Focus on Mardi Gras SF [Encore Publication]: New Orleans and Latin American colors and sounds in San Francisco

Anyone who reads “To Travel Hopefully” at least occasionally knows that I’m a major lover of street fairs and festivals.  Nowhere else can you capture the colors, sounds, flavors, and feel of a city’s local culture as readily.  I’m fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there are literally hundreds of diverse and fascinating festivals each year.  Probably my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval celebration, a pan-Latin outpouring of samba dancing, music, color, culture, and even cars.  Anyone in San Francisco can tell you that Carnaval here takes place in late May, thanks to the rather chilly weather that prevails during the more traditional carnival season around Mardi Gras in February.  But Carnaval SF has a lesser-known cousin, Mardi Gras SF, that does indeed take place at the same time Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Martinique, and other places around the world.  Today’s post focuses on yesterday’s Mardi Gras celebrations all around the city of San Francisco, during which the music, traditions, costumes, and dancing of the world’s more famous carnivals comes to California for one crazy night.

New Orleans style mummers dance along with the dixieland music in a parade in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.  I wanted to capture a sense of the chaos even while making a portrait of just these two revelers, so I used a shallow depth-of-field to throw the closer woman into slightly softer focus.  Buy this photo

At this time of day there was enough natural light remaining to make this portrait without any fill flash.  During post-processing in the Lightroom application, I adjusted the contrast and exposure, enhanced the vibrance, and used just a touch of post-crop vignetting to bring out the main subject.  Buy this photo

The classic Victorian townhouses known as “painted ladies” attest that this scene is taking place in San Francisco, but the foreground subject is pure French Quarter.  To gain this perspective on the scene, I climbed on top of a bench and used a wide-angle lens.  I was careful to keep the camera level so as not to distort the image, and I further corrected the perspective during post-processing.  Buy this photo

I rushed across town to the Mission District, an historically Latino neighborhood, where a different sort of parade was beginning.  This parade is styled as much on the Latin American carnival traditions as on the New Orleans creole traditions.  This portrait documenting the preparations of one of my favorite Carnaval groups, Viva la Diva, was made as the parade was forming.  I used an off-camera fill flash with its power dialed down by one stop to saturate the colors and set off the main subject from the background.  Buy this photo

I loved this reveler’s carnival mask, so I asked her if I could make a portrait.  I used a classic 85mm portrait lens and got in close to minimize clutter in the background, using a bit of off-camera fill flash.  Buy this photo

Another example of a portrait shot close to the subject using a touch of fill flash.  I use an effective and inexpensive cord to tether my speedlight to the camera’s hot-shoe, while I hand-hold the flash off to the side and away from the camera.  To learn more about this gear and technique, read this earlier post: Post on Off-Camera Flash.  Buy this photo

I have been working with the group Viva la Diva for several weeks already to document their preparations for San Francisco’s big Carnaval parade in late May, so I made certain to capture these lovely ladies during the smaller Mardi Gras celebrations.  Once again, the secrets to making a stunning portrait are to establish rapport with your subject, use a moderate and fast portrait lens, get in close, use a wide aperture to throw the background into soft focus, throw in a touch of fill flash to isolate your subject even more, and shoot several frames to ensure you capture just the right moment.  It takes practice, but it really isn’t that difficult, and the results are truly eye-catching.  Buy this photo

Kids are great fun to photograph.  This group of youngsters from a nearby school wanted to dance with the Viva la Diva samba dancers.  I got down low so as to shoot them from their eye level, and I held the flash up high so as to light them evenly and without harsh shadows.  Buy this photo

Viva la Diva!  Even though by this time of the evening there was effectively no ambient light, I was still able to capture a portrait of the Divas without the glaring artificial color cast that is typical with images lit mostly by flash.  The keys to success here are to use a diffuser on the flash head, get the flash off-camera, hold it very close to your subject to soften the lighting further, and adjust in post-processing.  Buy this photo

Do you have favorite local events you love to shoot?  Which ones, and what techniques do you use?  Please share your stories here.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Adler photographer travel photography

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

Flash Units

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

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

Tripods

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

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

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

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

Accessories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smartphones

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

Bags

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

For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It will almost always be accepted as carryon on flights, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.

My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.

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

Software

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Cameras

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

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

Lenses

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

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

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

 

You may never need a super-telephoto lens.  They tend to be expensive, bulky, and heavy, and on many trips you won’t need it.  But for those trips when you expect to encounter lots of wildlife or want to capture astronomical events like an eclipse or transit of a planet, a very long lens is essential.  Mine is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Focus on Bethlehem AD: Our neighboring town hosts perhaps the largest nativity scene reenactment in the US

Even professional travel photographers can’t travel all the time.  I’m always on the lookout for great opportunities to shoot local attractions during those stretches when I’m home.  There’s a fun annual event in nearby Redwood City, California called Bethlehem AD that puts on perhaps the nation’s largest re-imagining of the nativity scene.  Replete with Roman centurions, townspeople, craftsmen, dancers, bakers, camels, alpacas, and of course the holy family, some wise men, and a heavenly host of angels, this lavish staging of the nativity is a photographic treat.

Because the event is held only in the evening and there is very little lighting available on location, photographers must provide their own lighting.  I used an off-camera speedlight that I handheld off to the side of the camera and connected to my camera’s TTL metering system using a flash cable.  I’ve shot with Nikon’s own brand of flash cable in the past, but this new off-brand model worked better and cost a fraction of the price:

I shot in Manual mode at 1/60 second for flash synchronization and at f/5 or f/8.  I chose ISO settings from 800 up to 3200 depending on the subject.  Buy this photo

To freeze the motion of these dancers, I used TTL flash (off-camera, connected via a 3-foot flash cord) and a shutter speed of 1/60 second.  Buy this photo

As with any sort of portrait photography, the best results are obtained by getting to know your subjects first, getting in close, and spending enough time that they become accustomed to the presence of the camera.  Using this method, you can obtain natural-looking portraits.  Buy this photo

All of these images were made using my go-to portrait lens, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8.  Buy this photo

Beautiful portrait lighting can be shaped using an off-camera speedlight such as the Nikon SB-910.  I made this portrait by holding the speedlight, with diffuser attached, a couple of feet to the left of the camera and bouncing the light off a nearby wall.  The resulting light is soft and warm with no harsh shadows.  Buy this photo

The final tableau, of course, is the actual manger scene.  Because we arrived at closing time, this scene was packed with performers and spectators.  I used the 85mm lens’ magnification power to isolate the holy family and a few onlookers from the rest of the scene.  I handheld the flash unit above the camera and aimed it directly toward the holy family.  A high ISO setting of 3200 also helped concentrate the ambient light at the scene.  Buy this photo

What are your favorite winter holiday events?  Please share your experiences shooting around the holidays.

Want to read other posts about shooting ideas while traveling or close to home?  Find them all here: Posts on What to Shoot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Portrait Photography Gear: Affordable kit for making great portraits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Things We Carry: Basic Gear for Travel Photography, Part II

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

Flash Units

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

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

Tripods

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

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

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

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

Accessories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smartphones

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

Bags

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

For those times when you need to bring most or all of your gear on a trip, I like the Tamrac 5586 Expedition 6x Backpack.  It carries a lot of gear snugly and flexibly, and it doesn’t look like a camera bag so it’s less likely to invite the wrong kind of attention.  It will almost always be accepted as carryon on flights, but it is a bit bulky and heavy for all-day, everyday use while traveling.  I’ll often use this bag to get all my gear to my first destination, then pack a day bag for just the gear I’ll need for each day of the trip.

My current favorite bag for day use for nearly any shooting situation near home or while traveling is the Manfrotto MB MA-BP-TRV Advanced Travel Backpack.  It can fit a reasonable amount of gear while leaving room for non-photography items like a jacket or a water bottle (yes, even photographers occasionally have to drink or stay warm).  It disguises your gear pretty well, has good rain protection, and even sports a special sleeve for carrying the Manfrotto Be-Free Travel Tripod.

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

Software

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

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

The Things We Carry: Basic Gear for Travel Photography, Part I

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

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

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

Cameras

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

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

Lenses

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

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

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

 

You may never need a super-telephoto lens.  They tend to be expensive, bulky, and heavy, and on many trips you won’t need it.  But for those trips when you expect to encounter lots of wildlife or want to capture astronomical events like an eclipse or transit of a planet, a very long lens is essential.  Mine is the Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 lens.  It’s more economical than a Nikon or Canon super-tele, and it produces reasonably sharp images even when used at its widest aperture.  You can spend much more on this type of big glass if you want or need to, but I’ve found this lens works quite well for me.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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