Celebration Time, Come On [Encore Publication]: How to shoot festivals, street fairs, and other celebrations

As a professional travel photographer, I have to be prepared at any given time to shoot in nearly every genre of photography.  Landscapes, urban scenes, street photography, night and astrophotography, sports, wildlife, and portraiture are all stock-in-trade, and I love them all!  But when I’m asked what my favorite photographic genre is, I reply that I love portraying living culture the most of all.  Making images of people celebrating their culture, especially when those images convey a sense of place, is my top objective when I shoot, whether I’m halfway around the world or near home.

Culture can be expressed in small everyday elements of dress, gesture, and environment.  But celebrations such as festivals, street fairs, religious observances, arts, and sports show us culture writ large.  It is these outpourings of color, sounds, motion, and ritual that show us how people are different and yet similar all around the world.  And of all the celebrations I shoot regularly, my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval San Francisco.  So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to shoot striking images of cultural celebrations, using Carnaval SF as an example.

This year’s Carnaval was held this past Sunday.  But I was privileged to be “embedded” with several of the comparsas, or Carnaval groups, during the months leading up to the big parade day.  This allowed me the opportunity to get to know the leaders and dancers in these groups, making very special images of the preparations for Carnaval.  While I won’t be including any of those behind-the-scenes images in today’s post, the images of the parade day itself did benefit from my having had the chance to get to know the members of these groups over the months leading up to the day.  We’ll include some discussion of this observation in the post.

I’d like to start with an observation on gear.  I see a lot of fellow photographers shooting at events like Carnaval with way too much gear.  When I say too much gear, I mean more gear than is good for them or for the participants and observers of the festival.  Several photographers had two or three DSLR bodies mounted with enormous zoom lenses and attached to large strobes with huge diffusers.  Some used monopods and a few even tried to set up tripods for this rapidly moving and crowded event.  I brought a single DSLR with two light and fast prime lenses (a 50mm “normal” lens, and an 85mm portrait lens).  That’s it.  I never mounted a zoom lens during the whole day of shooting and I never used any artificial light.  And of course I went handheld the whole day; there’s really no safe or practical way to use a tripod at a crowded and mobile event.  All 2500 images I made that day used just that compact kit, and I’m very happy with the results.

It’s a good idea to arrive well before the scheduled start time.  Often, the best images of the day will be the ones you make during the preparations rather than during the event itself.  For this image of a leader of the Viva la Diva group, who I knew well from working with them over the last few months, I got in close with an 85mm portrait lens and allowed her elaborate headdress to fill the entire frame.  Buy this photo

Try to include some of the elements surrounding the people in the celebration.  A portrait that shows a person or people within their surroundings is called an “environmental portrait,” and often these tell us more about the person and the culture than do close-ups.  Buy this photo

Seek out the key people in a celebration, such as the King of Carnaval shown here.  He has such an amazing presence that all I had to do was find the right vantage point and shoot away.  I always look for uncluttered backgrounds when making portraits, so the background doesn’t distract much from the image.  Buy this photo

Kids make wonderful subjects during celebrations, especially during those moments when they forget the camera is there and are completely uninhibited.  Buy this photo

Try to choose backgrounds that complement your subject without competing with it.  I asked this samba dancer to pose by a street mural whose bright blues complemented her own costume.  Buy this photo

Group portraits can be challenging.  It’s difficult during the chaos of a celebration to get everyone’s eyes on the camera.  Try to find a vantage point that flatters everyone in the image (for full-body portraits, it’s often best to shoot from the level of the middle of the body, not from head level), choose an uncluttered and undistracting background, and select an aperture that gives just enough depth-of-field to keep all the people in focus while softening the background.  Buy this photo

To make close-up portraits during the actual celebration (in this case, a parade), it is not necessary to use a long telephoto lens.  Shooting with a long lens means you’re “taking” the portrait, not “making” the portrait.  You simply can’t interact with your subject while shooting from far away.  I prefer to use a prime normal or portrait lens so that I can interact with my subject and make an image where his personality shines through.  It helped here that I knew the members of this group from our interactions over the last few months.  Buy this photo

Another reason to use a fast prime lens is that you can choose a very wide aperture (here, F/2.0 using an F/1.4 lens) to get tack-sharp focus on the subject’s face while softening the background and sometimes other parts of the body.  Here I wanted to emphasize the pointing gesture by having the fingers so close as to be out of focus, while the dancer’s face and body are in sharp focus.  Buy this photo

For images that really pop, use a large aperture (small F-stop number) to soften the background and separate the subject from the other people and objects around him.  Buy this photo

During the chaos and cacophony of an urban celebration, it’s nice to find those quiet moments, too.  While most festival dances are joyous and boisterous, this Latin American folkloric dance is quiet and mournful.  I wanted the portrait to reflect that mood, so I shot from the side as if walking next to the dancer and caught the quiet gesture of holding the white handkerchief.  Again, a large aperture was used to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this photo

I look for scenes where participants are just being themselves.  These girls were having a blast, marching and chatting with each other, but they also were interacting with the crowd.  I got down nearly to the ground so as to shoot from their level and framed the image so as to emphasize the color and pattern of their costumes.  Buy this photo

Most images of parades are shot from straight ahead looking backward onto the subjects.  You’ll observe in this post that most of my images are not made from that perspective, but occasionally it does work to frame a great scene, such as this delightful image of a salsa dancing couple.  Buy this photo

It can be challenging to include a whole parade contingent in one shot.  Here I was able to frame the whole group in formation, including some of the lovely San Francisco houses on the steep hill behind, by running ahead to the truck in front of the dancers and getting as much distance as I could between me and them.  I shot with an 85mm lens and selected a small aperture (large F-number) so as to keep all of the dancers and the background in focus.  Buy this photo

With bold and colorful costumes, some subjects cry out for a big striking close-up.  When this dancer stopped to interact with me, I got in close with a portrait lens and captured him full-frame.  Buy this photo

Don’t shy away from using non-standard aspect ratios.  To include the whole Muito Quente contingent, I moved back from the dancers and captured the whole width of the street, then in post-processing I cropped to keep the full width but remove the unwanted foreground and background portions.  Buy this photo

Again, it is helpful to know the participants in advance of the performance.  I had been working with the Muito Quente group for several months before the parade, which made it more natural to interact with each of the dancers and make the best images possible.  Buy this photo

Always shoot in RAW mode for maximum flexibility.  A few words about post-processing: Using Lightroom, I make small adjustments to the color and contrast curves so as to emphasize the subject.  A little boost to the vibrance (but not so much as to make the image appear unnatural) and a touch of post-crop vignetting can really make the image pop.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it’s okay to break the usual rules of composition.  A portrait is not supposed to be cropped at the joints, such as at the knee, but here it works because the dancer’s ornate flowing dress gives a sense of motion and fluidity in the bottom of the frame.  Buy this photo

Even in a fast-moving parade, find the opportunities to have your subject stop for a moment and interact with you.  The resulting images will convey much more personality that way, even if the personage is fully masked.  Buy this photo

We’ll close with this moment of sheer Carnaval magic.  It’s such a wonderful feeling when all the elements come together to make a memorable image.  This portrait uses most of the techniques we’ve discussed in today’s post–careful composition, bright vibrant colors, a perfect moment, sharp subject with soft background–and conveys a strong sense of personality, culture, and place.  And that is what Carnaval, and cultural celebrations in general, are all about!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite cultural celebrations?  How do you make images that capture their essence?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning a Shoot [Encore Publication]: A case study in planning and executing a photo shoot

Whether traveling or near home, some of our best photo opportunities occur spontaneously.  Serendipity is part of the fun of photography, but another big part of the photographer’s craft is to carefully plan and professionally execute a photo shoot.  Using a recent shoot in which I collaborated with professional dancer Molly as a case study, in this post I’ll cover the essential elements of planning and conducting a shoot.

Good planning is key to ensuring a fun, safe, and efficient shoot as well as obtaining the desired artistic outcome.  Buy this photo

Elements to Consider When Planning a Shoot:

  • What is the theme or mood?  The artistic concept will inform all the other elements of the shoot.  For the shoot with Molly, we decided on an edgy, urban theme.  Based on that choice, the decisions about location, timing, gear, technique, and post-processing all flowed consistently.

We chose a gritty, urban theme for this shoot, and all other decisions flowed from that choice.  Buy this photo

  • Where is the location?  Often one of the most challenging aspects of planning a shoot is scouting for a suitable location.  The location, of course, should support the theme of the shoot.  It also needs to be accessible, safe (for this shoot, we rejected shooting on or near railroad tracks for safety reasons), and suitable for making the type of images desired.  There are also legal considerations, as in most cases permission is required to shoot on private property and even some public spaces require permission for commercial uses.  Molly and I eventually decided on using the old barracks at the decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco and the adjacent Crissy Field recreation area.  This space was accessible, relatively safe, provided a gritty and urban mood, and afforded sufficient working room for both dancer and photographer.
  • When should the shoot be scheduled?  Obviously, the date and time scheduled need to work for all parties involved.  These parties include not only the model(s) and photographer, but also other client(s) and often an assistant.  Equally important is ensuring the timing supports your artistic choices.  The season of the year and the time of day should offer the best chances of obtaining the lighting you desire.  The scheduled time should also work as well as possible with respect to other considerations such as opening hours of the chosen space, traffic and volume of other people in the location, and even tides, snowfall amounts, or other environmental factors.  Molly and I chose to shoot in the “golden hour” just before sunset on a Sunday to ensure good lighting and access to the location.
  • What gear and techniques should be used?  After choosing the theme and the supporting logistical elements, it’s time to select the techniques desired to capture the images and the gear required to execute.  Elements to consider include lighting (I prefer to work with available light and reflectors/diffusers whenever possible, but sometimes speedlights or portable studio lights are required), lenses (it’s often best to bring a range of lenses for different perspectives), props, and accessories (will you need to stabilize with a tripod, or perhaps you’ll require neutral density filters to obtain the shutter speed and/or aperture you want?).  In the shoot with Molly, I used the camera handheld at mostly fast shutter speeds and low camera angles with fast prime lenses to get that edgy look.

To capture the fast motion of the dancing and to support the urban theme, I worked handheld with fast prime lenses and low camera angles.  Buy this photo

  • How should the images be post-processed?  Again, the overall artistic concept should inform decisions about post-processing.  For this shoot, I aimed for a high-contrast, slightly grainy look and also converted several of the images to black-and-white.
  • How will the images be distributed and used?  All parties should agree before the shoot on how the images will be shared and/or sold.  To protect both model and photographer, it’s a good idea to sign a model release.  For more information on model releases, see this post: Post on Model Releases.

With attention to planning and execution, a photo shoot will be more enjoyable and productive and the artistic results will be better.  Buy this photo

Do you have tips and tricks you use when preparing for your shoots?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about planning your photography?  Find them all here: Posts on Planning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebration Time, Come On [Encore Publication]: How to shoot festivals, street fairs, and other celebrations

As a professional travel photographer, I have to be prepared at any given time to shoot in nearly every genre of photography.  Landscapes, urban scenes, street photography, night and astrophotography, sports, wildlife, and portraiture are all stock-in-trade, and I love them all!  But when I’m asked what my favorite photographic genre is, I reply that I love portraying living culture the most of all.  Making images of people celebrating their culture, especially when those images convey a sense of place, is my top objective when I shoot, whether I’m halfway around the world or near home.

Culture can be expressed in small everyday elements of dress, gesture, and environment.  But celebrations such as festivals, street fairs, religious observances, arts, and sports show us culture writ large.  It is these outpourings of color, sounds, motion, and ritual that show us how people are different and yet similar all around the world.  And of all the celebrations I shoot regularly, my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval San Francisco.  So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to shoot striking images of cultural celebrations, using Carnaval SF as an example.

This year’s Carnaval was held this past Sunday.  But I was privileged to be “embedded” with several of the comparsas, or Carnaval groups, during the months leading up to the big parade day.  This allowed me the opportunity to get to know the leaders and dancers in these groups, making very special images of the preparations for Carnaval.  While I won’t be including any of those behind-the-scenes images in today’s post, the images of the parade day itself did benefit from my having had the chance to get to know the members of these groups over the months leading up to the day.  We’ll include some discussion of this observation in the post.

I’d like to start with an observation on gear.  I see a lot of fellow photographers shooting at events like Carnaval with way too much gear.  When I say too much gear, I mean more gear than is good for them or for the participants and observers of the festival.  Several photographers had two or three DSLR bodies mounted with enormous zoom lenses and attached to large strobes with huge diffusers.  Some used monopods and a few even tried to set up tripods for this rapidly moving and crowded event.  I brought a single DSLR with two light and fast prime lenses (a 50mm “normal” lens, and an 85mm portrait lens).  That’s it.  I never mounted a zoom lens during the whole day of shooting and I never used any artificial light.  And of course I went handheld the whole day; there’s really no safe or practical way to use a tripod at a crowded and mobile event.  All 2500 images I made that day used just that compact kit, and I’m very happy with the results.

It’s a good idea to arrive well before the scheduled start time.  Often, the best images of the day will be the ones you make during the preparations rather than during the event itself.  For this image of a leader of the Viva la Diva group, who I knew well from working with them over the last few months, I got in close with an 85mm portrait lens and allowed her elaborate headdress to fill the entire frame.  Buy this photo

Try to include some of the elements surrounding the people in the celebration.  A portrait that shows a person or people within their surroundings is called an “environmental portrait,” and often these tell us more about the person and the culture than do close-ups.  Buy this photo

Seek out the key people in a celebration, such as the King of Carnaval shown here.  He has such an amazing presence that all I had to do was find the right vantage point and shoot away.  I always look for uncluttered backgrounds when making portraits, so the background doesn’t distract much from the image.  Buy this photo

Kids make wonderful subjects during celebrations, especially during those moments when they forget the camera is there and are completely uninhibited.  Buy this photo

Try to choose backgrounds that complement your subject without competing with it.  I asked this samba dancer to pose by a street mural whose bright blues complemented her own costume.  Buy this photo

Group portraits can be challenging.  It’s difficult during the chaos of a celebration to get everyone’s eyes on the camera.  Try to find a vantage point that flatters everyone in the image (for full-body portraits, it’s often best to shoot from the level of the middle of the body, not from head level), choose an uncluttered and undistracting background, and select an aperture that gives just enough depth-of-field to keep all the people in focus while softening the background.  Buy this photo

To make close-up portraits during the actual celebration (in this case, a parade), it is not necessary to use a long telephoto lens.  Shooting with a long lens means you’re “taking” the portrait, not “making” the portrait.  You simply can’t interact with your subject while shooting from far away.  I prefer to use a prime normal or portrait lens so that I can interact with my subject and make an image where his personality shines through.  It helped here that I knew the members of this group from our interactions over the last few months.  Buy this photo

Another reason to use a fast prime lens is that you can choose a very wide aperture (here, F/2.0 using an F/1.4 lens) to get tack-sharp focus on the subject’s face while softening the background and sometimes other parts of the body.  Here I wanted to emphasize the pointing gesture by having the fingers so close as to be out of focus, while the dancer’s face and body are in sharp focus.  Buy this photo

For images that really pop, use a large aperture (small F-stop number) to soften the background and separate the subject from the other people and objects around him.  Buy this photo

During the chaos and cacophony of an urban celebration, it’s nice to find those quiet moments, too.  While most festival dances are joyous and boisterous, this Latin American folkloric dance is quiet and mournful.  I wanted the portrait to reflect that mood, so I shot from the side as if walking next to the dancer and caught the quiet gesture of holding the white handkerchief.  Again, a large aperture was used to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this photo

I look for scenes where participants are just being themselves.  These girls were having a blast, marching and chatting with each other, but they also were interacting with the crowd.  I got down nearly to the ground so as to shoot from their level and framed the image so as to emphasize the color and pattern of their costumes.  Buy this photo

Most images of parades are shot from straight ahead looking backward onto the subjects.  You’ll observe in this post that most of my images are not made from that perspective, but occasionally it does work to frame a great scene, such as this delightful image of a salsa dancing couple.  Buy this photo

It can be challenging to include a whole parade contingent in one shot.  Here I was able to frame the whole group in formation, including some of the lovely San Francisco houses on the steep hill behind, by running ahead to the truck in front of the dancers and getting as much distance as I could between me and them.  I shot with an 85mm lens and selected a small aperture (large F-number) so as to keep all of the dancers and the background in focus.  Buy this photo

With bold and colorful costumes, some subjects cry out for a big striking close-up.  When this dancer stopped to interact with me, I got in close with a portrait lens and captured him full-frame.  Buy this photo

Don’t shy away from using non-standard aspect ratios.  To include the whole Muito Quente contingent, I moved back from the dancers and captured the whole width of the street, then in post-processing I cropped to keep the full width but remove the unwanted foreground and background portions.  Buy this photo

Again, it is helpful to know the participants in advance of the performance.  I had been working with the Muito Quente group for several months before the parade, which made it more natural to interact with each of the dancers and make the best images possible.  Buy this photo

Always shoot in RAW mode for maximum flexibility.  A few words about post-processing: Using Lightroom, I make small adjustments to the color and contrast curves so as to emphasize the subject.  A little boost to the vibrance (but not so much as to make the image appear unnatural) and a touch of post-crop vignetting can really make the image pop.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it’s okay to break the usual rules of composition.  A portrait is not supposed to be cropped at the joints, such as at the knee, but here it works because the dancer’s ornate flowing dress gives a sense of motion and fluidity in the bottom of the frame.  Buy this photo

Even in a fast-moving parade, find the opportunities to have your subject stop for a moment and interact with you.  The resulting images will convey much more personality that way, even if the personage is fully masked.  Buy this photo

We’ll close with this moment of sheer Carnaval magic.  It’s such a wonderful feeling when all the elements come together to make a memorable image.  This portrait uses most of the techniques we’ve discussed in today’s post–careful composition, bright vibrant colors, a perfect moment, sharp subject with soft background–and conveys a strong sense of personality, culture, and place.  And that is what Carnaval, and cultural celebrations in general, are all about!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite cultural celebrations?  How do you make images that capture their essence?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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/.

 

Focus on Tahiti Dance Fete: A case study in shooting under challenging circumstances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” ~Maya Angelou [Encore Publication]: How to make great portraits while traveling or near home

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” ~Maya Angelou

I have long believed that travel equates to growth; that we cannot know our place in the world until we have experienced the lives of people in many different places.  Of all the joys of travel photography, to me the greatest is having the chance to meet people from very different backgrounds, to get to know them for a few minutes or for much longer, and to collaborate with them to make memorable images.

A recurring theme in this forum will be how to use our cameras as a bridge to learn about and to share insights into other cultures.  But the emphasis of this particular post is on the technical elements of creating portraits.  These techniques apply as well to shooting portraits across the street from our home as to making great people images halfway around the world.

Most portraits that we see published in magazines or photography books were made in the studio, where the photographer has complete control over the lighting and background, and often is working with a professional model.  But when we’re traveling, there’s often only a moment after getting to know a person and receiving their permission to photograph them, during which to set up our gear and shoot.  We have to live with whatever lighting is available and often must make do with a cluttered background.  To make this portrait of a woman enjoying a coffee break at a carpet-weaving collective in Turkey, I wanted to give the image a soft, flattering look and to bring out the rich, saturated colors of her clothing.  I chose a smaller than usual aperture to provide greater depth-of-field, so that the old house itself became part of the environment.  To accommodate the soft and dim natural indoor lighting, I used a higher ISO setting and a slower shutter speed.

Turkey This portrait set in a weaving collective in Turkey evokes a sense of place and a mood of quiet repose.  Buy this photo 

While trekking in Nepal, we stopped to rest at a teahouse where these two sisters were also taking a break along their journey.  I wished them “Namaste,” or well wishes, and they responded with a traditional hand gesture of greeting.  This image was made long before the digital era on a film camera with a normal lens and natural lighting only (had I had a flash unit handy, it would have helped to bring out the girls’ hair against the dark background).  I love the warmth of the girls’ expressions and the simple but bright colors of their dresses set off against the black background of the teahouse’s interior.

NepalA friendly welcome from these two young sisters at a rural teahouse in Nepal.  Buy this photo

Sometimes we want to tell the viewer more about our subject than what is possible in a simple close-up portrait.  An environmental portrait allows us to include more than just the subject by zooming out and bringing in other elements.  I photographed this maker of traditional Turkish instruments in his workshop while he tested a nearly-completed Bağlama, surrounded by other partially made instruments.  To my eye, the resulting portrait is more compelling than a close-up because it shows the subject in his environment.  To make this portrait, I used a wider focal-length and a narrower aperture so as to have more of the environmental elements in the frame and in focus.

TurkeyAn environmental portrait of a maker of traditional Turkish musical instruments.  Buy this photo

A portrait doesn’t have to portray a stock-still person posing for the camera.  Some of my favorite portraits evoke a strong sense of motion.  I made this portrait of a samba dancer during the Carnaval San Francisco annual parade by getting in close and shooting with a medium-length telephoto lens set to a small aperture to soften the background.  I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action (although sometimes a slower shutter speed can be used to create a nice blurred effect).  In post-processing, I cropped the image to further isolate the dancer and emphasize the grace of the motion.

USA This dancer in a Brazilian Samba krewe was captured in a tight composition that was further cropped in post-processing to give a strong sense of motion.  Buy this photo

Keep an eye on the total composition when framing a portrait.  It’s more than just a matter of framing the subject within the image: other considerations include the background and the overall flow of the viewer’s eye across the image.  In this portrait of the proprietor of Maria’s Cafe in rural Cuba, I composed the image to use the brightly colored door, balcony, staircase, and tree to frame the subject herself.

CubaComposing a portrait involves thinking about the background and the viewer’s overall experience in looking across the image.  Buy this photo

A really good portrait should tell a story about the subject.  Here, Cuban tobacco farmer Benito relaxes in his drying barn with a cigar he just rolled from his tobacco harvest.  I got in close and used the natural light of his cigar lighter and the diffused sunlight within the barn, with no flash added.

CubaThis portrait of a Cuban tobacco farmer tells a story about who he is and what he does.  Buy this photo  

Consider the angle from which you shoot a portrait, as it has a strong influence on the emotional response of the viewer.  Most of the time we want to shoot a head shot or head-and-shoulders shot from a height midway between the top and bottom of the image, but to make this portrait of sisters on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania, I chose to shoot from slightly above.  It’s a fine line between giving a sense of vulnerability and causing the image to seem condescending, but I like this photo in part because I feel the unusual vantage point evokes a strong sense of emotion.

TanzaniaAn unusual shooting angle can enhance a portrait, but be careful not to overdo this effect.  Buy this photo

Another rule meant to be broken is freezing the action of a portrait’s subject.  During a fitness photoshoot with my friend Crystal, I shot mostly with a fast shutter speed to freeze her while she worked out.  But for this image, we wanted a blurred effect to create a sense of her forward motion while running, so I used a slower shutter speed.

A slower shutter speed can be used to give more sense of motion to a rapidly moving subject.  Buy this photo

Sometimes a perspective change can work wonders for a portrait.  In this image of the chief of a remote village in Swaziland, I got down low and shot with a wide-angle lens to portray her in the context of the hut behind her and the gourds she holds in her hands.  A wide view in a portrait can lead to less-flattering likenesses, so this effect should be used sparingly.

SwazilandA wide-angle lens and unusual perspective shooting from low to the ground lend this portrait of a Swaziland village leader a sense of connection to the place.  Buy this photo

A note on gear: My go-to portrait lens is the 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.  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.

Which of your portraits do you find most memorable, and why?  How did you create them?  Please share your thoughts here.

Please read this post for my essential tips on how to photograph people while traveling: Post on Travel Portraiture.

The Sharpest Tack in the Box [Encore Publication]: How to achieve sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to see more articles about techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

Celebration Time, Come On [Encore Publication]: How to shoot festivals, street fairs, and other celebrations

As a professional travel photographer, I have to be prepared at any given time to shoot in nearly every genre of photography.  Landscapes, urban scenes, street photography, night and astrophotography, sports, wildlife, and portraiture are all stock-in-trade, and I love them all!  But when I’m asked what my favorite photographic genre is, I reply that I love portraying living culture the most of all.  Making images of people celebrating their culture, especially when those images convey a sense of place, is my top objective when I shoot, whether I’m halfway around the world or near home.

Culture can be expressed in small everyday elements of dress, gesture, and environment.  But celebrations such as festivals, street fairs, religious observances, arts, and sports show us culture writ large.  It is these outpourings of color, sounds, motion, and ritual that show us how people are different and yet similar all around the world.  And of all the celebrations I shoot regularly, my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval San Francisco.  So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to shoot striking images of cultural celebrations, using Carnaval SF as an example.

This year’s Carnaval was held this past Sunday.  But I was privileged to be “embedded” with several of the comparsas, or Carnaval groups, during the months leading up to the big parade day.  This allowed me the opportunity to get to know the leaders and dancers in these groups, making very special images of the preparations for Carnaval.  While I won’t be including any of those behind-the-scenes images in today’s post, the images of the parade day itself did benefit from my having had the chance to get to know the members of these groups over the months leading up to the day.  We’ll include some discussion of this observation in the post.

I’d like to start with an observation on gear.  I see a lot of fellow photographers shooting at events like Carnaval with way too much gear.  When I say too much gear, I mean more gear than is good for them or for the participants and observers of the festival.  Several photographers had two or three DSLR bodies mounted with enormous zoom lenses and attached to large strobes with huge diffusers.  Some used monopods and a few even tried to set up tripods for this rapidly moving and crowded event.  I brought a single DSLR with two light and fast prime lenses (a 50mm “normal” lens, and an 85mm portrait lens).  That’s it.  I never mounted a zoom lens during the whole day of shooting and I never used any artificial light.  And of course I went handheld the whole day; there’s really no safe or practical way to use a tripod at a crowded and mobile event.  All 2500 images I made that day used just that compact kit, and I’m very happy with the results.

It’s a good idea to arrive well before the scheduled start time.  Often, the best images of the day will be the ones you make during the preparations rather than during the event itself.  For this image of a leader of the Viva la Diva group, who I knew well from working with them over the last few months, I got in close with an 85mm portrait lens and allowed her elaborate headdress to fill the entire frame.  Buy this photo

Try to include some of the elements surrounding the people in the celebration.  A portrait that shows a person or people within their surroundings is called an “environmental portrait,” and often these tell us more about the person and the culture than do close-ups.  Buy this photo

Seek out the key people in a celebration, such as the King of Carnaval shown here.  He has such an amazing presence that all I had to do was find the right vantage point and shoot away.  I always look for uncluttered backgrounds when making portraits, so the background doesn’t distract much from the image.  Buy this photo

Kids make wonderful subjects during celebrations, especially during those moments when they forget the camera is there and are completely uninhibited.  Buy this photo

Try to choose backgrounds that complement your subject without competing with it.  I asked this samba dancer to pose by a street mural whose bright blues complemented her own costume.  Buy this photo

Group portraits can be challenging.  It’s difficult during the chaos of a celebration to get everyone’s eyes on the camera.  Try to find a vantage point that flatters everyone in the image (for full-body portraits, it’s often best to shoot from the level of the middle of the body, not from head level), choose an uncluttered and undistracting background, and select an aperture that gives just enough depth-of-field to keep all the people in focus while softening the background.  Buy this photo

To make close-up portraits during the actual celebration (in this case, a parade), it is not necessary to use a long telephoto lens.  Shooting with a long lens means you’re “taking” the portrait, not “making” the portrait.  You simply can’t interact with your subject while shooting from far away.  I prefer to use a prime normal or portrait lens so that I can interact with my subject and make an image where his personality shines through.  It helped here that I knew the members of this group from our interactions over the last few months.  Buy this photo

Another reason to use a fast prime lens is that you can choose a very wide aperture (here, F/2.0 using an F/1.4 lens) to get tack-sharp focus on the subject’s face while softening the background and sometimes other parts of the body.  Here I wanted to emphasize the pointing gesture by having the fingers so close as to be out of focus, while the dancer’s face and body are in sharp focus.  Buy this photo

For images that really pop, use a large aperture (small F-stop number) to soften the background and separate the subject from the other people and objects around him.  Buy this photo

During the chaos and cacophony of an urban celebration, it’s nice to find those quiet moments, too.  While most festival dances are joyous and boisterous, this Latin American folkloric dance is quiet and mournful.  I wanted the portrait to reflect that mood, so I shot from the side as if walking next to the dancer and caught the quiet gesture of holding the white handkerchief.  Again, a large aperture was used to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this photo

I look for scenes where participants are just being themselves.  These girls were having a blast, marching and chatting with each other, but they also were interacting with the crowd.  I got down nearly to the ground so as to shoot from their level and framed the image so as to emphasize the color and pattern of their costumes.  Buy this photo

Most images of parades are shot from straight ahead looking backward onto the subjects.  You’ll observe in this post that most of my images are not made from that perspective, but occasionally it does work to frame a great scene, such as this delightful image of a salsa dancing couple.  Buy this photo

It can be challenging to include a whole parade contingent in one shot.  Here I was able to frame the whole group in formation, including some of the lovely San Francisco houses on the steep hill behind, by running ahead to the truck in front of the dancers and getting as much distance as I could between me and them.  I shot with an 85mm lens and selected a small aperture (large F-number) so as to keep all of the dancers and the background in focus.  Buy this photo

With bold and colorful costumes, some subjects cry out for a big striking close-up.  When this dancer stopped to interact with me, I got in close with a portrait lens and captured him full-frame.  Buy this photo

Don’t shy away from using non-standard aspect ratios.  To include the whole Muito Quente contingent, I moved back from the dancers and captured the whole width of the street, then in post-processing I cropped to keep the full width but remove the unwanted foreground and background portions.  Buy this photo

Again, it is helpful to know the participants in advance of the performance.  I had been working with the Muito Quente group for several months before the parade, which made it more natural to interact with each of the dancers and make the best images possible.  Buy this photo

Always shoot in RAW mode for maximum flexibility.  A few words about post-processing: Using Lightroom, I make small adjustments to the color and contrast curves so as to emphasize the subject.  A little boost to the vibrance (but not so much as to make the image appear unnatural) and a touch of post-crop vignetting can really make the image pop.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it’s okay to break the usual rules of composition.  A portrait is not supposed to be cropped at the joints, such as at the knee, but here it works because the dancer’s ornate flowing dress gives a sense of motion and fluidity in the bottom of the frame.  Buy this photo

Even in a fast-moving parade, find the opportunities to have your subject stop for a moment and interact with you.  The resulting images will convey much more personality that way, even if the personage is fully masked.  Buy this photo

We’ll close with this moment of sheer Carnaval magic.  It’s such a wonderful feeling when all the elements come together to make a memorable image.  This portrait uses most of the techniques we’ve discussed in today’s post–careful composition, bright vibrant colors, a perfect moment, sharp subject with soft background–and conveys a strong sense of personality, culture, and place.  And that is what Carnaval, and cultural celebrations in general, are all about!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite cultural celebrations?  How do you make images that capture their essence?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

Celebration Time, Come On: How to shoot festivals, street fairs, and other celebrations

As a professional travel photographer, I have to be prepared at any given time to shoot in nearly every genre of photography.  Landscapes, urban scenes, street photography, night and astrophotography, sports, wildlife, and portraiture are all stock-in-trade, and I love them all!  But when I’m asked what my favorite photographic genre is, I reply that I love portraying living culture the most of all.  Making images of people celebrating their culture, especially when those images convey a sense of place, is my top objective when I shoot, whether I’m halfway around the world or near home.

Culture can be expressed in small everyday elements of dress, gesture, and environment.  But celebrations such as festivals, street fairs, religious observances, arts, and sports show us culture writ large.  It is these outpourings of color, sounds, motion, and ritual that show us how people are different and yet similar all around the world.  And of all the celebrations I shoot regularly, my favorite of all is the annual Carnaval San Francisco.  So in today’s post, we’ll explore how to shoot striking images of cultural celebrations, using Carnaval SF as an example.

This year’s Carnaval was held this past Sunday.  But I was privileged to be “embedded” with several of the comparsas, or Carnaval groups, during the months leading up to the big parade day.  This allowed me the opportunity to get to know the leaders and dancers in these groups, making very special images of the preparations for Carnaval.  While I won’t be including any of those behind-the-scenes images in today’s post, the images of the parade day itself did benefit from my having had the chance to get to know the members of these groups over the months leading up to the day.  We’ll include some discussion of this observation in the post.

I’d like to start with an observation on gear.  I see a lot of fellow photographers shooting at events like Carnaval with way too much gear.  When I say too much gear, I mean more gear than is good for them or for the participants and observers of the festival.  Several photographers had two or three DSLR bodies mounted with enormous zoom lenses and attached to large strobes with huge diffusers.  Some used monopods and a few even tried to set up tripods for this rapidly moving and crowded event.  I brought a single DSLR with two light and fast prime lenses (a 50mm “normal” lens, and an 85mm portrait lens).  That’s it.  I never mounted a zoom lens during the whole day of shooting and I never used any artificial light.  And of course I went handheld the whole day; there’s really no safe or practical way to use a tripod at a crowded and mobile event.  All 2500 images I made that day used just that compact kit, and I’m very happy with the results.

It’s a good idea to arrive well before the scheduled start time.  Often, the best images of the day will be the ones you make during the preparations rather than during the event itself.  For this image of a leader of the Viva la Diva group, who I knew well from working with them over the last few months, I got in close with an 85mm portrait lens and allowed her elaborate headdress to fill the entire frame.  Buy this photo

Try to include some of the elements surrounding the people in the celebration.  A portrait that shows a person or people within their surroundings is called an “environmental portrait,” and often these tell us more about the person and the culture than do close-ups.  Buy this photo

Seek out the key people in a celebration, such as the King of Carnaval shown here.  He has such an amazing presence that all I had to do was find the right vantage point and shoot away.  I always look for uncluttered backgrounds when making portraits, so the background doesn’t distract much from the image.  Buy this photo

Kids make wonderful subjects during celebrations, especially during those moments when they forget the camera is there and are completely uninhibited.  Buy this photo

Try to choose backgrounds that complement your subject without competing with it.  I asked this samba dancer to pose by a street mural whose bright blues complemented her own costume.  Buy this photo

Group portraits can be challenging.  It’s difficult during the chaos of a celebration to get everyone’s eyes on the camera.  Try to find a vantage point that flatters everyone in the image (for full-body portraits, it’s often best to shoot from the level of the middle of the body, not from head level), choose an uncluttered and undistracting background, and select an aperture that gives just enough depth-of-field to keep all the people in focus while softening the background.  Buy this photo

To make close-up portraits during the actual celebration (in this case, a parade), it is not necessary to use a long telephoto lens.  Shooting with a long lens means you’re “taking” the portrait, not “making” the portrait.  You simply can’t interact with your subject while shooting from far away.  I prefer to use a prime normal or portrait lens so that I can interact with my subject and make an image where his personality shines through.  It helped here that I knew the members of this group from our interactions over the last few months.  Buy this photo

Another reason to use a fast prime lens is that you can choose a very wide aperture (here, F/2.0 using an F/1.4 lens) to get tack-sharp focus on the subject’s face while softening the background and sometimes other parts of the body.  Here I wanted to emphasize the pointing gesture by having the fingers so close as to be out of focus, while the dancer’s face and body are in sharp focus.  Buy this photo

For images that really pop, use a large aperture (small F-stop number) to soften the background and separate the subject from the other people and objects around him.  Buy this photo

During the chaos and cacophony of an urban celebration, it’s nice to find those quiet moments, too.  While most festival dances are joyous and boisterous, this Latin American folkloric dance is quiet and mournful.  I wanted the portrait to reflect that mood, so I shot from the side as if walking next to the dancer and caught the quiet gesture of holding the white handkerchief.  Again, a large aperture was used to blur the background and emphasize the subject.  Buy this photo

I look for scenes where participants are just being themselves.  These girls were having a blast, marching and chatting with each other, but they also were interacting with the crowd.  I got down nearly to the ground so as to shoot from their level and framed the image so as to emphasize the color and pattern of their costumes.  Buy this photo

Most images of parades are shot from straight ahead looking backward onto the subjects.  You’ll observe in this post that most of my images are not made from that perspective, but occasionally it does work to frame a great scene, such as this delightful image of a salsa dancing couple.  Buy this photo

It can be challenging to include a whole parade contingent in one shot.  Here I was able to frame the whole group in formation, including some of the lovely San Francisco houses on the steep hill behind, by running ahead to the truck in front of the dancers and getting as much distance as I could between me and them.  I shot with an 85mm lens and selected a small aperture (large F-number) so as to keep all of the dancers and the background in focus.  Buy this photo

With bold and colorful costumes, some subjects cry out for a big striking close-up.  When this dancer stopped to interact with me, I got in close with a portrait lens and captured him full-frame.  Buy this photo

Don’t shy away from using non-standard aspect ratios.  To include the whole Muito Quente contingent, I moved back from the dancers and captured the whole width of the street, then in post-processing I cropped to keep the full width but remove the unwanted foreground and background portions.  Buy this photo

Again, it is helpful to know the participants in advance of the performance.  I had been working with the Muito Quente group for several months before the parade, which made it more natural to interact with each of the dancers and make the best images possible.  Buy this photo

Always shoot in RAW mode for maximum flexibility.  A few words about post-processing: Using Lightroom, I make small adjustments to the color and contrast curves so as to emphasize the subject.  A little boost to the vibrance (but not so much as to make the image appear unnatural) and a touch of post-crop vignetting can really make the image pop.  Buy this photo

Sometimes it’s okay to break the usual rules of composition.  A portrait is not supposed to be cropped at the joints, such as at the knee, but here it works because the dancer’s ornate flowing dress gives a sense of motion and fluidity in the bottom of the frame.  Buy this photo

Even in a fast-moving parade, find the opportunities to have your subject stop for a moment and interact with you.  The resulting images will convey much more personality that way, even if the personage is fully masked.  Buy this photo

We’ll close with this moment of sheer Carnaval magic.  It’s such a wonderful feeling when all the elements come together to make a memorable image.  This portrait uses most of the techniques we’ve discussed in today’s post–careful composition, bright vibrant colors, a perfect moment, sharp subject with soft background–and conveys a strong sense of personality, culture, and place.  And that is what Carnaval, and cultural celebrations in general, are all about!  Buy this photo

What are your favorite cultural celebrations?  How do you make images that capture their essence?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Planning a Shoot [Encore Publication]: A case study in planning and executing a photo shoot

Whether traveling or near home, some of our best photo opportunities occur spontaneously.  Serendipity is part of the fun of photography, but another big part of the photographer’s craft is to carefully plan and professionally execute a photo shoot.  Using a recent shoot in which I collaborated with professional dancer Molly as a case study, in this post I’ll cover the essential elements of planning and conducting a shoot.

Good planning is key to ensuring a fun, safe, and efficient shoot as well as obtaining the desired artistic outcome.  Buy this photo

Elements to Consider When Planning a Shoot:

  • What is the theme or mood?  The artistic concept will inform all the other elements of the shoot.  For the shoot with Molly, we decided on an edgy, urban theme.  Based on that choice, the decisions about location, timing, gear, technique, and post-processing all flowed consistently.

We chose a gritty, urban theme for this shoot, and all other decisions flowed from that choice.  Buy this photo

  • Where is the location?  Often one of the most challenging aspects of planning a shoot is scouting for a suitable location.  The location, of course, should support the theme of the shoot.  It also needs to be accessible, safe (for this shoot, we rejected shooting on or near railroad tracks for safety reasons), and suitable for making the type of images desired.  There are also legal considerations, as in most cases permission is required to shoot on private property and even some public spaces require permission for commercial uses.  Molly and I eventually decided on using the old barracks at the decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco and the adjacent Crissy Field recreation area.  This space was accessible, relatively safe, provided a gritty and urban mood, and afforded sufficient working room for both dancer and photographer.
  • When should the shoot be scheduled?  Obviously, the date and time scheduled need to work for all parties involved.  These parties include not only the model(s) and photographer, but also other client(s) and often an assistant.  Equally important is ensuring the timing supports your artistic choices.  The season of the year and the time of day should offer the best chances of obtaining the lighting you desire.  The scheduled time should also work as well as possible with respect to other considerations such as opening hours of the chosen space, traffic and volume of other people in the location, and even tides, snowfall amounts, or other environmental factors.  Molly and I chose to shoot in the “golden hour” just before sunset on a Sunday to ensure good lighting and access to the location.
  • What gear and techniques should be used?  After choosing the theme and the supporting logistical elements, it’s time to select the techniques desired to capture the images and the gear required to execute.  Elements to consider include lighting (I prefer to work with available light and reflectors/diffusers whenever possible, but sometimes speedlights or portable studio lights are required), lenses (it’s often best to bring a range of lenses for different perspectives), props, and accessories (will you need to stabilize with a tripod, or perhaps you’ll require neutral density filters to obtain the shutter speed and/or aperture you want?).  In the shoot with Molly, I used the camera handheld at mostly fast shutter speeds and low camera angles with fast prime lenses to get that edgy look.

To capture the fast motion of the dancing and to support the urban theme, I worked handheld with fast prime lenses and low camera angles.  Buy this photo

  • How should the images be post-processed?  Again, the overall artistic concept should inform decisions about post-processing.  For this shoot, I aimed for a high-contrast, slightly grainy look and also converted several of the images to black-and-white.
  • How will the images be distributed and used?  All parties should agree before the shoot on how the images will be shared and/or sold.  To protect both model and photographer, it’s a good idea to sign a model release.  For more information on model releases, see this post: Post on Model Releases.

With attention to planning and execution, a photo shoot will be more enjoyable and productive and the artistic results will be better.  Buy this photo

Do you have tips and tricks you use when preparing for your shoots?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about planning your photography?  Find them all here: Posts on Planning.

The Sharpest Tack in the Box [Encore Publication]: How to achieve sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to see more articles about techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

Planning a Shoot [Encore Publication]: A case study in planning and executing a photo shoot

Whether traveling or near home, some of our best photo opportunities occur spontaneously.  Serendipity is part of the fun of photography, but another big part of the photographer’s craft is to carefully plan and professionally execute a photo shoot.  Using a recent shoot in which I collaborated with professional dancer Molly as a case study, in this post I’ll cover the essential elements of planning and conducting a shoot.

Good planning is key to ensuring a fun, safe, and efficient shoot as well as obtaining the desired artistic outcome.  Buy this photo

Elements to Consider When Planning a Shoot:

  • What is the theme or mood?  The artistic concept will inform all the other elements of the shoot.  For the shoot with Molly, we decided on an edgy, urban theme.  Based on that choice, the decisions about location, timing, gear, technique, and post-processing all flowed consistently.

We chose a gritty, urban theme for this shoot, and all other decisions flowed from that choice.  Buy this photo

  • Where is the location?  Often one of the most challenging aspects of planning a shoot is scouting for a suitable location.  The location, of course, should support the theme of the shoot.  It also needs to be accessible, safe (for this shoot, we rejected shooting on or near railroad tracks for safety reasons), and suitable for making the type of images desired.  There are also legal considerations, as in most cases permission is required to shoot on private property and even some public spaces require permission for commercial uses.  Molly and I eventually decided on using the old barracks at the decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco and the adjacent Crissy Field recreation area.  This space was accessible, relatively safe, provided a gritty and urban mood, and afforded sufficient working room for both dancer and photographer.
  • When should the shoot be scheduled?  Obviously, the date and time scheduled need to work for all parties involved.  These parties include not only the model(s) and photographer, but also other client(s) and often an assistant.  Equally important is ensuring the timing supports your artistic choices.  The season of the year and the time of day should offer the best chances of obtaining the lighting you desire.  The scheduled time should also work as well as possible with respect to other considerations such as opening hours of the chosen space, traffic and volume of other people in the location, and even tides, snowfall amounts, or other environmental factors.  Molly and I chose to shoot in the “golden hour” just before sunset on a Sunday to ensure good lighting and access to the location.
  • What gear and techniques should be used?  After choosing the theme and the supporting logistical elements, it’s time to select the techniques desired to capture the images and the gear required to execute.  Elements to consider include lighting (I prefer to work with available light and reflectors/diffusers whenever possible, but sometimes speedlights or portable studio lights are required), lenses (it’s often best to bring a range of lenses for different perspectives), props, and accessories (will you need to stabilize with a tripod, or perhaps you’ll require neutral density filters to obtain the shutter speed and/or aperture you want?).  In the shoot with Molly, I used the camera handheld at mostly fast shutter speeds and low camera angles with fast prime lenses to get that edgy look.

To capture the fast motion of the dancing and to support the urban theme, I worked handheld with fast prime lenses and low camera angles.  Buy this photo

  • How should the images be post-processed?  Again, the overall artistic concept should inform decisions about post-processing.  For this shoot, I aimed for a high-contrast, slightly grainy look and also converted several of the images to black-and-white.
  • How will the images be distributed and used?  All parties should agree before the shoot on how the images will be shared and/or sold.  To protect both model and photographer, it’s a good idea to sign a model release.  For more information on model releases, see this post: Post on Model Releases.

With attention to planning and execution, a photo shoot will be more enjoyable and productive and the artistic results will be better.  Buy this photo

Do you have tips and tricks you use when preparing for your shoots?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about planning your photography?  Find them all here: Posts on Planning.

Planning a Shoot: A case study in planning and executing a photo shoot

Whether traveling or near home, some of our best photo opportunities occur spontaneously.  Serendipity is part of the fun of photography, but another big part of the photographer’s craft is to carefully plan and professionally execute a photo shoot.  Using a recent shoot in which I collaborated with professional dancer Molly as a case study, in this post I’ll cover the essential elements of planning and conducting a shoot.

Good planning is key to ensuring a fun, safe, and efficient shoot as well as obtaining the desired artistic outcome.  Buy this photo

Elements to Consider When Planning a Shoot:

  • What is the theme or mood?  The artistic concept will inform all the other elements of the shoot.  For the shoot with Molly, we decided on an edgy, urban theme.  Based on that choice, the decisions about location, timing, gear, technique, and post-processing all flowed consistently.

We chose a gritty, urban theme for this shoot, and all other decisions flowed from that choice.  Buy this photo

  • Where is the location?  Often one of the most challenging aspects of planning a shoot is scouting for a suitable location.  The location, of course, should support the theme of the shoot.  It also needs to be accessible, safe (for this shoot, we rejected shooting on or near railroad tracks for safety reasons), and suitable for making the type of images desired.  There are also legal considerations, as in most cases permission is required to shoot on private property and even some public spaces require permission for commercial uses.  Molly and I eventually decided on using the old barracks at the decommissioned Presidio of San Francisco and the adjacent Crissy Field recreation area.  This space was accessible, relatively safe, provided a gritty and urban mood, and afforded sufficient working room for both dancer and photographer.
  • When should the shoot be scheduled?  Obviously, the date and time scheduled need to work for all parties involved.  These parties include not only the model(s) and photographer, but also other client(s) and often an assistant.  Equally important is ensuring the timing supports your artistic choices.  The season of the year and the time of day should offer the best chances of obtaining the lighting you desire.  The scheduled time should also work as well as possible with respect to other considerations such as opening hours of the chosen space, traffic and volume of other people in the location, and even tides, snowfall amounts, or other environmental factors.  Molly and I chose to shoot in the “golden hour” just before sunset on a Sunday to ensure good lighting and access to the location.
  • What gear and techniques should be used?  After choosing the theme and the supporting logistical elements, it’s time to select the techniques desired to capture the images and the gear required to execute.  Elements to consider include lighting (I prefer to work with available light and reflectors/diffusers whenever possible, but sometimes speedlights or portable studio lights are required), lenses (it’s often best to bring a range of lenses for different perspectives), props, and accessories (will you need to stabilize with a tripod, or perhaps you’ll require neutral density filters to obtain the shutter speed and/or aperture you want?).  In the shoot with Molly, I used the camera handheld at mostly fast shutter speeds and low camera angles with fast prime lenses to get that edgy look.

To capture the fast motion of the dancing and to support the urban theme, I worked handheld with fast prime lenses and low camera angles.  Buy this photo

  • How should the images be post-processed?  Again, the overall artistic concept should inform decisions about post-processing.  For this shoot, I aimed for a high-contrast, slightly grainy look and also converted several of the images to black-and-white.
  • How will the images be distributed and used?  All parties should agree before the shoot on how the images will be shared and/or sold.  To protect both model and photographer, it’s a good idea to sign a model release.  For more information on model releases, see this post: Post on Model Releases.

With attention to planning and execution, a photo shoot will be more enjoyable and productive and the artistic results will be better.  Buy this photo

Do you have tips and tricks you use when preparing for your shoots?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about planning your photography?  Find them all here: Posts on Planning.

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/.

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys [Encore Publication]: How to shoot a live performance with fast action and challenging lighting

Last night I had the opportunity to shoot a live performance by Circus Automatic, a talented young San Francisco-based circus troupe.  Indoor performances, where the action is fast and the lighting dim and unpredictable, can be extremely challenging to shoot.  In this post I share some images from the circus show as well as a few tips on how to make the best of these difficult conditions.

The first tip is to use a fast lens and a high ISO setting.  Since you will need a shutter speed of 1/200 second or faster in order to freeze most of the action, and given that the light is often very dim, you will likely have to use an ISO of at least 1600 and perhaps quite a bit higher, even when using a fast f/1.8 or f/2.8 lens wide open.  All of these images were made shooting wide-open with my favorite portrait lens, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8.  ISO ranged from 800-3200, and shutter speeds ranged from 1/160 to 1/800 second.

To capture this striking image of the aerialist, I shot wide-open with a fast prime lens and used a high ISO setting in order to obtain a fast enough shutter speed to freeze her action.  Buy this photo

The second tip is to seek the drama present in all aspects of the show.  Sometimes the most interesting subject is not the star performer.  In this image I captured the expressions of the rest of the cast as they watched the star of the final act.

Part of the fun of a circus is getting to know the cast members, who tend to be very interesting and photogenic characters even aside from their remarkable performing abilities.  Look for the “side shows” as well as the “big top” acts.  Buy this photo

During our “intermission,” let’s review some basic rules for shooting an indoor performance: 1) Get permission from the producer before you bring your camera to the show; 2) never use flash (it annoys your neighbors and can cause injury or even death by blinding an unsuspecting aerialist); 3) use your camera’s quietest shutter mode and disable its LCD display so as not to distract those around you; and 4) don’t attempt to use a tripod or monopod unless you’ve obtained special permission.

My next tip is to look for those moments when the action subsides naturally.  In most kinds of fast-action performances, including dance, sports, and yes, circus acts, there are brief moments of stasis when the motion is swinging from one direction to another.  Even a juggler balancing on a teeter-totter placed precariously atop a pile of four metal cylinders will reach moments of relative rest.  Here I fired the shutter at the exact instant when two of the batons are in his hands while the third has just reached its apogee.  This image encapsulates all of the excitement of the act but has almost no perceptible motion blur.

Find those brief moments when the fast action settles into a natural lull.  Buy this photo

Another tip is to shoot in RAW mode.  That’s a good practice for nearly all types of photography, but for indoor performances the color of the lighting is often very tricky and rapidly changing, so using RAW files allows much greater control over the color temperature during post-processing.  The venue for last night’s show used awful single-colored LED lights that cast a very strange temperature over many of my images.  Some I could correct in post-processing, but others remain unnatural looking and cold.  Regrettably, these LED lights are becoming very popular so this is a common challenge when shooting live indoor events.  Other useful post-processing techniques for these types of shows include noise reduction (required due to the high ISO settings) and image sharpening.

The final tip is to keep shooting, because you rarely can tell in advance when something remarkable may happen!

Parting shot: The acrobat dismounts dramatically to end the show.  Buy this photo

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your experiences and advice for shooting live performances.

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

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys [Encore Publication]: How to shoot a live performance with fast action and challenging lighting

Last night I had the opportunity to shoot a live performance by Circus Automatic, a talented young San Francisco-based circus troupe.  Indoor performances, where the action is fast and the lighting dim and unpredictable, can be extremely challenging to shoot.  In this post I share some images from the circus show as well as a few tips on how to make the best of these difficult conditions.

The first tip is to use a fast lens and a high ISO setting.  Since you will need a shutter speed of 1/200 second or faster in order to freeze most of the action, and given that the light is often very dim, you will likely have to use an ISO of at least 1600 and perhaps quite a bit higher, even when using a fast f/1.8 or f/2.8 lens wide open.  All of these images were made shooting wide-open with my favorite portrait lens, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8.  ISO ranged from 800-3200, and shutter speeds ranged from 1/160 to 1/800 second.

To capture this striking image of the aerialist, I shot wide-open with a fast prime lens and used a high ISO setting in order to obtain a fast enough shutter speed to freeze her action.  Buy this photo

The second tip is to seek the drama present in all aspects of the show.  Sometimes the most interesting subject is not the star performer.  In this image I captured the expressions of the rest of the cast as they watched the star of the final act.

Part of the fun of a circus is getting to know the cast members, who tend to be very interesting and photogenic characters even aside from their remarkable performing abilities.  Look for the “side shows” as well as the “big top” acts.  Buy this photo

During our “intermission,” let’s review some basic rules for shooting an indoor performance: 1) Get permission from the producer before you bring your camera to the show; 2) never use flash (it annoys your neighbors and can cause injury or even death by blinding an unsuspecting aerialist); 3) use your camera’s quietest shutter mode and disable its LCD display so as not to distract those around you; and 4) don’t attempt to use a tripod or monopod unless you’ve obtained special permission.

My next tip is to look for those moments when the action subsides naturally.  In most kinds of fast-action performances, including dance, sports, and yes, circus acts, there are brief moments of stasis when the motion is swinging from one direction to another.  Even a juggler balancing on a teeter-totter placed precariously atop a pile of four metal cylinders will reach moments of relative rest.  Here I fired the shutter at the exact instant when two of the batons are in his hands while the third has just reached its apogee.  This image encapsulates all of the excitement of the act but has almost no perceptible motion blur.

Find those brief moments when the fast action settles into a natural lull.  Buy this photo

Another tip is to shoot in RAW mode.  That’s a good practice for nearly all types of photography, but for indoor performances the color of the lighting is often very tricky and rapidly changing, so using RAW files allows much greater control over the color temperature during post-processing.  The venue for last night’s show used awful single-colored LED lights that cast a very strange temperature over many of my images.  Some I could correct in post-processing, but others remain unnatural looking and cold.  Regrettably, these LED lights are becoming very popular so this is a common challenge when shooting live indoor events.  Other useful post-processing techniques for these types of shows include noise reduction (required due to the high ISO settings) and image sharpening.

The final tip is to keep shooting, because you rarely can tell in advance when something remarkable may happen!

Parting shot: The acrobat dismounts dramatically to end the show.  Buy this photo

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your experiences and advice for shooting live performances.

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

The Sharpest Tack in the Box [Encore Publication]: How to achieve sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to see more articles about techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

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/.

 

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: How to shoot a live performance with fast action and challenging lighting

 

Last night I had the opportunity to shoot a live performance by Circus Automatic, a talented young San Francisco-based circus troupe.  Indoor performances, where the action is fast and the lighting dim and unpredictable, can be extremely challenging to shoot.  In this post I share some images from the circus show as well as a few tips on how to make the best of these difficult conditions.

The first tip is to use a fast lens and a high ISO setting.  Since you will need a shutter speed of 1/200 second or faster in order to freeze most of the action, and given that the light is often very dim, you will likely have to use an ISO of at least 1600 and perhaps quite a bit higher, even when using a fast f/1.8 or f/2.8 lens wide open.  All of these images were made shooting wide-open with my favorite portrait lens, the Nikon 85mm f/1.8.  ISO ranged from 800-3200, and shutter speeds ranged from 1/160 to 1/800 second.

To capture this striking image of the aerialist, I shot wide-open with a fast prime lens and used a high ISO setting in order to obtain a fast enough shutter speed to freeze her action.  Buy this photo

The second tip is to seek the drama present in all aspects of the show.  Sometimes the most interesting subject is not the star performer.  In this image I captured the expressions of the rest of the cast as they watched the star of the final act.

Part of the fun of a circus is getting to know the cast members, who tend to be very interesting and photogenic characters even aside from their remarkable performing abilities.  Look for the “side shows” as well as the “big top” acts.  Buy this photo

During our “intermission,” let’s review some basic rules for shooting an indoor performance: 1) Get permission from the producer before you bring your camera to the show; 2) never use flash (it annoys your neighbors and can cause injury or even death by blinding an unsuspecting aerialist); 3) use your camera’s quietest shutter mode and disable its LCD display so as not to distract those around you; and 4) don’t attempt to use a tripod or monopod unless you’ve obtained special permission.

My next tip is to look for those moments when the action subsides naturally.  In most kinds of fast-action performances, including dance, sports, and yes, circus acts, there are brief moments of stasis when the motion is swinging from one direction to another.  Even a juggler balancing on a teeter-totter placed precariously atop a pile of four metal cylinders will reach moments of relative rest.  Here I fired the shutter at the exact instant when two of the batons are in his hands while the third has just reached its apogee.  This image encapsulates all of the excitement of the act but has almost no perceptible motion blur.

Find those brief moments when the fast action settles into a natural lull.  Buy this photo

Another tip is to shoot in RAW mode.  That’s a good practice for nearly all types of photography, but for indoor performances the color of the lighting is often very tricky and rapidly changing, so using RAW files allows much greater control over the color temperature during post-processing.  The venue for last night’s show used awful single-colored LED lights that cast a very strange temperature over many of my images.  Some I could correct in post-processing, but others remain unnatural looking and cold.  Regrettably, these LED lights are becoming very popular so this is a common challenge when shooting live indoor events.  Other useful post-processing techniques for these types of shows include noise reduction (required due to the high ISO settings) and image sharpening.

The final tip is to keep shooting, because you rarely can tell in advance when something remarkable may happen!

Parting shot: The acrobat dismounts dramatically to end the show.  Buy this photo

Now it’s your turn.  Please share your experiences and advice for shooting live performances.

The Sharpest Tack in the Box: How to achieve sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to see more articles about techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

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.

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