this portrait, I asked our trip leader to introduce me to the baker, who was happy to pose with his wares.  This was shot with natural light and just a touch of fill flash.  Buy this photo

View of the Galata Tower from across the Bosphorous.  Buy this photo

After Istanbul, we traveled to the central region of Cappadocia, famous for its “fairy chimneys,” natural spires formed by the erosion of soft tufa rock.  This region is a veritable dream for travel photographers!

Upon arriving in Cappadocia, we were thrilled to learn our hotel room was inside an ancient cave dwelling.  (Not to worry, it had been recently remodeled.)  When shooting interiors, it’s usually best to use a fast wide-angle lens and to compose the image carefully so as to gain the viewing perspective you want.  Buy this photo

The Goreme Open Air Museum comprises dozens of ancient Byzantine churches carved out of the tufa rock.  Remember to capture some images that include yourself and your travel companions.  Refer to this post for more practical tips about making great self-portraits while traveling: Post on Self Portraits.  To make this image, I set up the camera on a lightweight travel tripod, composed it by having my wife stand in front of the “fairy chimney” church, then joined her in the frame and triggered the camera using a remote release.  Buy this photo

The soft tufa stone formations look almost like sand dunes in the late afternoon glow.  I shot in RAW mode (as always!) and underexposed slightly to allow for a higher-contrast image during post-processing.  Careful cropping also helps a striking landscape really pop.  Buy this photo

We awoke at 5:30 AM to the sight out our cave-hotel’s window of hundreds of hot air balloons launching about the fairy chimneys.  I jumped out of bed, barely remembering to throw some clothes on, before running out the our balcony to set up a tripod and capture this amazing scene.  I exposed for the rock formations and allowed the balloons to be partially silhouetted.  Buy this photo

We visited a school in the region, always a favorite activity during our travels.  While I also made quite a few images in the classrooms with the kids and teachers, I like the unusual perspective in this image.  It was shot from outside the school building as the kids came to the windows to wave goodbye.  Buy this photo

We took a very memorable hot air balloon ride at dawn over Cappadocia’s otherworldly landscape.  I made this image looking down from our gondola at three other balloons in various stages of preparing to launch.  The amphitheaters of soft tufa rock can be seen in the middle-ground and the rising sun in the far background.  Buy this photo

At a rug-weaving cooperative, this woman enjoys a cup of Turkish coffee during her break.  I was drawn by her colorful clothes and enigmatic smile.  I asked our trip leader to introduce us and inquire if it was okay for me to make a portrait.  Shooting quickly with natural light only, no time to set up a tripod, and a too-slow lens mounted on the camera, I had to boost the ISO setting quite high.  Fortunately, I was able to reduce much of the noise in the image during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Hiking up to the top of Uchisar Castle, the highest elevation in Cappadocia.  Buy this photo

We had the chance to watch a whirling dervish ceremony.  The Samazens, followers of Mevlana Rumi, are a mystical Sufi order who practice the ritual we witnessed.  To capture the sense of motion, I used a slower shutter speed to blur the participants.  Buy this photo

The Mevlana Museum houses the monastery and tomb of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, the mystic who founded the “Whirling Dervish” sect.  This image captures the incredible workmanship on the interior of the monastery, especially around Rumi’s tomb.  Flashes and tripods are not allowed inside the tomb, so I had to use a fast lens and high ISO setting to handhold the camera.  Buy this photo

We departed Cappadocia and drove to Antalya, the gateway to the southern Mediterranean region known as the Turquoise Coast.  Antalya boasts an ancient Roman harbor and a fascinating archaeological museum.

We happened upon an interesting scene when several archaeologists and their students attempted to match a recently excavated statuary head to a body already in the museum.  Always be on the lookout for serendipitous scenes, which often make the most memorable images from a trip.  Buy this photo

These Lycian house-tombs were carved into the cliffs centuries before the Romans arrived at Myra.  Buy this photo

We boarded our gulet, a traditional Turkish wooden sailing yacht, for a four-day cruise along the Turquoise Coast.  Each day offered a wonderful photographic tapestry of great images, as we sailed, hiked, swam, and dined.

Kayakoy is a ghost town, a Greek village abandoned when the Turks expelled Greeks after their war for independence in the early 20th century.  Turks living in Greece were also expelled the same year.  Buy this photo

My wife Mary spotted this rare wildcat, which looked to us a bit like our local Californian bobcat, along one of our daily hikes.  I changed lenses very quickly while slowly approaching the cat, then captured this portrait using a medium telephoto just moments before he slipped into the brush.  Buy this photo

A riverboat took us from our gulet yacht to the ancient Lycian site of Caunos.  This image of a beautiful kingfisher along the side of the river was captured using a long telephoto lens and a fast shutter speed to allow for handholding the camera on a rocking boat.  Buy this photo

On our last full day in Turkey, we finally got to visit the splendid ruins of Ephesus, a major Roman city in the region.

The ruins at Ephesus include the incomparable Library of Celsus, pictured here in a self-portrait of my wife and me.  To achieve the broad depth-of-field required to ensure both the people and the buildings were in sharp focus, I used a small aperture (large F-stop number).  Major archaeological sites are often packed with other visitors, so try to find vantage points that allow the crowds to appear small in comparison to your main subjects.  Buy this photo

Throughout Turkey, the food was vibrant, simple, and delicious.  Our final day’s lunch, in a beautiful village in the mountains, consisted of course after course of delightful meze (appetizers).  Buy this photo

Turkey is a remarkable destination for travel photography.  Let us hope its current troubles will soon be a thing of the past and that safe and affordable travel will again be available there.

Have you visited Turkey?  What were your most memorable experiences there?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What techniques do you use when shooting subjects that have less visual impact than the usual ones?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

Join Me on a Photography Tour Next Summer!: From the Great American Total Solar Eclipse through the most scenic locations of the Pacific Northwest, this is a trip not to be missed

Dear Readers:

There are still a few spaces available on the Eclipse and Pacific Northwest photography tour this coming summer.  Please let me know if you are interested in learning more about it.

Kyle Adler

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If there’s a more thrilling experience anywhere on our planet than observing a total solar eclipse, I’ve not yet found it.  And the next one will be cutting a path across the USA on August 21.  I am partnering with a prominent solar eclipse tour company to lead a photography tour that begins in Salem, Oregon with this awe-inspiring event and continues through Oregon and Washington states to photograph some of the Pacific Northwest’s most scenic locations.  From Aug. 19-22 we will be part of a larger group of eclipse chasers, accompanied by leading eclipse expert Prof. Jay Pasachoff, preparing for, observing, and photographing this remarkable natural display in Salem.  Our small group of about 15 will then embark on a travel and photographic journey that will take us to the Santiam Wilderness, Bend, Newberry Volcano National Park, John Day Fossil Beds, Wallowa Mountains, Mt. Hood, Portland, Olympic National Park, and Seattle, among other memorable destinations.

Almost nothing can rival the stunning beauty and sheer excitement of observing and photographing a total solar eclipse.

I will be providing photography instruction for interested participants via daily workshops and in-the-field learning.  During our optional low-key workshops, we’ll review our recent images, plan our shot list for the upcoming locations, and cover techniques to make the best images possible.  While the drama of the eclipse and the breathtaking landscapes of the US Pacific Northwest will be obvious magnets for our photographic pursuits, we will also seek opportunities to make memorable images of the people we meet and of the wildlife and other attractions of the region.  Photographers of any level from advanced beginner through semi-professional will see their images improve, and non-photographer friends and family are welcome to either attend the daily workshops (even a smartphone camera can make great images) or enjoy a few minutes of extra time on their own.   You can enjoy this trip and make memorable images using whatever camera gear you wish to bring; it is not necessary to invest in specialized gear (although for the eclipse itself, a DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera equipped with an inexpensive solar filter will be helpful).

This tour begins in Salem, OR on Aug. 19 and ends in Seattle, WA on Sep. 2.  Find more details here: Eclipse and Pacific Northwest Photography Tour.  Please let me know if you have questions or are interested in participating on the trip.  Mary and I hope that you can join us for this rare opportunity to experience a total solar eclipse right here in North America and to visit the spectacular attractions of Oregon and Washington states!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wearing many hats!  Buy this photo

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

Summer dance.  Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

 

Camera as a Service? [Encore Publication]: A first look at Relonch’s artificial intelligence photography service

In the 150 or so years of its history, the camera has evolved rapidly as a result of the advent of new technologies, each promising to dramatically simplify the photographic process and improve the resulting images.  Just within my lifetime, there have been major upheavals via the introductions of the Kodak Instamatic, the Polaroid SX-70, and of course digital photography.  So perhaps it was inevitable that someone would develop an AI (artificial intelligence) to make photography as simple as pushing a single button.

A company called Relonch (https://relonch.com/) is developing such a system now.  Sometime in 2018, they expect to roll out a Camera as a Service for $99 per month.  You get a loaner of a brightly colored Relonch 291 camera (manufactured by Samsung), with a fixed focal length lens and only a single button, which is used to take the picture.  It doesn’t even have an LCD screen to review your images.  The purported value of the subscription price, of course, is not derived from the camera hardware, but rather from the service.  For this lofty price, your camera transmits your image files to Relonch, who then use algorithms to analyze and process the files.  The next day, they send the processed images that they consider to be your best photos back to your mobile device of choice.

Relonch 291
The Relonch 291 camera

The concept here is that most people are confused by all the settings on their camera, even if it’s a fairly simple point-and-shoot device, so their photos rarely come out the way they envisioned them.  Instead, let them use a simple camera with just a single button, but employ AI techniques to post-process the best images to make them look closer to the way the user intended.

I haven’t tried the camera and its wraparound service yet (the company’s headquarters and showroom are in Palo Alto, near to where I live, so perhaps I can do so soon), but based only on their description of the concept I share my thoughts here.

  1. Will users pay $1200 per year for this service?  I’m skeptical as to whether there is a broad market for the service at this price point.  “Serious” photographers, that is professional and enthusiast amateurs, already know how to use the manual controls on our cameras and enjoy the process of capturing images and enhancing them during post-processing to achieve the final results we want.  Are there enough users who don’t know how to use their cameras but are still willing to pay so much for better images?  Time will tell.
  2. Are people willing to leave the choice of which images they receive up to a software algorithm?  I wouldn’t want someone else, even a top professional photographer, deciding which of my images I get to see and permanently deleting the rest.  And I certainly wouldn’t want an AI to make this decision for me.
  3. Are users okay with waiting a day to see and share their images?  We’ve gotten pretty spoiled as a consumer class.  We expect instant gratification, and ever since the first Polaroid cameras came out in the 1940s, photographers have been able to see their images right away.  Waiting a day may not fly.
  4. Do people really want their photography to be mechanized?  For its whole history, photography has seen its reputation tarnished when compared to other visual art media because a part of this art form includes the use of a mechanical device, the camera.  Just as a great painter creates her art through her vision and her technique, so does a great photographer.  The gear we use is only incidental to the quality of the images we create.  I fear that by taking the craft out of the process and substituting an AI for the artist’s vision, the Relonch service will further degrade photography as an art form.  And let’s be honest here.  An AI can adjust color balance, sharpness, clarity, vibrance, and exposure to improve a raw image, but it can’t determine how to crop or selectively adjust parts of the image to make it artistically pleasing or to give it a story to tell.  And most important of all, no amount of post-processing can turn a poorly composed or an uninteresting image into one worth looking at.  An AI may soon be able to drive our cars from Point A to Point B, be we’re a long way from having an algorithm that can create true visual fine art.  I’ll leave you with the words of master landscape photographer Ansel Adams: “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

What do you think of the Camera as a Service concept?  Valuable evolution of photography that will bring its benefits to a wider range of humanity, or expensive gimmick that will degrade the artistic worth of the medium of photography?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on CounterPulse Performing Diaspora [Encore Publication]: Performances that speak to cultural tradition and transformation

Recently 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 photograph one of their performances.

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 CounterPulse’s upcoming 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.

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

 

Cool, Calm, and Composed: All the technology in the world can’t replace your vision when composing images

Photographic composition is the process of determining which elements to include in the image and how to combine them in an artistically pleasing way.

What makes a great photograph?  You’ll hear many different answers to this question from different people, but to me a great photograph needs to integrate at least three of these four elements: compelling subject, beautiful light, flawless technical execution, and thoughtful composition.  Assuming we can find a great subject and either find or manufacture lovely lighting, the technology in modern cameras can assist us in certain technical matters such as exposure and focus.  But even the best of today’s AI technology can’t replace the artist’s vision when it comes to photographic composition.  For more of my musings on the application of AI to photography, see yesterday’s post: Post on AI and Photography.

Today’s post presents a quick primer on some of the guidelines that can help us compose our images.  But keep in mind that there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to composition.  The photographer must choose which “rules” to use when composing, and when to break some rules.

      • Rule of Thirds: One of the first compositional tools most beginning photographers learn is the so-called Rule of Thirds, which states that strong composition is achieved by placing key elements along the imaginary lines that divide the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally; better yet, try to place the most important parts of the subject at the intersection of a pair of these lines.  This portrait I made of two sisters in Arusha, Tanzania, places each sister’s dominant eye at an intersection point of two of the imaginary dividing lines.

Tanzania Buy this photo

          • Leading Lines: Another tool to aid in composing strong images is using the natural lines in the image to draw the viewer’s eye into the frame.  This landscape made while hiking part of the Sheep’s Head Way in southwestern Ireland incorporates the leading lines of the ancient stone wall, the rainbow, and the coastline to draw the eye down to the sea, over the rainbow, and across the coast.

 Buy this photo

          • Framing Elements: Using natural frames within the image to set off the main subject can be a useful technique.  Look for doors and windows in a population center, or for natural arches, trees, and other landforms in a natural setting.  This night landscape made in Yosemite National Park frames the Milky Way within a ring of trees and granite walls.

 Buy this photo

          • Point-of-View: Think about how the different elements in the image will appear in the perspective of your location.  I could have shot this portrait of a man with his duck at a street fair in San Francisco straight on with them both looking into the lens.  Instead, I chose a viewpoint that was very close to the duck’s head, shooting up from its perspective and relegating the human to the background and edge of the frame, nearly out of focus.  This changes the nature of the portrait to a more humorous and offbeat tone, which matched the occasion of the How Weird Street Faire.

USA Buy this photo

          • Background: Always be at least as aware of your background as your foreground subject matter.  Careful choice of background to support your image’s overall theme is one of the surest ways to elevate your image.  In many cases it is desirable to have a clean, uncluttered background, but for this image of the San Francisco Pride Parade, I wanted the background to support the theme of solidarity and strength in numbers.  While the main subject in the front is the only element in crisp focus, the layers of marchers with flags behind him supports the concept he is not alone.

 Buy this photo

        • Patterns: Composing an image around a recurring pattern can add considerable dramatic impact.  I framed this image of miners’ cottages in Svalbard, Norway by isolating the repeating pattern of houses, each in a different vivid color, against the stark white of the snow and bleak sky.

 Buy this photo

  • Symmetry: Images with symmetry along one or more dimensions are often striking and artistically pleasing.  The subject can have natural symmetry, such as in a face, or can be framed with its reflection to create symmetry.  I framed this image of a resting alligator with its reflection in the Louisiana bayou waters to create a dramatic symmetry.

 Buy this photo

Keep these guidelines in mind as you choose how to compose your images, but remember that which one(s) you apply will depend on the image, that its okay to break the rules, and that ultimately you are the artist and what you envision, not what the rules state, is correct for you.

What guidelines help you compose your best images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Will Photography Soon Be Obsolete?: Musings on AI as artist

A friend recently pondered via a social media post whether we will have photography as we know it in the future, or if artificial intelligence (AI) will soon generate all of our images.  With tens of millions of people now capturing snapshots on their phones’ cameras and instantly applying AI-generated filters to enhance or modify the images, we can certainly observe an increasing trend toward computer involvement in the making of photos.  But I don’t believe AI will replace the artist’s eye in the making of fine-art photographs for quite some time to come.  Here are a few semi-random musings on this theme.

A machine can certainly generate bad art.  In college in the mid-1980s, I wrote a program for my Computer Science final exam that composed musical canons (pieces in which each voice plays the same melody together, but starting at different times).  My code used a semi-random configuration of musical intervals as the opening melody, then applied a simplified set of the rules of counterpoint (how musical lines are allowed to fit together) to complete the canon.  I received an “A” for this project, but truth to tell, any listener familiar with classical music could instantly discern that the pieces composed by my program weren’t anything like the lovely canons written by Telemann, for example.  In other words, my AI didn’t pass the Turing Test.

In the more than 30 years since I wrote that program, AI has progressed by leaps and bounds.  Computers can now generate poetry, classical and jazz music, and even paintings that many non-experts judge as products of human artistic creativity.  I’m fascinated by the progress, but so far the best of the AI-generated “art” is really just imitation and trickery: it takes a seed of something original such as a photograph or a melody, and transforms it using a set of complex rules that could be described as a pre-programmed artistic style into something pleasant enough but not inspiring.

In his landmark 1979 book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” Douglas Hofstadter amazed the world by demonstrating comparable interlocking themes of grace and elegance amount the very different disciplines of mathematics, visual art, and music.  He even speculated on the ability of machines to create works of great insight.  But Hofstadter’s proposed approach differed from that of the AI field that has developed since then in that he favored teaching machines to create via an understanding of how the human mind creates, as opposed to today’s AI approach of taking mountains of data and throwing brute force calculations at it.  To my eye, ear, and mind, this brute force method is the reason most of today’s attempts to artificially emulate the creative process are not insightful and do not add anything to their genres.  And so far, the vast majority of these attempts fail their respective Turing Tests.  That is, humans can tell it is a machine and not a human generating the “art.”

Applying these musings to the art of photography, what do see today?  To be sure, more images are being generated today than ever before in human history, and the art of photography is being devalued by its sheer pervasiveness.  Everyone captures images now, and most of them believe that makes them photographers.  While photographers have always required the involvement of a machine in the creation of their art, good photographers have always relied on their artistic vision, the so-called artist’s eye, to create images that are special.  I don’t believe that all the Meitu and similar AI filters that abound today are creating any photographic art that adds insight or helps interpret the world around us.

One very central component in photography is composition.  How does the photographer choose what elements to include in the image, and how will these elements be combined?  I haven’t written a post in this space yet that specifically covers the topic of composition, but it’s on my list to write and publish soon.  This vital aspect of photography does use some “rules”, such as the Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Framing Elements, Point of View, Foreground/Background, and Symmetry and Patterns.  Rules, of course, can be programmed into an AI so that the machine can emulate the way humans create.  But in photographic composition, the “rules” are really just guidelines for getting started.  A good photographer knows when to break the rules for artistic impact.

Even the dumbest devices are capable of generating images.  Security cameras can capture images that we would consider to be rudimentary documentary photographs.  Given long enough, a security camera might accidentally capture what we would consider to be a good street photography image, because after capturing millions of dull scenes, sooner or later the camera will catch a random alignment of interesting elements.  It’s like thousands of monkeys typing random characters: given enough time, one of them will coincidentally type out a Shakespeare sonnet or even a full play.  As wearable computing devices become more pervasive, many people’s lives will be documented in real-time via the capture of millions of images.  Some of these may be interesting to their friends and perhaps the general public.  A few may even have artistic value.  But true artistry isn’t characterized by coincidence.

I don’t doubt that eventually we will get to the point where machines can create images as good as much of what humans can create.  I think we’ll get there, but it will take a long, long time.  And in the meantime, the role of photographer as artist, experimenter, and interpreter of the world around us will continue to be central to our society’s need for communication and expression.

What do you think about the future of photography?  Will we soon see machines creating much of our imagery?  How about our good, artistic imagery?  Please share your thoughts here.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Analog Efex Pro

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

Color Efex Pro

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

Silver Efex Pro

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

Viveza

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

HDR Efex Pro

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

Sharpener Pro

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

Dfine

Improve your images with noise reduction tailored to your camera.

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

To Travel Hopefully is Taking the Day Off: Please tell your friends about us!

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 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.  Thank you for visiting To Travel Hopefully!

Warm regards,

Kyle Adler

 

Camera of the Future? [Encore Publication]: A new company promises DSLR quality from a cellphone-sized device

The Holy Grail for us travel photographers would be to have a tiny and affordable cellphone-sized camera that can capture images with the quality and versatility found today only in large, heavy, and expensive digital cameras (DSLRs and medium- to large-format cameras).  A new company called Light promises to offer just such a device starting sometime in 2018.  Reading their pitch in IEEE’s newsletter for this innovative camera design, I was excited by the revolutionary concept but not convinced that their first offering would truly meet travel photographers’ needs.  Take a look at the prototype photo and the IEEE article, and then we’ll discuss the bottom line.

lightcameraconcept

IEEE Article on Light camera concept

My take on Light’s pitch is that they have an exciting new design concept which someday could translate into a truly remarkable product.  The idea of combining multiple cheap camera systems, each with a cellphone camera’s small plastic fixed-aperture lens and tiny inexpensive sensor, and then combining their data using controlling mirrors and software into a single high-resolution image with control over such elements as focal length, depth-of-field, and bokeh effects, is creative and compelling.  By combining the separate power from all of these small cheap lenses and sensors, none of which by itself can gather much light, capture high resolution, nor provide manual control over focal length or aperture, the device and its software can achieve a final image that will be brighter, more detailed, and more controllable than the sum of its parts.

But given how little the sum of its parts costs to produce, this next-gen technology carries a hefty early-adopter premium when priced at $1699.  For that money, one could buy an enthusiast DSLR system (body and a couple of zoom lenses) with similar resolution and a greater range of focal lengths than the Light camera will have.  But there are many other serious advantages to a DSLR or a good advanced mirrorless ILC  system than just resolution and focal length.  Even if the Light device’s software can generate a final processed image that overcomes each lens and sensor’s weaknesses to rival a DSLR’s image in terms of brightness and image quality (and I have real reservations about its ability to do so), it still won’t likely be able to match a DSLR’s power-up time (the time from when you turn it on until it is ready to shoot), capture frame rate (the speed at which it can capture multiple shots), or bright optical viewfinder.

In summary, I like the concept and believe it could hold the key to building a future breed of travel cameras that are smaller, lighter, and cheaper than today’s “serious” cameras while retaining much of their quality.  But the initial device’s high price and design trade-offs won’t leapfrog the advantages of a good DSLR or mirrorless camera just yet.  The first offering would be fun to play with, in the spirit of “the best camera is the one you have with you,” but it won’t get me to leave my DSLR system at home.  This will be a fun technology and a fun company to watch, though.  I’ll provide updates in future posts as I learn of new information.

What do you think of Light’s new camera concept?  Do you see this design as the basis for a new generation devices that would replace your DSLR or mirrorless camera system?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photography gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

Cultural Awareness Begins at Home [Encore Publication]: Some musings on the US election and inauguration

Dear Readers: On the eve of the US presidential inauguration, I feel it’s an appropriate time to republish this post from last November and redouble my efforts to reach out more broadly to Americans of different backgrounds.

Like most Americans, I was surprised at the outcome of the US presidential election this week.  This is not a political forum, and I won’t discuss my own personal politics (although for what it’s worth, most travel photographers do lean toward the progressive side), but I would like to share in today’s post a few thoughts on the surprise results.

The big question being asked across the entire political spectrum is how could nearly all of the polls and analysis point toward one outcome (a big win by Clinton) when the actual election went the opposite way (a big win by Trump)?  There is likely quite a lot of complexity behind the answer, but the simple truth is that very few people truly understood the full extent of the anger and frustration so many Americans have been feeling in recent years.  For many, their vote was not cast in support of Mr. Trump so much as it was a cry of protest against what they view as a broken government by the elite that left them out of the economic recovery of the last few years.

And this has gotten me to thinking.  As travel photographers, we roam far from our home, and often far from our home country, seeking to better understand the ways people are similar and different.  In other words, we strive to learn about, document through our images, and share with others a cultural understanding of each place we visit.  I’ve written frequently in this forum about the importance of traveling with sensitivity and an open mind so that we can get to know people from all walks of life in our destinations.  I often discuss here how photography is a wonderful tool to bridge the gap between our culture and that of the people we meet around the world.

But in the wake of this week’s surprise election results, I am realizing that I don’t understand the full range of cultural diversity in my own country.  I may have spent time with a tobacco farmer in rural Cuba, but how much time have I spent getting to know the challenges faced by a small farm owner in rural America?  I’ve had conversations with religious minority groups across China who felt oppressed by Beijing’s rule, but I haven’t spoken much with Americans who feel our federal government isn’t in touch with their religious beliefs.  And I’ve visited a wide range of villages and nomadic settlements in Tanzania to learn how the residents differ in terms of their unequal sharing in that country’s economic growth, but I haven’t been exposed to enough communities across America who feel left out of our country’s economic recovery.  In summary, I open my eyes and mind while traveling abroad better than I do in my own country.

As travelers, and especially as travel photographers, we are in a great position to meet, listen to, and learn from diverse communities all around the world.  Let’s make an effort to do the same in our home countries.  From such learning comes insight, and from insight, perhaps, can come workable solutions to pressing problems without having to resort to hate and extremism.

What’s been on your mind in the wake of the US election?  Do you have thoughts about how we can better understand the differences among our fellow countrymen?  Please share your ideas here.