Focus on Iceland [Encore Publication]: A world-class landscape photography destination

Iconic Icelandic scene: The lovely Gullfoss Waterfall can be viewed from three different levels to obtain different perspectives on these dramatic falls.  To capture this image, I climbed to the top level, secured the camera and wide-angle lens on a sturdy tripod, and attached a neutral-density filter to allow a long exposure even in the harsh midday lighting.  I shot a series of seven exposures, each one stop apart, and then combined them into a single image using image-processing software.  This technique, called High Dynamic Range (or HDR), allows a single image to show a wide range of tonal values from extremely dark to extremely bright. 

My two daughters, my wife, and I recently returned from an inspiring two-week adventure traveling through Iceland.  Our itinerary took us from the main city of Reykjavik to the scenic Snaefellsness Peninsula’s volcanic landscape, then up to Iceland’s far north just below the Arctic Circle, down to the southern coast dotted with geothermal fields and spectacular waterfalls, and ending with a visit to Iceland’s premier attraction, the Blue Lagoon.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Iceland’s Nordic culture and Viking roots from Icelanders of all backgrounds and trades.  Iceland is a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, otherworldly natural features, and friendly people.

Our Icelandic adventure began in the largest city, Reykjavik.  While small relative to other major world capitals, Reykjavik is modern, well-functioning, and ambitious in its development.  Its harbor-side location lends the city a strong measure of natural beauty.

Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall is Iceland’s premier home for the arts.  The brightly colored glass façade of the building was inspired by Iceland’s volcanic landscape.  While it’s tempting in architectural photography to use a wide-angle lens in order to include the entire building, I find it’s often more interesting to use a moderate telephoto lens in order to emphasize just a part of the whole.  This abstract image takes the viewer’s eye along the multicolored façade with its varied patterns of texture and reflections.

A big part of the joy of travel photography is using our camera as a tool to get to know the people we meet.  While we shared a city bus ride with a group of schoolkids out on a field trip to visit the National Museum, this little boy and I were playing a game of virtual peekaboo, resulting in this unorthodox portrait.

Stunning view over Reykjavik and its harbor from the top of the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water. 

Departing Reykjavik for the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we traversed a fabled landscape first discovered by the early Viking settlers.

A short hike took us to the summit of Mount Helgafell, a sacred hill about 250 feet high.  When composing landscape photos, keep in mind two useful tools, the Rule of Thirds, and the principle of Leading Lines.  Both are used in this image.  The Rule of Thirds suggests placing key elements of the image along the lines that cut 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the frame in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  And Leading Lines draw the viewer’s eye across the frame to rest on the most important spots.

The coastal town of Stykkisholmur sits on the coast along the scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  There we came across this curious house with windows at street level and a doorway at the second story level.  Often the most memorable photos are made of the strange places we happen upon during our wanderings.

During a visit to a horse farm, we saw a demonstration of all five gaits (one more than other breeds) that Icelandic horses are capable of.  So smooth is the Icelandic horse’s cantor that you could, if you like, enjoy a mug of beer while riding.

Even a dreadful rain storm couldn’t spoil images of Godafoss Waterfall.  Meaning “waterfall of the pagan gods,” the falls received their name when the leader of Iceland’s parliament decided that the country should adopt Christianity as the official religion in AD 1000.  Informally, Icelanders were still allowed to practice pagan rites in private, but the head of parliament made a symbolic gesture of throwing most of his pagan statues into the falls.  Waterfalls are wonderful subjects for landscape photography, but they should be treated with care and patience.  A sturdy tripod is essential for holding the camera steady during the long exposures required to lend a dramatic blur to the turbulent water.  Here I fitted the camera with a wide-angle lens and a neutral-density filter, which blocks out most of the light and allows a slow shutter speed even in broad daylight.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I used a cable release to trigger the shutter in order to avoid shaking the camera.  During post-processing I decided to convert this image to black-and-white in order to remove the distraction of the color and really emphasize the dramatic effect of the roiling water.

Sometimes we get the best photos by turning our lens on small and easily overlooked features.  The volcanic soil at Lake Myvatn makes a fertile habitat for colorful lichens.  There were hundreds of other visitors present during our visit to Lake Myvatn, but nobody else noticed the vibrant natural display just below our feet.  The amazing palette of colors in this image is entirely natural. 

This abstract image shows the facade of the Lutheran church at the Laufas turf houses.  I was struck by the textures and patterns of the architecture, so I used a telephoto lens to crop the composition so as to show only a part of the building, then converted to black-and-white during post-processing to simplify the presentation.

The Laufas turf houses were built over a period of several hundred years for wealthy families, and included all the comforts of contemporary living.  When photographing architecture with a wide-angle lens, it’s important to keep the camera level so as to avoid excessive distortion of the vertical lines. 

Leaving behind the lovely Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we headed north to reach Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city located just a few miles below the Arctic Circle.

In Akureyri, just a few miles below the Arctic Circle, we enjoyed the warmth of a wonderful home-hosted dinner.  Our hosts were both professional musicians, and they performed an impromptu concert for us after dinner.

Suited up for the cold and wind, our group boarded a vessel for a whale watching excursion in Dalvik.  I made this portrait of our on-board naturalist, a true native Icelander, using a moderate telephoto lens.

There are so many wonderful subjects to capture during our travels that it’s important to remember to shoot a few of ourselves.  Because our daughters, in their early 20s, don’t get to travel with us very often, we cherish the few photos we have featuring all of us together as a family.  To grab this fun shot of our human family interacting with a family of trolls, I configured all of the camera’s settings before handing the camera to a fellow traveler in our group who triggered the shutter.

A short flight from Iceland’s far north back down to Reykjavik positions us to explore the famed Golden Circle, a road connecting Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal region, and Gullfoss Waterfall.

At Thingvellir National Park, we hiked along the rift zone where two tectonic plates (the Eurasian and the North American) are drifting apart.  It’s hard to capture the majesty of dramatic and varied geological features, so I like to combine several layers of landforms in the image.  From top to bottom, this composition captures the sky, the rocky rift zone, and the ropey lava in the foreground.

Visiting the Geysir geothermal area, from which all geysers derive their name.  Along with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and Calistoga’s geyser, Iceland’s Strokkur is one of just a few regularly erupting geysers in the world.  A hard truth in travel photography is that we can’t control the weather and often we can’t control the time of day when we visit certain locations, so we have to make do with what we’re given.  To make the best photo possible given the poor contrast between the geyser’s eruption and the cloudy sky, I stepped back several hundred yards to include the observers, the dramatic clouds, and the mountainous background in the composition.

An excursion via super truck (a large four-wheel drive vehicle with the tires partly deflated) afforded us the opportunity to explore the otherwise inaccessible glacial terrain, including hiking into this otherworldly ice cave.

My daughters, who only recently attained legal drinking age, enjoy a shot of local Icelandic vodka chilled with glacial ice during our hike into an ice cave.  In the dim lighting inside the cave, use of a flash is required to light a portrait, but to avoid firing the flash too close to the axis of the lens, I attached a flash unit to my camera via a remote flash cord.  This simple and inexpensive accessory makes a huge difference when using flash lighting.

Our ATV tour took us off-road across the volcanic landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula.

On our last full day in Iceland before flying back home, we visited the legendary Blue Lagoon spa near Reykjavik.  Crowded, expensive, and touristy, it is nonetheless supremely relaxing and lots of fun.  This spa is also a very social place where it’s easy to meet—and photograph—visitors from all over the world.

The one site that nobody sets foot in Iceland without visiting is the Blue Lagoon.  During our time there, I made portraits of several visitors from different parts of the world.  It’s important to spend some time chatting with and getting to know your subject before making their portrait.  This practice is partly due to courtesy (it’s rude to shoot photos of people without their permission), but it also yields better images because your subject will relax and show you their true self after they get to know you.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Iceland photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Iceland?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Focus on Panama: A man, a plan, a canal Panama, but so very much more


Iconic Panamanian scene: Nearly every visitor to Panama comes, at least in part, to see the canal, one of the wonders of the modern world.  Although our small vessel was able to transit the canal using the original 1914 lock system, we had the opportunity to visit the newly expanded 2016 lock system that can accommodate some of the world’s largest ships.  We observed this super container ship carrying more than 10,000 shipping containers each the size of a tractor-trailer truck as she transited the new lock system.  The massive scale of this scene makes it challenging to photograph.  Compose too tightly and you lose the grand sense of scale; compose too wide and you lose the dramatic impact.  I opted to capture this enormous vessel fully enclosed by the gargantuan lock chamber with the entrance to the Caribbean (Atlantic) waters and the modern Atlantic Bridge in the background.

My wife and I recently returned from a lovely two-week adventure traveling through Panama.  Our itinerary took us from the capital of Panama City to the historic and folkloric Azuero Peninsula, then up the Chagres River via dugout canoe for an in-depth encounter with the Embera indigenous people, followed by transiting the entire length of the Panama Canal aboard our 24-passenger catamaran, and ending with a visit to the remarkable rainforest of San Lorenzo National Park before returning to Panama City.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Panama’s people of diverse backgrounds and trades.  We discovered that Panama is much more than just a canal: it’s a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, unparalleled biodiversity, centuries-old cultural traditions, and friendly people.

Our Panamanian adventure began in the largest city, Panama City.  While small relative to other major Latin American cities, Panama City is growing and thriving, juxtaposing a modern vibrant energy on top of a lovely historic Spanish-colonial old town.

Old meets new in Panama City as the Old Quarter ruins lie in the shadow of newer developments. To capture this juxtaposition of ancient against modern, I composed using a wide-angle lens and a low vantage point so that the skyline appears to grow suddenly from behind the ruins.  A narrow aperture (high f-stop number) allows both foreground and background to be in sharp focus.

Wildlife is abundant nearly everywhere in a rainforest climate zone, so our cameras should already be ready.  On the outskirts of Panama City, we observed this lovely iguana. I crouched down very low to shoot from the same level as the iguana, using a long telephoto set to a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to soften the background.  It’s important to shoot many frames of wildlife subjects to maximize the likelihood of capturing a few really strong shots.  This image appeals because the iguana appears to be smiling at us.

Lovely view over Panama City from the roof garden of our hotel.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water.  When composing busy images like this one, I seek a sense of harmony and balance between the different elements.  It’s also helpful to avoid the use of extremely wide-angle lenses and to keep the horizon level so as to minimize distortion of the vertical lines.

Food is an important aspect of travel, so it’s fun to make some images of the dishes we try, such as this whimsical presentation of ceviche in a local Panama City restaurant.  Photographing food in restaurant or home settings can be challenging due to poor lighting and cluttered backgrounds.  Here I removed some of the clutter from the table and shot from a 45-degree angle, which works well for many food presentations (shooting from directly above almost never flatters the dish).

A highlight of our stay in Panama City was getting to explore the neighborhood of El Chorrillo, nearly completely destroyed during the 1989 US invasion to oust Manuel Noriega.  Nearly three decades later, much of this neighborhood is still in shambles and its residents are divided on whether such destruction was justified.  I feel it’s a privilege to observe and photograph peoples’ homes during times of regeneration, so it’s important to explore and shoot photos with a high degree of respect for those who live in the neighborhood, speaking with residents and obtaining their permission before capturing images.

Departing Panama City for the historic and folkloric region of the Azuero Peninsula, we were very fortunate to arrive in the little town of Chitre on the day they celebrate Panama’s “First Cry of Independence”. The push for independence from Spain began here, then spread to the rest of the country.

Whether halfway around the world or right in my home town, I’m always thrilled to have the chance to capture the special energy and tradition of a festival or celebration.  Because festivals are very busy events, it’s important to look for clean backgrounds insofar as possible.  To make this portrait of two young Panamanians dressed in the national costume known as the pollera, I composed so as to minimize clutter in the background and also used a wide aperture (small f-stop number) to render the background in soft focus.  Too often photographers compose based only on the main subject, but a clean background is at least as important to the success of the image than an interesting foreground subject.

In the village of Las Tablas we visited a pollera-making workshop run by a husband and wife team. These intricately embroidered costumes can each cost tens of thousands of dollars and take years to make. The owners’ niece and son made adorable models for their work.  I asked them to move a few steps away from the cluttered area where they were standing so we could frame the portrait with the lovely traditional Panamanian window in the background.

Local fishermen ferried us from the mainland to the lovely Iguana Island for a day of snorkeling, hiking, and relaxing at the beach.  A strange sighting: this hermit crab re-purposed the discarded head of a child’s doll for its new shell.  I did not have a macro lens with me, so I used the closest focusing lens in my bag and got as close as possible, later cropping the image further during post-processing.

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

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

As we prepared to depart the Azuero Peninsula, we visited the mask-making workshop of renowned artisan Dario.  Even avid photographers enjoy returning home with at least a few photos of themselves and their loved ones, so I set up the camera and asked a fellow traveler to capture the shot.  Expect to spend some time fixing the composition and exposure in post-processing if your designated photographer is not very experienced.

After spending a few days on the Azuero Peninsula, we navigated up the Chagres River via dugout canoe to meet the Embera indigenous people.  This fascinating in-depth encounter offered a window into an ancient culture that has mostly disappeared from Central America as indigenous groups have been forced to resettle on national parklands where their traditional fishing and hunting practices are not permitted.  Our Embera hosts are able to continue to live in the traditional manner by sharing their culture with visitors like us.  Our lovely day spent with the Embera villagers included preparing and enjoying a traditional meal, visiting the two-room schoolhouse (supported by Grand Circle Foundation), exploring the village, learning about their government and way of life, and observing and participating in traditional singing and dancing.  We will never forget this experience.

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

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

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

A brief jaunt back to Panama City put us in position to board our 24-passenger catamaran, the M/S Discovery, for our three-day transit of the Panama Canal.

Strolling near our hotel, we happened upon these two brightly-colored toucans in a tree.  Using the longest telephoto lens at my disposal, I made the shot handheld with a fast shutter speed to minimize camera shake.  If your camera or lens has built-in image stabilization (also sometimes called vibration reduction), this modern feature can be very useful in avoiding blurring caused by camera shake.

Setting sail on the Panama Canal, we pass the Frank Gehry designed Biodiversity Museum with the Panama City skyline in the background.  Cityscapes can be great fun to photograph.  Attention should be paid to composing the image to include the most interesting urban features while eliminating extraneous and distracting elements.  A polarizing filter can help reduce reflection and enhance the color and texture of clouds and water.  And it’s always a good practice to keep the horizon line nice and level.

A spider monkey feeds in a tree on an island in Gatun Lake, highest point along the Panama Canal.  Photographing an animal in the low light of the rainforest canopy, and from a moving boat, is a challenge.  I boosted the camera’s ISO sensitivity setting and used the fastest aperture setting available on this lens to render a sharp image of the monkey in motion.

Transiting the Atlantic locks near the end of the Panama Canal.  This scene conveys the hustle and bustle of this hectic waterway without too many distracting elements.  I composed to include two relatively large ships in separate chambers of the locks along with the Canal Authority’s apparatus and our own ship’s Panamanian flag.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Panama photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Panama?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

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

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Focus on Iceland [Encore Publication]: A world-class landscape photography destination

Iconic Icelandic scene: The lovely Gullfoss Waterfall can be viewed from three different levels to obtain different perspectives on these dramatic falls.  To capture this image, I climbed to the top level, secured the camera and wide-angle lens on a sturdy tripod, and attached a neutral-density filter to allow a long exposure even in the harsh midday lighting.  I shot a series of seven exposures, each one stop apart, and then combined them into a single image using image-processing software.  This technique, called High Dynamic Range (or HDR), allows a single image to show a wide range of tonal values from extremely dark to extremely bright. 

My two daughters, my wife, and I recently returned from an inspiring two-week adventure traveling through Iceland.  Our itinerary took us from the main city of Reykjavik to the scenic Snaefellsness Peninsula’s volcanic landscape, then up to Iceland’s far north just below the Arctic Circle, down to the southern coast dotted with geothermal fields and spectacular waterfalls, and ending with a visit to Iceland’s premier attraction, the Blue Lagoon.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Iceland’s Nordic culture and Viking roots from Icelanders of all backgrounds and trades.  Iceland is a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, otherworldly natural features, and friendly people.

Our Icelandic adventure began in the largest city, Reykjavik.  While small relative to other major world capitals, Reykjavik is modern, well-functioning, and ambitious in its development.  Its harbor-side location lends the city a strong measure of natural beauty.

Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall is Iceland’s premier home for the arts.  The brightly colored glass façade of the building was inspired by Iceland’s volcanic landscape.  While it’s tempting in architectural photography to use a wide-angle lens in order to include the entire building, I find it’s often more interesting to use a moderate telephoto lens in order to emphasize just a part of the whole.  This abstract image takes the viewer’s eye along the multicolored façade with its varied patterns of texture and reflections.

A big part of the joy of travel photography is using our camera as a tool to get to know the people we meet.  While we shared a city bus ride with a group of schoolkids out on a field trip to visit the National Museum, this little boy and I were playing a game of virtual peekaboo, resulting in this unorthodox portrait.

Stunning view over Reykjavik and its harbor from the top of the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water. 

Departing Reykjavik for the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we traversed a fabled landscape first discovered by the early Viking settlers.

A short hike took us to the summit of Mount Helgafell, a sacred hill about 250 feet high.  When composing landscape photos, keep in mind two useful tools, the Rule of Thirds, and the principle of Leading Lines.  Both are used in this image.  The Rule of Thirds suggests placing key elements of the image along the lines that cut 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the frame in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  And Leading Lines draw the viewer’s eye across the frame to rest on the most important spots.

The coastal town of Stykkisholmur sits on the coast along the scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  There we came across this curious house with windows at street level and a doorway at the second story level.  Often the most memorable photos are made of the strange places we happen upon during our wanderings.

During a visit to a horse farm, we saw a demonstration of all five gaits (one more than other breeds) that Icelandic horses are capable of.  So smooth is the Icelandic horse’s cantor that you could, if you like, enjoy a mug of beer while riding.

Even a dreadful rain storm couldn’t spoil images of Godafoss Waterfall.  Meaning “waterfall of the pagan gods,” the falls received their name when the leader of Iceland’s parliament decided that the country should adopt Christianity as the official religion in AD 1000.  Informally, Icelanders were still allowed to practice pagan rites in private, but the head of parliament made a symbolic gesture of throwing most of his pagan statues into the falls.  Waterfalls are wonderful subjects for landscape photography, but they should be treated with care and patience.  A sturdy tripod is essential for holding the camera steady during the long exposures required to lend a dramatic blur to the turbulent water.  Here I fitted the camera with a wide-angle lens and a neutral-density filter, which blocks out most of the light and allows a slow shutter speed even in broad daylight.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I used a cable release to trigger the shutter in order to avoid shaking the camera.  During post-processing I decided to convert this image to black-and-white in order to remove the distraction of the color and really emphasize the dramatic effect of the roiling water.

Sometimes we get the best photos by turning our lens on small and easily overlooked features.  The volcanic soil at Lake Myvatn makes a fertile habitat for colorful lichens.  There were hundreds of other visitors present during our visit to Lake Myvatn, but nobody else noticed the vibrant natural display just below our feet.  The amazing palette of colors in this image is entirely natural. 

This abstract image shows the facade of the Lutheran church at the Laufas turf houses.  I was struck by the textures and patterns of the architecture, so I used a telephoto lens to crop the composition so as to show only a part of the building, then converted to black-and-white during post-processing to simplify the presentation.

The Laufas turf houses were built over a period of several hundred years for wealthy families, and included all the comforts of contemporary living.  When photographing architecture with a wide-angle lens, it’s important to keep the camera level so as to avoid excessive distortion of the vertical lines. 

Leaving behind the lovely Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we headed north to reach Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city located just a few miles below the Arctic Circle.

In Akureyri, just a few miles below the Arctic Circle, we enjoyed the warmth of a wonderful home-hosted dinner.  Our hosts were both professional musicians, and they performed an impromptu concert for us after dinner.

Suited up for the cold and wind, our group boarded a vessel for a whale watching excursion in Dalvik.  I made this portrait of our on-board naturalist, a true native Icelander, using a moderate telephoto lens.

There are so many wonderful subjects to capture during our travels that it’s important to remember to shoot a few of ourselves.  Because our daughters, in their early 20s, don’t get to travel with us very often, we cherish the few photos we have featuring all of us together as a family.  To grab this fun shot of our human family interacting with a family of trolls, I configured all of the camera’s settings before handing the camera to a fellow traveler in our group who triggered the shutter.

A short flight from Iceland’s far north back down to Reykjavik positions us to explore the famed Golden Circle, a road connecting Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal region, and Gullfoss Waterfall.

At Thingvellir National Park, we hiked along the rift zone where two tectonic plates (the Eurasian and the North American) are drifting apart.  It’s hard to capture the majesty of dramatic and varied geological features, so I like to combine several layers of landforms in the image.  From top to bottom, this composition captures the sky, the rocky rift zone, and the ropey lava in the foreground.

Visiting the Geysir geothermal area, from which all geysers derive their name.  Along with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and Calistoga’s geyser, Iceland’s Strokkur is one of just a few regularly erupting geysers in the world.  A hard truth in travel photography is that we can’t control the weather and often we can’t control the time of day when we visit certain locations, so we have to make do with what we’re given.  To make the best photo possible given the poor contrast between the geyser’s eruption and the cloudy sky, I stepped back several hundred yards to include the observers, the dramatic clouds, and the mountainous background in the composition.

An excursion via super truck (a large four-wheel drive vehicle with the tires partly deflated) afforded us the opportunity to explore the otherwise inaccessible glacial terrain, including hiking into this otherworldly ice cave.

My daughters, who only recently attained legal drinking age, enjoy a shot of local Icelandic vodka chilled with glacial ice during our hike into an ice cave.  In the dim lighting inside the cave, use of a flash is required to light a portrait, but to avoid firing the flash too close to the axis of the lens, I attached a flash unit to my camera via a remote flash cord.  This simple and inexpensive accessory makes a huge difference when using flash lighting.

Our ATV tour took us off-road across the volcanic landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula.

On our last full day in Iceland before flying back home, we visited the legendary Blue Lagoon spa near Reykjavik.  Crowded, expensive, and touristy, it is nonetheless supremely relaxing and lots of fun.  This spa is also a very social place where it’s easy to meet—and photograph—visitors from all over the world.

The one site that nobody sets foot in Iceland without visiting is the Blue Lagoon.  During our time there, I made portraits of several visitors from different parts of the world.  It’s important to spend some time chatting with and getting to know your subject before making their portrait.  This practice is partly due to courtesy (it’s rude to shoot photos of people without their permission), but it also yields better images because your subject will relax and show you their true self after they get to know you.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Iceland photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Iceland?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

 

Mardi Gras SF 2018 [Encore Publication]: A case study on shooting action in low light

San Francisco has been celebrating Carnaval for 40 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve been documenting this wonderful event.  The anniversary season officially kicked off last night with San Francisco’s take on Mardi Gras.  I covered the small parade through SF’s historic Mission District and also the performances of several comparsas (like krewes or samba schools) at one of the event’s venues.  Today’s post showcases some of my favorite images from this year’s Mardi Gras while also serving as a case study for shooting fast action in extremely low light conditions.

Taking the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” remember that when shooting action in low light it is okay occasionally to intentionally allow some motion blur to emphasize the movement.  Here I achieved a soft painterly effect by choosing a slower shutter speed to capture this image of a young dancer mustering for the parade.

The use of flash is required for much low-light action photography, but that doesn’t mean your images have to be harsh or unnatural looking.  A few hints: 1) Get the flash off your camera using a flash cord or remote control; 2) Use balanced fill flash instead of automatic flash for a more realistic look; 3) Dial down the flash’s power by using flash exposure compensation (I use -1 stop most of the time); 4) These settings often will require that you use a high ISO setting and a fast lens.

Use a fast prime lens to achieve a fast shutter speed along with a relatively shallow aperture to freeze and isolate your subject.  Most of these images were made with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

In post-processing your images, consider these tips: 1) Apply some noise reduction to mitigate the digital noise associated with high-ISO shooting; 2) Adjust the white balance to render the colors you remember from the shoot (always shoot in RAW mode if possible to allow setting the white balance during post-processing); 3) Apply a touch of post-crop vignetting to emphasize your subject and reduce background clutter.

For group shots, try to find an uncluttered background and pose everyone as tightly as possible so that your fill flash will illuminate them evenly.  Don’t use a wide-angle lens for group shots!  Sure, doing so will make it easier to fit in all the subjects, but it also provides a very unflattering perspective for most people.  Here I shot with a 50mm “normal” lens and moved back to fit in the entire group.

Portraits work very well using balanced fill-flash techniques.  Be sure to find an uncluttered background and get the flash unit off the camera.  Here I bounced the flash off the awning of a building to achieve a soft effect relatively unencumbered by shadows.

By applying some of these techniques, you can capture fast-moving action even under extremely low-light conditions and still achieve realistic looking and flattering results.

Do you have suggestions for shooting action in low light?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts about techniques.  And remember that all the images featured in this post as well as thousands more are available for viewing or purchase on my website–just click on any photo to view it in more detail.

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

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

Focus on Iceland [Encore Publication]: A world-class landscape photography destination

Iconic Icelandic scene: The lovely Gullfoss Waterfall can be viewed from three different levels to obtain different perspectives on these dramatic falls.  To capture this image, I climbed to the top level, secured the camera and wide-angle lens on a sturdy tripod, and attached a neutral-density filter to allow a long exposure even in the harsh midday lighting.  I shot a series of seven exposures, each one stop apart, and then combined them into a single image using image-processing software.  This technique, called High Dynamic Range (or HDR), allows a single image to show a wide range of tonal values from extremely dark to extremely bright. 

My two daughters, my wife, and I recently returned from an inspiring two-week adventure traveling through Iceland.  Our itinerary took us from the main city of Reykjavik to the scenic Snaefellsness Peninsula’s volcanic landscape, then up to Iceland’s far north just below the Arctic Circle, down to the southern coast dotted with geothermal fields and spectacular waterfalls, and ending with a visit to Iceland’s premier attraction, the Blue Lagoon.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Iceland’s Nordic culture and Viking roots from Icelanders of all backgrounds and trades.  Iceland is a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, otherworldly natural features, and friendly people.

Our Icelandic adventure began in the largest city, Reykjavik.  While small relative to other major world capitals, Reykjavik is modern, well-functioning, and ambitious in its development.  Its harbor-side location lends the city a strong measure of natural beauty.

Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall is Iceland’s premier home for the arts.  The brightly colored glass façade of the building was inspired by Iceland’s volcanic landscape.  While it’s tempting in architectural photography to use a wide-angle lens in order to include the entire building, I find it’s often more interesting to use a moderate telephoto lens in order to emphasize just a part of the whole.  This abstract image takes the viewer’s eye along the multicolored façade with its varied patterns of texture and reflections.

A big part of the joy of travel photography is using our camera as a tool to get to know the people we meet.  While we shared a city bus ride with a group of schoolkids out on a field trip to visit the National Museum, this little boy and I were playing a game of virtual peekaboo, resulting in this unorthodox portrait.

Stunning view over Reykjavik and its harbor from the top of the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water. 

Departing Reykjavik for the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we traversed a fabled landscape first discovered by the early Viking settlers.

A short hike took us to the summit of Mount Helgafell, a sacred hill about 250 feet high.  When composing landscape photos, keep in mind two useful tools, the Rule of Thirds, and the principle of Leading Lines.  Both are used in this image.  The Rule of Thirds suggests placing key elements of the image along the lines that cut 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the frame in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  And Leading Lines draw the viewer’s eye across the frame to rest on the most important spots.

The coastal town of Stykkisholmur sits on the coast along the scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  There we came across this curious house with windows at street level and a doorway at the second story level.  Often the most memorable photos are made of the strange places we happen upon during our wanderings.

During a visit to a horse farm, we saw a demonstration of all five gaits (one more than other breeds) that Icelandic horses are capable of.  So smooth is the Icelandic horse’s cantor that you could, if you like, enjoy a mug of beer while riding.

Even a dreadful rain storm couldn’t spoil images of Godafoss Waterfall.  Meaning “waterfall of the pagan gods,” the falls received their name when the leader of Iceland’s parliament decided that the country should adopt Christianity as the official religion in AD 1000.  Informally, Icelanders were still allowed to practice pagan rites in private, but the head of parliament made a symbolic gesture of throwing most of his pagan statues into the falls.  Waterfalls are wonderful subjects for landscape photography, but they should be treated with care and patience.  A sturdy tripod is essential for holding the camera steady during the long exposures required to lend a dramatic blur to the turbulent water.  Here I fitted the camera with a wide-angle lens and a neutral-density filter, which blocks out most of the light and allows a slow shutter speed even in broad daylight.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I used a cable release to trigger the shutter in order to avoid shaking the camera.  During post-processing I decided to convert this image to black-and-white in order to remove the distraction of the color and really emphasize the dramatic effect of the roiling water.

Sometimes we get the best photos by turning our lens on small and easily overlooked features.  The volcanic soil at Lake Myvatn makes a fertile habitat for colorful lichens.  There were hundreds of other visitors present during our visit to Lake Myvatn, but nobody else noticed the vibrant natural display just below our feet.  The amazing palette of colors in this image is entirely natural. 

This abstract image shows the facade of the Lutheran church at the Laufas turf houses.  I was struck by the textures and patterns of the architecture, so I used a telephoto lens to crop the composition so as to show only a part of the building, then converted to black-and-white during post-processing to simplify the presentation.

The Laufas turf houses were built over a period of several hundred years for wealthy families, and included all the comforts of contemporary living.  When photographing architecture with a wide-angle lens, it’s important to keep the camera level so as to avoid excessive distortion of the vertical lines. 

Leaving behind the lovely Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we headed north to reach Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city located just a few miles below the Arctic Circle.

In Akureyri, just a few miles below the Arctic Circle, we enjoyed the warmth of a wonderful home-hosted dinner.  Our hosts were both professional musicians, and they performed an impromptu concert for us after dinner.

Suited up for the cold and wind, our group boarded a vessel for a whale watching excursion in Dalvik.  I made this portrait of our on-board naturalist, a true native Icelander, using a moderate telephoto lens.

There are so many wonderful subjects to capture during our travels that it’s important to remember to shoot a few of ourselves.  Because our daughters, in their early 20s, don’t get to travel with us very often, we cherish the few photos we have featuring all of us together as a family.  To grab this fun shot of our human family interacting with a family of trolls, I configured all of the camera’s settings before handing the camera to a fellow traveler in our group who triggered the shutter.

A short flight from Iceland’s far north back down to Reykjavik positions us to explore the famed Golden Circle, a road connecting Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal region, and Gullfoss Waterfall.

At Thingvellir National Park, we hiked along the rift zone where two tectonic plates (the Eurasian and the North American) are drifting apart.  It’s hard to capture the majesty of dramatic and varied geological features, so I like to combine several layers of landforms in the image.  From top to bottom, this composition captures the sky, the rocky rift zone, and the ropey lava in the foreground.

Visiting the Geysir geothermal area, from which all geysers derive their name.  Along with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and Calistoga’s geyser, Iceland’s Strokkur is one of just a few regularly erupting geysers in the world.  A hard truth in travel photography is that we can’t control the weather and often we can’t control the time of day when we visit certain locations, so we have to make do with what we’re given.  To make the best photo possible given the poor contrast between the geyser’s eruption and the cloudy sky, I stepped back several hundred yards to include the observers, the dramatic clouds, and the mountainous background in the composition.

An excursion via super truck (a large four-wheel drive vehicle with the tires partly deflated) afforded us the opportunity to explore the otherwise inaccessible glacial terrain, including hiking into this otherworldly ice cave.

My daughters, who only recently attained legal drinking age, enjoy a shot of local Icelandic vodka chilled with glacial ice during our hike into an ice cave.  In the dim lighting inside the cave, use of a flash is required to light a portrait, but to avoid firing the flash too close to the axis of the lens, I attached a flash unit to my camera via a remote flash cord.  This simple and inexpensive accessory makes a huge difference when using flash lighting.

Our ATV tour took us off-road across the volcanic landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula.

On our last full day in Iceland before flying back home, we visited the legendary Blue Lagoon spa near Reykjavik.  Crowded, expensive, and touristy, it is nonetheless supremely relaxing and lots of fun.  This spa is also a very social place where it’s easy to meet—and photograph—visitors from all over the world.

The one site that nobody sets foot in Iceland without visiting is the Blue Lagoon.  During our time there, I made portraits of several visitors from different parts of the world.  It’s important to spend some time chatting with and getting to know your subject before making their portrait.  This practice is partly due to courtesy (it’s rude to shoot photos of people without their permission), but it also yields better images because your subject will relax and show you their true self after they get to know you.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Iceland photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Iceland?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

Focus on Iceland [Encore Publication]: A world-class landscape photography destination

Iconic Icelandic scene: The lovely Gullfoss Waterfall can be viewed from three different levels to obtain different perspectives on these dramatic falls.  To capture this image, I climbed to the top level, secured the camera and wide-angle lens on a sturdy tripod, and attached a neutral-density filter to allow a long exposure even in the harsh midday lighting.  I shot a series of seven exposures, each one stop apart, and then combined them into a single image using image-processing software.  This technique, called High Dynamic Range (or HDR), allows a single image to show a wide range of tonal values from extremely dark to extremely bright. 

My two daughters, my wife, and I recently returned from an inspiring two-week adventure traveling through Iceland.  Our itinerary took us from the main city of Reykjavik to the scenic Snaefellsness Peninsula’s volcanic landscape, then up to Iceland’s far north just below the Arctic Circle, down to the southern coast dotted with geothermal fields and spectacular waterfalls, and ending with a visit to Iceland’s premier attraction, the Blue Lagoon.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Iceland’s Nordic culture and Viking roots from Icelanders of all backgrounds and trades.  Iceland is a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, otherworldly natural features, and friendly people.

Our Icelandic adventure began in the largest city, Reykjavik.  While small relative to other major world capitals, Reykjavik is modern, well-functioning, and ambitious in its development.  Its harbor-side location lends the city a strong measure of natural beauty.

Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall is Iceland’s premier home for the arts.  The brightly colored glass façade of the building was inspired by Iceland’s volcanic landscape.  While it’s tempting in architectural photography to use a wide-angle lens in order to include the entire building, I find it’s often more interesting to use a moderate telephoto lens in order to emphasize just a part of the whole.  This abstract image takes the viewer’s eye along the multicolored façade with its varied patterns of texture and reflections.

A big part of the joy of travel photography is using our camera as a tool to get to know the people we meet.  While we shared a city bus ride with a group of schoolkids out on a field trip to visit the National Museum, this little boy and I were playing a game of virtual peekaboo, resulting in this unorthodox portrait.

Stunning view over Reykjavik and its harbor from the top of the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water. 

Departing Reykjavik for the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we traversed a fabled landscape first discovered by the early Viking settlers.

A short hike took us to the summit of Mount Helgafell, a sacred hill about 250 feet high.  When composing landscape photos, keep in mind two useful tools, the Rule of Thirds, and the principle of Leading Lines.  Both are used in this image.  The Rule of Thirds suggests placing key elements of the image along the lines that cut 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the frame in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  And Leading Lines draw the viewer’s eye across the frame to rest on the most important spots.

The coastal town of Stykkisholmur sits on the coast along the scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  There we came across this curious house with windows at street level and a doorway at the second story level.  Often the most memorable photos are made of the strange places we happen upon during our wanderings.

During a visit to a horse farm, we saw a demonstration of all five gaits (one more than other breeds) that Icelandic horses are capable of.  So smooth is the Icelandic horse’s cantor that you could, if you like, enjoy a mug of beer while riding.

Even a dreadful rain storm couldn’t spoil images of Godafoss Waterfall.  Meaning “waterfall of the pagan gods,” the falls received their name when the leader of Iceland’s parliament decided that the country should adopt Christianity as the official religion in AD 1000.  Informally, Icelanders were still allowed to practice pagan rites in private, but the head of parliament made a symbolic gesture of throwing most of his pagan statues into the falls.  Waterfalls are wonderful subjects for landscape photography, but they should be treated with care and patience.  A sturdy tripod is essential for holding the camera steady during the long exposures required to lend a dramatic blur to the turbulent water.  Here I fitted the camera with a wide-angle lens and a neutral-density filter, which blocks out most of the light and allows a slow shutter speed even in broad daylight.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I used a cable release to trigger the shutter in order to avoid shaking the camera.  During post-processing I decided to convert this image to black-and-white in order to remove the distraction of the color and really emphasize the dramatic effect of the roiling water.

Sometimes we get the best photos by turning our lens on small and easily overlooked features.  The volcanic soil at Lake Myvatn makes a fertile habitat for colorful lichens.  There were hundreds of other visitors present during our visit to Lake Myvatn, but nobody else noticed the vibrant natural display just below our feet.  The amazing palette of colors in this image is entirely natural. 

This abstract image shows the facade of the Lutheran church at the Laufas turf houses.  I was struck by the textures and patterns of the architecture, so I used a telephoto lens to crop the composition so as to show only a part of the building, then converted to black-and-white during post-processing to simplify the presentation.

The Laufas turf houses were built over a period of several hundred years for wealthy families, and included all the comforts of contemporary living.  When photographing architecture with a wide-angle lens, it’s important to keep the camera level so as to avoid excessive distortion of the vertical lines. 

Leaving behind the lovely Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we headed north to reach Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city located just a few miles below the Arctic Circle.

In Akureyri, just a few miles below the Arctic Circle, we enjoyed the warmth of a wonderful home-hosted dinner.  Our hosts were both professional musicians, and they performed an impromptu concert for us after dinner.

Suited up for the cold and wind, our group boarded a vessel for a whale watching excursion in Dalvik.  I made this portrait of our on-board naturalist, a true native Icelander, using a moderate telephoto lens.

There are so many wonderful subjects to capture during our travels that it’s important to remember to shoot a few of ourselves.  Because our daughters, in their early 20s, don’t get to travel with us very often, we cherish the few photos we have featuring all of us together as a family.  To grab this fun shot of our human family interacting with a family of trolls, I configured all of the camera’s settings before handing the camera to a fellow traveler in our group who triggered the shutter.

A short flight from Iceland’s far north back down to Reykjavik positions us to explore the famed Golden Circle, a road connecting Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal region, and Gullfoss Waterfall.

At Thingvellir National Park, we hiked along the rift zone where two tectonic plates (the Eurasian and the North American) are drifting apart.  It’s hard to capture the majesty of dramatic and varied geological features, so I like to combine several layers of landforms in the image.  From top to bottom, this composition captures the sky, the rocky rift zone, and the ropey lava in the foreground.

Visiting the Geysir geothermal area, from which all geysers derive their name.  Along with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and Calistoga’s geyser, Iceland’s Strokkur is one of just a few regularly erupting geysers in the world.  A hard truth in travel photography is that we can’t control the weather and often we can’t control the time of day when we visit certain locations, so we have to make do with what we’re given.  To make the best photo possible given the poor contrast between the geyser’s eruption and the cloudy sky, I stepped back several hundred yards to include the observers, the dramatic clouds, and the mountainous background in the composition.

An excursion via super truck (a large four-wheel drive vehicle with the tires partly deflated) afforded us the opportunity to explore the otherwise inaccessible glacial terrain, including hiking into this otherworldly ice cave.

My daughters, who only recently attained legal drinking age, enjoy a shot of local Icelandic vodka chilled with glacial ice during our hike into an ice cave.  In the dim lighting inside the cave, use of a flash is required to light a portrait, but to avoid firing the flash too close to the axis of the lens, I attached a flash unit to my camera via a remote flash cord.  This simple and inexpensive accessory makes a huge difference when using flash lighting.

Our ATV tour took us off-road across the volcanic landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula.

On our last full day in Iceland before flying back home, we visited the legendary Blue Lagoon spa near Reykjavik.  Crowded, expensive, and touristy, it is nonetheless supremely relaxing and lots of fun.  This spa is also a very social place where it’s easy to meet—and photograph—visitors from all over the world.

The one site that nobody sets foot in Iceland without visiting is the Blue Lagoon.  During our time there, I made portraits of several visitors from different parts of the world.  It’s important to spend some time chatting with and getting to know your subject before making their portrait.  This practice is partly due to courtesy (it’s rude to shoot photos of people without their permission), but it also yields better images because your subject will relax and show you their true self after they get to know you.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Iceland photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Iceland?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Focus on Iceland [Encore Publication]: A world-class landscape photography destination

Iconic Icelandic scene: The lovely Gullfoss Waterfall can be viewed from three different levels to obtain different perspectives on these dramatic falls.  To capture this image, I climbed to the top level, secured the camera and wide-angle lens on a sturdy tripod, and attached a neutral-density filter to allow a long exposure even in the harsh midday lighting.  I shot a series of seven exposures, each one stop apart, and then combined them into a single image using image-processing software.  This technique, called High Dynamic Range (or HDR), allows a single image to show a wide range of tonal values from extremely dark to extremely bright. 

My two daughters, my wife, and I recently returned from an inspiring two-week adventure traveling through Iceland.  Our itinerary took us from the main city of Reykjavik to the scenic Snaefellsness Peninsula’s volcanic landscape, then up to Iceland’s far north just below the Arctic Circle, down to the southern coast dotted with geothermal fields and spectacular waterfalls, and ending with a visit to Iceland’s premier attraction, the Blue Lagoon.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Iceland’s Nordic culture and Viking roots from Icelanders of all backgrounds and trades.  Iceland is a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, otherworldly natural features, and friendly people.

Our Icelandic adventure began in the largest city, Reykjavik.  While small relative to other major world capitals, Reykjavik is modern, well-functioning, and ambitious in its development.  Its harbor-side location lends the city a strong measure of natural beauty.

Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall is Iceland’s premier home for the arts.  The brightly colored glass façade of the building was inspired by Iceland’s volcanic landscape.  While it’s tempting in architectural photography to use a wide-angle lens in order to include the entire building, I find it’s often more interesting to use a moderate telephoto lens in order to emphasize just a part of the whole.  This abstract image takes the viewer’s eye along the multicolored façade with its varied patterns of texture and reflections.

A big part of the joy of travel photography is using our camera as a tool to get to know the people we meet.  While we shared a city bus ride with a group of schoolkids out on a field trip to visit the National Museum, this little boy and I were playing a game of virtual peekaboo, resulting in this unorthodox portrait.

Stunning view over Reykjavik and its harbor from the top of the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water. 

Departing Reykjavik for the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we traversed a fabled landscape first discovered by the early Viking settlers.

A short hike took us to the summit of Mount Helgafell, a sacred hill about 250 feet high.  When composing landscape photos, keep in mind two useful tools, the Rule of Thirds, and the principle of Leading Lines.  Both are used in this image.  The Rule of Thirds suggests placing key elements of the image along the lines that cut 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the frame in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  And Leading Lines draw the viewer’s eye across the frame to rest on the most important spots.

The coastal town of Stykkisholmur sits on the coast along the scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  There we came across this curious house with windows at street level and a doorway at the second story level.  Often the most memorable photos are made of the strange places we happen upon during our wanderings.

During a visit to a horse farm, we saw a demonstration of all five gaits (one more than other breeds) that Icelandic horses are capable of.  So smooth is the Icelandic horse’s cantor that you could, if you like, enjoy a mug of beer while riding.

Even a dreadful rain storm couldn’t spoil images of Godafoss Waterfall.  Meaning “waterfall of the pagan gods,” the falls received their name when the leader of Iceland’s parliament decided that the country should adopt Christianity as the official religion in AD 1000.  Informally, Icelanders were still allowed to practice pagan rites in private, but the head of parliament made a symbolic gesture of throwing most of his pagan statues into the falls.  Waterfalls are wonderful subjects for landscape photography, but they should be treated with care and patience.  A sturdy tripod is essential for holding the camera steady during the long exposures required to lend a dramatic blur to the turbulent water.  Here I fitted the camera with a wide-angle lens and a neutral-density filter, which blocks out most of the light and allows a slow shutter speed even in broad daylight.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I used a cable release to trigger the shutter in order to avoid shaking the camera.  During post-processing I decided to convert this image to black-and-white in order to remove the distraction of the color and really emphasize the dramatic effect of the roiling water.

Sometimes we get the best photos by turning our lens on small and easily overlooked features.  The volcanic soil at Lake Myvatn makes a fertile habitat for colorful lichens.  There were hundreds of other visitors present during our visit to Lake Myvatn, but nobody else noticed the vibrant natural display just below our feet.  The amazing palette of colors in this image is entirely natural. 

This abstract image shows the facade of the Lutheran church at the Laufas turf houses.  I was struck by the textures and patterns of the architecture, so I used a telephoto lens to crop the composition so as to show only a part of the building, then converted to black-and-white during post-processing to simplify the presentation.

The Laufas turf houses were built over a period of several hundred years for wealthy families, and included all the comforts of contemporary living.  When photographing architecture with a wide-angle lens, it’s important to keep the camera level so as to avoid excessive distortion of the vertical lines. 

Leaving behind the lovely Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we headed north to reach Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city located just a few miles below the Arctic Circle.

In Akureyri, just a few miles below the Arctic Circle, we enjoyed the warmth of a wonderful home-hosted dinner.  Our hosts were both professional musicians, and they performed an impromptu concert for us after dinner.

Suited up for the cold and wind, our group boarded a vessel for a whale watching excursion in Dalvik.  I made this portrait of our on-board naturalist, a true native Icelander, using a moderate telephoto lens.

There are so many wonderful subjects to capture during our travels that it’s important to remember to shoot a few of ourselves.  Because our daughters, in their early 20s, don’t get to travel with us very often, we cherish the few photos we have featuring all of us together as a family.  To grab this fun shot of our human family interacting with a family of trolls, I configured all of the camera’s settings before handing the camera to a fellow traveler in our group who triggered the shutter.

A short flight from Iceland’s far north back down to Reykjavik positions us to explore the famed Golden Circle, a road connecting Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal region, and Gullfoss Waterfall.

At Thingvellir National Park, we hiked along the rift zone where two tectonic plates (the Eurasian and the North American) are drifting apart.  It’s hard to capture the majesty of dramatic and varied geological features, so I like to combine several layers of landforms in the image.  From top to bottom, this composition captures the sky, the rocky rift zone, and the ropey lava in the foreground.

Visiting the Geysir geothermal area, from which all geysers derive their name.  Along with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and Calistoga’s geyser, Iceland’s Strokkur is one of just a few regularly erupting geysers in the world.  A hard truth in travel photography is that we can’t control the weather and often we can’t control the time of day when we visit certain locations, so we have to make do with what we’re given.  To make the best photo possible given the poor contrast between the geyser’s eruption and the cloudy sky, I stepped back several hundred yards to include the observers, the dramatic clouds, and the mountainous background in the composition.

An excursion via super truck (a large four-wheel drive vehicle with the tires partly deflated) afforded us the opportunity to explore the otherwise inaccessible glacial terrain, including hiking into this otherworldly ice cave.

My daughters, who only recently attained legal drinking age, enjoy a shot of local Icelandic vodka chilled with glacial ice during our hike into an ice cave.  In the dim lighting inside the cave, use of a flash is required to light a portrait, but to avoid firing the flash too close to the axis of the lens, I attached a flash unit to my camera via a remote flash cord.  This simple and inexpensive accessory makes a huge difference when using flash lighting.

Our ATV tour took us off-road across the volcanic landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula.

On our last full day in Iceland before flying back home, we visited the legendary Blue Lagoon spa near Reykjavik.  Crowded, expensive, and touristy, it is nonetheless supremely relaxing and lots of fun.  This spa is also a very social place where it’s easy to meet—and photograph—visitors from all over the world.

The one site that nobody sets foot in Iceland without visiting is the Blue Lagoon.  During our time there, I made portraits of several visitors from different parts of the world.  It’s important to spend some time chatting with and getting to know your subject before making their portrait.  This practice is partly due to courtesy (it’s rude to shoot photos of people without their permission), but it also yields better images because your subject will relax and show you their true self after they get to know you.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Iceland photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Iceland?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

 

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

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Focus on Iceland [Encore Publication]: A world-class landscape photography destination

Iconic Icelandic scene: The lovely Gullfoss Waterfall can be viewed from three different levels to obtain different perspectives on these dramatic falls.  To capture this image, I climbed to the top level, secured the camera and wide-angle lens on a sturdy tripod, and attached a neutral-density filter to allow a long exposure even in the harsh midday lighting.  I shot a series of seven exposures, each one stop apart, and then combined them into a single image using image-processing software.  This technique, called High Dynamic Range (or HDR), allows a single image to show a wide range of tonal values from extremely dark to extremely bright. 

My two daughters, my wife, and I recently returned from an inspiring two-week adventure traveling through Iceland.  Our itinerary took us from the main city of Reykjavik to the scenic Snaefellsness Peninsula’s volcanic landscape, then up to Iceland’s far north just below the Arctic Circle, down to the southern coast dotted with geothermal fields and spectacular waterfalls, and ending with a visit to Iceland’s premier attraction, the Blue Lagoon.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Iceland’s Nordic culture and Viking roots from Icelanders of all backgrounds and trades.  Iceland is a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, otherworldly natural features, and friendly people.

Our Icelandic adventure began in the largest city, Reykjavik.  While small relative to other major world capitals, Reykjavik is modern, well-functioning, and ambitious in its development.  Its harbor-side location lends the city a strong measure of natural beauty.

Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall is Iceland’s premier home for the arts.  The brightly colored glass façade of the building was inspired by Iceland’s volcanic landscape.  While it’s tempting in architectural photography to use a wide-angle lens in order to include the entire building, I find it’s often more interesting to use a moderate telephoto lens in order to emphasize just a part of the whole.  This abstract image takes the viewer’s eye along the multicolored façade with its varied patterns of texture and reflections.

A big part of the joy of travel photography is using our camera as a tool to get to know the people we meet.  While we shared a city bus ride with a group of schoolkids out on a field trip to visit the National Museum, this little boy and I were playing a game of virtual peekaboo, resulting in this unorthodox portrait.

Stunning view over Reykjavik and its harbor from the top of the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water. 

Departing Reykjavik for the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we traversed a fabled landscape first discovered by the early Viking settlers.

A short hike took us to the summit of Mount Helgafell, a sacred hill about 250 feet high.  When composing landscape photos, keep in mind two useful tools, the Rule of Thirds, and the principle of Leading Lines.  Both are used in this image.  The Rule of Thirds suggests placing key elements of the image along the lines that cut 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the frame in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  And Leading Lines draw the viewer’s eye across the frame to rest on the most important spots.

The coastal town of Stykkisholmur sits on the coast along the scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  There we came across this curious house with windows at street level and a doorway at the second story level.  Often the most memorable photos are made of the strange places we happen upon during our wanderings.

During a visit to a horse farm, we saw a demonstration of all five gaits (one more than other breeds) that Icelandic horses are capable of.  So smooth is the Icelandic horse’s cantor that you could, if you like, enjoy a mug of beer while riding.

Even a dreadful rain storm couldn’t spoil images of Godafoss Waterfall.  Meaning “waterfall of the pagan gods,” the falls received their name when the leader of Iceland’s parliament decided that the country should adopt Christianity as the official religion in AD 1000.  Informally, Icelanders were still allowed to practice pagan rites in private, but the head of parliament made a symbolic gesture of throwing most of his pagan statues into the falls.  Waterfalls are wonderful subjects for landscape photography, but they should be treated with care and patience.  A sturdy tripod is essential for holding the camera steady during the long exposures required to lend a dramatic blur to the turbulent water.  Here I fitted the camera with a wide-angle lens and a neutral-density filter, which blocks out most of the light and allows a slow shutter speed even in broad daylight.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I used a cable release to trigger the shutter in order to avoid shaking the camera.  During post-processing I decided to convert this image to black-and-white in order to remove the distraction of the color and really emphasize the dramatic effect of the roiling water.

Sometimes we get the best photos by turning our lens on small and easily overlooked features.  The volcanic soil at Lake Myvatn makes a fertile habitat for colorful lichens.  There were hundreds of other visitors present during our visit to Lake Myvatn, but nobody else noticed the vibrant natural display just below our feet.  The amazing palette of colors in this image is entirely natural. 

This abstract image shows the facade of the Lutheran church at the Laufas turf houses.  I was struck by the textures and patterns of the architecture, so I used a telephoto lens to crop the composition so as to show only a part of the building, then converted to black-and-white during post-processing to simplify the presentation.

The Laufas turf houses were built over a period of several hundred years for wealthy families, and included all the comforts of contemporary living.  When photographing architecture with a wide-angle lens, it’s important to keep the camera level so as to avoid excessive distortion of the vertical lines. 

Leaving behind the lovely Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we headed north to reach Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city located just a few miles below the Arctic Circle.

In Akureyri, just a few miles below the Arctic Circle, we enjoyed the warmth of a wonderful home-hosted dinner.  Our hosts were both professional musicians, and they performed an impromptu concert for us after dinner.

Suited up for the cold and wind, our group boarded a vessel for a whale watching excursion in Dalvik.  I made this portrait of our on-board naturalist, a true native Icelander, using a moderate telephoto lens.

There are so many wonderful subjects to capture during our travels that it’s important to remember to shoot a few of ourselves.  Because our daughters, in their early 20s, don’t get to travel with us very often, we cherish the few photos we have featuring all of us together as a family.  To grab this fun shot of our human family interacting with a family of trolls, I configured all of the camera’s settings before handing the camera to a fellow traveler in our group who triggered the shutter.

A short flight from Iceland’s far north back down to Reykjavik positions us to explore the famed Golden Circle, a road connecting Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal region, and Gullfoss Waterfall.

At Thingvellir National Park, we hiked along the rift zone where two tectonic plates (the Eurasian and the North American) are drifting apart.  It’s hard to capture the majesty of dramatic and varied geological features, so I like to combine several layers of landforms in the image.  From top to bottom, this composition captures the sky, the rocky rift zone, and the ropey lava in the foreground.

Visiting the Geysir geothermal area, from which all geysers derive their name.  Along with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and Calistoga’s geyser, Iceland’s Strokkur is one of just a few regularly erupting geysers in the world.  A hard truth in travel photography is that we can’t control the weather and often we can’t control the time of day when we visit certain locations, so we have to make do with what we’re given.  To make the best photo possible given the poor contrast between the geyser’s eruption and the cloudy sky, I stepped back several hundred yards to include the observers, the dramatic clouds, and the mountainous background in the composition.

An excursion via super truck (a large four-wheel drive vehicle with the tires partly deflated) afforded us the opportunity to explore the otherwise inaccessible glacial terrain, including hiking into this otherworldly ice cave.

My daughters, who only recently attained legal drinking age, enjoy a shot of local Icelandic vodka chilled with glacial ice during our hike into an ice cave.  In the dim lighting inside the cave, use of a flash is required to light a portrait, but to avoid firing the flash too close to the axis of the lens, I attached a flash unit to my camera via a remote flash cord.  This simple and inexpensive accessory makes a huge difference when using flash lighting.

Our ATV tour took us off-road across the volcanic landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula.

On our last full day in Iceland before flying back home, we visited the legendary Blue Lagoon spa near Reykjavik.  Crowded, expensive, and touristy, it is nonetheless supremely relaxing and lots of fun.  This spa is also a very social place where it’s easy to meet—and photograph—visitors from all over the world.

The one site that nobody sets foot in Iceland without visiting is the Blue Lagoon.  During our time there, I made portraits of several visitors from different parts of the world.  It’s important to spend some time chatting with and getting to know your subject before making their portrait.  This practice is partly due to courtesy (it’s rude to shoot photos of people without their permission), but it also yields better images because your subject will relax and show you their true self after they get to know you.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Iceland photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Iceland?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

 

Focus on Iceland: A world-class landscape photography destination

Iconic Icelandic scene: The lovely Gullfoss Waterfall can be viewed from three different levels to obtain different perspectives on these dramatic falls.  To capture this image, I climbed to the top level, secured the camera and wide-angle lens on a sturdy tripod, and attached a neutral-density filter to allow a long exposure even in the harsh midday lighting.  I shot a series of seven exposures, each one stop apart, and then combined them into a single image using image-processing software.  This technique, called High Dynamic Range (or HDR), allows a single image to show a wide range of tonal values from extremely dark to extremely bright. 

My two daughters, my wife, and I recently returned from an inspiring two-week adventure traveling through Iceland.  Our itinerary took us from the main city of Reykjavik to the scenic Snaefellsness Peninsula’s volcanic landscape, then up to Iceland’s far north just below the Arctic Circle, down to the southern coast dotted with geothermal fields and spectacular waterfalls, and ending with a visit to Iceland’s premier attraction, the Blue Lagoon.  Throughout this adventure we had the opportunity to meet and learn about Iceland’s Nordic culture and Viking roots from Icelanders of all backgrounds and trades.  Iceland is a photographer’s dream, filled with glorious landscapes, otherworldly natural features, and friendly people.

Our Icelandic adventure began in the largest city, Reykjavik.  While small relative to other major world capitals, Reykjavik is modern, well-functioning, and ambitious in its development.  Its harbor-side location lends the city a strong measure of natural beauty.

Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall is Iceland’s premier home for the arts.  The brightly colored glass façade of the building was inspired by Iceland’s volcanic landscape.  While it’s tempting in architectural photography to use a wide-angle lens in order to include the entire building, I find it’s often more interesting to use a moderate telephoto lens in order to emphasize just a part of the whole.  This abstract image takes the viewer’s eye along the multicolored façade with its varied patterns of texture and reflections.

A big part of the joy of travel photography is using our camera as a tool to get to know the people we meet.  While we shared a city bus ride with a group of schoolkids out on a field trip to visit the National Museum, this little boy and I were playing a game of virtual peekaboo, resulting in this unorthodox portrait.

Stunning view over Reykjavik and its harbor from the top of the tower at Hallgrimskirkja Church.  A polarizing filter can help darken skies and enhance the sense of drama in clouds and water. 

Departing Reykjavik for the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we traversed a fabled landscape first discovered by the early Viking settlers.

A short hike took us to the summit of Mount Helgafell, a sacred hill about 250 feet high.  When composing landscape photos, keep in mind two useful tools, the Rule of Thirds, and the principle of Leading Lines.  Both are used in this image.  The Rule of Thirds suggests placing key elements of the image along the lines that cut 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the frame in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions.  And Leading Lines draw the viewer’s eye across the frame to rest on the most important spots.

The coastal town of Stykkisholmur sits on the coast along the scenic Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  There we came across this curious house with windows at street level and a doorway at the second story level.  Often the most memorable photos are made of the strange places we happen upon during our wanderings.

During a visit to a horse farm, we saw a demonstration of all five gaits (one more than other breeds) that Icelandic horses are capable of.  So smooth is the Icelandic horse’s cantor that you could, if you like, enjoy a mug of beer while riding.

Even a dreadful rain storm couldn’t spoil images of Godafoss Waterfall.  Meaning “waterfall of the pagan gods,” the falls received their name when the leader of Iceland’s parliament decided that the country should adopt Christianity as the official religion in AD 1000.  Informally, Icelanders were still allowed to practice pagan rites in private, but the head of parliament made a symbolic gesture of throwing most of his pagan statues into the falls.  Waterfalls are wonderful subjects for landscape photography, but they should be treated with care and patience.  A sturdy tripod is essential for holding the camera steady during the long exposures required to lend a dramatic blur to the turbulent water.  Here I fitted the camera with a wide-angle lens and a neutral-density filter, which blocks out most of the light and allows a slow shutter speed even in broad daylight.  The camera was mounted on a tripod and I used a cable release to trigger the shutter in order to avoid shaking the camera.  During post-processing I decided to convert this image to black-and-white in order to remove the distraction of the color and really emphasize the dramatic effect of the roiling water.

Sometimes we get the best photos by turning our lens on small and easily overlooked features.  The volcanic soil at Lake Myvatn makes a fertile habitat for colorful lichens.  There were hundreds of other visitors present during our visit to Lake Myvatn, but nobody else noticed the vibrant natural display just below our feet.  The amazing palette of colors in this image is entirely natural. 

This abstract image shows the facade of the Lutheran church at the Laufas turf houses.  I was struck by the textures and patterns of the architecture, so I used a telephoto lens to crop the composition so as to show only a part of the building, then converted to black-and-white during post-processing to simplify the presentation.

The Laufas turf houses were built over a period of several hundred years for wealthy families, and included all the comforts of contemporary living.  When photographing architecture with a wide-angle lens, it’s important to keep the camera level so as to avoid excessive distortion of the vertical lines. 

Leaving behind the lovely Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we headed north to reach Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city located just a few miles below the Arctic Circle.

In Akureyri, just a few miles below the Arctic Circle, we enjoyed the warmth of a wonderful home-hosted dinner.  Our hosts were both professional musicians, and they performed an impromptu concert for us after dinner.

Suited up for the cold and wind, our group boarded a vessel for a whale watching excursion in Dalvik.  I made this portrait of our on-board naturalist, a true native Icelander, using a moderate telephoto lens.

There are so many wonderful subjects to capture during our travels that it’s important to remember to shoot a few of ourselves.  Because our daughters, in their early 20s, don’t get to travel with us very often, we cherish the few photos we have featuring all of us together as a family.  To grab this fun shot of our human family interacting with a family of trolls, I configured all of the camera’s settings before handing the camera to a fellow traveler in our group who triggered the shutter.

A short flight from Iceland’s far north back down to Reykjavik positions us to explore the famed Golden Circle, a road connecting Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal region, and Gullfoss Waterfall.

At Thingvellir National Park, we hiked along the rift zone where two tectonic plates (the Eurasian and the North American) are drifting apart.  It’s hard to capture the majesty of dramatic and varied geological features, so I like to combine several layers of landforms in the image.  From top to bottom, this composition captures the sky, the rocky rift zone, and the ropey lava in the foreground.

Visiting the Geysir geothermal area, from which all geysers derive their name.  Along with Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and Calistoga’s geyser, Iceland’s Strokkur is one of just a few regularly erupting geysers in the world.  A hard truth in travel photography is that we can’t control the weather and often we can’t control the time of day when we visit certain locations, so we have to make do with what we’re given.  To make the best photo possible given the poor contrast between the geyser’s eruption and the cloudy sky, I stepped back several hundred yards to include the observers, the dramatic clouds, and the mountainous background in the composition.

An excursion via super truck (a large four-wheel drive vehicle with the tires partly deflated) afforded us the opportunity to explore the otherwise inaccessible glacial terrain, including hiking into this otherworldly ice cave.

My daughters, who only recently attained legal drinking age, enjoy a shot of local Icelandic vodka chilled with glacial ice during our hike into an ice cave.  In the dim lighting inside the cave, use of a flash is required to light a portrait, but to avoid firing the flash too close to the axis of the lens, I attached a flash unit to my camera via a remote flash cord.  This simple and inexpensive accessory makes a huge difference when using flash lighting.

Our ATV tour took us off-road across the volcanic landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula.

On our last full day in Iceland before flying back home, we visited the legendary Blue Lagoon spa near Reykjavik.  Crowded, expensive, and touristy, it is nonetheless supremely relaxing and lots of fun.  This spa is also a very social place where it’s easy to meet—and photograph—visitors from all over the world.

The one site that nobody sets foot in Iceland without visiting is the Blue Lagoon.  During our time there, I made portraits of several visitors from different parts of the world.  It’s important to spend some time chatting with and getting to know your subject before making their portrait.  This practice is partly due to courtesy (it’s rude to shoot photos of people without their permission), but it also yields better images because your subject will relax and show you their true self after they get to know you.

All of the images appearing in this post and many more are available for viewing and purchase on my website here: Iceland photo gallery.

Have you traveled in Iceland?  Please share the most memorable aspects of your photographic journey in the comments box.

Want to read more posts about world-class travel photography destinations?  Find them all here: Posts about destinations.

 

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

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

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

A few words about how these images were made:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mardi Gras SF 2018 [Encore Publication]: A case study on shooting action in low light

San Francisco has been celebrating Carnaval for 40 years, and for the past 5 years I’ve been documenting this wonderful event.  The anniversary season officially kicked off last night with San Francisco’s take on Mardi Gras.  I covered the small parade through SF’s historic Mission District and also the performances of several comparsas (like krewes or samba schools) at one of the event’s venues.  Today’s post showcases some of my favorite images from this year’s Mardi Gras while also serving as a case study for shooting fast action in extremely low light conditions.

Taking the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” remember that when shooting action in low light it is okay occasionally to intentionally allow some motion blur to emphasize the movement.  Here I achieved a soft painterly effect by choosing a slower shutter speed to capture this image of a young dancer mustering for the parade.

The use of flash is required for much low-light action photography, but that doesn’t mean your images have to be harsh or unnatural looking.  A few hints: 1) Get the flash off your camera using a flash cord or remote control; 2) Use balanced fill flash instead of automatic flash for a more realistic look; 3) Dial down the flash’s power by using flash exposure compensation (I use -1 stop most of the time); 4) These settings often will require that you use a high ISO setting and a fast lens.

Use a fast prime lens to achieve a fast shutter speed along with a relatively shallow aperture to freeze and isolate your subject.  Most of these images were made with a 50mm f/1.4 lens.

In post-processing your images, consider these tips: 1) Apply some noise reduction to mitigate the digital noise associated with high-ISO shooting; 2) Adjust the white balance to render the colors you remember from the shoot (always shoot in RAW mode if possible to allow setting the white balance during post-processing); 3) Apply a touch of post-crop vignetting to emphasize your subject and reduce background clutter.

For group shots, try to find an uncluttered background and pose everyone as tightly as possible so that your fill flash will illuminate them evenly.  Don’t use a wide-angle lens for group shots!  Sure, doing so will make it easier to fit in all the subjects, but it also provides a very unflattering perspective for most people.  Here I shot with a 50mm “normal” lens and moved back to fit in the entire group.

Portraits work very well using balanced fill-flash techniques.  Be sure to find an uncluttered background and get the flash unit off the camera.  Here I bounced the flash off the awning of a building to achieve a soft effect relatively unencumbered by shadows.

By applying some of these techniques, you can capture fast-moving action even under extremely low-light conditions and still achieve realistic looking and flattering results.

Do you have suggestions for shooting action in low light?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: Posts about techniques.  And remember that all the images featured in this post as well as thousands more are available for viewing or purchase on my website–just click on any photo to view it in more detail.

Join Me on a Photography Tour of Mongolia: Capture unique images of a fast-vanishing nomadic lifestyle in this rarely seen part of the world

Dear Readers,

Please join me on a one-of-a-kind photography adventure through Mongolia from September 11-28, 2018.  This is a small group tour and is likely to fill quickly.


Wild and untamed, Mongolia is a deeply spiritual land of nomadic cultures and dreamy landscapes of snowcapped mountains, crystalline lakes, and great swathes of grassy plains and ancient desert. Even today, Mongolia evokes a time when Genghis Khan and his warrior horsemen thundered across the steppe to establish the largest land empire the world has ever known. Discover Mongolia’s diverse land and people, from the bustle of Ulaanbaatar and alpine beauty of Khovsgol Lake to the vast expanse of the Gobi Desert. Meet with nomadic herding families, learn about ancient shamanistic beliefs, ride a camel in the desert dunes, and discover why Mongolia is known as the “Land of Blue Sky” during stays in authentic ger tents—just as modern-day nomads and their ancestors have done for centuries. Travel to Mongolia, a pristine land that time forgot, for an adventure you’ll treasure forever.

Join our small group of photography enthusiasts and experience the thrill of capturing the full range of Mongolia’s spectacular beauty. Mongolia is a dream destination for travel photographers, offering breathtaking scenery, unique wildlife, and fascinating cultural encounters. We’ve planned this itinerary to provide ample opportunities to capture unforgettable images that you won’t find in travel brochures and on postcards.

Award-winning professional travel photographer Kyle Adler will be shooting alongside tour participants and will provide personalized in-the-field instruction. During our optional informal workshops, we’ll review our recent images, plan our shot list for upcoming locations, and cover techniques to make the best images possible. Topics will be tailored to the group’s interests and may cover any aspects of travel photography from shot planning to capture technique, and on to post-processing and image sharing. Unlike most photography tours, we will place a special emphasis on learning to use the camera as a bridge to enhanced understanding of the land and people we visit. Photographers of any level will see their images improve, and non-photographer friends and family are also most welcome to join this tour. You can make memorable images using whatever camera gear you wish to bring; it is not necessary to invest in specialized gear.

Visit the Overseas Adventure Travel web page to  learn more about this photography adventure: Photography Adventure in Mongolia

Call Overseas Adventure Travel toll-free at 1-800-353-6262 and press 3 for more details; Refer to Group Booking Code (G8-28085)