Capturing the Creative Process [Encore Publication]: How to document an artist’s work using your own artistic vision

Capturing images of the performing arts is a specialty of mine, as well as one of my absolute favorite genres of photography.  But as gratifying as I find documenting live performances of dance, music, or theater, there’s a whole higher level of photographic joy available from capturing the artist’s creative process before their work reaches a public audience.  Today’s post focuses on a recent behind-the-scenes shoot that I did for a friend and longtime collaborator, Arina Hunter.

I arranged to shoot her dress rehearsal just before the first of two public performances as part of San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Arts RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) program.  Arina was preparing to perform an untitled work-in-progress which was quite complicated technically, so it was fascinating to watch her process of making artistic decisions and readying herself and the technical crew for the evening’s show.

Read on to see some of my favorite images from the rehearsal, accompanied by a few thoughts about my own artistic and technical process that went into the capture of Arina’s work.

All of these images are available for sale on my website.  Just click on any image to view them in the online gallery.

The creative process is about more than just practicing for a performance.  Try to include some wider views depicting the artist’s full environment including equipment, sets, and performance space.

The flip side is that it’s also important to get up-close and to capture the physical work that goes into preparing for a performance.

Shoot plenty of frames to maximize the chances of capturing the “decisive moment” when the artist’s work comes together as an integrated whole.

Typically there are several different moods evoked in a single piece of art.  This image captures a vulnerability and poignancy that informed Arina’s work even as much of her physical performance exudes strength.  Finding the right perspective to convey each mood is key to making successful images.

When post-processing my images, I ask myself how can my own technique best convey the artist’s intention.  For this image I decided a monochrome conversion would best render Arina’s physicality at this precise moment during her process.  Freeing the viewer from the anchor of color perception, a black-and-white image is graphic and timeless and allows us to focus on what is elemental: form, contrast, shadow, and light.  

I shot this image from a low perspective near the ground so as to juxtapose Arina’s body with the projected video image on the wall.  Always look for a different perspectives while shooting that can create compositions to get across your intent.

Another example of perspective: To make this image I climbed on top of a chair and shot down on Arina in her performance space. 

Sometimes the details convey the story better than the whole.  This closeup of Arina’s paint-covered hand framed by colorful canvas makes a powerful summary of her performance piece.

Today’s post has been a bit more conceptual and less technical than most of my posts.  The purpose is to get you thinking about how our own art of photography can be harnessed to capture the creative process of other artists.  The next time you are privileged to get to shoot an artist at work, think about how you can apply elements such as composition, perspective, color, texture, empty space, motion, and stasis to capture compelling images of the artist’s own vision!

Do you have techniques you’ve used to document other artists’ creative process?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

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.

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 Tahiti Dance Fete [Encore Publication]: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

The travel photographer must be prepared to shoot under challenging circumstances, because often we have little control over the conditions in the field.  We may plan our travel years in advance to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse, only to wake up on the morning of the eclipse to find the sky is totally overcast.  Or we could make arrangements months ahead to be at a major cultural festival, but learn upon arrival that the area we’re shooting from is hundreds of yards from the action.  These things happen, but the professional photographer still needs to get her shot.  So, what can be done to persevere and increase our odds of getting usable images under adversity?  The answer, of course, depends on the specific circumstances of each shoot, but there are some general tips I can offer.  Today’s post presents a case study based on my recent shoot of the solo dance competition at the Tahiti Fete in San Jose, California.

The dancers made lovely subjects, but the shooting conditions were very challenging.  Read on to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation.  Buy this photo

Upon arrival at the dance competition, I realized immediately that this shoot would be challenging.  It was held in a cramped hotel convention room with a makeshift stage, rows of folding chairs for spectators, insufficient lighting of poor color quality, and a bank of judges blocking most of the view of the stage.  To make matters worse, the room was packed with people, many of whom stood up to cheer on their friends, and the only available seats were near the far end of the room.  An extra challenge was thrown into the mix by the cluttered and unattractive background behind the performers on the stage.

Cluttered backgrounds are a significant obstacle, but good images can still be made in these situations.  Buy this photo

What can be done to mitigate against a cluttered background?  I shot plenty of images of each dancer to increase the likelihood that I could eliminate some of the more distracting background elements while still capturing the excitement, grace, and colors of the dancing.  This image was the best I could capture of this particular dancer, so I committed to it in post-processing.  I cropped the image to avoid the most distracting elements, adjusted the exposure curves, contrast, and sharpness of the background to de-emphasize it, and applied some post-crop vignetting to ensure the dancer would be highlighted.

When using a very high ISO, some noise will result.  This doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Buy this photo

The lighting was very dim at this venue.  Because I was shooting from far away, I needed to use a long telephoto lens, which limited me to a small aperture and no possibility of using flash.  Nonetheless, a fast shutter speed was required in order to freeze the fast action of the Polynesian dancing.  This combination (low lighting, small aperture, and fast shutter speed) leaves no option other than a very high ISO setting.  I shot the above image at ISO 6400.  Even with an excellent professional camera sensor, such a high ISO will generate some noise in the image.  Noise can often be reduced to acceptable levels during post-processing.  But for this particular image, I was aiming for a soft, painterly feel.  The visual effect of high contrast, soft colors, and a bit of visual noise here gives the feel of an impressionistic rendering.  For this expressive Tahitian subject, I was very happy to have a Gauguin-esque style shine through in the final image.

 Cut out elements that don’t work.  Buy this photo

To make the above image, I cropped out distracting portions such as the judges’ heads in the foreground and an ugly door and wall in the background.  The resulting aspect ratio is non-standard, but works well for this image.  I desaturated the background and used post-crop vignetting to focus attention on the dancer.

 


Black-and-white renderings can be more forgiving when color quality is low.  Buy this photo

This image portrays a lovely subject but the lighting was especially poor.  Realizing I couldn’t do much to mitigate the strange color cast resulting from the artificial lights, I converted the image to monochrome, boosted the contrast, and adjusted the color channel mix to render a pleasing and elegant final image.  Check out this post to learn how black-and-white conversion can be used to save the day when color temperatures or image noise are problems: Post on B&W conversion to save strangely colored images.

Bringing it all together: This image works nicely in spite of all the challenges present at the shoot, including foreground obstacles, dim and low quality lighting, a far-away vantage point, and a cluttered background.  Buy this photo

In spite of multiple significant technical issues, I was able to make some striking images of the lovely dancers at this Tahitian festival.  Hopefully, the tips presented here will help when you next are faced with a challenging shoot.  The most important thing is to keep shooting as best you can while in the field.  There are multiple methods you can use in post-processing to mitigate against the shooting challenges and end up with images you will be proud of.

What techniques do you use when faced with difficult shooting conditions?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Focus on Sacramento Spartan Race [Encore Publication]: Covering a Spartan Race can be an endurance event

Some events are just plain fun to shoot from beginning to end.  One of my favorite types of sporting events to cover is the Spartan Race.  Basically a combination of long-distance running with a supersized obstacle course, a Spartan Race is an extreme athletic event that attracts thousands of athletes from elite to weekend warrior.  I enjoy shooting these races because they offer so many exciting elements: color, drama, showmanship, grit, stamina, and humor.  Adding to the photographic fun quotient are the glorious natural surroundings, the photogenic and extraordinarily fit athletes, and the wide range of athletic rigors required of them.

In this post I’ll present some of my images from this past weekend’s Super Spartan Race held near Sacramento, California.  I will also share some tips on how to capture the best of a big and sprawling event like this one.

The Spartan Race organization recognizes and welcomes professional and enthusiast photographers more readily than do many US sporting authorities.  For any large sporting event, I apply several weeks in advance for a media (or press) pass so that I can bring in all my gear, shoot in all areas including those off-limits to spectators, gain free or reduced-price entrance and parking, and access VIP areas.  I’ve found the Spartan Race organizers to be quite helpful and understanding of what working photographers do.

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Yours truly with media badge.  This pass is important for the professional, as it allows access to otherwise off-limits areas and lets athletes and officials know you’re a working photographer.

One point to keep in mind when covering an endurance event spread out over long distances is that as a photographer, you will experience some portion of the rigors the athletes face.  The Super Spartan Race traverses a course about 8 miles long over steep and often muddy hills, interspersed with a couple of dozen obstacles of different types.  While I don’t typically try to cover all of the obstacles, it’s important to get a reasonable sample of the different challenges, so I do usually hike quite a few miles during the course of the day.  Photographers with a media pass have access to the whole course, but there are no special roads or ramps to get us there.  We have to trek up and down the same hills, through the same mud, and over the same terrain as the athletes do.  So come prepared for a bit of a workout!

The starting line is a good place to set the stage for your photo essay.  There is usually a DJ and music to get the athletes pumped up for the race.  Everyone is fresh, clean, and excited at this early stage.  Buy this photo

In addition to portraits and close-ups of individual athletes, it’s important to capture some establishing shots to set the context of the race.  I like to get some images of large contingents of athletes running over the hills.  I shoot from a distance, but often use a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and emphasize the massive scale of these races.  Buy this photo

When shooting individual athletes on the obstacles, use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action and a relatively small aperture to blur the background.  Buy this photo

Portraits of athletes don’t have to be in the cliche pose of standing, legs apart, on the ground flexing their biceps.  Athletes are happy to pose in the midst of whatever they’re doing when they see a photographer nearby.  Buy this photo

After finishing the course, athletes gather in the festival area.  This is a great place to make portraits.  The athletes are exhausted and muddy but in a celebratory mood.  Buy this photo

Spartan athletes in the festival area display strength as well as excitement for having completed the race.  Buy this photo

The finish line itself is a dramatic vantage point.  In this particular race, athletes must jump over a line of fire to finish the course.  I shot from a low perspective to emphasize the height of the jump, and used a fast shutter speed and small aperture to freeze the moment and isolate the athlete from the background.  Buy this photo

This image works so well because the shooting angle looking upward from below emphasizes the athlete’s power, and because the timing captured her expression at just the perfect moment.  I shot many frames to increase the likelihood of capturing the right moment, and, once again, I chose a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion along with a small aperture to blur the background.  Buy this photo

The shower area at the end of the race was taken over by hordes of kids who used the hoses for water play.  Humorous moments like this one lend a playful element to the day’s portfolio of images.  Buy this photo

An iconic Spartan Race image.  I captured the strenuous activity of carrying buckets filled with sand by shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens.  This technique compresses the perspective to include more athletes in the frame while still showing the strain on their faces.  Buy this photo

I like to seek out the athletes who have something special to say.  This racer stopped for a moment so I could make a portrait.  His flag makes a nice counterpoint to the rolling hills and featureless sky in the background.  Buy this photo

Although Spartan Race athletes are fierce competitors, they also make an effort to support one another and cheer their fellow racers on.  I enjoy capturing these interactions because these moments often tell a strong story visually.  Buy this photo

What are your favorite sporting events to shoot?  Do you have tips you can share for making great images of athletes?

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

 

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.

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 How Weird Street Faire [Encore Publication]: A case study on simple techniques to capture winning images of festivals

As a professional travel photographer, I shoot regularly in nearly all genres of photography.  A typical day on the road might include shooting landscapes, wildlife, cityscapes, portraits, action (sports, dance, performance), and nighttime photography.  While I enjoy all types of shooting, my great joy as a photographer is capturing portraits of the people I meet.  Whether close to home or halfway around the world, getting to know the people and learning about their culture through making portraits of them is a wonderful experience.  And there’s no better way to capture images of many amazing people in a short time than by attending local festivals.  People tend to be their best selves at special celebrations like festivals and street fairs.  They dress exuberantly, dance with abandon, make new friends quickly, and (nearly always) are overjoyed to pose for photos.

I shoot about a hundred festivals and other special events every year, so I’ve learned a few tips about how to make the best images during these occasions.  In today’s post I share some simple but effective techniques for capturing great portraits at festivals and other gatherings, using San Francisco’s recent How Weird Street Faire as a case study.  How Weird is a vibrant and colorful, only-in-SF, annual celebration of individuality, tolerance, music, art, and hula hoops.  Read on to see some of my favorite images from this year’s festival, presented along with some discussion of how they were made.  To view more of my images, or to buy some, check out this gallery: How Weird photo gallery.

I see a lot of fellow photographers at events like How Weird shooting with huge telephotos and even tripods, like they’re after images of wildlife on a Kenyan safari.  In my opinion, they are missing the point.  We’re making portraits of people here, so use a normal or moderate telephoto portrait lens, preferably a fast prime lens, ditch the tripod and monopod at home, and get in close to chat with and get to know the people you’re photographing.  When you interact with people, you get a sense of what makes them special, allowing both you and them to capture that special trait in your photos.  Random sniping from far away with a long telephoto will yield far more bland and generic photos.  All of my images at How Weird Street Faire were made with a single camera body and one lens, my trusty 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.  Sometimes simple is better, especially when it comes to capturing people at fast-moving events.

Larger groups can be challenging to capture in portraits, particularly in bustling spaces like those of a festival.  When they couple I was chatting with suddenly ran into a friend and they had a group hug, I quickly stepped back a few paces and made this expressive and engaging portrait.  It’s okay to break the rules sometimes–here, one of the subject’s faces is completely obscured and another’s is partially obscured, yet the portrait works because it captures the energy and affection of the moment.

When photographers argue that the “street photography” approach (candidly sneaking images of people who aren’t aware they’re present) is the best for capturing people’s true essence, I show them images like this one.  This wholly genuine and unguarded moment of the girl dancing was made with her full knowledge and permission.  The trick is to chat with the subject and get their permission for photography first, then to lay back for a while and let them go back to what they were doing.  After a few minutes, they’ll nearly forget you’re there and they will reveal their true selves.  But unlike shots you sneak without permission, now you have a subject happy to have you photographing them, and you can take your time and not have to rush your work in order to hide your shooting from them.

Often we see only the most obvious subjects at crowded, chaotic events like festivals.  It’s easy to spend all our time shooting people dancing, partying, and displaying their costumes, but I try always to look for the more hidden people and infrastructure that support the event.  This DJ was partially hidden atop the big dance stage and behind the banks of speakers, but she made a fun subject for this portrait.

Don’t be afraid to get in close.  This portrait really pops because the tight composition allows us to focus our attention on the symmetry and color of the subject’s hair and costume.  

The interactions between people are at least as much fun to observe and capture as the individuals themselves.  I had chatted with and photographed a group of people for a few minutes when I observed this fun interaction, so I stepped back and framed some shots of the two young people together.

While post-processing my images after the shoot, I decided to render this one in monochrome to achieve a gritty urban street scene sort of feel.  Often color can distract from the power of an image, so always consider which of your images could benefit from conversion to black-and-white.

In ordinary daily life, I find that perhaps two-thirds of people are willing to have their portrait made if the photographer spends some time getting to know them first and then asks politely.  But at a festival, nearly everyone is excited about posing for portraits.  The trick is to capture scenes where they show you their underlying personalities a bit, rather than just striking a cliched pose for the camera.  To achieve that here, I spent a few minutes shooting, asking the couple to pose in different styles and have fun with it.

Putting it all together.  Here’s a summary of the basic techniques I use when shooting portraits at festivals:  1) Use a fast prime normal or portrait lens.  2) Set your camera for a fast shutter speed (1/500 second or faster is good for dancing and other fast action), wide aperture (f/2.5 or wider is ideal except for large groups) to isolate the subject, and an ISO appropriate to the lighting of the scene (I used ISO 100 the whole day due to the bright outdoor light).  3) Get to know your subject before shooting, let them relax, and capture them during an authentic moment.  4) Try to compose the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible; of course, this is often difficult at crowded festivals.  5) During post-processing, crop to clean up the scene and then vignette just a touch to further clean up busy backgrounds.

I hope this discussion of techniques to capture portraits during festivals has been helpful.  The best way to learn these techniques and to find your own style is to shoot and shoot some more!

Please leave a comment with your own thoughts and tips about how to make great images of people at celebrations.

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

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.

Capturing the Creative Process [Encore Publication]: How to document an artist’s work using your own artistic vision

Capturing images of the performing arts is a specialty of mine, as well as one of my absolute favorite genres of photography.  But as gratifying as I find documenting live performances of dance, music, or theater, there’s a whole higher level of photographic joy available from capturing the artist’s creative process before their work reaches a public audience.  Today’s post focuses on a recent behind-the-scenes shoot that I did for a friend and longtime collaborator, Arina Hunter.

I arranged to shoot her dress rehearsal just before the first of two public performances as part of San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Arts RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) program.  Arina was preparing to perform an untitled work-in-progress which was quite complicated technically, so it was fascinating to watch her process of making artistic decisions and readying herself and the technical crew for the evening’s show.

Read on to see some of my favorite images from the rehearsal, accompanied by a few thoughts about my own artistic and technical process that went into the capture of Arina’s work.

All of these images are available for sale on my website.  Just click on any image to view them in the online gallery.

The creative process is about more than just practicing for a performance.  Try to include some wider views depicting the artist’s full environment including equipment, sets, and performance space.

The flip side is that it’s also important to get up-close and to capture the physical work that goes into preparing for a performance.

Shoot plenty of frames to maximize the chances of capturing the “decisive moment” when the artist’s work comes together as an integrated whole.

Typically there are several different moods evoked in a single piece of art.  This image captures a vulnerability and poignancy that informed Arina’s work even as much of her physical performance exudes strength.  Finding the right perspective to convey each mood is key to making successful images.

When post-processing my images, I ask myself how can my own technique best convey the artist’s intention.  For this image I decided a monochrome conversion would best render Arina’s physicality at this precise moment during her process.  Freeing the viewer from the anchor of color perception, a black-and-white image is graphic and timeless and allows us to focus on what is elemental: form, contrast, shadow, and light.  

I shot this image from a low perspective near the ground so as to juxtapose Arina’s body with the projected video image on the wall.  Always look for a different perspectives while shooting that can create compositions to get across your intent.

Another example of perspective: To make this image I climbed on top of a chair and shot down on Arina in her performance space. 

Sometimes the details convey the story better than the whole.  This closeup of Arina’s paint-covered hand framed by colorful canvas makes a powerful summary of her performance piece.

Today’s post has been a bit more conceptual and less technical than most of my posts.  The purpose is to get you thinking about how our own art of photography can be harnessed to capture the creative process of other artists.  The next time you are privileged to get to shoot an artist at work, think about how you can apply elements such as composition, perspective, color, texture, empty space, motion, and stasis to capture compelling images of the artist’s own vision!

Do you have techniques you’ve used to document other artists’ creative process?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

Focus on 2018 SF Pride Parade [Encore Publication]: Capturing diversity, purpose, and intimacy

It’s no surprise that San Francisco hosts one of the world’s oldest and largest LGBTQ Pride events in the world.  Each year, the parade and festival grow bigger and better attended.  SF Pride is one of my favorite annual events in my home region, the SF Bay Area, and what I love the most about this exuberant celebration is its remarkable focus on the central human values of diversity, inclusion, activism, hope, and love.  In today’s post, I share some of my favorite images from this year’s Pride Parade, along with a few words about how the images were made.  The goal is to showcase the incredible diversity and sense of social purpose of the participants and observers at this grand celebration, while also striving to capture the small, more intimate, moments.  Remember that you can view–and purchase–all of these images as well as many more by clicking on any of the images in this post.

In a frenzied environment like that of most festivals, parades, and street fairs, it can be a challenge to make a nice clean portrait with an uncluttered background.  Sometimes it’s possible to relocate the subject to an area with a clean and clutter-free background, but most often (as with this portrait) that isn’t feasible.  In those cases, my best practices are to use a moderate telephoto “portrait” lens, select a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus, get in close to the subject, and use a touch of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.  

Huge festivals and celebrations such as SF Pride can be overwhelming, with hundreds of thousands of participants and observers present.  I strive to capture the smaller, more intimate, moments within this gigantic environment.  Here I captured a beautiful portrait of two participants sharing their love, which I think encapsulates the entire meaning of Pride events around the world.  I had been chatting with these two people and had obtained their permission to photograph them before making this image.  I used a medium telephoto “portrait” lens and got in close to isolate the couple from the busy background.

Color and texture play a huge role in photographic composition and expression.  As photographers, we’re very aware of these factors when we compose landscapes or nature scenes, but even when making a portrait, we should always be considering the mood evoked by the colors, patterns, and textures in the scene.  I love this portrait for its moody use of the similar shades of orange-red offset against the multiple colors of the flowers and the cigarette.  This is an image that tells a story, but that also leaves most of the story untold.

Another intimate portrait, this one made of a young woman doing yoga poses while waiting to march in the parade.  She had an adorable sense of humor and expressive face, which, coupled with her offbeat outfit, made a great closeup portrait.  Don’t be afraid to get in close to your subject, but always get to know them and ask permission first.

An iconic Pride scene, this portrait was made with a longer telephoto lens, its use made necessary by the greater distance to the parade float in the middle of a wide street.  While I prefer to get up-close and personal with my subjects, and to get to know them before shooting, sometimes we have to shoot from farther away, such as during a fast-moving and crowded parade.  It’s therefore important to have the gear and expertise to make portraits from any range.  Even when shooting from farther away, though, my key portrait rules still apply: try to capture the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible, use a wide aperture to isolate the main subject from the background, and apply a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

It can be tricky to try to capture nudity in a tasteful way suitable for sharing and selling to broad audiences.  I spent some time chatting with these two activists to get to know them and to understand their cause–overturning San Francisco’s ban on public nudity–before starting to shoot.  Even though they had given me permission to photograph them nude (which is an important courtesy all photographers should follow, although no permission is legally required to photograph people in a public space in the US), my market for images containing graphic nudity is small, so I strive to capture scenes that tell the story but with implied nudity rather than graphic nudity.  Here I found a vantage point that allowed the subjects’ arms to strategically cover certain parts of their bodies.  The resulting portrait conveys the story of their purpose and gets across the idea of their nudity, but is still shareable and sell-able to a broad market.

Another close-up portrait, using the same techniques I shared earlier in this post.

Another of my favorite portraits from the day, this one also tells a small-scale, intimate story, conveyed by getting in close and isolating the subjects from the busy background.  The end result is a sense that these two people are celebrating their own story, even in the midst of the bustling celebration going on around them.

I met this young woman in a very crowded space, but fortunately I had the opportunity to walk her to a less cluttered space to make her portrait.  I’m always on the lookout for quieter and cleaner spaces when shooting festivals and celebrations.  A few steps was all it took for us to find this simple, clean background, allowing the portrait to really pop.

Group portraits pose a special challenge in busy public spaces: how to capture all the group members in crisp focus while also trying to isolate them from the cluttered background.  Here I used a medium aperture to keep the people in sharp focus while slightly softening the background, but since a very wide aperture cannot be used for groups, the softening effect will be mild.  As a result, it’s especially important when making these group portraits to seek an interesting, complementary, or clean background.

As their float passed by in the staging and assembly area before the official start of the parade, I observed an opportunity to capture this quiet scene of one woman helping to apply her friend’s makeup.  I used a moderate telephoto lens and shot several frames to increase the odds of getting a clean and interesting shot.

When making portraits of kids or seated people, it’s a good practice to get down to their level.  Getting in close is also usually an effective technique, both to isolate the subject and to capture a sense of their spirit.

What are some of your favorite celebrations, and how do you capture their diversity in your images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Amazing Landscapes [Encore Publication]: How to make images that capture the spirit of the place

I love landscape photography.  To create a really successful landscape image, several elements have to converge: the lighting must have a pleasing quality, objects in the foreground and/or middle ground should be intriguing, leading lines should take the viewer on a journey through the image, and (usually) the sky must be dramatic and compelling.  I shoot a lot more mediocre landscapes than great ones, but when all the stars align (sometimes literally, during astrophotography shoots) and all those compositional elements are in place, the results can be amazing.

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite landscape images and talk about how they were made.
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While traveling in Svalbard to view the total solar eclipse of March 2015, my wife and I booked a safari via snowmobile to search for polar bears.  We covered 80 miles by snowmobile, much of that after dark.  The temperature averaged -5 degrees, with wind chill about 25 below zero Fahrenheit.  We rode out to an area now used as a campground, where an early settler and his wife lived a century ago.  This was glorious, otherworldly scenery encompassing ice fields, mountains, and the icy Barents Sea.  Svalbard is located so far north (closer to the North Pole than to mainland Norway) that the sunsets last for hours, so I set up my gear at the edge of the Barents Sea, composed the frame so that the eye is led out to the horizon by the slabs of ice and the range of mountains, and waited for the best light.  A polarizing filter added some drama to the sky.  A very long exposure was not necessary because there was no point to trying in blur the frozen water.  I shot several frames before the light became too dim and the temperature too bitter to continue.  This shot was the keeper!

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This landscape was shot during a recent trip through Turkey and is a good example of how sometimes we photographers just get lucky.  On arriving in the Cappadocian village of Üçhisar, we were thrilled to learn our hotel room was inside an ancient cave dwelling.  We awoke at 5:30 AM the next morning to the sight out our cave-hotel’s window of hundreds of hot air balloons launching above the “fairy chimneys” that dominate the Cappadocian landscape.  I got (mostly) dressed and rushed out onto our balcony, set up the camera on the lightweight travel tripod I carried on the trip, put on a wide-angle zoom lens, and started shooting as the sun rose.  I bracketed the exposure but because the light was perfect in this one shot, I did not end up combining multiple exposures into an HDR (high dynamic range) image.  Instead, this shot, one of the first of the morning’s session, was the clear choice.

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Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is catnip for landscape photographers.  There are so many glorious subjects here that you can go crazy trying to photograph everything.  But Patagonian weather is notoriously changeable, and group travel doesn’t always afford photographers the chance to shoot at the right place at the right time of day with the right weather.  Fortunately, on our second night at the lodge on Lago Gray, I could see all the conditions were lining up for an epic image.  I skipped most of an excellent dinner so that I could set up my gear on the deck: camera with wide-angle lens, polarizing filter, steady tripod, and remote release.  I framed the image with a nice balance between sky, mountains, glaciers, lake, and foreground foliage.  And I started shooting.  I bracketed the exposure with 7-shot bursts, each one stop apart.  Later, in postprocessing, I combined a few of the shots from one burst into an HDR (high dynamic range) image using Lightroom’s photomerge feature.

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Closer to home, Yosemite is another photographer’s dream location.  While hiking to Dog Lake in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows area, a freak hailstorm hit.  Suddenly the sky was hurling hailstones in biblical style and the formerly placid surface of the lake turned black with the force of the pelting ice.  What’s a photographer to do?  Start shooting, of course!  A tripod was impractical under these conditions, so I used a relatively fast shutter speed and shot handheld.  I took a series of bracketed exposures and combined them later using Lightroom into an HDR (high dynamic range) image.  For me, this image works because of the tension between the peaceful foreground of tree trunk and reeds, contrasted with the ominous sky and turbulent water.  The fallen tree and edge of the grasses provide nice leading lines from the peaceful to the violent portions of the frame.

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Another California landscape, this image was shot in the gorgeous Point Lobos reserve on California’s Central Coast.  As sunset neared, I set up camera and tripod right on the beach, shooting down onto the rocks and Pacific Ocean.  I used a neutral density filter to allow a very long exposure so that the water would blur.  I also attached a polarizing filter in an attempt to darken the sky and add drama to the image, but having two filters on the wide-angle lens did lead to some vignetting (the blocking of light at the edges of the photo), which I had to crop out in postprocessing.  This image was made from a single exposure with only minor adjustments to bring out the shadow details and saturate the colors.

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This year’s Perseid Meteor Shower was more active than we’ve seen in many years.  At the peak night of the shower, I headed out to a spot where a break in the trees allows a view over Crystal Springs Reservoir and the Santa Cruz Mountains.  We waited until about 2 AM so that the meteor activity was at a peak and the lights of the nearby towns were no longer bright.  Shooting with a wide-angle lens and a heavy professional tripod, I framed the image to include a pleasing foreground with trees, reservoir, and mountains, with most of the frame covering the dark sky.  I used a star finder app to shoot toward the galactic core of the Milky Way.  I set the camera to make 25-second exposures at f/4 and ISO 1600.  At this focal length, exposures longer than 25 seconds will cause the stars to appear blurry due to the motion of the earth.  And then I just kept shooting, one exposure after another, for nearly two hours.  Four meteors passed through the part of the sky in my image area during this time, and I combined the images that included them into one merged image using a software application called StarStaX.  While I like this image a lot, it could have been improved by finding a darker sky area (the lights from a nearby city caused the orange glow at the top of the mountains) and by bringing out the Milky Way a bit more prominently.  Now I know what to do during next year’s Perseid Shower!

A good wide-angle zoom lens is a must for landscape photography.  Many of the images featured in this post were shot with my Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens.  It’s got great image quality and is well built, and I find it’s a great alternative (except perhaps for astrophotography where the extra speed is required) to the popular but very expensive Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8.

Want to see more articles on how to shoot travel images?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/

Now I’d love to hear from you!  What are your favorite landscape images, and why?  To what lengths have you gone to capture landscape photos?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

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 Tahiti Dance Fete [Encore Publication]: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

The travel photographer must be prepared to shoot under challenging circumstances, because often we have little control over the conditions in the field.  We may plan our travel years in advance to observe and photograph a total solar eclipse, only to wake up on the morning of the eclipse to find the sky is totally overcast.  Or we could make arrangements months ahead to be at a major cultural festival, but learn upon arrival that the area we’re shooting from is hundreds of yards from the action.  These things happen, but the professional photographer still needs to get her shot.  So, what can be done to persevere and increase our odds of getting usable images under adversity?  The answer, of course, depends on the specific circumstances of each shoot, but there are some general tips I can offer.  Today’s post presents a case study based on my recent shoot of the solo dance competition at the Tahiti Fete in San Jose, California.

The dancers made lovely subjects, but the shooting conditions were very challenging.  Read on to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation.  Buy this photo

Upon arrival at the dance competition, I realized immediately that this shoot would be challenging.  It was held in a cramped hotel convention room with a makeshift stage, rows of folding chairs for spectators, insufficient lighting of poor color quality, and a bank of judges blocking most of the view of the stage.  To make matters worse, the room was packed with people, many of whom stood up to cheer on their friends, and the only available seats were near the far end of the room.  An extra challenge was thrown into the mix by the cluttered and unattractive background behind the performers on the stage.

Cluttered backgrounds are a significant obstacle, but good images can still be made in these situations.  Buy this photo

What can be done to mitigate against a cluttered background?  I shot plenty of images of each dancer to increase the likelihood that I could eliminate some of the more distracting background elements while still capturing the excitement, grace, and colors of the dancing.  This image was the best I could capture of this particular dancer, so I committed to it in post-processing.  I cropped the image to avoid the most distracting elements, adjusted the exposure curves, contrast, and sharpness of the background to de-emphasize it, and applied some post-crop vignetting to ensure the dancer would be highlighted.

When using a very high ISO, some noise will result.  This doesn’t have to be a disadvantage.  Buy this photo

The lighting was very dim at this venue.  Because I was shooting from far away, I needed to use a long telephoto lens, which limited me to a small aperture and no possibility of using flash.  Nonetheless, a fast shutter speed was required in order to freeze the fast action of the Polynesian dancing.  This combination (low lighting, small aperture, and fast shutter speed) leaves no option other than a very high ISO setting.  I shot the above image at ISO 6400.  Even with an excellent professional camera sensor, such a high ISO will generate some noise in the image.  Noise can often be reduced to acceptable levels during post-processing.  But for this particular image, I was aiming for a soft, painterly feel.  The visual effect of high contrast, soft colors, and a bit of visual noise here gives the feel of an impressionistic rendering.  For this expressive Tahitian subject, I was very happy to have a Gauguin-esque style shine through in the final image.

 Cut out elements that don’t work.  Buy this photo

To make the above image, I cropped out distracting portions such as the judges’ heads in the foreground and an ugly door and wall in the background.  The resulting aspect ratio is non-standard, but works well for this image.  I desaturated the background and used post-crop vignetting to focus attention on the dancer.

 


Black-and-white renderings can be more forgiving when color quality is low.  Buy this photo

This image portrays a lovely subject but the lighting was especially poor.  Realizing I couldn’t do much to mitigate the strange color cast resulting from the artificial lights, I converted the image to monochrome, boosted the contrast, and adjusted the color channel mix to render a pleasing and elegant final image.  Check out this post to learn how black-and-white conversion can be used to save the day when color temperatures or image noise are problems: Post on B&W conversion to save strangely colored images.

Bringing it all together: This image works nicely in spite of all the challenges present at the shoot, including foreground obstacles, dim and low quality lighting, a far-away vantage point, and a cluttered background.  Buy this photo

In spite of multiple significant technical issues, I was able to make some striking images of the lovely dancers at this Tahitian festival.  Hopefully, the tips presented here will help when you next are faced with a challenging shoot.  The most important thing is to keep shooting as best you can while in the field.  There are multiple methods you can use in post-processing to mitigate against the shooting challenges and end up with images you will be proud of.

What techniques do you use when faced with difficult shooting conditions?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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.

 

Capturing the Creative Process [Encore Publication]: How to document an artist’s work using your own artistic vision

Capturing images of the performing arts is a specialty of mine, as well as one of my absolute favorite genres of photography.  But as gratifying as I find documenting live performances of dance, music, or theater, there’s a whole higher level of photographic joy available from capturing the artist’s creative process before their work reaches a public audience.  Today’s post focuses on a recent behind-the-scenes shoot that I did for a friend and longtime collaborator, Arina Hunter.

I arranged to shoot her dress rehearsal just before the first of two public performances as part of San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Arts RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) program.  Arina was preparing to perform an untitled work-in-progress which was quite complicated technically, so it was fascinating to watch her process of making artistic decisions and readying herself and the technical crew for the evening’s show.

Read on to see some of my favorite images from the rehearsal, accompanied by a few thoughts about my own artistic and technical process that went into the capture of Arina’s work.

All of these images are available for sale on my website.  Just click on any image to view them in the online gallery.

The creative process is about more than just practicing for a performance.  Try to include some wider views depicting the artist’s full environment including equipment, sets, and performance space.

The flip side is that it’s also important to get up-close and to capture the physical work that goes into preparing for a performance.

Shoot plenty of frames to maximize the chances of capturing the “decisive moment” when the artist’s work comes together as an integrated whole.

Typically there are several different moods evoked in a single piece of art.  This image captures a vulnerability and poignancy that informed Arina’s work even as much of her physical performance exudes strength.  Finding the right perspective to convey each mood is key to making successful images.

When post-processing my images, I ask myself how can my own technique best convey the artist’s intention.  For this image I decided a monochrome conversion would best render Arina’s physicality at this precise moment during her process.  Freeing the viewer from the anchor of color perception, a black-and-white image is graphic and timeless and allows us to focus on what is elemental: form, contrast, shadow, and light.  

I shot this image from a low perspective near the ground so as to juxtapose Arina’s body with the projected video image on the wall.  Always look for a different perspectives while shooting that can create compositions to get across your intent.

Another example of perspective: To make this image I climbed on top of a chair and shot down on Arina in her performance space. 

Sometimes the details convey the story better than the whole.  This closeup of Arina’s paint-covered hand framed by colorful canvas makes a powerful summary of her performance piece.

Today’s post has been a bit more conceptual and less technical than most of my posts.  The purpose is to get you thinking about how our own art of photography can be harnessed to capture the creative process of other artists.  The next time you are privileged to get to shoot an artist at work, think about how you can apply elements such as composition, perspective, color, texture, empty space, motion, and stasis to capture compelling images of the artist’s own vision!

Do you have techniques you’ve used to document other artists’ creative process?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

Focus on 2018 SF Pride Parade [Encore Publication]: Capturing diversity, purpose, and intimacy

It’s no surprise that San Francisco hosts one of the world’s oldest and largest LGBTQ Pride events in the world.  Each year, the parade and festival grow bigger and better attended.  SF Pride is one of my favorite annual events in my home region, the SF Bay Area, and what I love the most about this exuberant celebration is its remarkable focus on the central human values of diversity, inclusion, activism, hope, and love.  In today’s post, I share some of my favorite images from this year’s Pride Parade, along with a few words about how the images were made.  The goal is to showcase the incredible diversity and sense of social purpose of the participants and observers at this grand celebration, while also striving to capture the small, more intimate, moments.  Remember that you can view–and purchase–all of these images as well as many more by clicking on any of the images in this post.

In a frenzied environment like that of most festivals, parades, and street fairs, it can be a challenge to make a nice clean portrait with an uncluttered background.  Sometimes it’s possible to relocate the subject to an area with a clean and clutter-free background, but most often (as with this portrait) that isn’t feasible.  In those cases, my best practices are to use a moderate telephoto “portrait” lens, select a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus, get in close to the subject, and use a touch of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.  

Huge festivals and celebrations such as SF Pride can be overwhelming, with hundreds of thousands of participants and observers present.  I strive to capture the smaller, more intimate, moments within this gigantic environment.  Here I captured a beautiful portrait of two participants sharing their love, which I think encapsulates the entire meaning of Pride events around the world.  I had been chatting with these two people and had obtained their permission to photograph them before making this image.  I used a medium telephoto “portrait” lens and got in close to isolate the couple from the busy background.

Color and texture play a huge role in photographic composition and expression.  As photographers, we’re very aware of these factors when we compose landscapes or nature scenes, but even when making a portrait, we should always be considering the mood evoked by the colors, patterns, and textures in the scene.  I love this portrait for its moody use of the similar shades of orange-red offset against the multiple colors of the flowers and the cigarette.  This is an image that tells a story, but that also leaves most of the story untold.

Another intimate portrait, this one made of a young woman doing yoga poses while waiting to march in the parade.  She had an adorable sense of humor and expressive face, which, coupled with her offbeat outfit, made a great closeup portrait.  Don’t be afraid to get in close to your subject, but always get to know them and ask permission first.

An iconic Pride scene, this portrait was made with a longer telephoto lens, its use made necessary by the greater distance to the parade float in the middle of a wide street.  While I prefer to get up-close and personal with my subjects, and to get to know them before shooting, sometimes we have to shoot from farther away, such as during a fast-moving and crowded parade.  It’s therefore important to have the gear and expertise to make portraits from any range.  Even when shooting from farther away, though, my key portrait rules still apply: try to capture the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible, use a wide aperture to isolate the main subject from the background, and apply a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

It can be tricky to try to capture nudity in a tasteful way suitable for sharing and selling to broad audiences.  I spent some time chatting with these two activists to get to know them and to understand their cause–overturning San Francisco’s ban on public nudity–before starting to shoot.  Even though they had given me permission to photograph them nude (which is an important courtesy all photographers should follow, although no permission is legally required to photograph people in a public space in the US), my market for images containing graphic nudity is small, so I strive to capture scenes that tell the story but with implied nudity rather than graphic nudity.  Here I found a vantage point that allowed the subjects’ arms to strategically cover certain parts of their bodies.  The resulting portrait conveys the story of their purpose and gets across the idea of their nudity, but is still shareable and sell-able to a broad market.

Another close-up portrait, using the same techniques I shared earlier in this post.

Another of my favorite portraits from the day, this one also tells a small-scale, intimate story, conveyed by getting in close and isolating the subjects from the busy background.  The end result is a sense that these two people are celebrating their own story, even in the midst of the bustling celebration going on around them.

I met this young woman in a very crowded space, but fortunately I had the opportunity to walk her to a less cluttered space to make her portrait.  I’m always on the lookout for quieter and cleaner spaces when shooting festivals and celebrations.  A few steps was all it took for us to find this simple, clean background, allowing the portrait to really pop.

Group portraits pose a special challenge in busy public spaces: how to capture all the group members in crisp focus while also trying to isolate them from the cluttered background.  Here I used a medium aperture to keep the people in sharp focus while slightly softening the background, but since a very wide aperture cannot be used for groups, the softening effect will be mild.  As a result, it’s especially important when making these group portraits to seek an interesting, complementary, or clean background.

As their float passed by in the staging and assembly area before the official start of the parade, I observed an opportunity to capture this quiet scene of one woman helping to apply her friend’s makeup.  I used a moderate telephoto lens and shot several frames to increase the odds of getting a clean and interesting shot.

When making portraits of kids or seated people, it’s a good practice to get down to their level.  Getting in close is also usually an effective technique, both to isolate the subject and to capture a sense of their spirit.

What are some of your favorite celebrations, and how do you capture their diversity in your images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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 2018 SF Pride Parade [Encore Publication]: Capturing diversity, purpose, and intimacy

It’s no surprise that San Francisco hosts one of the world’s oldest and largest LGBTQ Pride events in the world.  Each year, the parade and festival grow bigger and better attended.  SF Pride is one of my favorite annual events in my home region, the SF Bay Area, and what I love the most about this exuberant celebration is its remarkable focus on the central human values of diversity, inclusion, activism, hope, and love.  In today’s post, I share some of my favorite images from this year’s Pride Parade, along with a few words about how the images were made.  The goal is to showcase the incredible diversity and sense of social purpose of the participants and observers at this grand celebration, while also striving to capture the small, more intimate, moments.  Remember that you can view–and purchase–all of these images as well as many more by clicking on any of the images in this post.

In a frenzied environment like that of most festivals, parades, and street fairs, it can be a challenge to make a nice clean portrait with an uncluttered background.  Sometimes it’s possible to relocate the subject to an area with a clean and clutter-free background, but most often (as with this portrait) that isn’t feasible.  In those cases, my best practices are to use a moderate telephoto “portrait” lens, select a wide aperture (small F-stop number) to throw the background into soft focus, get in close to the subject, and use a touch of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.  

Huge festivals and celebrations such as SF Pride can be overwhelming, with hundreds of thousands of participants and observers present.  I strive to capture the smaller, more intimate, moments within this gigantic environment.  Here I captured a beautiful portrait of two participants sharing their love, which I think encapsulates the entire meaning of Pride events around the world.  I had been chatting with these two people and had obtained their permission to photograph them before making this image.  I used a medium telephoto “portrait” lens and got in close to isolate the couple from the busy background.

Color and texture play a huge role in photographic composition and expression.  As photographers, we’re very aware of these factors when we compose landscapes or nature scenes, but even when making a portrait, we should always be considering the mood evoked by the colors, patterns, and textures in the scene.  I love this portrait for its moody use of the similar shades of orange-red offset against the multiple colors of the flowers and the cigarette.  This is an image that tells a story, but that also leaves most of the story untold.

Another intimate portrait, this one made of a young woman doing yoga poses while waiting to march in the parade.  She had an adorable sense of humor and expressive face, which, coupled with her offbeat outfit, made a great closeup portrait.  Don’t be afraid to get in close to your subject, but always get to know them and ask permission first.

An iconic Pride scene, this portrait was made with a longer telephoto lens, its use made necessary by the greater distance to the parade float in the middle of a wide street.  While I prefer to get up-close and personal with my subjects, and to get to know them before shooting, sometimes we have to shoot from farther away, such as during a fast-moving and crowded parade.  It’s therefore important to have the gear and expertise to make portraits from any range.  Even when shooting from farther away, though, my key portrait rules still apply: try to capture the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible, use a wide aperture to isolate the main subject from the background, and apply a bit of post-crop vignetting during post-processing.

It can be tricky to try to capture nudity in a tasteful way suitable for sharing and selling to broad audiences.  I spent some time chatting with these two activists to get to know them and to understand their cause–overturning San Francisco’s ban on public nudity–before starting to shoot.  Even though they had given me permission to photograph them nude (which is an important courtesy all photographers should follow, although no permission is legally required to photograph people in a public space in the US), my market for images containing graphic nudity is small, so I strive to capture scenes that tell the story but with implied nudity rather than graphic nudity.  Here I found a vantage point that allowed the subjects’ arms to strategically cover certain parts of their bodies.  The resulting portrait conveys the story of their purpose and gets across the idea of their nudity, but is still shareable and sell-able to a broad market.

Another close-up portrait, using the same techniques I shared earlier in this post.

Another of my favorite portraits from the day, this one also tells a small-scale, intimate story, conveyed by getting in close and isolating the subjects from the busy background.  The end result is a sense that these two people are celebrating their own story, even in the midst of the bustling celebration going on around them.

I met this young woman in a very crowded space, but fortunately I had the opportunity to walk her to a less cluttered space to make her portrait.  I’m always on the lookout for quieter and cleaner spaces when shooting festivals and celebrations.  A few steps was all it took for us to find this simple, clean background, allowing the portrait to really pop.

Group portraits pose a special challenge in busy public spaces: how to capture all the group members in crisp focus while also trying to isolate them from the cluttered background.  Here I used a medium aperture to keep the people in sharp focus while slightly softening the background, but since a very wide aperture cannot be used for groups, the softening effect will be mild.  As a result, it’s especially important when making these group portraits to seek an interesting, complementary, or clean background.

As their float passed by in the staging and assembly area before the official start of the parade, I observed an opportunity to capture this quiet scene of one woman helping to apply her friend’s makeup.  I used a moderate telephoto lens and shot several frames to increase the odds of getting a clean and interesting shot.

When making portraits of kids or seated people, it’s a good practice to get down to their level.  Getting in close is also usually an effective technique, both to isolate the subject and to capture a sense of their spirit.

What are some of your favorite celebrations, and how do you capture their diversity in your images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Amazing Landscapes [Encore Publication]: How to make images that capture the spirit of the place

I love landscape photography.  To create a really successful landscape image, several elements have to converge: the lighting must have a pleasing quality, objects in the foreground and/or middle ground should be intriguing, leading lines should take the viewer on a journey through the image, and (usually) the sky must be dramatic and compelling.  I shoot a lot more mediocre landscapes than great ones, but when all the stars align (sometimes literally, during astrophotography shoots) and all those compositional elements are in place, the results can be amazing.

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite landscape images and talk about how they were made.
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While traveling in Svalbard to view the total solar eclipse of March 2015, my wife and I booked a safari via snowmobile to search for polar bears.  We covered 80 miles by snowmobile, much of that after dark.  The temperature averaged -5 degrees, with wind chill about 25 below zero Fahrenheit.  We rode out to an area now used as a campground, where an early settler and his wife lived a century ago.  This was glorious, otherworldly scenery encompassing ice fields, mountains, and the icy Barents Sea.  Svalbard is located so far north (closer to the North Pole than to mainland Norway) that the sunsets last for hours, so I set up my gear at the edge of the Barents Sea, composed the frame so that the eye is led out to the horizon by the slabs of ice and the range of mountains, and waited for the best light.  A polarizing filter added some drama to the sky.  A very long exposure was not necessary because there was no point to trying in blur the frozen water.  I shot several frames before the light became too dim and the temperature too bitter to continue.  This shot was the keeper!

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This landscape was shot during a recent trip through Turkey and is a good example of how sometimes we photographers just get lucky.  On arriving in the Cappadocian village of Üçhisar, we were thrilled to learn our hotel room was inside an ancient cave dwelling.  We awoke at 5:30 AM the next morning to the sight out our cave-hotel’s window of hundreds of hot air balloons launching above the “fairy chimneys” that dominate the Cappadocian landscape.  I got (mostly) dressed and rushed out onto our balcony, set up the camera on the lightweight travel tripod I carried on the trip, put on a wide-angle zoom lens, and started shooting as the sun rose.  I bracketed the exposure but because the light was perfect in this one shot, I did not end up combining multiple exposures into an HDR (high dynamic range) image.  Instead, this shot, one of the first of the morning’s session, was the clear choice.

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Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park is catnip for landscape photographers.  There are so many glorious subjects here that you can go crazy trying to photograph everything.  But Patagonian weather is notoriously changeable, and group travel doesn’t always afford photographers the chance to shoot at the right place at the right time of day with the right weather.  Fortunately, on our second night at the lodge on Lago Gray, I could see all the conditions were lining up for an epic image.  I skipped most of an excellent dinner so that I could set up my gear on the deck: camera with wide-angle lens, polarizing filter, steady tripod, and remote release.  I framed the image with a nice balance between sky, mountains, glaciers, lake, and foreground foliage.  And I started shooting.  I bracketed the exposure with 7-shot bursts, each one stop apart.  Later, in postprocessing, I combined a few of the shots from one burst into an HDR (high dynamic range) image using Lightroom’s photomerge feature.

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Closer to home, Yosemite is another photographer’s dream location.  While hiking to Dog Lake in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows area, a freak hailstorm hit.  Suddenly the sky was hurling hailstones in biblical style and the formerly placid surface of the lake turned black with the force of the pelting ice.  What’s a photographer to do?  Start shooting, of course!  A tripod was impractical under these conditions, so I used a relatively fast shutter speed and shot handheld.  I took a series of bracketed exposures and combined them later using Lightroom into an HDR (high dynamic range) image.  For me, this image works because of the tension between the peaceful foreground of tree trunk and reeds, contrasted with the ominous sky and turbulent water.  The fallen tree and edge of the grasses provide nice leading lines from the peaceful to the violent portions of the frame.

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Another California landscape, this image was shot in the gorgeous Point Lobos reserve on California’s Central Coast.  As sunset neared, I set up camera and tripod right on the beach, shooting down onto the rocks and Pacific Ocean.  I used a neutral density filter to allow a very long exposure so that the water would blur.  I also attached a polarizing filter in an attempt to darken the sky and add drama to the image, but having two filters on the wide-angle lens did lead to some vignetting (the blocking of light at the edges of the photo), which I had to crop out in postprocessing.  This image was made from a single exposure with only minor adjustments to bring out the shadow details and saturate the colors.

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This year’s Perseid Meteor Shower was more active than we’ve seen in many years.  At the peak night of the shower, I headed out to a spot where a break in the trees allows a view over Crystal Springs Reservoir and the Santa Cruz Mountains.  We waited until about 2 AM so that the meteor activity was at a peak and the lights of the nearby towns were no longer bright.  Shooting with a wide-angle lens and a heavy professional tripod, I framed the image to include a pleasing foreground with trees, reservoir, and mountains, with most of the frame covering the dark sky.  I used a star finder app to shoot toward the galactic core of the Milky Way.  I set the camera to make 25-second exposures at f/4 and ISO 1600.  At this focal length, exposures longer than 25 seconds will cause the stars to appear blurry due to the motion of the earth.  And then I just kept shooting, one exposure after another, for nearly two hours.  Four meteors passed through the part of the sky in my image area during this time, and I combined the images that included them into one merged image using a software application called StarStaX.  While I like this image a lot, it could have been improved by finding a darker sky area (the lights from a nearby city caused the orange glow at the top of the mountains) and by bringing out the Milky Way a bit more prominently.  Now I know what to do during next year’s Perseid Shower!

A good wide-angle zoom lens is a must for landscape photography.  Many of the images featured in this post were shot with my Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens.  It’s got great image quality and is well built, and I find it’s a great alternative (except perhaps for astrophotography where the extra speed is required) to the popular but very expensive Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8.

Want to see more articles on how to shoot travel images?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/

Now I’d love to hear from you!  What are your favorite landscape images, and why?  To what lengths have you gone to capture landscape photos?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

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 How Weird Street Faire [Encore Publication]: A case study on simple techniques to capture winning images of festivals

As a professional travel photographer, I shoot regularly in nearly all genres of photography.  A typical day on the road might include shooting landscapes, wildlife, cityscapes, portraits, action (sports, dance, performance), and nighttime photography.  While I enjoy all types of shooting, my great joy as a photographer is capturing portraits of the people I meet.  Whether close to home or halfway around the world, getting to know the people and learning about their culture through making portraits of them is a wonderful experience.  And there’s no better way to capture images of many amazing people in a short time than by attending local festivals.  People tend to be their best selves at special celebrations like festivals and street fairs.  They dress exuberantly, dance with abandon, make new friends quickly, and (nearly always) are overjoyed to pose for photos.

I shoot about a hundred festivals and other special events every year, so I’ve learned a few tips about how to make the best images during these occasions.  In today’s post I share some simple but effective techniques for capturing great portraits at festivals and other gatherings, using San Francisco’s recent How Weird Street Faire as a case study.  How Weird is a vibrant and colorful, only-in-SF, annual celebration of individuality, tolerance, music, art, and hula hoops.  Read on to see some of my favorite images from this year’s festival, presented along with some discussion of how they were made.  To view more of my images, or to buy some, check out this gallery: How Weird photo gallery.

I see a lot of fellow photographers at events like How Weird shooting with huge telephotos and even tripods, like they’re after images of wildlife on a Kenyan safari.  In my opinion, they are missing the point.  We’re making portraits of people here, so use a normal or moderate telephoto portrait lens, preferably a fast prime lens, ditch the tripod and monopod at home, and get in close to chat with and get to know the people you’re photographing.  When you interact with people, you get a sense of what makes them special, allowing both you and them to capture that special trait in your photos.  Random sniping from far away with a long telephoto will yield far more bland and generic photos.  All of my images at How Weird Street Faire were made with a single camera body and one lens, my trusty 85mm f/1.8 portrait lens.  Sometimes simple is better, especially when it comes to capturing people at fast-moving events.

Larger groups can be challenging to capture in portraits, particularly in bustling spaces like those of a festival.  When they couple I was chatting with suddenly ran into a friend and they had a group hug, I quickly stepped back a few paces and made this expressive and engaging portrait.  It’s okay to break the rules sometimes–here, one of the subject’s faces is completely obscured and another’s is partially obscured, yet the portrait works because it captures the energy and affection of the moment.

When photographers argue that the “street photography” approach (candidly sneaking images of people who aren’t aware they’re present) is the best for capturing people’s true essence, I show them images like this one.  This wholly genuine and unguarded moment of the girl dancing was made with her full knowledge and permission.  The trick is to chat with the subject and get their permission for photography first, then to lay back for a while and let them go back to what they were doing.  After a few minutes, they’ll nearly forget you’re there and they will reveal their true selves.  But unlike shots you sneak without permission, now you have a subject happy to have you photographing them, and you can take your time and not have to rush your work in order to hide your shooting from them.

Often we see only the most obvious subjects at crowded, chaotic events like festivals.  It’s easy to spend all our time shooting people dancing, partying, and displaying their costumes, but I try always to look for the more hidden people and infrastructure that support the event.  This DJ was partially hidden atop the big dance stage and behind the banks of speakers, but she made a fun subject for this portrait.

Don’t be afraid to get in close.  This portrait really pops because the tight composition allows us to focus our attention on the symmetry and color of the subject’s hair and costume.  

The interactions between people are at least as much fun to observe and capture as the individuals themselves.  I had chatted with and photographed a group of people for a few minutes when I observed this fun interaction, so I stepped back and framed some shots of the two young people together.

While post-processing my images after the shoot, I decided to render this one in monochrome to achieve a gritty urban street scene sort of feel.  Often color can distract from the power of an image, so always consider which of your images could benefit from conversion to black-and-white.

In ordinary daily life, I find that perhaps two-thirds of people are willing to have their portrait made if the photographer spends some time getting to know them first and then asks politely.  But at a festival, nearly everyone is excited about posing for portraits.  The trick is to capture scenes where they show you their underlying personalities a bit, rather than just striking a cliched pose for the camera.  To achieve that here, I spent a few minutes shooting, asking the couple to pose in different styles and have fun with it.

Putting it all together.  Here’s a summary of the basic techniques I use when shooting portraits at festivals:  1) Use a fast prime normal or portrait lens.  2) Set your camera for a fast shutter speed (1/500 second or faster is good for dancing and other fast action), wide aperture (f/2.5 or wider is ideal except for large groups) to isolate the subject, and an ISO appropriate to the lighting of the scene (I used ISO 100 the whole day due to the bright outdoor light).  3) Get to know your subject before shooting, let them relax, and capture them during an authentic moment.  4) Try to compose the portrait with as uncluttered a background as possible; of course, this is often difficult at crowded festivals.  5) During post-processing, crop to clean up the scene and then vignette just a touch to further clean up busy backgrounds.

I hope this discussion of techniques to capture portraits during festivals has been helpful.  The best way to learn these techniques and to find your own style is to shoot and shoot some more!

Please leave a comment with your own thoughts and tips about how to make great images of people at celebrations.

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

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.

 

Capturing the Creative Process [Encore Publication]: How to document an artist’s work using your own artistic vision

Capturing images of the performing arts is a specialty of mine, as well as one of my absolute favorite genres of photography.  But as gratifying as I find documenting live performances of dance, music, or theater, there’s a whole higher level of photographic joy available from capturing the artist’s creative process before their work reaches a public audience.  Today’s post focuses on a recent behind-the-scenes shoot that I did for a friend and longtime collaborator, Arina Hunter.

I arranged to shoot her dress rehearsal just before the first of two public performances as part of San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Arts RAW (Resident Artist Workshop) program.  Arina was preparing to perform an untitled work-in-progress which was quite complicated technically, so it was fascinating to watch her process of making artistic decisions and readying herself and the technical crew for the evening’s show.

Read on to see some of my favorite images from the rehearsal, accompanied by a few thoughts about my own artistic and technical process that went into the capture of Arina’s work.

All of these images are available for sale on my website.  Just click on any image to view them in the online gallery.

The creative process is about more than just practicing for a performance.  Try to include some wider views depicting the artist’s full environment including equipment, sets, and performance space.

The flip side is that it’s also important to get up-close and to capture the physical work that goes into preparing for a performance.

Shoot plenty of frames to maximize the chances of capturing the “decisive moment” when the artist’s work comes together as an integrated whole.

Typically there are several different moods evoked in a single piece of art.  This image captures a vulnerability and poignancy that informed Arina’s work even as much of her physical performance exudes strength.  Finding the right perspective to convey each mood is key to making successful images.

When post-processing my images, I ask myself how can my own technique best convey the artist’s intention.  For this image I decided a monochrome conversion would best render Arina’s physicality at this precise moment during her process.  Freeing the viewer from the anchor of color perception, a black-and-white image is graphic and timeless and allows us to focus on what is elemental: form, contrast, shadow, and light.  

I shot this image from a low perspective near the ground so as to juxtapose Arina’s body with the projected video image on the wall.  Always look for a different perspectives while shooting that can create compositions to get across your intent.

Another example of perspective: To make this image I climbed on top of a chair and shot down on Arina in her performance space. 

Sometimes the details convey the story better than the whole.  This closeup of Arina’s paint-covered hand framed by colorful canvas makes a powerful summary of her performance piece.

Today’s post has been a bit more conceptual and less technical than most of my posts.  The purpose is to get you thinking about how our own art of photography can be harnessed to capture the creative process of other artists.  The next time you are privileged to get to shoot an artist at work, think about how you can apply elements such as composition, perspective, color, texture, empty space, motion, and stasis to capture compelling images of the artist’s own vision!

Do you have techniques you’ve used to document other artists’ creative process?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

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!