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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Kilimanjaro lit by alpenglow.  Buy this photo

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maasai villagers with their new water filter.  Buy this photo

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

Safari by hot air balloon.  Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Serengeti sunrise.  Buy this photo

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

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

Focus on Chile and Argentina [Encore Publication]: Ruggged mountain landscapes and distinctive cultural experiences abound

Our wonderful 3.5-week adventure took us from Santiago, where we visited our older daughter, to fabled Easter Island, sophisticated Buenos Aires, the mystical island of Chiloe, and then through much of Southern Patagonia.  For much of this itinerary we were traveling with a local leader and a small group of fellow travelers on a trip operated by Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT).  The knowledge of our local trip leader coupled with the small group size allowed us to travel to largely untouristed areas and to engage in authentic cultural interactions that would not have been easy to set up on our own and would have been impractical to include on larger group trips.  Such a format offers amazing opportunities for photographers, as it provides access to an array of experiences beyond the “postcard-type” shots.  From home-hosted meals to wildlife encounters to hiking across glaciers and on the slopes of a volcano, this trip packed a lot of memorable moments–and images–into just a few weeks’ time.

Easter Island is a small and extremely remote island, accessible via daily flights from Santiago.  It is, of course, famed for the monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people centuries ago, called moai, that are scattered across the island.  But there is a lot more to Easter Island than the moai, including a distinctive Polynesian culture and a wealth of natural beauty.

When photographing iconic sites like this grouping of moai on Easter Island, look for a different perspective.  Here, I have framed the image from an unusual vantage point, shooting with a telephoto lens to compress the moai so that they appear closer together and more imposing than they would if framed from directly in front.   Buy this photo on my website

From Easter Island we traveled to Argentina’s capital city of Buenos Aires.  This city has a high-energy feel, offers a huge array of food specialties, and is graced with stately European style avenues and architecture.

 

Buenos Aires’ colorful and historic barrio (neighborhood) of La Boca is the birthplace of the tango.  To give a sense of the dance’s motion, I shot with a slightly slower shutter speed.  The rich colors of La Boca can be brought out in post-processing with subtle adjustments to the vibrance and/or saturation tools in image editing software such as Lightroom.  Buy this photo on my website

A stay in the Alpine style village of San Carlos de Bariloche included fascinating interactions with Hans, who as a German boy growing up in Bariloche uncovered his father’s Nazi past and wrote several scholarly books about Nazis living in Argentina; and with Christina, a Mapuche Indian grandmother, civil rights activist, and jewelry maker.  We then crossed overland toward the border with Chile, stopping en route for a home-hosted lunch of grilled lamb and for some horseback ridingon a family estancia (ranch).

Chango, the family patriarch, saddles up the horses for a ranch ride.  An environmental portrait includes not only the person who is the subject of the portrait, but also enough of the surroundings to give a deeper sense of who the person is.  A classic portrait lens would also work nicely for a shot like this one, but to emphasize the relationship between man and horse, and to give some separation between the subject and the background, I chose a longer telephoto lens.  Buy this photo on my website


An otherworldly sight: a lenticular cloud forms on the summit of Osorno Volcano as we were hiking on the slopes.  To capture high-contrast scenes like this one, it often helps to underexpose by about one stop to preserve the detail in the highlights.  Then the shadow detail can be brought back later during post-processing. Buy this photo on my website

The same Osorno Volcano viewed from Vicente Perez Rosales National Park.  To blur the water, I placed the camera on a steady tripod and used a longer shutter speed.  Attaching a neutral density filter to the lens can help by reducing the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor, thus allowing a longer shutter speed even in bright daylight. Buy this photo on my website

A ferry crossing from mainland Chile brought us to the island of Chiloe for an overnight stay.  Chiloe exudes a strong sense of its mystical past and is characterized by colorful houses rising on stilts out of the water.

Characteristic brightly colored Chilote houses built on stilts.  Choose a vantage point from which the houses can be framed in a pleasing manner, shoot with a wide angle lens to include more of the houses, and add a bit of vibrance in post-processing to bring out the saturated colors. Buy this photo on my website

The island of Chiloe includes a fascinating bird preserve reachable by small boat.  Here is a penguin couple out strolling in their formal wear.  To stabilize the camera and long telephoto lens while shooting from a heavily rocking small boat, use a fast shutter speed (choosing a higher ISO can help), turn on vibration reduction if your lens or camera offers it, and release the shutter at the instant when the boat reaches the top of its cycle of rocking.  It’s helpful to use a monopod if you have one (I didn’t) and to shoot a continuous burst of images so that you are more likely to get a good sharp one. Buy this photo on my website

After traveling south all the way to the Strait of Magellan (the farthest south I have ever stood, with Antarctica the only land mass below it), we continued northwest until we reached Torres del Paine National Park, any photographer’s dream destination.  The photographic possibilities here are endless, with rugged mountains meeting brilliant blue glaciers and clear lakes.  We had the opportunity to view this breathtaking beauty from various hikes and by boat.

Blue ice on Lago Grey’s glacier imitates the mountain peaks soaring behind.  I used a polarizing filter on the lens to bring out the intense blues in the glacier and sky, but had to be careful not to remove too much of the reflection in the water of the lake. Buy this photo on my website

Alpenglow lights the peaks behind Lago Grey and its glacier.  To make this image, I had to forego much of a really good dinner by shooting through the mealtime out on the deck of our lodge.  With the camera on a steady tripod, I shot a series of images using different exposures, a process known as bracketing.  Later, these shots can be blended together using the high dynamic range (HDR) tools in software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Buy this photo on my website

Heading out of Torres del Paine through the heart of Patagonia, our adventure was not yet over.  We still had another national park (Los Glacieres) to visit on the Argentinian side before returning to Buenos Aires for our farewell dinner and our flights back home.

Patagonian Paradise.  Don’t forget to include yourself and your traveling companions in some of your images.  This one, made as we headed out of Torres del Paine National Park, made a great holiday card. Buy this photo on my website

Have you visited Patagonia, the capital cities of Argentina and Chile, Easter Island, or Chiloe Island?  What did you find most memorable?  Please add your suggestions for places to visit or subjects to shoot.  Just enter your thoughts in the comment box.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography as a Bridge to Local Culture [Encore Publication]: Your camera is a great tool for meeting local people and learning about culture

I’ve heard certain travelers grumble that photography inhibits deep cultural learning and interaction when we visit new places.  Our cameras, this line of reasoning goes, isolate us from the local people we’re trying to get to know.  The lens, they believe, acts as a distancing device to turn locals into subjects and travelers into tourists.

I disagree emphatically!  Your camera is a great tool for meeting local people and learning about culture, immersing yourself even more deeply in the spirit of the place and the lives of the people who live there.  But only if you use it in the right way.  Allow me to explain.

While the local customs and even the laws governing whom it is acceptable to photograph, and when or where it is okay to make an image of them, do vary from place to place, there are a few common-sense guidelines that will help us travelers engage in a friendly, curious manner instead of upsetting people and causing social discord.  Here are a few key guidelines to keep in mind.

    • The Golden Rule: If it’s not okay in your home country, it’s probably not okay in other parts of the world.  Would you appreciate a stranger running up to you on your front lawn and shoving a lens in your face?  I’m guessing, no.  So please don’t behave in that way toward people in other places.
    • Make a portrait, don’t take a portrait: Get to know your subject first as a person, even if just for a brief exchange.  While there are occasionally situations where the moment or the expression will be lost by approaching your subject before shooting, I find that most of the time I make better images as well as have more meaningful interactions, when I say hello and ask the person first.

USA

I chatted for a while with these samba dancers as they were celebrating just after San Francisco’s Carnaval parade.  Getting to know them first made it easy to ask permission for a portrait. Buy this photo

    • Approach children with sensitivity: Kids can be amazing photographic subjects!  They are often uninhibited in front of the camera and they portray cultural practices and lifestyle in a relatable, endearing way.  But it’s especially important to understand when it’s okay to make a portrait with them.  While traveling in South Africa, I saw first-hand what can happen when travelers misunderstand social norms.  A fellow traveler in my group saw a young boy playing near where we were waiting for a border crossing.  She shouted excitedly, “Soooo cute!,” and rushed up to the child, camera extended toward his face, to take his picture.  In an instant the boy’s father ran over, irate, and yelled at me (he mistakenly thought I was the fellow traveler’s father), “How would you like it if we came to your country and started taking pictures of your children?”  A few minutes later I explained privately to the offending traveler why her actions caused a negative reaction.  She had no idea this behavior wasn’t okay.  When in doubt, refer to the Golden Rule, above.

Kashgar, China

We visited the old town in Kashgar just before the Chinese government began demolishing the homes there and relocating the mostly ethnic Uighur people.  It was and remains a complicated social situation, but I was fortunate to be able to make this memorable portrait of a young Uighur girl in traditional clothing sitting in front of her soon-to-be-destroyed family house.  I approached her mother first to make sure it was okay to photograph the girl.  Her expression of pride mixed with apprehension is what I feel makes this image strong.  Buy this photo

    • Getting to know you: It may seem difficult to talk with a stranger from a very different culture who likely speaks a very different language from our own.  For us introverts, it seems like even more of a challenge.  But I’ve learned a few tricks and tips that make it much easier to get to know a person before photographing them.  Learn a few words of the local language.  Just saying “hello” or “good day” can be a great icebreaker.  It’s a fairly universal gesture to point to your camera and extend your arm gently toward your hopeful subject to inquire, “Is it okay if I take your picture?”  Just as happens in our home countries, a subject may say no, but most of the time people are happy to be photographed if you are polite, respectful, and try to interact with them first.  A trip leader, guide, or local friend can often be a great help by introducing you to the person you’d like to photograph.

Turkey

At the start of our trip through Turkey, I asked our trip leader to introduce me to people we felt would be good portrait subjects.  With his help I was able to overcome the language and cultural difference and capture this striking portrait of an employee at a carpet weaving cooperative.  Buy this photo

    • How close is too close?: In most situations it is fine to make an image that includes a large group of people, none of whom will be too prominent in the photo.  For close-up images, though, in which an individual person or small group of people will be the obvious subject, it is best to ask first.
    • Money matters: When there is a commercial transaction between you and your subject, it often paves the way to ask to make their portrait.  I’ve had good experiences photographing local street vendors, musicians, artisans, and shopkeepers after purchasing their wares or tipping them for their services.  And of course it is usually fine to photograph singers, dancers, and musicians in a performance you have paid to attend, as long as local rules about photography are obeyed (sometimes you will have to pay extra for a license to photograph, and frequently flash is not permitted).  But it can become a slippery slope when people begin to expect to be paid just for having travelers photograph them.  In Peru we had many people, including young children, dress in traditional costumes and approach us to pose in photos for money.  In an Argentinian mountain village we were even asked to pay to photograph a gentleman’s Saint Bernard dogs.  In these situations, you’ll have to exercise your best judgment.
    • When can you shoot first and ask questions later?: It’s rare, but on occasion you will encounter situations when the “decisive moment” will be lost if you ask for permission to shoot.  This is another judgment call.  Just like when shooting street photography at home, I consider several factors when deciding whether to make an image of a stranger in a different part of the world.  When I do see an amazing expression, gesture, or moment and decide to capture it before getting to know the subject, I will usually approach them and show them the image on the camera’s display, attempting to query whether it’s okay.  A smile and an easygoing, open gesture can help when approaching.  If the response is clearly negative, I delete the image on the spot and in front of the subject. Again, see the Golden Rule, above, and keep in mind that courtesy and respect make all the difference.

Cuba

This was one of those situations when I shot first and asked questions later.  The proprietor of Maria’s Cafe in an eco-village in Cuba’s rural Vinales Valley was standing on a balcony above the cafe surveying the activity below.  I loved the way her contemplative expression and relaxed gesture were framed by the saturated Caribbean colors of the doorway, so I made this image right from our table.  Later, when Maria came down to talk with customers, I showed her the photo and she was pleased with it.  Buy this photo

Beyond these general guidelines, there are local variations.  Do get to know the customs that prevail in the countries and regions you plan to visit.  For example, in some cultures it is acceptable to stand very close to others when conversing, while in other cultures the social boundaries are much more pronounced.  Sometimes it is fine to approach a child directly, but in other cases the first contact should be made with the parent or teacher.  There’s quite a bit of local variation in the amount of small-talk people engage in before getting down to business.  Knowing the local customs not only helps you make better portraits of the people you meet, but will also encourage deeper interactions and mutual respect.

In my experience, the camera is a wonderful bridge that enhances, rather than detracts from, making meaningful cultural connections with people while traveling.  Just try to do it the right way!

Want to read other posts about what to shoot during your travels?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/

Do you have a good story to share about your experiences, positive or otherwise, in photographing people you met during your travels?  What’s your approach to making portraits while abroad?  How has photography enhanced your cultural interactions?  Please post your thoughts in the comment box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Focus on Chile and Argentina [Encore Publication]: Ruggged mountain landscapes and distinctive cultural experiences abound

Our wonderful 3.5-week adventure took us from Santiago, where we visited our older daughter, to fabled Easter Island, sophisticated Buenos Aires, the mystical island of Chiloe, and then through much of Southern Patagonia.  For much of this itinerary we were traveling with a local leader and a small group of fellow travelers on a trip operated by Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT).  The knowledge of our local trip leader coupled with the small group size allowed us to travel to largely untouristed areas and to engage in authentic cultural interactions that would not have been easy to set up on our own and would have been impractical to include on larger group trips.  Such a format offers amazing opportunities for photographers, as it provides access to an array of experiences beyond the “postcard-type” shots.  From home-hosted meals to wildlife encounters to hiking across glaciers and on the slopes of a volcano, this trip packed a lot of memorable moments–and images–into just a few weeks’ time.

Easter Island is a small and extremely remote island, accessible via daily flights from Santiago.  It is, of course, famed for the monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people centuries ago, called moai, that are scattered across the island.  But there is a lot more to Easter Island than the moai, including a distinctive Polynesian culture and a wealth of natural beauty.

When photographing iconic sites like this grouping of moai on Easter Island, look for a different perspective.  Here, I have framed the image from an unusual vantage point, shooting with a telephoto lens to compress the moai so that they appear closer together and more imposing than they would if framed from directly in front.   Buy this photo on my website

From Easter Island we traveled to Argentina’s capital city of Buenos Aires.  This city has a high-energy feel, offers a huge array of food specialties, and is graced with stately European style avenues and architecture.

 

Buenos Aires’ colorful and historic barrio (neighborhood) of La Boca is the birthplace of the tango.  To give a sense of the dance’s motion, I shot with a slightly slower shutter speed.  The rich colors of La Boca can be brought out in post-processing with subtle adjustments to the vibrance and/or saturation tools in image editing software such as Lightroom.  Buy this photo on my website

A stay in the Alpine style village of San Carlos de Bariloche included fascinating interactions with Hans, who as a German boy growing up in Bariloche uncovered his father’s Nazi past and wrote several scholarly books about Nazis living in Argentina; and with Christina, a Mapuche Indian grandmother, civil rights activist, and jewelry maker.  We then crossed overland toward the border with Chile, stopping en route for a home-hosted lunch of grilled lamb and for some horseback ridingon a family estancia (ranch).

Chango, the family patriarch, saddles up the horses for a ranch ride.  An environmental portrait includes not only the person who is the subject of the portrait, but also enough of the surroundings to give a deeper sense of who the person is.  A classic portrait lens would also work nicely for a shot like this one, but to emphasize the relationship between man and horse, and to give some separation between the subject and the background, I chose a longer telephoto lens.  Buy this photo on my website


An otherworldly sight: a lenticular cloud forms on the summit of Osorno Volcano as we were hiking on the slopes.  To capture high-contrast scenes like this one, it often helps to underexpose by about one stop to preserve the detail in the highlights.  Then the shadow detail can be brought back later during post-processing. Buy this photo on my website

The same Osorno Volcano viewed from Vicente Perez Rosales National Park.  To blur the water, I placed the camera on a steady tripod and used a longer shutter speed.  Attaching a neutral density filter to the lens can help by reducing the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor, thus allowing a longer shutter speed even in bright daylight. Buy this photo on my website

A ferry crossing from mainland Chile brought us to the island of Chiloe for an overnight stay.  Chiloe exudes a strong sense of its mystical past and is characterized by colorful houses rising on stilts out of the water.

Characteristic brightly colored Chilote houses built on stilts.  Choose a vantage point from which the houses can be framed in a pleasing manner, shoot with a wide angle lens to include more of the houses, and add a bit of vibrance in post-processing to bring out the saturated colors. Buy this photo on my website

The island of Chiloe includes a fascinating bird preserve reachable by small boat.  Here is a penguin couple out strolling in their formal wear.  To stabilize the camera and long telephoto lens while shooting from a heavily rocking small boat, use a fast shutter speed (choosing a higher ISO can help), turn on vibration reduction if your lens or camera offers it, and release the shutter at the instant when the boat reaches the top of its cycle of rocking.  It’s helpful to use a monopod if you have one (I didn’t) and to shoot a continuous burst of images so that you are more likely to get a good sharp one. Buy this photo on my website

After traveling south all the way to the Strait of Magellan (the farthest south I have ever stood, with Antarctica the only land mass below it), we continued northwest until we reached Torres del Paine National Park, any photographer’s dream destination.  The photographic possibilities here are endless, with rugged mountains meeting brilliant blue glaciers and clear lakes.  We had the opportunity to view this breathtaking beauty from various hikes and by boat.

Blue ice on Lago Grey’s glacier imitates the mountain peaks soaring behind.  I used a polarizing filter on the lens to bring out the intense blues in the glacier and sky, but had to be careful not to remove too much of the reflection in the water of the lake. Buy this photo on my website

Alpenglow lights the peaks behind Lago Grey and its glacier.  To make this image, I had to forego much of a really good dinner by shooting through the mealtime out on the deck of our lodge.  With the camera on a steady tripod, I shot a series of images using different exposures, a process known as bracketing.  Later, these shots can be blended together using the high dynamic range (HDR) tools in software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Buy this photo on my website

Heading out of Torres del Paine through the heart of Patagonia, our adventure was not yet over.  We still had another national park (Los Glacieres) to visit on the Argentinian side before returning to Buenos Aires for our farewell dinner and our flights back home.

Patagonian Paradise.  Don’t forget to include yourself and your traveling companions in some of your images.  This one, made as we headed out of Torres del Paine National Park, made a great holiday card. Buy this photo on my website

Have you visited Patagonia, the capital cities of Argentina and Chile, Easter Island, or Chiloe Island?  What did you find most memorable?  Please add your suggestions for places to visit or subjects to shoot.  Just enter your thoughts in the comment box.

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

Focus on Turkey: Spectacular photographic opportunities abound in this troubled nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Mount Kilimanjaro lit by alpenglow.  Buy this photo

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maasai villagers with their new water filter.  Buy this photo

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

Safari by hot air balloon.  Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Serengeti sunrise.  Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography as a Bridge to Local Culture [Encore Publication]: Your camera is a great tool for meeting local people and learning about culture

I’ve heard certain travelers grumble that photography inhibits deep cultural learning and interaction when we visit new places.  Our cameras, this line of reasoning goes, isolate us from the local people we’re trying to get to know.  The lens, they believe, acts as a distancing device to turn locals into subjects and travelers into tourists.

I disagree emphatically!  Your camera is a great tool for meeting local people and learning about culture, immersing yourself even more deeply in the spirit of the place and the lives of the people who live there.  But only if you use it in the right way.  Allow me to explain.

While the local customs and even the laws governing whom it is acceptable to photograph, and when or where it is okay to make an image of them, do vary from place to place, there are a few common-sense guidelines that will help us travelers engage in a friendly, curious manner instead of upsetting people and causing social discord.  Here are a few key guidelines to keep in mind.

    • The Golden Rule: If it’s not okay in your home country, it’s probably not okay in other parts of the world.  Would you appreciate a stranger running up to you on your front lawn and shoving a lens in your face?  I’m guessing, no.  So please don’t behave in that way toward people in other places.
    • Make a portrait, don’t take a portrait: Get to know your subject first as a person, even if just for a brief exchange.  While there are occasionally situations where the moment or the expression will be lost by approaching your subject before shooting, I find that most of the time I make better images as well as have more meaningful interactions, when I say hello and ask the person first.

USA

I chatted for a while with these samba dancers as they were celebrating just after San Francisco’s Carnaval parade.  Getting to know them first made it easy to ask permission for a portrait. Buy this photo

    • Approach children with sensitivity: Kids can be amazing photographic subjects!  They are often uninhibited in front of the camera and they portray cultural practices and lifestyle in a relatable, endearing way.  But it’s especially important to understand when it’s okay to make a portrait with them.  While traveling in South Africa, I saw first-hand what can happen when travelers misunderstand social norms.  A fellow traveler in my group saw a young boy playing near where we were waiting for a border crossing.  She shouted excitedly, “Soooo cute!,” and rushed up to the child, camera extended toward his face, to take his picture.  In an instant the boy’s father ran over, irate, and yelled at me (he mistakenly thought I was the fellow traveler’s father), “How would you like it if we came to your country and started taking pictures of your children?”  A few minutes later I explained privately to the offending traveler why her actions caused a negative reaction.  She had no idea this behavior wasn’t okay.  When in doubt, refer to the Golden Rule, above.

Kashgar, China

We visited the old town in Kashgar just before the Chinese government began demolishing the homes there and relocating the mostly ethnic Uighur people.  It was and remains a complicated social situation, but I was fortunate to be able to make this memorable portrait of a young Uighur girl in traditional clothing sitting in front of her soon-to-be-destroyed family house.  I approached her mother first to make sure it was okay to photograph the girl.  Her expression of pride mixed with apprehension is what I feel makes this image strong.  Buy this photo

    • Getting to know you: It may seem difficult to talk with a stranger from a very different culture who likely speaks a very different language from our own.  For us introverts, it seems like even more of a challenge.  But I’ve learned a few tricks and tips that make it much easier to get to know a person before photographing them.  Learn a few words of the local language.  Just saying “hello” or “good day” can be a great icebreaker.  It’s a fairly universal gesture to point to your camera and extend your arm gently toward your hopeful subject to inquire, “Is it okay if I take your picture?”  Just as happens in our home countries, a subject may say no, but most of the time people are happy to be photographed if you are polite, respectful, and try to interact with them first.  A trip leader, guide, or local friend can often be a great help by introducing you to the person you’d like to photograph.

Turkey

At the start of our trip through Turkey, I asked our trip leader to introduce me to people we felt would be good portrait subjects.  With his help I was able to overcome the language and cultural difference and capture this striking portrait of an employee at a carpet weaving cooperative.  Buy this photo

    • How close is too close?: In most situations it is fine to make an image that includes a large group of people, none of whom will be too prominent in the photo.  For close-up images, though, in which an individual person or small group of people will be the obvious subject, it is best to ask first.
    • Money matters: When there is a commercial transaction between you and your subject, it often paves the way to ask to make their portrait.  I’ve had good experiences photographing local street vendors, musicians, artisans, and shopkeepers after purchasing their wares or tipping them for their services.  And of course it is usually fine to photograph singers, dancers, and musicians in a performance you have paid to attend, as long as local rules about photography are obeyed (sometimes you will have to pay extra for a license to photograph, and frequently flash is not permitted).  But it can become a slippery slope when people begin to expect to be paid just for having travelers photograph them.  In Peru we had many people, including young children, dress in traditional costumes and approach us to pose in photos for money.  In an Argentinian mountain village we were even asked to pay to photograph a gentleman’s Saint Bernard dogs.  In these situations, you’ll have to exercise your best judgment.
    • When can you shoot first and ask questions later?: It’s rare, but on occasion you will encounter situations when the “decisive moment” will be lost if you ask for permission to shoot.  This is another judgment call.  Just like when shooting street photography at home, I consider several factors when deciding whether to make an image of a stranger in a different part of the world.  When I do see an amazing expression, gesture, or moment and decide to capture it before getting to know the subject, I will usually approach them and show them the image on the camera’s display, attempting to query whether it’s okay.  A smile and an easygoing, open gesture can help when approaching.  If the response is clearly negative, I delete the image on the spot and in front of the subject. Again, see the Golden Rule, above, and keep in mind that courtesy and respect make all the difference.

Cuba

This was one of those situations when I shot first and asked questions later.  The proprietor of Maria’s Cafe in an eco-village in Cuba’s rural Vinales Valley was standing on a balcony above the cafe surveying the activity below.  I loved the way her contemplative expression and relaxed gesture were framed by the saturated Caribbean colors of the doorway, so I made this image right from our table.  Later, when Maria came down to talk with customers, I showed her the photo and she was pleased with it.  Buy this photo

Beyond these general guidelines, there are local variations.  Do get to know the customs that prevail in the countries and regions you plan to visit.  For example, in some cultures it is acceptable to stand very close to others when conversing, while in other cultures the social boundaries are much more pronounced.  Sometimes it is fine to approach a child directly, but in other cases the first contact should be made with the parent or teacher.  There’s quite a bit of local variation in the amount of small-talk people engage in before getting down to business.  Knowing the local customs not only helps you make better portraits of the people you meet, but will also encourage deeper interactions and mutual respect.

In my experience, the camera is a wonderful bridge that enhances, rather than detracts from, making meaningful cultural connections with people while traveling.  Just try to do it the right way!

Want to read other posts about what to shoot during your travels?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/travel/shoot/

Do you have a good story to share about your experiences, positive or otherwise, in photographing people you met during your travels?  What’s your approach to making portraits while abroad?  How has photography enhanced your cultural interactions?  Please post your thoughts in the comment box.

Focus on Tanzania: Every wildlife photographer’s dream destination

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

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

Mount Kilimanjaro lit by alpenglow.  Buy this photo

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maasai villagers with their new water filter.  Buy this photo

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

Safari by hot air balloon.  Buy this photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Serengeti sunrise.  Buy this photo

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

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

Focus on Cuba: It’s changing rapidly, so go now!

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography as a Bridge to Local Culture

I’ve heard certain travelers grumble that photography inhibits deep cultural learning and interaction when we visit new places.  Our cameras, this line of reasoning goes, isolate us from the local people we’re trying to get to know.  The lens, they believe, acts as a distancing device to turn locals into subjects and travelers into tourists.

I disagree emphatically!  Your camera is a great tool for meeting local people and learning about culture, immersing yourself even more deeply in the spirit of the place and the lives of the people who live there.  But only if you use it in the right way.  Allow me to explain.

While the local customs and even the laws governing whom it is acceptable to photograph, and when or where it is okay to make an image of them, do vary from place to place, there are a few common-sense guidelines that will help us travelers engage in a friendly, curious manner instead of upsetting people and causing social discord.  Here are a few key guidelines to keep in mind.

    • The Golden Rule: If it’s not okay in your home country, it’s probably not okay in other parts of the world.  Would you appreciate a stranger running up to you on your front lawn and shoving a lens in your face?  I’m guessing, no.  So please don’t behave in that way toward people in other places.
    • Make a portrait, don’t take a portrait: Get to know your subject first as a person, even if just for a brief exchange.  While there are occasionally situations where the moment or the expression will be lost by approaching your subject before shooting, I find that most of the time I make better images as well as have more meaningful interactions, when I say hello and ask the person first.

USA

I chatted for a while with these samba dancers as they were celebrating just after San Francisco’s Carnaval parade.  Getting to know them first made it easy to ask permission for a portrait. Buy this photo on my website

    • Approach children with sensitivity: Kids can be amazing photographic subjects!  They are often uninhibited in front of the camera and they portray cultural practices and lifestyle in a relatable, endearing way.  But it’s especially important to understand when it’s okay to make a portrait with them.  While traveling in South Africa, I saw first-hand what can happen when travelers misunderstand social norms.  A fellow traveler in my group saw a young boy playing near where we were waiting for a border crossing.  She shouted excitedly, “Soooo cute!,” and rushed up to the child, camera extended toward his face, to take his picture.  In an instant the boy’s father ran over, irate, and yelled at me (he mistakenly thought I was the fellow traveler’s father), “How would you like it if we came to your country and started taking pictures of your children?”  A few minutes later I explained privately to the offending traveler why her actions caused a negative reaction.  She had no idea this behavior wasn’t okay.  When in doubt, refer to the Golden Rule, above.

Kashgar, China

We visited the old town in Kashgar just before the Chinese government began demolishing the homes there and relocating the mostly ethnic Uighur people.  It was and remains a complicated social situation, but I was fortunate to be able to make this memorable portrait of a young Uighur girl in traditional clothing sitting in front of her soon-to-be-destroyed family house.  I approached her mother first to make sure it was okay to photograph the girl.  Her expression of pride mixed with apprehension is what I feel makes this image strong.  Buy this photo on my website

    • Getting to know you: It may seem difficult to talk with a stranger from a very different culture who likely speaks a very different language from our own.  For us introverts, it seems like even more of a challenge.  But I’ve learned a few tricks and tips that make it much easier to get to know a person before photographing them.  Learn a few words of the local language.  Just saying “hello” or “good day” can be a great icebreaker.  It’s a fairly universal gesture to point to your camera and extend your arm gently toward your hopeful subject to inquire, “Is it okay if I take your picture?”  Just as happens in our home countries, a subject may say no, but most of the time people are happy to be photographed if you are polite, respectful, and try to interact with them first.  A trip leader, guide, or local friend can often be a great help by introducing you to the person you’d like to photograph.

Turkey

At the start of our trip through Turkey, I asked our trip leader to introduce me to people we felt would be good portrait subjects.  With his help I was able to overcome the language and cultural difference and capture this striking portrait of an employee at a carpet weaving cooperative.  Buy this photo on my website

    • How close is too close?: In most situations it is fine to make an image that includes a large group of people, none of whom will be too prominent in the photo.  For close-up images, though, in which an individual person or small group of people will be the obvious subject, it is best to ask first.
    • Money matters: When there is a commercial transaction between you and your subject, it often paves the way to ask to make their portrait.  I’ve had good experiences photographing local street vendors, musicians, artisans, and shopkeepers after purchasing their wares or tipping them for their services.  And of course it is usually fine to photograph singers, dancers, and musicians in a performance you have paid to attend, as long as local rules about photography are obeyed (sometimes you will have to pay extra for a license to photograph, and frequently flash is not permitted).  But it can become a slippery slope when people begin to expect to be paid just for having travelers photograph them.  In Peru we had many people, including young children, dress in traditional costumes and approach us to pose in photos for money.  In an Argentinian mountain village we were even asked to pay to photograph a gentleman’s Saint Bernard dogs.  In these situations, you’ll have to exercise your best judgment.
    • When can you shoot first and ask questions later?: It’s rare, but on occasion you will encounter situations when the “decisive moment” will be lost if you ask for permission to shoot.  This is another judgment call.  Just like when shooting street photography at home, I consider several factors when deciding whether to make an image of a stranger in a different part of the world.  When I do see an amazing expression, gesture, or moment and decide to capture it before getting to know the subject, I will usually approach them and show them the image on the camera’s display, attempting to query whether it’s okay.  A smile and an easygoing, open gesture can help when approaching.  If the response is clearly negative, I delete the image on the spot and in front of the subject. Again, see the Golden Rule, above, and keep in mind that courtesy and respect make all the difference.

Cuba

This was one of those situations when I shot first and asked questions later.  The proprietor of Maria’s Cafe in an eco-village in Cuba’s rural Vinales Valley was standing on a balcony above the cafe surveying the activity below.  I loved the way her contemplative expression and relaxed gesture were framed by the saturated Caribbean colors of the doorway, so I made this image right from our table.  Later, when Maria came down to talk with customers, I showed her the photo and she was pleased with it.  Buy this photo on my website

Beyond these general guidelines, there are local variations.  Do get to know the customs that prevail in the countries and regions you plan to visit.  For example, in some cultures it is acceptable to stand very close to others when conversing, while in other cultures the social boundaries are much more pronounced.  Sometimes it is fine to approach a child directly, but in other cases the first contact should be made with the parent or teacher.  There’s quite a bit of local variation in the amount of small-talk people engage in before getting down to business.  Knowing the local customs not only helps you make better portraits of the people you meet, but will also encourage deeper interactions and mutual respect.

In my experience, the camera is a wonderful bridge that enhances, rather than detracts from, making meaningful cultural connections with people while traveling.  Just try to do it the right way!

Do you have a good story to share about your experiences, positive or otherwise, in photographing people you met during your travels?  What’s your approach to making portraits while abroad?  How has photography enhanced your cultural interactions?  Please post your thoughts in the comment box.

Focus on Chile and Argentina: Rugged mountain landscapes and distinctive cultural experiences

Our wonderful 3.5-week adventure took us from Santiago, where we visited our older daughter, to fabled Easter Island, sophisticated Buenos Aires, the mystical island of Chiloe, and then through much of Southern Patagonia.  For much of this itinerary we were traveling with a local leader and a small group of fellow travelers on a trip operated by Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT).  The knowledge of our local trip leader coupled with the small group size allowed us to travel to largely untouristed areas and to engage in authentic cultural interactions that would not have been easy to set up on our own and would have been impractical to include on larger group trips.  Such a format offers amazing opportunities for photographers, as it provides access to an array of experiences beyond the “postcard-type” shots.  From home-hosted meals to wildlife encounters to hiking across glaciers and on the slopes of a volcano, this trip packed a lot of memorable moments–and images–into just a few weeks’ time.

Easter Island is a small and extremely remote island, accessible via daily flights from Santiago.  It is, of course, famed for the monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people centuries ago, called moai, that are scattered across the island.  But there is a lot more to Easter Island than the moai, including a distinctive Polynesian culture and a wealth of natural beauty.

When photographing iconic sites like this grouping of moai on Easter Island, look for a different perspective.  Here, I have framed the image from an unusual vantage point, shooting with a telephoto lens to compress the moai so that they appear closer together and more imposing than they would if framed from directly in front.   Buy this photo on my website

From Easter Island we traveled to Argentina’s capital city of Buenos Aires.  This city has a high-energy feel, offers a huge array of food specialties, and is graced with stately European style avenues and architecture.

 

Buenos Aires’ colorful and historic barrio (neighborhood) of La Boca is the birthplace of the tango.  To give a sense of the dance’s motion, I shot with a slightly slower shutter speed.  The rich colors of La Boca can be brought out in post-processing with subtle adjustments to the vibrance and/or saturation tools in image editing software such as Lightroom.  Buy this photo on my website

A stay in the Alpine style village of San Carlos de Bariloche included fascinating interactions with Hans, who as a German boy growing up in Bariloche uncovered his father’s Nazi past and wrote several scholarly books about Nazis living in Argentina; and with Christina, a Mapuche Indian grandmother, civil rights activist, and jewelry maker.  We then crossed overland toward the border with Chile, stopping en route for a home-hosted lunch of grilled lamb and for some horseback ridingon a family estancia (ranch).

Chango, the family patriarch, saddles up the horses for a ranch ride.  An environmental portrait includes not only the person who is the subject of the portrait, but also enough of the surroundings to give a deeper sense of who the person is.  A classic portrait lens would also work nicely for a shot like this one, but to emphasize the relationship between man and horse, and to give some separation between the subject and the background, I chose a longer telephoto lens.  Buy this photo on my website


An otherworldly sight: a lenticular cloud forms on the summit of Osorno Volcano as we were hiking on the slopes.  To capture high-contrast scenes like this one, it often helps to underexpose by about one stop to preserve the detail in the highlights.  Then the shadow detail can be brought back later during post-processing. Buy this photo on my website

The same Osorno Volcano viewed from Vicente Perez Rosales National Park.  To blur the water, I placed the camera on a steady tripod and used a longer shutter speed.  Attaching a neutral density filter to the lens can help by reducing the amount of light reaching the camera’s sensor, thus allowing a longer shutter speed even in bright daylight. Buy this photo on my website

A ferry crossing from mainland Chile brought us to the island of Chiloe for an overnight stay.  Chiloe exudes a strong sense of its mystical past and is characterized by colorful houses rising on stilts out of the water.

Characteristic brightly colored Chilote houses built on stilts.  Choose a vantage point from which the houses can be framed in a pleasing manner, shoot with a wide angle lens to include more of the houses, and add a bit of vibrance in post-processing to bring out the saturated colors. Buy this photo on my website

The island of Chiloe includes a fascinating bird preserve reachable by small boat.  Here is a penguin couple out strolling in their formal wear.  To stabilize the camera and long telephoto lens while shooting from a heavily rocking small boat, use a fast shutter speed (choosing a higher ISO can help), turn on vibration reduction if your lens or camera offers it, and release the shutter at the instant when the boat reaches the top of its cycle of rocking.  It’s helpful to use a monopod if you have one (I didn’t) and to shoot a continuous burst of images so that you are more likely to get a good sharp one. Buy this photo on my website

After traveling south all the way to the Strait of Magellan (the farthest south I have ever stood, with Antarctica the only land mass below it), we continued northwest until we reached Torres del Paine National Park, any photographer’s dream destination.  The photographic possibilities here are endless, with rugged mountains meeting brilliant blue glaciers and clear lakes.  We had the opportunity to view this breathtaking beauty from various hikes and by boat.

Blue ice on Lago Grey’s glacier imitates the mountain peaks soaring behind.  I used a polarizing filter on the lens to bring out the intense blues in the glacier and sky, but had to be careful not to remove too much of the reflection in the water of the lake. Buy this photo on my website

Alpenglow lights the peaks behind Lago Grey and its glacier.  To make this image, I had to forego much of a really good dinner by shooting through the mealtime out on the deck of our lodge.  With the camera on a steady tripod, I shot a series of images using different exposures, a process known as bracketing.  Later, these shots can be blended together using the high dynamic range (HDR) tools in software such as Lightroom or Photoshop. Buy this photo on my website

Heading out of Torres del Paine through the heart of Patagonia, our adventure was not yet over.  We still had another national park (Los Glacieres) to visit on the Argentinian side before returning to Buenos Aires for our farewell dinner and our flights back home.

Patagonian Paradise.  Don’t forget to include yourself and your traveling companions in some of your images.  This one, made as we headed out of Torres del Paine National Park, made a great holiday card. Buy this photo on my website

Have you visited Patagonia, the capital cities of Argentina and Chile, Easter Island, or Chiloe Island?  What did you find most memorable?  Please add your suggestions for places to visit or subjects to shoot.  Just enter your thoughts in the comment box.