Focus on SAFEhouse Resident Artist Workshop [Encore Publication]: Documenting three very different and exciting new dance pieces

Recently I had the privilege of shooting both the tech rehearsal and first performances of three new dance pieces by very different, wonderfully talented, resident artists at San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  SAFEhouse is a unique program that incubates emerging artists by giving them studio space, expert guidance, and public performances so they can grow and develop new work.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know each of the resident artists and having the opportunity to experience and document their pieces.

Each artist and work created a very different emotional affect, so I worked hard to shape my images according to how the performances made me feel.  As photographers we have the capability, like a painter or poet or dancer, to create our art in accordance with our emotions.  This is a point that is too easily forgotten when we’re out in the field shooting.  Today’s post shares a few of my favorite images of the tech rehearsal and performance for each of the artists, along with some brief discussion of how the images were made.

Dancer mia simonovic rehearses her highly improvisational new piece, “residue1”.  I loved her brave and fluid expression through motion of the feelings and sensations that were passing through her in the moment.  This work requires not only real-time improvisation but also the courage to be completely vulnerable on stage.  To capture the spirit of her piece, I made a series of images (one of which is shown here) of mia dancing with her own shadow.  I felt this image would be expressed most authentically in black-and-white, so I made the conversion to monochrome during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Seeking another method to capture the elusive and transient spirit of mia’s piece in a still image, I decided to try a series of images using a slower ISO and shutter speed to create some motion blur.  To enhance this effect, during post-processing I increased the contrast and vibrance until the visual impact came close to matching the emotional impact I felt during her piece.  Buy this photo

The next artist was Arina Hunter.  Her piece, “Dyspnea,” was unusual in that, instead of using a prerecorded sound score, she accompanied her motion entirely with sounds made by her own body.  Because these vocalizations and body percussion sounds were very soft compared to amplified music, I was able to make only a few images during her performance so as not to disturb the audience members.  Fortunately, I was able to capture many nice images during Arina’s tech rehearsal.  This one nicely captures her lovely expressive hand motions and facial gestures.  Buy this photo

Arina’s piece was very physical and covered a wide range of moves, poses, and expressions.  Here I captured her floor work by getting lying down on the floor of the stage myself so that I was shooting at the same level as her face.  Buy this photo

The final piece was presented by Maligrad Contemporary Dance Company, directed and choreographed by Molly Fletcher Lynch-Seaver.  This powerful performance spoke to me of violence and our complicity in standing by while it happens.  I wanted to capture this scene the way I felt it, which was like a gang rumble out of the movie “West Side Story,” so I shot straight into the action, allowing the brick walls and girders to frame the image, and converted to black-and-white during post-processing.  Buy this photo

This image was made near the end of Maligrad’s tech rehearsal.  When composing an image in which there’s a lot going on, I find it helps to think like a painter, specifically asking myself, “what elements do I want in the image vs. not in the image, and how do I want to arrange them?”  Buy this photo

During Arina’s live performance, I was only able to capture a handful of images due to the quiet sound score.  This was a favorite, as it reflects her expressive gestures in face, hands, and body.  Buy this photo

Because mia’s piece is so improvisational, it unfolded very differently in the live performance than in the tech rehearsal.  Knowing this in advance, and also knowing I could not move around during the performance like I could during the rehearsal, I just let myself be moved by her work, capturing the moments that spoke most strongly to me.  This image was made by shooting straight on but has a nice, soft visual appeal that matches her contemplative motion.  Buy this photo

This image, made during Maligrad’s live performance, is another example of the choices we photographers must make when framing a scene that includes multiple elements at different distances to the camera.  I chose to emphasize the dancer in the foreground by using a very narrow depth-of-field (low F-stop number), because I felt the story here was her pain at observing the warlike behavior of the background dancers.  Buy this photo

The final performance of the new works by these three artists-in-residence was Feb. 9, but if you live in the S.F. Bay Area you can follow their work and also look for other upcoming events at SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my images and that I was able to provide a sense of how to shape our images to match the emotional feelings evoked by a performance.

How do you transform your emotions into images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Focus on SAFEhouse Resident Artist Workshop [Encore Publication]: Documenting three very different and exciting new dance pieces

Recently I had the privilege of shooting both the tech rehearsal and first performances of three new dance pieces by very different, wonderfully talented, resident artists at San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  SAFEhouse is a unique program that incubates emerging artists by giving them studio space, expert guidance, and public performances so they can grow and develop new work.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know each of the resident artists and having the opportunity to experience and document their pieces.

Each artist and work created a very different emotional affect, so I worked hard to shape my images according to how the performances made me feel.  As photographers we have the capability, like a painter or poet or dancer, to create our art in accordance with our emotions.  This is a point that is too easily forgotten when we’re out in the field shooting.  Today’s post shares a few of my favorite images of the tech rehearsal and performance for each of the artists, along with some brief discussion of how the images were made.

Dancer mia simonovic rehearses her highly improvisational new piece, “residue1”.  I loved her brave and fluid expression through motion of the feelings and sensations that were passing through her in the moment.  This work requires not only real-time improvisation but also the courage to be completely vulnerable on stage.  To capture the spirit of her piece, I made a series of images (one of which is shown here) of mia dancing with her own shadow.  I felt this image would be expressed most authentically in black-and-white, so I made the conversion to monochrome during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Seeking another method to capture the elusive and transient spirit of mia’s piece in a still image, I decided to try a series of images using a slower ISO and shutter speed to create some motion blur.  To enhance this effect, during post-processing I increased the contrast and vibrance until the visual impact came close to matching the emotional impact I felt during her piece.  Buy this photo

The next artist was Arina Hunter.  Her piece, “Dyspnea,” was unusual in that, instead of using a prerecorded sound score, she accompanied her motion entirely with sounds made by her own body.  Because these vocalizations and body percussion sounds were very soft compared to amplified music, I was able to make only a few images during her performance so as not to disturb the audience members.  Fortunately, I was able to capture many nice images during Arina’s tech rehearsal.  This one nicely captures her lovely expressive hand motions and facial gestures.  Buy this photo

Arina’s piece was very physical and covered a wide range of moves, poses, and expressions.  Here I captured her floor work by getting lying down on the floor of the stage myself so that I was shooting at the same level as her face.  Buy this photo

The final piece was presented by Maligrad Contemporary Dance Company, directed and choreographed by Molly Fletcher Lynch-Seaver.  This powerful performance spoke to me of violence and our complicity in standing by while it happens.  I wanted to capture this scene the way I felt it, which was like a gang rumble out of the movie “West Side Story,” so I shot straight into the action, allowing the brick walls and girders to frame the image, and converted to black-and-white during post-processing.  Buy this photo

This image was made near the end of Maligrad’s tech rehearsal.  When composing an image in which there’s a lot going on, I find it helps to think like a painter, specifically asking myself, “what elements do I want in the image vs. not in the image, and how do I want to arrange them?”  Buy this photo

During Arina’s live performance, I was only able to capture a handful of images due to the quiet sound score.  This was a favorite, as it reflects her expressive gestures in face, hands, and body.  Buy this photo

Because mia’s piece is so improvisational, it unfolded very differently in the live performance than in the tech rehearsal.  Knowing this in advance, and also knowing I could not move around during the performance like I could during the rehearsal, I just let myself be moved by her work, capturing the moments that spoke most strongly to me.  This image was made by shooting straight on but has a nice, soft visual appeal that matches her contemplative motion.  Buy this photo

This image, made during Maligrad’s live performance, is another example of the choices we photographers must make when framing a scene that includes multiple elements at different distances to the camera.  I chose to emphasize the dancer in the foreground by using a very narrow depth-of-field (low F-stop number), because I felt the story here was her pain at observing the warlike behavior of the background dancers.  Buy this photo

The final performance of the new works by these three artists-in-residence was Feb. 9, but if you live in the S.F. Bay Area you can follow their work and also look for other upcoming events at SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my images and that I was able to provide a sense of how to shape our images to match the emotional feelings evoked by a performance.

How do you transform your emotions into images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

Focus on SAFEhouse Resident Artist Workshop: Documenting three very different and emotionally moving new dance pieces

Last night I had the privilege of shooting both the tech rehearsal and first performances of three new dance pieces by very different, wonderfully talented, resident artists at San Francisco’s SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  SAFEhouse is a unique program that incubates emerging artists by giving them studio space, expert guidance, and public performances so they can grow and develop new work.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know each of the resident artists and having the opportunity to experience and document their pieces.

Each artist and work created a very different emotional affect, so I worked hard to shape my images according to how the performances made me feel.  As photographers we have the capability, like a painter or poet or dancer, to create our art in accordance with our emotions.  This is a point that is too easily forgotten when we’re out in the field shooting.  Today’s post shares a few of my favorite images of the tech rehearsal and performance for each of the artists, along with some brief discussion of how the images were made.

Dancer mia simonovic rehearses her highly improvisational new piece, “residue1”.  I loved her brave and fluid expression through motion of the feelings and sensations that were passing through her in the moment.  This work requires not only real-time improvisation but also the courage to be completely vulnerable on stage.  To capture the spirit of her piece, I made a series of images (one of which is shown here) of mia dancing with her own shadow.  I felt this image would be expressed most authentically in black-and-white, so I made the conversion to monochrome during post-processing.  Buy this photo

Seeking another method to capture the elusive and transient spirit of mia’s piece in a still image, I decided to try a series of images using a slower ISO and shutter speed to create some motion blur.  To enhance this effect, during post-processing I increased the contrast and vibrance until the visual impact came close to matching the emotional impact I felt during her piece.  Buy this photo

The next artist was Arina Hunter.  Her piece, “Dyspnea,” was unusual in that, instead of using a prerecorded sound score, she accompanied her motion entirely with sounds made by her own body.  Because these vocalizations and body percussion sounds were very soft compared to amplified music, I was able to make only a few images during her performance so as not to disturb the audience members.  Fortunately, I was able to capture many nice images during Arina’s tech rehearsal.  This one nicely captures her lovely expressive hand motions and facial gestures.  Buy this photo

Arina’s piece was very physical and covered a wide range of moves, poses, and expressions.  Here I captured her floor work by getting lying down on the floor of the stage myself so that I was shooting at the same level as her face.  Buy this photo

The final piece was presented by Maligrad Contemporary Dance Company, directed and choreographed by Molly Fletcher Lynch-Seaver.  This powerful performance spoke to me of violence and our complicity in standing by while it happens.  I wanted to capture this scene the way I felt it, which was like a gang rumble out of the movie “West Side Story,” so I shot straight into the action, allowing the brick walls and girders to frame the image, and converted to black-and-white during post-processing.  Buy this photo

This image was made near the end of Maligrad’s tech rehearsal.  When composing an image in which there’s a lot going on, I find it helps to think like a painter, specifically asking myself, “what elements do I want in the image vs. not in the image, and how do I want to arrange them?”  Buy this photo

During Arina’s live performance, I was only able to capture a handful of images due to the quiet sound score.  This was a favorite, as it reflects her expressive gestures in face, hands, and body.  Buy this photo

Because mia’s piece is so improvisational, it unfolded very differently in the live performance than in the tech rehearsal.  Knowing this in advance, and also knowing I could not move around during the performance like I could during the rehearsal, I just let myself be moved by her work, capturing the moments that spoke most strongly to me.  This image was made by shooting straight on but has a nice, soft visual appeal that matches her contemplative motion.  Buy this photo

This image, made during Maligrad’s live performance, is another example of the choices we photographers must make when framing a scene that includes multiple elements at different distances to the camera.  I chose to emphasize the dancer in the foreground by using a very narrow depth-of-field (low F-stop number), because I felt the story here was her pain at observing the warlike behavior of the background dancers.  Buy this photo

The final performance of the new works by these three artists-in-residence was Feb. 9, but if you live in the S.F. Bay Area you can follow their work and also look for other upcoming events at SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my images and that I was able to provide a sense of how to shape our images to match the emotional feelings evoked by a performance.

How do you transform your emotions into images?  Please share your thoughts here.

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

 

Focus on Dance Brigade’s “Gracias a la Vida: Love in a Bitter Time” [Encore Publication]: Creative approaches to shooting inspiring performances

This weekend, I had the privilege of shooting the dress rehearsal for a new show highlighting 40 years of activism through the arts, presented by San Francisco feminist and multi-cultural dance company, Dance Brigade.  Their work was extremely powerful and moving.  Not only was it artistically and technically astonishing, but the show was truly inspiring as a testament to the power of artists fighting for social justice.  In the current era we need this power to be wielded widely and wisely to balance the widespread injustice all around us.

When shooting work as inspiring as this, I often choose less traditional and more creative approaches to presenting my images.  In short, the medium should match the message, so when the message is as powerful as Dance Brigade’s performance, I believe the medium should rise to the occasion.  So, in addition to making some traditional documentary images shot looking directly toward the performers with an eye toward capturing the obvious, I also strove to capture some different and unusual perspectives on the performance.  I present some of them in the post with short descriptions of my intent for each image.

The usual rules for shooting a live indoor performance still apply.  Gain permission to shoot in advance directly from the show’s producer.  Use a fast lens and high ISO setting so as to be able to preserve a fast shutter speed to freeze action while still avoiding use of flash, which distracts performers and crew.  Turn off your LCD display and check your images only when there’s a break in the action.  Use the quietest shutter mode your camera supports.  And never use a tripod or monopod unless you have explicit permission from the producer.

Wait for the telling moment: There are instants during live performances that distill the overall message down to its essence.  Seek those moments.  Buy this photo

Tell a story: Just as a good performance is designed to reveal key messages to the audience at the appropriate time, so should the photographer capture images that disclose the underlying narrative.  This image of the climax from a piece on the plight of refugees captures the essence of the story.  Buy this photo

Find an unusual perspective: When shooting behind-the-scenes such as at a dress rehearsal, you have the opportunity to find just the right combination of vantage point and lens to make your images really pop.  This image was made from the lip of the stage.  I had to lean forward across the front of the stage and shoot upward.  I love this shot because it captures the artist from her eye level just at a decisive moment in the drama.  Buy this photo

Document the power of the performance: This piece started quietly and worked up slowly to a frenzy of pent-up anger and activism.  I found the best vantage point and waited for the perfect moment.  Buy this photo

Know when to break the basic rules of composition: Sure, most of the time you want to avoid cutting a performer’s head off.  But I saw the latent energy inherent in the unorthodox framing of this image.  By shooting from the static artist’s level and capturing only part of the jumping artist’s body, I transformed the image into a bolder statement that supported the message of the piece.  Buy this photo

Gain perspective: Not every image needs to include the whole environment.  Sometimes it’s more powerful to capture just the salient part.  Buy this photo

Capture a moment of pure joy: Shoot lots of images so that you can choose the ones that really make an impact.  The bold colors, shallow depth-of-field, and simple composition of this image work to emphasize the dancer’s aura of joyful triumph.  Buy this photo

Use black-and-white: This image cried out for me to convert it to monochrome.  Its raw documentary power and gritty, graphic nature are more compelling in black-and-white.  Buy this photo

Don’t be afraid to use selective focus: It’s okay for certain elements of your subject not to be in sharp focus.  I chose a narrow depth-of-field in order to obtain selective focus on just the performers in the middle of this triumphant circle.  The soft focus on the dancers in the foreground and far background only serve to enhance the dramatic power of the image.  Buy this photo

I hope this essay provides some ideas for how to shoot creative images that amplify the power of your message.  Modern digital photography provides us with so many tools for making images that go beyond the pure documentary function to also enchant our viewers with imagination.  A performance as moving as Dance Brigade’s “Gracias a la Vida: Love in a Bitter Time” deserves more than a straightforward narrative capture.  I tried to make some images that supported their messaging with a creative visual style.  Continue to capture the obvious message in your images, but keep shooting to go beyond the documentary.  Go wild, and see what you can achieve!

How do you go beyond the obvious to capture images that pop?  Please share your ideas here?

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

Focus on Dance Brigade’s “Gracias a la Vida: Love in a Bitter Time”: Creative approaches to shooting inspiring performances

This weekend, I had the privilege of shooting the dress rehearsal for a new show highlighting 40 years of activism through the arts, presented by San Francisco feminist and multi-cultural dance company, Dance Brigade.  Their work was extremely powerful and moving.  Not only was it artistically and technically astonishing, but the show was truly inspiring as a testament to the power of artists fighting for social justice.  In the current era we need this power to be wielded widely and wisely to balance the widespread injustice all around us.

When shooting work as inspiring as this, I often choose less traditional and more creative approaches to presenting my images.  In short, the medium should match the message, so when the message is as powerful as Dance Brigade’s performance, I believe the medium should rise to the occasion.  So, in addition to making some traditional documentary images shot looking directly toward the performers with an eye toward capturing the obvious, I also strove to capture some different and unusual perspectives on the performance.  I present some of them in the post with short descriptions of my intent for each image.

The usual rules for shooting a live indoor performance still apply.  Gain permission to shoot in advance directly from the show’s producer.  Use a fast lens and high ISO setting so as to be able to preserve a fast shutter speed to freeze action while still avoiding use of flash, which distracts performers and crew.  Turn off your LCD display and check your images only when there’s a break in the action.  Use the quietest shutter mode your camera supports.  And never use a tripod or monopod unless you have explicit permission from the producer.

Wait for the telling moment: There are instants during live performances that distill the overall message down to its essence.  Seek those moments.  Buy this photo

Tell a story: Just as a good performance is designed to reveal key messages to the audience at the appropriate time, so should the photographer capture images that disclose the underlying narrative.  This image of the climax from a piece on the plight of refugees captures the essence of the story.  Buy this photo

Find an unusual perspective: When shooting behind-the-scenes such as at a dress rehearsal, you have the opportunity to find just the right combination of vantage point and lens to make your images really pop.  This image was made from the lip of the stage.  I had to lean forward across the front of the stage and shoot upward.  I love this shot because it captures the artist from her eye level just at a decisive moment in the drama.  Buy this photo

Document the power of the performance: This piece started quietly and worked up slowly to a frenzy of pent-up anger and activism.  I found the best vantage point and waited for the perfect moment.  Buy this photo

Know when to break the basic rules of composition: Sure, most of the time you want to avoid cutting a performer’s head off.  But I saw the latent energy inherent in the unorthodox framing of this image.  By shooting from the static artist’s level and capturing only part of the jumping artist’s body, I transformed the image into a bolder statement that supported the message of the piece.  Buy this photo

Gain perspective: Not every image needs to include the whole environment.  Sometimes it’s more powerful to capture just the salient part.  Buy this photo

Capture a moment of pure joy: Shoot lots of images so that you can choose the ones that really make an impact.  The bold colors, shallow depth-of-field, and simple composition of this image work to emphasize the dancer’s aura of joyful triumph.  Buy this photo

Use black-and-white: This image cried out for me to convert it to monochrome.  Its raw documentary power and gritty, graphic nature are more compelling in black-and-white.  Buy this photo

Don’t be afraid to use selective focus: It’s okay for certain elements of your subject not to be in sharp focus.  I chose a narrow depth-of-field in order to obtain selective focus on just the performers in the middle of this triumphant circle.  The soft focus on the dancers in the foreground and far background only serve to enhance the dramatic power of the image.  Buy this photo

I hope this essay provides some ideas for how to shoot creative images that amplify the power of your message.  Modern digital photography provides us with so many tools for making images that go beyond the pure documentary function to also enchant our viewers with imagination.  A performance as moving as Dance Brigade’s “Gracias a la Vida: Love in a Bitter Time” deserves more than a straightforward narrative capture.  I tried to make some images that supported their messaging with a creative visual style.  Continue to capture the obvious message in your images, but keep shooting to go beyond the documentary.  Go wild, and see what you can achieve!

How do you go beyond the obvious to capture images that pop?  Please share your ideas here?

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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